Raising a Child in China: Split between Two Worlds

It’s easy to write about a different culture when you’re standing outside looking in. The differences and similarities are so striking that all it takes are the proverbial a few nights in Bangkok and suddenly you have something to say about Thai morals.

But when you are trying to describe your own culture, trying to dissect and analyze why the people in your particular Tribe behave in such and such a way, it gets tricky. You might not even notice that everyone in your house picks their nose while they watch TV. Dinner rituals are second nature; language is something that comes “naturally”. What others might consider prejudice is just “common knowledge”.

So it has taken me a while to write this installment in the wandering series based on my family and our experiences, because this one involves people very close to me. My parents, my siblings, how we view Chinese people in general, Chinese women and finally my wife.

Oh you know how Asian women are

“Everybody’s sayin’ it, everybody’s playin it’, put it on a scale and everybody’s weighin it …

Asian women are a hot topic these days: if it isn’t stories on Yellow Fever, it’s a treatise on Tiger Mommies or Kept Women, or a market analysis of Second Wives or another ‘I’m an Asian woman” novel of suffering, determination and ultimate catharsis.

Asian women are submissive tigers that lurk demurely in the corner waiting to get tied up and tossed into the kitchen where stir fry is sizzlin’ but watch your back because you might end up toting a purse and dragging a gaggle of mentally scarred overachievers behind wherever she wants to go. Oh, and forget about your cashflow, cause its hers now.

(I’m not sure if I nailed all the cliches, but you get the point).

My parents lived in Japan and my dad’s best friend was married to a Korean lady. The Asian women they met were wives of soldiers. Allow me to drop another stereotype into the pot:

Asian wives of US soldiers = gold diggin’ peasants.

Full Metal Jacket Vietnamese woman

This stereotype brought to you in part by Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick, 1987)

At least that’s what they say. So when my dad’s friend’s wife left him after he had a stroke and took all his money, everybody nodded sagely and said they saw it coming because that’s just what Asian women do.

My parents were and probably to a much lesser extent still are convinced that Bean (the pet name by which I call my wife) got pregnant on purpose. Either to keep me in her life or to get a green card, but basically on purpose. I’m not exactly sure how she did it, but I guess she told her anti-sperm defenses to stand down and informed her egg that the first lil Sascha that staggered through the phelopian was to be gobbled up. Immediately.

It was my fault too I guess, but only for getting duped by the manipulative Asian woman desperately trying to leave her Third World Country for the golden fields of grain in the USA. This whole spiel is something we hear every so often from expats and perhaps also their families and it does exist, this Asian Woman using sex with a Western Man to improve her situation and my parents have heard it and seen it enough to assume that it could be the case with Bean and I.

Sascha family pic

Taking a picture with the family, a Christmas tradition

The key fact here is that my parents had heard of Bean, but hadn’t met her. We didn’t travel back to the West a lot and my parents never came to China in all the 10 years I lived here, until last year when they came to see lil Dorian, my son. So my wife — although very aware — has no real world experience with the West; and my parents — although they lived in Japan — have basically no experience with Chinese (or any other Asian) women.

Add to that the language barrier and you have a a strong chance that both parties will fall back on stereotypes to describe each other. Expect miscommunication and misunderstandings.

“Asian women are spoiled”

When Bean and I were discussing an Ayi (maid) for Dorian, my parents almost choked on their breakfast. Ayi? Like a maid?

“Your mother took care of you two boys (me and my brother), kept the house clean AND had dinner ready every evening,” scoffed my Dad. “We didn’t have a maid.”

So there we have a couple things popping out:

  • Asian women are spoiled and unable to handle a normal workload
  • They think nothing of spending your hard earned cash on their comforts
  • They are inherently weaker than Western women

But its true; my mom did all of the housework, her entire life. My mom is proud of what she accomplished as a mother. We always had breakfast, lunch and dinner. There were always clean clothes and wiped counters. We never missed a practice and she never failed to pick us up from whatever we were into at the time.

Ladies dinner

All of the important ladies in my life, along with my son. My wife, mother, and sister.

Every time I think of my mom I hear the plodding, muffled steps of her slippered feet on the stairs up from the basement laundry room. Basket in her arms. Lips moving as she spoke to herself. About dinner I guess.

Today’s One-Child Chinese girls are told by their families, their society and their own desires that not only are they incapable of doing what my mom did, but to do so is undignified and depressing. They are completely and utterly terrified of the implications of being a real mother, ie taking care of the home and the kids.

The possibility that my wife fears a life of folding, cleaning and cooking makes her weak and selfish in my parents eyes. So she should quit her whining. I started to believe that too.

So during Christmas I would hear my parents’ voices in my head and turn on Bean:

“Baby, how come there’s no dinner on the table when I come home from work?”

“Baby, what you need a maid for? Get your ass in gear!”

“Baby you need to get a job, I can’t pay for all this stuff!”

And then Bean would lose it, start crying (which elicited another round of “see, there she goes again” from my parents) and after hours of tortured discussion, I would turn on my parents and say:

“Everyone has a maid in China, in fact, Bean is the only Momma I know that does not have her mom, dad, a maid and three other random women in the house taking care of Dorian!”

“Well that just goes to show you what those people are like!” came the reply.

“‘You don’t know what China is like!”

“Sounds ridiculous, you need to come home.”

When Bean and I were talking about paying big money for a hospital (because we’re expecting our second child now), my parents got angry.

“You don’t have a pot to piss in and she wants you to pay how much for hospital fees? What kind of a wimp is she?

Now of course my parents have no idea what it’s like in a Chinese hospital: factory conditions, callous nurses, weird procedures, men not allowed in to see the miracle happening. If they did then the fact that I live in China would just confirm my insanity and I my family might just intervene to save me.

Some Kind of Clarity

My oldest friend in the world Filip Pawelka has two kids and we went to hang out with them for a few days. We talked about all sorts of things and eventually came to the topic of my parents and Bean and maids and money and green cards and the stress of parenting.

When I was done laying out all of the arguments as I saw them, Filip’s wife Ilona said:

“If I didn’t have my mother here to help me out I would have gone crazy. Your Mom took care of you two, but you should ask her something: was it fun? Of course not. Full of love and joy and all that, but the stress and fatigue probably took 10 years off of her life.

If you can afford a woman to help out, then don’t be a fool. Do it.”

Me and Filip just nodded.

Father and grandson

My Dad playing with Dorian

It took this type of a conversation with a Third Party to clear my head. For the first few weeks at my family’s home, I wasn’t sure what the truth was anymore. Did Bean do this on purpose? Is she lazy and selfish? Are my parents just callous racists?

Of course it turns out that none of these things are true. The truth is my parents are tripping because I have been a vagabond for 30 years and now suddenly I have a family and they are not sure if I’ll be able to handle it. Instead of tearing into me, which always ends up ugly, they tear into the third party, the Woman Responsible for all this.

And Bean isn’t lazy or selfish. She’s a young girl in her early 20′s who is suddenly a Mother, spending all of her waking and sleeping hours with a demanding little one year old. She should be smoking weed and laughing loud with her buddies, not wiping little butts and sleeping poorly.

By the third week in, the whole family had figured out the same thing. It all happened one night with the whole family relaxing in the living room after dinner watching my Dad and Dorian play the ‘Coming to Getcha” game for an hour. The little guy laughed so hard and the family fell in love with him all over again. His hysterical giggling dispelled the prejudice and established an unbreakable bridge between Bean and my family.

Now my parents are demanding that we all move back to Minneapolis so they can play the “Coming to Getcha” game all day long.

Let Grandpa Raise Him

Kids need a community to grow up in. In fact, there is a book somewhere that talked about the roles people have in the child-rearing process:

Young people should be having kids, older people should be raising them. Moms and Dads should be around all the time, of course, but truly a community of people all working together kibbutz style is probably the best way to raise kids.

Too bad we are all so splintered and scattered to do that for our mommies and lil ones …

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About Sascha

Sascha Matuszak is a writer and commentator on domestic and international culture and politics. He's lived in Chengdu on and off for twelve years and currently makes his home in the South of Chengdu.

34 Responses to “Raising a Child in China: Split between Two Worlds”

  1. I can just imagine all the preconceptions someone who’s never had meaningful interactions with native Asians would have. At least your folks had exposure to Asian culture in Japan and China though, imagine if they had not! Still, it definitely looks like a challenge and puts you in a difficult place as the mediator.

    Thanks for being so forthcoming with personal details and telling the story!

  2. Thanks for another great article, Sasha. Children do have a way of bringing people together and focusing on what’s important.

    And since Chengdu Living has now been harmonized why not write more about One-Child Chinese girls. What do they think about the strong historical preference for boys, and how do they perceive themselves in today’s society? What do they think about all the little girls living in orphanages and are attitudes towards domestic adoption in China changing?

  3. Great article! Really cool topic to write about. The cultural differences are numerous and often difficult to convey..

  4. Andy

    Very interesting, been following this series of articles. I’m going though exactly the same thing now with a 1 year old and the second one is on the way in May.
    Think it really is important that the kids get attention from all the family and play a big part raising the child and not have to worry too much about ayi’s raising your kid. Look forward to the next article

    • yeah dude the next article will be about my number two, due in June. Also got a 1 yr old as you can see … so i’ll try and address the “omgwtf i have two under two?!” issue.

      • Andy

        I think it will be crazy for both of us. Think my wife is going for 3 in 3 years! Very excited about it though. Think our wives are friends on CDmama actually.

  5. Thank you for this article, and I’m glad you’re parents saw the light. What surprises me is the fact that they actually vocalized those concerns! My parents would never DREAM of questioning my or my wife’s decisions, regardless of how they really thought. Your parents just seem mean and out-of-bounds with their comments, aren’t you and your wife full-grown adults?

    On another note, my wife came full circle in her perspective on being a stay-at-home mother, she used to think it to be such a bizarre anomaly, and that perspective is pretty consistent for her generation of women in China.

    • hey chip — i was afraid that this article might make my parents look mean and intrusive, but that’s not really the case. They are worried and they didn’t know anything about Bean, plus all of this was quite sudden.

      Also my family is very very nuclear because my dad was in the US military so we moved around a lot, making the five of us (parents, brother sister and me) really really close. We’re constantly getting into each others’ business.

      but truly the goal of the article was to show that these stereotypes and worries can be overcome when the family remembers that … it is a family. And lil Dorian helped us out with that ;)

  6. Great honest piece Sascha, it will be added to our thoughts as my new wife, Ling, and I head back to meet the family for the first time, en-masse, in the summer. Take it easy.

  7. “A young girl in her early 20′s should be smoking weed and laughing loud with her buddies, not wiping little butts and sleeping poorly.”

    NOW who’s talking cultural bias here? That attitude did not exist in the West until 20-30 years ago. Now all the sudden it’s some sort of universal truth?

    • It’s not a universal truth, but in the developed West, a girl 21-24 years old will most likely be living a pretty carefree life. Sascha can defend that line himself but I interpreted it as: “It’s not easy for her, she was put into a trying situation early”.

      One other thing is that the attitude you describe began more than 50 years ago with the post-war beat generation.

      • hi matt.can i meet you?im a chinese m 20.l like make foreign friend.i live in chengdu.hope i can know you .if you wish ,please send me mail d a n i e l u l a n d r y @ y a h o o . c o m

  8. Yes, asian women are evil!!
    come on, think about it!
    some asian women have this white face preference, there is nothing really wrong about it. I like wide eyes long hair girls, maybe you like dark skin muscle men. Problem is there are always some stupid white guys take advantages of this. Problem is some stupid guys never really choose a WOMAN, they choose their prefered pussies(with asian faces)!
    So when messing around is getting to the ending point, how can one complain about his gf or wife is funny about money or immigration or she’s having an affair, when the truth is that himself did the wrong choice, chose a brainless gold-digger, not a real woman?
    That’s the whole thing about asian evil women I guess.
    I know so many good asian girls out there everywhere in China. You just can’t reach them, if you are only a kindergarten english teacher for getting your hash money.
    Congrats to those who have good asian wives! you guys proved you are so much better than those white trash who’s only saying and having asian trash by his side.

  9. today my chinese gf amazingly while we are having a quick lunch in the living room asked me what pair of shoes im gonna wear to the office… then she took it and tried to put it on my feet and even tried to tie my shoelaces… random act of kindness or sweetness?

    all i know is no one has ever done that to me… ever… asian women are case to case basis…

    great piece sascha though…

  10. Interesting article, I enjoyed reading it. I am a Chengdu woman who has lived in Amrica for 20 years; I am also married to a white guy and together we are raising two chilren here in Dallas. I wish I had some help like some of my friends back at home. We did hire a nanny (not cheap) when I decide to go back to work, I hope my in-laws didn’t think I am crazy or lazy. Also, it seems American grand parents do not like to get too involved in terms of helping out. It was natural for my mom to come all the way from China and hepled out for 6 month each time I had given birth. My mother-in-law never offered anything close to that. I guess it is expected in America, if you decide to get married and have kids, you should be able to handle the responsibilities that came with them; whereas in China, grandparents are always eager to pitch in, watch the kids and even help financially. My parents continue to send money to us even though I refuse it all the time. They said it was for the kids. Sometimes, I am afraid to tell my American husband becuase I am afraid he will think that my parents don’t think he is man enough to take care of his family, which is not the case at all. I am trying very hard to stop comparing my in-laws with my parents; they may have diffent ways of showing their support, I just need to accept them as they are. The important thing is that children are loved by both set of grandparents under two sometimes very different cultures. And they are.

  11. yeah big difference there. my father would never in a million years do what Bean’s father is doing: cleaning, cooking, playing, feeding, coaxing to sleep … for much longer than a weekend.

  12. Man, that was a great article!

  13. Great article, but I cant help but think the stereotypical set up, White man marries Asian woman is only perpetuating the stereotype. Growing up in the West 95% of half Asian kids I met had Asian mothers. And a friend of my cousin in Chengdu has a European husband and I heard they get negative looks quiet and he go into quiet a few fights in night clubs. Perhaps I should bring my girlfriend back to Chengdu next time I go back, perhaps I should expect fist bumps and high fives. Just my 2 cents, not to troll on your article.

    • yeah dude i got into fights in China a lot because of girlfriends and haters. If yer asian and have a non-asian girlfriend, you might be treated like a hero here or a race traitor. a lot of minds are closed here o.O

  14. fantastic piece..and all the preconcpetions of digging for a better life for themselves does exsist for sure, but what interests me the most is that not only asian women do this but i think the world over in general..keep the love and faith brother and this has inspired me to move closer to a long lost friend / old partner as we had a nasty break up but rekindled things for the better.stay happy folks

  15. I don’t know many chinese people but I have met some americans and I have an american uncle so I want to share my point of view on americans in order to give and receive feedback. Maybe I am wrong and my view must be corrected.

    What I noticed at all americans it is that they are individualistic and they tend to evaluate everything in money. They are individualistic in a way that a person should strive trough it own effort to obtain something, and don’t ask for help from the others, because if you ask help from others you will have to give away something or be obliged to do something, and this limits your personal freedom.

    I think is the second nature of the americans to evaluate everything in dollars. For example: I ate at a restaurant with some americans, I enjoyed the meal while my american friends calculated the cost despite the fact that their salaried were 4 time bigger than mine.

    On the other side the americans are more tolerant to different opinions and they believe that they can do whatever they want if they are determined and they work hard. So you can find a least one american volunteer helping others, in the most remote corner of the Earth.

  16. My brother met and married a young Chinese woman while working in China for 6 months. They now live in Europe.

    They have a very well-behaved baby. No problems. Sleeps the night through. As easy as they come. My brother works full-time (lower professional) and his Chinese wife stays at home full-time. My brother is good at helping out with the house and the baby when he isn’t working.

    Since the birth, my Chinese sister-in-law has whinged and whined, whined and whinged about how difficult her lot in life is and saying the baby was “difficult” to handle (she’s not). She started INSISTING on a nanny for her baby 24 hours per day, and 6 days per week, at less than the legal minimum wage. She said she expected the nanny to do all her work for her, except the shopping, that she wanted a “life”.

    My brother- under threat of divorce – eventually caved in and allowed her send the baby to a creche – 8-10 hours per day, 5 days per week, even though she just hangs around at home doing nothing during all this time. They can’t afford this – they don’t even have their own appartment or house.

    We, his family, are not impressed at her.

    • or brother needs to put his foot down i guess. I have a nanny here at my place, in China. but i work weird hours and my wife also has a small business brewing. We have two boys under two. The fee hurts every month, but I can afford it. So far, I feel its ok.

      My father in law also steps in at time to help out. So i don’t want to call your brother or her wife out harshly, seeing as I have a something similar going on. But truly, a girl like that will only be a pain in the ass until someone puts her in her place (hasn’t happened yet, obviously).

      And you know what? If he has to deal with this all his life, maybe divorce ain’t so bad. send her ass back to China. See what she thinks about that. Then you can take care of the baby ;)

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