If Vanessa Fong ’96 had a favorite word for her work, it would be “surprising.” This isn’t cutesy speculation; that would never fly with this most rigorous of scholars, now an associate professor of anthropology at Amherst. It’s got quantitative backing. I did a word search in our interview transcript, and “surprising” or “surprised” popped up 37 times, much more than any other descriptor.

Which all makes perfect sense. For Fong is now two decades into a longitudinal study of the first children born under China’s one-child policy, and her findings are so remarkable, so counterintuitive, that she has repeatedly surprised herself, her field and the world.

We met in her office at Morgan Hall. One of those glossy days in May, the windows propped to the breeze. Outside fanned a primary-color view: the yellow of College Hall, the red of a big Norway Maple, the bright blue sky. Fong loves to talk about her work, and sat and answered my questions far, far away (to stay quantitative, 6,750 miles) from the city where she herself asks the questions. That city is Dalian, an industrial port in northeastern China, with its own primary color scheme. It lies on the Yellow Sea and was built on a site whose Mandarin name means “cyan mud swamp.”

In 1999, Fong first surveyed 2,273 students from two high schools and one junior high in Dalian. She has returned ever since to re-survey, observe and interview many as they brave each life stage. The result is a rare portrait of the attitudes and experiences of an unprecedented generation of brotherless and sisterless singletons—the most intentionally created generation in human history.

I’ll keep you in minor suspense about Fong’s gold mine, because you can’t grasp its significance until you review the rationale for the one-child policy, which just ended in 2016. In 1979, the Chinese government declared it to limit population growth. A statistic cues the crisis: In 1970, China averaged 5.8 births per woman. The government touted the policy as temporary, a method to help China modernize, since low birth rates typically go hand in hand with becoming a developed country. It was also a drastic measure to prevent more catastrophic famines, since there would not be enough food for a population left unchecked. In the Great Famine of 1959 to 1961 (known as “Three Bitter Years”), some estimate 36 million died of starvation.

This child-limiting policy did have limits: It was fully invoked only for those of Han ethnicity (91 percent of China’s population) who lived in cities (51 percent). Ethnic minorities were allowed a second child. So were rural families whose first child was a daughter, partly because they were more likely than urban families to need a son to work the farms and care for parents in old age. To enforce the policy, urban Han women (like the mothers of virtually all of Fong’s subjects) were required to use contraception and were sometimes subjected to sterilization. Conceive a second child, and you could be forced to end the pregnancy or, if the baby was carried to term, pay stiff fines, and that child could be barred from the full rights of citizenship.

It was a massive social experiment, pushed onto a culture where, historically, a daughter had perilously low worth. Unlike sons, daughters could not support their families. One Dalian mother told Fong that, while growing up, her brothers got to eat meat, but she and her sisters could not. Another disadvantage was that, when a daughter wed, she’d thenceforth tend her in-laws. To quote the old Chinese saying, “A married daughter is like water spilled on the ground,” because she can’t be gotten back.

Vanessa Fong; photo by Tony Luong
Anthropology professor Vanessa Fong ’96; photo by Tony Luong

Communism lent a kind of egalitarianism—everyone was a comrade. But gender bias still ran long and deep and tragic: after the one-child policy was enacted, some families practiced prenatal sex selection or abandoned their girl babies near orphanages in order to try again for a son. Many of those girls were adopted here in the United States. Today’s stats tell a stark story. With 113.5 males born for every 100 females, China has one of the world’s most skewed gender ratios at birth.

In 1996, when Fong plunged into her Amherst senior thesis about women’s plights in China, “all the published work then was about how incredibly oppressed women were and how they couldn’t get an education, they couldn’t get jobs,” she recalls. “And a lot of it was because, starting from the time they were born, the parents gave everything to their brothers and none to them.”

But girls born under the one-child policy could be a different story, Fong guessed: “If parents favored the sons over the daughters, what happens to the families with only a daughter? I thought, Okay, the one-child policy is probably going to change the situation, given that if A causes B and you take away A, B is going to look different. I figured there were three possibilities: One, parents could invest in their nephews if they have no sons. Two, they could invest in themselves and not their daughters. Three, they could invest as much in daughters as those who had sons.”

In short, could a policy this dramatic affect gender status just as dramatically? Fong recalls her reasoning: “This is a burning question, and could change everything about what we know about gender in China. But there were no data, no publications. This is a really important, huge gap in the literature, and someone should fill it. Why not me?”

Her hypothesis became the proposal for her doctoral research in anthropology at Harvard, and, thanks to National Science Foundation, Mellon and Beinecke grants, she set off to Dalian. In 2004 she published her outcomes in her book Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy, published by Stanford University Press. “Prior to the one-child policy, most girls were raised to be losers,” she wrote, unwilling to sugarcoat. “Students I knew in urban Dalian, however, were all raised to be winners, regardless of their gender. Like their male counterparts, singleton daughters were their parents’ only hope for the future, and received all the encouragement, investment and pressure parents could muster. Therefore, daughters’ parents were just as likely as sons’ parents to have high ambitions for their children.” Soon, she’d find the girls would procure education and jobs as much as the sons—often surpassing them.

Stop and take this in: the single-child policy, draconian and born of desperation, in a single stroke helped create the most empowered female generation in 7,000 years of Chinese civilization.

“Quite a lot of reviewers didn’t believe it,” says Fong of her bombshell findings. “They thought maybe the people I studied were extremely unusual, or maybe the more empowered daughters gravitated toward me because I was a successful Chinese American woman and a feminist. Now many publications about many parts of China say similar things. But I was the first to come up with it.”

Thereafter, her new surveys revealed more head-turning takeaways—yet gender was only part of the story.

Here’s another nugget from the gold mine, for instance: Fong and her student co-authors later discovered that Chinese singletons from poorer families did better in school than the singletons of wealthier families. The children of blue-collar fathers were twice as likely to get a bachelor’s degree as the children of white-collar fathers.

That’s the exact opposite of the West, where family income is the top predictor of educational achievement. Why the paradox? Because in Dalian, many of the wealthiest kids are the children of business owners and thus can join the family business, so they don’t have to study as hard to get good jobs. But poorer kids have no failsafe. Moreover, many wealthier parents don’t have enough spare hours to enforce their child’s study time. Poorer parents do have the hours; they enforce like their lives depend on it. Which they do.

And there were more surprises to come.

Fong was drawn to the one-child policy in part because she’s an only child herself. Her father was from Beijing, her mother from Taiwan. Fong was born in Taiwan in 1974—one of her first memories is a gecko crawling on the ceiling—and immigrated to America when she was 3. The family settled in East Los Angeles, in neighborhoods roughly half Latino and half Asian. Fong remains fluent in Mandarin, her first language.

The Fongs were working-class, and their star student knew that a college scholarship was the only path up. The fall of her senior year in high school, colleges started recruiting at warp speed. But only Amherst paid to fly her back east to an open house—before she was admitted. “I think Amherst was really trying to diversify even then, not just ethnically, but also socioeconomically,” says Fong. “They offered me a scholarship. I’m very grateful to Amherst for that.” She applied Early Decision and got in.

As a kid, Fong dreamed of being an astronaut, and considered majoring in astronomy. But then she realized that “you spend your whole life training in cramped spaces in order to moonwalk for an hour.” Fong is a lifelong sci-fi fangirl (Star Trek reigns 
supreme, and she loves the writing of Liu Cixin, Stephen Baxter and Margaret Atwood). She decided that anthropology was the next best thing. As she put it, smiling: “You can ‘boldly go’ and explore new worlds and new civilizations.” (Fong now teaches a course called “Anthropology and Science Fiction” at the College.)

Her first year, Fong took an intro course with Deborah Gewertz, now the G. Henry Whitcomb 1874 Professor of Anthropology. “I can still see her sitting front and center stage, clearly more engaged than many others,” says Gewertz. “She spoke to me several times and, although discouraged by me, decided to declare her major in anthropology during this first semester at Amherst. I had advised her to wait a bit and explore the curriculum. But Vanessa knew that anthropology was for her and, obviously, she was right.”

In that course’s syllabus, Fong was most inspired by The House of Lim: A Study of a Chinese Farm Family, written by Margery Wolf and set in Taiwan in 1959 and 1960. For decades, “Chinese” studies centered mostly in Taiwan and Hong Kong, because that’s where the access was. Fong wanted to study mainland China, but scant research occurred under Mao, who ruled from 1949 to 1976. “You really couldn’t know what was happening on this big continent with a billion people,” Fong recalls. “It was like this black box.” In the early 1990s, contemporary China was still thinly studied; it was yet to have cachet as an economic superpower. But whatever Amherst offered, Fong jumped, taking classes with Jerry Dennerline, now the Olin Professor in Asian Studies, and getting involved with the Asian Culture House.

Hello, Dalian

Here are some telling “quantitative twists” from Fong’s surveys and interviews with singletons in Dalian, China, born under the one-child policy.

Outside of class, Fong worked at the library and as a security guard at the Mead Art Museum (“I was the muscle,” she jokes), and wrote for The Amherst Student. Her stint as a journalist helped her later, as an interviewer and author. “I try to write in a way that is maximally clear and easy for people to understand,” says Fong. Come senior year, with Professor of Anthropology and Black Studies Miriam Goheen as her adviser, Fong did her senior thesis: “Iron Girls, Model Workers, Virtuous Wives, and Good Mothers: Gender Inequality and Elite Constructions of Urban Womanhood in the People’s Republic of China.” Then came Harvard and Dalian.

Why choose this, China’s 25th most populous city, as the locus of her research? Most Chinese cities teem with bicyclists, but Dalian is too hilly for biking, and Fong, who has a poor sense of balance and can’t ride a bike, could get around by bus like everyone else. The people also spoke a relatively standard Mandarin she could easily understand. Plus, Dalian is akin to lots of other Chinese cities, so her study could illustrate many aspects of urban China as a whole.

From 1998 to 2000, while she launched the first phase of her research, she endeared herself by teaching English in Dalian, gratis. Requests for tutoring skyrocketed, especially after local newspapers and TV stations said a Harvard lady was giving lessons for free. In the years since, Dalian alumni fondly recalled how Fong drew a picture of a book with a grinning worm sticking out of it. That’s how she taught the word bookworm, which, she told them, also described herself. They loved when she did a creaky imitation of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, and mimed Rapunzel stuck in her castle as she directed a student production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, one of her favorite musicals.

But no one acts alone. When Fong took notes, like all anthropologists in the field, a few locals saw her as an undercover journalist onto some corruption scandal. Others couldn’t quite classify this Chinese-American question-asker, variously dubbing her names that translated as “patriotic overseas Chinese” or “Chinese with U.S. citizenship” or “Taiwan compatriot” or even “imitation foreign devil.” Still, she persevered, dissecting a world of “little suns,” as singletons were called derogatively, since everyone orbited around them. To wit: 67 percent of the students told her they were “spoiled” by at least one parent. A question about chores revealed that only 6 percent of girls at the college-prep high school helped with cooking at home—which was less than boys at that same school, at 8 percent. This marked them as radically different from their parents, who’d shouldered many chores in their own childhoods.

Fong also asked these Dalian teenagers, “Would it be better to have a son or a daughter?” Of the girls, 37 percent preferred daughters, and 28 percent of boys preferred sons. But “no preference” on a child’s gender won out for both girls and boys, at 55 and 63 percent respectively.

That “no preference” was a seismic shift. To understand it, Fong followed the money: Given that China has no system like Medicare, and mandatory retirement age can be as low as 50, and 24 percent of her respondents’ parents had no pension or insurance, everything depends on “The Child as Retirement Plan,” as Fong titled one section of Only Hope. Radical fertility decline, and a rapidly transforming economy, opened more opportunities, meaning there were as many jobs for women as for men. Then again, it also opened up something called the “4:2:1,” as in: One singleton may have to take care of two parents and four grandparents, with no sibling to lighten the load. Since the one-child policy, families can no longer abide goof-offs: all singletons must achieve liftoff.

So parents beamed their little suns out of the kitchen and to their desks, to get top grades to go to top schools to land top jobs, in order to support up to six elders. Fong even encountered one girl who, when her parents heard a rumor of a coming earthquake, was made to stand under their home’s sturdiest doorway holding all the family’s money, since she was its “greatest treasure.”

Steeped in Chinese family life in Dalian, Fong decided that marriage and children would not be part of her future: “I know how much time it really takes to devote to a family to make it work. I thought I could be very good at my career or very good at my family, but it would be really hard to do both.” In 2011, at age 37, she published Paradise Redefined: Transnational Chinese Students and the Quest for Flexible Citizenship in the Developed World (Stanford University Press). The latest shocker? That many of her Dalian subjects were studying abroad even though, back when they were teens, most hadn’t even mentioned it as a realistic possibility.

Indeed, a third of her respondents ended up going abroad, the plurality to Japan, with Ireland the next most popular destination. And so they joined China’s booming transnational student population, now the largest in the world. Another nugget gleamed in the gold pan: Fong learned that it was often the average Chinese students who study abroad, not just the elite students. Why? Because the top students often opt not to study abroad if they pass the exams to get into China’s highly selective universities. Study abroad is one backup plan for those who don’t pass. The China Journal found Fong’s ethnography “impressive,” with “a firm quantitative twist.”

By 2012, with five books under her belt (two as writer, three as co-editor), and having risen to associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Fong got many offers to teach at colleges around the country. But she chose Amherst. “The first year, whenever I started walking home, I would start walking toward one of my old dorms!” she laughs. “Every day was like a wash of nostalgic memories. Every single building, every classroom, even the students. When I see them, I sometimes think that’s so-and-so from my class when, obviously, it’s not. There’s just an extra layer of wonderfulness to everything.”

Her office at Morgan Hall once belonged to Lawrence A. Babb, the Willem Schupf Professor of Asian Languages and Civilizations and Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, and “a wonderful, very inspiring anthropologist,” Fong recalls. The current academic department coordinator remembers young Vanessa waiting outside Babb’s door during office hours. Fong likes this palimpsest, how her older self can do what her younger self couldn’t, like splurging at the restaurants she could only dream of as an undergrad. That said, she’s a regular at Valentine Dining Hall, and often shares meals with her students there. Fong doesn’t drive, so she lives in an apartment near campus and walks everywhere: “I love being here, the town, the College. Now I’m living Groundhog Day, but on the best day of my life, not the worst.”

Meanwhile, she’s taught her Amherst students how to look for surprises, too. “She used to call it ‘window-shattering,’” says Kari-Elle Brown ’15, who now works at Curriculum Associates in North Billerica, Mass. Brown took many classes with Fong and is a co-author on several articles, including an analysis of how Dalian students chose their high school and college majors. “I have this training now to listen in interviews and pick out the weird things, and follow that thread,” she says. Brown, too, is a child of immigrants (in her case, from Jamaica), and she says Fong “has really cared about my growth as a person and as a researcher.”

Eddie Kim ’15, a math and political science major, took Fong’s “Researching China” course on a dare from his roommate—and it changed his life. “It was the first time I studied a topic I was interested in with a method I could use,” he says. Fong asked him to sign on as a quantitative analyst, and he became co-author on a study of how Dalian youth perceived the ties between wealth and academic achievement. Kim ended up following in Fong’s footsteps, and is getting his doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The professor has relished their diligence and perspective: “The great thing about working with students is that, sometimes, it takes someone else who is new to this data and comes from a very different background to say, ‘Whoa, how could this be?’”

Fong’s original Dalian teenagers are now thirtysomethings, and the revelations keep revving in her latest articles. In “How Flexible Gender Identities Give Young Women Advantages in China’s New Economy,” she and her student co-authors found that women have outpaced men at adapting in a changing economy (partly because there are more service jobs). They’re also protected by a “glass floor,” since they’re more likely to complete a college degree than men. And women are more open to careers dominated by men then vice versa (see: FFC-Acrush, China’s new “boy band” sensation—made up of five girls).

Later this year, the prestigious anthropology journal Ethos will run an article by Fong, Brown and Sung won Kim (Fong’s former student at Harvard) on the childrearing aspirations of the Dalian cohort. Will they raise their kids how they were raised? The initial findings indicate these new and would-be parents have set the bar (maybe unrealistically) high. Indeed, they want an even better quality of life, more freedom and less stress and pressure, and even more educational degrees for their kids than they had themselves. This prompted Brown to coin a catchy (and wry) section header: “Health, Happiness, and a Doctorate.”

Back at Morgan Hall, Fong brims with speculation, and devotedly embraces the long view. “One of the exciting, fun things,” she says, will be seeing the children of her original subjects at the same age as their parents were when she first met them. “It really is amazing how generational change happens so rapidly. Anthropology is about challenging previous assumptions and seeing things that are different from what we’re used to. Any time you plan research for the future, especially at the scale I’m doing, you are writing science fiction. There are so many ifs.”

And so Fong keeps at it, questioning her families in Dalian, and providing this extraordinary window onto modern China. “I’m going to follow them for the rest of my life,” she says. Well, that’s no surprise. 

Katharine Whittemore is the senior writer in Amherst’s Office of Communications. She profiled singer-songwriter Amy Speace ’90 in the Spring 2017 Amherst magazine.