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…this happens. It doesn’t always happen exactly the same way, but what happened this past weekend is pretty typical:
(Language students! Listen for these key words:
I know we’re not the only foreigners in China that regularly attract this kind of attention from total strangers. How do you handle it?
In North America, if some stranger started taking pictures of little kids at the beach or wherever I would automatically interfere and probably call the police. Because that behaviour is outside our norms; chances are too high the person is a creep.
Our two-year-old, with… I don’t know who.
But what about in China, when photographing, talking to, and even trying to pick up a stranger’s kid isn’t considered odd? I don’t mean that Mainlanders are always running around posing with each other’s toddlers; other Chinese toddlers aren’t exotic to them. And I don’t mean that China doesn’t have its fair share of perverts. I mean that this behaviour isn’t seen as violating anyone’s privacy or personal space. When it does happen, the idea that the person’s a pedophile doesn’t even enter people’s minds. 99% of the time, they really are just being friendly and curious in a socially acceptable way. (They don’t perceive an ever-present pedophile threat like North Americans do; their society just hasn’t ‘caught up’ to ours, apparently…)
“Wa! The foreign doll is so cute!” “Wa! The Chinese boy has no pants!”
It is stupid to respond coldly or meanly to a Chinese person because they don’t behave according to North American norms. Actually, that’s being an ethnocentric jerk. You’ve got to understand what their behaviour means within their social context, because that’s where you are. If you’re going to treat people like they’re doing something wrong when they genuinely don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, then you’d better be able to articulate a really good reason (or have a good reason why you have to treat them that way regardless — but “It’s so annoying!” is not a good reason).
A typical crowd for our family, from two weekends ago. Compare to the next photo below.
But feeling annoyed is totally understandable and natural. And not all friendly and curious attention is the same, because Mainland China is not a monolithic society:
- The more cosmopolitan Chinese are more likely to ask you before taking pictures of your kids. Bonus points for them!
- Typical 2nd-tier city urbanites with leisure time on a Saturday behave like in the above video: form a crowd, take photos, try to hold hands, touch your kid’s face, pick up or otherwise pose with your kid — like the kid’s part-human, part-tourist attraction. It often starts with some mom or grandma trying to get their kid to make friendly and pose with your kid. Collecting photos is a thing here. These are the majority in our experience in Qingdao and Tianjin. I understand getting annoyed with this, and I understand looking for ways to counter it, but I can’t see how it’s right to respond to them like they’re doing something wrong.
- Peasants (people from the countryside or inland cities) either hang way back, seemingly intimidated, or do like the urbanites but louder, coarser, more blunt. Like yelling at your kid from a few feet away so they’ll turn for a picture, as if they’re a zoo animal: “Hey! Look at me! Look over here! Hey!”
- The worst (in our experience) are those who don’t attempt to communicate with you or your kid and won’t acknowledge you even if you address them in Chinese. One day I was playing with our youngest in the waves, and a middle-aged countryside woman runs over, grabs our youngest while yelling to her friend to come take a picture, oblivious to our daughter’s efforts to get away — as if she’d just caught a big fish! — and to me yelling at her. I grabbed my daughter back while giving the woman an earful, but she never looked me in the face. This kind of thing almost never happens.
The problem is that for the most part they aren’t doing anything wrong, but to us foreigners it feels wrong, like we have a right to be annoyed or offended or alarmed (and in our own countries we would). So our default tendency is to respond negatively because to us their behaviour is inappropriate. And some days you just want to relax at the beach without having to deal with it! Some days, you feel like doing this:
I have mixed feelings about the moat; it just seems so… anti-social:
“Take a hint, people!”
Bad China Days and fits of anti-social sandcastle-building aside, here’s what we aim for:
- Kids’ physical safety does not get compromised. We are there, fully alert, creep radar running on Chinese and Western dual frequencies, ready to wield those shovels if necessary. And call me ethnocentric or whatever, but you are not sticking your finger in my kid’s mouth (yes I have batted fingers away.)
- If our kids indicate (verbally or non-verbally), or we suspect, that they don’t want the attention, then we fend people off immediately/preemptively. You can still do this politely and with finesse, though sometimes in the moment I’m more blunt than I should be. And this only applies to “special” attention; we expect our kids to be nominally decent to people (respond to normal greetings, say thank-you, etc).
- Plan ahead. If you’ve got an option where unwanted attention is less likely, then take it. When we go to the beach, we always aim for the least crowded areas.
Or you can send subtle, anti-social messages by doing things like making a moat around your picnic blanket:
It works! See? (Though it’s not 100% effective — such subtlety is lost on most domestic tourists and āyís over 45.)
Maybe that sounds kind of stringent. But in practice it translates into our kids getting a lot more interaction than the average foreigner family, I suspect.
Basically, we protect our kids, but (try to) remember that most of these “overly-friendly” (by paranoid North American standards) Chinese strangers aren’t doing anything wrong. They aren’t breaking their social rules, and if you respond to them like they’re being inappropriate, your response simply won’t communicate. And you’ll come off like a jerk. Which is understandable, since expecting local Chinese to behave like Euro-Americans is just dumb.
Some related stuff:
- “Bad China Days” [or] How I will eventually LOSE IT and end up on the Chinese evening news
- Breaking the ‘rules’ in China — getting involved when you know you’re not supposed to
- Foreign baby in China essentials: FRIENDLY STRANGER FINGER SHIELD
- Topics: Foreign Kid in China / Foreign Baby in China
P.S. – Though sometimes I have to admit, I do wonder…
P.P.S. — Not actually recommending the sandcastle “spite fence”, though I’m definitely tempted to use it again. :)
(It’s been a while since I cried on the blog about China’s air pollution. But this time we have a solution! Your salvation is at hand…)
Out our windows in Tianjin.
Our first child spent her first month outside the womb in neonatal intensive care. We brought her to China as a 4-month-old. As soon as we’d landed in Beijing the passengers sitting around us started muttering about “…污染…!” because the smog made it hard to see the terminal from the plane. Part of me wanted to take our little preemie right back to Canada.
Air purifiers were on our original list of Foreign Baby in China Essentials (along with imported formula, VPNs and friendly stranger finger shields). But I never wrote the air purifiers post because we quickly discovered that air purifiers are insultingly expensive.
Instead we moved to a less polluted city. But triple-digit air pollution is still not uncommon in Qingdao (you can see and smell anything over 100), and we do get the occasional 400 or 500+ days. Here’s what 172 looks like on a cloudless day in our neighbourhood (that mountain on the left should be crystal clear):
It’s always bothered me that we weren’t doing anything about the air aside from an outrageous amount of air-friendly house plants, especially for our kids. But thanks to PhD student Thomas Talhelm, now we can. Why I did not think of this myself I’ll never know. That’s the Fulbright scholar difference, I guess.
DIY AIR PURIFIERS
If you can handle between $200 to $2000+ per room for commercial air purifiers, yay for you. But that’s tough to swallow for
middle class peasants people like us, despite the real worry of raising young children in truly dystopic air quality. Thankfully, it’s cheap and easy to build your own air purifiers that apparently work at least as well.
Buy a pre-assembled kit from Mssr. Talhelm for .. wait for it … 33 bucks (200元). Or get the filters and fans yourself on taobao (if you have taobao kungfu like Jessica) for 50元 less per unit. We’ve made four.
Buying the kit is obviously the most convenient way to go. But either way, a monkey could assemble these things. All you have to do is stick a HEPA filter onto the front of a fan. See how to build one here and here. You need: a fan, pliers/scissors, HEPA filter, and a strap.
“But but but… with DIY purifiers you don’t get the monitoring electronics or the aesthetics or the ionizer or all the other things we’re selling that you didn’t know you needed!” Ok, but do they work?
The proles People like us are willing to sacrifice peripherals to save hundreds of dollars.
According to the results of Talhelm’s tests, which are easily reproducible for anyone who doesn’t trust people who sell things (if anyone does do their own tests please let me know!), our $25 air purifiers perform as good and possibly even better than commercial units where it counts.
Despite what the high prices suggest, air purifiers aren’t magic. They blow the air in your room through a filter. It’s not like doing rocket science or trying to figure out how to make your 4-year-old not get up to pee 500 times a night.
Here’s one of ours, which cost $25:
‘If there is hope,’ wrote Winston, ‘it lies in the proles.’
About China’s apocalyptic air quality:
- The Great Chinese Airpocalyse of 2013
- Everything you wish you didn’t know about air pollution in China
- Putting the OMG! in Smog
- Behold the power of China’s weather gods!
- Beijing/Tianjin air pollution advisory warnings: Chinese vs. American
About having a Foreign Baby/Kid in China:
- Foreign Kid in China (topic)
- Foreign Baby in China (topic)
- A Foreign Baby in Tianjin Pt. 1 – is this our future?
It’s a matter of perspective, you see:
“Don’t make me play with that disgusting foreign kid, Grandma! Those barbarians poo in their pants!”
Next time you’re appalled by Chinese people (or any other culture’s people) because they’re doing something that any halfway intelligent and nominally decent person would know not to do, just remember chances are high they feel they same way about you, and not always without reason.
More about where to poo:
- Split-pants vs. Diapers: which do you use? Parents, share your split-pants experience!
- “Bad China Days” [or] How I will eventually LOSE IT and end up on the Chinese evening news
P.S. — And just for kicks, here’s the poop in the potty song (also here – open then scroll down to For The Kids III).
P.P.S. — For the record: I don’t think everything boils down to perspective; it’s not all relative. But a large amount of what we assume about the world — like much of what’s barbaric and what’s civilized, sit-downs or squatties — certainly is.
- Cultural Perspectives (topic)
Moving cross-culturally is a lot of things, but one thing it isn’t is easy. You leave behind siblings, nephews and nieces, parents and grandparents, and friends, plus places and things infused with memories and meaning, like the house where you grew up and park where you proposed.
We did that once, the first time we moved to Asia. After three years we returned to Canada to have our first child, and then we did it again. After another two years in China we returned to Canada a second time for the birth of our second child. And now we’re back in China for the third time.
The return trips to China after each birth were harder than the first time we left. Taking your children away from their grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins, Sunday school friends (never mind all the grass and trees and oceans and lakes and air) hurts.
You realize more what you’re doing when you’re also doing it to your kid.
There’re others you leave behind, too: coworkers, people you don’t like, people you have a grudge against. And there’s the nasty bonus surprise: returning to your culture of origin (like our friend Rob) after a long time away is often harder than leaving your original home ever was in the first place. Not only are you leaving behind so many friends and places and memories, but “home” has changed since you left, and so have you, and it won’t feel the same. Much of the familiarity you’re expectantly anticipating never materializes. But this post isn’t about entry or re-entry; it’s about leaving.
Regardless of which direction you’re going, the experience of leaving so much behind is huge whether you take the time to acknowledge it or not. And how you leave it can have a big impact on you personal development, on the kind of people you and your lover and your kids are becoming. This experience impacts all of you, and some ways of intentionally navigating the experience are healthier than others.
We received some great advice about how to do cross-cultural transitions before our most recent move back to China, advice we tried out a little bit in the months before we left, and we think it’s worth sharing. I wish we’d put more of it into practice than we did. It’s called “building a R.A.F.T.” and comes from chapter 13 of Third Culture Kids by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken (pages 200-204 in our 2001 edition). Below is my summary/paraphrase/riff of what they wrote.
Building a R.A.F.T.
You’ll see quickly that this process takes some forethought and planning ahead; put it off ’til the last two weeks and you’ll likely not have enough opportunities. You’ll also notice that it’s something for every family member to do, not just the adults.
Closure matters. Festering bitterness matters. Making peace matters. Emotional baggage matters. Guilt and regrets matter. Forgiving and being forgiven matter, and that’s what reconciliation is all about. Reconciliation means growing up. It means attempting to communicate hurts and forgiveness, and initiate apologies.
A cross-cultural move presents a tempting cop-out: to run away and ignore strained or broken relationships. But refusing to resolve interpersonal conflicts sabotages healthy closure, and this lack of reconciliation sabotages the rest of your “RAFT” — the rest of your transition and entry/re-entry experience. You can’t really move away from these kinds of difficulties anyway; you’ll carry the emotional baggage of unresolved problems with you. Bitterness is unhealthy, unresolved relational issues can interfere with new relationships, and if/when you eventually move back, those problems will still be there, and they’ll be even harder to resolve.
A cross-cultural move also provides a great excuse, if you need one, for attempting to make peace: “Hey, I’m leaving for China for who knows how long, and I don’t want to leave a mess between us…” or however you need to do it.
You can’t always achieve reconciliation, of course, because it takes two willing parties. But you can always attempt it, and at least own up to the part of the relationship you’re responsible for. In our recent personal experience we found that the attempt is worth it whether the other side engages or not.
Think through your list of friends, coworkers, supervisors, neighbours, classmates. Do more than just say goodbye. Affirm people; let them know you respect and appreciate them, acknowledge that they matter. This is good for them and for you: it strengthens your relationships into the future and makes you more aware of what you’ve gained from living in the place you’re leaving. Pollock and Van Reken illustrate with some examples:
- Make time to tell coworkers that you enjoyed working with them.
- Tell friends how their friendship has been important, and maybe leave them some sort of memento.
- Send a note and small gift to neighbours, mentioning positive things about your interactions with them.
- Reassure those close to you of your love for them and that you don’t leave them lightly. Order flowers for the day after you leave.
Affirmation helps with closure by acknowledging the blessings you have in the form of relationships, and mourning their passing.
Making farewells to people, places, and possessions helps avoid deep regrets later. Schedule ahead so that you won’t end up missing anyone or anywhere or any thing that was in any way significant, and make a real ‘official’ farewell to each. It’s a time to acknowledge all the positive things and feelings, and acknowledge that it’s sad to leave each person and thing behind.
People – this is crucial, even more so for children, who will need guidance. You want to say and do something, make some sort of gesture like baking cookies or writing a note, that acknowledges the importance of that person to you, expresses thanks, and lets them know they will be missed.
Some sort of “rite of passage” ritual often accompanies major life transitions like graduation or retirement parties. Taking the time to do something similar in spirit creates a significant memory acknowledging the importance of a person or place, and helps face and process the fact that you’re leaving them.
Places – Visit emotionally significant sites to reminisce and say goodbye. Everything from the tree you loved climbing to the park where you got engaged. Some people plant a tree, or hide some little treasure that they could dig up later if they ever return. The point is to openly acknowledge the time as a true goodbye, admitting that the stage of life these places represent will soon be in the past.
Possessions – You have to leave a lot of stuff behind in international moves. Certainly, adults and kids have to learn about letting go, and we all have too much stuff anyway, but everyone should talk over what to take and what to leave behind. It’s also important to deliberately choose and take what become “sacred objects”, a slowly growing collection of physical objects that connect the different places and stages of your life. When important objects must be left behind, try giving them as gifts to a friend and taking photographs. Jessica and I have a Christmas tree ornament (or something we use as one) from most of the significant places in our life together. Every year we can remember.
In addition to all her teachers and ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’, we had our three-year-old say good-bye to her classrooms, playground, the lake where she swam all summer, places we visited regularly, her bedrooms, toys she was leaving behind, parks we often walked in, and a bunch of other stuff. And we took pictures of it all. This gave us plenty of opportunity to verbalize what was happening then and later after we’d returned to China. It helped all of us put words to the experience and mourn all that we were losing in a healthy way.
During the goodbye process, start shifting gears mentally, reorienting your thinking to the near future: you’re arrival and adjustment in a new place. Think realistically: identify positives and negatives and differences about your destination. List problems you’ll likely encounter. Make a list of your coping resources, both external (finances, support people you can lean on) and internal (your ability and methods of dealing with the stress of change).
Thinking ahead and identifying these things helps make the transition much less rockier than it could be. Forming realistic expectations helps avoid disappointment (from too high expectations) and makes sure you don’t miss out on available resources (due to too low expectations). You aren’t mentally and emotionally leaving so much behind in order to go nowhere; every step away from what you’re leaving can be a step toward what you’re gaining.
- Homecoming Saboteur: the cultural shock of returning home
- Homecoming Saboteur: the cultural shock of returning home (PART 2)
- Topics: Travelling and Cultural Re-Adjustment (reverse culture stress)
- 15 Things I Want to Tell My Third Culture Kids (Djibouti Jones)
- 20 Things Expats Need to Stop Doing (Djibouti Jones)
Peace is not an association anyone has with Chinese New Year in China. Insane amounts of fireworks for days and nights on end is what people associate with Spring Festival in China. And forget that stereotype of the quiet, mild-mannered Chinaman. China is loud. Chinese are loud. But let me explain.
Fireworks aside (I know, it’s a big ‘aside’), our neighbourhood was silent until today. Because so many people were gone back to their hometowns. They say 9.5 million people left Beijing for the holidays. Our neighbourhood was like a miniature version of that. The place felt virtually empty. All week there’ve been no cars honking. No people yelling outside our windows. Almost like Canada.
But our napping daughters were just woken up by both honking and people yelling. And then I remembered: today is the day most people go back to work. The neighbours have returned. All the extra fireworks this morning were businesses opening. Spring Festival continues but the holiday is over. And so is naptime, at least for today.
The children’s story 鸭子农夫 (Farmer Duck) is fun to read out loud, usefully repetitive for language learning, and contains some interesting vocab. And as a special China-related bonus, it’s ominously, vaguely Orwellian. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t let your kids watch The Smurfs for political reasons, then you probably won’t like this book.
You can mouseover the Chinese text below to see the pronunciation and translation, or download a PDF that has the Chinese, pinyin, and back-translated English.
“嘎嘎” “哞哞” “咩咩” “咕咕”
And they all lived happily ever after:
Other children’s story Chinese translation read-alongs:
We’ve also given some popular Chinese songs similar treatment (plus guitar chords!):