Most 17-year-olds across the world have to start weighing their options when the high school graduation caps and gowns come into sight. Putting the mind (what would be the reasonable major to choose) versus the heart (what do I want to do) is never an easy thing, yet most parents will support whatever decision their offspring makes. For those who dream of becoming fashion designers, it usually goes that they’ve displayed a particular flair for the arts since they were toddlers. This is no different from what goes on in Chinese households. However, when D-day arrives, the decision-making process here can take a slightly different turn. This week I give you the accounts of two twenty-something Architecture graduates, whose dream it once was to be the next Elizabeth Taylor in fashion. They asked me to only use their English names. “Just in case”, they said.
Before choosing an academic path in life, all Chinese high school students are required to take the national university entrance exams. The scores they obtain from these, and yes they spend many sleepless nights over this; often determine the course their adult lives will take. Get top scores and get into a prestigious establishment, like Tsinghua University or Beijing University. Get low scores and, well, you get the picture… Fashion design schools, or any faintly artistic majors at lesser known institutes, are without exception considered to be on the lower side of the spectrum. Many design students attend their fashionable schools seeing that it is their last resort to get a degree of any kind and since they’re often no too motivated (let alone driven or passionate), unless you put a glitter stud gun to their heads, the next Jean-Paul they shall not be.
Take Emma. Emma is one of those women you hate to love (xianmujiduhen): tall, fashionable down to her artistically pedicured little toe and, ah oui, intelligent. Ever since she was little, she adorned her Barbies with clothes made from kitchen towels to knee-high socks. She aspired to become a fashion designer… until she got top level scores on her entrance exams. Her parents were, like many other Chinese fumu, convinced that having their daughter attend design school would bring shame onto the family name as their surroundings might simply assume Emma was not the sharpest pair of cloth scissors in the shed and could not make the elite cut. After going head to head with them, she was left with two options: enroll in the art department of a top school (which her family could tolerate) or study architecture. The latter became her outfit of choice. And I use the term ‘choice’ quite loosely. But the fire is still warm and she’s considering participating in the Chinese version of Project Runway somewhere in the near future!
Olivia is another example of one of those creatively gifted specimens who got bitten by the fashion silkworm. Though she did not want to get into her own story, which “is similar to Emma’s”, instead she disclosed the experience of a friend of hers. She described the story of a teenage boy, who might not have been a straight A student in high school, but definitely showed creative finesse. After his parents divorced, things went from slight fashion faux pas to fashion disaster and he ended up not attending the entrance exams, which limits your future in this country by a long hemline so to speak. After attending several courses, he became a make-up artist in Beijing, who moves from one part-time job to the next. “That’s”, Olivia stated, “how most of these artists pay the rent: part-time jobs.” If they’re lucky however, they become the fulltime make-up artist or stylist for a Chinese celebrity OR get hired by an established professional organization (think CCTV). Yet in most cases, even or those who graduated from a design school, they face an unstable future with limited job prospects and unsteady incomes.
The number of fashion design graduates who do succeed in living their dreams is low. But I dare to presume that’s often the case with these types of profession. As for the Chinese parents’ viewpoints, except for the shame aspect (but that’s me being from live and let live Western Europe) there are things to be said in their defense. The (in)famous one-child-policy, installed in 1982, is now caching up with the population, in the sense that young adults in their 20s and 30s are facing the huge burden that is to single-handedly (and financially I might add) take care of their parents as they grow older. This concept of ‘child piety’ (xiao) is imbedded in Chinese culture and in the ever-globalizing and horizon-broadening environment is proving to cause man young adults to suffer from huge pressures and internal struggles: Victorian corset versus Victoria’s Secret to put it in fashion jargon or cultural roots versus modernization in layman English. If young adults do not get into a good school, chances of them finding a solid, well-paid job are slimmer. How to then afford a home, which also needs to house the husband’s parents, plus provide bread and butter for the entire family, becomes a huge obstacle.
Food for thought.
I would like to thank Emma and Olivia for sharing their personal and related stories with me. I wish you both all the best and I’m sure one day you WILL see your own dreams come true!