The expat grandparents

An ever-changing, multi-generational Chinese community has sprung up at the north end of campus.

Cathy Shufro is a writing tutor at Yale.

At the crest of a small hill above Prospect Street, not far from the Divinity School, nine Chinese men and women in their 50s, 60s, and 70s are standing in a ragged line. They shake their hands loosely from their wrists, rise to their toes and drop back down several times, then massage their faces, all in unison. They’re performing 60 movements designed to stimulate important acupuncture points; the instructions are issuing in Chinese from a pocket-sized CD player tied to a tree branch. When a small boy parked in a nearby stroller begins to squirm, one of the women picks him up and resumes the routine with the child tucked in one arm. An elderly Chinese man wanders up and sits in the vacant stroller. Soon, tinny music from the CD player signals the end of the acupuncture sequence, and a lean man with close-cropped white hair steps forward and silently begins leading the group in t’ai chi.

I had often encountered Chinese grandparents on Prospect Street before—the visiting parents of Chinese graduate and professional students and postdocs at Yale. Usually, they were pushing strollers. They’d return my smile and stop to let me admire their grandchild, perhaps folding back the stroller shade to give me a better view. But as soon as I spoke, even to say hello, the grandparent steering the stroller would wave a hand across his or her face as if whisking away a fly. The message was always clear: no English spoken here.

Today I’ve come with an interpreter—Christina Liu, a gregarious 37-year-old Chinese-language teacher married to a research scientist. She’s agreed to help me talk to the grandparents and find out about their lives, and she’d heard through the grapevine that they’ve been practicing t’ai chi here in this hilltop park for 12 years. (The park is Yale’s Farnam Memorial Gardens, but the grandparents call it San Ke Shu, “Three Trees,” after three massive weeping European beeches.) As we stand on the sidelines, the t’ai chi leader notices us and gestures to me to join in. I try to follow, but find myself leaning too far forward, then too far back. “It’s good for your chi,” Christina tells me.

Near the t’ai chi group, 15 older men and women are chatting under another large tree, three of them guarding strollers occupied by napping toddlers. Meihua Jia, 63, who has no stroller, arrived a few weeks earlier with her husband from the eastern coastal province of Jiangsu. They’re awaiting the birth of their first grandchild; their daughter, a postdoc, is due shortly. When I ask Jia if she finds anything in New Haven remarkable, she points to the sky. Christina interprets: “Clean, fresh air.” I’ll ask every grandparent I meet, and every one will give the same answer. Some will add, as Jia does, “And not too many people.”

“When we were young, the air was good,” says her husband, 58-year-old Guangwei Pan, “but in recent years the pollution has been getting serious.” He’s a postal service supervisor on phased retirement; she’s a retired electronics factory manager, stylish in a tiered rayon dress and wide-brim hat. Like nearly everyone I meet, they’ve come on tourist visas for a six-month stay.

In all the time that these 15 people have been living in New Haven, only one—a retired high school English teacher named Youju Yang, who calls Beijing “Peking”—has spoken to an American before. The others say English is too hard to learn, and, in any case, caring for grandchildren leaves no time for studying. Still, everyone in the group agrees that Americans are reliably friendly. Yang says, with delight, “If you are walking beside someone, they say, ‘Hello, good morning!’” In China, says Pan, “there are too many people to greet.”

The grandparents have criticisms, too. “Why are lights on in closed stores?” a woman asks. Later I’ll hear similar complaints. One otherwise cheerful woman will tell me, angrily, “You Americans have everything you need for life. But you also waste energy. You really can turn off the air conditioner. Why do you keep it on all the time?” Another woman complains, “In the evening, we can’t go out.” Christina translates: “In China it’s not even imaginable that private people have guns.”

Of all the international graduate students, professional students, and postdoctoral trainees and fellows at Yale, about a quarter are Chinese. They outnumber those from any other single country. (In the United States as a whole, Chinese students constitute nearly a third of international graduate students.) In the past decade, the proportion of all Yale students from abroad increased by about 5 percent—but the number of Chinese students jumped by 60 percent. The number of Chinese postdocs nearly doubled.

There are 516 Chinese graduate and professional students at Yale this year; the next-largest group, Canadians, numbers 196. The 680 Chinese postdocs last year were more than three times as many as the second-largest group, the 200 who came from India. (Numbers for this year’s international postdocs are not yet calculated, but will be similar, according to Yale’s Office of International Students and Scholars.) In all, there are 6,859 graduate and professional students at Yale this year.

So many Chinese students and postdocs come to Yale that their visiting parents have been able to build a miniature society at the north end of campus: an ever-shifting community of men and women from all over China. For all that their children have in common—remarkable academic success, two-career marriages, long hours at work—these grandparents are very different from one another: highly placed government employees and subsistence farmers, Beijing sophisticates and unschooled villagers.

The grandparents use Three Trees as an open-air community center. Because they don’t speak English, they rely on instructions from those who arrived earlier or have made multiple visits. They find out where to take grandchildren for story hours or dance lessons; how to find a piano teacher; where to book a bus tour of the Grand Canyon. “We feel emotionally supported by each other,” says Tongmei Zheng, 62, from China’s east-central Hubei Province. “In foreign countries you can feel closer to people from your own country.”

Some of these families have made tremendous educational leaps in a single generation. One young woman tells me about her husband, a researcher at the Yale Stem Cell Center whose father makes his living in Hubei Province selling pork at a local market. When her husband was in school, “you would see two pairs of shoes in front of the blackboard. One pair was leather, one was fabric. If you wanted to choose the leather shoes, you needed to study hard. If you wanted to go to the big city, you needed to study very hard. If you wanted to go outside China to the US, where people say education is better than in China, you needed to study even harder. It’s up to you.”

One sure place to meet Chinese grandparents is at Prospect Gardens, a Yale townhouse complex at 470 Prospect Street. Nearly all the 81 apartments house Chinese postdocs or graduate students. When they leave New Haven, they pass along their apartments to incoming Chinese colleagues and classmates. The two-bedroom townhouses rent for about $1,200 per month.

One Sunday morning at Prospect Gardens, a girl of seven or eight is batting a birdie by herself, twin boys are supervising their father as he chalks sharks on the sidewalk, and two-year-old Aiden is darting to and fro with a baby blanket tied around his neck, superhero style. His 68-year-old grandmother, Juyuan Wang, is watching him. Back home in China’s Sichuan Province, she and her husband grow grains and vegetables; she attended school for six years, her husband for nine. Their son, Xiuyang Guo, who is also outside with the children this morning, is an immunologist and molecular biologist.

Guo peels open an ice pop for his older child, seven-year-old Hannah, and explains that grandparents’ caring for grandchildren is both customary and mutually beneficial. “Grandparents feel they have a responsibility to help out with grandchildren. Also, especially in the countryside, we don’t have enough of a social security system. So when parents get old, they can depend on their children for their later ages. Also, at that time, in their 60s and 70s, they’re not able to work in the fields anymore. They can do something else in that period of time. They’re happy to do so.”

Aiden’s grandparents seem amused rather than burdened by their grandson’s high energy. “He’s smart,” says the grandfather. “He’s only two!” adds the grandmother.

People who have never noticed the Chinese grandparents tell me they have seen the vegetable garden the grandparents maintain in a vacant lot across the street from Prospect Gardens. The garden stands out partly because it’s in the middle of the city, partly because trellises crafted from gnarled tree branches give it the look of a small enchanted forest.

One evening, Christina and I meet a woman named Ting Tan, who is weeding one of her two small plots. Although Tan has spent most of her life in a big city in northeastern China—Shenyang, population eight million—she knows a lot about growing vegetables. She learned gardening under duress, during the decade-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, when many city dwellers of her generation were forcibly moved to rural villages to cleanse themselves of bourgeois notions; she was sent to the countryside at 18 and spent three grueling years as a farmworker. But the painful associations haven’t diminished her enjoyment of gardening. She bought seeds at New Haven’s Hong Kong Market, her neighbor gave her others, and tonight, in the waning sunlight, she’s harvesting some greens I’ve never seen. Christina tells me they’re used to wrap barbecued meat. Tan hands Christina and me peppers, an eggplant each, and thick sheaves of greens to take home.

Tan spends a lot of time in New Haven. Retired from a high-level accounting job, she arrived in late spring for her third six-month visit, scheduled to coincide with the birth of her second grandchild. He’s now 50 days old, she says.

When we leave the garden for the apartment complex, we run into Tan’s daughter and son-in-law with their infant son. The daughter, Xiaoxue Zhao ’08, ’14PhD, says that their parents have made her and her husband’s careers possible. “When I had my first child, I was one year away from the job market, so having the grandparents here was very helpful.” She went to 19 job interviews. Lately, the couple’s two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Jianzhen, has been living with her paternal grandparents in Beijing. “It’s pretty miserable,” says the husband, Taisu Zhang ’05, ’08JD, ’14PhD. “You miss her a lot.”

The separation is almost over. Christina and I have run into the family on the eve of a momentous day: in the morning, they will all move to North Carolina. Zhao will begin a postdoc in economics at Duke University, and Zhang will teach at Duke’s law school. In a few days, Zhang’s parents will bring Jianzhen home from China to join her parents in a new house with a big yard.

Zhang doubts they will become “sea turtles”—that is, return to China to live. “Once you have a child, it’s hard to go back there,” he says. “China has a pretty brutal education system. You don’t want your kids to go through the same process.” Students there are exposed to high-stakes competition, he explains; for instance, schools publish rankings of all students in a class every month or so. And, he adds, the family is unlikely to go back to his home city of Beijing, where food and real estate are expensive and the air is polluted. “Beijing has become pretty unlivable.”

One evening I go to a picnic with Jun Wang, a 30-year-old postdoctoral researcher in cancer immunology. We join 50 or 60 people, seemingly from every part of the world, in a courtyard at Ivy Manor, an apartment complex a block beyond Prospect Gardens. We’re guests of a colleague of Jun’s and the colleague’s wife, who is finishing a doctorate at another university. (Christina has told me that since the advent of communism, women rarely stay home with children full-time, because a woman who doesn’t contribute financially loses power in the family.)

The wife’s parents are visiting to take care of the couple’s 11-month-old daughter. Back home, the grandparents farm in their village of about 800 people in Shandong Province, across the Yellow Sea from the Korean Peninsula.

The conversation goes well at first. The grandmother brings me a plate of food—Vietnamese, Chinese, Polish—and her daughter interprets. The grandmother says, as usual, that she appreciates the clean air here. Her daughter mentions that the Five Dragons River in their hometown is polluted. “It was polluted by foreigners, and some of them are Americans,” adds the grandmother. Her daughter says Nike sneakers are made in their village. “Shoe factories are the most polluting in China,” she says. “Many people talk about this, but nobody cares about it. It’s a period of economic growth. The United States also had this period—not so much now, because the United States puts most manufacturing overseas.”

Then the grandmother says something in Chinese to her daughter and abruptly walks off. The daughter tells me the interview is over. Her mother is afraid that she’s said too much.

Later, Jun tells me: “In her generation, order is very important, especially in the countryside. In their experience you have to follow orders, because of the Cultural Revolution. People can go to prison for saying things. They experienced more than you think, even more than what I think.”

When I ask young Chinese couples at Prospect Gardens whether they miss their privacy—many have four adults and one or two children squeezed into two bedrooms—they say no. “If you totally consider [the grandparents] as family,” says one, “then you don’t have privacy issues.” Another thinks he and his wife feel fewer qualms than Americans would. “We were always more used to our parents barging into our lives,” he explains, adding, “Everyone has slightly crazy parents in some ways.”

Jun isn’t married, but he has closely observed the lives of his married friends and has seen some tensions arise when two families merge. That blending is easier for the younger generation. They may come from very different socioeconomic backgrounds and regions, but their intellectual sophistication and shared experiences minimize the cultural differences. But when grandparents arrive, those differences—between two sets of parents or between parents and adult children—can cause friction. Children may not like their in-laws’ cooking. “It’s too spicy or it’s too bland,” says Jun. Some grandparents are distressed to see their grandchildren eating Costco baby food instead of homemade balls of crusty rice. One member of a couple may feel uneasy when in-laws bring an infant into their bed. Jun sympathizes with the grandparents: “The grandparents don’t have much chance to see their grandchild. They would like to stay close to the little child.” But he knows of one couple who argued bitterly over where their baby slept. And the grandparents themselves must make huge adjustments. Back home, “they have lots of friends,” says Jun. “They are leaders.” Here they spend their days chopping vegetables, vacuuming, changing diapers.

Usually, though, says Jun, the arrangement works well. It gives young couples the time and freedom to build their careers. And it provides something more. Because of China’s one-child policy, the young generation mostly lacks brothers and sisters. As long as the grandparents are living with and caring for their grandchildren—or even just looking forward to the next visit—the adult children know that their aging parents are not lonely.

“That’s something we could not bear,” Jun says.

The comment period has expired.