“Zao sheng guizi”: the pressure of having babies in a Chinese family

Five days after my wedding ceremony in China, my Chinese mother-in-law sat down with me to do “the talk.” No, it wasn’t that kind of talk. It was about…well…children.

“You have to have a child, and earlier is better,” she said, flashing me a nervous smile.

“But we can’t,” I pleaded. “I’m the primary earner in our family. John still isn’t in school yet, and we’re just trying to survive right now.”

Apparently, the only survival she had on her mind was of our future children. “People in China will have more than one child. Even if they have to pay the big fine, they’ll do it.”

“Right now isn’t the right time. How are we going to raise it?”

“You have the baby, and I’ll raise it for you until it is three years old.” I groaned inside. Not only was she challenging my reproductive choices, but she also challenged my ideas of how a child should be raised.

I tried to tell her how I was working for myself, how I had terrible health insurance, and, again, how hard things were for John and I. But she didn’t hear any of it. She saw a woman before her, her new daughter-in-law, with a healthy smile and empty uterus.

In the end, she had the last word. “Chinese people must have children — it’s part of the culture.”

Sometimes, I cannot believe I married into this family. That’s not because I regret it. I don’t, because I love my husband with all my heart, and I love his family too. It’s just ironic, on a personal level. Here I am, a girl who never had a strong “maternal instinct” or drive to have children, in a family and culture that sees pregnancy and birth as a prerequisite, instead of an elective.

The hardest was this past summer in China. My Chinese mother-in-law brought it up once again — it was less of an admonition and more a friendly reminder. I think she is beginning to understand the pressure we have. Still, I felt depressed on one level. I imagined that my Chinese mother-in-law thought me especially unfilial. No child yet, from the one daughter-in-law who could, conceivably, have as many as she wanted. My uterus is like prime real estate that I haven’t even bothered to rent out or sell.

We don’t plan on having children right now — at least, not while John’s getting his Ph.D. But when he’s done, my time is up. I’ll have no more reasons why I can’t have a child. In my darkest times, it frightens me.

John has always wanted children. And why shouldn’t he? He is a Chinese. Having ancestors is one of the most important things in a Chinese family — this is why the Chinese love children so much. I wonder why, oh why, did the “love children” gene somehow skip me?

Before John got into a Ph.D. program, there have been times when I lost it with him. It’s not a good idea to get into a conversation about having children if 1) you’re not ready yet and 2) you’re facing uncertainty (i.e. trying to help your husband get into graduate school). But we did. I’ve always regretted those conversations, because they seem to forget the ultimate truth in our relationship — that we love each other deeply.

On the other hand, I find consolation in my Chinese husband. He is truly a singular man in so many ways — so gentle, understanding, and thoughtful. But he also has something a lot of Chinese husbands don’t: he knows how to raise children. How? Through his psychology program. Just this past semester, he has helped families manage and change the problem behavior of their very young children. If we have children, he’s going to be there to make it easier for me, and to help me do the right things as a parent. When I think about that, I’m not so scared anymore about fulfilling my responsibility as a daughter-in-law in a Chinese family…

At least, not until I see another explosively pregnant mom with three children tugging on her pants. 😉

Have you ever gotten “the baby talk” from your Chinese mother-in-law? Are you — or were you — ever worried about this must-do for every wife of a Chinese man? Or, if you’re Chinese, how did your foreign wife take this? I’d love to hear from you.

P.S.: If you’re wondering, “zao sheng guizi” is written 早生贵子, and means “may you have a son soon.”

39 Replies to ““Zao sheng guizi”: the pressure of having babies in a Chinese family”

  1. My husband and I both wanted kids and we had two of them, so no real issues here. You know where we run into problems though? Adoption. I would love to adopt a third baby and perhaps a fourth from a Chinese orphanage but my husband and his family won’t consider it. Jocelyn could you do some research and help me understand why it’s hard for Chinese people to embrace adoption? And hopefully your readers would chime in in the comments section with some additional insights. I’ve heard a lot of reasons (the baby must come from a ‘bad’ family if they would abandon it; not sure one could love an adopted baby as much as one’s own; need to spend our resources taking care of our own flesh and blood) but still don’t really understand. I would love to hear your take on this.

    Meanwhile I will accept my husband’s decision unless and until he changes his mind. One thing I know for sure, you don’t want to force a baby on someone if they’re not completely willing to have it.

  2. Hi Jocelyn,

    Good post. My Chinese wife and I (I am from Rocky River, Ohio) have never had an issue with being pressured by either her parents or my parents for having children. I met my wife more than 5 years ago and we have been married for about 2 years now. When we first met, I explained my 5 year plan to them and reminded them of this plan continuously (I have lived in China for ten years). They realize that since our cultures are different, we need to make decisions ourselves.
    Another key point is that my wife is from a “small town” in China and throughout the past 5+ years, her family and my family have a very good relationship and we can talk through most situations, which may be somewhat rare in cross-cultural relationships.

  3. Interesting post! And yes, we (he’s Chinese-American and I’m also Asian-American) are dealing with a similar situation right now.

    His Chinese-American parents didn’t want to wait until the day after our wedding. Oh no, they sat us down a mere *hour* after the reception was finished and told us we needed to have children “immediately.” This after trying to block our marriage on several fronts. And just today, they sent my parents an email, purportedly to wish them a Merry Christmas. In it, they wrote, referring to me, “Do you think she could consider having babies?” This, in a letter to MY PARENTS!! And they CC’d my husband and I.

    Oh, and here’s the kicker, the part that made me stop thinking about the children comment. They also wrote in their email, “When we retire, we plan to move close to [our son] and [his wife].” Um, seriously? I am going a little crazy over this email.

    1. @Melanie – so nice to see you back here, and thanks always for your support! I had heard something about the adoption taboo before. I’ll see what I can find and maybe come back with a post. BTW, it’s great that you and your husband were on the same page about kids. I think I’m starting to get there…gradually!

      @Ron – thanks for your comment! Sounds like you have a fantastic relationship with your in-laws. So they really didn’t pressure your wife? Wow. You know, my husband’s family is also from a small town — in the countryside — but they do put the pressure on nevertheless. We have told them we have a plan — particularly w/ my husband being in school — but they still want that grandkid. And I still feel that pressure. It may be more palpable to me because I’m a woman and I know that it is generally expected in China.

      As an aside, I grew up in the Cleveland area myself (Parma Hts) and know Rocky River well.

      @MarriedWithoutChildren — Oh my, I am so sorry to hear about all of the pressure, considering how much work it took just to make the marriage happen. That’s tough. Does your husband have a good relationship with his parents? In situations like this, it’s often best to have him communicate w/ your in-laws and work out an understanding. My husband is the “bridge” to the in-laws, if there is something that I don’t feel comfortable communicating with them (or if I don’t even know how to communicate with them). Good luck, and please hang in there, knowing you’re not alone. 😉

  4. I think my parents will never urge me and my wife to have a child, even there is, I’d say my wife won’t mind very much. For a very simple reason, maybe they just care about you in a typical Chinese way??

    In fact, they really don’t need to ask. It will happen when the time is right. The thing is that some Chinese parents’ mind is still in those years when they were raising a child and they did not take a full consideration how a child raised in today’s world. I suppose there would be a better understanding if they were facing same difficulties as many young couples currently have, that raise a child at the same time fulfil their own dream etc.

    Good luck to you and your beloved john.

  5. Ni hao Jocelyn,

    Another educational post that doesn’t merely express a personal view on a much-heralded issue for Chinese (which would be fine in and of itself, mind you), but one with a universal call to action. That’s what makes your posts so appealing.

    I don’t have any personal stories to relate on this score, as I’m not in the boat of any of your commenters nor married as yet, but where I do get involved is the radically different approach to family which Asians have versus non-Asians which is instructive to young, say, Americans, and which should be taught in schools. Your blog is instrumental in this regard, which is why I think it should be mandatory reading assigned by school boards in the Contiguous 48 and given the seal of approval by Boards of Education across the entire US–

    –okay, sorry, I was going off on a tangent there, but imagine if more of this were required education before tots became rug rats became adolescents and then adults with adjustment troubles. Such cross-cultural gaffes and learning experiences might not be as problematic then, don’t you think?

    This is my guest post for today. Thanking you again!


  6. I’m making a guess and hope people don’t get too mad at me for saying this. I think one of the biggest reason(s) why many people aren’t too keen on adoption is they probably don’t feel these type of relationships can cement as well as blood relations. Many people already feel enough headaches and heart breaks with the ones they are physically related to so adding others into the intimate mix might add another host of issues. I think a lot of the attitudes towards adoption come from this bonding anxiety plus the strong almost obsessive drive for practicality (which will put off many non-Chinese minds who aren’t familiar with Chinese life and history).

    IMO, I really think this is mostly personal attitudes with some social restraints. As far as I’m aware, there’s little-hardly anything in the “culture” that prevents people from wanting to adopt. (However, depending how one was raised and exposed to, there isn’t a lot of encouragement). Culture is ever changing and often circumstantial to what they can or can not dol. Also, it could be that many people hold similar beliefs and it appears to be a “cultural attitude” while sometimes people use the word culture as an excuse for their individual/family ideas.

    Some ancestorial villages and families do hold strong attitudes with blood relatives but nowadays it depends a lot on the couple(s) themselves. I’m not familiar with the rural places and more inland areas of China so maybe it’s a little different than the coastal places. In the past it was relative too, there’s a very high chance many families aren’t genetically descended from the same ancestor as they’re supposed to be.

  7. I feel for you, Jocelyn, as I felt much as you did before I decided my husband was “the one.” But then I managed to walk away virtually unscathed from a roll-over car accident here in China, and my then-boyfriend, now husband was the first person I wanted to talk to after it happened. A few weeks later he came to see me in China, and I met his mother who within 15 minutes of meeting me had shown me all the family photos and asked point blank 1) when were we getting married and 2) when was I going to give her a grandchild. I knew at that moment — when I made the choice not to run out of the house screaming — that I was, indeed, going to marry him and, heavens willing, would have children with him. He was the oldest, their only son, pushing 40 (he is 10 years older than me), and I knew that I could not continue to be with him unless I was willing to live up to the expectation that we would have kids. My inlaws have always been wonderful to me — I still think maybe part of it is related to the fact that I didn’t shy away from those blunt questions (though I did explain we would probably have to wait until we finished our graduate studies), and gave them hope that their son was indeed going to marry and have kids. They were mostly worried about being able to communicate with me, which despite my Sichuanisms and their Dongbei hua we manage to do without too many misunderstandings.

    I never had strong maternal urges either, but my two kids are the best “projects” I have ever worked on — and a lot of fun to boot! By the time our work/financial situation had stabilized so that we could consider having kids I was ready to do it, though not consumed with “the baby bug” like some of my friends were. So your feelings/thinking may change over time. And hopefully if/when you do have kids your MIL will be so happy with the result that she will forget that it took awhile!

    Regarding the adoption issue, I’ve got a little bit of insight into this when discussing my brother and SIL’s adoption of a Chinese daughter (they have an older boy who is their biological child). The main things my inlaws expressed a concern about were:

    1) Is there something “wrong” with her — physical or mental disabilities are still not as readily accepted here, and they were very worried that my niece might be “flawed” in some way. Adorable pictures and stories about how smart and happy she is seem to put those fears at ease;

    2) Worries about attachment issues — will she resent the fact that she is adopted (especially with an older sibling who is a biological child), will she fail to bond with the family, can she be relied upon to be filial;

    3) (and this is probably the biggest one) Worries that the biological parents will somehow reappear and try to extort money from us or otherwise make life very difficult.

    I should note that my inlaws are not Han, and come from an ethnic group where adoption has historically been much more common. So I was kind of surprised that they had such strong concerns, which may not represent mainstream thought. But I thought the information was worth sharing in any event.

    Love your blog and glad to see you are planning to ramp things up! Looking forward to more posts (and the opportunity to comment) in 2010.

    1. @Friend, thanks for sharing on the topic of adoption — no doubt Melanie Gao is thrilled to get some insight into this question though you (as am I).

      @Ihamo, love the comment! It’s so refreshing to hear from someone else who has been there — and encouraging to see that having kids wasn’t so bad after all. My husband (the psychologist in training) says I need more “exposure” so I would think that hearing from people like you is definitely good exposure, and reassuring.

      And thanks for also shedding some light on adoption! Even if your in-laws aren’t majority Han, their ideas on the topic are still fascinating.

      @J…almost forgot you (sorry about that!). You’re so right, it probably is just a way of 关心一下 (showing care). Your comment reminds me of what one of my Chinese friends told me this summer, in the same vein. I asked her why everyone wanted to know if we had kids — also to show they cared, according to her.

  8. Hi again Jocelyn,

    First, want to send a shout out to a fellow Cleveland suburbanite!

    My wife and I actually talked about this again and she said that she has never been given pressure from her family. We have been lucky on this front since I know many Chinese-foreign couples that are given pressure…..

    Happy Holidays!


  9. It’s an interesting post. I and my wife (we are Chinese) also are receiving these “friendly reminders” almost every month from our parents. Sometime it’s embarrassing. It’s also a pressure to young Chinese, I think.

    However, I understand their views and suggestions. They were born in a time when people were almost living by agriculture, and the society was formed with big families (clans) as the basic elements. To them, next generation is their “social security”, the earlier to have more babies, the better you were secured.

    Now the industrialization crumbed the big families into small units in about 20 years, the period is so short that one generation have not passed. And we are doing things that they may never imagined, I married my wife from 江苏province, thousand miles from my hometown, and we are working in 深圳, also thousand miles from both of our hometowns……

    Here, dear老乡, I have a question for you, also a suggestion. What was the situation in American in about 100 years ago, the time when industrialization began? I think It would be more interesting to speaking of American before speaking of China.

    1. Dear VicSion,

      Thanks so much for sharing with me! Indeed, you’re right about the whole idea of children as “social security” — and it makes perfect sense, because social benefits in China are not a given for everyone. I know many people 55 and older over there who have no pension, poor health insurance and, therefore, rely on their family to make sure they have the money/resources to live.

      Yes, today’s China is so different from the China of a generation earlier — but cultural norms don’t change so fast, so I am sure we can expect our parents and inlaws to nag us about children for a long, long time. 😉

      You know, I don’t know a lot about the situation in the US 100 years ago, though I do know we had a lot of similar issues (i.e. weak or nonexistent social benefits, such as pension, health care, etc) and families here did often get big, and live several generations together to take care of themselves.

  10. Jocelyn, hope you don’t mind a total stranger chiming in, but one of your earlier replies to another commenter reminded me of something: Judging by conversations with my mother in law and with my wife, being male (perhaps being male and foreign- although Ma has certainly never let my foreignness be an issue ever since she realised I was in no hurry to steal her daughter away to some far off island at the bottom of the world) certainly does seem to insulate me a lot from the “make us a grandkid” pressure. My wife doesn’t seem to be getting excessive pressure, but then again, the only way for me to know what happens between my wife and her mother when they sit down for these womanly talks is what my wife tells me….

    1. Hi Chris,

      No need to apologize at all — thanks so much for sharing your experience! Distance can make a difference, I’m sure — at the same time, I appreciate your sensitivity and realization that the experience is so different for a woman such as your wife.

      Hope you both are having a wonderful life together in New Zealand!

  11. Just catching up on your blog … I missed the pressure to have babies because I don’t have in-laws. My own parents are thrilled to be grandparents, but they never hurried us. My husband and I decided to start trying for a family almost immediately after getting married even without the pressure, mostly because neither of us were getting any younger (although we’re certainly not “old”) and we felt that if we waited for the exact right time, we might end up waiting forever.

    Of course in China there’s the cultural fixation on lineage and ancestors — both having ancestors and being one — but aside from that, in China a major role of the older generation is as caretakers of the younger. This is a society where people retire relatively early and assume their new roles, taking care of their son’s home and children until they are old enough to need caring for themselves. Taking care of their grandchildren — picking them up from school, making meals, helping with homework, doling out discipline — gives lots of elderly Chinese people, especially grandmas, a real happiness and sense of purpose. So your MIL’s pressure is also probably due in part to a real desire to once again be a caregiver. It probably beats sitting around and playing ma-jiang (or whatever your MIL’s diversion of choice is) all day. 🙂

    We get Chinese people commenting to us ALL the time about how amazing it is that we’re able to care for our kids without any “lao-ren” helping us out. Our lack of grandparents around to raise our kids for us is pitied, and most people assume we must have hired a bao-mu to make up for it. And to tell the truth, sometimes I do think it might be nice to have a Chinese MIL here to keep things in check!

    1. Hi Jessica,

      Thanks for sharing your experience! Wow, I have so much more respect for you, knowing that you have a job and are raising your children, all without the help of in-laws.

      I’m sure my MIL is probably looking forward to helping us out, though I will say that grandchild #1 (that of my husband’s eldest brother) has been a huge headache for the whole family (major behavioral problems) and may have tempered her pressure a bit. 😉

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  13. I say wait until you are ready. I know it’s the filial thing to do, and not to have an heir is almost like death in Chinese culture, but having a baby is the most selfless thing you do in life and you don’t want to regret it. My husband’s ma, grandma, aunts and uncles were all in to pressuring us. His grandma even called him stupid for waiting to have a child. Granted my mom, was also pressuring us too. We just had a daughter in Sept after 8 years of marriage. I like being a mom, but it definitely is different than how I imagined it.
    From the sounds of it being a Chinese pregnant wife is much easier. My husbands cousin’s wife was pregnant at the same time as I was and she had everyone doting on her every whim. His uncle (the grandfather) was amazed that I worked up to the time my water broke, while his daughter in law quit her job and had both mothers around cooking and cleaning for her.
    Enjoy your freedom, as long as your husband can take the comments. I know many Chinese couples bucking the system not having kids. Just to let you know the pressure will continue until you have a baby.
    Now my husband is being asked by his mother to pressure his brother and wife to have a kid. They aren’t getting any younger, you know!

    1. Dear Laura,

      Thanks for sharing your experience! It’s good to know I’m not alone on feeling this way. 😉

      Congratulations on your daughter! I’d be interested to know about what you mean in that being a mom is much more different than what you expected. You can e-mail me offline if you’d feel more comfortable. Either way, I’m intrigued.

  14. WOW

    you guys dont know how good you had it, my parent are telling me to have kids BEFORE I even consider marriage, they know I have a girlfriend for two years, than its straight to: “you are not young anymore, you are 27, and when me and your dad was your age, we got married and was carrying you………..”

    My response was (in my head): “OH FUCK!”

    1. Thanks for the comment, Andrew. Whoa — I didn’t even realize how much pre-nuptial pressure there was!

      Hope you can hang in there. 🙂

  15. LOL, hmmmmm, wish I had a little of the non maternal instinct! 😉
    I just wanted to add that I know a lot of people who didn’t feel that urge, but once that baby is there, it comes on big time.

  16. Dear Jocelyn,

    Just came across with your blog and I find it very interesting!
    I married my Malaysian-Chinese husband in 1997 when I was 21. We registered our marriage with two witnesses on a Monday evening, wearing jeans. It was our decision and never regreted it – however we did do the tea ceremony. I lived with my in-laws for 2.5 years but they didn’t talk about grandchildren. I guess they also wanted to see if I’d stay or end up divorced as people normally do in the West – according to their beliefs at that time.
    However, it was the neighbours and relatives who kept telling me that it’s time for me to have kids because my MIL wants to have grandchildren. You can imagine how “happy” I was hearing this from people who had nothing to do with my life. I simply told them that I would have kids when I was ready and not because my MIL’s wish. I had my son 7 years into our marriage and I’m happy that I waited. We were so young when we got married, just finished school, obviously we couldn’t have managed it. Raising kids are not easy, not to mention the cost involved. I belive my MIL understood us and actually I’m really blessed to have a Chinese MIL whose priority is her son’s happiness not the traditions. I have many Chinese friends who are under great pressure after getting married to give their in-laws a grandson…

    1. Dear Yudit, thanks for sharing your experience. You’re very fortunate your inlaws understood, and never really pressured you about children. What a blessing! It definitely is good to wait, though I believe that a lot of Chinese families just don’t realize (or think about) what it takes to raise a child properly. I think my inlaws are starting to understand, but even then, it will take them some time. (still, it helps that they’re having a lot of problems w/ our nephew, which I think dampens their enthusiasm for another rugrat).

  17. I had continuous baby talk until I finally got pregnant from my parents-in-law. We will have been married for 6 years when we have our first child, and for two of those years we were trying, and had issues with getting pregnant. But now, I am so happy about the years we have had together without children. We are so much closer to eachother than we were when we first married, and we have learned a lot about living in the US and surviving in the US from our time here. I finally think, at 31, I am ready to have kids (but I’m still not totally sure:-)!)

    1. Thanks for sharing, Sylvia! The in-laws can be pretty relentless, huh? But I’m glad you saw the value in the time by yourselves. It is really important to have that time, and, in my opinion, to be psychologically ready for it at some level. Good luck with the pregnancy!

  18. Nope, never needed to have such a talk, because we both wanted to have children soon, and did. Originally, we wanted 5, but reality set in after no. 2 and that’s what we have.

  19. Not having to deal with this directly yet, but have had talks with my Chinese fiance about the “kid” issue. I never wanted them before, but he has changed my mind. I do want to have a child with him (although when he jokes about having a whole football team, I give him a dirty stare and remind him that HE doesn’t have to give birth to them, so perhaps he should revise that plan!), but because of my Western upbringing, and perhaps the fact that I’m a teacher, I have very specific ideas about raising a child that we will all (myself, him, AND his family) have to comprehend before we even go down that road.
    I feel it’s important to raise my own child, not just dump it on grandma and leave it up to her. And I have some issues with the discipline/manners (or lack thereof) that I see in many Chinese families and I don’t want those passed on to my child. And besides this, his family does not live in the same city, and I’m not keen on his mother coming to live with us to raise the baby. Therefore, we need to agree that we are ready and able to have a child and decide how we will manage things first (yes, I’m a control freak! haha).
    Again, because of my Western upbringing, I feel bad for so many of my Chinese coworkers and others I know who are sometimes more or less forced into marrying someone they barely know, let alone like/love, and then immediately pressured into having a baby with this person. They don’t get a chance to spend time together as a couple, getting to know each other and learn how to be grown adults in a relationship (having moved right from their parents’ house to their new house). Is it any wonder I hear so many neighbours screaming and fighting at all hours? And then to bring a child into this mix, when many of the couples are barely able to take care of themselves? I know it is all part of the culture, but I’m not sure it’s something I will ever get used to.

  20. I know I’m very late answering this: I come from kind of a close nuclear family: that is, me, my parents, my sister and her future husband are close to one another. We spend time with another almost every week. For a long time my sister had no desire to have kids, but recently she changed her mind. One of the things that I was raised with is the value of family being number one. In honesty I enjoy spending time with my family and don’t regret that time at all. If I should get married to someone I hope it will be a person who understands that value. (Heck, if I’ll have kids, I’m hoping I can have that kind of relationship with them,) In honesty my only dream has always been to publish a book, and if I don’t in my lifetime, I’m hoping it will be okay. Being a published writer or not, I love writing stories, reading books and coming up with ideas.

  21. I am terribly afraid of the future pressure from my future in laws. I feel pressure from my boyfriend too. I need to adopt…I’ve written this a few times in a few comments…and he needs to have kids biologically. Originally I said “want” to adopt but really, if it was just a want, it probably wouldn’t be an issue. Biological has been my plan B for a very long time now and I just can’t wrap myself around going for plan B without trying out plan A first.

    I understand why he and Chinese people in general feel that way but I’ve never wanted to be a mother to have ancestors or to have someone to care for me when I get old. I want to be a mother because I love children and I want to be able to give that love to children who don’t have parents to do it. I don’t even want to adopt a baby, my goal was kids 3 at the very youngest but 5 would be best (as far as young children go) and I have no limit on how old (so long as they are still legally kids). It might sound weird and all but no matter the age, children should be loved and provided stability. Even if they grow up and I never hear from them again, I’d be heart broken, but at least I know I did my best, and my door would always be open to them.

    My boyfriend says he doesn’t have anything against adopting but biological kids first and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I’m 27. We haven’t talked about it for a long time but I know we will have to when the time comes for us to decide if we’re really going to become engaged or not. It sucks because he’s pretty laid back about everything, even things he initially didn’t like or thought opposite of me, he’s been willing to compromise. The kids thing, we’re both being head strong about. I’m pretty sure that if I’m still thinking about, so is he.

    But I haven’t even met his family yet, so I’m probably worrying about the wrong thing at the moment. We’ll see.

  22. Thai mother-in-laws are the same.

    Ancestor worship is the reason why adoption is not so popular.

    Your uterus does have an expiry date.

    No civilization which didn’t put a strong emphasis on having children ever lasted long. If western women keep up their current attitude then China will “win” in the long run.

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