Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The eXpat Files, Vol. 2

Where to begin?!  I have been brainstorming topics to share with you all about our experience as expats living in China.  One moment I feel like I have a million ideas, and the next I feel like I don't know what to talk about.  This has been an amazing experience for us so far, and I know there is lot  that I can share.  So I'm just going to take this one step at a time.

My first topic... FAMILY

Our first Chinese New Year in China
Many of you are likely familiar with the "one child" rule in China.  You are also likely aware of the preference of having a male child, due to the abundance of Chinese girls that are adopted by families in North America.  I knew these things too, but now that I have lived in China I have a much better idea of what these things mean, and a greater appreciation for the differences in our cultures.

The "One Child" Rule
This is still alive and well in China for the most part.  From what I have been told by my Chinese Ayi (Chinese for "Auntie"... our Ayi is our housekeeper), the rural parts of China do not fall under the same rules.  There, you are likely to find families with more than one child.  In the cities we leave near, however, it is quite rare to have more than one child.  If you have a second child without being granted permission, you will not be issued an ID card allowing your child to enroll in school or into the workforce.  So it is a pretty hefty penalty!  HOWEVER, you can petition to the government for a second child, and possibly be granted the approval.  Our driver told me that his wife would love to have a second child.  So now, he must work.  Meaning... if he can save up enough money, only then could he go to the government and have a chance at being approved for a second child.  Wealthy families, therefor, are allowed to have more than one child.  Rural families are allowed to have more than one child, and anyone married to a foreigner is allowed to have more than one child.
Outside the foreign goods market

I never thought too much about the idea of the one-child rule until we had been in China for a few months.  Our family structure is SO different from the Chinese families around us.  We don't only stand out because of our light hair... we stand out because we have THREE children running along-side us!  The three children are pointed out ALL of the time!  "San ga!" with three fingers in the air is heard every time we are out, which translates to "three (children)".  In this part of China, we are quite the spectacle!

My children surrounded by curious Chinese people also spending the day at the beach.

Family Structure
We are out enjoying time as a family of five, perhaps to the park, or walking back home after enjoying dinner together.  Two adults, three children.  We are surrounded by Chinese families, consisting of two adults, two or more grandparents, and ONE child!  In most Chinese homes, the mother and father work, and the grandparents (sometimes all four of them) share the task of caring for the child.  So one child has potentially SIX adults assigned to them, no siblings to play with, no aunts or uncles, and no cousins!  All six adults dedicated to that one child!  It is fairly common to see grandparents out and about with a child during the day, and they are usually the ones that take young children to and from school.  The number of children you see on a regular day is always greatly outnumbered by the adults.

Ping Pong Games at the mall draws quite a crowd!
Grandparents don't live far, if they they happen to live in a home apart from a mother, father and child unit.  My driver (I'll tell you more about him in a later post) tells me that his parents live very close, because he "is not independent."  Haha... I had to laugh!  His mother and mother-in-law take turns watching his son (who is 7) while he and his wife keep full time jobs.  Most nights, dinner is prepared for the family by either his mother or mother-in-law.  I think this is a very typical arrangement in the part of China where we live.  My driver also says that men retire around the age of 55 or 60, while the women do around 45.... which I am sure is about the age they would be when they'd expect their prized grandchild!

My three kiddos at the pet market, picking out pets.
Of course, Chinese people seeing a mother lugging around three children on her own is quite unusual here.  My driver has suggested to me on several occasions that he and his wife think that I must be amazing to be able to care for my three children on my own (with the help of my husband).  I'll take that as a compliment! :)

You can only guess what the Chinese men are thinking about all of these blond kids eating ice cream on a cold day!
So as you can imagine, when there are six adults with their attention on a single child, life for that child is quite unique from the experience of most of us in North America.  You do not see children out playing as often as you would in North America, and there is definitely a very strong focus on education.  Children attend school hours much like we are use to, but then come home to study for several hours.  Students may even attend classes on Saturdays.

The Boys vs. Girls
So why would the Chinese people prefer boys over girls?  I always assumed that boys were preferred because they would stay with their parents and care for them in their old age, while the girls would eventually marry and leave their families.  That doesn't seem to be "the way of things" here, as many families seem to be equally involved with the parents on both sides.

My son and our driver's son, ready to play badminton with the dads
My driver and Ayi both tell me that to have a son is very expensive.  That is, WILL BE expensive.  When the Chinese marry (which is allowed when boys are age 23 and girls are age 21) it is the grooms family that pays for the wedding as well as buy a home for the new couple.  The groom is responsible for buying a car, if they can afford to do so, though there are still many people in China that do not drive.  So my driver's wish to have another child is a huge decision for their family, if they are even granted permission to do so.  If he has a second son, his family might be very hard pressed to financially support two boys.  If he has a daughter, "No problem!" as he would say.

In the first months in China, Tatum was happy to pose for pictures, as often requested.
So why would boys be preferred over girls?  For the most part, I believe this has a lot to do with pride and honor for the family.  When Chinese people marry, each keep their family name.  Children take their father's last name, and the mother's family name is essentially lost.  Imagine how the single child ruling would weigh on that!  A son is also seen as stronger, and more capable of providing for, and protecting the family.  As my Chinese friend explains it, men are the head of the family, so a son will one day take that honorable place.

As a Parent
One day I was reflecting on the one-child ruling from a personal standpoint.  What if I was told that I was only allowed to have one child?  I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a mom, and three children seemed like the perfect number.  I think I would have a deep longing for more children if I was limited to having only one.  I am sure that many people here in China must feel the same way.  It makes me sad knowing that that is not an option for them.

Enjoying an evening in Beijing with friends, eating REAL Cold Stone ice cream!
It is very interesting raising my family here in China knowing that the families around us work so differently.  I think I am just as curious about their lives as they are about ours!  So there is my first of many posts sharing what I have learned about China in our time here.  Please let me know if this was at all interesting for you.  I'll assume with no comments no one bothered to read this far and I'm just blabbing to myself :)  And any things you are curious to know about, I'm open to your suggestions!  I have a list of topics for future posts, and happy to add to my list.

An anonymous comment below suggested that the Chinese couples that each come from a single-child family are allowed to have two children.  I hadn't heard this, but was quite curious to find out if that was true.  Sure enough, my driver confirmed that was true.  He and his wife are not allowed to have two children because his wife happens to have a sister.  The same goes for my ayi, who came from a rural part of China and has a brother and a sister.  So she also was only allowed to have one child.  When I asked my ayi if she longed for more than one child, she laughed... suggesting that it wasn't even something she considered due to the great cost of already having one son.

Thanks for all of the fabulous feedback you have shared.  I am so thrilled that many people are interested in learning about our experiences here in China.  I have a list of topics a mile long that I will be putting on my blog in the upcoming months.... so stay tuned.  Anything of particular interest, please feel free to send me a note.  I'd be happy to find out more for you about the Chinese culture.  Considering that I now have a handful of Chinese friends here, I can easily get the answers I'm looking for too!


My disclaimer...
I'm not an expert on China, and the stories that I share here are based on my own personal experiences and the things I have learned speaking with others in China.  China is a very large and culturally diverse country, so you may find that the traditions and "way" of things in parts of China outside of where we are living are quite different.


  1. This is so interesting, Rachel. It sounds like such a great experience for you, yet so very different from our way of life here.

  2. having worked with some chinese people i had wondered how the one rule thing worked. it must be very hard to long for a 2nd child and to be able to have one.

  3. At my previous job many of my co-workers had immigrated from China. Those that were of child bearing age were so thankful to be able to increase their family size. It is a choice that we often take for granted.
    I am excited to hear more about your family's adventures.

    1. Gosh I am sure! We do take it for granted, don't we! And it is interesting... all of the Chinese immigrants I know in the US/Canada have multiple children.

  4. This was truly very interesting. Thanks for sharing it with us! I too have often wondered about the 1 child rule and how it worked. I also always assumed that boys were more desirable because of their ability to work and carry on a family name - it was interesting to learn the truth. I am also very surprised that they are more desirable since having boys is so much more expensive. I'm curious after this post and your previous, how you feel, as a mother, with so much attention given to your children by strangers. It seems like it would be very uncomfortable.

    1. Thanks Jade, I appreciate your note as well as all of the others here. I think the idea of having two boys to afford futures for is enough to convince families that one child is ok... but it does make for an interesting conflict.

      And yes... my children really get an insane amount of attention here. Enough to make you wonder if these people have EVER seen a foreigner at times. I will definitely be sharing more on that in a future post.

  5. This was your most interesting post to date! I love reading your blog and please keep the cultural differences posts coming. I have learned a lot about different countries from blog comments from Australia, South Africa, and now reading yours, China. Thanks!

  6. I have heard of the one child rule but didn't understand all the ramifications, so I find this post very interesting. And, I'm looking forward to more! Thanks so much, Carolyn

  7. It's sad that something as highly personal as choosing family size is mandated by the government. How blessed we are to choose for ourselves!

  8. I bet the kids feel like little celebs sometimes! Keep the fun coming! It would be interesting to haul my super blonde brood around there!!!

  9. I loved this post. Thank you for sharing your family's experiences. What a blessing to have this time to experience another culture!

  10. wow. i didn't realize that it was still a norm over there. so your family is almost like the Duggars over there, huh? i love this series. it's so cool to hear about life in another culture.

  11. I loved you post. Keep it up. Looking forward to your next diary entry!

  12. This is so interesting - I am loving your series on being an expat.

  13. Another important issue is that for a single child, there are no aunties, uncles or cousins, in addition to no siblins. If 2 parents come from single child families, they now are allowed to have a 2nd child.

  14. Thank you so much for writing about your life in China! I LOVE reading about other's lives in a foreign country! Please continue sharing!

  15. Very Interesting, I look forward to more. Love the little details of life in China!

  16. My family would fit right in over there. We have one son, who is often surrounded by four adults at least. I think we get some odd looks in America, actually. I would love to hear anything you're willing to share. I'm obsessed with the International Home buying show on TLC (I think), so I'd love to see photos of your house or other cool houses you visit.

  17. Thanks for the very interesting post. Keep the cultural posts coming!

  18. Thanks for sharing your experiences in China. It is fascinating finding out how other cultures live and you have a very interesting perspective being you are living there with young children. I'd love to hear about how you and your children have adjusted to eating the traditional Chinese food.

  19. Even though I heard about the one child rule in Chine but never really thought about it much, never realized that would mean no cousins or uncles, seems so sad for me coming from a huge family.

  20. Thank you so much for posting about your experiences in China. Having just given birth to my 5th child in 19 years, I cannot imagine life with only one. You touched on many aspects of their lives that I did not realize before. I hope you will post again about what you have observed. I enjoyed it very much.

  21. What an interesting post! Thank you so much for sharing the Chinese views of children and child rearing. I love learning about families around the world! When we adopted my son from Korea last year, we were told that it was very rare for a girl to be adopted into the U.S. We got a vague reason why, and I haven't been able to find much research about how this came to be. I think you never fully understand how different cultures live until you are immersed in them. :)

  22. I am glad you are sharing your experiences from China. I have a 4 y/o who wants to visit China, thanks to Ni-hao Kailan, so I am excited to share your stories and pictures with her. While I read your post, it reminded me how I used to tell my oldest who is now 16 that she wants to be an only child, never thinking of how much of a blessing it is to have that choice of a second child.

  23. We have entertained several Chinese families who are here in the US as students. One of their primary reasons is that while they are here they can have more children without penalty since they are considered "Americans" with dual citizenship.


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