There’s something beautiful about the thought that you and your significant other, whether they be from China or some other country, are a collection of genetic memories that span back thousands of years.
In my case, I can’t help but think about how for most of history, each of our families existed on opposite sides of the planet surviving conflicts, famine, and other challenges, then eventually on a whim our paths crossed, subsequently altering the history of our familial lines forever. Without sounding too royal in regards to the combining of our gene pools, and creating new alliances between east and west, we both come from very different backgrounds. We are also looking forward to how our child or future children interact with these differences when developing a unique identity of their own.
While the China experience is evolving and unique for every expat, there are some things that ring true for many, especially if you live in a multicultural home environment complete with in-laws, ayis, and other visitors. I’ve decided to compile some of the things that make my China experience special, and hopefully, provide some sensible chuckles in the process.
From the bottom of my heart, I thank my lucky stars to call these people family and Beijing home.
Many families have three or sometimes even four generations of family members under one roof. I’ll be the first to admit that when I learned my mother-in-law was buying a one-way ticket to Beijing, I was a bit nervous about sharing a slightly cramped apartment with another family member for an indefinite amount of time. She’s a wonderful woman with a beautiful heart, and she has always been very supportive of my wife and I. But I’m a bit of a control freak, and I’ve heard way too many stories about similar living situations that weren’t always positive. I can now say with certainty that having her around and giving her and my son more opportunities to get to know each other has been amazing. I now embrace having three generations under one roof, and I’m not sure I will ever let her leave. This also means more date nights!
The health concerns regarding body temperature and its effects on health are still something I and many other foreigners living in China struggle to understand. I wouldn’t say it’s anything that’s a constant source of conflict at home, but it’s funny to watch your son fully clothed with jeans, shoes, and a jacket, just chilling on the couch watching “Peppa Pig”, while you’re sweating and chugging an iced tea and standing on tiles barefoot. I haven’t attempted to enforce a strict code of conduct in terms of an appropriate skin to fabric ratio for my son, and who am I to argue with my ayi, mother-in-law, and wife over 2,000 plus years of recorded traditional Chinese medicine? I’ll stick to the things I know … and maybe wear slippers.
Pending Identity Crisis
Our child is likely to be a little confused because though he has been in China since birth, and is half Chinese, he might never be considered Chinese by locals. His big beautiful eyes, pale complexion, and light colored hair make him unique. One of the uncomfortable truths about “being Chinese” is that it’s more about looking the part than it is about culture, language, or passport. I would personally support however my child chooses to define himself (currently he’s a dinosaur), but this will definitely be confusing in the future as there are three important cultural traditions (Chinese, Mongolian, and American) that will no doubt be competing for dominance.
Your toddler spits out a mix of different languages, and while this would be incomprehensible to most people, you understand it as a sign of intelligence and the gift they will have of eventually being bilingual or trilingual. It’s amazing, and can also be adorable! However, patience in letting your child discover how languages are used and with whom to use them with, and at their own pace, is crucial.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve become a bit of a food snob over the past couple of years. Maybe because I’ve had the luxury of regularly sampling some of the best restaurants Beijing has to offer; it’s my job! On the other hand, it can be very nice coming home from work every day to your mother-in-law making various northern provincial staples (I’ve coined the term “winter survival food”) consisting of one meat, one veg, and two carbs. That said, I need to come clean about something. It was once a dream of mine to be able to eat Chinese food every day of the week. While my reality isn’t too far off from this aspiration, I think I’ll need to start shouldering more responsibility in the kitchen to make sure our diets are as diverse as our household.
I thought for a while that my son was a normal eater. But whenever family comes to visit they kind of go out of their way to tell us how skinny he is. So, we’re trying to get him to thicken up a bit. While force-feeding our son has proven to be a futile endeavor, that doesn’t stop my mother-in-law from trying whenever she gets a whiff of possible hunger. I admire and praise her persistence, and she has inspired me to try and do the same.
Reverse Culture Shock
When you return home to your passport country, you and your children are easily offended by family members for their cliché ideas about the other side of your family’s culture. This leads to a lot of awkward smiles and head nods, and small squabbles. I’ve been asked the whole gambit of questions, ranging from whether Beijing air is really like smoking two packs of cigarettes, to how the sushi is here, and even been accused of becoming a communist (it’s socialism with Chinese characteristics!). There are two sides to this, and even our family’s Chinese side has its own set of entertaining, yet sometimes forward questions such as “do foreigners use chopsticks?”, “how much money do you earn?”, or “can my child live with your parents in America when he goes to study?”
Through marrying into a Chinese family, you’ve effectively doubled the number of holidays or other important events to celebrate. Good luck keeping track! You now need to know both Chinese and western holidays, days that keep changing because they are based on the Lunar Calendar, and sometimes even those controversial commercial holidays like 11/11. It can get very confusing, but these combined traditions from the west and east are the perfect way to create an even richer environment for a young person to grow up in.
If you have a Chinese spouse, family members will often come to visit you in Beijing with little or no warning, and the duration of their stay is also usually not stated (it’s rude to ask). It might be hours, or it might be days or even weeks. Regardless, there’s a big chance they will be hanging out on your couch in their pajamas for a duration of the visit. It’s actually quite pleasant, and the hospitality is usually returned when you visit these family members in the future.
Trips to Visit Family
When you visit family members in other provinces, it is an event. Expect banquet-style meals, intense drinking sessions for the husbands, and hospitality that’s always beyond expectation. It’s beautiful, albeit a bit overwhelming. But we love these visits, as it’s always about doing the things that you just can’t do in Beijing. Whether it’s getting to know the family elders, eating a particular food, or just gazing at the stars outside a yurt in a sea of grass, these are the times when you get to really know your adoptive family’s culture and experience its history.
Much like the myth that your body completely rejuvenates itself every seven years, you lose and gain new friends every couple of years as well. Many expats like me are firmly and indefinitely rooted in Beijing, or China. It’s sad but a real part of expat life that both you and your children will be experiencing friends you love eventually leaving. But look on the bright side, now you have a couch to stay on or a free meal in countries around the world.
There was one time shortly after the birth of our son when my mother-in-law wanted to feed our son rendered milk fat, or ghee, which can potentially be risky for newborns to consume, especially when they are only a couple of hours old. Though it has obvious health benefits when it comes to digestion, it is usually recommended after six months. My mother was a little worried and advised against it. The answer to this was to feed the baby the diluted ghee in secret, without my mother’s knowledge. It’s something that Grandma has done for all of her children and grandchildren, and she wasn’t going to risk not doing it with our little one. These acts of turning a blind eye to simple acts of noncompliance, like turning off the air purifier, not fully cleaning off dishes after use, or redecorating our apartment with floral fabrics, have become a source of humor in our home, but no doubt cause friction at times.
While there are numerous benefits to living in a household with multiple generations, you quickly learn that a minimalist aesthetic is unattainable. I wouldn’t dream of “Marie Kondo-ing” my mother-in-law to fix this. She brings way too much joy! However, every area of our apartment is now storage for every spare thing you can imagine. If you have the luxury of a balcony, it is almost certain that it will be used to store cardboard boxes or become repurposed to refrigerate food during the winter if the icebox is full. I’m not going down without a fight though. This summer, it will become the cozy reading nook that I’ve always dreamed it could be.
Relinquishing the Remote Control
If you’re anything like me, you are outnumbered when it comes time to watch your programs. Your TV might have an infinite selection of “harmonized” Hollywood films, but the youngsters watch their cartoons, then Grandma likes to watch her news after dinner, and when that’s all over it’s bedtime. Not a bad thing, but Game of Thrones is now in full swing, and most grandmas probably wouldn’t appreciate this particular kind of programming that’s brimming with fantasy violence and unsaintly behavior.
What Is Home?
Home isn’t your passport country. It’s where you make life and experience new things daily. When you do return to your passport country, you find yourself feeling a bit like a fish out of water; unaware of pop culture references and slang, and unaccustomed to large single serving meals instead of sharing a variety of plates with the family. Ultimately home is just a place where there is an intense concentration of love, feelings of warmth, and an unlimited amount of selflessness, and that’s what I feel between experiencing these shared moments with my wife, child, and mother-in-law.
This article appeared in the beijingkids May 2019 Identity issue.
Photo: Kipp Whittaker