Chinese Elders

(Originally posted on Seventy-Magazine.)

I’d like to give an insight on China’s ‘silver generation’, because while China’s younger generations are often in the spotlight, its senior citizens are largely ignored — despite its 150 million ‘members’ having a combined annual income of around 300-400 billion RMB. But instead of some board generalisations, here’s a slice of life from my wife’s parents, whom I admire because they are much more digital savvy than their Western peers, as they shop and pay with their phones.

Both were born in Qidong in the fifties, a city north of the Yangtze river and Shanghai. He into a family with five siblings, she into one with two brothers. Growing up was tough and their teenage years largely fell into the tumultuous sixties and seventies — times that even today go unspoken off. They met shortly afterwards, being introduced to each other by a mutual friend. In the mid eighties their daughter — my wife — was born.

She worked in the Qidong hospital, while he saved a dairy company from bad management and bankruptcy. The government of Nantong, a larger city nearby, took notice and hired him to manage industries, which was needed extra people as the city was expanding. But since there wasn’t a job for her in Nantong yet, she stayed in Qidong another two years, while he and their daughter moved to Nantong.

China’s economy was growing and it brought visual change to the streets too, as cars started to appear. There’s a photo tucked in an album of him posing in front of a car, one that wasn’t his nor seems very special — but it was special to them at that time, warranting a photo. With money coming in from the government job, they bought their own car in the early nineties; a Buick, which had (and still has) the image of a government official car. Sometimes they’d use it to visit Shanghai, which was back then a long trip.

Ferry on the Yangtze near Nantong — Photo by Brian Dell

She looks back: “It wasn’t very convenient, we could only cross the Yangtze by boat. The Bund of Shanghai was not very beautiful, and the opposite bank was still a rural scene.”  Only in 2008 was the Sutong Bridge finished — at that time the longest cable bridge in the world — which reduced the trip to Shanghai from a four-hour ferry journey to a one hour drive.

The Bund in 1989 – Photo by u/smithtg

In the late nineties, their daughter got computer lessons at school. Internet cafés (Wangba’s) popped up everywhere, and this is how my Chinese parents got online. Their daughter was more interested in it than they were. She chatted with friends, and later with strangers: “To talk with a stranger was simply amazing. It wasn’t sharing news, but just discuss life.” Bulletin boards appeared as well as options to download unlicensed MP3’s. Games became popular although they didn’t interest her, but micro-blogging did.

Soon there was a computer at home and they got educated on how to use it by their daughter — although patience ran low and pride ran high: “I know how to use it!”, her father would say as he tried to prove he understood, even though he barely did.

Their daughter was the first to own a mobile ‘phone’ (a pager), a transparent turquoise Motorola Advisor Elite: “So you got a signal from a number, then you know to call someone.”

And as China’s increasingly opened up, their daughter got more and more influences from the West. She bought Mariah Carey’s album Butterfly and watched the TV series ‘Growing Pains‘, and grew the desire to study in Europe.

When eventually she did, they visited her in the Netherlands. He had visited Russia and Burma for business travel before, but other than that both had never gone abroad. They visited Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin — all in which they asked for hot water in restaurants, to which the waiter would always say: “You mean tea?”, but no: “Hot water please!” European food was judged hard to digest, European weather was seen as cold and wet.

Last year they both retired and took time to visit Chinese cities such as Changsha and Harbin. Aside a Buick car they also have two electric scooters, which are easier for small trips in Nantong. Buick is also the brand he feels strongest about, aside his Gucci moccasins and everything Chinese. She says she doesn’t care, as long as it the brand is safe and reliable, although she does like the Channel bag her daughter gave her, as well as the Dior sunglasses, even though she never wears them.

And both have used a smartphone for years now. He writes Chinese characters by hand (see gif beneath), while she uses pinyin to write Mandarin characters. She’s more digital savvy than him, but both use their phone to chat, read news and pay.

To use her phone — a golden Huawei P8 Lite — as example, she installed some apps but never used them (or they’ve fallen out of her favour); Jingdong, Xiaohongshu, Hema, Booking, Alipay, QQ and Sina Weibo. The email app is installed by default but not configured. Also the phone function is rarely used, although texting (SMS) is often used for identity verification.

She commonly uses the following apps:

  • WeChat
  • Toutiao (Today’s Headline)
  • Sina News
  • Huawei AppGallery
  • Amap (navigation)
  • Taobao (e-commerce)
  • Baidu (search)
  • Cameras & gallery
  • Dou dizhu (card game)
  • Google Translate

She uses Amap for navigation in the car, Sina News and Toutiao for news reading (as well as WeChat moments). Taobao to order a wide range of products (it basically sells everything). Baidu is for searching, and there’s Google Translate (allowed without VPN in China) to sometimes translate sentences to me. And for some spare moments, there’s Dou dizhu (Fight the landlord), a simple yet difficult card game.

WeChat is the epicentre and is used most: instant messaging (including sticker-usage and virtual red envelopes), moments (timeline), and paying. Paying consists of scanning QR codes in restaurants and shops (or letting them scan her QR code), as well as transferring money to individuals. She says that ever since she linked her bank accounts (Bank of Jiangsu, China Merchants Bank and Bank of China) to WeChat, she has mostly stopped using the separate banking apps. WeChat is also used for voice or video calling. And since WeChat now has many mini-programs (in-WeChat-apps, so to say), she occasionally scans a QR code to load a mini-program to use it, such as unlocking a bicycle, and automatically paying for it.

This is (one of the reasons) why I admire my Chinese parents. They grew up in a country so vastly different than the one they live in now, and stand with one leg in each of those. One in which Mao is revered and traditional Chinese medicine is common place, the other that is filled with new technology to order live crabs from their phone, to be delivered at their doorstep. It wasn’t just technological change for them. They where born in a very different China, one with a closed market, fended off from the rest of the world and foreign ideas — and now they’ve let their daughter study abroad and marry a foreigner. They’ve gone through way more than a generation’s worth of change — and it’s the adaptability of their generation that has realised China’s transition in so many areas.