New take on the generation gap

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 May, 2012, 12:00am


Most final-year university undergraduates across the mainland are anxiously sending out their CVs, going to job fairs and using social connections (their own or their parents') to try to find jobs when the exams are over.

Some, however, have decided to make a brief diversion from the career path and take a gap year before plunging into the real working world.

The gap year is an established tradition in Europe, but for mainland students it is not an easy choice. Spending one precious year without a steady job is far beyond the expectations of parents and teachers. A college graduate is supposed to become a white-collar worker straight away, and make money to support their family.

The popularity of the gap year on the mainland originated in 2009 when a young Guangzhou man, Sun Dongcun, wrote up his experiences in a book, The Belated Gap Year. After resigning from his job in Guangzhou, Sun travelled alone through six countries, undertaking volunteer work along the way. At the end of his journey he met a Japanese woman who became his wife.

Sun's story has since inspired many young Chinese, with the interest evident in cyber-communities. On, a popular social network devoted to films, book and music reviews, one group called The Gap Year has attracted more than 79,000 fans, while another group named Volunteering and Travelling has more than 10,000 followers.

One mainland gap-year traveller is Anita Zhou, 22. After graduating from Guangzhou's Jinan University last summer she packed her bags and headed to the Mount Kailash area in Tibet, where she signed up at a volunteer centre in Ali prefecture, helping orphans and impoverished children.

Zhou says her reasons for taking a gap year were rooted in the intensive nature of the mainland education system.

From the age of six or seven, mainland children find themselves buried under textbooks and exams. For most, the goals are to enter a good high school, then a good university, then grab a plum job - and what comes after that, they have no idea.

'What is my own value of life? I don't really want to bind it with a house or a car or something. We need to go out to live, to manage our own world,' Zhou wrote in her blog.

Almost everyone Zhou knew had taken the usual university graduate path: found a job or continued postgraduate study. When teachers, friends and even family heard that she planned to hop off the treadmill and take a year out travelling, they responded by saying she must be crazy.

'My dad's first reaction was, 'You are travelling to Southeast Asia while graduates here are struggling for jobs?'' Zhou says.

But she finally convinced her father, after handing him a detailed gap-year plan and Sun's book.

Zhou's gap-year plan was based around voluntary work: she spent time in an orphanage in Nepal, on an organic farm in Malaysia and at an autism centre in Thailand.

Although it is termed a 'gap year', for mainland students the time out between college and career is usually only several months while they reassess their future.

'The meaning of gap year lies not in how many countries you are going to travel to but the way of thinking raised during the gap break,' Zhou says.

She gives an example about respecting life, a concept, she says, taught only vaguely in school.

'When I was volunteering at the Mother Teresa centre in Calcutta, I was sent to wash bed sheets for very sick people. I didn't get it at first, thinking, 'Well, I can do that at home'. But gradually I understood that it's a show of respect to the last stage of someone's life. And when it came to the train crash in Wenzhou , where victims were buried carelessly, I learned more about the importance of respect.'

Zhou is keen to promote the idea of the gap year. She posts information on her blog, which has attracted 78,000 visits. She also shares on Weibo, the mainland's Twitter-like service, posting the videos and photos she takes during her gap breaks.

'The pool overflows when the water's full,' Zhou says, meaning that the time is ripe for the gap-year idea to take off on the mainland. 'When confusions come to a certain level, it's inevitable that some people will take their first steps and more will follow,' she says.

Li Chunyu, a career consultant with New Elite Development Plan in Beijing, says that while taking a gap year is still a very new idea in China, it gives students - who, he says, 'severely lack extracurricular experience' - a good chance to interact with the real world.

Li also suggests that clear guidance is important, as some may lose direction if they take time off. Unlike in Europe, few organisations on the mainland provide advisory services.

Cathy Zhu hopes her gap year in India will make her CV look better when applying for places at business schools in the United States. She sought help from Aiesec, an international development organisation for young people operating in more than 100 countries, including China. Working with local universities in more than 20 Chinese cities, the organisation offered more than 200 students international internship programmes last year and more than 1,700 students weeks-long community service around the world.

Zhu won one of the international internships and is now working at a software company in Delhi. For her, the gap year is more like a challenging pre-college course.

'Studying in business schools is usually stressful, and it also requires good social skills that will help me prepare for after the gap year,' she says.

As India is one of the world's emerging economic superpowers, Zhu hopes her gap year will give her a good understanding of Indian culture, society and the business environment.

Five days a week, from 9am to 6pm, Zhu's job is to negotiate with customers from China.

'Chinese companies rarely put interns into real jobs, but here bosses do not want to hire a foreigner to do nothing,' she says.

The international internship is one of the most popular programmes offered by Aiesec on the mainland, and only one in five applicants, mostly senior students and postgraduates, will be accepted.

Lorraine Lee, from Aiesec's China office, says an international internship cost students just a few thousand yuan and they can support themselves with their internship salary. 'It's much less than the full year's tuition at a foreign university and will not empty the parents' bank account,' she says.

Aiesec sees burgeoning demand in China and expects applications to double this year as the economic situation allows more families to support their children - mostly the only child in the family - to take some time off to pursue their passion.

Chen Gong, chief career consultant at Career Planning Web of China, says a modern student's life is vastly different compared with their parents' generation. Before the opening-up in the late 1970s, jobs were given to individuals under a rigid employment assignment system, no matter whether they were interested in the post or not.

'Now young people don't really have to do a job if they don't like it,' Chen says. 'They have the financial conditions to do what they like, not just for the essential three meals a day.'

Zhao Tiefu, 21, from Sichuan, agrees. For Zhao, a 10-month working holiday in New Zealand is a low-cost opportunity to explore the world and forces him into fresh and unknown territory.

As part of a free-trade agreement between China and New Zealand, a maximum of 1,000 Chinese people aged between 18 and 30 are able to apply for a New Zealand working holiday visa each year.

It has become an attractive option for young mainlanders. The number of applications to the New Zealand Immigration Office for working visas increased from 1,080 in 2008/09 to 2,376 in 2010/11.

'When I was first working in the supermarket and a customer passed by, I would pray in my heart, 'don't come in',' Zhao said, laughing. 'I kept questioning why I had come here, and it's a confidence thing because I had to push myself out of my comfort zone.'

Zhao has set his mind on eventually working for a non-profit organisation. Although he is still not sure whether the gap year will help him find a good job, 'it gets harder later in one's life to take this kind of time off to explore your interests and perspectives. And this is my chance, which I can tell you was the best decision I ever made.'


The proportion of Australians who take a year off before starting tertiary education

- A gap year is mandatory in Yemen