The Reality of Raising Kids in China.
I always knew that parenthood would be a challenge, though I assumed that I’d be doing it in my home country instead of China. In many ways it's what I imagined parenting to be like but raising Chinese-Australians here does present some interesting challenges: Everyday Life The boys’ childhood has been anything but traditional by Chinese standards – actually it’s bordering on rebellious. They didn’t have big 90-day celebrations, strange haircuts or crotchless pants and prefer to go by their English rather than their Chinese names. They also celebrate Christmas, along with the traditional Chinese holidays. They have precisely zero Chinese songs on my phone’s playlist. They’ll listen to Led Zeppelin, Fall Out Boy, The Who and Linkin Park before they’ll give any Chinese artists a serious listen. Hell, my oldest boy must be the only kid in China to sing Black Sabbath’s Iron Man on the way to kindergarten. They prefer English-speaking movies from Disney/Pixar over local movies and spent their first three yuears watching the Wiggles and Play School over local cartoons like Boonie Bears and Pleasant Goat. They learned the English alphabet and were reading English books (I started reading to my oldest when he was about three months old) before they learned the Chinese versions. It was the same with animals, transport and everyday items. It wasn’t my intention for them to ignore Chinese traditions, I just simply spent a lot of time with them from a very young age speaking to them in English and teaching them what I knew. Of course, this preference for most things western has required some adjustment from the Chinese side of the family. It’s just part of the everyday balancing act between two cultures with very different ideas on how to do things, which sometimes clash in the form of arguments. The Chinese Family I’m calm and laid-back; she’s serious and focused. I like to go to bed and get up early, while she’s a night owl. I believe in kids enjoying their childhood without too much homework or activity classes. She believes in instilling discipline and a good work effort from a young age. I believe in stopping to smell the roses, while she usually tramples them on the way to sign up for another activity/holiday class. Although I can't always agree with her approach, the results speak for themselves: The oldest is quite accomplished on piano, a good swimmer and has a yellow belt in Taekwondo. I'm pretty sure I hadn't accomplished that much by the time I was six years old. Although my wife and I both want the best for the boys, we have very different approaches to parenting, due to being brought up in completely different cultures. We had to find out the hard way that without effective communication and some degree of flexibility, it can confuse the kids and push the marriage to breaking point. This is something we discuss a lot and are working on, but it requires a hell of a lot of effort, and I can see why some say that a cross-cultural marriage is more difficult than one between those from the same culture. Perhaps the best way is not Chinese or Western but a mix of both. One part of Chinese tradition that we’ve kept is having grandma look after the boys. It’s useful because we both work and need someone who’s at least fairly reliable to look after the kids but her methods learned in the Guangdong countryside differs somewhat than what I learned back home. She calls me an idiot and I call her a dimwit, all in good fun of course, before finally agreeing that the other has no real clue what they're doing. She believes that as the oldest member in the household, she has an important say in decisions that we make as parents, which clashes somewhat with my beliefs. As much as I appreciate the extra help, I still look forward to the time when she's not needed and we can finally all go our separate ways. Questions and reactions from locals When I first became a parent, I was only too happy to show people my latest photos of the boys. Nowadays though, I try to avoid doing that because I know that I’ll have to answer the same questions for about the millionth time: “Can they speak Chinese?” (yes, and fluent Cantonese too) “Is your wife Chinese?” (yes) “Do they live here with you?” (yes) “Do they go to international schools?” (no, local schools) “Will you try for a daughter?” (yes, if you give me about seven million RMB to pay the social maintenance fee, buy a bigger apartment, and raise her to adulthood) “Will you take them back to Australia?” (I don’t know) My boys get it too, and locals tend to assume that my boys are actually foreigners who only speak English and are surprised when they respond to them in fluent Cantonese. They’re already tired of telling people that no, they’re not American. They’re Chinese citizens who can speak the language as well as any of them. The most common reaction we get is (mostly) kids staring at us and shouting “waigoren, waigoren! ni kan, waigoren!” with ‘ohmygod, ohmygod’ expressions etched on their faces. This just bemuses us, because we’re so used to speaking English constantly to each other and being in that immersive environment that we wonder why on earth people would make a fuss over us. They might as well shout, “wow, you have elbows. Hey everyone, these people have elbows, come and see!” I know people are just surprised and curious when they see the three of us about. To be fair, we come across a lot of friendly people who are respectful and polite and for that reason, I’m happy to answer their questions and let them take photos of us. Sometimes though, we get those (who, interestingly enough, are almost always Cantonese women over 50) who just can’t control themselves. They’ll do things like play with their hair, slap them lightly in the face or put their faces close to ours and say ‘helloooooo’ in a slow and provocative way, as one lady on the street did to us recently. Sometimes people will say cruel things to the boys about their background, which upsets them. I’ll tell them off and tell the boys as I’m taking them away that they should feel proud of who they are and what they can do, and not to let small-minded people get to them. This has probably sounded a bit negative so far but naturally, there are many positives too. They’re happy kids who make friends easily and are loved by their teachers. The principals at their schools were very interested to meet them and ask lots of questions on their first day and let me just say, god help any kid who tries to bully them because the boys have a lot of people standing behind them. Overall, I’m happy that they’re growing up in a safe environment, going to safe schools and we have a solid network of friends and local family here who can help us out when needed. My goal is ultimately to take them back to Australia in the next 5-6 years or so but in the meantime, we have a pretty full life here.
Good article. I always wondered what it'd be like to raise kids here as a foreigner. I wondered, but I wouldn't do it. With due respect, the food pollution, the water pollution and, of course, the much publicized air pollution are just too much of a risk to take, in my opinion. And that's not to mention the other every-day life dangers of living in a big city in China (example: do you teach your kids to always cross the street at the zebra crossings or to always wait for the green pedestrian light? well, in China that's of no use). As far as the locals' reaction, it sounds like your friends and co-workers are surprised that you are raising kids here. Perhaps that, by itself, should tell us something. And of course the other problem is the one you hinted at. They will never belong here, they will always be the "waiguoren". That's a backward cultural trait of China that will not be resolved in our, or even your kids', lifetimes. Having said all that, thanks for the post and good luck!
"They will never belong here, they will always be the "waiguoren". That's a backward cultural trait of China that will not be resolved in our, or even your kids', lifetimes" Hmm...with your ability to look into the future...one wonders what you were doing here in the first place and not on Wall Street picking future winners. China has changed so much in the last 30 years it is almost unrecognizable. This "certain backwards cultural trait" could change and yes within our lifetimes or our children's. Besides as long as you are accepted by certain friends and your family...who cares about what strangers think or feel?
Wow man. I'm in a similar set-up, British Man, Chinese girl, daughter born here. She's 4 and teaches me Chinese. Great to read your article, I felt your pain with so many things, especially the 'waigoren' which I usually get directed at my daughter and peoples amazement when she replies in Chinese. They just have such a hard time understanding how a curly haired four year old blonde girl can reply in Chinese. Great article. Thanks.
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