Shanghai Luo Yi doesn't know how to boil water — in a country where it has to be boiled to be safe to drink.
The 25-year-old former German major, who calls herself Iselin, won't wash vegetables either, because she's petrified of finding an insect. That really irritates her father, a Communist Party secretary who was forced to till fields during the Cultural Revolution.
“He says to me, ‘You faint at the sight of a bug! If you had to go to the countryside, what would you do?' ” says Iselin, a disc jockey with the only rock 'n' roll radio show in Shanghai.
Iselin is a Chinese valley girl, part of a new generation of indulged daughters who are products of the one-child policy China introduced in 1979. Their parents were among the millions of Red Guards who were torn from their lives in the cities and sent to work in fields and factories for “re-education” during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. Like Holocaust survivors, these parents are a lost generation. They wanted to give their children everything they never had.
If they were the Mao Generation, Iselin and her peers are China's first Me Generation. All university-educated, she and her friends are breaking the mould of obedient, chaste and filial daughters. Disparaging about politics and focused on pleasure, they like sex, but not marriage. When Chairman Mao said he wanted to liberate women, they weren't what he had in mind.
“My mother can't control me. She's afraid of me,” Iselin says.
Her friend, Fu Xiaorong, agrees. “My parents can't manage me either.” She goes by the name Amy, and is a writer-editor for the fashion magazine City Beauty.
These young women have made endless choices that distinguish them from their parents. One is premarital sex (polls suggest that 70 per cent of young urban adults no longer wait for marriage). Another is choosing Western names: Iselin and Amy have a friend, Wu Zongwen, a writer for a men's magazine who calls herself Zoe.
Amy and Zoe were high-school classmates before ending up in journalism. They met Iselin when, by coincidence, both profiled her for their magazines. The two writers earn about 3,000 yuan a month ($455), a good urban salary, and Iselin about 3,500 ($530). That's richer than it sounds — Iselin's monthly rent is 900 yuan ($136).
On a recent evening, the three gathered for dinner at Shanghai Uncle, a trendy eatery near the Bund, the city's showcase avenue.
“We're the first generation of only children, so there will be many problems,” says Iselin, who thinks about trends because her radio show requires her to riff on music, fashion and the latest Japanese or Polish art-house movies.
She wears stylish rectangular glasses, a black polo shirt, a large Swatch watch, orange socks and suede Adidas. She has delicate cheekbones and once dyed her brush cut platinum. A few years ago, she buzz-cut her hair in homage to Irish rocker Sinead O'Connor. She doesn't care if people mistake her for a man.
Amy paints her nails with miniature black cats and once dyed her hair auburn, streaked with gold. A willowy 5-foot-8, she's wearing a choker and an off-the-shoulder T-shirt. At 23, she lives openly with her third lover and has no plans for marriage, despite weekly nagging from her parents.
Zoe, also 23, is petite and bubbly, with a mass of luxuriant permed hair that falls to her waist. She is wearing jeans and baby-blue New Balance slides. Although she lives clandestinely with her boyfriend, she is more interested in acquiring a kitten than a baby.
They're living their own version of Sex and the City, but the city is Shanghai.
“Shanghai women are smooth as silk, hard as stone,” says the government-run Shanghai Women's Federation. This was, after all, the city that embraced the qi pao, the figure-hugging high-collared dress split to the thigh. It was also the cradle of China's pink-collar work force, the first generation of female phone operators, stenographers, secretaries and shop assistants.
Iselin agrees that “Shanghai is a very female city,” but she and her friends think that it's the best place in China to be female partly because of its men. “Women want Shanghai men for husbands,” says Amy, “because they spoil women.”
She and Zoe took the initiative in choosing their respective lovers. “I made a bet with a friend,” says Amy, who spotted hers on the basketball court. “I said I would catch him within a month, and I did it.” Iselin dumped her boyfriend after he moved to Paris. “We felt no more passion,” she says, using the English word. Everyone giggles.