Early on in my Mandarin studies, I learned the word 都 dōu. Although it can mean “both”’ the meaning that stuck firmly in my head was “all”’ as in:
“All the Americans in Nanning love to play Ultimate.”
“All of the taxis are doing shift change right now.”
When I took my two little kids out to a playground or a park, I would inevitably be asked by umpteen people, “他们都是你的吗？” which my brain would unhelpfully translate as, “Are they all yours?” This always made me crack up a little (silently, to prevent people from thinking I was crazier than they suspected) because it sounded so funny to refer to two children as “all those kids.”
Yep, they are all mine.
We had our second child while living in China, and I wondered how people would react once we exited the one-child family portrait that matched Chinese government ideals and moved into multiple progeny territory. Would people be upset that we were contributing to world overpopulation? Would they be jealous that we could have as many kids as we wanted?
I should not have worried. I quickly discovered that people thought it was fantastic that we had more than one kid. The icing on the cake was that my first was a boy, and my second was a girl, which is apparently just about the best a person could hope for. “One boy, one girl, one good,” people would comment over and over, referring to the character 好 hǎo “good” which is made up of the female radical and the boy/child radical.
Having more than one kid did lead to other questions, though. Along with wondering if I was the mom of “all” the two kids, they’d usually go on to ask: how much was the fine we had to pay the U.S. government for having a second kid? After several botched attempts at answering, I finally figured out a diplomatic answer that locals readily understood. I would explain that, although the U.S. has approximately the same land area as China, we have less than one-quarter of the population of China, so the government is okay with people having as many kids as they’d like. That seemed to make perfect sense to them, and didn’t put America in a bad light. Whew.
Another thing that was tough for locals to understand was that foreign parents were basically taking care of their children on their own. In a land where there are often grandparents and a nanny to watch the family’s one child, it was tough for them to fathom how we foreigners managed multiple kids without “grannies and nannies.” We eat our Wheaties?
Along with being good babysitters, grandparents are seen as being part of the core family. I can’t tell you how many ads – especially around Chinese New Year – feature Grandma + Grandpa + Mom + Dad + Junior(ette), decked out in red, about to enjoy KFC or Coke or dumplings. The product might be different in every picture, but the family members were nearly always the same. This was fairly true in real life, too. Maybe the ratio wouldn’t be exactly 4:1, but adults always outnumbered kids.
Except when foreigners were around.
Once, I was at a park with two other Western moms. One had three kids, one had four, and I had my two. That’s nine children and “only” three adults, making it a 1:3 ratio — practically flipped from the 4:1 ratio of the perfect family ads. Needless to say, we drew attention. I think to most people, it looked like we were running our own international preschool.
One passerby got brave enough to approach me, and was delighted to find I could understand Chinese. She had obviously been dying to ask us a question. She gestured to the gaggle of foreign kids running around and asked with wide eyes, “Are they ALL yours?”
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November 9, 2017 at 1:33 pm
This grandma love you Dou- ALL!
November 10, 2017 at 12:36 am
November 9, 2017 at 2:07 pm
I love this about China, that taking care of three children by myself is so impressive. I feel like it would be hard to give up coming off as the supermom every time I go out in public if I went back to America. That and impressing people with a simple hello :-D. Though Sanya is full of Han Chinese from the mainland, the other side of Sanya is very different. The local locals in Hainan are a minority group and can have as many children as they like, it seems, not even just two, and they just let them run around unsupervised, barefoot and free. They also have them very close together, like many people do in the US, instead of 5 years apart, like the occasional 2-child family I’d meet up north (doctors tell them they have to wait 3 years between c-sections, for one thing). And it’s so common to see one adult with 4 kids on a single motorcycle. But that still doesn’t stop the rest of the people from being impressed with my three :-D.
November 10, 2017 at 12:40 am
In the minority areas we’ve been to, if a family has more than one child, it is usually just two that are spaced many years apart, so it’s very interesting to hear that Hainan is so different! I’m constantly learning just how varied different places in China can be. Enjoy that Supermom status. Maybe get yourself a Wonder Woman t-shirt to make it official? 😉
November 9, 2017 at 7:23 pm
The tiny, really young woman who sells nuts at the market across the street has a 4 year old and a 1.5 year old, and I just noticed two months ago that she was starting to look like she was about to pop again, and I was so surprised! She spaces her kids like I did! 😀
November 10, 2017 at 8:26 pm
Maybe she is copying you. 🙂
November 9, 2017 at 10:05 pm
What must the locals think of our friends the Rogers who have 7 kids and live in Kunming! 🙂
November 10, 2017 at 12:41 am
I almost mentioned that I know several families who have 5+ kids. I think they usually stop traffic! 🙂
November 9, 2017 at 5:12 pm
Are they really yours? It think it depends on what does ‘yours’ or possession mean. I think children are our properties in one sense. In different cultures the linkage and relationship change differently overtime. From a Christian point view, we own the responsibility to take care the children and the resources entrusted to us to fulfill His mission.
November 10, 2017 at 8:26 pm
That is certainly a different perspective!
January 5, 2018 at 6:03 pm
I get that a lot, too, and I also only have 2 kids. They’re shocked when I tell them that, instead of paying the government money, we get a slight tax break!
Whenever nainais call me lihai for raising 2 kids “by myself,” I often ask how many kids THEY had. If they’re of a certain age, the answer is usually at least 4. In fact, my laolao had 8 kids in China in the 50’s! So in reality, they are geng lihai!
January 6, 2018 at 11:34 am
That is so true, Samantha! I have also asked younger people how many siblings their parents or grandparents had, and they often seem to surprise themselves when they realize that it wasn’t that long ago that families were much bigger in China. Definitely geng lihai!