How the conventionally Western, middle-class “gap year” 间隔年 is contributing to the emergence of a liberated, internationally-orientated and dare I say “crazy” Chinese youth.
On Sunday 8th October I met with Y, 24, from Guangzhou广州 at Euston station in London. A recent Master’s graduate in Entrepreneurship, Y made a small contribution to a book entitled “You have more freedom than you think” 你比你想象的更自由  which documents the experiences of 30 interesting Chinese youths that took a “gap year” post or pre further education in order to do something unconventional. In fact Y never met his fellow co-authors as he was recruited via an online group in Wechat 微信, the biggest social media platform in China. During the documentation, Y saw that whilst some people had traveled, volunteered or worked extensively both within mainland China and abroad, others had stayed at home and devoted themselves to a single passion. The purpose of the book was to encourage spiritual freedom among the Chinese youth.
According to the Internet, more commonly known as the modern fountain of all knowledge, one of the first people to introduce the “gap year” into China back in 2009 was a man called Sun Dongchun who published a book entitled “The Delayed Gap Year” 迟到的间隔年 which describes his 13 month voyage through 6 Asian countries. Douban.com 豆瓣, launched in 2005 as a social media network enabling users to comment on arts media such as books, films, music and photography, has dozens of groups solely dedicated to the “gap year” which has played a significant part in spreading the phenomenon throughout mainland China. Moreover in recent years the China Youth Development Program has set up numerous initiatives encouraging youths to embark on a “gap year” .
Young people often reach out to Y to ask how they can overcome parental conflict. A significant majority of Chinese parents are uncomfortable about their only child swerving away from a stable and secure life path and onto a path of financial and personal uncertainty. YuYue, a University student in the USA said “Parents have a fixed plan for their kids. Primary school, middle school, college, job, marriage, and having children, which appears to be the only way to live your life.”  Furthermore, Chinese education expert, Xiong Bingqi has explained that one of the reasons Chinese parents cannot fathom a year out of education is because the majority of Chinese Universities will permit the delay of routine study only in exceptional circumstances such as illness.  Hence taking a “gap year” would hinder ones chances of admission into University when already competition is fierce. Another factor to consider is one’s citizenship file. It is a well known fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) hold strict records of each citizen including address, education, employment etc. To have a year of ‘absence’ that does not fit the mold of such a system would especially disadvantage graduates looking to apply for government or state owned company positions. Even so, it goes without saying that the Chinese youth are beginning to challenge traditional expectations of education, employment and more importantly social status. Sun Dongchun is assured that “society is progressing and more young people will be able to have their own gap year experience.” 
Telling me about his own “gap year” experience, Y said he worked primarily as a freelancer whilst simultaneously building his company’s website as he likes to be able to work no matter where, with whom or how he is living. For the first 6 months he travelled between Guangzhou 广州 and Beijing 北京 (a grand distance of roughly 2,140 km) , choosing to leave Beijing in the depths of winter due to the cold and smog, and head for New Zealand 新西兰 (pronounced XinXiLan in Mandarin). Although he mainly Couchsurfed  , worked on Wwoofing  farms, or staying in youth hostels, for a period of time Y chose to live in a hub in the woods, opposite Lake Manapouri. During this time, Y said he felt like he was living in the past, totally secluded from the rest of the world: chopping wood, cooking simple meals and walking amongst the breath-taking nature. Nevertheless the experience enabled him to think and reflect a lot about his life. Y also told me about a secluded time where he volunteered on a lama farm in Toulouse, France for 2 weeks where he learned how to tend to lamas and use a chainsaw. I am not sure how the two exclusively relate to one another but I can guarantee no lamas were harmed in the making of this documentation. The experience was especially memorable as the owners, a French couple, had lived in Liaoning 辽宁 in Northern China for 5 years hence they had an extensive knowledge of Chinese culture.
Interested to know what Y thought of the British, he explained that before arriving in the UK he assumed the British would be高冷. The characters literally translate as “tall, cold”, the closest translation I could find being “haughty”. Another word used to depict the UK, (caused by Chinese social) was 腐国 which is Chinese slang referring to, “the perception of the UK as decadent for its attitudes towards sexuality” . The former image of haughty Brits formed a stark contrast with the flamboyant, modern and seemingly “decadent” supporters of homosexuals. 腐国 in fact originated from Chinese social media trends and memes of various British TV series characters, that whilst we may appear cold and indifferent on the surface, we are apparently humorous and light-hearted on the inside. (Very much like a Cornish pasty; nothing particularly interesting seems to be going on until you get to the inside and wow)
I asked Y if there is a particularly desired characteristic among the Chinese youth, to which he replied the spirit of being able to 折腾 which translates as “to toss from side to side”, or “to be weird and wonderful (crazy)”. If an individual is daring to persist, fight and dream for something they are passionate about whilst simultaneously having a positive impact on others in the position of a role model, then they have, in the eyes of the upcoming Chinese generation, achieved 折腾. Y told me, “If you purposely pursue success, then you are just like everyone else in China. Pursuing success isn’t necessarily a desired characteristic because it’s too common, 折腾 is what the Chinese youth are now striving for.”
 China Youth Initiative http://en.cydf.org.cn/
 Couchsurfing https://www.couchsurfing.com/
- Own; taken on a bridge in Guangzhou, January 2017
- Own; taken along the side of the rive in Guangzhou, January 2017