Raising kids in China

by Adam Benson


Raising kids is a difficult challenge but doing it in a culture completely different to one’s own is a very unique one indeed. Raising my Chinese-Australian boys Hugo (4 years) and Issac (1 year) in China has provided a lot of inspiring, challenging and sometimes bizarre memories. Below is a snapshot of life with my kids and Chinese relatives. 

Although Hugo looks like a Chinese-European mix, his European features stand out a little more, thanks to his brown hair and big eyes. Issac is definitely a mixture of both. He has fair hair and also has big eyes that are a little more round, or more Chinese than his brother’s. The funny thing is that my wife’s friends tell her the boys look like her but my friends tell me they look just like me. I prefer to think that they look more like their mother and I’ve often joked that they’re lucky to have her looks and my personality, not the other way around.

Both boys have drawn admiring glances in public, though there have been some who found it a bit overwhelming and lost control. Once when Hugo was about two, I was unfortunate enough to meet some of my mother in law’s friends in a yum cha restaurant. They thought it was great fun to playfully slap him about the face while shouting at him, though I thought that playing ‘dodge the crazy, cackling old ladies’ for the next 10 minutes was no fun at all. I eventually got fed up with this and when I saw one of them approach us with an open hand and a demented grin, I lost my temper, whisked him away and angrily told her to stop.

Now my wife is very patriotic and whenever there’s an argument between me and a local, she almost always takes the local’s side, regardless of who’s in the wrong. My wife stuck up for her, and a fierce argument ensued. Even in this busy yum cha restaurant where the noise level is similar to a nightclub’s, our shouting disturbed the other diners who immediately stopped talking and turned around to watch – well, all except for most of the ‘cackling old ladies’ who immediately bolted. Once the mist cleared, we found the table almost deserted and the ones that remained were so exceedingly quiet and polite, I actually let one of them hold Hugo for a bit. Incidents like that have been the exceptions rather than the rule and for the most part, people will either be nice to us or just leave us to go about our business.

Hugo has been absorbing Chinese, Cantonese and English ever since he was born. We basically follow the OPOL (one person one language) policy, where I speak to him in English and his mother and her family speaks to him in Chinese. I first taught him English through stories and picture books from when he was three months old and so, by the time he was a year old, he was able to count from 1 to 10 and recognise and say the sounds of various animals. By the time he turned two, he was comfortably switching between three languages. Some might think ‘wow, what a gifted child. You must have pushed him mercilessly to achieve that’ the truth is, I didn’t push him to learn it. I made it a fun, intrinsic part of everyday life by reading him stories every day and playing games like ‘I spy’ when we were out shopping or whatever. I didn’t come down hard on him but I had to be consistent, persistent and take advantage of any spare moment to teach him new words. Learning English was also a necessity, as I speak very little Chinese so he needs to be able to communicate effectively with me and with my family back home. Issac will eventually learn those skills as well, though he hasn’t picked it up quite as quickly. As he’s getting older, he’s finding it easier to concentrate on picture books, which is what I’m using to teach him vocabulary.

I do feel that Hugo’s English skills have suffered a little bit since he’s been going to kindergarten. Now he speaks Chinese all day, every day including at home and as a result, he sometimes forgets even simple English words he learned a long time ago. He’s also a little quiet when we’re at kindergarten together. I think he feels a little embarrassed to speak English in front of his class mates so we don’t usually speak to each other an awful lot on school trips. My mum and dad have noticed from their occasional chats on the phone to him that his listening and understanding is considerably worse than it was about a year ago so I need to step up my efforts to ensure his English skills don’t continue to suffer.

Family structure
When we got married in 2011, we went about our daily lives as before but that all changed once Hugo was born. At the time I wasn’t aware of the important and powerful role the grandparents played in a Chinese child’s life. I foolishly expected it to be like a western family structure where the parents would look after the child while the grandparents would stay home and occasionally babysit. However, my wife and I both had to work full time so her mum quit her job and moved in with us to look after him.

After Hugo arrived, I expected to play an active role in his care and upbringing, not being aware that in this culture, it’s more of the grandparent’s duty. Being his parent, I saw it as my job to raise him with my wife and the thought of his grandma doing it seemed really weird and even shameful. The lack of communication between us was a big problem but add to that the clash of cultures, ideas and beliefs and you have a giant emotional time bomb ready to explode at any moment. We were basically having battles from day one, both trying to asset dominance over the other. When he cried, we would both race to pick him up and when it came time to feed him, we tried to wrest his food bowl out of each other’s hands more than once. His diet was strictly controlled and staple western food like sandwiches was strictly a no-no. I was trying to do what I thought I should be doing as a father but she might have seen it as me being disrespectful and not trusting her to do her job.

In China, filial piety is very strong and Chinese children don’t dare disobey or criticise their parents, even as adults. No matter what their parents do they must side with them, even if they’re clearly in the wrong. No matter what her mother did, there was always an excuse for her behaviour, while it seemed I was hounded for even the smallest mistake. One day Hugo was running outside and fell over in front of me, grazing his knee. My wife went ballistic, yelling, calling me names, making accusations and forcing one apology after another. And yet, when I went into her parent’s living room one day and noticed a big bump on Hugo’s head and a big crack in the kitchen screen door, my enquiries were met with a shrug, as if to say ‘meh, what’s childhood without a few bumps, bruises and mild concussions?’ My wife and her mother constantly fight like cats and dogs, even over trivial things but somehow, never seem to hold grudges. One minute they’ll be accusing each other of murder (for all I know) and the next, they’ll be sitting on the couch laughing and joking like they’re the best of friends. Their relationship and the inner family dynamics are like some secret club that I’m invited to as a guest but never as a full member. 

So that’s a brief overview of married life and parenthood in China. It’s incredibly difficult at times thanks to the vast cultural beliefs but is also be incredibly rewarding, especially when I look back at what they’ve achieved already. There are still greater challenges to come – for example, when the boys fully discover just how different they are to the locals and maybe wonder just which culture they fit into. That will be just one of many bridges we’ll have to cross when we get there.


East vs West – Raising kids in China (Part 2)


© Adam Benson

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem