“Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded that family is the most important,” observed President Obama in a 2008 speech. “And we are called to recognise and honour how critical every father is to that foundation. They are teachers and coaches. They are mentors and role models. They are examples of success and the men who constantly push us toward it.”
Hunan Satellite TV seems to agree, having recently launched the reality programme Dad, Where Are We Going. It follows five celebrity fathers as they take their children – without mothers, gadgets and toys – to camp in the countryside.
Hunan TV bought the format from South Korea’s Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation two years ago. But the Chinese version – which shares the same title as the South Korean original – took longer than anticipated to produce. One reason is that so many celebrity fathers were reluctant to expose their children to the limelight. Others flatly turned the offer down after hearing that they would have to take care of their children for three days without assistance. In fact, the producers of the show say they only managed to convince the fathers by calling the experience a “character-building exercise” for both father and child.
Five celebrity dads – including Taiwanese heartthrob Jimmy Lin and former Olympic diving champion Tian Liang – signed on. The first stop was a little-known rural area outside of Beijing, where the contestants had to spend three days completing a series of chores. The producers say the five duos will move to different locations as the season goes on.
Since it first aired early this month, the show has been dominating the primetime ratings.
Rival satellite networks are taking heed, predictably adding family-based formats to their lineups for next year.
So why is the series proving popular? Partly, it’s because the children who participate on Dad, Where Are We Going are an absolute delight to watch – strong and resourceful but adorable too.
But perhaps the real highlight is the fathers, with critics saying the show is successful because it reveals a more sensitive and vulnerable side to the celebrity figures.
Take Tian. He may be the Olympic gold medallist but on the show he is just another father trying to survive parenthood. In the first two episodes, the former “diving prince” appears totally helpless whenever his daughter Tian Yu breaks into a crying fit (it happens fairly often). He tries to soothe her with a soft low voice. After a while he gives up, looking on dejectedly as she screams at the top of her lungs.
“Dad, Where Are We Going is different from other reality TV shows because everything is unscripted. Here, the stars are forced to interact with completely unreasonable and totally uncontrollable kids. They defy logic; they cry; they play and make mischief; and they challenge authority. All this combines to make the show so much fun to watch,” sums up the Beijing Times.
The series has also generated widespread discussion about parenting methods, with many experts saying that it offers tips for viewers on how best to communicate with their children and how to cultivate their sense of independence.
“I recommend the programme to all parents because it reveals a child’s inner world. Today, many parents are so busy at work they sometimes neglect their children. As a result, many kids grow up without the presence of their parents, and that is very detrimental to their growth. In addition, watching other fathers interact with their kids may prompt some parents to reflect on their own parenting methods,” Tan Wei, a teacher, told the Southern China Morning Post, a newspaper from Guangxi.
Viewers talking about the show on weibo say watching it has led to moments of self-reflection.
“Even though I laugh at Tian Liang’s helplessness before his daughter, I started reviewing my own parenting style and I clearly see some shortcomings as a parent,” one wrote.
Jimmy Lin says that appearing on the show made him realise that he’s been neglecting his son: “I think the reason Kimi (his four year-old son) is glued to me is because I am always away working. He is afraid that when he gets up I will have left already,” says Lin, with some remorse.
Kimi is not the only one who hardly sees his father. After Lin’s honest confession on TV, other men admitted the same feeling. Even though working-parent guilt is hardly unique to China, many rural residents are forced to leave their young sons or daughters in the care of grandparents or caretakers as they make a living in faraway cities. The number of ‘left-behind children’ has reached more than 61 million, according to government statistics.
The hukou is largely to blame for the phenomenon. This household-registration system – an issue that WiC has touched upon frequently – makes it difficult for the children of migrant workers to receive state education and medical care in cities. Newspaper stories suggest that left-behind children are more likely to suffer injuries and have a high rate of both psychological problems and juvenile delinquency. In July, two children suffocated to death after trapping themselves in a wooden box, with no adults around to supervise them.
Parents often justify their decision to separate their family on financial grounds and with a view to giving their kids a better life in the longer term. “I want to save more money to buy an apartment in the city so my girl can go to a better school,” a migrant father who works in Hangzhou told the South China Morning Post. “There’s nothing I can do. I can’t bring her back to Hangzhou – it’s too expensive. We wouldn’t save any money that way. Leaving her behind is just us thinking about our family’s future.”
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