This article is written with the voice of expat parents, children, and young adults all currently or recently living in China.
If you make a conscious decision to become an expat anywhere in the world, it’s best to adopt the philosophy, “embracing where you live”. You and your children will get so much more out of the incredible experience of living abroad if you do!
Let’s get started!
Having a baby is stressful!
Don’t get me wrong, it’s probably the most memorable experience in a parent’s life. Have you ever noticed how soon-to-be parents seem to glow when they’re expecting? They kind of seem like they are floating around on a cloud of bliss.
But still, it’s full of huge decisions that could influence you and your baby’s health. Luckily, you have have family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and a few random strangers that can all tell you how wonderful their obstetrician was, and where they bought the “must have” stroller.
Of course, they will also weigh in on pain relief drugs during labor vs. “natural birth”, vaginal birth vs. cesarean section, breastfeeding vs. formula, and many, many more tidbits, since they are now a “baby expert”. At some point you just have to turn off the noise, and make decisions that are right for you, your family, and your baby.
That’s what would happen if you were giving birth in your native country anyway. Here in China expats go through the same highs and lows. It’s something like, “Yay! We’re pregnant!” to, “Oh shit! We’re pregnant in China!” OK, well, maybe not exactly the same highs and lows.
Yay! You’re Pregnant!
The great thing about having a baby anywhere in the world is that you can be pretty sure that they’ve been doing it for a long long time, and therefore have a lot of experience. And if you’re having a baby in China, you can also be comforted by the fact that there are 1.3 billion Chinese babies that made it out of the womb and are currently walking around the Middle Kingdom.
Still, preparing to have a baby is about being comfortable, and that starts with finding an obstetrician that you like, or at least respect, but maybe more importantly, one with whom you can communicate. After all, you want to be crystal clear about their thoughts on prenatal care, pain relief during labor, and in which situations a c-section should be performed.
You also want to find a hospital that is relatively nearby, that has a staff that instills confidence, and, again, that you can communicate with easily. Obviously, this hospital must meet your standards as far as cleanliness, modern equipment, and possibly a good cafeteria. Of course, when you are in labor you probably won’t notice how clean it is, or how good the food is, so again, maybe the ability to communicate really is the most important thing.
I happen to live in Shenzhen a place in China where you actually have a choice of having a baby in mainland China or Hong Kong (technically China, but don’t tell the Hong Kongese). The difference is that, Hong Kong has some western roots, and therefore, theoretically, will be more like the birthing process in the west.
Of the expat families I interviewed for this article, only one had their baby in mainland China, and that was because the mother is a Chinese native. All the other families who had their babies in Hong Kong said that mostly they felt good about the prospect of having their baby in mainland China. So why did they all opt for Hong Kong?
You guessed it, the language barrier. In one case, a father, who is technically fluent, said, “if things start going wrong you want to be able to fully understand what’s happening.” One mother said, “I am sure that Chinese people know how to deliver babies, but I was worried about not being able to communicate, especially since this was my first baby, and I didn’t know what to expect in the first place”.
When I asked the family that gave birth in mainland China why they chose a mainland hospital over a Hong Kong hospital, they said, “because language wasn’t an issue for us”. In other words, everything else felt equal to them.
Oh Shit! We’re pregnant in China!
Is it really the case that mainland China offers the same facilities as a westernized place like Hong Kong? If it is, then why are Chinese woman going to the USA and up until 3 years ago crossing the border to Hong Kong to give birth?
“When we arrived [in China], the Hong Kong [hospitals] were saturated with mainland Chinese wanting to have their babies there… It was stressful because I thought I would have to have my child in [mainland] China for lack of doctors and facilities available in Hong Kong. Fortunately [for us], the law changed suddenly and no more mainland Chinese could have their babies in Hong Kong, it freed all doctors and facilities when we needed them.”
Some sources guess that as many as 20,000 Chinese women give birth in the USA every year. And places like Thailand are world famous for medical, or in this case maternity tourism. So, if China “has the facilities”, why are all these Chinese women looking for a very expensive alternative?
It turns out that the Chinese parents aren’t necessarily worried about Chinese medical services, they are giving birth in USA or Hong Kong because they are/were just really trying give their child a leg up (US passport/Hong Kong ID Card) in the crowded competitive country that is modern China.
In first-tier Chinese cities there are state of the art VIP hospitals or VIP wards. These places have been described as “nicer than anything back home”, “the facilities are like a 5 star hotel”. That said, do your homework before you end up in the hospital!
Besides how modern the facilities are, there are other factors to consider as well. Be aware of the Chinese calendar for instance. “The shortage of beds was because it was the year of the Dragon and people wanted a ‘Dragon baby’… So we were in the hallway for roughly 3 hours”.
The father-to-be and other family may not be allowed in the birthing room. “[My wife] was admitted into a room where expecting mothers were being monitored, but no family members were allowed in the room…I was not allowed to be in the room as my son was being born. My wife was completely alone”.
Communication aside, would you have another baby in China? “I would have another baby here definitely. I am not sure if we would opt for Hong Kong or [mainland] China. Advice that I would give to anyone about to give birth here would be, to look at your insurance closely and see what is covered. [In some cases] it is much, much cheaper to deliver and receive prenatal care in [mainland] China rather than Hong Kong.”
And, I would add, find a translator that you feel can adequately communicate your needs.
The Milk (Infant Formula) Scandal of 2008
One of the main concerns I hear from expat and Chinese parents involves the “milk scandal of 2008”. The scandal involved infant formula being cut with melamine, a chemical used to produce plastics and fertilizer. NBC news described the process this way, “the chemical gives the appearance of higher protein content when added to milk, leading to protein deficiency in the formula”.
The Associated Press reported, “Six infants died from kidney stones and other kidney damage with an estimated 54,000 babies being hospitalized”. According to The Guardian, the contaminated formula was responsible for “causing illnesses in nearly 300,000 others”.
More than seven years later, every time I cross the Hong Kong/Shenzhen border I see Chinese and expat families loaded up with as much infant formula that’s allowed, 2 tins per person. The new Hong Kong law stipulates a penalty of up to $64,500 and two years in prison for anyone convicted of breaking the milk powder export limit.
One mother told me, “We were fortunate to have my parents come to visit us during [my baby’s] 2nd month, and [they] brought 12 cans of formula in their suitcases”. Another said, “We shipped it from the Netherlands”.
Luckily, it is not necessary for you to live near Hong Kong or have you family deliver it from half way round the world, because the Chinese are also demanding foreign brands of infant formula. According to a Bloomberg article from March of this year, “China…consumed a third of the [infant formula] industry’s $62 billion in global sales last year”. This means that these products are available to order on Chinese internet services such as Alibaba and Taobao.
I’m a China Baby
Some of my expat friends recently had a babies here in China. I sometimes imagine a conversation between them and their future college roommate that goes like this:
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, I’ve lived all over”.
“Well, where were you born?”
“I was born in China”.
“Really! You don’t look Chinese”.
That’s true, but if you whistle I might start peeing”.
It turns out that the Chinese are masters at potty training. To the chagrin of many expats and some Chinese, this potty training can be quite public. I remember in my first week in China I walked by a grandparent holding a toddler over some bushes and giving her a high-pitched whistle. Sure enough the baby peed on demand!
Recently though many Chinese parents are moving away from the easy pee split pants and opting to use diapers. In fact, according to an August 2015 Wall Street Journal article, Chinese diaper sales have increased about 5 billion dollars over the last 5 years.
I was told that the year before I moved to China (2010), you would daily see foreign women with a stack of diapers crossing the Hong Kong/Shenzhen border. The year I moved here I could find diapers in any grocery store. But in true Chinese fashion, “although diapers are easily available, there is not a consistent stock/inventory at a particular location. Sometimes it takes multiple trips to the same or different stores to find the size or style that you need”.
Third Culture Baby and Ayi
Below on this article, I talk more in detail about the term Third Culture Kid (TCK). The definition includes the idea that kids incorporate cultural norms from the host country. For babies and toddlers this is mostly influenced by the family Ayi, or Chinese nanny.
“Ayi” literally means aunt, and is widely used to address a women of “one’s parents’ generation”. The fact that this traditional term for aunt has morphed into the the person that cares for your house and children is no accident. Many Chinese tell me that their Ayi has “been with them for years” and “is like a family member”.
Many expats feel similar. “[Our] Ayi is so precious to us. We are very lucky to have a very loving person to our child who would do anything for him”. “Our little one loves our Ayi and considers her a part of the family. She is another trusted adult in my children’s lives”. “Our Ayi has helped us tremendously and I feel I have learned a lot of the Chinese culture of caring for a baby from [her]. “I really value the close relationship [my baby and Ayi] have and think we are very lucky to have [her].
It’s absolutely true that the Chinese seem to have a general deep rooted cultural love of children. However, finding that perfect fit with an Ayi on the first try doesn’t always work. An Ayi maybe be the sweetest person, but remember there are always some cultural differences. For example, “Daddy, Ayi let me poop in the bushes at the playground”, might be frowned upon.
About two years ago I saw a little western boy about 3 years old wandering around our building’s lobby crying. He didn’t speak English, but eventually we found out (with the help of a Spanish speaker) that he woke up from his nap and there was no one in the house. The Ayi had gone out to take his baby sister for a stroll. When the Ayi was confronted with this she shrugged. Chalk it up to cultural differences I guess.
“Ayi was a big influence on my son’s life since my wife and I both work. The Ayi will give little cues to “help our daughters get potty trained and that also help them to eat, sleep, play, etc”. Of course, the main long term influence your Ayi will have is in the language department.
China has fast become the economic center of the world and many expat parents hope that their children will grow up as native Chinese speakers. After all, as a college graduate that has a native’s grasp of the Chinese language and a deep understanding of Chinese culture may have an advantage in our not too distant future.
“A word that describes something that made you who you are.”
I moved to Boulder, Colorado, when I was about four years old, and even though that experience was less than a quarter of my life, I fondly think of it as my first home. I still remember the friendships I made, and the profound effect the community had on me.
Those childhood friends became adults, with their own lives and children. I have visited Boulder several times as an adult, and Thomas Wolfe is right, “you can’t go home again.” People grow and places evolve, but the Boulder of my childhood is timeless.
When my wife and I decided to move to China with our three year old child, one of my main concerns was, “what would it be like for him to grow up without his ‘Boulder’.” Of course I was wrong. I was just projecting my own childhood on his yet to be determined journey.
The truth is we all have our own Boulder. We all share a formative time in life where memories and experiences start to gain context and stay with us as we become adults. For my son, at this point in his young life, his Boulder is Shenzhen, China.
Children absorb everything around them, and we as parents try to help them to find context, so they will learn and grow from their experiences. But we are not the only ones that children learn from. They might have an outside caregiver, they will have many teachers, they will definitely be influenced by their peers, and ultimately the culture/society they are exposed to.
With all those outside forces at work somehow each of us finds an identity.
David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken write in their book, Third Culture Kids, “Traditionally the family and community mirror back the answers and the child sees his or her image reflected in them.” For Third Culture Kids cultural identity can be difficult, “because they learn culture as everyone else does – by catching it from their environment.”
Parents control much of that exposure when children are young. For instance, they decide what kind of foods the child eats (or at least what is put in font of them), who they play with, their learning environment, and ultimately the culture they are surrounded by.
As children become young adults, that “control” shifts and becomes more and more their responsibility, but they continue to breathe in culture like air. It surrounds them and influences them in subtle ways that sometimes go unnoticed. That’s why the building blocks of a child’s formative years are so important.
Expats parents moving to China are often faced with the unknown. If they are lucky, they can rely on a new expat community of people that they have probably never met. They, like those before them, are likely to do an internet search that turns up very little.
Through parent experiences we will attempt to help answer the questions, “When we arrive in China, what will my child EAT, who will they PLAY with, and where will they LEARN?”
Food, a child’s first encounter with what control feels like. Parents describe this control in different ways, “picky”, “finicky”, “stubborn”, but really it’s about control. One nutritionist told me, “kids are not going to starve themselves”, but that doesn’t mean that they are going to make it easy on the parents either.
Fortunately (or really unfortunately), McDonalds can be found in every corner of the earth, and can be a break from experiencing the local culture through food.
It’s not that children necessarily think that fast food is “good.” As one parent said, “Presentation is a big factor in our children’s ability to accept different foods. Because left to their devices, they would eat chicken fingers every meal if they could – both here in China, and back in the States!”
Of course there are kids who are adventurous eaters too. “My boys are pretty used to eating foods from many cultures.” Or some parents have successfully negotiated a “you must have at least one bite of everything” rule. But when parents say, “my kid will try anything,” immediately the street foods of Asia, such as egg embryos, various fried bugs, and dog meat, springs to mind.
It’s true, China can be an extreme culinary adventure for both kids and parents. It’s often said that the Chinese chefs have experimented with every part of every animal. It also sometimes seems that the weirder the animal part, the more it’s considered a delicacy.
“In our country it is not common to see poultry served with its head or feet still attached.” This kind of thing can take some getting use to.
Food is ultimately about experience and mirroring ones culture. In other words, Chinese kids don’t think twice about the head and feet being served with chicken, they may have even witnessed a battle at the dinner table about who gets to eat it!
Additionally, if they see butchered dog at the wet market, they don’t think of that as eating the family pet.
Western kids that have grown up in Asia, and that have experienced and seen many different foods are likely to adapt, “Both my kids love Chinese food! They like dumplings and Chinese noodle soup most, and prefer rice over potatoes and pasta.”
However, even for kids too much of anything can be overkill, “We had steamed rice with every meal for the whole first year in China, and by May my boys did not want to see white rice ever again.”
Many Asian kids eat pressed seaweed as a snack in the same way American kids eat press fruit. “One of our daughters friends shared a snack with her… spicy squid flavored seaweed. She was not a fan, but knew it was polite to eat a little, but really didn’t enjoy the bite she took.”
Walking the cafeteria at an international school is an eye opening experience into the relationship kids have with food. Korean kids eating spicy/sour kimchi, Japanese kids eating dried/salted fish with rice, or an american kid eating a PB&J sandwich. Of course, on any given day all of these kids could be eating pizza!
Food is a great first step into understanding a culture, and the easiest way to to assimilate and find friends among the local people. “The mother of one of my daughter’s classmates taught us how to cook sweet and sour pork ribs. Another friend invited us over to make dumplings.”
Every cuisine has it’s negatives as well. For instance, in the United States some parents may feel as if there is a “endless array of highly unhealthy, cheap food staring” your child in the face, and that “our daughter tends to prefer, like most American kids, bland food and sugar.”
While on the other side of the planet, it’s good to be aware that additives such as MSG are still widely used.
“Food standards and regulations are much higher in the UK than here in China, as a result there are far less additives contained within UK food. We have found, with our youngest daughter especially, that certain foods and drinks in China have a huge impact on her concentration and her mood.”
One of the main expat complaints about Chinese food is the amount of oil in the dish. “Our Daughter ate Japanese and Chinese frequently, so the transition hasn’t been hard in terms of taste profiles. What has been different in Shenzhen, is the level of greasiness. There is a significant amount of oil used in food here, in Guangdong Province.”
While many dishes can be greasy in areas of China, keep in mind that China is a big country and that regional food can differ from place to place. “We traveled within China, we tried much more Chinese food. Our Children liked more options outside of Guangdong Province.”
There are also allergies to consider, “We think it is impossible to eat traditional Chinese food in China with nut or corn allergies.” This particular parent readily admitted that this allergy issue might be less of a problem if they could communicate at a high level with the restaurant staff.
Communication for adults can be the key to avoiding many irritating or frustrating situations in a foreign country, but for younger kids the language barrier is rarely an issue. “Children use the international language of play.”
Parents relayed that often times when their children are traveling, and out of the comfort zone, (i.e. school or neighborhood) their children will play with “any kids that are around”, and language is almost never an issue. “When they don’t know how to communicate, they speak to each other in their native languages, and point or gesture to get their meaning across.”
Anywhere in the world children generally make friends in the environment they are exposed to. In most cases that’s at school, among family friends, and their parent’s work colleagues. “Our son made a lot of new friends when we where living close to his kindergarten in China. Now that we moved to another area, he needs to make friends again.”
Another situation that is perfect for making new friends is organized sports and clubs. “A team sport effortlessly integrates a child into the community, by the time my son started school, 2 weeks later, he had already made friends.” But sports teams and clubs can be hard to find in a foreign country.
Almost all the expat parents that can’t read Chinese characters told me that the vast majority of clubs and sports they found were through word-of-mouth in the expat community. Even if you do a web search and find something interesting, parents say that you should ask other expats about whether it still exists and the quality of the program.
While it might be true that, “China has the worst online resources for expats,” it is also true that if you keep your eyes and ears open there are many opportunities, “there were so many things I saw my friends’ children back home doing that I felt we couldn’t do here. But if you look hard enough, you can find a bit of everything.”
Sometimes it can feel like there is less opportunity for kids to free play in such a densely populated area. So structured activities can come in handy, “At this moment our son plays fencing, basketball and goes to robot building class. Before that he used to go to Lego class, painting class and handcrafting class.”
Although the free play here may look different, than say the quiet streets and parks of Boulder, children will find a way. In fact, if your child is attending an international school with little to no Chinese kids, playing in the courtyard of their apartment complex might just be the best opportunity for them to form relationships with Chinese children.
“When we go down to the playground, our daughter will socialize with whoever is there. It doesn’t matter if they speak Chinese or any other language.” Most parents have this same experience, after all it is China and there are millions of friendly Chinese kids that love playing every bit as much as our kids do.
“Kids are unabashed about approaching other kids, no matter what language they speak or which country they’re from. So our kids will often play at our apartment complex playground with children who speak French, Japanese, and Chinese. Even with a language barrier, they make it work!”
So what if your child really hits it off with a Chinese kid or another family that doesn’t speak your native tongue? “Our children have interacted and played with local children at the playground where we live, but the communication barrier between myself and their ayi and/or parents usually keeps us from making any further contact after that.”
Of course if there is a will there is a way, “Our daughter wanted to have playdate with a Chinese girl she met. She and her family speak very little English, and we speak extremely limited Mandarin… we communicate mostly through pantomime and body language. It takes more bravery to reach outside of your expat bubble, but kids are naturals at building those bridges.
Learning takes place in many different arenas, for children that usually starts at school. In China, for expats that means an international school or a Chinese/English private school. Both can be viable options depending on your financial situation and location.
International schools follow a non-chinese and/or international curriculum. Many include the highly praised International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IBDP). IBDP is a a two year program for 16-19 year old high school students, and has been described by Time Magazine as “a rigorous, off-the-shelf curriculum recognized by universities around the world”.
However, this world renowned education can come with a steep price tag. For example, some of the international schools in the expat friendly neighborhood of Shekou (in the city of Shenzhen) that currently have IBDP are more than $20,000 USD per academic year. Many parents negotiate with their employers and have this cost built into their “living abroad” contract.
The alternative to an international school education are the Chinese/English Private Schools. It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between an international school and a private school, as some private schools have “international” in the name of the school. Many of these private schools were built for the growing middle and upper of Chinese society.
One advantage of these private schools is that you have an active Chinese parent community that is looking for a rigorous academic program in the highly competitive Chinese society. The disadvantage can be that if the majority of students are not fluent English speakers which can slow progress in subject areas that are taught in english.
I was told by one parent that the class size at these private schools is usually between 25-35 students. There student to teacher ratio is much better than the 50+ at a Chinese school. Where as, the “best” international school in town boasts an average class size of 18. To put it simply, more one-on-one attention cost more money.
Many parents look out at the current economic environment and feel that learning the Chinese language might be a huge advantage for their children as they grow up and enter the work place. There is no doubt learning another language in addition to your native tongue is an advantage, and if your going to live in a foreign country that learning is much easier when you can practice in real life situations.
In school the Chinese programs can vary. In most cases if not all, international schools are non-Chinese speaking campuses. Which usually means that Mandarine is taken as a language elective. Many expat parents tell me “this elective class is not enough if you want your child to be fluent in a difficult language like Chinese.”
Most parents that are serious about their children learning Mandarin hire a tutor in addition to the class at school. Children have a natural ability to pick up language and learn much faster than adults. Even if your child is a reluctant language learner, they are absorbing more than you think. “For the first two years our son seemed to not be learning any Chinese, but then in his third year he just started speaking in complete sentence out of nowhere!”
Some kids have an aptitude for languages, but all children have the capacity to learn a language, some kids are just shy about it. Speaking a foreign language especially among native speakers means that you will sound like a caveman at times and not be able to fully express yourself fully at the beginning. Native people appreciate when foreigners give an effort to speak, and are always happy to help.
Some parents that have preschool to kindergarten age kids told me that they opted for a Chinese school at that age because the the kids just “absorb language at that age”. After kindergarten they moved their child to an english speaking international school and hired tutor to continue to build on the basics the child learned as a toddler.
Other parents insist that their Ayi (Chinese nanny) only speak Chinese to their children, or they hire an Ayi who can only speak Chinese. An Ayi can not only be a helpful patient language practice partner she can also be a window into learning about Chinese culture.
“We have learned so much about the different Chinese festivals, food and languages from our Ayi.” There is another kind of learning that happens in the kid/Ayi relationship, and that’s how to treat people regardless of what they do for a living.
“Another interesting part of playing with friends who have an Ayi is that [our daughter] tests the boundaries of appropriate behavior…talking back, in particular…because she is seeing that behavior modeled when the Ayi is the caretaker.”
It’s important that parents and children treat the Ayi with respect, and that starts with finding the right fit. “We are fortunate to have a very hands-on, loving Ayi. She has been with us since before our second child was born, so she looks at our children as almost her own. Yes, she is often indulgent, but will also discipline as necessary.”
There is a lot of emotion involved in hiring someone to care for your family, but keep in mind that it’s still a job. Just like in any work environment, if the relationship doesn’t work or the quality of work continually doesn’t meet expectations, then you should part ways.
“Our first Ayi was a bit lazy and unhelpful, and I should have let her go months earlier than I did…Our second Ayi was great… she just loved my son. She taught him some Mandarin and took him out to play and really enjoyed hanging out with him. She played games with the kids and treated them well. We were all sad when we moved away. She cried when we all said good bye and I was so touched by her care and concern of our family.”
Culture can not be learned in a class room, culture must be experienced. Living abroad can be an amazing opportunity to tune into something that is totally alien. Be patient, be polite, be curious, and prepare yourself because at times you will be shocked. One dad told me that when he is having a particularly tough “Chinese day” that just whistled the Bobby McFerrin song “Don’t Worry Be Happy”.
If you are patient and keep in mind that it’s not your country then things go relatively smooth, but you will have those days when your frustration boils over, when that happens just whistle a tune, and remember tomorrow is another day.
Generally the Chinese people are very good with kids. “We absolutely love living here with children! This culture adores children, and almost always when we go for dinner, the waitresses will scoop our children up and take them for a walk, or crouch down to talk with them playfully.”
Sometimes the attention that foreign children get is too much. “My three kids are cute, little blonds. They were photographed, touched, petted, and on a few occasions, picked up…nothing felt dangerous or seemed malicious, but our children were a bit uncomfortable, and into our 2nd year, they grew to annoyance and avoidance. So, what started out as a flattering experience and evolved into a frustrating one.”
Set boundaries, talk to your children about what they are comfortable with, and be polite. “The first Chinese words I used here were ‘Bu Yao’ (not want) when it was clear my son did not want to have his picture taken for the fifth time in in span of 50 feet.”
If you are clear about the boundaries then very rarely will you have an issue. “Because Chinese people are so loving of children, they are always welcoming when we bring her to a restaurant or another outing. Other family’s ayi’s are always happy to baby sit and are kind and affectionate to [our daughter] and make her feel special.
LIVING ABROAD…or in this case, on “Planet China”
More than 15 families were interviewed in the writing of this article. Some of them have only been here for months, while some have been in China for more than a decade. When they were told about the article, not only were they happy to help, many said “I wish I would have read something like this before I came.”, and “I can’t wait to read it, I can always use a bit more advice about living in China.”
One thing that is very clear, in almost any place in the world, is there are people who are always willing to help, whether they are local or expat. In our first weeks in China my wife and I were approached by locals and expats offering to help us in a given situation. We often felt like we had the word “NEW” printed on our forehead we were so lost at times.
Now as five year old veterans of living in China, we try to pay that forward whenever possible. I often tell people that happiness is found by embracing where you live, wherever that might be. There are positives and negatives in any location on earth, so embrace it for what it is and not what it isn’t. It seems I am not alone in this philosophy…
Here is some more friendly advice from one parent to another:
“Pack your bags and never look back, as it will be an amazing adventure that will bring a lifetime of new memories! Just be sure to research the local culture, foods, and customs and be ready for surprises that are sure to come.”
“Research well and understand the limitations of life in a communist/ socialist country, small things such as internet access and the lack of selection of daily groceries can be frustrating.”
“You need to learn to adapt! Bring an open mind, things are not the same as back home and join as many clubs etc as you can to make friends with others in the same situation.”
“Come prepared, read plenty about the culture before you arrive. Leave your home at home, travel light and be open minded.”
“It will be different and people will behave in unfamiliar ways, but don’t judge, (apart from the spitting- I will never get used to that).”
“Put on your “laid-back hat”. Life will be easier and more enjoyable if you simply accept that Chinese culture is different from yours and that many things might not make sense to you or may even offend you. Take a deep breath and go with it.”
“Be friendly. Remember that you’re a guest in someone else’s country. Whether you like it or not, you’re an ambassador for all foreigners. If you are rude or disrespectful to the local Chinese, everybody loses.”
“Join an expat social club such as SWIC – Shenzhen Women’s International Club. Newcomers can benefit so much from the experience of expats who have done the same thing one, two, or three years before them. There are always people in the club who can answer any questions a newcomer might have.”
“Pack less of your personal things so that you can pack more of your child’s special items. Having their lovies, books, toys, blankets, pictures, dress-ups…it makes the transition easier.”
“Talk regularly about your feelings. Check-in and see how they are doing. When we first moved, my daughter started to act “spoiled” and we couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. A veteran of living abroad with kids said, ‘you know…that is probably her only way of showing you she is feeling crappy inside.’ It was an ‘aha’ moment and when we were snuggling later that night, we asked her how her heart was feeling. The flood gates opened. Make sure your kids know it is okay to admit that they aren’t loving it or feeling great. Share with them your own tough days so they know that you are ok with them sharing theirs. Communicate constantly.”
“Make sure you make your life abroad better than your life at home. There can be a lot of hard parts of living abroad. Missing family sucks. What doesn’t suck is that we are consciously trying to be more present and spend more time focusing on each other. We were so busy and stressed at home. Here, we try to do things a little differently. Every day, do one thing differently than at home…a little bit better. Those little moments of joy add up to a better quality of life.”
“You are going to have China days. On those days, when frustrating things are happening faster than you can process, make a family pact. Go home, lock your door, get into jimmies and have an ice cream sundae dinner. Whatever works for your family…just tune out the world and hunker down together. Tomorrow is always better than today and in China, each day can be so different. When it is crappy, it is super crappy. When it is good…there is nothing like it at home. nothing.”
“Let your children study Chinese, and try to do the same yourself. The language barrier is very real when moving to China. There are places where a lot of foreigners are living were the barrier will be less big. However, let your kids learn a new language even if it is difficult for you. It will really help them later in life!”
“When you need to do paperwork or request documentation, make sure you know a Chinese person, or an agency that can help you. Having a very frustrating experience is just not worth it and not necessary.”
“Join online groups on Facebook or other media to share experiences and ask questions to people that are in the same situation.”
“I would advise that an expat community is a blessing and curse. It’s wonderful to fall back on those who speak your language and thing and act like you do, but it hinders the broadening into the new culture. You will have both, but sometimes the balancing act is tough and it is easier not to stretch oneself.”
“Keep a positive attitude and don’t expect everything to be just like it was back home. Make friends in the new location and don’t be afraid to ask any questions, even if you think they may be silly. And always remember, no matter where or how far you go, you’re still here on Earth!”
“Third Culture Kids”
These are the words of self-described dreamer and world traveler John Lennon; but also a reality for every child, because for them, there aren’t any countries, there is only their world, and their surroundings. They learn from birth through their own experiences, their parental upbringing, their extended family, from their lessons and teachers at school, their society’s rules and morals, and their peer groups to identify themselves as (insert nation here).
But imagine your child’s school has an international or foreign curriculum. Imagine that the society that surrounds them is totally foreign. Imagine that their peer group doesn’t have a single child that is from the same country as them. When parents decide to live in a another country they don’t have to imagine these situations, they must deal with the reality of raising a “Third Culture Kid”.
Third Culture Kids, or TCK, the term for children that grow up in a foreign land, was first put forth by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken in their book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Pollock and VanReken offer a wealth of data, stories, and information on a variety of different types of TCKs, and there is a lot of data!
After all, if you think about it, everyone from missionaries to military personnel to expatriates have been writing and corresponding about their families’ experiences of living and working abroad for thousands of years… even without Facebook! Each story is unique to the person, the situation, and the time, but as Pollock and Van Reken show, there are commonalities that unite these people regardless of the country and their place in history.
So, you are probably still wondering who is a TCK, or at the very least the definition that binds all these stories into one common label? The man that coined that label defines them like this: “A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”
So, if you’re looking at the world we live in you might think a child who grows up with an international background could have a leg up as far adaptability, cultural empathy, and language. I mean a person like that could go from a little known congressman to a two term president of The United States of America. Well, we know that that’s certainly ONE outcome, and of course Barack Obama is not the only TCK success story.
There is the other side though, especially for parents. I mean your TCK daughter could be famous for being “the women that broke up The Beatles”. Yes, Yoko Ono is a TCK too. But joking aside, we know from the principles of social identity theory that people tend to find comfort in acceptance, and generally find that acceptance with people who have a similar background. So, where does that leave our TCKs?
Pollock and Van Reken say it can “result in feelings of rootlessness and grief”. However, because they are forced to be adaptable they become “increasingly confident”, and because of technology TCKs tend to find each other easier than ever before. They also tend to form strong long-lasting friendships with classmates who are also TCKs, even though they are likely to have different cultural backgrounds. I guess like most of life, it depends on the person, and his or her personality.
Growing up in China
As technology drives our world to be ever “smaller”, there are more TCKs than ever before. Parents looking to breakaway from their home countries and find opportunities abroad are often attracted to emerging markets. Over the last thirty years there has been no bigger emerging market than China. But is China worth gambling your child’s formative years on? I mean… there is a reason that people have dubbed it “Planet China.”
Psychologist Richard E. Nisbett, in his book Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerns Think Differently, explains that Western babies and Eastern babies are even hardwired differently. In other words, our DNA might actually carry the way we perceive the world through millennia, and that this perception, over time, created a unique culture in the East, and in the West.
With Nisbett’s study in mind, it’s not hard to imagine then that the societies that have been building these cultures over thousands of years are fundamentally different from each other. So, as adults, when we experience “culture shock” it’s not only because we were taught differently, but that our core perceptions are being challenged. This makes sense when we also consider that even very young children can experience culture shock, albeit not nearly in the same way as adults.
Living in an expat community hardly a day goes by when I am in a conversation or over hear a conversation that starts, “They (meaning Chinese) don’t know how to…” drive, throw trash away, be polite, and so on. Of course, these statements are gross generalizations, and yeah, it’s not ever going to be like your hometown.
The simple fact is that the Chinese are strongly rooted in their (5,000 year old) culture. Part of that cultural personality includes adaptability, albeit on their terms. Therefore, living in China one can literally see this modern Chinese society, that is really only 40 years old, racing to “catch up” with international norms, while holding on to tradition. These two things can sometimes be polar opposites, so there is a constant societal struggle.
Photo Credits: Photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash
How do you raise kids in a studio apartment though?
I loved reading your article. I have plenty of “China days” since we moved to Beijing a year ago. Our firstborn is due in November and although we are delighted to be extending our family, I’m also dreading that so many ‘doors’ are closed me: no walks outside on pollution day’s (actually no walks full stop unless we taxi to the park), possible dangers in formula milk and food, lack of expat support and forums (I’m actually scared to tell other expats how much I dislike it here because I don’t want to be a “downer”), language barriers that cause problems, and the issue of integrating my child into a culture I’m not at home in.
I so wish we could move away but our job posts are here for now.
Thank you for sharing Janny and good luck