BEIJING — A video is making the rounds across China's internet. On a bus in the western city of Xi'an, an elderly man is seen shouting at a pregnant woman that she should give up her seat. "I am an old person! Can't you see?" His attitude was so appalling that commentators online came down clearly in favor of the pregnant lady rather than the old man.
Still, we sometimes forget that utter respect for the old used to be a Chinese tradition. There have been some high-profile incidents in recent years of conflict caused by indignant elderly. Sometimes old people have gone as far as slapping youngsters because they were too slow to give up their seats. Far more extreme is the case of a retired prosecutor deliberately driving into a student on campus just because he wanted to have his revenge on the youth in society.
Though it is too arbitrary to conclude that all the elderly are "going bad," as some claim, the situation is worthy of reflection. China's economy, technology and society are undergoing rapid development and transformation. While young people can adapt to the fast-changing times, old people are more likely to feel alienated because of their declining learning ability, social isolation and fixed ideas.
To understand the bizarre behavior of certain elderly persons, we must recall that China went through quite a long period of material deprivation. Public services were scarce. For instance, squeezing oneself onto a packed bus used to be the only way to get around. As a result, though times have changed, the elderly have often not altered their behavior patterns, even when taking high-speed rail or planes. It's simply incomprehensible to young people why older folk are often pushing in line even though they all have their seats booked ahead of time.
Old people are more likely to feel alienated.
Family conflicts can also arise over a dish of food left overnight, with the elderly never wanting to throw away anything. Most of all, pre-modern Chinese society was a family-centered acquaintance society. In a big family with a clan culture, the elderly held a position of authority and always had the last word. "All good deeds start from filial piety," as the Chinese saying goes. As a result, it is almost mission impossible to find any old Chinese wisdom dedicated to "teaching" the aged.
A man sits outside for a smoke in Dali, China — Photo: Tim Quijano
Under the Communist system, people were allocated a job and lived in a compound community, their "danwei," the communal organization one worked for. In those days, youngsters certainly did not dare speak out to their neighborhood uncles and aunties when they disagreed with them. Not only because they'd be regarded as disrespectful to the older generation, but also because they'd be considered as challenging the communal organization's authority.
Today, the whole of society is paying for the bad side of these lingering traditions. The younger generation lacks the skill to teach the older generation. Meanwhile, the latter wouldn't be willing to listen anyway. In their view, they have gone through a whole lifetime listening to parents and teachers preaching, and have worked very hard to earn their proverbial bowl of rice. Now, when they can finally relax and just do what they see fit, they are not going to be told anything.
Senior citizens risk becoming trapped in our fast-paced life.
It is therefore challenging to explain to these elderly, who are being left behind, how to connect with this new world that is increasingly dominated by information technology. Apart from catering to their basic needs, seniors obviously have to be guided in how they share public resources with strangers, how to control their emotions, and why they should correct their unreasonable behavior.
It's high time Chinese elderly get up to speed with the lessons of the modern world. Their ideas must evolve so they can stop pestering their offspring to get married or have children. On the flip side, they need to be wary that there are frauds out there — people who are supposedly giving them free healthcare classes, or selling them financial products on their doorstep or on the internet. And yes, they also have to be taught that swearing or physically abusing somebody on public transport is just not okay.
In brief, these elderly ought to learn basic modern concepts such as privacy and rights. And it is up to the younger generation to assume this responsibility of teaching these lessons to the elderly. In demographic terms, China is becoming an aging society, and senior citizens, just like their children, risk becoming trapped in our fast-paced life. Apart from material comfort, the care that Chinese elderly need even more today are the skills of modern communication that can give them access to the gifts of modern times.
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