When I studied Chinese formally for a year at Beijing Language and Culture University back in the halcyon, pre-fatherhood days of 2003-2004, I was one of three swotty types who sat at the front. We had the unfair advantage of having native Chinese speaker spouses (by the way, I always think the plural of "spouse" should be "spice", don’t you?), and the dubious qualification of being "maturer" than the rest of the class. After we had done battle with the language for a while and discovered that the more Chinese characters we learned, the less we remembered. I recall a conversation in which a fellow square and I asked ourselves whether we would still have set out to climb the mountain that is Chinese if we had known what we were letting ourselves in for. "No," we concluded.
This is a good time to ask myself the same question about an even more colossal undertaking, similarly hard to assess until you actually find yourself knee deep in it: parenthood – or, most immediately, the joy mixed with exhaustion that is life with small children. If we are going to present Daniel with a younger sibling, it is probably about time we started giving the matter serious thought. Our lad is now three years and three months old. Simple arithmetic suggests that at this rate, he will be at least four by the time he has a meimei or didi to play with.
And, indeed, my wife and I have been asking each other: Do we really want to go through it all again? Discussions have followed no logical pattern. In theory, this time round we have the benefit of experience to help us decide whether we can really take another bout of sleeplessness, worry, and cultural conflict. Balancing work and life-with-a-small-child is a constant struggle, as any parent knows.(While I type this, I am singing nursery rhymes to help my little darling nod off.) And, don’t even mention the family finances.
In fact, on questions like this, I suspect primordial imperatives will trump any amount of conscious thought. Deep down, both of us want another child, no matter what "it" will cost us in time, energy and cash. It’ll keep the in-laws happy too.
Half a decade and several thousand semi-forgotten hanzi later, the three class swots have all become parents. Recently, over an all-too-rare beer with a tongxue with whom I shared doubts about climbing the mountain of Chinese, we discussed whether he – who appears perennially overworked and underslept – harbored any regrets about taking on this latest challenge? "No," was the answer, expressed with the force and gentleness of a father’s love. On this, too, we concur.
For a rest from raising his son, Martin researches clean technology for China Confidential, a Financial Times publication, and works as a pen-for-hire. During his seven years in Beijing, he has also been a warm weather kung fu practitioner.