I never pictured the person I wanted to marry. I didn’t think of a particular height, hair color or country of origin the guy I’d marry should have. I did have a few criteria of exclusion though. I’d certainly never marry anyone from a really cold area. I never liked winters in Austria. Having lived in China’s south in the past and never in the north of the country, chances of meeting someone from really far up north were slim anyways. And even more important than that – I wouldn’t marry an only child. I grew up with seven brothers and sisters, marrying an only child would definitely be a bridge too long to cross. Or so I thought.
Raising two kids in an only child society
Of course, everything turned out differently. While 2012 was coming to a close in the southern city of Shenzhen, I fell in love with a guy who was both thoughtful and witty. As fate would have it, he was from an area most famous for being the birthplace of China’s empress dowager Cixi, for its role in the Battle for Manchuria in 1946, and for the local pancakes stuffed with pork even Deng Xiaoping had once praised. The guy who would soon become my husband was from Northeast China and an only child at that. We have since moved up north and are raising two kids together trying to bridge cultural, linguistic, and generational differences (my in-laws live close-by) in a society that has forgotten how to raise multiple children.
Although my mother-in-law is an empathic person, she doesn’t usually show her emotions with facial expressions. Whenever we spoke about wanting to raise two children, however, her face would light up with a big smile, unable to hide her anticipation. When my husband and I told my mother-in-law that I was pregnant with our second child, her first reaction was a bit different though. She told my husband that we’d need to send our two-year-old to kindergarten, because she and my father-in-law can’t take care of two grandchildren at the same time when we’re at work. With our older son, both my in-laws helped us look after him when we had to work. It is quite common in Austria for one parent (or sometimes one grandparent) to look after two or three children during the day, but the Chinese style of parenting I have gotten to know through my in-laws is intensive. It really doesn’t leave much space for more than one child to look after at the same time.
A Chinese version of intensive (grand-)parenting
One aspect that makes looking after two kids harder is the emphasis on over-reliance. “You can’t do that on your own, let me help you with that” my father-in-law would tell my son when he attempted to peel mandarin oranges on his own, a skill he had already perfectly mastered at our own place. Another aspect is the belief that kids need to be entertained. Letting our son play on his own? He’d certainly be bored. And then, of course, there are various acts of love that wouldn’t be necessary, but they still can’t help doing, like carrying our two-year-old home all the way during rainfall in summer, one person carrying the child, the other the umbrella. They’d get soaked and would even forget their umbrella at our place, but their grandson would stay dry and that was the most important thing for them.
I’m thankful that they are attentive and show their grandson so much love. He’ll always feel welcome at their place. But I’m also a bit torn and wonder how everything will work out when both of their grandsons – one still a baby, one a toddler – are at their place at the same time. I’m sure they’ll find ways to make it all work, just as my only-child-husband and I will. After all, we can’t possibly keep the two siblings from being together – what’s the point of raising multiple children if you don’t let them grow up together?
Photos courtesy of Ruth Silbermayr-Song
Ruth Silbermayr-Song is an Austrian illustrator, German teacher and mother of two. She writes about life in China as a foreign woman, her cross-cultural marriage to a Chinese man, and child rearing bridging cultures and languages on her blog China Elevator Stories. Her story of being pregnant and raising her son in China will appear in the anthology “Knocked Up Abroad Again – Baby bumps, twists and turns around the globe”.