Life in China

 

In August 2010, my husband and I undertook the huge step of moving to China with our daughters Aria and Ekatarina, then aged 2 and 3, to teach university-level English in Fujian Province. What follows are some observations about living and traveling in China with young children…

I confess I was a bit of a nervous wreck in the weeks before our move (What will we do if the kids get sick? What if they hate the food? How will they handle the squat toilets? How will they cope with all the attention they’re sure to attract as blue-eyed foreigners?). But now, after having lived in China for two and a half years, I can honestly say – we loved it! The people we met were without exception incredibly friendly to our kids. And in many ways, through living and working in China as a family, we felt that we became part of the local community on a far deeper level than we could ever have hoped to as backpackers or as single teachers.

We lived for two years in northwest Fujian Province in a city called Wuyishan, followed by another 6 months in Xiamen, an island city on the coast. By Chinese standards, Wuyishan is a microscopic place: it has a population of about 50 000, with 12 000 more students and staff at the university, which is a 15-minute bus trip outside the city. Nearby are the stunning Wuyi Mountains, a UNESCO World Natural and Cultural Heritage Site. Wuyishan produces some of China’s most famous teas, including Da Hong Pao tea and Lapsang Souchong (my favourite). Xiamen is much bigger, but still charming, and home to the gorgeously atmospheric Gulang Yu island, which is covered in crumbling, colonial-era European buildings.

While my husband and I taught at university, our daughters attended the local preschool/kindergarten in both Wuyishan and Xiamen. Our oldest daughter, Ekatarina, is now a confident Mandarin speaker, but when she first started at preschool, she couldn’t speak a word. Nor could any of her teachers speak English. Before her first day at school, we explained to her that she should watch the other kids and follow their lead to figure out what her teachers expected, and we encouraged her to use gestures to indicate when she needed to get a drink or go to the bathroom. At our first parent-teacher meeting, her teachers told us they were really surprised and impressed by how easily she fitted into the class.

In fact, when we first arrived in China, it amazed us how the girls would simply dive into playing with the local kids, with both them and the locals seemingly completely unaware that they were speaking different languages. That’s the great thing about small children — they recognise each other as children first and foremost, without taking any notice of the cultural differences that keep so many adults apart.

Both girls adjusted incredibly well to life in China, yet still, there were some things that took quite a lot of getting used to…

The Local Paparazzi

Foreigners living or visiting anywhere outside the biggest cities in China will find they are a constant source of attention for curious locals. It’s not uncommon to have people walk up to you with their mobile phones extended, snap a few photos of you and walk away without speaking a word. Sometimes, on visiting villages, it would feel to us like anyone who knew even a few words of English would call out ‘hello, hello’ or approach us to practise their handful of phrases. When you have small children, the attention can reach paparazzi-like levels. In the summer of 2011, when we were in Tibet, we were mobbed by so many locals outside the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa that a squad of Chinese PSB (Public Security Bureau) men actually came up and ordered everyone to disperse. The PSB probably thought they were halting a Tibetan uprising, but it was just a crowd of locals taking mobile phone photos of our kids.

It’s also not uncommon for strangers to pick up and hug your child and to touch your kids’ hair to study its blondeness, all the while murmuring “piao liang!” (beautiful!). The girls found this sort of attention pretty daunting initially. We often had to politely say ‘no’ to local requests to photograph them or even just walk away when the crowds got too overwhelming.

Trains and Toilets

I’ve lumped these together because the worst examples of each seem to go hand in hand!

Our girls love going on trains in China. There’s an endless procession of friendly locals and kids who want to say hello and play with them and share their snacks.

But for adults, the trains — especially the cheapest hard seat carriages which are often the only tickets available in peak seasons — can be torture. I’ve been on trains where there are adults, children, babies, suitcases, sacks and those red, blue and white striped plastic bags choking every inch of floor space and shelving, including the benches where the washbasins are. I’ve seen people sitting on top of full seats, on the headrests. I’ve even seen people sleeping standing up! On a 2-day trip back from Lhasa to Shanghai, we watched a whole family bed down on sheets of newspaper just outside a blocked toilet with an open, broken door. The toilet floor was awash with overflowing sewage. We learned the hard way on that journey that it’s a good idea to buy plenty of food and drinks before a train journey, because making it over the human obstacle course to the dining car can prove physically impossible. Likewise, traveling hard sleeper class (where attendants keep the crowds out of the carriages and clean the toilets during the journey) is always a more pleasant option than hard seat class.

Toddler slings and harnesses are a must-have for keeping track of small children in the train stations. Stations are usually as crowded as the trains and, outside the big cities, far from stroller-friendly.

Finally, the toilets on trains and in stations can be daunting. In smaller cities, train station toilets are generally of the open drain variety. An uncovered drain runs the length of the room. Waist-high walls, often without doors, form the toilet cubicles. A constantly running tap at one end of the drain is supposed to wash the ordure away. Unfortunately the tap is frequently broken or turned off, with the result being that everything simply piles up – and up – in the bottom of the drain. Take your own tissues and hand sanitiser, because you won’t find toilet paper here.

On the bright side, toilet training in China proved remarkably easy. No one objects to small kids peeing wherever the urge strikes them. I’ve seen grandmothers helping toddlers pee on the tiled floor of the train station waiting room rather than approach the blocked toilets. Getting Aria to go nappy-free was a breeze! 

Food

I love Chinese food and so do the Chinese! One of the most common greetings in Mandarin is “Chī le ma?” (Have you eaten yet?). Talking about food, preparing food and eating food takes up a big chunk of each day in China. A student of mine once claimed that the fundamental difference between Chinese culture and Western culture is that China has a food-dominated culture while the West has a male-female (ie. sex) dominated culture!

Luckily, after an initial period of reluctance in which they’d eat only white rice, our girls soon settled into eating Chinese food with gusto. And over our two and a half years in the Middle Kingdom, they had far less gastro problems than we anticipated. Aria, our youngest, now happily devours snails, black fungus, bamboo shoots… And yep, some locals really do eat dog meat. But not often. It’s considered more of a delicacy, a treat. On the one occasion I was offered dog meat at a student’s home during Spring Festival, no one took any offence at me not sampling it.

There are also some wonderfully strange (by my Australian standards) flavour combinations in China. My favourites include:

  • ‘beef candies’ – little chunks of dried, beef-flavoured soybean curd individually wrapped in gold foil wrappers like caramels or chocolate eclairs – Aria loved these.
  • pink, strawberry flavoured Happy Cow cream cheese – not even Aria could manage that one.
  • green tea flavoured toothpaste – awful.
  • blueberry flavoured potato chips – about as nasty as they sound.
  • green pea or corn flavoured paddlepops – the pea one looks a bit like frozen spinach pie and probably tastes similar. The corn one looks rather like frozen vomit. I’ve never been game to try either but judging from Ekatarina’s reaction, neither are pleasant!

Despite all the strangeness, there are always plenty of bland, kid-friendly foods available in China. Rice porridge, mántou (steamed bread rolls), noodles. Plus fresh fruit stalls on every corner. And, of course, in every big city there’s Macdonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Gloria Jeans… The list is growing daily.