For our Motherhood Around the World series, our ninth interview features Tatum Hawkins, a writer currently living in Shanghai with her husband, Sam, and their daughters, Tess, 3, and Rue, 18 months. Here, she shares 16 surprising things about being a mom in China…
* Note to readers: This interview originally featured two mothers living in Shanghai, but it was brought to our attention that the other mother’s personal blog had some content in the archives that we found questionable. Therefore, we removed her interview and the link to her blog. We take great pains to make sure this blog is warm, inclusive and supportive of all cultures and orientations. Thank you so much for understanding.
On arriving in China: We moved here from Orange County, California, because my husband was asked to help build a Disneyland in Shanghai. We’ve been here for 10 months so far, and we absolutely love it. This is our first living-abroad assignment, and the other expat moms say Shanghai is the craziest place we could have gone first. So it makes me feel like if we ever move anywhere else, it will be a piece of cake.
On a diaper-free culture: Babies wear split pants, and they’ll pee and poop on the ground. My American friends say, “I’m so jealous that they potty train sooner,” but the definition of potty training is completely different here. Back home potty training means going on a toilet, whereas here potty training means going on command. It’s more laid back. Chinese moms will hold their baby and whistle, and then the child will go potty on the ground. The other day, while I was walking my daughter to school, we saw two older boys pooping on egg cartons. They’re potty trained to go anywhere—not to wait to hold it and go a toilet. One big bonus: When our kid has to go, we’re not scrambling to find a public restroom.
On the local cuisine: I’m usually pretty adventurous with street food. Jian bing (savory pancakes) are really, really good. They make dumplings on the street corner. I tried some fish head soup with my Chinese friend. She scooped out the head and gave it to me, saying “This is the best part!”
On the one-child policy: China has a one-child policy, which means you can have only one child, by law. There are some exceptions—for example, a new law says that if you’re an only child, and your husband is an only child, you can have two children—but it’s still very rare to see someone with two kids. Since couples can have only one child, families tend to dote on them. Young children are called “little emperors” because they rule their family. When families go out, it’s the parents, the grandparents and one child—so it’s six adults to one baby—and they’re all doting on the one child. People love children here. Having two children, we get a lot of stares and even our picture taken! People will say, “You have two kids! You have two!” I push a double stroller and people are always like, what is that thing?
On high expectations for children: Once kids get to real school, the dynamic shifts and it gets more hard core. I don’t see older kids anywhere; I think they’re studying all the time. For American moms, their biggest concerns for their children seem to be happiness and safety. Safety isn’t as big of an issue here because it’s so safe—guns are against the law, kidnappings are so rare, everyone just loves children. It’s wonderful. Chinese mothers’ biggest concerns seem to be success and stability—which encompasses education, getting a good job, being able to support themselves and having a good life with their families.
On international school: My older daughter goes to an international preschool and loves it. The teachers are all Chinese. For each class, there’s an English-speaking-only teacher and a Chinese-speaking-only teacher in her class, and they teach at the same time. So if they’re explaining a project, they explain it in both languages. The kids are always hearing both languages all the time. It’s so fun to see my daughter picking up some words and phrases.
On quirky fashion: People wear the oddest outfits sometimes! Really chunky heels, bright colors, mis-matching, and lots of hair accessories. At the same time, since we live downtown, you see a lot of Shanghainese women who are so incredibly sleek and gorgeous, like hot off the runway. My personal favorite are the matching couples who wear the same exact outfits, and sometimes they are extra clever, like showing graphics of two halves of a heart. I always joke to my husband how we need to get matching clothes for date night.
On knock-offs: There are copy-cat restaurants of In-N-Out and Chipotle (pictured above). Fake iPhones. Rip-off movies (we are so spoiled here, we can buy DVDs for a few dollars that are still in theaters in the U.S.). Even fake food, which can be unsettling! Many Chinese people wear fake name brand bags and clothes. I love it, it’s so much fun shopping here. And you can buy fake stuff online, too! I’m learning to become a pro on Taobao, the Chinese version of Amazon.
On childcare: What strikes me most about living in Shanghai is despite the huge move and transition to a new culture, I feel surprisingly relaxed and calm, which I credit to the help I receive from our “ayi.” Here, a nanny is called an “ayi,” which means “auntie” in Chinese, which I think is really sweet, because everyone feels like they’re part of the family. She tells my girls that she loves them. I was coming from somewhere where I didn’t have any help at all, so I thought, oh my gosh, I have some free time! It is a very normal thing here, and I can see why. My eyes have been opened, so to say! Moms just aren’t meant to go at it alone. For some reason in the U.S., we have this huge expectation to be perfect and to accomplish that perfection all by ourselves. All those silly e-cards about stressed out moms who are drinking wine appear extra silly to me since moving to China, those moms just don’t exist here. There’s much more of a sense of a team effort around raising children. Grandparents also help raise children, and parents take care of the grandparents financially. It takes a village.
On post-pregnancy confinement: Confinement is a tradition that has been practiced for generations. When my Taiwanese friend had her baby, she was in confinement for a month after the baby arrived to rest and heal. She stayed in a facility with other new mothers, and she had to eat special foods and follow other interesting rules. It sounded a little nice—you have no other responsibilities.
On keeping babies warm: Chinese passersby are very concerned about the warmth of my children. They believe that if your feet and toes are exposed, you’ll get sick. Grandmothers are always badgering me, saying my child should be wearing socks or a sweater. I don’t mind because they just really care about my children. You see Chinese kids basically in snowsuits. They wear so many layers of clothes, it’s hilarious. If they get sweaty, parents will put a piece of cloth behind their necks to soak up the sweat. It’s like, what? Take off a layer!
On making local friends: I feel it’s important to make local friends out here, but it’s much harder than I thought. I don’t speak Chinese, but I’m taking lessons. I met a nice woman on the subway, and we started talking. Just before my stop, I was kind of panicking—I liked this woman and wanted to be her friend, so I blurted out, “Do you want to come to Old Navy with me?!” She said she couldn’t, and I thought, danggit. And she said, maybe I can get your phone number? It was like a date. Now we’re friends. I love her and really want to make more local friends.
On hygiene: People spit everywhere all the time. You know in the movie Titanic when Leo tries to teach Kate how to spit, with the whole throat thing? Everyone here spits, men, women…a cab driver will open the door and spit out the door. Dogs also poop everywhere and people don’t pick it up. Back home you’ll see poop and try to avoid stepping in it, here people just walk on it. I walk my daughter to school and see fresh poop everywhere. When I pick her up from school, it’s still there but flattened. I’m the only one dodging around!
On playgrounds: We live in the heart of Shanghai, and I was initially worried that our kids wouldn’t have much space to run around. But there are so many beautiful parks and zen spaces. Older people are very active here—I love that—they walk around, do tai chi, do dance moves all in a row to music on boom boxes. It’s really cool. Older people are very respected here. While there aren’t very many playgrounds, there’s always a fish pond or space for kids to ride their scooters.
On pollution: On the days where there is blue sky, people are like, it’s the best day ever! On more polluted days, I have an app on my phone that tells me how bad the air quality is. A bad day is 45 in the states, and at one point here it went over 500! The sky will be brown. On an especially bad day, I couldn’t see the buildings outside my window. The Mandarin Oriental hotel even has an “Anti Pollution Facial Treatment.”
On learning to love the adventure: As soon as you stop expecting things to be like home, you can embrace the adventure that you’re on. When you first move here, you catch yourself thinking: “Why isn’t it like home?” But you have to get past that. There’s so much about this city that is great. It’s really cool here, I just want to share it.