Recently, I’ve been reading some demographers that are focused on generational studies. It has been interesting and sometimes enlightening for this GenXer. As part of an ignored generation there are things about my generational experiences I’ve not understood, since almost everything that gets written or discussed about generational topics is from a Boomer or Millennial viewpoint. These generational studies have shed a little light on some aspects of my life that I never completely understood, and surprisingly has taught me a bit about cross-cultural misunderstandings. This article is about a common GenX experience, that I thought was a universal Western experience, but turns out to be uniquely GenX, and has caused me to misunderstand Asian/Western cultural differences.
GenX’s childhood coincided with a time when children were, broadly speaking, socially despised. GenX children diverted Boomer and Silent Generation parent’s from their obsessive self-focus—and it wasn’t appreciated. It was not the time to be a child. Generally seen as burdensome, GenXers were history’s most frequently aborted children. Our upbringing reflected the period’s broader social trends and attitudes towards children. It wasn’t the fault of individual parents so much as a broad cultural trend, a societal decision to forsake childhood. Parenting books taught parents to value their needs over their child’s. A happy parent must be good for the child. TV and movies supported the primacy of parental needs over children’s, and academia lent its voice in support of the anti-childhood ethos. In the age of self-actualization, parents expected their children to self-actualize, essentially to comport themselves like small middle-agers. It was the time with the most broken marriages and broken families in history. So, GenX grew up neglected, and raised themselves like a pack of feral cats. [It’s the main reason we’re so awesome].
A typical slice of GenX life happened when I was in grade 9. A schoolmate came to class a bit pissed off, it seemed she’d arrived home the day before to find a note from her parents saying that—unbeknownst to her—they’d gone to Mexico for a week. The note said there was money on the table, Kraft Dinner in the cupboard, and that she should take care of herself and keep her brother alive. Apparently there’d have been hell to pay if he were dead when they got home. Looking back the weirdest thing is that nobody thought it was weird. Admittedly it was an extreme example, but her classmates all comforted her with their own very similar tales of parental neglect.
Raise yourself—we got no time for this shit.
As you’d expect of a generation of self-parenting children, bullying reigned supreme. I gotta admit, I don’t know when bullying came to be seen as bad—I’m guessing when Millennials started getting bullied. During GenX’s childhood, adults were pretty ambivalent about bullying. Parents would tell the victims to find a way to fix the problem themselves. Bullying built character, taught conflict resolution, and forced you to stand up for yourself. The bully in his own way was teacher and parent, and many parents appreciated the help. It was Lord of the Flies out there.
Raise yourself—we got no time for this shit.
So that’s what childhood was like, and here’s how that screwed up my cross-cultural literacy. I didn’t realize that—as a GenXer—I was raised uniquely. I thought that each previous generation had essentially raised themselves as we had. Not true. Apparently the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, and Baby Boomers had comparatively idyllic childhoods, where they were cared for. I had no idea. I never saw Millennials grow up, as I was out of the country during their childhood and teens. I used to show up in Canada every couple years and see Millennials being molly-coddled, and there’d be some conversations with my contemporaries about how fucked up it all was. “How will they ever grow into functioning adults?” I had assumed that the Millennial’s childhood was a deviation from the norm. I didn’t know GenX was the aberration, and the Millennials were a return to normal values.
I always told my Taiwanese students and friends that rugged individualism and can-do spirit are essential cultural cornerstones in the West. No one is going to help you—you got to do it yourself. I’d explain how some of the things I commonly saw in Taiwan would not happen back home; parents lined up at schools to pick up their children, waiting for kids at the bus stop, coming and talking to the teachers, parents generally trying to fix their kids problems or provide guidance. For God’s sake, I’m a university teacher in Taiwan, and I have to deal with kid’s parents! By grade 3, I’d have been embarrassed to have my parents inserting themselves into my school life. I’d explain that these things just aren’t done in the West: we’re all about pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. You got a problem—figure it out. I was wrong, but interestingly, I misunderstood my own culture, not Taiwanese culture.
I didn’t realize not every Western teen has been expected to confront life with the maturity and independence required of GenX. I told one-and-all that if parents tried to pull this “Asian” crap in the West, their kids would get the shit beat out of them. I grew up with a kid, nice guy, but his parents raised him like a Boomer or Millennial. They cared for him—during GenX’s childhood years!?! That poor kid’s life was a raging hellscape, he got beat up daily. “Ha, ha [in the voice of Bart Simpson’s bully], your parents love you,” boom, crash, blam…. It wasn’t cool to have parents: adults should be neither seen, nor heard, certainly they should not be arriving at school to walk you home.
When I began seeing Millennials being raised back home, I thought the West had collectively decided to become more Asian. That we were adopting the parenting style and societal norms of Asia. I was shocked. Helicopter parents in the West? How could that happen? I now know that my generation’s experiences were unique. Western society is more communal, and “Asian”, than I ever dreamed. Of course, the stereotypical differences between Western individualism and Asian communalism do exist [see: Asian Child-Rearing and Elder Care]. It’s just the differences are smaller than I’d imagined.
I’ve come to these realizations quite late. When I started asking friends in Canada about these things, they were all like, “We’ve known this for decades, where have you been? Under a rock?” Nope. In Taiwan. Because of my expat life, I hadn’t seen Western children younger than myself being raised, so I didn’t know any of this. I guess it’s always good to learn a bit about yourself, no matter how late, there are no age limitations on self-awareness: kinda like stripping in Wyoming—you’re never too old.
Please pardon the expaticus oldfartitis evident in this article, and my previous article, Taipei Traffic. If you can’t relate to the GenX themes, I understand. I’m going to write one more article that features a bit of generational navel-gazing, and that’ll end my Old Fart Trilogy.