Guest Post: What It’s Like to Raise Multicultural Children in Beijing

I’m thrilled to run this guest post from Jackie, a Beijing-based blogger who writes about raising multicultural kids at Bringing Up The Parks.

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I grew up in a country that wasn’t reflected on my passport and was raised in a culture that had nothing to do with the actual local customs. And yet despite everything you’ve just read, I grew up mostly monocultural.

Multiculturalism, contrary to the popular assumption, doesn’t always happen naturally. Take it from me—I’m from one. My multicultural family is headed by a Chinese-Filipino and a Chinese-Malaysian. Today, multiculturalism is when parents share their heritage with their children to help strengthen or solidify their identity. But back then, people didn’t really think much of the term. The extent of my understanding of Malaysia was limited to the stories my mom shared and the annual traveling that we did.

Not just that: growing up Filipino-Chinese (or Chinoy as some might call it) in the Philippines means knowing what the local culture is like, but not necessarily knowing it on a more personal level. And so I mainly grew up in the company of fellow Chinoys, only meeting full-blooded Filipino friends for the first time when I got to college.

College was when I realized I had issues with identity. But I didn’t even really understand the depth of my inner conflict until I recently reread some stories I wrote from those days. A number of it involved racial differences and even discrimination, and this is why I love raising my children in Beijing.

In Beijing, I Can Teach Culture on a more Balanced Scale

“Good morning Mommy,” greets my older daughter with a peck on the cheek. Envious, the younger will usually also approach, giving me a few more than her sister did. The older one will see it as a challenge, and next thing you know I’m drowning in kisses. I love it, because it’s fun and kissing elders on the cheek is quite normal back home. In my husband’s country, however, Korean children are expected to bow instead.

My children know that, and I love that they know that. My goal is to give them the tools to have the ability to jump, wait no, to effortlessly walk from one culture into the other as if there was no boundary distinguishing the two. It is sweet to receive a kiss on the cheek, but not every culture is open to that. And in our home, there are four cultures I’d like to expose my children to so that they have an idea of their roots.

When I was much younger, no one really asked me where I was from because my mother did all the answering. It was when I started traveling on my own that the question really bothered me. Malaysia is my passport country, but my inability to speak the local language and my accent screams foreigner. The Philippines is my home country, because that’s literally where my original home is but I need a “Balikbayan” stamp (foreign Filipino returnee) for a one-year stay. China is the country my family were originally from, whose culture we still practice in the Philippines and in Malaysia up until today, but China’s not going to recognize us. And Korea… oh most importantly Korea. Korea is now my home, because it is my husband’s. Though I’m not certain I really belong anywhere, I’d still like my children to understand them on a deeper level.

Because, truth is, identity (or the lack of it) can be crippling, or a thorn you can’t seem to get rid of. This is why so many multicultural families nowadays are intentionally raising their children to know their parents’ backgrounds.

Likewise, if we were still living in Korea, my children would be expected to be Korean, and only Korean. The reason is simple: outsiders get bullied, especially if they don’t look like Koreans. South Korea has been a monocultural society for so long that it’s still struggling to teach its younger generations to be more accepting of multicultural families.

In Beijing, however, as a foreign mom I can raise my children my way. Also helpers are more affordable here, and ours is a Korean-Chinese lady who only speaks to the children in Korean. My older daughter is learning about Chinese culture from her school, and I’m teaching my girls Filipino and Malaysian culture through small things like books and stories.

In Beijing, My Children Can be Naturally Multilingual

My husband and I really wanted our children to learn Mandarin, but it wasn’t easy to do so while we were in Korea considering how expensive it is. Fortunately we were expatriated to China, a dream come true, and now my older daughter is in a bilingual school where her peers are from all over the world. At the moment, my older daughter can speak three languages while my younger daughter can speak two and a bit of Chinese. This excites us, especially my mother whose native language is Mandarin. Finally someone in her family who can speak Mandarin as well!

In Beijing, My Children Can Meet People from All Over the World

In school, my firstborn’s classmates are from all over the world. Some of her closest friends (who are children of my own friends) are from different parts of Asia. Having friends from everywhere means that we always have an excuse to eat our native food or even learn about the different cultures from those countries. But most importantly, my children have more opportunity to become more accepting and more open-minded and more aware of different cultures.

My friend, for example, quickly corrected her half-German daughter when she was calling me by my name. When my daughter asked what happened, I explained that in Europe, it’s acceptable to call adults by their first names. My daughter accepted the explanation and just kept on playing. I almost doubted that she understood what I told her until she later on repeated the story to me!

Another importance is that my children will be less inclined to be racists. Some Chinoys I know from back in the Philippines see Filipinos in a negative light. The reason is simple: they don’t know enough people. I’ve met Filipinos who I look up to, whom I admire for their own personal qualities. Truth is, the more people my children know from different places, the less inclined they will be to think negatively of those places.

In Beijing, We Can Make our Own Identity

When people ask my daughter where she’s from, she simply answers Korea. I’m okay with that, because it’s simpler. But when it’s just us talking about where we’re from, we do it by discussing where all our family is from. My children know that they have family in South Korea, Philippines and even in Malaysia, and that our home is in China. My older daughter doesn’t like calling herself a Korean-Filipino-Malaysian-Chinese just because it’s too long. But rest assured, we’re thinking of a shorter name for all the cultures we hold.

What’s important is that we recognize and embrace our multiculturalism. And for my family, Beijing is the best place to do it.

Jackie is a Chinese-Malaysian-Filipina who blogs about raising multicultural kids at Bringinguptheparks.com.
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Things I’ve Learned from My Chinese Husband: Asia Is Not That United

(Photo by U.S. Army via Flickr.com)
(Photo by U.S. Army via Flickr.com)

Years ago, a fellow blogger with a Chinese husband wrote to me, “I follow some blogs by Western women married to Japanese men. You’d probably like them too.” It was the kind of friendly recommendation that you often get from other bloggers – except it came with a warning. “But shhh, don’t tell our husbands!”

Why did a suggestion to read someone’s blog suddenly get slapped with a cautionary note, as if all blogs written by Western women with Japanese husbands might be hazardous to our health? Simple. Like most Chinese men, her husband didn’t care for Japan – and neither did mine:

“Japan? I never want to visit Japan,”[John] hissed. “I’m anti-Japanese.” He launched into a brief history of Japanese aggression in China, from the first territorial swipes at China during the Sino-Japanese War, to the Second Sino-Japanese War, with Holocaust-like atrocities that Japan had yet to acknowledge publicly.

Yes, my marriage to a Chinese man has taught me a valuable lesson — that Asia is not the great, united, happy family (as some Americans might believe). That “Asians” don’t necessarily like being lumped together.

I didn’t realize the extent to our cultural amnesia about the true state of affairs in Asia until I met and married a man from China. A self-proclaimed “military fan” whose interest went deeper than tanks, submarines and aircraft carriers. A husband who schooled me in the many disagreements, wars and massacres between China and its Asian neighbors.

I’ve learned that Japan has yet to fully acknowledge the “Asian holocaust” it perpetrated against China and others, from the gruesome horrors of Unit 731 to the “comfort women” forced into prostitution. I’ve learned of the skirmish between Vietnam and China that led to a short war. I’ve learned about the border disputes between China and India, serious enough to lead my Lonely Planet guidebooks to print “The external boundaries of India on this map have not been authenticated and may not be correct” on their maps. And now I’ve learned everything there is to know about the emerging military alliance between Japan and the Philippines, especially how it affects China.

In America, we speak of “Asian” cuisine like it’s all the same – as if you could substitute one country for another – never realizing the countries here wouldn’t agree. That the Thai restaurant down the street from my father’s home serving Chinese delicacies alongside a sushi menu would look totally blasphemous to people in China, who still haven’t forgotten what Japan did to them.

I’m reminded of what Alex Tizon wrote about in his memoir Big Little Man:

As a journalist in my twenties and thirties, I wrote extensively about these [Asian] communities. No surprise, I found each group exuberantly complex and instinct, and perceiving themselves as separate from — and often antipathetic to — other Asian ethnicities. The parents and grandparents clove to their countrymen, the Vietnamese with other Vietnamese, Koreans with Koreans, Cambodians with Cambodians.

It was the children and grandchildren, the ones growing up in America, who would find — or be coerced into — common ground. Years of checking “Asian” on countless forms, of being subjected to the same epithets and compliments, of living in the same neighborhoods and housing projects, and sharing similar challenges and aspirations — the most important to become Americanized — all of these would compel young Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Filipinos to accept their belonging to the category known as Asians.

Perhaps the most unifying force was the perception that everyday Americans saw them as the same, and what made them the same was their “racial uniform,” to use a term coined by sociologist Robert Park. The uniform was thought to consist of a certain eye and nose shape, hair and skin color, and body type, usually shorter and skinnier — identifiers of the Yellow or Mongoloid or Oriental and finally now the Asian race.

…We Asians were now in the same boat. Our uniform did not lie. Like Lisa said on the Grand Concourse: Japanese, Chinese, Filipino — same thing!

Yep, this is what happened in America – we just clustered everything from Asia together, and assumed that it was one great unified map. Never realizing that it was one great lie.

Asia isn’t that great, united land where countries always peacefully coexist. But that doesn’t mean friendships don’t happen to cross unlikely borders. After all, even if he still dislikes Japan’s government, my husband has actually changed his feelings towards the country as a whole. He has Japanese friends. Still, there is one thing though:

“So, does this mean I can buy you a Toshiba someday?” I prodded him, with a grin.

“Not really. I still have standards, you know,” he smiled.

Hmmm. Best not to tell his new Japanese friends.

12 reasons you should read “Dragonfruit” anthology of true stories of expat women in Asia

Last week, I shared a photo essay as a companion to “Huangshan Honeymoon“, my own true story of the honeymoon vacation where my husband and I brought his father along to view one of China’s most breathtaking mountains. (Well, thanks to the lousy weather, I’ll have to take someone else’s word for just how breathtaking Huangshan can be.)

Yet that’s not the only reason you should pick up a copy of How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asiaa collection I can’t stop raving about because of how personal and soulful every single essay is.

For me, this is the rarest of all anthologies. I actually devoured it from cover to cover in record time, and found something to love in all the essays — regardless of the story. But if you’re looking for the sort of stories that drew you to this blog, well, you’re in luck.

Love reading about cross-cultural relationships? Or dating and marriages and families in Asia? Or just want some great stories from AMWF writers? This anthology is also for you! Specifically, you’ll enjoy these 12 other essays I’d like to introduce to you. Think of them as 12 more reasons (besides, of course, “Huangshan Honeymoon“) why you should buy How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia.

Here they are in order of appearance:

(photo by Giorgio Minguzzi via Flickr.com)

1. “The Weight of Beauty” by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun

Dorcas instantly became one of my favorite writers when I discovered her funny and moving essay last summer titled How to be Mistaken for a Prostitute in China. Her contribution to this anthology is yet another exploration of her experience as the Chinese-American wife of a white American guy in China, but it also delves into issues all-too-familiar to many of us — how we view our bodies and ourselves. You can actually read it in the sample chapters featured Amazon.com — and chances are, you’ll love her writing as much as I did.

(photo by LeeAnn Adams via Flickr.com)

2. “Finding Yuanfen on a Chinese Bus” by Kaitlin Solimine

When Kaitlin steps onto that rickety, sleeper bus for a two-day journey from Kunming to Guangzhou, she ends up finding the ultimate road buddy (or should I say, “road gal”?). In the process, she ends up reflecting on her dating experiences in China with expats and locals alike. Kaitlin’s essay is so refreshingly honest, delving into all of the off-and-on madness, the one-night stands, the “just for sex” experiences…things most of us would rather keep locked away in our journals and minds. It’s this, plus her beautiful writing, that makes you fall in love with her essay — and long for more.

(photo by Shoko Muraguchi via Flickr.com)

3. “Love and Polka Dots” by Suzanne Kamata

Suzanne  has a different kind of AMWF family experience in Japan because of her special needs daughter Lilia, who is deaf and uses a wheelchair. Suzanne promised to take Lilia to an exhibition of artwork from the internationally renowned artist Yayoi Kusama in Osaka (which requires a two and a half-hour bus ride), and you can imagine the challenges involved in taking out a wheelchair-bound child and communicating in a language (signing) that, for Suzanne, can be tiring. Ultimately, they make the journey together to appreciate what Suzanne describes as Kusama’s “playful and whimsical” works of art (with, you guessed it, polka dots) and come away feeling stronger, inspired and even hopeful.

(By the way, many fans of this blog will enjoy Suzanne’s anthology Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering.)

(photo by Jo Schmaltz via Flickr.com)

4. “Happy Anniversary” by Stephanie Han

While this essay tells the story of how one Korean American woman happens to fall in love with a white British man in Hong Kong on the eve of the turnover, it’s also an excellent meditation on the peripatetic nature of expat life (especially in an international family). It’s the details that make Stephanie’s essay a joy, from screaming “Kill it!” to the cobra coiled before her door (which challenges her identity as an “animal-lover”) to the $5 gold ring she got as a freebie from a Turkish rug salesman (which she subsequently uses when she gets married).

(photo by Jonathan E. Shaw via Flickr.com)

5. “Giving in to Mongolia” by Michelle Borok

A lifelong horseback riding enthusiast, Michelle once again returns to the saddle in her thirties and ultimately her passion draws her to Mongolia for a solo vacation. There she discovers a braver, stronger side of herself and finds herself gradually falling for “a man with golden eyes, a gentle voice, broad shoulders, and close-cropped salt- and-pepper hair” who speaks no English. It’s an epic story of love and personal transformation, and it stars an incredibly handsome Asian guy. What’s not to like?

(photo by Vanessa Berry via Flickr.com)

6. “An Awkward Phone Call” by Christine Tan

When she used to blog at Shanghai Shiok, Christine dished out some of the smartest (and most addictive) essays I’ve ever encountered about the experience of being an Asian woman dating a White man. And this contribution doesn’t disappoint, as she continues that conversation and deepens it with completely new and unexpected layers (including the shocking comment that drove her to abandon Shanghai Shiok). It’s moving, confessional and incredibly brave — and personally, I hope we’ll hear much more from Christine (such as finishing the memoir she alludes to in her essay).

(photo by Sarah Kim via Flickr.com)

7. “How to Marry a Moonie” by Catherine Rose Torres

Stereotypes about cross-cultural relationships don’t end with “yellow fever”, as Catherine reminds us. “…the term moonie came to mean all Korean men seeking mail-order brides from poor countries like the Philippines. But I expected my friends to know the difference—to know I wasn’t mail-order bride material.” She’s Filipino, Jay is Korean, and the challenges they face go far beyond stereotypes. A terrific essay for anyone who has ever had the bride-to-be jitters (like me!) or managed to survive the kind of “our family will handle everything”, big, fat wedding I had in China.

(photo by Eric Hunt via Flickr.com)

8. “The Rainiest Season” by India Harris

As longtime readers know, I’ve railed against the whole “Asian women are stealing our husbands” stereotype that makes its rounds in the expat world. Still, you’ve heard the stories — how some white guy relocates to Asia with his wife in tow, only to toss her aside for a local woman. For anyone wondering what could happen when a marriage blows up this way (and for that matter, how the woman comes to reclaim her own life) here’s your essay. If you’re anything like me, you’ll keep turning the pages and thinking, “Oh. My. God.”

(photo by Jose Javier Martin Espartosa via Flickr.com)

9. “Moving to the Tropic of Cancer” by Philippa Ramsden

Living abroad doesn’t make you immune to the ravages of life, such as a potentially life threatening illness. That’s not what Philippa, who hails from Scotland, expected when she moved to Burma with her Himalayan Tamang husband. But suddenly, she’s forced to navigate hospitals, appointments and tests in a completely foreign world — and must find the courage to face one frightening diagnosis. A moving essay from an AMWF sister.

(photo by Sarah Joy via Flickr.com)

10. “Ninety Minutes in Tsim Sha Tsui” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

A stroll through this neighborhood in Hong Kong transports Susan right back to the days when she was still the “Good Chinese Wife” to her husband from Wuhan, and all of the challenges she faced back then. While you’re waiting for Susan’s book to come out in late July (titled, of course, Good Chinese Wife), this essay is the perfect introduction to what I’m calling the AMWF memoir of the year.

(photo by Boff Hiroshi via Flickr.com)

11. “Here Comes the Sun” by Leza Lowitz

Not every country and culture encourages adoption, including China…and Japan. That’s where Leza and Shogo, her Japanese husband, decide pursue this unconventional pathway to parenthood. It’s a tale of determination, silver linings, and what happens when a little boy suddenly becomes a new ray of sunshine in your life. And if you enjoy this essay, watch for Leza’s forthcoming memoir which covers her adoption experience.

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Guo Jian and Ember Swift (photo by Luna Zhang)

12. “Chinese Stonewalls” by Ember Swift

Going abroad has a way of teaching us new things about ourselves. For Ember, who had only ever been with women, falling for a man (Guo Jian, the lead singer of Long Shen Dao) takes her by surprise in Beijing, and eventually pulls her into a life she never imagined for herself. Anyone who has followed Ember’s writing will enjoy the beautiful and life-changing story of how she came to be the queer girl who got married in China.

So what are you waiting for? Pick up your copy of How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? today and get swept away by these and the many other outstanding stories!

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How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?