Life as a twin in Beijing
This June-July joint issue of tbjkids had us seeing double. Suddenly, we found ourselves feeling curious about all things paired, and we started wondering: What would life be like if you were born with a partner? We sent Michaela Kabat to find out by tracking down some of Beijing’s twins.
Clara and Margot Menestrot
Not too long ago, 11-year-old twins Clara and Margot Menestrot were living in Paris, and couldn’t imagine a different life. They loved their friends and their school, and certainly weren’t interested in starting over halfway across the world. But not yet a year into their stay in Beijing, the twins have come to love their new lives in China, especially their friends at WAB, where they are in the 5th grade. Their classmates are from all over the world; Margot’s classmates represent nine different nationalities, and Clara’s 13.
Perhaps the girls have adjusted so well because they’ve been living cross-culturally since they were born: dad Michel, a pilot for Airbus China, is French; stay-at-home mom Elena hails from Spain, and they speak both languages at home. Clara and Margot have attended international schools since they were little, and are also fluent in English.
The girls keep busy here in Beijing. Both go swimming, play golf, go horseback riding, and study the piano. While they always do the same activities, they like different aspects of them, and Margot confesses that Clara practices the piano more than she does. “We’re different in many different ways,” stresses Clara. They like watching different TV shows and movies, for instance, and have different favorite foods (Margot’s is raclette, a French potato dish with melted cheese, and Clara loves Spanish tortillas, which are “a kind of potato omelette”).
As pretty foreign girls in Beijing, Margot and Clara garner a fair amount of attention. Still, they’re spared the constant “Are you twins?” questions that plague more similar-looking pairs. Due to a 10cm height difference, people rarely assume they’re twins. In fact, they have the reverse problem: they’ve had to pull out ID cards to prove they share a birthday! “We show them and they still don’t believe it,” says Margot. Is that annoying? The girls shrug.
The benefit of being a twin, Clara says, is always having somebody to pass the time with. Michel and Elena say their daughters have always kept each other company, even as babies. “In the mornings, they never cried when they were getting up, they would just be hanging out,” their mother reminices. (Of course, two babies were still a lot of work – they went through 480 baby bottles in the first month!) As the girls got a little older, they began watching out for one another. If one of them was offered a cookie, Elena recalls fondly, she would ask for two, and save one for her sister. “They’re always thinking about the other one,” says Michel.
Wang Wei Ming and Wang Wei Cong
Wang Qing Jia, a Beijing park employee and mother of 10-year-old identical twins Wang Wei Ming and Wang Wei Cong, was five months pregnant when the doctor told her she was having twins. She refused to believe it. Her husband, Wang Qin Ji, an air conditioner repairman, didn’t think it was possible either – “There was no record of twins in either of our families.” But of course, the Wang parents were delighted to be proven wrong. Thanks to biology, the Wangs were exempt from the one-child policy, and could have a second son without being penalized or having to pay a fine. Twin boys were like a gift from heaven.
Of course, even gifts from above can be hard when they’re crying to be fed at the same time! As a result, the twins spent their first couple years living with their mother in Shandong province, where there were two happy grandmothers eager to help take care of them. When the boys were old enough to attend nursery school, the family reunited in Beijing, where their father had been working for several years.
Now, the identical twins are 10 years old and in 4th grade at Beiwa Lu Primary School in Haidian. There are small differences in their appearances – Wei Ming is a little bit taller, and Wei Cong has a tiny birth mark on his cheek – but people outside the family often have trouble telling them apart, particularly because they always wear the same clothes. Wang Qing Jia and Wang Qin Ji say they never even thought of dressing their sons in different clothing – twins in China usually wear the same thing, and Chinese parents are less concerned about emphasizing individuality through clothing choices. “When they’re older, they’ll develop their own interests and directions. It’s not possible for them to go in the same direction,” says their father. In the meantime, dressing them the same helps ensure that the twins don’t fight over clothes, and makes for an easier time when shopping. It also, the boys report, makes life more entertaining: “It’s fun to dress the same because then people can’t tell us apart!”
Rayan and Ramy Ziani
Rayan and Ramy Ziani aren’t even 2-and-a-half, and they’re already stars in Beijing. The identical Brazilian-Algerian twin brothers have appeared in diaper advertisements, on the covers of local magazines, and even on television (as the sole foreign kids in a CCTV Christmas special on twins). But fame hasn’t gone to the boys’ matching heads, and they like still like nothing better than an afternoon spent playing with their toy cars, riding their tricycles, and hanging out with their 4-year-old brother Amir.
Thanks to the influences of Brazilian mom Cynara, a teacher, Algerian dad Sofiane, a diplomat, and two Chinese ayis, the boys are well on their way to becoming polyglots. At any given time in their home, communication is a blend of Chinese, Portuguese, Arabic, French and English. For now, the twins primarily speak Chinese, but judging from Amir’s example, Rayan and Ramy will soon be switching back and forth between the five languages with ease.
So how do you tell these curly-haired linguistic wonders apart? First, check their cheeks: Rayan has a dimple, and Ramy doesn’t. Better yet, offer both brothers a banana – Rayan will eat his for sure, but Ramy will hold back. Before solid food and smiles could be depended on, Cynara and Sofiane kept track of their boys with the help of two different bracelets. You can still hear a note of amused panic in Cynara’s voice when she recounts the times the bracelet system went awry.
As they get older, the boys’ different temperaments and interests are becoming clearer. Rayan can get wrapped up in playing the same game forever, but Ramy moves more quickly from activity to activity. Ramy’s also the family’s biggest soccer player. “He has Brazilian blood,” Cynara jokes.
The twins’ favorite playmate is definitely Amir. Amir, who was 2 when Rayan and Ramy were born, loves being a big brother, and is very protective of the boys. Of course, the three occasionally fight over the same toys. But the real competition in the Ziani household is for the most comfortable seat in the house – mom’s lap.
Vivian and Jessica Ho
Vivian and Jessica Ho, 10-year-old twins from Hong Kong, both love tiramisu, mangoes, swimming and sleepovers with friends. At Yew Cheung International School, where they’re sixth year students, both girls like Chinese class best of all and both were runners-up in a recent international school pinyin competition. They’ve also both been playing the piano for five years. Despite all this, according to dad Henry, who works for Nokia, “they’re totally different.” Vivian is more outgoing and outspoken, while Jessica is a little quieter and more ladylike. Vivian doesn’t crave spicy food like her sister does, and Jessica’s room, by her own admission, is a bit messier than Vivian’s. But both girls have the same appreciation for Beijing, where they’ve been living since last summer, as well as for life as a twin.
The best part of being a twin is built-in friendship, reports Vivian. “We can play with each other. There’s always someone to talk with.” “And someone to quarrel with!” their mother Ann chimes in knowingly. But the sisters usually get along well, and both parents say that raising twins is, in some ways, easier than raising a single child, as the kids can be one another’s companions. “The two girls really changed our lives quite completely,” says Ann, who works as a “home CEO.” For one, they brought the extended family closer together. “Suddenly, we’ve got two little ones, and so my parents were helping me out in all the daily living,” Ann explains. “It’s quite a good change in our lifestyle.”
The girls may have very different personalities, but they still look a lot alike, at least to strangers. In fact, when they’re sitting at the piano performing a duet, you might blink for a moment and think you’re seeing double. You wouldn’t be the first person to do so – the girls’ teachers have been known to mistake them for one another. And when the two are feeling sneaky, they’ve even managed to trick their own parents. For instance, there was the time Jessica drew a mole above her lip, mimicking the beauty mark on Vivian’s face that usually serves as the most noticeable physical difference between the girls. “It worked for a minute or two,” says their mom. “Then I looked closer and realized, no, that’s Jessica!”
Joel and Josh Glover
14-year-old twins Joel and Josh Glover, Year 9 students at Dulwich College Beijing, come from a big family: six kids, three dogs, three cats, and a hamster (not to mention poor, outnumbered mom and pop!). “It’s bedlam when the whole lot is here,” says dad, Robert, founder and executive director of Care for Children. Their mother, Elizabeth, a stay-at-home mom, agrees.
For much of the year, things aren’t quite so hectic. Anna (16), Lois (20), and Rachel (22) are all students back home in England, leaving Joel, Josh and their 18-year-old sister Megan, a senior at WAB, to rule the roost in Beijing. Of course, three kids still make for a full house, and Joel and Josh keep themselves and their parents busy with their jam-packed schedules.
The twins live for sports. At a recent track meet, Josh ran hurdles, Joel broke a school record for the javelin, and both ran like crazy on relay teams. The pair’s real passion, though, is soccer. They’re starters for the Dulwich team – Joel plays striker and Josh is goalie. The boys spent last summer honing their skills at a soccer academy in Norwich, England; back in Beijing, they dedicate their afternoons and all their weekends to the sport.
Other than their love for soccer, however, Joel and Josh couldn’t have less in common. “They’re like chalk and cheese,” says their father, “totally different.” Perhaps it’s related to the way they were born: Joel arrived head-first; eight minutes later, Josh entered the world in the opposite direction. Symbolic? Maybe. Joel’s favorite color is blue; Josh favors green. Joel is always in shorts; Josh wears long pants. Josh wakes up in time for a leisurely breakfast; Joel rolls out of bed ten minutes before he has to leave the house. Joel takes a mechanical, technical approach to things; Josh is more artistic.
Despite their differences, both boys have a wry sense of humor, and fire jokes back and forth at rapid rates. Though highly skilled in the art of annoying one another, they also appreciate the benefits of being twins. Sure, it gets annoying to constantly have strangers approach you and ask if you’re twins. But on the plus side, as Joel puts it, “you get to hang out with someone when you’re bored.”