English names spark middle-class anxiety

By Xu Qinduo Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/19 21:38:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

A young boy asks two girls, "Can I join you to play?"

They respond, "Do you have an English name?"

The boy replies, "No."

The two girls run away and leave him behind.

This anecdote is how the new round of discussion over so-called middle-class anxiety has unfolded. I doubt the truthfulness of the episode. But let's assume the story did take place in Beijing or Shanghai, where you probably find the greatest number of middle-income families.

If anything, the story adds one more item on the long list of anxieties facing Chinese middle-class families, in addition to housing prices, work, appearance, weight and so on.

In a sense, anxiety is about the pressure generated either out of a tough reality or the sense that other people are getting ahead of you. Competition in the children's education sector is arguably the most evident. As the anecdote shows, it goes beyond academic performance to what matters for your children's future: She or he must learn English and learn it well. This is reflected by having an English name.

The logic is, if other kids join an English immersion program, you can't afford not to let your own kids join. Otherwise, they will lag behind and be looked down upon. The question lingering in the mind of parents often is: How far can you go with extra curriculum classes, given that you only have 24 hours a day? Or how can you catch up with those who are financially ahead of you? 

The feelings of anxiety are possibly also the consequence of the sizzling economic growth China is undergoing. China has grown into the world's second largest economy in the short period of less than 40 years. It's transforming its economy from relying on exports and investment to focusing on the service industry and innovation. The process brings about rife opportunities as well as tremendous challenges. There are billionaires and stars, but most of us are day-to-day regular bread earners.

There is of course nothing wrong being an ordinary person with a mortgage, car and a kid. But the speed and the quantity of changes, which are inspiring and exciting, also prove to be unsettling for many of us, who are often dazzled and overwhelmed by the historic transformation of the nation.

For example, while you are trying to secure a place for your kid in a key school, others are already turning their attention to overseas education. As changes speed up, people are increasingly uncertain about their future. And the inability to handle the uncertainty usually begets anxiety, which can be seen both as a social phenomenon and an individual agony.

As a phenomenon, the anxiety will hopefully diminish in the near future as the country moves on to build a more solid welfare and pension system. China's education and healthcare reform are also expected to bring about some stability.

On an individual level, it could be much more challenging. For example, even for those who are economically better off and able to send their kids to overseas schools, they still have to confront unease. After all, parachuting your kids into a foreign school is far from the end of the story, as shown in some cases where young kids at foreign schools are put into prison for violating local laws. 

If anxiety is mostly about uncertainty, then we may learn to be firmer in our stance. What about a stronger belief in Chinese language, rather than worrying about an English name. Remember 16-year-old Wu Yishu, the champion of the televised traditional Chinese poems contest? Obviously her name in Chinese, meaning "the pretty girl from the Wu family," is much more elegant and graceful than something like "Jack" or "Mary."

After all, names are just symbols of individuals. If parents separate kids into those "with English names" and those "without English names," how can they educate their children to be decent citizens?

As a matter of fact, in the international arena, using your own name - instead of an English one - is always preferred because it is about your identity and who you are.

If there's anything parents can learn from Wu Yishu, it might be the importance of finding the talent and potential of the children, cultivating their passion and encouraging hard work. In the end, the effort will be rewarding. In turn, parents' anxiety will be mitigated if not disappear.

With that being said, anxiety may not necessarily be a bad thing. China's impressive economic expansion owes a lot to the fact that China is full of strivers and dreamers who aim high, see big and persist. Their success stories, while bringing about pressures on others, also inspire more to pursue their own dreams.

Indeed, anxiety isn't all negative. But don't go to extremes, like rushing to get an English name for your children simply to impress others.

The author is a commentator with the China Radio International. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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