While I’m married without children in China, many foreigners — like American Charlotte, a freelance writer in small town China who blogs at Chinese Potpourri — have chosen to start a family here. (Longtime readers might remember Charlotte from her unforgettable love story titled “I Want To Be Your Slave For The Rest of My Life”.) But as Charlotte has learned, having kids in China with your Chinese spouse involves a lot more than just “basics like a starry night themed nursery versus a jungle one.”
Would you like to share your wisdom with the readers of Speaking of China through a personal guest post? Check out the submit a post page to learn more about how to have your writing featured here.
Most Chinese couples want a child, if only to make their parents happy. My husband was no exception, though he was in more of a hurry than I was due to his old-by-Chinese-standards age of 32 at the time of our marriage. And he did truly want kids. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that our son was born just four days after we celebrated our first anniversary.
One thing I didn’t anticipate is all of the decisions that we’d have to make. I’m not talking basics like a starry night themed nursery versus a jungle one. That’s ridiculous, Chinese typically co-sleep with the baby. Nor am I talking about the never ending debate of breast feeding versus formula (news of the formula scandal broke when my son was less than a week old and I was glad that I’d chosen to breastfeed; for those who choose formula, please do due diligence and find a reputable brand).
No, these questions are a bit more serious than that. Once you and your Chinese husband decide to start a family, a few more things need to be discussed. In a perfect world, you’d sort out all these questions as you dated. In reality, we rarely get past the decision to have or not have children before we say “I do.” Here are six questions that are worthy of some serious talk time as you ponder the joys and challenges of parenthood:
1. Which maternity and post-partum customs will you follow?
This goes from quitting your job and not having sex once you know you’re pregnant (first and third trimesters are a “no-no” when it comes to being intimate) to wearing a radiation smock for the duration of the pregnancy and eating dumplings made from insects your mother-in-law picked out of a pile of manure from a farmer’s barnyard to improve your milk production. Nope, not kidding on that. Luckily it was my sister-in-law that got those delicacies; I’m quite the milk producer.
Sometimes it pays to insist on your traditions. But sometimes you need to know when to give in to win. I’ve finally figured out that sometimes I just have to humor my Chinese family. They don’t have as much knowledge about the world as I do and just aren’t capable of understanding some things. Like the fact that rollerskating did not cause my miscarriage. Really, they simply don’t get it. I also assured them that I will not blame them for any ailments I have in old age. Once I came to the realization that I can’t change what my mother-in-law knows and understands, life became easier.
2. Which nationality will the kids be?
I attended school with several military kids and they’d talk about their dual citizenship because they were born abroad and when they were 18 they could choose which nationality to keep. This was interesting to me, and when I found out we were expecting, I looked up the requirements of getting that for our kids. The friendly person at the American embassy informed me that China doesn’t recognize dual citizenship and that all babies born here are Chinese citizens. So these half-Chinese kids are in a sort of nationality purgatory; they can get a passport from their own country but China will still want to count them as one of their own.
3. Who and how will you name the baby?
When I taught English at a local college I always did a unit on names with the students. It was a chance for me to learn more characters and for them to explain something pretty basic in English. I was surprised to find that most students were not named by their parents. Grandparents seemed to be the most common person giving names, but fortune tellers and aunts and uncles were also named as the origin of their moniker.
Once we decided that our kids would get American citizenship, we felt it best that they had a Western sounding name as their given name, their Chinese name makes up their middle and family names. So their names are something like this: Andrew Lingfeng Wang. It helps that both sides of the family can call the kids by names that they understand, even if their Chinese birth certificates are quite a mess due to their strange names. Fortunately, when it was time to get their citizenship changed at the embassy, I wrote up an explanation of why my son’s name is partially illegible and tried to offer some reasoning as to why my daughter’s names start with lowercase letters and have periods at the end of each one and their paperwork was processed easily.
4. How many kids will we have?
Coming from three-child families, my husband and I knew that we wanted more than one. But there are so many questions that come up when having a second child while the one-child policy is still in place for the majority of the population. The authorities consider my son Chinese, so we went to the other hospital (only two hospitals, of a dozen, in our town have maternity departments). Technically it’s illegal, though I was told that giving birth in a foreign hospital is never a problem for couples having subsequent children in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Actually, any child born in China is Chinese regardless of whether one or both parents are Chinese or not.
5. Will you return to work or will one parent stay home with the child?
I returned to work when my son was 34 days old. The basic laws for foreigners don’t allow for maternity leave like our Chinese counterparts, but I have heard of foreign women successfully negotiating maternity leave into their contracts if they’re planning to have kids. Chinese women get six months to three years, depending on their job and desire to take advantage of it. I wanted to stay home, but as in many situations, we needed both incomes. My in-laws are very traditional and watched my son on days that I worked.
Since my last job ended, I’m home everyday. I frequently hear comments about how I’m lazy and don’t work or don’t care about my family enough to go find a job. That seems to be the general consensus about women in my town who don’t work: they’re lazy, they don’t care or they’re rich. It’s true I won’t move to a bigger city to find foreigner-friendly job, but they don’t see that I’m up at the crack of dawn and burning the midnight oil freelancing.
6. Where will they go to school?
I can count on one hand the number of Western families, whom I know personally or through someone, whose kids go to Chinese schools. The easiest way to explain it is that Chinese schools produce robots who aim to be number-one. Everything, starting from first grade, is about being the top student. Parents go to school on weekends to clean to earn points for their kids which puts them in better standing with the teachers. Teachers teach to the top of the class and shame the parents of kids who are at the bottom, since their salary is in jeopardy if the class scores aren’t high enough.
I’m not implying that other types of education are flawless, and the Chinese style of education does have it’s good points, but kids in Chinese school have little free time. Every weekend and holiday is packed with extra homework to “make up” for the days away from school. Overseeing nightly homework is like a part-time job.
What other questions would you add to the list?
Charlotte — a wife, mom and freelance writer in small town China — blogs about her life at Chinese Potpourri.
Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.