Category: Across the Globe

Raising Children in China

Lauren Hesterman - Raising Children in China

Disclaimer:  The observations below are generalizations that could come off as negative stereotypes (which is not my intention) and certainly do not represent China as a whole, but rather, the small sliver of life I’ve been exposed to – from my own naive western perspective, wink.

raising kids in china

We are an American family of four living in southern China.  I’m often questioned about what my experience is like living here with two young children (they’re 2.5 and 4.5).  Is it difficult?  Culture shock?  How are the kids adjusting?  And generally, my answer is something to the tune of we’re great!  Surely it’s not because we aren’t confronted with new cultural norms every corner we turn – it’s just that we’re open to them (us by choice, the kids by nature).  Chinese culture is just about as far as one can get from American culture, as I see it.  These two systems are fundamentally different.  One rooted in communism, the other in self-determined, independent democracy.  As such, each culture has evolved very different cultural norms – norms that often produce a non-judgmental, furrowed brow.

Before I go on, let me give you a little back-story.  The need to understand and experience new cultures is very much part of me.  Thus, after I became we and we became three, and then quickly, four, I knew that putting my wanderlust on the shelf wasn’t an option.  Our children have been on more planes and trains than I had been on until I was well into my 20’s (though, I’m not so proud of the carbon footprints we’re making for them – a tradeoff I don’t know how to remedy).  We’ve taken so many 14-hour flights at this point that I don’t even blink an eye at a 5-hour flight – they know the drill all too well.  And so, when my husband was presented with an exciting new job opportunity that meant relocating to China, we [for the most part] gladly accepted.

One of the most spectacular qualities in a child is their ability to adapt and recalibrate to a new normal.  I believe that this is because whether they have spent their entire life living on the same street, or have lived a life on the road, their perspective is ALWAYS fresh and ripe for discovery.  In this way, as a child, living abroad really isn’t all that different than living in the same house they cried in as a newborn – there will ALWAYS be new discoveries to make and new information to absorb.

Raising kids in China

Often times, I expect my children to react more profoundly when confronted by new culture, or rather, for them to validate my reaction. 

Isn’t it peculiar how everyone pushes and shoves to get on and off the train, with seemingly no acknowledgment of his or her neighbor?  Children:  isn’t this just how people do it?  (Housing more than 1/7 of the world’s population, China’s people have evolved to have little space recognition – out of shear necessity.  So unless you’re related, good luck not getting cut in front of getting onto an elevator…7 months pregnant, holding the hand of your two year old child.)

Don’t you find it strange that we’re being served chicken feet as our gratis appetizer?  Children: silent while chewing on said chicken foot. (Chicken feet are only one example of the obscure – to me – animal parts people chew on here.)

Holy mother, did that dude just hawk a loogie on the sidewalk next to me?  Children: yes mom, yes he did.  Wait, what’s a loogie? (Spitting in public spaces is a norm that is on its way out, thankfully.)

If another car tries to cut me off as I cross the street [while holding the hands of two young children – on GREEN], I’m going to cry.  Children: Calmate mama, calmate. (Chinese car culture has only just developed over the last few decades and for some reason has evolved as CAR IS KING and pedestrian as road-block, which makes you feel like an ant waiting to be squashed.) 

As you see, being from a western culture (and particularly the United States, where personal space and property has very much defined who we are), living in China takes some perspective adjusting – and child rearing is no exception.

Raising kids in China

On infants: babies are often bundled and wrapped and smothered while outside, as I pass by with a sweat drenched forehead and shorts on – our cleaning lady often gestures her disapproval/concern over our children running around naked in the air-conditioned apartment.

Babies and toddlers are often dressed in splitpants (pants/rompers with a slit up the bum, basically) – to support the Chinese form of Elimination Communication – which they’ve been practicing for, oh, I don’t know, a few hundred more years than us westerners.  I’ve been told that older Chinese women see diapers as a sign of lazy parenting.

Most babies are cared for by their maternal grandparents.  It warms my heart right up every time I see a grandma carrying her grandchild around in her oh-so-cute matching pajama set.  Grandparents care for their grandchildren until they are school age so that the mother is able to work – this way, adults can work in their most productive years (though I could argue that being an at-home-parent/grandparent is the more difficult position).

Raising kids in China

On young children: most evenings you can find kids playing outside until 9 or 10pm and then up ready for school and out the door by 8am – our kids are in bed by 8pm and we’re lucky if we’ve remembered to put on underwear when the little lady leaves for school at 9am.  The main reason for this is because it’s a sub-tropical, most often hot and humid environment, so being active at night just makes sense.

Children are served mostly warm beverages because it is thought to be better for digestion (adults also most often abide by this rule) and kids drink formula until they’re well into their toddler years – our kids are regularly offered warm milk at restaurants and brought warm water – our two year old has learned to be clear that he wants bing – cold, water.

On car seats: they don’t exist.  Well, rarely.  Because a Grandparent most often accompanies the parents, someone is always in the back of the car to hold the child.  My first Chinese friend had such a hard time imagining me out and about by myself driving with two children.

On school: kindergarten starts at age 2.5 and often times even earlier.  And we’re talking Monday through Friday, from 830 to 4.  Which basically makes it daycare, but it’s not, it’s very much “school”.  The fact that I still have an almost 3 year old at home with me is strange.

On TWO blonde children, only two years apart: The phrase, liang ge! – translated, simply means 2!  I’ve heard this short phrase iterated with exhuberence upwards of a thousand times since we arrived in China.  Though we do hear it while the kids are scampering about, nothing brings in the liang ge’s! like strolling down the road (or through a tourist site) with a Phil and Teds double stroller filled with two blond-haired children who are often mistaken as twins.  The kids are beckoned for photo op’s with strangers on a daily basis.  We’ve considered doing a little social experiment and setting up shop at a touristy location and charging 5 Chinese Yuan per photo – we think we could make at least 500 Yuan in a few hours.  I’d say that the kids are agreeable 60% of the time – they’ve made it into thousands of travel albums at this point.

Raising kids in China

On mothering and life: kids and houses are kept IMPECCABLE, yet you very much get the feeling that a staff infection could be picked up on every street corner.  A perfect example of this happened right in front of me recently – a young girl was told to pee right in the middle of the side-walk, but her mother/caregiver was sure to pull out a tissue and wipe her afterwards (if that had been me, it would have been dirt, with no wiping,).  I’m in NO way a germaphobic mom.  My kid’s fingernails are regularly found dirty and I’m only good about washing hands after climbing around at playgrounds half of the time.  And then we moved to China.  Now, their fingernails are actually clean most of the time and I don’t go anywhere without hand sanitizer.  However, they are often found with food spattered faces and I can’t tell you how often a Chinese woman pulls out a tissue to do the job for me.

In the same regard, children are doted on by their caregivers like flies on horse poop.  I’ve learned to just politely smile, rather than mumble a snide remark, when a woman clearly perceives my lack of hand holding as neglect.  My kids are jumpers and can regularly be found dismounting off of four or five stairs; when this act is witnessed by a Chinese woman, it looks to cause the skip of a heart beat – but is almost always followed up with a warm, giggly smile.

Nannies and cleaning ladies are the norm (they are called ayi’s – translated, means Auntie).  Before moving here I had NEVER paid anyone to help clean my house. In China, just like most other developing places, labor is cheap and so everyone, foreigner and Chinese alike, take advantage of the affordable help.  Most families I know have full time help, 6 days a week.  It is normal to see a mom out walking her baby in a stroller, with an ayi by her side (and, sometimes, a grandparent as well).  Though I still have a bit of a guilty complex surrounding it, we do have an ayi who helps clean three days a week, three hours a day – and I’ve got to say, it’s pretty amazing.

We live in a very international apartment compound (roughly 50% foreigners, 50% Chinese), with expats from all over the world.  Because of this, there are restaurants, bars and grocery stores that cater to foreign tastes and make the area feel much less China-like.  For us, being here is largely about experiencing the culture and so we try to walk beyond our perimeter as often as we can – which only means walking a few blocks.  A short stroll from our apartment and we could find ourselves in a variety of culturally interesting locations:  a make-shift fish market, where you can buy live fish directly out of small plastic tubs.  A variety of seafood restaurants, with fish proudly being displayed in tanks outside – the kids treat them as their own personal aquarium EVERY time we pass one – which could occur up to four times in one walk – it’s a regular battle to get them to move on.  Or a wet-market, where sides of pig, fresh tofu (available in 10 different forms), and live chickens, make for a true dazzling of the senses.

Raising kids in China

A morning stroll may take us past a few dozen people doing Tai Chi, a group of men sitting around a table drinking tea and playing Mahjong, or to a restaurant to eat food that we are only accustomed to eating for dinner.  An evening stroll often finds us passing large groups of women dancing (for exercise) in a courtyard, kids in roller-blading lessons (we didn’t realize that people did this anymore) on a random sidewalk, and small groups formed serenading the park with their music.  Here, rather than turning on the television after dinner, people go outside – which is so refreshing coming from the United States.

Our 4.5 year old daughter attends a Chinese Montessori school and our 2.7 year old son will start later this fall.  Our hope is that when it comes time to leave, we’ll all have a firm grasp of the language (Mandarin) that we can take with us wherever we’re headed next.  As time passes, I’m sure that we’ll all culturally recalibrate and before we know it, we’ll be cutting in the train line and encouraging our kids to pop a squat in (or around) the street – OH WAIT, we already do – we’ll see about spitting and chewing on chicken feet.

Experiencing and sharing the world with our children is a priority for us – adventuring together, learning together, and broadening our perspectives together.   My hope is that our children will grow up open to and understanding of new cultures, ready to embrace and be stewards of the vast, beautiful, and magical world around them.

 

Lauren writes about family travel and muses about motherhood at safariRoo.

Foreign Correspondents: Our Most Important Trip So Far…

Tea Collection's Foreign Correspondents

We have been traveling as a family since the kids were really small.  I want them to see everything and I want them to be curious about the world we live in.  Most of all, I want them to know who they are.

This last trip we took was really important because we decided to take my guys to meet my mother’s family in Japan.

After a 9 hour plane ride and almost as many hours on trains we arrived in Kochi, a little town on the island of Shikoku in the south of Japan.

Tea Collection's Foreign Correspondent

My guys were a little nervous at first.  Who were all these people?

But here we were in the very place my mom lived until she was about their age.  And it was pretty magical seeing it all through their eyes.

Tea Collection's Foreign Correspondent

We visited some neat sites; an old castle, the bustling Harume market and a famous little bridge.

We also stopped by a beautiful shrine perched high on a cliff on the other side of the Pacific Ocean from where we live now.  The boys were amazed that the same ocean touched this beach and the beach near our house.

Tea Collection's Foreign Correspondent

My favorite moment was walking the road between my grandpa and grandma’s family homes, realizing how close their families lived to one another in this little town; watching my kids run with glee.

Tea Collection's Foreign Correspondent

Why on earth did my grandpa and grandma leave all this and move to North America so many years ago?

We traveled back up north to see the boat my mom journeyed to Canada on with her little sister and my grandma.  The Hikara Maru is now a museum in Yokohama Japan.

Tea Collection's Foreign Correspondent

Traveling with all our luxuries now: cell phones, laptops, ipads and easy commercial air travel I realize how brave my grandmother was traveling alone across rocky seas to a foreign land with two small children in tow.

“Do you know that my grandma came to Canada on this boat?” I overhear one of my guys telling the other.

“So did mine!” his brother says.

And so did mine.

I’m so glad we made this journey.  In trying to help my kids figure out who they are, I’m learning so much about myself.

“We Go There, Too!” with Natalia of CultureBaby

This past Christmas, I received a gift I’d been waiting almost a decade for… my husband took me back to Spain!

I am absolutely bananas about Spain.  Call it nostalgia: I lived there for three years as a child, and vacationed there frequently throughout high school and college.  But as is typical of your twenties, I never had the time or the money to make it back. But this past December, I got to return with my husband and toddler son, Xavier, to introduce them to Spain and fall in love with it all over again..

When people think of Spain, they think of beaches or exciting nightlife.  Neither being possible in December or with a two year old, we tasted many of the country’s lesser known charms.  On our circuit up from our current home base in Morocco, we started in Andalucia, visiting Ronda and Granada before driving through Alicante to ferry to Mallorca. Then back west again, we hit Valencia, Cordoba and Seville. Of all the wonderful memories we made, I’ll remember three things in particular.

1. Horsies

I’ve found that one of the best ways to involve a child in international travel is to tie it into their passion of the moment.  Though Xavier has since moved on to elephants, December was the month of the horse.

In many of the cities we visited, horse and carriage rides were among the most convenient ways to see the city, particularly given how rough cobblestones can be on stroller wheels!  Although they can be expensive, choosing at least one city to partake in a ride can be well worth the cost.  Everywhere else, we took time out to spot other carriages around town, ride carousel horses or book a pony ride.

In Cordoba, we visited the Royal stables for an equestrian show.  The beautiful animals and talented riders dance around the paddock to music and lights.  It was magical to see the wonder in Xavier’s eyes and yell  “HORSIES” every minute or so.  The horses can be seen training by day as well and an even larger show can be seen in Jerez.

In Seville, horsies were out in force for the Three Kings or “Reyes” celebration.  No one does festivals quite like the Spanish and kids are never left out, no matter how late they go.  On January 6, Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior arrive and are welcomed with a parade of mounted attendants and elaborate floats. It is an exceptionally raucous but wonderfully festive event.  If you are visiting Spain with kids, look to see if you can time your visit with a local festival; there will always be plenty to entertain the kids.

2. Pastries

One of my favorite things about Spain is the food.  Tapas, fresh seaside fish and a wonderful array of sweets.  But until visiting with a toddler, I never appreciated that Spanish food is as good in casual, fast food environments as it is in the finest haute cuisine establishments.  I am all for 5 star restaurants, but nothing puts a kink in the evening like playing airplane with your gourmet entree.

Spanish mainstay Paella was fortunately still on the menu for us.  Since it is served family style, it is easy to offer kids a smaller portion.  Moreover, the seafood version of the dish, although the best known, is by no means the only kind.  Chicken and even rabbit versions are also available.  We had our finest sampling in Valencia, Paella’s birthplace.

Elsewhere in Spain, Xavier enjoyed the Spanish pasties.  In almost any Spanish city, it is easy to find “chocolate con churros”.  The chocolate is not what you are used to, it is darker, thick as pudding and ideal for dipping fresh, hot, deep fried churros. It will never be part of a complete nutritious breakfast but it was a hit!

The island of Mallorca, off Spain’s eastern coast, has it’s own special and delicious tradition of pastries.  Our little man made a morning “ensaimada,” a curly, soft confection topped with powdered sugar, a morning tradition (hold the traditional accompaniment of café con leche).

Finally: Chorizo – it probably will land me in Bad Parenting’s hall of fame as the chewiest, saltiest most toddler inappropriate snack on the market today.  But I’ve got to confess to a very naughty pride in seeing how my little man took to this classic Iberian dried sausage.

3.  Time to Run

We have found that it’s best not to travel in spite of a toddler but to open yourself up to new experiences you might never have had traveling as a couple. Slow your pace, choose more open spaces, and try to act less like a tourist and more like a local.  Don’t make yourself a list of “must sees.” Linger in a park, seek out historical or cultural attractions with gardens.  Before we travel, we find it prudent to check in with a local parenting websites. You’ll find more off the beaten track walks and authentic experiences than ever before.

Our favorite moments were less about dragging our poor kiddo through world famous exhibits and more about watching him chase bubbles through a public park or collect oranges in the gardens of the famous Seville Alcazar. Don’t forget to celebrate the kid in you.  Indulge in purely childish pleasures like aquariums and zoos….you might find yourself wondering why you skipped them all these years.

Finally, the wonderful thing about Spain is how they welcome children at almost any event or occasion.  I was shocked to see that I was about the only parent at New Year’s Eve celebrations who had left their baby at home.  Even if there is a typically adult pleasure you are eager to experience, like a wine tasting, call ahead.  Odds are, children are accommodated.  For me, it was just one more reason to love Spain that I never expected.

 

Natalia is the founder and managing partner of CultureBaby. She started the company in 2011 when her son was five months old. On bad days, she puts the whole thing down to a fit of postpartum lunacy. But on most days, she loves seeking out new global products for CultureBaby and hearing from mothers worldwide about how they celebrate their culture and heritage with their kids. You can follow along on her adventures on The Culture Mom Chronicles. Follow her on Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter!

“We Go There, Too!” with Sarah Tucker

We go there – we explore and dig deep into other cultures. We know you go there too. This new series will feature stories from world travelers; they’ve taken their first flight over seas with little ones, they’ve traveled back to their native country to introduce their children to grandparents, they’ve packed up only their necessities and traveled to developing countries. Here, you will find their stories and learn about how they’re going there too.

We’re so excited to have Sarah Tucker from Fairytales Are True with us today on Studio T! After learning she took her six month old across the great big sea for a family vacation, we were eager to hear how things went. Thanks for sharing a little piece of your trip with us Sarah!

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Before his half birthday Tuck had already made his way to four countries. My husband and I lived abroad as newlyweds and that opportunity afforded us many opportunities to travel to places I never imagined I would. When we had our son we wanted to share all of the rich insights and experiences travel gives, and raise a “little citizen of the world”.  Fortunately,  having a baby did not mean the end to our adventures, just different kind of adventures altogether.  Traveling with a baby allows you to see things through their eyes; which are always filled with amazement.  It’s true you have to go slow, but it’s a welcomed pace from trying to cram in all the sights all of the time. Most recently this past summer we took off overseas to introduce our baby to our newlywed hometown of Basel, Switzerland.  There we visited old friends, introduced him to swiss german, and wandered the cobblestone streets.  It was fun taking him to old haunts.  Of course no trip to Basel would be complete without getting a cheeseboard at Consum!  Surprisingly enough tea at the famous Les Trois Rois (Napolean once stayed here, as did the Rolling Stones) was a great spot with babies.  My friend who has also become a new mom, another old friend, and I enjoyed a long leisurely lunch with our babies.  We visited markets, smelled swiss peonies, and strolled along Spalenberg which has houses dating back to the 1200’s.

After that fun swiss holiday we headed down to Sicily!  We took a day to visit Mt. Etna and finished with a wine tour and “light lunch” at Murgo Winery. The light lunch was an eight course meal.  We we’re stuffed, but it was all so good. We ate at some amazing restaurants, and pretty much all of Italy is kid friendly.  They love babies and are incredibly accommodating.  We ate at Sea Sound one night, and Casa Grugno another.  Both beautiful Michelin rated restaurants you can take kids to.
Though he may not remember it, we will!  And I will always enjoy exposing my kids to different cultures, languages, and food. Love raising him to be a little citizen of the world!