Life as a parent can be difficult. It’s tiring, stressful, kills your social life and can be a big emotional and financial drain. It’s difficult when raising kids in one’s own culture but even more so in China.
I’m an Australian who was based in Cairns before making my way south to Brisbane and finally, Canberra for three years before moving to Guangzhou in 2008. I have two boys, Hugo, 4 and Issac, 1. Trying to instill Western values into them in a culture with very different ideas on how to raise kids can cause confusion and sometimes conflict. As well as learning on the job, I feel like I’m treading on a cultural tightrope, where even a small mistake or oversight can cause trouble.
This is especially true when in-laws move in to take care of the child. Have you ever heard the phrase ‘you and me plus baby makes three?’ From my experience I would add an extra line – ‘add the mother in law and that makes four’.
When Hugo was born in 2011, he spent most of his first 6 months at grandma’s place. This was to aid my wife’s recovery by having an experienced mother show her the ropes while letting her recover. Grandma also resolved to look after him full time to allow us to both keep working and while I appreciated that this solved a crucial problem, it created others as well.
One thing that struck me as strange when my boys were born was the one month recovery period that mothers in China are expected to go through after giving birth. For that time, they’re apparently forbidden to leave the house or even get out of bed. The older generation seems to have this great fear about mother and baby getting cold and so, will wrap them in multiple layers of clothing and blankets. This caused quite a bit of inconvenience, as Hugo was born in the middle of summer and my wife was forbidden to enjoy fans or air conditioning. New mothers are also expected to not bathe or wash their hair during this time, for reasons that no one has quite been able to explain to me. However, I should point out (based on anecdotal evidence) that new mothers tend to follow some of these rituals to please their parents but will still move about, bathe and wash their hair.
I also thought (rather naively in hindsight) that just like new dads in Australia, I would be a hands-on parent. Different ball game here, though. I didn’t know that Chinese grandparents played a powerful role in bringing up kids and so when my mother in law came in, it felt like I was pushed aside. My western ideals and experience counted for almost nothing and were subsequently ignored. I felt the same way about hers and even small things like the way she bathed him, fed him and changed his clothes seemed rather bizarre to me.
The most difficult part for me though, was being expected to be constantly polite – not just to her but to her friends, workmates and everyone else she knew over 50 – to never raise my voice, question their judgement or roll my eyes because in China it’s the height of disrespect to old people. Her advice was to be taken very seriously and acted on quickly. If I held Hugo the wrong way it was apparently the end of the world, but for her more serious mistakes such as the time she started sitting on his head before I warned her off, it was still somehow my fault.
My theory behind this is that Chinese are expected to feel constant gratitude to their parents for giving them life and raising them. It doesn’t matter if the child is 5 or 35, they’re expected to obey their parents and will court trouble if they don’t.
When I was raised in New Zealand then Australia, I was instead taught the importance of questioning things, having my own opinions and developing as an individual. When we fight with, or disobey our parents, it’s not seen as a bad thing. It’s actually seen as a positive in some ways, a sign that we can think and act independently. Western kids are raised to look after themselves while Chinese kids are raised to look after their parents. So whenever I disagreed with my mother in law or refused to follow advice I didn’t agree with, I was seen as disrespectful when I wasn’t trying to be. It eventually dawned on me though, that I would have to treat her very differently to how I treat my own mum.
Being excluded from a lot of day-to-day tasks when the boys were very little frustrated me no end. It was made more difficult having no close family here to fall back on for advice when things got really tough. In the almost five years since Hugo was born, I’ve had to develop a pretty tough and formidable character. I couldn’t let anyone walk all over me or tell me I was useless. I never believed that and eventually, I found my own important roles to play.
One of those roles was teaching them English and I soon found that books, movies and songs were the best ways to expose them to Western culture. I started reading books to Hugo when he was three months old. He listened to English songs, watched DVDs every day and I talked to him constantly. Thanks to all that time and attention, he picked up the language quickly and was switching comfortably between English, Cantonese and Mandarin before he was two years old.
His reading and writing has been developing more slowly, however. My wife has tried pushing me to teach him in a more formal and structured way like in a classroom, whereas I’d prefer to let him develop through playing and natural immersion like native speakers do. Issac has also been learning English well, though he picked it up a bit later than Hugo did. At two years old, he’s only recently developed an interest in books but his vocabulary is good for his age and getting progressively better. I believe that with cultures more closely connected than ever, it’s very helpful to speak more than one language and I hope I’ve given my boys a good head start.
Another point of contention is discipline.
In this particular family, my wife is the ‘tiger mother’ type, while I’m the more peaceful and approachable one. She sees me as being somewhat of a pushover who doesn’t discipline the kids properly, while I think she was taught that cruelty and abuse equates to good parenting. She seems to be of the mindset that western parents take an overly casual approach to parenting, praising their children way too often (“Oh well done, Johnny, you stood up. Here’s a present and my car keys,”) and letting them run wild under the misguided notion of letting kids ‘express themselves’.
I see the Chinese way as too strict, putting kids under relentless pressure every minute of every day. Methods such as shouting, intimidation and occasional physical punishment seem to have greater acceptance here than in the west. My wife seems to observe the following steps when she wants the kids to do something:
A) Shout a lot
B) If that doesn’t work, refer to A
Having said that, I know she loves the kids as much as I do. Although I don’t always agree with her approach, I do my best to back her up and present a united parenting front. For example, if Hugo runs to me complaining that mummy told him to do something he doesn’t want to do (but has to do) I’ll gently convince him to do it and most of the time he will.
I do have firm beliefs that I will never back down from, no matter how much it may upset others. Firstly, it’s a common thing here to see kids of varying ages relieving themselves in public, which I won’t ever let my boys do. I insist that they practice good hygiene by washing their hands every time they use the toilet (which some of my Chinese family doesn’t seem to think is necessary) and that they remember to say please and thank you. Finally, anyone who hits my sons in anger will have to deal with a much angrier father, as I won’t allow corporal punishment to be used on them. My wife had a hard time accepting this at first but eventually found out that shouting at kids and hitting them for non-compliance just made things worse. She’s a little better now, sometimes using basic psychology and a softer voice instead.
At times it’s been an emotional ride through hell but it’s getting easier as the boys grow older. Although miscommunication is still an issue with my wife and her mother, our ideas don’t seem so strange to each other now and I like to think we’ve developed a basic form of trust. With Isaac, I look after him sometimes. I feed him meals, wash his clothes, prepare and give him bottles and change his nappies, which would have been unthinkable to me just four years ago.
Parenthood, like marriage, is never easy and requires a lot of work and patience. Although I was irritated for not being a hands-on parent right away, my boys and I have a close relationship that will only get stronger as time goes by.
“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.
* Gloria Steinem