I gave this speech at Toastmaster's last night. It was speech #4, under the category "How to Say It."
Most of the time raising kids in China is great. This is the most kid-friendly country I've ever encountered. When we walk into restaurants the waiters and waitresses usually light up, and they come over to talk to my kids and pinch their cheeks. If my kids break a glass in a restaurant or drop a spoon, someone comes over to clean it up right away and we don't get any nasty looks. When we walk on the street many people say hello to my kids and my kids have learned to be very friendly and open as a result.
But there are some challenges for me as a parent in China. Specifically I have challenges because I am a foreigner raising kids in China. And because I'm raising my kids in a culture that I'm not completely familiar with, and because my kids are speaking a language which I myself am not fluent in.
So let me tell you about three issues that I face as an American mom raising children in China.
My first challenge is - I don't know the schedule for qiu ku, or "long underwear". And I'm sure that there is a calendar somewhere that says "today everyone should start wearing long underwear" or "today is the last day for long underwear". My problem is - I don't have that calendar. Here's how I know I missed the date though. Some time in the late fall I'll be with my kids at the playground, and several of the grandmothers at the playground will tell me that my kids aren't wearing enough clothes. So then I start putting their long underwear on them, and they wear it until I miss the last day for underwear. I know that I've missed that day because the same grandma on the playground will tell me my kids are wearing too many clothes.
My second challenge is - I don't always understand what my kids are saying to other people. For example last weekend I was in the elevator with my son Grant and one other woman. Just before the other woman got out of the elevator Grant said something and the woman laughed. I didn't understand what he said. So after she left the elevator I asked Grant what he had said. He gave me a shy smile and said, "I said a dirty word." It wasn't a seriously bad word, it was just one of the gross words that he and his friends say at preschool and they think they're funny. But my concern is this - I want to stop my son when he says bad words. And I want the woman in the elevator to know that I don't think it's OK for my son to say words like that. I want her and my son to know we're not that kind of family. But I can't do that if I don't understand what my son is saying.
A very strange dynamic develops when your children can do something better than you can. As a parent, you're supposed to be the smart one, the capable one, the experienced one. But when your child can suddenly do things that you can't do, the dynamic is reversed. And it's very uncomfortable. I want to take this discomfort and turn it into my motivation for studying Chinese and becoming super-fluent. That's the only way to resolve this conflict for me.
And my final challenge is - people tell my daughter she's fat. Usually these are strangers, people who don't know us or have a vested interest in my daughter's well-being.
First let me give you some background. My daughter is a little bit chubby but not fat. She was much chubbier when she was younger. She has always enjoyed eating. As she's gotten older she's consistently gotten thinner. And she's very active: she loves to play ping pong, swimming, gymnastics, jump roping, kick-boxing, cycling, ice skating, whatever. She's very strong and very good at sports.
My husband and I are aware of her weight but we don't want her to be. We don't want her to develop body issues, where she believes she's fatter than she really is. We also don't want her to develop an eating disorder: we don't want Audrey to think about diets or depriving herself of nutrition at her age. We just encourage her to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and get plenty of exercise. And over time, our plan is working. Slowly but surely she is growing taller and thinner.
But these strangers on the street or in the elevator don't have that context at all. They don't know us, they don't know our daughter, they don't know how chubby she used to be, they don't know how active and healthy and energetic she is now. They don't know that eating disorders run in my family.
Now on a rational note, I know they're really just making a comment when they say she's fat, the same way someone might say "you're very tall" or "you're so cute." And I know they don't know how much damage they're doing by telling her that she's fat.
But nonetheless, I struggle with this. This wouldn't happen in my home culture. So as an American mom in China, I don't know how to deal with it.
It happened last Sunday in the elevator, for example. (Do you notice how many of my family traumas happen in the elevator?!) Someone casually said to Audrey "You're fat. The older you get the fatter you get." Afterwards we stood in the hallway and I held Audrey and she cried and cried. I said, "We've got to figure out what to say to people when they say that." We agreed that she can say, "I'm kind and happy and I study hard at school, and that's what matters to me and my family." (Clearly I'm passing on to my daughter my own tethers of Southern politeness, responding to someone with gentleness and restraint when in fact you'd like to scratch their eyes out.)
Based on these stories you might think that I'm confused or perplexed most of the time here in China. In fact that's not true, I love raising my kids here. It's exciting and fun and relatively easy. And one day I will write a book about my experiences as an American mother in China, and the stories I mentioned today will be the most interesting chapters.