Family fortunes

Hottest drama of the moment explores parenting do’s and don’ts

Tong Hao-w

Tao Hong plays a tiger mum extraordinaire in A Little Reunion

‘Parental involvement’ has long been a subject of interest for researchers. Diana Baumrind, a clinical and developmental psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that the best parent is one who is involved and responsive, setting high expectations but respecting their child’s autonomy. These “authoritative parents” generally raise children who do better academically, psychologically and socially than children whose parents are either too permissive or too controlling, she says.

Parenting styles are an especially hot topic in China, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the latest TV hits talks about how parental involvement can go too far.

A Little Reunion, which takes place in Beijing, tells the story of three families grappling with teenagers in their final year at high school. That means that they are about to take the gaokao (national college entrance exam).

Since its debut on Zhejiang Satellite TV and Dragon Satellite TV in late July, the series has been one of the highest trending topics on weibo with audiences saying they have learned a lot about parenting by watching it.

The central pair of parents, Tong Wenjie (played by actress Hai Qing) and Fang Yuan (Huang Lei), highlight the dynamic of a stay-at-home father and career-focused mother. Tong wants her child to work hard so he can get into a decent university. Her son, on the other hand, has something different in mind. The artistically inclined teenager, whose grades are consistently the lowest in class, has no interest in going to college. Instead, he tells his parents he wants to go to art school, which quickly leads to strong objections from his mother. Caught in the middle, Fang finds himself playing the mediator between mother and son.

Meanwhile, Song Qian (Tao Hong) is a hyper-involved single mother who hovers anxiously around her teenage daughter at all times. She also has high expectations for her child: in one episode, Yingzi tells her mother that she ranked second in an exam. Song thunders, “What’s there to be happy about? You only came in second.” To make sure Yingzi focuses on her studies, she forbids even her ex-husband from visiting and cancels all the girl’s extra-curricular activities.

The moral of this case? Mother doesn’t know best. The high-octane parenting drives mother and daughter apart. Wanting a freer existence, Yingzi insists on applying to Nanjing University, to be as far away from her mother as possible.

“Do you know that everyday I feel like I’m living in prison?” she screams at one point.

Finding the storyline had struck a chord, one viewer wrote: “I see so much of my own mother in Song Qian. I know how much she loves her daughter and yet she doesn’t realise that she can’t live her life for her. There’s nothing more tragic than loving each other so much and yet also hurting each other.”

And then there is the pair Ji Shengli (Wang Yanhui) and Liu Jing (Yong Mei). Ji is an upright and hardworking government official but because of his job, which required that he live outside of Beijing for many years, the couple have never developed much of a relationship with their son.

It wasn’t until he is about to go to college that they suddenly reappear in his life. The teenager struggles to open up to his parents and only seems interested in car racing.

In a country where a lot of parents are migrant workers, the disconnect between Ji and his son has also struck a chord with viewers. “The messed up relationship between the father and son is something that is very common,” one father wrote. “I, too, have had to travel a lot for work and spend little time at home. But now my son is already 12 and I don’t even know where to begin to have a conversation.”

A Little Reunion also offers a few tips on how to be a better parent. For instance, when Tong finds out that her son’s score in a mid-term exam was the lowest in the district – although still a significant improvement from previous performance – she wants to sign him up for classes at six separate tutorial schools.

Her husband then uses a poem from the Song Dynasty to remind her not to compare their boy with other children: “ ‘A mountain, when viewed from the front, looks like a range; but it is a peak when you look at it from the side. The mountain shows its different features in different levels near and far.’ The gaokao – and his future workplace – will always see him compared to other people. But one day, when you look back upon your life, will you compare your accomplishments; failures and defeats; happiness and joy; pain and sadness with others? They wouldn’t matter because that’s not your life.”

“This drama combines all that is sweet and bitter when it comes to Chinese-style childrearing. I hope that children will learn a little bit more about their parents too; and that all the parents will understand their children a little better,” another netizen opined.

A Little Reunion focuses on the little things to reflect social issues. It doesn’t exaggerate the stress that all high school students experience, but instead, it focuses on the interaction between parent and child, from their confrontations to their reconciliations; from the fighting to understanding. It asks the question, what is the meaning of life? Is going to a top university the only way to a good life?” applauded Southern Metropolis Daily.

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