Thoughts of a soon-to-be-dad
I’m not yet a father, so it’s odd to be writing a column as a Beijing dad. However, on May 7, give or take a few days, I am due to become one. Genealogically speaking, my new baby will be half-British, half-Chinese. But judging from my experiences in China so far, it’ll take some efforts to keep things this balanced when it comes to the baby’s upbringing.
You see, ours was always going to be a pregnancy with Chinese characteristics. After all, it has always been a marriage with Chinese characteristics. Since we arrived in Beijing three and a half years ago, my native-Beijing bride and I have shared a hundred square meters with a Pekinese named Bubby that has a taste for foreign flesh, a terrapin (that, to be fair, causes little trouble), and two irrepressible in-laws.
By irrepressible I mean “energetically indulgent.” Over the last three and a half years, I’ve been mollycoddled like a surrogate infant son. My every need has been satisfied and my in-laws have shown boundless patience. To give you some indication of my current state of blessed dependence, I’ll tell you this: my father-in-law has lately taken to scrubbing my underwear by hand. While I don’t feel entirely comfortable with this, it seems churlish to complain. (Mind you, I could be said to have slight cause: my father-in-law is a powerful Dongbeiren (aka northeasterner), and the frequent washings by his strong hands have resulted in the rapid disintegration of several pairs.)
Tempers (unlike my underwear) have frayed only once, when, during one festival or another, I flattened about a hundred freshly wrapped jiaozi with my great laowai bum, having innocently mistaken the covered dumplings for a cushion. Fortunately, this was before my shorts were getting the Dongbei treatment.
As bathed in attention as I’ve been, my mother-in-law has long been itching for another family member she can dote on. At first, her grandchild greed was partially belied by a laissez-faire cool (“Oh, the two of you have got plenty of time to have children”), but this gradually gave way to the insinuating (“Laolao [your grandma]was just wondering when you were thinking about having kids”), and finally deteriorated into the downright impatient: “When ARE you two going to have children?!”
While we kept her waiting, my mother-in-law kept herself busy fantasizing about how to ration out her anticipated brood of grandchildren amongst the extended family. She must have one for herself, of course. And Laolao would like one, too. And then there was younger uncle to consider … “When do we get to keep one?” I wondered.
Now, with arrival imminent, my mother-in-law tells us she has decided to give up work to take care of our child. We didn’t even have to ask her. Not that this is unusual – in China it’s common for young children to be raised by grandparents and other relatives; my wife was raised by her own grandma when she was little.
Still, with my eager Chinese family members so ready to get involved, I’m filled with selfish anxiety about being a laowai dad in a Chinese family. I have to wonder how much of a say in things I’ll have when the big day finally arrives. I am sometimes visited in the small hours by a vision of our child, head shaven like Kojak’s in accordance with Chinese tradition, clad in split-pants, and surrounded by a gaggle of cooing female relatives who won’t let father within five feet. Waking up in a cold sweat, I promise I won’t let things go that far. After all, I can’t let my kid steal all the attention.