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'Maids' and Live-In Kindergartens : New Generation Brings Changes to Family Life in China

December 08, 1985|MARY-LOUISE O'CALLAGHAN | The Christian Science Monitor

PEKING — Every Friday afternoon in Peking, Chung Wen, a government clerk, picks up his 3-year-old son from one of the city's few kindergartens.

On Monday mornings, Chung's wife, a primary-school teacher, returns Xiao Chung (Little Chung) to his child-care center, or creche, and says goodby to her son for another week.

"We would like to have Xiao Chung with us during the week," says Chung, "but we don't have anyone to look after him, and with both of us working, it would be impossible to pick him up every night."

The Chungs (not their real name) both finish work around 5 o'clock, and they have the choice of a bicycle or the city's lumbering public-transport system to take them home.

"We have to shop every night because we don't have a refrigerator. That alone can take two or three hours," says Chung. "If we then had to pick up my son every night, there would be no time for cooking our meal or housekeeping."

The Chungs are one of China's new generation of nuclear families, which now account for almost 70% of the nation's households and which are changing the shape of family life in China.

Living Was Easier

Traditionally, Chinese society has been based on the extended family, with up to four generations all living under one roof. The old courtyard houses popular until this century made such living easier, with their separate rooms leading into a central yard affording some privacy to members of the family.

But in the decades following the 1949 Communist takeover, peasants and soldiers swarmed into China's cities from the countryside, setting up households of their own. It is the offspring of these families, who in the past decade have been forced to find their own accommodations when they grew up, that now account for many of the city's nuclear families.

A rise in individual incomes and the greater availability of separate housing have encouraged other newly married couples to set up housekeeping on their own, according to China's leading sociology professor, Fei Xiaotong. Prof. Fei says, too, that older Chinese also are encouraging the trend toward smaller households because of the peace and quiet it affords them.

A survey by the Peking municipal census office found that only 15% of the households in Peking now include grandparents and grandchildren.

The survey, which covered peasants, workers, intellectuals and cadres, also found that the average size of families in the Chinese capital has dropped to 3.89 persons per household. In two Peking districts--the industrial center of Shijingshan and a rural commune--90% of the households are nuclear families.

Changing Pattern

This shift to nuclear families is causing a change in the pattern of child raising in China. With most women working and grandparents no longer at hand to baby-sit, many couples are placing their children in creches from Monday to Friday. The Chungs consider themselves fortunate to have found a place for their son in one of the city's already overstretched kindergartens. They accept his week-long absences as a fact of life, and they stretch their joint income of a little more than $60 a month to meet the costs of his board.

"We don't have the room or the money to have someone live with and look after our child, but having him in the kindergarten means we are free on the weekend to concentrate completely on him," says Chung.

But the shortage of creches and kindergartens in most of China's overcrowded cities has made it necessary for many families to place children with private baby sitters or hire full-time live-in housemaids or ayis (aunties) to take care of child raising.

Domestic servants were banned during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), but it now appears that the pressure of modern life in China is overriding any remaining ideological objections.

According to the official English-language newspaper, the China Daily, there are more than 30,000 ayis in Peking. Many of these are women who have come from rural areas looking for work.

"Although the employment of maids was criticized as gentrified, bourgeois and exploitative during the Cultural Revolution, in reality such employment cannot be abolished. This is an inevitable phenomenon of today's urban social life," says Yang Zhengyan, deputy secretary-general of the Peking municipal government.

'More Times for Work'

"And the current tendency is that people wish to have less housework and more time for work, study and relaxation," he says. According to Yang, the use of housemaids is not confined to the better-paid members of China's work force--cadres and intellectuals. An increasing number of working families also are seeking domestic help.

The China Daily reports, "Many young couples, among them workers and schoolteachers, have started to hire ayis for their children, especially small babies. The families of workers account for almost a quarter of the families with ayis ."

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