Pensioners and Preschoolers Mix it Up in Chinese Nursery


GUIZHOU, Southwest China — It’s late afternoon, and, indifferent to the slight drizzle, children are chasing each other around the playground. A few floors above, a group of retirees is sitting on chairs or leaning against the railing, looking down. “It’s my favorite time of the day,” 85-year-old Liu Guirong says. “Watching them play is very invigorating and satisfying.”

Liu lives in Xiyanghong, a combined retirement home and kindergarten in provincial capital Guiyang. Here, 3- to 6-year-old preschoolers and people aged 73 and up spend parts of the day together. This way, according to the home’s philosophy, the young learn from the old, and the old stay young.

Worldwide discussion about intergenerational centers started when one opened in 1970s in Tokyo. In the decades since, they have spread across Japan, Europe, and North America. But unsupportive governments and hesitant parents have made the idea less popular in China. Despite a growing glut of lonely elderly, Xiyanghong is just one of two such centers in the country.

Xiyanghong — the name means “sunset glow” — wasn’t an instant success, either. Established in 1996, it was Guizhou’s first privately owned nursing home. A few years ago, founder Xue Mei was looking for a way to give Xiyanghong a homier atmosphere and met Deng Sha, who worked in early education. The pair decided to collaborate, and they turned the care home’s ground floor into classrooms for about 50 kindergarteners, with all three floors available for around 80 elderly residents. Two to three people share each room, which comes with a bathroom, balcony, and mountain view.

Founder Xue Mei poses for a photo in the garden of Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Founder Xue Mei poses for a photo in the garden of Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying

But when the kindergarten opened in 2014, only one pupil joined. “Parents thought putting their kids with the ‘dying’ elderly would be hard to imagine,” Deng, 32, says. There was also some behavior that needed correcting. Retirees sometimes failed to set a good example and would, for example, thoughtlessly discard bones on the floor during lunch. Rambunctious children had a habit of running full speed into their frail neighbors.

Another stumbling block was staff. “Nursing-home workers felt they were already exhausted from taking care of the elderly, while kindergarten teachers had a hard time getting used to the stubbornness of the older residents,” says 69-year-old Xue.

But initial feedback was positive, and word-of-mouth recommendations attracted more and more parents. Now there is a waitlist for new kindergarteners, and staff are more on board. The one group that never needed much convincing was Xiyanghong’s elderly residents. “I saw their eyes shine when watching the kids from upstairs,” says Xue. “Before that, they were just muddling and waiting to die.”

Xue says the presence of children improves seniors’ physical and mental health, reducing loneliness and depression. “For children, interaction with older people supports their learning and boosts their social development,” she says. It also teaches them the traditional Chinese virtue of respecting the elderly. “When kids see with their own eyes that older residents grab plates with trembling hands despite being much taller and bigger than them, they can see the fragility of life; they will take pity on the elderly and establish a sense of caring,” explains head of kindergarten Deng. “Everyone is more responsible for one another.”

Such anecdotes are in line with international experiences. Judith Ish-Horowicz, co-founder and principal of Apples and Honey Nightingale CIC, the U.K.’s first intergenerational nursery, says it hasn’t encountered many problems since its launch in 2017. “The initial difficulty is to get people to understand that we are not going to leave the children in the care of the residents,” she tells Sixth Tone. The mixing of generations has proven beneficial, according to the company’s own evaluations. The elderly, especially those with dementia, enjoy the mental stimulation. Children have improved their language ability faster than before, and, Ish-Horowicz says, they enjoy the patience of people who aren’t in a rush.

Sue Davidson, director of Bethlehem Intergenerational Center in the state of Michigan says the model is also relatively new to the U.S. The institution had been operating as a child care center for decades until it introduced the program to enrich the lives of the elderly two years ago. “Parents all love this idea,” Davidson tells Sixth Tone. “It helps seniors find a new meaning of life.”

In Bethlehem, the two age groups take part in organized activities together, such as reading books or baking cookies. However, in Xiyanghong, shared activities are mostly spontaneous. Children sing and share birthday cakes with the seniors or bring water to a resident’s room for the nursing assistant to bathe them. Most of the day is spent apart. The senior apartments and kindergarten have their own dining rooms, living areas, and entrances.

Apples and Honey Nightingale CIC mentions in its case study report that it hopes to see 500 intergenerational institutes developed across the U.K. over the next five years. Such a rollout is unlikely in China. “We work twice as hard to take care of two vulnerable groups, but we don’t get as much in return financially,” says Deng. The kindergarten is responsible for its own profits. The government subsidizes a one-time 3,000 yuan ($437) operational fee for each bed in the nursing home, and 300 yuan a year for each elderly resident.

Deng Sha plays on the seesaw with her daughter at Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Deng Sha plays on the seesaw with her daughter at Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/

Elsewhere in China, intergenerational centers have proven unfeasible. When Hu Yanping attempted to experiment with this model over a decade ago, after visiting intergenerational centers in Japan, the lack of support and applicable governmental policies made her reconsider. Now, as the director of Golden Age, a high-end retirement community in the eastern city of Hangzhou, she cooperates with nearby kindergartens to organize activities in which children and elderly residents can interact. Hu says it’s difficult to build a long-term program. “Every activity requires the strict approval from the education bureau, and sometimes the heads of the kindergartens feel that such extracurricular activities have safety risks and more,” she says.

At the end of last year, an intergenerational center in the eastern city of Nanjing closed its nursing home after 16 years. Its head, Chen Qi, tells Sixth Tone that it’s unrealistic to integrate the two vulnerable populations within one institution: “It’s not in line with China’s national conditions and people’s mindsets.” Chen explains that parents proved unwilling to let their children live with the elderly because of concerns about the group’s manners and physical conditions. For many working Chinese parents who leave their children in the care of their aged parents, there are often conflicts in parenting styles. Some objections were also based on deeply held beliefs that people near death bring bad fortune. “As death is still a taboofor Chinese people, they’re against the idea of having the kids and the elderly’s hearse enter and exit through the same gate,” says Chen.

The entrance to the nursing home facility in Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

The entrance to the nursing home facility in Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Deng says seniors passing away hasn’t been a problem in Xiyanghong, where both groups don’t even share the same entrance to the building. The kindergarteners receive death education, in which they learn about the cycle of life, making death less of a shock to them, Deng says. “When they spend time with the elderly on a regular basis, they see the wrinkles and wheelchairs, and they realize people will get tired when they are older.”

Chen Xuanjin — no relation to Chen Qi — visited her grandmother over the past decade when she resided in Xiyanghong. She recalls that, before the kindergarten opened, her grandmother and other residents didn’t speak much. “I felt like they were just lying and dying,” she says. “Their lives had become black and white; however, the children are like colorful strokes, giving them confidence and hope to live again.” Her grandmother, who had a stroke and paralysis, made the effort to walk around to see what the children were doing. That convinced Chen to send her daughter to the kindergarten.

Every Thursday after their cooking lesson, Chen Xuanjin’s daughter brought cakes to her great-grandmother’s room and fed her. “Usually, we don’t have a strong bond with our great-grandparents, but my daughter remembers my grandmother’s bed and her favorite food, which I believe is the inheritance of family emotions,” she says. “Maybe she can’t integrate these feelings now, but the seed has been planted in her heart to teach her to respect and cherish lives.”

When Hou Ying first visited Xiyanghong to see if it would be a good place to send her son, she noticed the elderly right away and wondered how the combination would work in practice. But when she saw how much residents enjoyed the children, she was reassured. “My grandfather and I had a very good relationship, but when I went to college, I had very little contact with him, which I regret,” she says, tearing up at the thought of her grandfather, who passed away last year. “I want my son to have the love and care from the elderly while he’s little, which I believe will make him strong and optimistic when he grows up.”

Children draw in a classroom at Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Children draw in a classroom at Xiyanghong, Guiyang, Guizhou province, June 17, 2019. Fan Yiying

Liu, the resident, moved to Guiyang from eastern Shandong province with her husband in 1964 to support railway construction in southwestern China. She’s lived in Xiyanghong since 2012, moving in after her husband passed away. Her only child works in another city and visits her once a year. “Life was somewhat meaningless before these little babies came along,” she tells Sixth Tone. “I was so lonely and waiting to die, until one day I heard the sounds of the children downstairs; all of a sudden, I felt like I had a reason to live again.”

For last month’s Dragon Boat Festival, the children and elderly made zongzi — glutinous rice with different fillings wrapped in bamboo leaves. When Liu recalls showing the children how to fold the leaves, she’s all smiles. “They called me Grandma,” she says. “They made a mess, but who cares?”

Additional reporting: Ai Jiabao.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Chinese Asexuals Navigate Love, Duty, and Ignorance


SHANGHAI — When Marie Guo confided in her dormmates about her asexuality, she received little sympathy. Instead, they questioned how a virgin could be so sure she didn’t feel sexually attracted to anybody. “They suggested I have sex with my boyfriend and emphasized I needed to do it repeatedly before drawing a conclusion,” Guo tells Sixth Tone.

Being questioned, ridiculed, and dismissed is a common experience among people who identify as asexual, a sexual orientation defined as lacking sexual attraction to others. But while there is some public knowledge of asexuality in other countries, in China ignorance is still widespread.

In a 2004 paper, Canadian psychology professor Anthony Bogaert estimated that asexuals account for about 1% of the world’s population, which would mean the sexual minority has about 13 million members in China. Many of them fear coming out — especially to older generations, who often put immense value on marriage and having children. Parents find asexuality hard to accept or see it as a disorder that can be cured. Some interviewees did not use their Chinese given names to protect their privacy.

Asexuality is often confused with sexual dysfunction, where people with disorders experience distress due to their lack of sexual attraction — something asexual people don’t typically feel. Some asexual people say they masturbate to relieve tension — as does Guo, who remembers being met with more disbelief when she tried to explain this to her dormmates. Other people who identify as “little A,” the common nickname in China for asexual people, have sex only to satisfy their partners.

Diane Xie cannot imagine how it would feel to have sex with someone. “When people say someone is sexy, I have no idea what it means,” she says. When searching for answers online, she found AVEN — the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, the world’s largest online community for asexual people. After reading its explanation of asexuality, she exclaimed that this was who she was. But she was still a bit uncertain, wondering if maybe the person who could interest her sexually just hadn’t shown up yet.

Therefore, when studying in Hong Kong in 2015, Xie began dating a Dutch student for whom she had feelings. She tried intimacy up to second base but felt nothing other than uncomfortable. “I thought he was attractive and I really enjoyed hanging out with him, but I just didn’t have the desire to have further physical contact with him,” says the 24-year-old Shanghai native, who wears a black ring on her right middle finger, an internationally used sign for asexuality.

Diane Xie shows her black ring at a café in Shanghai, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Diane Xie shows her black ring at a café in Shanghai, 2019. Fan Yiying

Chinese academic research into asexuality is, for now, limited to just one paper, published in 2018 by researchers at Southwest University in the city of Chongqing. The findings of their study of 284 individuals who were certain they were or thought they might be asexual were in line with results in the West. But what the country lacks in scientific writing, it makes up for in social media activity. Popular apps like DoubanZhihu, WeChat, and QQ all have asexuality communities whose members can number in the tens of thousands.

When Yin Xuyan’s middle school classmates started to obsess over celebrities or experience their first loves, she remembers feeling nothing. “I don’t even have the experience of having a crush on someone, and I have no impulse at all to fall in love,” says the 19-year-old from the eastern city of Yangzhou. She then began to reflect on whether she’d suffered any physical or mental trauma in childhood, but other than her mother telling her that girls can’t touch boys or masturbate, she couldn’t think of anything. She sought porn catering to female pleasure, but that didn’t arouse her either.

Like thousands of others before her, Yin found the answer on Douban. “The moment I knew I was asexual, I felt so relieved,” she says. “Everything seemed to make sense then.” But when Yin told her best friend, she didn’t take it seriously. “Maybe no one will ever take it seriously,” Yin says. The freshman doesn’t talk much about her sexuality, and when people ask whether she has a boyfriend, “I just pretend I’m a good student who wants to devote herself to studying and has no time for dating,” she says, laughing.

But Yin will have to tell her conservative parents at some point and has been preparing what she calls a “psychological setup” since middle school. “I told them I might not get married in the future, and I act like a proactive feminist who doesn’t accept any patriarchal suppression,” she says. The argument lasted three years before they tacitly accepted that their daughter might be single for the rest of her life.

“While asexual people in Western countries are getting recognition and equal treatment, most asexuals don’t dare come out in China,” says Su Yanchen, one of the authors of the 2018 paper. He hopes their research can increase the social visibility of the asexual community and give them the opportunity to speak up in China. “Asexuals must expand their influence and fight for more rights, just like other LGBT groups, if they want to be recognized and live happily in this sexual-dominated society,” he says.

Compared with other sexual minorities, public awareness of asexuality is much lower. “Homosexuality is at least in line with the mainstream view that everyone needs sex, but asexuality is farther away from the mainstream,” says Frank Gao, a 26-year-old graduate student currently living in Germany. He previously identified as gay, but after dating men for years, he felt that something was off: Sex was boring to him. “It’s just as boring as when we are required to write something 100 times by the teacher as punishment,” he explains. “I don’t want sex, and if I have to do the same action many times, it bores me.”

During his senior year at university, Gao came across the term “asexuality” on an LGBT forum and started to reflect. “It shocked me,” he says. “I had lived as gay for years, and all of sudden it changed.” In 2011, an online survey of 3,436 people aged 16 to 25 who identified as asexual suggested that women asexuals significantly outnumber their male counterparts. And the percentage of asexual people who are attracted to the same sex is much lower than the percentage of those who like the opposite sex. This means that someone like Gao, a male asexual who’s into men, is a minority within a minority.

None of Gao’s ex-boyfriends are asexual. When he told them he didn’t enjoy sex, they thought it was because he is “too rational.” The lack of a sex life affected his relationships. “Most gay men have a strong libido, and that’s why if I didn’t have sex with my exes, they’d often complain that I didn’t love them.”

Gao has been dating another Chinese student in Germany for a year. The couple have a lot in common, from values to interests — except when it comes to sex. But Gao says they compromise and have negotiated to have sex twice a month: “This frequency is quite low for a gay person, but we are willing to sacrifice for each other.”

It’s hard to explain to sexual people what asexuality is, says Gao, who often attempts to do so both online and offline. “They can’t empathize with what it means for someone not to be sexually attracted to any gender,” he says. Once Gao was asked if he had sexual desire for animals. “The public is set on the idea that humans have a desire for something,” he says.

When Jenny Wang explained to her roommates last year what sex means to asexual people, she used a metaphor. “Everyone has a few kinds of food that they don’t crave but don’t absolutely reject, either.” They understood right away, which Wang doesn’t think would happen with her parents and friends back home in China’s southwestern Yunnan province, where awareness and information about such topics are scarce.

Despite her successful food metaphor, Wang thinks there is little understanding among the public: “If we don’t have sex, people would ask how come we know we are asexual before we try it; but if we do have sex, people question how we can do it if we are asexual.”

Wang started identifying as asexual after moving to Shanghai in 2017 to study journalism. She did the Kinsey Scale test, designed half a century ago by sex research pioneer Alfred Kinsey. In his sexual orientation research, Kinsey reported that 1.5% of the population didn’t have any sexual reactions, and so he created a new category, “X,” for them. “I felt happy when I saw the X result, meaning I’ve fully accepted myself,” says Wang.

Wang joined a WeChat group of over 180 Chinese asexual people last year. There, she found a sense of belonging. Group members chat daily about everything from LGBT events to self-motivation. “I feel they feel me, and it’s easier to find common ground with them — and more importantly, I don’t need to think too much before I share my feelings,” says the 20-year-old.

A few months ago, Wang’s best male friend confessed his love to her. Wang turned him down after hesitating for two days, in large part because she’s afraid her asexuality will affect the relationship. “The most intimate thing I can accept,” she says after a long pause, “is probably hugging, and kissing on the lips at the most.”

Though having a child is not in her life plan, Wang already knows her parents will make her have one. Growing up in a small town where most girls have their firstborn before the age of 20, she doesn’t want to come out to her parents until she’s financially independent. Her parents, who are in their early 50s, still believe gay people are mentally ill — a thought that lingers, despite homosexuality being taken off China’s list of mental illnesses in 2001. “If I want to live the way I want, I must stay in Shanghai after graduation, because people here are much more open-minded,” she says.

Chen Mei, 27, found out she’s asexual while at university and has been married for nearly a year now. She told her husband she’s asexual when he asked her out for the first time. Though he had little clue of what the term entailed, he searched online and was considerate. “He said he’s OK with this, and I have feelings for him, so we’re together,” Chen says.

Just like Gao and his boyfriend, Chen and her husband discussed how often they would have sex before registering their marriage. “Any couple needs to adjust to one another,” she says. “Even in sexual relationships, things don’t always go smoothly. Sexual compatibility is just one of many factors that a relationship needs to take into account, such as life goals, lifestyle, and personality matches.”

Chen isn’t actively seeking asexual friends to bolster her sense of belonging. She’s happy with her current life. “Asexuality is just one of my identities. It doesn’t make my life better or worse. Asexual people just have different needs and meet different challenges from sexual people.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.