Parenting Challenges for an Expat Living in China
Contributing Author: Brenna Burrows
Hi! Or I guess I should say, ni hao! My name is Brenna. I’m a wife, a mom to two girls (Emry, 5 and Wynnie, 2), a photographer, and many other thing. We are “Living Asian” in the beautiful city of Qingdao on the east coast of China. We absolutely love it! Expat life is exciting, adventurous, colorful, and also incredibly challenging. It's just how I imagined it would be as we worked for years toward this goal of coming here. I won’t pretend, however, that there haven’t been some unexpected and unpleasant obstacles along the way.
Before we get into that, I want to take it back 5 years to when my husband Chance and I first experienced life in China as students. We were kid-less, young, free, and of course – so, so broke. We were able to have a truly authentic experience that made us fall in love with China; it’s people, food, history, culture, and basic day to day life. Our experience made us realize that we wanted to bring our future family back one day to really dive deep into this country we fell in love with. Fast forward to today, we have been living in China for about 6 months now. With a lot of trial and error we have truly found our rhythm. Grocery shopping, no problem! School schedule, check! Any type of take out delivered to my door, piece of cake! Yes, they will even deliver cake. 😉 Life in China is pretty easy. I know, in your mind you are laughing, but it’s true. The Chinese have figured out how to make life run pretty smoothly, and they are always willing to help us dumb foreigners when we stumble. There are obviously many challenges we face that we wouldn’t if we were living in our home country (which is the USA, by the way).
In this blog post I am going to address a few of the real struggles we have had because of the cultural difference. Read this with a light heart, because that’s how I try to get through difficult situations on the daily! Try to picture yourself in these situations, and feel free to laugh. Some of these differences are extremely frustrating, but when you look at them from the out-side-in or even a few hours after they happen, they can be quite comical. Insert Oreo story… you’ll know soon enough.
Let’s just jump in!
Challenge #1 – Parenting Style
I was prepared for the differences in culture before we moved here. I knew there would be challenges, especially challenges that I couldn’t predict. The difference in parenting was one of those unforeseen challenges. This was obviously something we were not paying much attention to when we were here five years ago. But in general, the parenting style in China is so different! As a foreigner in China, with kids, we get A LOT of attention. Sure, when we were students we got stared at and pictures taken of us, but we didn’t get told what to do, we didn’t get picked up. 😂 We definitely didn’t get candy and gifts given to us around every corner. I know it sounds like we are living like celebrities, and at times it feels that way, but other times it makes parenting in general very difficult. Because of all the attention I have spent the last 6 months learning about the way they parent so I can learn and prepare for future situations that will arise.
It Takes a Village
The first thing I have learned is that they take the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” to heart!In China, even though most families have one or two kids, raising kids is a group effort and everyone pitches in; parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, teachers, old lady on the street – you get the idea. Often times, Chinese couples will live with one of their parents when they have a baby. Both parents will work outside of the home and the grandparents will essentially raise the children. When the parents are off work, they will ALL help out so it’s often 4 adults to one child. They all insert their opinion when it comes to making decisions regarding the child and usually no one is offended.
I don’t think this kind of group effort approach is as common in the US. Yes, we will throw the “it takes a village” phrase around and we all understand it, but that is not always how we view parenting. It seems that it is our culture to only give advice when it’s asked for. We often get defensive if someone tells us what we should do when it comes to our children. It can cause major tension between grandparents and parents if the grandparents jump in and give advice when they haven’t been asked to do so. As a whole, I think Americans tend to be quite independent people, comparatively speaking. Many of us want to grow up, move out, get married, have a family, and raise that family with our partner. We have the “I can do it all” mentality which can be a really good thing, but it can also be difficult and isolating, especially when it comes to parenting.
I have noticed pros and cons to both approaches. On the Chinese side it seems that some parents are being taken out of the equation a little too much. Both parents will be gone for 8+ hours a day, and most of the child’s time is spent with the grandparents or at school. That can make it hard for bonding and for the child to know who they should turn to for permission, advice, love, support, etc. On the other hand, they also grow a very strong relationship with grandparents and may turn to them for those things. Again, it’s just very different from what I grew up with in the US.
I Can Handle This
On the American side, I have often seen pride, defensiveness, and unwillingness to ask for help (even when help is desperately needed). This “I can do it all” and “I can handle this” mentality limits us when it comes to connection with other people. Leaning on others opens the doors for strong and happy relationships with the ones around us. On the other hand, I do think that the approach does often help children grow strong relationships with their parents, and they learn this independence from them and are able to go out into the world as adults and take care of themselves and their own family one day.
It is often challenging when our Chinese neighbors (all 9 million of them in Qingdao) take the “it takes a village” mentality to the extreme and give us their advice all the time. I have had to bite my tongue and work on the way that I respond to unwanted/unneeded advice. It has showed me how defensive I really am, and I haven’t liked seeing that side of myself. Even though I know they are doing it because they truly want to help, it can make me doubt my choices as a parent and make me feel as if I am doing it all wrong.
For example, if Wynnie cries or throws a fit, I get told to pick her up, give her the candy, a toy, or soda, no matter what she is doing! I have asked many people why they would respond this way to a child acting out and this is the most common answer I get - Chinese people (in general) don’t discipline till age 4 or 5. It is normal for a kid to act out and they see it as their job to calm them down and to calm them down quickly. I feel this way too, especially in public, but I feel like I am rewarding Wynnie’s bad behavior by giving her what she wants when she is throwing a fit. Since being here, I often feel like I am too harsh when it comes to the “terrible twos”, because I don’t give in to her wants and because I often will remove her from the situation and give her a stern talk. You should see the looks I get when they see me in the hall sternly talking to my 2-year-old or taking my screaming toddler out of the restaurant instead of letting her chug the whole bottle of sprite she is screaming for.
One tricky situation that I am constantly put in is with our driver. Chance’s employer lets us use a full-time driver during the day, but on his days off and during the evening we usually take taxis. In the taxis we can’t use car seats, but in our car we do. The inconsistency is very confusing to Wynnie and has made it extremely hard for me to get her to sit in her car seat, and she will often throw big fits. I get it, I would be confused and upset too if sometimes I got to be free in the back of a car and other times I’m completely strapped down.
Discipline vs. Oreos
When our driver notices that she is in a bad mood, he will toss back an entire package of Oreos, even if she was just hitting me during her meltdown. 😵 I know he is trying to help (or he wants her to be quiet) but I don’t want to reward her for inappropriate behavior. Picture this - Wynnie gets upset about something and starts acting out, so our driver hands her an entire package of Oreos. She is distracted from what she originally wanted, but now she wants to eat an entire package of Oreos! I obviously can’t let her do that, so I try to limit her to a couple. The fit escalates and becomes worse than before! She finally accepts the one and covers herself with creme because she only wants the middle of the Oreo. Once the Oreo is gone (or at least the creme is so she tosses the cookie part at my face) she goes back to screaming because she STILL wants out of the car seat. 😵😂 It’s a rough life! I’m being slightly sarcastic because yes, I’m kind of complaining about my driver #firstworldproblems. But hey, kids can be hard regardless of the circumstances. To Wynn’s credit, this doesn’t happen every time we are in the car. She is about 50% when it comes to her complete hatred toward her car seat.
In addition to the differences in disciplining, children here often seem to be coddled in their early years. It’s normal see a parent or grandparent following their toddler’s every move on the playground. When our Ayi (nanny/housekeeper) takes Wynnie to the park she follows her up on the playground, shields her from any nearby running children, and is inches away from her the entire time she goes down the slide. You’d think it was a war zone, not a day at the park. It drives me nuts, but it drives Wynnie even more nuts! She is capable and very independent. She doesn’t want help up the stairs, down the slide, and she doesn’t like to be slowed down. In response to this lack of space, Wynnie often gives a little yell just to let Ayi know that she can do it all by herself.
I don’t know what long term effects these specific differences will have on children. I don’t see it as “I’m right and they are wrong”, but I can see the looks they give me as I sit on the park bench watching my child play from a distance instead of being a helicopter parent. I don’t know what is going through their minds, but to me it feels as though they sometimes interpret it as a lack of caring. That is hard for me. I sacrifice SO much for my kids so it’s hard to feel misunderstood. I don’t think everyone is thinking that, but I’m sure the thought crosses many of their minds.
CHALLENGE #2 – Body Temperature
Another cultural difference is body temperature – I know that sounds strange. You are probably wondering why that would even pose a challenge, just wait. The Chinese people we have been around must be ultra-sensitive to cold. Since they are cold, they assume that we must be too, especially our kids!
Throughout the winter I have been told at least 3 times a day that my kids are cold, a statement often accompanied by strange looks. I get comments on ho they only have one pair of pants on, they don’t have a hat on, gloves on, etc. It doesn’t matter if my kids are smiling and content as can be, if the weather is “cold” outside then they must be cold. Most of the time they are polite and just say, “she isn’t cold?”, I usually respond with asking my girls if they are cold, and they respond with a no, and we go about our business.
Dealing with the Cold
However, on a few different occasions I have been told pretty severely that my baby is cold, and I need to take care of her. Both times we were inside, it was NOT cold, and Wynnie was just sitting in her stroller smiling away. 😂 In most situations it doesn’t bother me too much, but I have found myself over dressing my kids (Emry gets mad at me all the time) just to avoid the constant comments when we go out.
See how these cultural differences could make me doubt myself and my parenting? Sometimes I find myself doing things I normally wouldn’t do just to avoid the conversation that I know we are going to have in public with a random lady that I can hardly communicate with. Yeah, it’s exhausting.
CHALLENGE #3 – Paparazzi
Everywhere we go people want photos taken with our girls. This is common all over Asia. Emry is always being pulled in for a photo, Wynnie gets picked up without asking, and people will line up and make the girls take one photo after another. Sometimes they aren’t great at reading body language and they don’t stop when you can clearly see the girls have both had it. That’s when I have to intervene. I kindly say, “last one” and then go grab the girls and walk away.
People often ask how we deal with all that attention. This is my opinion and it’s how we handle most of these situations. When it comes down to it, we are making the people around us happy by letting them take a picture with us. It feels so weird because clearly we aren’t celebrities or anything, but for some reason it makes them happy. I don’t want some stranger to remember me as some rude American that yelled at them because they touched her kid without permission. I try to respect the way my kids feel and handle each unique situation differently.
Making Others Happy
The girls and I have a lot of conversations about how they can be kind and let them take a picture, and how it makes many of the people around us happy. As they walk away, I make it a point to show Emry how happy she just made them and then I ask her how she feels. She always says that she feels good that she did that. It’s such a simple and easy thing we can do. Our kids are learning to deal with it and most of the time they don’t even notice the stares or the people who are sneaking photos. It doesn’t bother me until I am trying to enjoy a delicious snack and someone is in my face taking photos of me eating. I don’t even want to think about how many bad photos there are of me on random peoples phones.
Basically, what it comes down to is that there are many cultural differences that can be challenging. Overall, I think the hardest thing about all of it is that we constantly have a million eyes on us. They can’t get enough of how different we are so they are always watching to see what we will do next. They watch our every move and it’s especially hard and embarrassing in the middle of a toddler tantrum.
The only way we know how to deal with it all is to laugh through it. When the random person on the street looks at us and yells “foreign person” (in chinese), I respond with “chinese person” (in chinese) and get a shocked look and a laugh out of them. If someone comments on my daughters lack of clothing, I tell them how ridiculously strong my girls are and how I let them decide if they want to wear a billion layers of clothes or not. Or when someone gets in my face with a camera I get in their face with mine and get some authentically beautiful images of their happy faces. To me, even on the hard days, it can be very entertaining.
Our New Found Reality
To be so completely honest with you, we absolutely love life here! I don’t think I can adequately describe the joy we feel waking up each day in our new found reality. This life and it’s challenges around every corner have pushed us to become stronger, more accepting, and to become a little bit better people. It is teaching our kids to see people for who they are, without caring about what they look like or even what language they speak. When it comes down to it, we are living in their country. We are their guests, and I often feel that it’s our job to try to be good examples of kind, considerate Americans.
If you are considering expat life, my advice is this - jump in! The water at times can feel so cold it paralyzes you, but as you keep moving you will find warm spots that bring you so much joy and comfort. Eventually, you embrace it and even become accustomed to the ice cold. It’s exhilarating, life altering, and so messy. You will love it!