Some Uninformed Impressions of Chinese Culture

Now, I will be the first to admit that my knowledge of China and Chinese culture is very limited. My experiences are so few that each time  I meet a new person or go to their house, it seems to double the information that I had before.  One thing that I have observed is that Chinese people think that raising a child is hard work, even in spite of the fact that the whole village, so to speak, is heavily invested in raising that child. Of course, most of them only have one child, but they view raising that child until it goes to school (at the age of 2-3) as a full time job for whoever ends up doing it (mother, grandmother, nanny). If a mother were to stay at home with her child (which doesn’t seem to be that common), she wouldn’t be a housewife, she’d just be a stay-at-home mom. Her mother-in-law or mother, who most likely lives with her, would take care of the housekeeping and cooking, or she’d hire someone to do that. What seems to happen the most is that the grandparents stay home with the child, and the parents work, or both parents work and they have a nanny. Piper’s little friend Dinosaur’s mom stays home, but she seems to be an anomaly. She also has two children and breastfeeds, the latter of which I think is becoming more common in China but is kind of rare, I think, but she seems to have a more Western mindset. Her mother- and father-in-law live with her and take care of the house and the cooking, and they seem to have a very compatible working relationship, a situation I could never imagine, having been raised in America.


I met a nice girl (30 years old–“girls” get older as I get older) who spent 6 years in England and has amazing English. We went to lunch with her and her husband. They have a seven-month-old boy, and they both work while my friend’s husband’s mother stays home with the baby. It’s such a strange dynamic between them and their child. They don’t know what to do with him when they have him on their own, and they told me as much. They are astonished that I take three children out by myself at all (frankly, sometimes, so am I), because they don’t feel like they can take one baby out. They asked who we had to help us when the boys were babies, and we said no one (aside from the wonderful people who babysat for us sometimes for free!). Again, they were amazed, and while that was a very difficult first year and I’d never do it again, it wasn’t impossible, and it seems strange to me to be a mother and yet so unfamiliar with your own child. I guess her brother or cousin has twins who are 9 months old, and, in addition to having two grandmothers and the mother taking care of the babies, they also have a full-time nanny just for taking care of the babies (what I wouldn’t have done for a night nanny so I could have slept!).


Teddy being watched by four grandmas at the park.

It seems like the general way in China is that the grandparents do the parenting. I almost never see a parent with a child. The park is filled with grandparents and sometimes with children, but almost never anyone in between. I guess the parents just produce the child and then the grandparents raise it, and then when those parents get old, they’ll give child-rearing a go? The parents seem to have a lot of freedom to go out socially and on vacations, in addition to leaving the child while they’re at work.  While a small part of me is jealous when I see a Chinese couple out and about whom I know to have a child, and I do appreciate so much that at least Chinese people, even if they think I don’t dress my children warmly enough, think that my job is a hard one, and that I should be tired, and that I should have help, I still have this fixed idea that I need to be the one raising my children.  As much as I want to kill them all sometimes, I don’t want to hand them over to someone else to kill. So soon they will be in school and then grown up and gone, and I can’t imagine not knowing them while they were small. And also, I am sure I can’t handle the pressure of any other kind of job.  I have been told a few times by different people here that I need to get a job and have a life outside my children because it will make me happy (um…thanks for the input?). I just file that away with all the other unsolicited advice I get about how I should stop drinking cold water, I should transform each of my children into mummies before we walk out the door, I should start liking spicy food, and I should do away with my children’s English names entirely.


Teddy playing soccer with a Grandpa. It, like most parks in China, is mostly geriatric.

Here’s some other miscellaneous information about child-rearing in China. The nice girl referenced in a previous paragraph, when I brought up how warm Chinese grandparents want their grandchildren to be, said, “Yes, I used to feel that way too, and I would disagree with my mother-in-law about how she dressed the baby, but then we had to take him to the doctor two times because he had a cold.” Right… I wanted to say, “Well, I just assume that my children get colds because of germs…” I’d love to be able to make all Chinese people read this article: Oh, and maybe get them to stop spitting. I’m working on learning how to say, “Americans believe the cold makes children stronger.”


Another Chinese approach to parenting, which works very well when you only have one child, is keeping children within arm’s reach at all times. That is simply not possible for me, and as much as I’d like to sometimes, we can’t stay inside ALL the time. I was at the park the other day and Teddy was 20 feet from me in one direction, Toby 20 feet in another, and Piper maybe (gasp!) 80 feet from me in yet another. A grandmother motioned to me that Piper was too far away, so I went to tell Piper to come closer to me, but I took a few steps (which took me farther away from Teddy), and she made a noise that sounded like disapproval and pointed at Teddy. I have no idea what I was supposed to do to make her happy in that situation, other than carrying both Teddy and Toby over to Piper so that we could all be together and safe. I didn’t, of course. Younger Chinese people are amazed when they watch me let the kids run reasonable distances away from me, call to them to come back, not go running when they fall on their faces, and not hover behind the when they are climbing stairs, and they say that they admire that kind of parenting (they would be blown away if they went to America), but they are in the minority, literally, actually, since there are far more of their parents and grandparents than there are of them, a natural consequence of the one-child policy (check out this nifty moving pyramid that illustrates it:


Also, because I don’t know where else to put this, did you know that out of every 120 boys born in China, 20 of them have no female counterpart? That means 20 of them will never be able to marry. Right now there are 32 million more boys than girls under the age of 20. That’s a lot of men who will never be able to marry. You should watch “The Lost Girls of China” by National Geographic. It is (or was, anyway) available to watch instantly on Netflix.


Something that you may not know about China is that there doesn’t seem to be much gender inequality outside of the preference for giving birth to boys. For a country that only ended the practice of foot-binding one hundred years ago this year, it’s pretty amazing. I don’t know what executives in multi-million dollar companies look like, but in all the areas I’ve seen, women do all the same kinds of jobs as men–they direct English centers, they drive taxis and buses, they sweep streets, and they seem to be the most common bosses of  English teachers that I’ve run across. I have an expat friend who takes the equality thing a step farther and thinks that because boys are so valuable to Chinese families, they are coddled and protected to an absurd degree, and girls are made to fend for themselves a little more (which might be believable in a family with multiple children, but it seems like an only child girl would be just as cherished), so they are tougher and better at handling life than guys, but who knows. It is just nice to see elderly Chinese couples together, going for walks, exercising in the park, cooking as a team; it seems like they are much closer than their American counterparts. They really do seem like equals. But again, remember my very limited experience here.


I have heard a lot about how important honor is to the Chinese people, and how social hierarchy is very important, so knowing that did not prepare me at all for how they are in everyday life. Most Chinese people, except maybe unmarried people between the ages of 18 and 30, do not seem to care about their clothing at all. Kids don’t wear cute clothes (and because it’s winter, wear as many layers as possible), and adults go out often in what look like pajamas, or at least in very comfortable clothes. It doesn’t seem like appearance matters that much, and add to that the fact that I’m just a foreigner who looks like a freak of nature no matter what I do, and I enjoy not worrying about what I look like. People just don’t seem very self-conscious in lots of ways. I am often passed by guys riding their bikes and singing along to the music they’re listening to on their mp3-players, and it can be very entertaining to watch the exercises that the elderly people do in the park. There’s this one kind that a bunch of old women do, with rackets and bean bags, that I can only describe as tennis tai chi, and which would probably invite ridicule in the US, but not here. Children of every age hold hands with their parents, even adults, which is understandable in light of the only-child plus close-family culture here.


And finally, the last miscellaneous bit of information for now. Piper and I went to Metro on Monday, and we got in the taxi and the man said, “Are you from America?” I was so surprised because it isn’t common for taxi drivers to speak English. Taxi drivers seem to run the gamut from trashy to educated. It’s such a strange profession–I can’t figure it out.  I wonder if it’s lucrative.  But English-speaking taxi drivers are very rare. I hadn’t met one yet. I said, “Oh, you speak English?” And he said, “Only a little. Welcome to Tianjin!” (But he did know a few more words than that.) In Chinese, I told him about the kids and when we came to China, and what my husband does. And Piper told him how old she was. Then he put in a CD of Andrea Bocelli on, and started singing along with it. It was just the most wonderful experience. Especially when “It’s Time to Say Goodbye” came on and we both knew it. He was the kindest taxi driver, by far, that I have had, and it was one of those times where I loved China for a little while. Actually, I am so desperate for positive social interaction that I wanted to take him home with me and keep him.



  1. So, is there a retirement age in China? Do parents stop working when their children have a child and move in with them? Or is it usually the grandma who does the child-rearing. Just wondering.

    1. I think women retire at 55 or 60, and men 5 years later. And it seems like both grandparents do the job of child-rearing together.

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