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I’m an Only Child Because of China’s One-Child Policy

China's one-child policy is over, but its cultural impact persists.

Growing up in China, I was immersed in the one-child culture. Back then, I wasn't self-conscious about being an "only child," because we never really talked about it. When you are born, you are the one and only child of the family, and the same for all your friends. End of story.

Searching hard through my scattered pieces of memory from my childhood, I recall the friends I grew up with and that old Beijing hutong where we used to hang out. In the winter, there would be people selling sugar-coated hawthorns there. You'd knock on your best friend's door who lived nearby, spend five Jiao (half-yuan, or less than a dime) on a sweet hawthorn, and pick your own spot in the Hutong while watching other kids jump rope. We never really feel lonely, as growing up in the late 90's Beijing was just simple and fun.

When I turned 23, I decided to come to New York and study. Away from home, leaving my parents behind for the first time, made me realize what it means to be a single child.

I live with two close friends; one is American and the other is Canadian. They both have brothers and sisters. Sometimes, we talk about things happening back home. They always have stories about their siblings. I can see the happiness on their faces. For the first time, it occurred to me that this happiness is the feeling of having a brother or sister.

I've lost track of how many times I complained to them. "Hey... I am really, really … like, really jealous when you guys call up your sisters and brothers!" I would always try to gloss over these uneasy feelings, thinking, "well, I also have my cousins." Of course, I know this is not a how-many-cousins-do-you-have contest. But deep down, all the jokes aside, I started to wonder, "what if I could have my own sisters or brothers?"

This morning, I read an article titled China to End One-Child Policy, Allowing Families Two Children in The New York Times. Suddenly, all the feelings pour back upon me again. At first, I was excited, then disappointed, and finally disheartened. According to the story, Chinese couples "voiced reluctance to take on a second child" for economic reasons, even though the government reversed the policy.

Back in the late 1970s, the one-child policy started to reshape the country into a one-child society. The policy was intended to relieve the overpopulation issues that had started before Deng Xiaoping, who was largely responsible for opening up China's economy, took over. It was needed, however, for the long-term development for the country. But after a few decades, even now that the opposite policy has kicked in exactly for basically the same economic purpose, there seems to be a persistent chilling effect.

I know that I am not a politician or an expert in economics who knows how to solve social issues through population control. But what I do know is that the one-child policy has had a far-reaching effect on Chinese people. The Chinese public shares a different citizen-government relationship than most other countries: we really trust our government. It is not something we like or hate. "Country before people" is the first lesson we encounter at school. It is part of the culture that runs in our blood. While we trust what the government does to us, and even possibly invent justifications for what it might do wrong, we become blinded by our own nationalism.

In a country like the US, it would be absurd for the government to tell people how many children to have. In China, it's accepted that this is a judgement call appropriate for the government to make.

There is something missing in modern China. Our choices have been dictated by policy controls for so long that even though we are now allowed the choice of having two children (but not more!), the chilling effect of the old policy still hangs over us. First, the government says no one should have brothers or sisters because it is bad for the country as a whole. Now the government says children should have brothers and sisters because "a burst of children will replenish the nation's work force and encourage more consumer spending," as the New York Times writes. The incentive has swung the other way, but it's still not a real choice.

I am just disheartened reading the news.