Looking after the old man

Hunan TV’s latest hit reality show gives an old format a new twist


Rural retreat: Su Jianxin and daughter Su Jie appear in the show

Caring for an aging parent can be stressful. But for some adult children travelling with parents can be even worse, with help required for everything from moving through airport security to navigating hotel lobbies and finding favourite food.

A new reality TV series in China is giving a taste of what travelling with older loved ones feels like.

When I Grow Up follows a similar format to the earlier hit Dad, Where Are We Going? (see WiC213) – a show that had to be pulled off the air because of a government ban. It filmed celebrity dads with their young kids and was incredibly popular but irked officialdom – children of stars should not be used in shows warned Xinhua as they “fall prey to instant fame”. Hunan Satellite TV, which made Dad, Where Are We Going?, devised the new show to keep the flavour of the original but with a tweak that gets round the ban on using celebs ‘young’ children.

This time round it follows five fathers who take their older offspring to rural Sichuan where they fend for themselves (basically, doing their own laundry as well as cooking their own food).

For some, this is a major struggle. One of the fathers is Xu Jinjiang, 58, an actor from Hong Kong. “If I didn’t come on the show, I wouldn’t have realised how useless I am; how incompetent,” he confides at one point. “If it wasn’t for the other dads here, I wouldn’t be able to survive. I don’t know anything. I am so weak. I don’t even know how to live.”

Xu admits that he is emotionally dependent on his 19 year-old son too. After he fails to light a fire (producers gave each family a lighter to make things easier), his son Xu Fei has to comfort him. “It’s ok, I’m here,” he tells his father.

When Xu complains about backache at the end of a long day, his son even offers to give him a massage.

Some netizens talked about the elder Xu’s behaviour as “endearing” and “honest” while others complained that he is “overly needy” and “the biggest cry baby” in the series.

Xu Fei then took to weibo to defend his dad, saying that the higher altitudes in Sichuan made it difficult for him to breathe and that the ceiling of their cabin was too low, contributing to his backache.

“Travelling with my dad really doubled the pain for me,” Xu Fei admitted. “But I can’t imagine what would happen if he had to travel on his own without my mother and I. So I am happy that I went.”

As ever, producers are on the hunt for tender moments between the fathers and their offspring. Li Wenhan, who earned fame from the iQiyi show Idol Producer, admits to camera that prior to the reality series, he had spent little time with his father. The 25 year-old pop idol was recruited at 15 to undergo a rigorous programme of training in singing and dancing in South Korea. He says the filming in Sichuan was the first time the two had ever actually travelled together.

In one episode Li’s father asks how he would describe their relationship. The son ponders for a moment, and then replies: “Familiar yet foreign”.

Later, his father weeps during an interview, saying if he could choose again he wouldn’t have let his son leave home at such a young age.

It wasn’t just Li who felt he didn’t have much of a relationship with his father – the daughter of singer Su Jianxin is another to admit that she barely knows her dad.

In fact, she confides to camera that she follows her father’s weibo to find out his whereabouts. That creates a certain distance – in one scene he offers to clean her muddied shoes, but she rejects the offer and goes on to deal with them herself, while Su looks on from afar.

“Obviously, Su knows that his absence is the reason for the barrier between him and his daughter today. Therefore, he is now working harder than anybody to make up for the lost time. For the father and daughter, a relationship is better late than never. It is definitely worth cherishing,” Cosmo China wrote.

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