I want to share a little something about a friend of mine, relating to Chinese parents and their children. In China, it’s not uncommon for Chinese children to live with their grandparents rather than their parents. Maybe their parents are poor rural people who move to the cities for jobs and send money back home to the grandparents who are raising the kids (there’s a horrifically sad story about a grandmother in poor health who was caring for her 3 grandchildren on her own, and the three went down to a local lake and drowned, all three of them—typical of Chinese graphic news photography, there were heart-breaking photos of her weeping over their bodies, and the reporter said the parents at the time hadn’t even been told that all three had died, only that one had died, because no one knew how to tell them such awful news). It’s also common to send your child to boarding school, even boarding kindergarten, if the parents are busy and the grandparents aren’t around to help, or if the school’s a bit far away from home. And, as is the case with my friend, she works during the week and her parents-in-law live in the next district over (a 20-minute drive) and so her daughter lives with them from Monday-Friday, and doesn’t come home until Friday evening. She is only with her mother and father from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon.
My friend loves her daughter very much, and her daughter is very attached to her (though maybe in the terrified-to-let-her-out-of-her-sight sense of the word because their time together is so short). My friend wants her daughter to come to our little English class for small children and I just don’t know why she’d want to sacrifice any of the precious little time she has with her daughter. Her daughter can’t bear for her mother to step out of the room, or even out of her line of sight. And she’s only three years old. I guess I should have added that first.
It’s a common situation, and I guess Chinese people feel that sometimes sacrifices just have to be made like that. But it makes me sad. I really want to ask my friend more about it, without sounding nosy or judgmental (though why I should care, I don’t know—it’s not Chinese to have compunctions like that). When I had a chance, I asked her if her daughter cried when she brought her back to her grandparents’ house, and she said, yes, sometimes, but they just try to distract her and not talk about where they are going. So I got braver and asked if she wished she could stay home with her daughter, and this was her reply: “Of course I wish, but most of the time I know the reality is one can’t have everything one wants endlessly. For example, I want to be with my parents, but in reality I can only see them once or twice a year. I guess that’s life, so though I wish I could stay with Juni every day, I still think it is good for her not to rely on me too much. I am proud of her growing up well without me.” That just makes me so sad. Sometimes I feel that Chinese people as a nation have suffered so much in the past, until so recently, that they just accept an alternative that makes them less happy, maybe because they are more comfortable with suffering (kind of like Minnesotans, according to Garrison Keillor), and maybe because someone has told them this is the best way, and they don’t think about other ways that it could be. It’s sad to me that even though both she and her daughter want to be together (I think – I wish I could ask her outright if she really wants to be with her daughter or if she enjoys only being a part time mom, but that’s too invasive for my tastes), that she is requiring this sacrifice of herself and of her tiny three-year-old daughter. You only have one life, and only one shot as a parent, and so few, precious days with your children before they’re gone (and in a sense, they’re gone so early in China, with children starting to school from 8-5 PM at the age of 3). But I see people making all kinds of sacrifices for their kids, or making their kids make so many sacrifices for their better future, and I have to remind myself that I am taking it for granted that I am an American and I don’t have to work so hard to make sure my children succeed in life. They have the privilege of having English as a first language, and an American passport – I don’t need to put them in English classes after school and weekends, I don’t need gobs of money to even have a chance that someday they could go to an English speaking school or overseas. They (my children) don’t have to fight through the ridiculous Chinese education system to get a place in school and have a chance at success. I don’t want to take that for granted, and I am so grateful that I am not bound to that system.
But back to my friend. I was talking this over with a good foreign friend and she said, “It sounds like people have just told her that this is the way it has to be and she’s just accepting it.” And I feel like that’s true, as well. I remember one Friday night she wrote that she was at home alone because she wasn’t bringing her daughter home until the next morning because her husband was in Beijing that night and wouldn’t be there to help her. Because she couldn’t take care of her one child alone. For real. Many Chinese people believe that one person can’t take care of a single child, unless it’s the grandma, and only then if the grandpa is back at home cooking the meals. On the one hand, it’s nice that people appreciate how hard my job must be as a mom (I’ll never be under-appreciated here). It seems like lots of Chinese women are told they don’t know how to take care of their babies, and they can’t do it alone. And they just accept it. I really admire the moms here who stay home with their children and do it on their own. I haven’t met a lot of them, but I really feel more in tune with them than I do with other Chinese women my age. Most Chinese moms I have seen, you wouldn’t even know they had children. You just produce the child and pass it off to your parents. I had a nice morning with a Chinese friend who raises her daughter on her own (as in, with her husband, but not with her parents), and I said how much I admired it, and how different it was from the norm, and she said, “Yes, I love her and I want to be with her always, I want to care for myself until she’s married, and then I want to raise her baby.”
Okay, back to my first friend one last time. My heart just aches to see that little girl who obviously struggles with the separation from her mom (I don’t even quite understand how she has attached to her mother and understands that this is the woman who is to be the primary recipient of her affection and her primary caregiver, when it has never been that way), and to see my friend, her mother, who I think wishes things were different, but thinks that this is necessary. I want to ask so many probing questions to understand it better. Do you have to have two incomes? Is that why you have to work? Why can’t you go home to your daughter at your parent’s house every night? How old was your daughter when you gave her to your mother-in-law full time? What about when she starts having Saturday and Sunday classes? Life is so short, and while I agree that you can’t have everything you want, I never looked at time with my children as something I had to learn to do without.