My uncle Renying — a retired primary school teacher — loves going to college reunions. In the last few years, he’s met up with former classmates in Quanzhou, the city in southeastern China’s Fujian province where he went to college, to eat, drink, and talk about old times.
Renying’s propensity for nostalgia is far from exceptional. These days, many retired Chinese people in their 60s and 70s go to class reunions. Some attend sumptuous banquets on the anniversary of their high school graduation; others go on countryside excursions with people they met in college.
Younger people lack their parents’ hunger for nostalgia. Recently, a friend of mine, Li Meng, tried to plan a 20-year reunion with her elementary school classmates. Although Meng was a member of a chat group on WeChat — China’s ubiquitous social messaging app — that contained about 50 of her school peers, hardly anyone responded to the suggestion. The reunion never happened.
One reason for a lack of interest among young people is that nostalgia is more likely to affect older people. My uncle goes to reunions to revive his younger self, look back on the exploits of his youth, and recall a time when he seemingly had the world at his fingertips. China today is almost unrecognizable from the country it was in the 1950s and ’60s, and the rapid pace of development is unsettling to many older people. The reassurance of a class reunion gives them a rare sense of belonging, acceptance, and optimism for the future.