Over the years I've stayed in touch with more than one hundred of my former students. The cheap onion-skin paper is long gone; today they communicate by email and cell phone. Most are still teaching, and they live in small cities—part of the new middle class. Because of migration, their old villages are dying, like rural regions all across China. "Only old people and small children are left at home," a woman named Maggie recently wrote. "It seems that the countryside now is under Japanese attacks, all the people have fled."
Although my students were patient with the flaws of their elders, today they seem to feel a greater distance from the young people they teach. "When we were students there wasn't a generation gap with the teachers," wrote Sally. "Nowadays our students have their own viewpoints and ideas, and they speak about democracy and freedom, independence and rights. I think we fear them instead of them fearing us." A classmate pointed out that most of today's students come from one-child homes, and many have been spoiled by indulgent parents. "We had a pure childhood," wrote Lucy. "But now the students are different, they are more influenced by modern things, even sex. But when we were young, sex was a tatoo for us."
Recently I sent out a short questionnaire asking how their lives have changed. Responses came from across the country, ranging from Zhejiang Province on the east coast to Tibet in the far west. Most described their material lives as radically different. "When I graduated in 1998, I told my Mum, if I got 600 yuan [about $70] each month, I would be satisfied," Roger wrote. "In fact I got 400 yuan then, and now each month I get about 1700 yuan." When I asked about their most valuable possession, 70 percent said that they had bought an apartment, usually with loans. One had recently purchased a car. They were still optimistic. When I asked them to rate their feelings about the future on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the most positive, the average response was 6.5.
I asked what worried them the most. Several mentioned relationships; one woman wrote: "The marriage is not safe any more in China, it is more common for people around here to break up." A couple of respondents who now work far from home were concerned about their status as migrants. "I am like a foreigner in China," Willy wrote. But the most common source of worry seemed to be mortgage payments. "Ten years ago, I worried that I could not have a good and warm family," Belinda wrote. "Now I am worried about my loan at the bank." None of her classmates expressed concern about political reform, foreign relations, or any other national issue. Nobody mentioned the environment.