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January 27, 2011

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Family phobia

ELLA Hu, a 24-year-old hairdresser, is determined not to go home to Nanping City in Fujian Province for the Chinese Lunar New Year. Last year's "holiday" was shocking and unpleasant and she fears it will happen again.

There's no place like home for the holidays, or so they say, but for Hu and who-knows-how-many Chinese, home is the last place they want to be during the Spring Festival season.

Those who travel home must take money and gifts, and it can be expensive. Some people can't afford transport at all. There's a lot of pressure on single people. "When are you getting married? All your cousins are married. Don't disappoint us next year. We have lined up blind dates while you're here."

Hu's case is illuminating, a window onto what can go on during these precious family moments.

She had been working hard and was promoted before returning home last January. She first took a fast train for more than six hours to Fuzhou City, planning to rest overnight at her auntie's home before continuing her journey by long-distance bus.

Instead of delicious food and a warm quilt, she was greeted at the door by eight women holding hair products. They were her auntie's relatives and friends and all expected her to cut, dye, highlight or perm their hair that night.

"So after working hard for a whole year and arriving at 4pm, I had to work until 6am the next morning for free. Then I took a long-distance bus home to find even more relatives waiting in line for a free hairdresser. What's worse, I didn't have an assistant - I had to do everything all myself! I felt exhausted and used."

So this year Hu didn't join the home-bound exodus of millions of people. Some line up for days at train stations to buy tickets, stand for more than 10 hours on long-distance buses, or even ride motorbikes for weeks to be home for the holidays.

She and others are considered family-phobics, holiday-phobics, who are determined to stay put. They are the kong gui zu, literally, the "return-frightened clan," and what scares them most is the biggest festival of the year.

A recent online survey shows that among those who identify themselves as phobes, 80 percent are unmarried, 90 percent have a monthly salary below 4,000 yuan (US$608) and 44 percent cite "unaffordable expenses" (required gifts and money) of the trip. Numbers were not provided but the survey bears out what most people know: Money is a big problem, and so is pressure of all kinds.

"The more a Chinese wants to go back home, the more he/she is afraid to do so," says Professor Gu Xiaoming, a sociologist at Fudan University. "This paradoxical attitude is especially clear among young people and white collars, because their high education background makes them more sensitive to the differences between big cities and their relatively remote hometowns." In short, they feel awkward and uncomfortable.

The Chinese expression yi jin huan xiang (going home in fine clothes) suggests the tradition in which one returns home wearing luxurious clothes after he (or she) has become successful. Some say it suggests that one should only return with attainments.

Yet, rising costs and competition in big cities have made it increasingly difficult for out-of-town young people to succeed and then proudly go back home on the holiday.

Hence, many decide not to return to "save face."

'How dare I use my parents' money when I'm 26?'

Luo Ying, 26, arrived in Shanghai five years ago from a small village near Wuhan, Hubei Province. She works at a customer service center and her salary has increased from 1,500 yuan to 2,800 yuan (before taxes). That barely covers monthly expenses - 1,200 yuan for house rent, 200 yuan for transport, 500 yuan for food, among others.

"Despite all the difficulties, I was the one who insisted on coming to Shanghai, the financial center, for better opportunities and a more promising future," Luo says.

Before sending her off five years ago, Luo's parents gave her 50,000 yuan, more than half their life savings. That enabled her to survive for two years on a meager salary, sharing a two-bedroom apartment with five other people.

Because of her parents' money, she was able to return home for Spring Festival in her first two years in Shanghai.

"But I felt really sad while buying stuff for my parents before returning home, because I was using their own savings to buy them gifts," says Luo.

"And I felt even worse when I got home and saw my cousins who lived near home, making about the same amount as I did but living much more comfortably."

She hasn't been back for three years and doesn't plan to return this year, because "I simply can't afford it."

It would probably cost 5,000-6,000 yuan altogether if she went home, about three months of salary "and that's simply impossible," Luo says.

Her parents kept asking her to come home for a visit and promised to pay her way. "But I can't force myself to do it. How can I dare spend their money when I'm already 26 years old?"

Another reason to stay away is to avoid the pressure to get married that always arises during home visits. As in many places, the tradition in Luo's hometown is for the son to leave and make his fortune, while the daughter usually marries someone close home and takes care of her parents.

Now that she's 26, Luo is expected to fulfill her responsibility as a daughter to marry; and at 26, she is considered old for a woman from the village.

"They sent me pictures of many young guys from our town and asked me to meet them when I go back," Luo says.

"So I'm not going back."

'I won't be shown off as a successful product'

Unlike Luo, 32-year-old financial consultant Jack Ma isn't too worried about money; his pretax salary is around 20,000 yuan.

"Basically, I hate the whole process of my parents showing off how successful and great I am - the biggest achievement of their lives. And I don't like visiting everyone in the hometown just to hear the same compliments," Ma says.

"Because deep inside I know it's not true. To my hometown friends and relatives, I'm making a high salary, but in Shanghai, I'm still a struggling white collar."

Ma was the only one in his remote village in Anhui Province to be admitted to prestigious Shanghai Jiao Tong University 14 years ago. He worked diligently to stay in this city, which he called "a big dream for a villager from a peasant's family like me."

Without going home for the entire four-year stretch, he did it - landing a highly competitive position in a state-owned bank shortly before graduation.

"It was mazing when I went back for the Chinese Lunar New Year for the first time after graduation. The villagers all called me a genius, 'a phoenix out of a chicken's nest,' a model for their children," Luo recalls.

They asked him to check over their children's homework, to find jobs for them, to bring them fashionable products from Shanghai and to give them free room and board when they visited the city.

It went on and on, and Ma got scared.

"I'm tired of being called a model, especially when I'm struggling so hard in the city," he says.

For the past five years, he has invited his parents and grandparents to visit him in the city for the holiday. He pays, and it's a small price to avoid all the requests and pressure that comes from togetherness.


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