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.”
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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.
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24 Replies to “Guest Post: Six Questions Chinese-Foreigner Couples Should Discuss Before Having Kids in China”
These are all spot on. I would add, that you should think very carefully about where you want to give birth. Firstly, medical care and procedures are probably going to be very different. Also, postpartum practices are going to be different (as Charlotte notes) and you may face a lot of pressure to do things a certain way if you are in China. My mother-in-law and husband were never controlling or bossy types, but my son being born was a total game-changer. The last issue, which was something I struggled with, was feeling like my son’s mother. When he was an infant, I was under a lot of pressure to do things a certain (Chinese) way and I really wanted to have the freedom to figure out how to parent him on my own terms.
I also think education is a very big issue and one that should be taken seriously. If you’ve taught in China, you know the pressure most students are under. But it becomes more real once your own kid is experiencing it. Witnessing my step-daughter’s grade school education has taught me a lot. It has also been one of the largest sources of conflict in my marriage as I’ve realized my husband and I have very different beliefs about how a child should be educated and disciplined. He is a tiger dad. I am much more laissez-faire.
I realize this sounds a bit negative, but I think it’s worth thinking about it. Everyone’s situation and personality is different, of course, but be prepared to face some tough questions if you are going to have kids in China. I guess that’s the reality of being a parent pretty much anywhere though!
Yes, education is a biggie! It’s been a major source of frusteration this past school year. We’ve never had so many fights or lost our temper than this year. I even started looking at rental houses back in my hometown area, thinking of leaving sooner rather than later. Our plan is to have our oldest get to middle school and then go to the USA for school, but not sure how that will work out exactly. But, I agree, R Zhao, education is worth talking about A LOT!
I can definitely relate to Chinese views on education. I recall that when I was young living in Hong Kong during the days of the British administration, my parents pressured me to study to no end. School was during the day followed by homework after school at times with a help of a private tutor, plus supplementary learning afterwards. Whew!!!!!! I was dying from the pressures. Then we had to immigrate to the West and the schooling in Canada was much lighter and more friendly. I enjoyed my time in the Canadian school system during my youth and teenage years and have fond memories. But I cannot say the same about my days when I was a young child student living in H.K.
Now at 6 months pregnant these are all questions and me and my husband have to consider. For some we have answers, for some the time will tell what is the right course of action.
Also what R Zhao said above, choosing where to give birth is also very important and I’m in the process of finding the right hospital and doctor.
Charlotte’s guest post actually inspired me to reply to these questions in blog post of my own, thank you!
If I am not mistaken you are the Finnish girl who married ” a Chinese man. I read about you in your blog. Perhaps you and your husband can move to Finland where the schooling system is one of the best in the world. There is not much pollution there, unlike in China. The education system is ranked very high. The people there are friendly. The businesses are not cut-throat. The water is clean. There is good social safety net.
Have you given consideration to this idea?
What a great post, Sara! Hope you find the a great hospital soon; my options were limited, so I don’t have any experience with that.
My husband often reads reports of how good the education (and general welfare) system is in Finland and says that maybe we should move there. Then he remembers exactly where it is on the globe and decides against it…he’s not one for cold weather. 🙁
Oh, yes, I have seen the amazing reports on the incredible Finnish schools, and how they manage to make school fun while staying globally competitive in education.
Buy your husband some long underwear, an electric blanket, and move. 😉
Though we didnt have our child in China we had my dear mother-in-law with us for three months during the time. It was rather hard to understand for her that her own daughter would not follow Chinese traditions. She tried to pressure her to drink all kind of soups to have more milk even though my wife had more than enough, in fact after drinking some of the stuff she often got an infection and later our doctor in Finland told us that this kind of oily food is counterproductive when it comes to milk production (which was later repeated by a Chinese doctor but Chinese prefer appearently to follow traditions rather than science).
In the end we succeeded and even MIL is rather fond of our “Western” upbringing of our son as he has developed rather well and in late August we will be for a few weeks again in China so little Nathan can see also his Chinese grandfather and great grandmother
Wow! I’m just ending a two week stay with sister and brother in law, another sis in law, their kids and father in law…I admire you for three months of enduring all the cultural things that come along for the trip! Congratulations on your baby! My son’s name is Nathaniel, great name choice for your little guy!
Yes oily soups are hard to handle and they do love tradition!
Hope your upcoming trip is wonderful!
We came up with the name due to the Olympic Gold medalist in 100m freestyle Nathan Adrian (I was a professional swimmer myself until 5 years ago). Besides Nathan he also got two middle names Yiran Antti (Chinese and then a Finnish name to cover up most languages we speak 🙂 )
My mother-in-law just stayed with us again for three months untill two weeks ago, her second time since Nathan is born but thankfully we got a bigger apartment these days, back then we only had 40sqm!
I love that you named your son after Nathan “Bok Choi” Adrian! We loved watching him in the Olympics. Also Matt Grevers, who is a monster of a swimmer. 🙂
Oh yes, the London Olympics were great but nothing compared to the 4x100m freestyle at the Beijing Olympics with incredible Jason Lezak storming down the last meters and beating France 😀
Oooooohhhh, more interesting information and questions I never thought of!
In my Chinese-American husband’s family, it seems traditional that the Chinese grandparents give the American-born children a Chinese middle name as well.
I am curious as to whether Charlotte took her husband’s name or not. I’m not a fan of the custom, but I think if there’s going to be international travel, it might be helpful to have all the surnames match on passports.
Yes, I’ve found it quite common for grandparents or other family to choose the baby’s name. My husband named his oldest nephew…but then the baby’s patents bought some software that told the “luckiness” of a name and found it to be unacceptable. So they changed it.
I’ve not changed my name legally, though I’d like to. It’s a whole lot of hassle from what I can tell. But when we got married all my documents for teaching were with my maiden name and getting a new passport number (which Americans get when they get a new passport) is like a sin to Chinese, it’s just a hassle is rather not deal with now. When we go back to the USA I’ll probably change it though.
Other issues I experienced including which religion to raise your child in if one of you was raised in a certain religion and the other wasn’t. Also, if your baby is a boy and your religion and/or home country believes in circumcision, but it’s not a practice in China, what will you do? Will the Chinese inlaws expect to take care of your baby–in China? Lots of things to discuss!
@Susan, yes, this is one I always forget about–circumcision. I’m not religious, but coming from the US where it is a common practice, I considered having it done. In the end, it wasn’t even an option and my Chinese doctor looked at me like I was crazy!
Yeah, it has been a topic that comes up when I speak to book groups about my memoir. It’s such a divided issue oftentimes and one that is permanent unlike where you’ll live or what kind of post-partum practices you’ll accept.
Oh, those are good ones, Susan!
Our son isn’t, since husband said that no Chinese babies have it done. He also wasn’t raised with a religion, so I’m free to bring them up with my faith.
I have spent so many 3-month periods with my in laws, either in China or in my country, I have truly lost count (I am right now in the middle of one of those stays).
Having kids is a life changing event in life in any country of the world, but if you have to deal with very traditional Chinese in laws (like mine), it will probably be much more stressful than it should, specially if you don’t want to comply with certain Chinese traditions/myths/superstitions.
I have refused to do any of the zuoyuezi commandments after having my kids, much to my mother in law’s discontent. Luckily I have a very supportive husband, and my iin laws have yet another grandson to orbit around.
PS: My Mother in Law made my brother in law and his wife change the name of their kid several weeks after he was born. The first name they chose was not auspicious enough.
Hope your stay with the in-laws is going well; I just came home from two weeks with a strange mix of the in-laws (everyone but mother in law, my husband and one brother in law) and feel that this has been my most “real China” experience to date, even after nine years of living here.
I would have enjoyed being taken care of during the zuoyuezi more if it had been my mom here, I didn’t really know MIL and could barely speak any Chinese at that time. The second one was better, but I still broke a lot of her rules 🙂
Hi there! I’ve been following Jocelyn’s blog for many years now, maybe 5. More recently I’ve been also reading Sara’s blog, love both 🙂
I’m from Costa Rica and I’ve been living in Beijing for over 2 years. I’ve been dating my Chinese boyfriend for 15 months and ever since the beginning we had a great connection and wanted to build a family together.
This Spring Festival, my bf was finally able to tell his parents about me, where his mom was kinda neutral at first, but when his dad totally opposed she sided with him. One of the arguments, -besides me not being Chinese-, is that if we have babies they wont have a hukou and therefore not a good education or healthcare.
And I know this post is about having kids in China, but I would also like to use this opportunity to ask for advice and read your comments on the topic of in laws not accepting the relationship. My bf lived, studied and worked in the States for 6 years, so I thought his parents would be the open minded type. The problem is that months ago his dad found out he has an advanced stage cancer and apparently he became more strict about things after that. In consequense, my bf is going through an internal fight of following his heart but also not wanting to hurt his dad, plus looking for a better job and all this has given him lots of pressure.
Thank you in advance for your comments!