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?”