Ni you ji ge haizi?
Even if locals know that I am not Chinese, they tend to rattle off in Chinese anyway. I don’t always make out what they’re saying, but some things stand out, like, "Ni you ji ge haizi?" How many children do you have?
It’s a commonly-asked question, likely driven by the asker’s curiosity about a culture different from their own. Since China instituted the one-child policy in major cities in 1979, the average family make-up of local families has been one father, one mother, one child, preferably a boy. It is so ingrained in the culture that things are developed around this reality: public parks have tandem bikes fitted with a baby seat behind the second adult seat; advertisements for the ideal home show a family of three having fun on a grassy lawn; even toothbrushes can be bought in a “family set” of two adult brushes and one child-sized one in a packet. These seem to give little leeway for the myriad combinations of families that the locals encounter among us foreigners.
“I have two children.” (Really?) Both boys. (Really?) Some will ask, “Won’t you try for a girl?” Some will ask, “What is that like?” I have friends in Shunyi with two kids, three kids, four kids. I have friends whose families consist of only one parent. I have friends who have only brought younger children to live with them in China, leaving behind older offspring who are in school or have families of their own. To this generation of 30- and 40-something-year-old Chinese people, having more than one child is a novelty they can only imagine.
And yet, for most of us, it is precisely these same 30- and 40-year-olds who help us care for our children and our homes. They are the ayis and the drivers and security guards and management staff who run our compounds. The same people who leave the care of their own children to their parents while they work for us. They spend their work day shuttling our multiple children about, balancing their pick up times, separating their laundry and sports equipment, maybe even cooking their individual favorite meals.
I find it amazing that the Chinese locals who come to work for us have had to be flexible about inserting themselves into a family culture unlike their own. And they have to do it differently with each family they come to work for.
And of course we have to relearn new ways to do things with our families when we move away from home. Our checklists, actually written or in our heads, are kilometric when we move. It would be safe to say that at least half of the major items revolve around the kids: which school, which residential compound, does it have good play areas, at what age can they be given a cell phone, are they ready for a pet, for sleepovers, to go in a group unaccompanied to Sanlitun at night, and are you ready to leave them in the care of an ayi while you go off to a parent-teacher conference or a dinner date with your spouse, who is the best doctor, basketball coach, swim trainer, how to help them with spelling and math, and through heartache at any age, how to stay in touch with grandparents and old friends… And oh, are they doing okay? Multiply that by X number of children and you can see that a parent’s concerns are never-ending.
So to answer the question, “ni you ji ge haizi?” is to also have their precious faces flash right before you, as you whisper yet another prayer that they are adjusting well and are happy to be here.
Photo by Dana Cosio-Mercado
Dana is the beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent. Originally from the Philippines, she moved to Beijing in 2011 (via Europe) with her husband, two sons and Rusty the dog. She enjoys writing, photography, theater, visual arts, and trying new food. In her free time, she can be found exploring the city and driving along the mountain roads of Huairou, Miyun and Pinggu.