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The sheep dilemma

The author lives and serves in one of China’s largest urban centers.  Find out more about what OMF do in China’s cities and how you can serve there with your profession.  The author, as it happens, was also born in the Year of the Sheep.

I asked him about his kids.  It seemed normal enough a question.

I might not do that so much in my home country, but when in China, whilst traditional views on marriage and the family cling on by their fingertips under the assault of more modern ways of thinking, it’s still usually a safe enough bet when you jump into a taxi to ask the driver whether or not they’re married or, if they look to be beyond a certain threshold, to jump straight to the age of their kid (or kids – but that’s another story). But there’s something peculiar about this year, 2015, for those of the post-1980 generation who “should” be having children. They’re waiting.

To keep up the conversation, I hazarded some guesses to a few of what I thought the more probable reasons for my latest taxi driver’s lack of productivity: Just married? Not quite ready for parenthood? Or for the mother-in-law to move in? Spouse’s career at a key juncture? Still want to do that round-the-world trip? He had to spell it out for me. “You’ve been waiting to avoid the year of the sheep?” I tried not to sound too incredulous. “Yeah, there’s a bit of that. There’s a danger my wife would be somewhat at odds with a sheep”. I glanced over at him. “The old saying?” He nodded. 羊入虎口 y á ngr ù h ŭ k ŏ u, “a sheep entering a tiger’s lair” did not bode well for relations between his wife – a tiger, apparently – and any potential little lambs. (The chicken-dog combination is another to be avoided: 鸡犬不宁 j ī qu ă nb ù n í ng foretells inevitable conflict and chaos.) Even in the absence of inter-generational strife, many couples avoid having “sheep” if they can help it. Sheep are traditionally viewed as docile, followers of the crowd, lacking initiative and – crucially – leadership capabilities. And, as the airport bookstores will tell you, in today’s world, YOU WANT TO BE A LEADER!! FULFIL YOUR POTENTIAL!! RISE ABOVE THE REST!!

Nobody wants their child to be a follower, condemned to mediocrity and a life of taking orders from others. And so they wait.

The undesirability of raising a sheep is countered, however, by certain practical advantages conferred on those same sheep by very reason of their unpopularity. Hospitals offer lower charges for maternity packages during “quiet years”. There’s less pressure on school places every step of the way, less job competition at the end of it – a life-long boon! (And you can bet your bottom dollar the following year is going to be VERY busy.) In the hyper-competitive world that is urban China, being born a sheep could, counter-intuitively, give the “followers” a shot at leadership and mediocrity the chance of success.

Thus the decision whether to go ahead, and hope your meek offspring can reap the benefits of a “lean” year, or to wait for a more auspicious animal offers another window onto the forces of old and new, pragmatism and tradition fighting it out in the minds of 21st century Chinese urbanites.

My ride was up.  I bid him farewell.  I reflected on Jesus’ compassion on those ‘sheep without a shepherd’.  As I navigated the ensuing crowd, I prayed that they would find the leader who is worth following, hear the voice of the Great Shepherd when He calls.

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