Xiao PengYous

Xiao PengYous (literally ‘little friends’, actually ‘children’), with the one-child policy still in place, are the new ruling class of contemporary China.

Their two parents, four grand-parents, and sometimes childless uncles and aunts all conspire to spoil them, offering them ice cream, cakes, lollies (yes, Chinese children are often a bit fat), or all kinds of fancy outfits. Children fashion – think, fashion to the taste of children – is all the rage in Tianjin and Beijing. Little girls dress up in fairy wings

or Manchu headdresses.

Boys prefer a superman outfit.

But they work hard. I was discussing the French education system once in class, and I asked my students about high-school schedules in China. It took me just an extra second to realise that, when they said ‘8 to 10’, it meant AM to PM. Scary, hey? But wait untill you hear that.

Later in the same class, I asked a student what she did on the week-end: ‘I take my daughter to school’, she said. I clarified – is that a school? On the week-end? What’s the word we saw? ‘Centre de loisir’ (‘leisure centre’), where the kids play together, or do pottery? But no, she said, it’s a place where they learn everything, from biology to finance, all day Saturday and Sunday. She did clarify: ‘It’s early MBA’. Ever-loving, ever-caring. Her daughter is five.

Then, there is cuteness.

The same student, on another occasion, asked me “‘In French, how do you say ‘do you want to be my friend?'” She said her daughter asked her, because she said ‘ mum, when we go live in Quebec, I will have no friends, how can I ask people if they want to be my friend?’ I was embarrased explaining the complexities of approaching someone in France.

This made me realise that Chinese people are actually very good at making PengYous – they say ‘Zuo PengYou’, ‘to make friends’, not ‘to become friends’. As if to say that friendship is something you decide on, and build up – not just something that happens on its own. Maybe this is the particular achievement of only children, who grew up without brothers and sisters to bully them, and have some precious naivety left – or who depend on relationships out of the family for connections with people their age, and therefore, work harder on them.

Another striking thing is how there are few taboos on expressing affection among friends – friends touch, walk with their arms around each other’s shoulders (boys), or hand in hand (girls). Observing the way Chinese bodies relate made me reflect on how bizarrely constrained our body language is, in France and in Australia.

But what I noticed most was that, in China, girls have friends as much as men do, perhaps even more so. Friendship, that virile pursuit, is fully accessible to women here – and highly valued by them. Not a little achievement of the culture.


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