Mother and Musician, Part 1


Asian children seeing a white person for the first time.

On a few occasions when our little group of twenty or thirty foreigners got together in the Xiamen University #2 Guesthouse for a potluck dinner, we listened to an accomplished songwriter and singer of traditional British, European and Appalachian folk songs. Sue also saw China from the perspective of a Western mother, as she explained in this 1985 interview.

Sue’s story

Location of Xiamen

I’d like to talk about being a foreign mother, the mother of a blond baby in China. This has really gotten to be quite an issue for me. With Carrie, my two-year old, you just can’t walk anywhere without attracting dozens of people. I get very tired of that. I went to the market yesterday and I could barely buy anything because people were poking at her so much and doing the various tricks they do with her.

There’s a game they like to play. She’s playing “it’s mine,” and they want to take away her bottle or her doll or whatever she has. Normally you’d say, “That’s fine, it’s good for a kid to learn that,” but when it happens with every social encounter she has in public, it really gets to be too much. She’s been very possessive of her things lately, and I think that’s one of the reasons. So I’ve started trying to explain to the Chinese why I don’t want them to do that. I don’t want them to think I’m a possessive mother, but I don’t like the pattern I see developing. They’re playing with her like she’s a little dog or something. They don’t ask. They just grab.

This morning I took her down to the beach because I wanted to just relax and read and let her draw and have a peaceful morning. I looked up and there were about four hundred people staring at us from the top of the wall. Then about half of them came down on the beach and started crowding around us and asking questions. She doesn’t really mind much of the time. She was born in France and has been around most of Western Europe, but she was too young to remember that. The only thing she remembers is living in Taiwan and then China. She speaks Chinese, and she loves Chinese people. For a while she was afraid of most Westerners and clearly identified with the Chinese.

But there are times when she doesn’t like being stared at or handled, and then she gets aggressive. If we’re on the ferry, and everybody is crowding around and trying to touch her, and she’s in a bad mood, she may start kicking at them. I used to make her stop, but I’m beginning to realize that that’s her only defense and it’s better for me not to interfere. So I just let her interact the way she wants. I figure she puts up with an awful lot more than most kids.

I would say that the Chinese are among the most child-loving people in the world. It borders on the obsessive at times. It’s my theory that in our culture people who like children interact with them, and the people who don’t like children don’t. In China there’s a real social pressure to play with children. Everybody has to play with kids. The whole spectrum of individual personalities and subconscious attitudes towards children comes out in the way people behave toward your child. You get lots of incredibly, amazingly wonderful people, some very helpful people, and then also people who are quite vicious—who in the States wouldn’t have anything to do with children. These people are all interacting with the kid, especially a little blond child. It’s not that the Chinese are any better or worse with kids, it’s just that the attitudes toward children are different. I’ve had two experiences where strangers slapped her just to get a reaction out of her.

The first time was when Bob was out of town and some of the foreign students asked me to come out on the town. Carrie had been really good all evening, but when we got to that sidewalk coffee place in Suming Lu [a main street], she wanted to run down the street. I didn’t want her to run too far, so I had her on my lap, and I was trying to restrain her and saying, “Look—you can’t—no.” This woman who works in the shop, who the other foreigners say is really a very nice, gregarious, outgoing person, saw that Carrie was being a little bit naughty, and she wanted to get a rise out of her. So she came over and just hit her face. At that time I didn’t have enough Chinese to say, “What are you doing?” She hit her again. Nobody else had seen this, but Nelly had caught a bit of it out of the corner of her eye. At that point I asked Nelly to tell her to stop.

Once we were in a restaurant. Bob was holding her, a man came up to her—he was a bit drunk—and said “yang wawa, yang wawa” [foreign baby] and tried to get her to kiss him, but she didn’t. She was in a mood, and she jerked her head away, so he slapped her face really hard. I don’t think he meant to hurt her. I don’t think he had any sense of what he was doing, like someone might push an animal to watch it react. It happens in China because, though people love children, many people don’t respect them as individual people. Among the twenty-odd fuwuyuan [maids or service personnel] who work at Guang Hai Yuan [Sea View Gardens], only maybe four of them are sensitive to Carrie’s needs and to her as a person.

I don’t want to give China a bad name because on the whole I would much rather have a child in China than in most other places. For example, whenever I go out to a restaurant there’s a person there who helps me look after her, and everyone seems to take responsibility for her in a way that they wouldn’t in Hong Kong or Europe or the States. Everybody in China plays with kids, from old men to teenage boys, in ways that certainly you don’t see in America, though you might in Italy. Here I sometimes find the sense of group responsibility for kids very irritating. Chinese people generally think they know better than Westerners about a lot of things, and they’re often telling me what I’m doing wrong. But on the whole I like it better than in the West, at least for a child like Carrie who’s been raised in the East and doesn’t have a fear of being handled by a lot of different people. It would be different for Western children coming here at the age of three or four.

Today there was an old man who lives down the road actually playing with her, and Carrie had a good time playing and talking with everybody. People love it because she speaks Chinese. Oh yeah, people run their hands through her hair all the time. I can’t walk down the street without someone doing that. She doesn’t mind as much as I do, and sometimes I don’t mind, either. It all depends on the mood I’m in, how much it’s happened that day and how much pressure I’ve been under. Westerners have a much stronger need for anonymity and privacy because we’re used to it.

It’s also true that we get about 50,000 times more attention than any Chinese person does. Many Chinese do not like their babies to be handled the way they handle Carrie. The children are often quite shy and quite afraid of foreigners. When I go over to pick up a Chinese child, about half of the parents say, “My God, what are you doing?”

The only way I can get a Chinese to understand my view is to say, “If this was your child, you wouldn’t want me to do that.” Immediately then the light bulb will go on. Sometimes if she’s in a really bad mood, kicking and crying and not wanting to be touched, I say, “You know, every day hundreds of people try to touch her, and they all stand around her and look at her. It’s too many people. She doesn’t like that. You wouldn’t like it either.” Then they back off. Otherwise it never would have occurred to them.

Carrie went to a daycare center for about a month and a half. She’s two years and four months old, but I put her in the room with the three-year-olds. She’s as big as some of the three-year-olds, and she plays with older children better than younger children. Also, the two-year-olds had a much smaller room. It was darker, and I just didn’t feel they got the activities the others did. Her best friend, her gege [older brother] is in the three-year-old class, and I wanted them to be together.

I stopped sending Carrie to the day-care center regularly, even though the teacher really wanted her to come. The main reason I took her out was that in this daycare center there are a lot of children who are often sick. Chinese parents both work. Unless there’s a grandmother at home, they have nowhere else to put a sick child, so the child is just sent off to school. I’ve got a Chinese friend whose child had bronchitis, and she was in school every day. I felt like saying, “The child’s not going to get any better if you keep sending her to school,” but there was nothing he could do. Carrie kept coming down with colds. I was just going to take her out for the winter—the center isn’t heated of course, and it’s very cold—and put her back in the spring, but then I began to realize there’s a potential problem with encephalitis here and she shouldn’t be in that environment until she’s been vaccinated in the States this summer. I don’t want her to have the Chinese vaccine or non-disposable needles.

Changing her diapers was also a lot of work for the teachers at the school. She kept coming home with diaper rash because the teachers didn’t have time to do it properly. They only have two teachers for fifty children. The teacher-child ratio in itself didn’t bother me as it would have in the West because she gets so much extra attention out here anyway. But the other kids have been potty-trained.

Traditionally, the Chinese family has a lot of people in it holding a new-born baby, and they observe when the baby has to go to the bathroom, and they hold it over a pot and whistle. After a while the child tunes in to the whistling and the family gets attuned to the child’s habits, and a conditioned response is established. Then small children wear split pants [with the inside seam left unfastened], so it’s easy for them to go themselves. You see them on the streets going in the gutters or inside in the spittoons. Since Chinese don’t have rugs on their floors, it doesn’t matter if they miss. People can easily clean it up. The children wear split pants until they’re anywhere from a year and a half to three years old.

Getting paper diapers in China is a big problem. You have to import them yourself from Hong Kong, and they’re so horribly bulky and very expensive. I’m using cloth diapers now and washing them myself, but that’s really a pain when you don’t have a washing machine or a kitchen or a regular supply of hot water. I was hoping she would train early, but now I think she’s actively resisting it. She started to show some interest, and I got too frustrated and angry with her and tried to push her too fast.

Chinese put lots of clothes on their infants, even in the summertime. In Taiwan I could never imagine how the babies could survive, they were sweating so much, but they do. I get a lot of people telling me she’s not dressed warmly enough. Sometimes I think they’re right. She’s gotten colds because I haven’t put enough clothes on her. At least they have more experience living in a subtropical climate.

Chinese kids are very well socialized. They seem to share much more easily and look after each other a lot more than American kids, and they are much more maternal at an early age.

I think all that’s going to change with the one-child system when the children don’t have younger brothers and sisters to look after. I think there will be the same problems of isolation and children being left alone to fend for themselves that we find in nuclear families in the West.

China won’t necessarily become a nation of spoiled brats, as some people are predicting, although there certainly are a number of them here. The Chinese are certainly aware of the potential problem and are trying to deal with it. There are a lot of one-child families where the kids have lots of things now, but in the countryside the parents don’t have the money or the time to give children a lot of toys and attention. Toys themselves seem to be a newly-acquired luxury. I know lots of children who don’t have any toys—not one. I bought a little boy two plastic balls, and he was amazed. He loved them.

In the countryside when people are working in the fields you see kids still being swaddled. The mothers or grandmothers tie the babies on their backs, and they’re held in pretty tightly. Bob was in a village and saw a nainai [paternal grandmother] take the child off her back. This was an 80-year-old woman who’d been carrying the child all day, as she did every day. When the weight of the child was off her back, she promptly bent over double. She could stand up straight only under the weight of the child. Can you imagine your grandmother doing that—carrying you around on her back all day?

Old people here are beautiful. They’re so strong and still. They look like they’re worn out, but they have a lot of character etched into their faces. It’s a different type of aging than you usually see in the West, very few people overweight or bored or very unhealthy-looking. You see old men and women on the street wheeling babies around. There is also a real community of old people. There are gathering places for them, and you get the sense that they’re really enjoying their old age. Age is very public here—in the parks and on the sidewalks there are old men playing cards or tending birds in cages. You see them everywhere. You can’t imagine China without its old people. They’re one of the most fascinating visual aspects for a foreigner. They’re incredible-looking people.

I think if you’re a really protective parent, and you’re very obsessed with cleanliness, and you really don’t like your child to be handled by a lot of people, then China’s not a good place to bring your children unless you’re wealthy enough to create a little Western environment. But if you’re more sui bian [casual] and like having people help you with your child, it can be very good. I think Carrie’s an extremely social and friendly child and very brave because she’s been raised in an environment where she’s gotten to know lots of people and has been exposed to lots of different things.