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A story behind a family tree

by Paul A Hodge

This article is a personal account and is limited to the perspective of the author. The information should not be generalised to reflect the diverse culture or societal values of China today. An invitation is extended to other writers and travellers who can confirm add to or substantiate the information contained in this article.

I am a foreign oral English teacher in Jiangsu Province, the People's Republic of China. The following story is my own reflection on an oral English lesson I gave to a class of twenty primary school children from grade 1 or grade 2 regarding "The Family".

On the surface the lesson plan was straightforward and comprised of asking the students to draw a large tree that had a thick trunk with its branches covered in green foliage. The objective was to have each child write the family titles (not personal names) of each member of their family. To simplify the drawing, the family tree would only branch out to include the child's mother/father, uncles/aunts, other siblings and grandparents.

I drew my family tree on the blackboard and gave a simple explanation of my family of origin. To the amazement of the class my tree was very large and cluttered with smiling stick faces representing my grandparents, my parents and my three brothers and one sister, and one uncle. I could see the expression of wonder and surprise being projected by their dark eyes. To them I was old enough to be their Grandfather and they were puzzled to see me draw such a large tree with twelve smiling faces to their seven.

The interaction with these young Grade 1 and 2 students gave me a different perspective to the meaning of China's one child policy and the style of parenting. I then ask myself what is the social structure of their families and did these young children accept as normal in their culture. My inquisitiveness uncovered the following results.

It was normal to have no brothers or sisters. In the majority of cases it was normal to have only one surviving grandmother or grandfather. Uncles and Aunts were rarely mentioned but some did have one cousin.

Here I was looking into the some of the most innocent, beautiful faces I have ever seen; listening to their tiny voices struggling with oral English, and then it hit me like a lightening bolt that all these twenty children will be without a close living family relative, that is brother, sister when their parents become elderly and face eventual death. I found it difficult to image my life without the mutual and collective support of my brothers and sister throughout my lifespan.

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