If I had been born in the U.S. instead of China, would I have grown up with a brother or sister?
This is something I’ve thought about a lot since I was young. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only Chinese kid in the world thinking it.
Having a second child wasn’t even an option for my parents back when I was born in 1996. In fact, it hasn’t been an option for any family, ever since the infamous one-child policy was enacted in 1979.
The policy restricted most urban-dwelling couples to one child. Mei Fong, the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist who has done extensive reporting on this subject, calls the policy “the world’s most radical social experiment” ever undertaken in history.
The one-child policy was changed to a two-child policy in January of 2016 due to changing demographics in China, the most significant of which is the growing male and elderly population.
“China is too male, too few, too soon,” Fong says.
The government hopes changing the policy will encourage more couples to have two children in order to fuel the workforce in the future. But for the only children born during the policy’s active years, the repercussions are still felt to this day. The experiment is still not over.
Is being an only child all that bad?
For many, being an only child seemed great at the time.
Mingwei Zhu, an international student originally from Baotou in Northern China, says that as the only child, she got all the clothes and the toys in the family.
“You are the queen in the family,” says Zhu. “All the love is on you.”
“For me, as the only child in my family, I can get the best resources,” says Yiqin Weng, an international student originally from Shanghai and the only child in his family.
This access to resources can have quite far-reaching consequences. A BBC article explains that the one-child generation in China is significantly more educated than previous generations due to parents focusing all of their resources on one child. This resource concentration may be what allowed so many students to travel abroad to study. After all, Weng might not be going to school in Seattle today if he had a sibling.
But being the only child also came with its downsides.
“Your parents will put more expectations on you because you are the future for the family,” says Weng. He had to learn how to play the piano when he was only 4 years old. It he says it was very stressful when he did poorly on exams.
“If I had some brothers or sisters, they would share the stress,” Weng speculates.
Characteristics of China’s only children
A study conducted on the behavioral impacts of the one-child policy found that only children were less conscientious and trusting of others, among other things.
For Zhu, she had to confront the results of her upbringing in middle school when her mother remarried and her stepbrother became a part of her life.
“Before, all the attention was on me. I had more power in the family. I could do whatever I wanted,” she says. “But after, I had to share all the resources with my brother. I think I became more mature because I had to share.”
Zhu’s situation was fairly unique. Since her stepbrother was not her mom’s child by birth, he did not fall under the one-child policy’s rules.
Others weren’t so lucky. The experience of Zhu’s childhood friend illustrates the darker impact the policy had.
Zhu’s friend was the second born in her family. Her family wanted a boy, and after their firstborn turned out to be a girl, they decided to try again, which was a direct violation of the one-child policy at the time.
When Zhu’s friend was born, she did not receive her resident identity card because her parents couldn’t afford paying the fine for having a second child. Her parents told their neighbors that she was an orphan because they were afraid of being turned into the authorities. Not wanting to take any chances, they also told their daughter that she was an orphan.
“We grew up playing together,” says Zhu. “She always said, ‘My mom will pick me up some day. My mom will come pick me up.’”
Her friend didn’t find out she was their biological daughter until middle school.
“She felt angry and sad. She felt like it was unfair,” says Zhu.
But despite all the unintended consequences that resulted from the one-child policy, Weng and Zhu can still see both sides of the story.
“I kind of understand this policy, even when it was just a one-child policy, just because we have too many people,” says Weng.
“In terms of population control, it’s a good thing,” says Zhu. “But for the kids, it’s not a good thing.”
Having a second child – an economic decision?
Even though Weng and Zhu understand the importance the one-child policy had on population control, this does not mean they won’t take advantage of the shift to a two-child policy in the future.
“For me, a four-person family would be the best — one girl and one boy,” says Weng.
Many Chinese people share this traditional sense of family. In fact, the Chinese character for “good” is a combination of the characters for girl and son.
But even though the policy now allows for two children per couple, many parents might not take advantage of the change simply because having a second child is too costly.
Unlike in the U.S., parents must pay to send their kids to school from primary school all the way through college. It’s also a tradition during marriage for the parents of the groom to buy the house the newly wed couple will live in while the bride’s parents will buy the car.
While Weng would like to have two children, he has to think economically. He says he will have a second child only if he is able to earn enough money.
My cousin living in China is also leaning toward only one child for economic reasons. When I spoke with her recently, she said she probably wouldn’t have a second simply because it was too expensive to raise two kids.
More and more, the number of children a couple decides to have seems to be based strongly on economic factors. But it’s also becoming more commonplace for parents to think that a one-child family is the ideal family.
“In some ways, the one-child policy has been a victim of its own success,” says Fong.
In solidarity with my one-child brethren
By the time my parents and I moved to the U.S. and settled down in Idaho, I was five-and-a-half.
I remember that not long after, my mom asked me if I wanted a sibling. I replied with an immediate “yes.” I told her that I would be okay with a boy or a girl, or a dog or a cat. While many of my memories from that age are fuzzy, there is one feeling I will never forget: the jealously toward my friends with siblings.
It’s true that all the pressure was placed on my shoulders growing up. Being saddled with the full weight of my parents’ aspirations and dreams was not easy. And bearing all of that got to be too much sometimes.
But the worst part about growing up an only child was the loneliness. I will never know what it’s like to have big family reunions like my parents did. I will never know a family where I wasn’t the center of attention. I will never know what it will feels like to have a sibling to look toward in times of need.
At least I’m not alone in this. I share the experience with the millions of other only children born under the policy. My one-child brethren and I may truly may be the “loneliest generation.” But at least that loneliness is a common thread that links us all.