If the aging of baby boomers is a national concern in the United States, consider China. There, a one-child-per-family rule since the late 1970s has skewed the citizenry gray, and many younger Chinese people have migrated away from rural villages where their parents still live. A cultural tradition of strong filial piety collides with 21st century mobility and demographics.

China’s “silver tsunami” is the subject of a year-long and ongoing study by five students and Associate Professor of East Asian Studies Hong Zhang. They began with a three-week research trip to China in May and June, visiting eldercare facilities in cities and a rural village to compare government and private homes and interviewing seniors who flock to city parks for tai chi and conversation.

Zhang and her students then worked through the fall semester crunching data collected in 140 interviews, presenting their research on campus, and producing a website to describe their findings. “This experience, more than helping my language skills, improved my sense of anthropology field work and what that actually entails,” said Bette Ha ’14 of Brooklyn, N.Y., one of the students on the trip.

The collaborative research, enabled by an ASIANetwork grant from the Freeman Foundation, revealed several interesting conclusions. Like aging residents in the United States and elsewhere, the Chinese elders want to remain independent, and they don’t want to be a burden on their children (though the latter is tempered by a cultural tradition that says you raise children as a hedge against old age).

While they learned about eldercare and research protocols, the five students made great leaps forward in their ability to communicate in Chinese, in their interviewing techniques, and in their social science research and analysis skills.

Zhang said it is remarkable to listen to recordings of interviews early in the trip and compare them to later interviews. “Initially they were tentative and not sure of themselves. But by the end they can laugh with the people they interview and really understand and ask very good follow-up questions,” she said. “Their Chinese improved a lot, and they became very good field researchers.”

Petya Andreeva ’13, from Bulgaria focused on new developments in community-based eldercare services in China with a special interest in health care.

Eliza Laamoon ’13, from Denmark, Maine, who had spent one semester in China before the research trip, said the students had trouble initially with different Chinese dialects and the speed with which people spoke. “Especially when they got more emotional,” added Andreeva. And the fact that interview subjects got emotional reflects both thoughtful questions asked and personal connections made between the five Colby students and scores of Chinese elders, Zhang suggested.

Laamoon titled her research “Embracing Age with Dance, Tai Chi, and Peers in Urban China,” interviewing retirees who meet in parks for communal exercise and socializing.

Bette Ha looked at challenges and coping strategies of the rural elderly. In a small town (population 1,100) she found that most of the children lived nearby, despite well-documented migrations from Chinese villages to cities. Though sons try to insist that their parents move in with them, often “the elderly prefer not to, because the potential duties of babysitting and childcare can be quite daunting,” Ha wrote.

Jennifer Tsang ’13, from Bangor, Maine, compared attitudes toward three types of homes for the elderly: those run by the government, local communities, and recent developments in the private sector.

Fiona Masland ’12, originally from Concord, Mass., examined the growing role of nongovernmental organizations in eldercare. She had begun her inquiries while working for an NGO in Beijing the previous summer. Having graduated in May, she is currently teaching English in Taiwan as a Fulbright Scholar.

In addition to 140 transcribed interviews full of quantitative and qualitative data, the research team brought back 1,300 photos and five hours of video. Work with that raw material continues, with exhibits planned, a presentation by Zhang and two students scheduled at the ASIANetwork annual conference in Nashville in April, and possibly a video documentary.

But even that isn’t the end of the project. Zhang talked about collaborating with one of the students on an academic paper comparing eldercare in several East Asian nations. And, looking beyond Colby she said, “Eventually my goal is also to make this a teaching resource on aging in China.”

Petya Andreeva ’13 and Eliza Laamoon ’13 collaborate as they interview a senior citizen in Fuxing Park in Shanghai.

The students—all East Asian studies majors concentrating in Chinese and most with a second major in some other discipline—visited Shanghai and Beijing as well as two villages so they could include rural elderly in their studies. The work is an extension of Professor Zhang’s research on changes in Chinese families over the years. Her contacts in the rural village gave Colby students entree to a sector where access would normally be limited for Western students.

The Colby women broke down the barriers of language and culture—and the challenge of being academic researchers seeking data—by joining the seniors in singing and activities. The students performed skits and taught Chinese elders the Macarena, and soon the subjects warmed to their interviewers, students said, opening up to talk about their lives and feelings, eager to help the Colby students with Chinese grammar and pronunciation.

In one-on-one interviews, the Chinese seniors “shared very personal stories, and that’s exactly when it’s hardest to understand” said Andreeva.

“It’s a lot of feelings you have to manipulate through,” said Ha. “They could be feeling tense because they don’t know who we are as outsiders—like, ‘what are we going to do with this information?’ But at the same time, we’re there to listen to them, and they don’t normally get that ear. A lot of them have been neglected by their children, so it’s a lot to juggle for us too.”