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The Little Empress

The author struggles with the demands of a new generation.

By Abigail Thomson Updated Aug.13

Many claim that China’s one-child policy has created a generation less independent and more self-seeking than their predecessors, hence labelling the children as “little emperors.” During my time in China, I landed myself a part-time job, baby-sitting a one-child generation “little empress,” 6-year-old Lulu. I wasn’t so much responsible for looking after Lulu, but would spend two hours a week in the family home playing with her in English. From day one, I found myself noting the sort of “little empress” characteristics I had thought were just stories.  

The very first thing I noticed was the attention-seeking. On my first day, I was picked up by Lulu, her mother, nanny and chauffeur. I can honestly say that this first journey to Lulu’s house was the most stressful car journey I have ever experienced. Lulu, her nanny and I were lined up on the back seat. Or, not so much in a line actually, as Lulu was sprawled in the foot well. Lulu was clearly not happy about the lack of attention she was receiving from her mother who was asleep in the front, and the sight of a strange new foreigner entering her car only aggravated the situation.  

From the moment I got in to the moment we arrived at the house, Lulu exercised all of the might possible in her tiny vocal chords to make her position clear. What surprised me most of all was that nobody seemed even slightly concerned that there was a 6 year old in the foot well of a fast-moving car. Lulu’s mother turned around now and again to say some placatory words and stroke her daughter on the head, before turning away to continue her repose. If Lulu wanted to sit in the foot well, then Lulu sat in the foot well. If Lulu didn’t want a foreigner in her car… well, there wasn’t a huge amount that could be done about that. Though I was slightly concerned that they would turn around and take me home.  

Having survived the journey, I entered phase two: dinner time. Over the course of the meal, Lulu’s total lack of independence became clear. She did not lift a single finger. She sat in her high-chair throne, with an iPhone propped up in front of her playing a kid’s TV show, while her mum and nannies served her from all sides. The only movement she had to make was to open her mouth at regular intervals to allow spoonfuls of food to enter. Even this action was almost mechanical, her eyes glued to the screen. As for me, I sat quietly at the other end of the table, trying not to draw attention to myself, for fear that the screaming volcano would erupt again.  

Dinner over, we entered phase three: play time. This was when I took center stage. My mission was basically to do what Lulu wanted; to entertain her and try to impart some English language skills at the same time. Make one wrong move, and it was game over. She would very quickly become bored of one toy and abandon it for another. This was no problem though, as she had enough toys to supply a whole nursery. In fact, almost every week on the car journey to Lulu’s house, we would make a stop at a toy store where the nanny and I were to accompany Lulu to buy a new toy of her choice, regardless of price. And so, with a kingdom full of toys to choose from, I successfully completed stage three.

A week later, I made an apprehensive return to the palace. This time I was prepared for the evening’s events and strode through phases one to three relatively unfazed. The two hours came to a close and I gathered myself to leave. However, having completed my second engagement with the empress, I was informed that I was obligated to undergo a meeting of official approval and appointment to my post. And who was to chair the meeting? Of course, none other than the Little Empress herself. I sat on the floor obediently as Lulu laid down her assessment of my work so far as her mother listened intently. I waited patiently, watching as I saw China’s traditional filial piety unravel before my eyes. The Little Empress was in charge, and all those traditionally above her, including myself, now bowed on their knees as she decreed her final judgment. A few satisfied noises and a nod of the head indicated that I had earned the Little Empress’s seal of approval. I would live to babysit another day. 

Although my experience with only one of the one-child generation is a mere drop in the ocean, I can’t help but contemplate, what effect could this generation’s little emperors and empresses have on society as they grow to become China’s next parents, entrepreneurs, business leaders and politicians? But if nothing else, I’ve learned I won’t be pursuing a career in baby-sitting.