Zhang Neixian,slacker made-good.
We’ve told you how hard it is in China to get into college, let alone get a good job afterwards. Millions of youngsters each year fall through the cracks, scrabbling for purchase further down the cliff. Then there are the one-percenters, the kids who don’t see any point in climbing. They want freedom more than stability, and they have a voice in Zhang Neixian, whose documentary “No Country for Young Man” proves that slackers are as endemic to China as nouveaux riche.
Then again, slackers don’t starve, while many of Zhang Neixian’s subjects go hungry as a result of their choices. Unless they’ve made generations of wealth, Chinese parents don’t give their dropout kids the run of the basement; they run them out of the house. Also, Zhang’s rebel youth live in big cities, far from the families who might let you leave the hive, but never the hive mentality.
“No Country for Young Man” lets us into the life of a youth who quit his law major, and college, when he concluded “Studying law here is like studying economics in Zimbabwe.” He admits to having had “traitorous thoughts” towards his teachers even while in primary school – a brainy miracle that he made it to higher education. After dropping out, he talked his old man into a 4000 RMB loan, and swore he’d never ask him for a thing again. Now he lives on the outskirts of Beijing, counting his pennies and wondering what his next move is.
Although it shouldn’t, it may surprise that disillusionment – with the school system, the rat race, all the second-hand ambitions – plagues China’s youth as sorely as the West’s. Zhang shows us a young man who ground extra hard, got into college early, and now doesn’t see the point of it all. Asked what his ideal in life is, he responds, “My ideal is to have an ideal.” He attends the hallowed Beijing University, his future, at least a future free from penury, is all but assured, but he couldn’t care less.
He regrets that his whole life thus far has been a big cram session. Now, with an ironically lighter study load, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. “If I’m happy, I go to class. If not, I loiter, watch TV all day.” The young man confesses lacking any meaningful sense of self. “The emptiness feels like there is no goal to achieve in life,” he says quietly. His happiest times? Playing video games with classmates. Although pointless, at least “A group of people struggled for the same ideal, even if in a virtual world.” Would little league help future slackers? Maybe, but this young man has another reason for playing video games so often: “The main reason is to fulfill the emptiness of my heart.”
An empty heart wrings few tears from the leathery, Mao-cap-wearing elders who went years with empty bellies. But Zhang’s subjects populate the infamous post-80s generation, children raised in a China chasing the modern consumer dream as sweatily as it had socialist paradise. The fact that there’s even spare room and time for these youngsters to sit and mope is a sign of economic progress, and the hopefully cathartic malaise which always seems to follow.
It’s no country for young woman, either. One disaffected, unemployed female tries to plumb the abyss long separating her from her peers: students grinding away, kids passionately into singing or skateboarding, or at least actively pursuing boyfriends and marriage. She isn’t having any of it. The stigma of being a bad student has drawn a shade over any light that had been seeping into her life.
“I found it hard to even get low scores instead of zeroes,” she remembers. Her sense of shame is still fresh, leaving her sluggish during the days and staring at insomnia through the night.
It’s only fair to say that most of these young men and women are not slacking by choice. If they haven’t found themselves yet, they’re more than willing to find work, if only the economy had a place for them. Thus, a “job-waiting boy”, one of a sea of under-utilized Chinese youth , speculates about opening a shop. He needs seed money, but his father won’t hear of helping him, “Maybe because I have a tattoo, and I don’t have a diploma.”
“I’m quite confused. I don’t like myself now.” Because he has no money? “With or without money, doesn’t matter.” A moment later: “If you have a lot of money you will feel satisfied.”He is superficially composed, yet his verbal flip-floppery betrays a breastful of emotional turmoil. “Yeah, I never feel lost. I’m very optimistic. Nothing will bug me. Happiness, this is the punk spirit.” Someone should have told Sid Vicious.
Zhang introduces us to Sean, a self-described “street basketball player”. Another youth who couldn’t be squeezed into the Chinese student mold, he found himself skateboarding more than studying in middle school, hanging around with older dropouts, and essentially disowned by his family. “Often I didn’t eat for three or four days,” he says of the intervening years, which he spent primarily dancing in clubs before discovering basketball. “I know I’m not clever. But just because you’re not clever doesn’t mean you’re no good,” he affirms, as though he needs convincing. “I was a bad boy in school, and a bad boy in society. But after I find basketball, I feel I’m not a bad guy. I like this. From it I know who I am.” He might not be going anywhere, but he has arrived at some early, if hard won, wisdom.
Zhang Neixian’s No Country for Young Man, now with English subtitles.