Lin ’12 Documentary Focuses on China’s Left-Behind Parents

Olivia Lin '12
Olivia Lin '12
Still highly controversial, China’s One-Child Policy has had many effects on the population. One of the least-known is what Olivia Lin ’12 calls “left-behind parents,” or parents who are left in China because their only child is studying in another country. Guided by Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures Zhuoyi Wang, Lin is filming a documentary about left-behind parents through an Emerson grant.

Most mothers struggle with emotions and loneliness when their children first leave home. But because of the One-Child Policy, established in 1981, the first generation of only children is coming of age, and the parents act differently. “Parents become dependent on their only child in terms of their emotional and physical needs and see him or her as an ‘insurance policy’ for their futures. They tend to overindulge their children in very demanding and critical ways,” Lin explained. Chinese mothers especially, Lin said, “favor or even pamper their children in ways that are not easily understood by other cultures.”

Although these children are central to their parents’ world, the parents understand that their happiness at having their child at home is less beneficial than an education abroad. In her project proposal, Lin writes that almost 1.5 million students have been sent to study abroad from China in the past 30 years. But once the children are gone, the parents are sometimes lonely and have conflicting feelings, proud that they sent their only child overseas while wishing that they were home with them. They struggle to determine the changes they have to make to start their lives without their child present.

The situation is especially hard on the mothers because their husbands often do not understand their emotions in the situation, and the couple’s relationship suffers as they struggle with the substantial financial burden of supporting a child attending an expensive school abroad. More upper- and middle-class families have appeared in China in the past 20 years, so financing a child studying internationally is becoming increasingly feasible for Chinese families, and more parents are being left behind.

Lin is well-qualified to speak on behalf of left-behind parents. A Chinese international student herself, she sees the effects that her international education is having on her parents, as with her friends and their parents. Having taken two Chinese film studies courses at Hamilton, she has the background to film her own documentary. Lin hopes to raise awareness of the issue through her film. “Stories have been written about the academic success of Chinese students and Chinese films thematically feature the phenomena, but the ‘left-behind’ parents rarely receive any public attention, certainly not as the feature story of a documentary,” she observed.

She has conducted 20 interviews with left-behind parents from different parts of China. Lin found that parents today are much better informed about the particular schools and majors that are best for their children to have abroad—a significant change from just 20 years ago. As she gathered her footage to publicize the particular hardships and needs of the average left-behind parent, she was surprised to come across a group of parents that, in their own way, had managed to address their emotional issues. “They go to traveling together, they chat online very often, they write their blogs to share almost every [piece of] news they just heard from their children so other parents can indirectly know what their children’s lives are like in other countries,” Lin said. “Their own lives are changed by their children.” And as more left-behind parents find access to technology, they may make their own solution to their unique problems.

Lin also hopes to follow her interviewees for the next 10 years, charting the trajectory of their choices and relationships, to see how Chinese society as a whole has been impacted by left-behind parents and, thus, by the One-Child Policy.

Lin is a graduate of Miami Palmetto Senior High School in Miami, Fla.
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