The Post-1980s Generation: China and America

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Last month I quoted a note from a young man in Shanghai about the bittersweet perspective of people in his generation. They were beneficiaries of a China that was booming economically, but were often surprisingly nostalgic for the simpler China, real or imagined, of their childhood days.

Two Americans write to say that this may not be strictly a Chinese attitude. First:

>>I was struck by a portion of the writing from Xiao Shi that was reproduced in your column. As a 23 year old, I wanted to offer my opinion that his observation of nostalgia in youth is prevalent everywhere I can see here in America as well. Sociological evidence of extended adolescence aside, I offer anecdotal evidence: 'Saved By The Bell' on Cartoon Network and the popularity of the new Pokemon games amongst the 18-34 demographic. In other words, I disagree that his experience is a uniquely Chinese one, and probably more so a function of sweeping changes in general that have occurred since the 90's, and the protracted path today to adulthood.

His spiritual disillusionment and frustration is common here as well: trying to grow up in a dis-inflationary environment is a recipe for low self-esteem and high self-doubt, and his anxieties are common amongst my friends. In other words, I would be wary of the narrative fallacy in this case, and instead realize that globalization has homogenized 'youth' around the world.<<

And from someone half a generation older:

>>As a thirty-six year-old from the small-town suburbs of Houston, I read your Chinese post-80s correspondent's letter with interest. The generational shared-nostalgia for the recent past and the similarly-shared need to build a spiritual life from scratch in a world of ideologies found wanting echoed many of the facets of my life and the lives of many of my fellow Gen-Xers. Nostalgia for childhood has been with us at least as long as child-labor laws have, but ours has always seemed to me to be for a bubble of time that existed outside the flow of history.

The series of events leading up the end of the Vietnam War and Watergate caused such a sharp inflection point that they don't seem to really be the precursors of what came after, just as the events in 1988 don't really seem to presage the end of the Soviet Union and the rise of the internet. Case in point: practically everyone of my age and 5-7 years older grew up in mortal terror of nuclear war (we were old enough to have seen The Day After when it was broadcast in primetime, for instance), whereas people 2 or 3 years younger have no idea what I'm talking about. I'll be keeping an eye out for other examples of similarities of worldview between my cohort and the kids just now turning 30 in China.<<

More on this theme shortly.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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