Indirect Spite & Engagement

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There are two interesting Chinese documentaries streaming on Netflix right now: Weijun Chen’s Please Vote for Me (2007) and  Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home (2010). In Chen’s movie, a third grade class experiences democracy firsthand when they hold an election for “Class Monitor.” Fan’s Last Train Home uses the difficulties of securing a train home for the Chinese New Year to relate the struggles of a poor family coping with the consequences of migrant work. 

Both documentaries provide moving and insightful glimpses into the challenges of living in 21st Century China. Please Vote for Me shows China’s middle class experimenting with the concept of democracy as recognized by Western Culture. Last Train Home is set in the struggle and sacrifice of China’s poor rural community.

Both documentaries are rich texts from which a variety of enlightening social and political debates can be had. But what interests me most are the familial and filial debates that might arise from the way families are portrayed in the films (especially post-Tiger Mom).

In Please Vote for Me, the only female candidate, Xu Xaiofei,does not receive the same intimate and candid screen time that her male counterparts, Cheng Cheng and Luo Lei, receive. She also has no father present on screen. Cheng Cheng and Luo Lei’s fathers are very involved in giving strategic advice and preparing them for the classroom performances and speeches.

But as AO Scott of the New York Times notes, sometimes the preparations seem to go a little too far – sometimes it seems the parents are more invested in the outcomes than their children. I agree. Some of the tactics used by Cheng Cheng and Luo Lei’s parents in their campaign for Class Monitor go too far.

As a father, I know firsthand how hard it is to just sit on my hands and let my children make their own mistakes. As a father, I also know I exist outside the world of my children and their peers. My conclusions make sense in the adult world but in my children’s world I am now the nonsensical and impractical one.

I remember an incident at a playground with my eldest. He was only two then. He was putting sand on the slide. There were other children playing on the slide. I assumed they would be upset sliding into the grainy pinch and burn of the sand. I did not want them to blame him. I told my eldest to stop and to remove the sand he had already put on there. He did so to the admonishment of the children I thought I was helping – The children wanted the sand there! In “helping” my son, I had gotten him into trouble with his newfound friends.

There have been other incidents that have reminded me not to be such an “involved parent” and to reign in my “good advice.” But as difficult as it is sometimes, keeping my opinions to myself isn’t the hardest thing about fatherhood. The hardest thing about fatherhood is balancing direct engagement with indirect engagement.

Indirect engagement is all the “behind the scenes” things a father does to protect and nurture his children. Direct engagement is spending two hours playing soccer in the park with your children. Indirect engagement is working that extra shift for the overtime pay to buy your children new school clothes or the new game console they have been asking for.

Where the parents of Please Vote for Me seem ever present and directly engaged in their children’s lives, the conflicts in Last Train Home arise from indirectly engaged parents, Changhua and Suqin Zhang who, in order to provide for their children, only see their children a few days out of the year. They are migrant workers who have left their rural Sichuan village to earn a living in the factories of Guangzhou.

The trip from the factory back home is two days long. It is expensive and requires taking the movie’s namesake, a bus, and a boat. Yang and Qin, the Zhang’s children, are raised by their grandmother. They only see their parents once a year (if that) during the Chinese New Year holiday. Qin, the eldest child, becomes resentful. She accuses her parents of only caring about money and neglecting her and her younger brother. In a show of rebellion and spite, she quits school (something both parents hold in high regard).

As Roger Ebert puts it:

What she does is beyond heartbreaking. She moves to Guangzhou and gets a factory job. She does the math. If she keeps her wages instead of sending them home, she’ll have them to spend on herself. Does it occur to her to suggest her parents move back home with her brother, while she helps support and repay them? Not a chance.

After a physical altercation between father and daughter, a somber family sits around their New Year’s meal. Qin’s mother states: “There are many different paths… Being a parent is difficult. Kids have a mind of their own when they grow up.”

I’ve been in Qin’s shoes. I’ve been among the kids whose parents didn’t make Parent-Teacher meetings or showed up to applaud and urge me on at afternoon awards ceremonies and school plays. And just like Qin I’ve done things, made decisions — despite realizing the personal pain involved — for no other reason than to spite my parents.

I’m also lucky. I have forgiving parents and friends who had the patience to keep me grounded enough to avoid anything with negative life long consequences. I can only hope that, if there is a sequel to Last Train Home, we will see Qin and her parents speaking with their relationship undamaged by the decisions made when the documentary was being filmed.

As a father who has had to recently disengage himself from his children’s school activities because of a more hectic work schedule, I am in shoes similar to the Zhangs and my parents. I am by far not as disadvantaged as either them, but have a taste of what it’s like to have to choose which “right thing” for my children is the “rightest” – work harder to insure their personal comfort and success in the future or take the day off to join them on a field trip or get more involved in their school?

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