Why do you choose to live in a big city, hundreds or thousands of miles away from your parents? What are you looking for?
If you are a 20 or 30-something Chinese and single, working away from your hometown and living alone in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen or Guangzhou, you belong to what China calls “empty-nest youths.” 空巢青年 kōng cháo qīngnián.
Currently, more than 20 million empty-nesters are willing to tough it out in metropolises even if they have to devote a huge chunk of their monthly salary to housing, food, and transportation. They are attracted to exposure and opportunities in big cities that they can’t find back home. But the trade off is steep.
A government report describes these empty-nesters as more prone to loneliness than their peers who never left their family. They tend to confine themselves to their empty apartment at the end of a long day’s work and commute, eat alone, and connect with others via social network chat rooms. Besides a lack of belonging, they are also described as very likely to experience greater life pressure from financial burden. They lack savings and accumulate credit cards debt from reckless spending on digital products, high-quality food, and designer brand clothing.
Sounds familiar? I can relate.
It reminds me of my 20 year-old-self, up to a point.
In the first four years after I graduated from college, I chose to live and work in New York. I felt extremely lucky to have landed a job in a local TV newsroom on a foreign student (practical training) visa. I spent half of my paycheck every month on rent. I shared a 2-bedroom apartment with strangers and kept moving every year as the rent kept rising. To make ends meet, I also took on a second job as a reporter for a Chinatown-based TV station, filing bloody gang-related crime stories to Hong Kong via lives satellite almost weekly. I clocked in 18 hours a day for work and often found myself eating ramen noodles in my “empty nest” apartment. I used my credit card to finance some of my girly purchases (mostly makeup stuff) and designer bags to look grown up and professional. It took me a few years to learn fiscal discipline and balance my checkbook. What turned me around? I didn’t want to dig a deeper and deeper debt hole for myself. I did not want to disappoint my parents in Hong Kong who trusted me enough to let me pursue my dream in American media. I wanted them to know that I could take care of myself, even though it might take some time for me to grow out of vanity dining and clothing, I would eventually become a responsible adult.
While I did feel quite alone in my workplace, as there weren’t many Asians, let alone Chinese in American media back then, I always felt full at the end of a long day when I returned to my “empty nest.” That sense of fullness came from the passion I had for my profession as a journalist, and also from a deep awareness that I was given a unique opportunity to learn not just about my job, but about life. My head was always filled with questions and curiosity about the day as I had lived it. I craved “me time” to process or play back the day’s activities to figure myself out, asking questions like – how did I do today? Did I screw up? How can I improve? What have I learned? Who are my friends? Who aren’t my friends? How can I make more friends?
“Me” time was possible because I was thousands of miles away from home. I faced no one from my past but myself. I could clear out demands or expectations about how I ought to spend my time, money or energy. That was exactly the kind of environment necessary for me to discover what mattered to me and how to allocate my scarce resources – time, money and energy.
The biggest challenge for most empty-nesters today that I never had – is social media, a smartphone or a laptop. I did not have to contend with a universe of Facebook “friends”, “Wechat” bubbles, or text messages. Yes, they are tools that can connect you to your friends or community. We start using them mindfully but soon they start taking over our minds. We become mindlessly drawn to our devices, forgetting that we have friends or can make friends. We have a choice to reach out and join a group of like-minded folks who share our aspirations or interests.
Remember that we have a choice.
We can see our “empty nest” as a safe space to recharge, reflect and re-evaluate our priorities. Our values will evolve and shift as we grow up on our own. Our life circumstances will change. We will change.
The “Empty-nest” as a metaphor for “me time” has been critical over time in helping me stay grounded and connected to my core values before I can see more clearly how other relationships – with career, money, health, family or friends – matter more or less.