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Early or lifelong identity problems?

8 Mar

Children are an emotional double-edged sword. They have the capacity, or rather power, to put you on top of the world when they show you their affection or attachment and to break your heart, even if unwillingly when very young. Around the time my daughter S. turned one, she split my heart in two. She woke up one morning, around 8:00 am, which is the time when her nanny H. arrives. I got into S.’s room first and H. came in right after me. As I was reaching for S. in her cot, she saw her nanny and raised her arms to her without even looking at me. A bit stubborn and in total denial, I lifted S. from her bed thinking she would realise it was me and stay with me at least for a quick morning cuddle. Instead she used her infamous terrorising technique of screeching screams and leaned unequivocally towards her nanny, making it clear whom her preference was for. This deeply upset me for some time. I complained to J. with a teary voice that S. didn’t love me anymore and I kept getting painful reminders of this by S. more or less every day throughout that week.

You get it, S. really loves her nanny which I guess, in spite of me feeling rejected by my own baby, is a good problem to have. She greets her with a big smile every morning. When we came back from Lebanon in September, after a 5-week stay, it was as if they had never left one another. To be fair, H. has earned this love. Not only does she take excellent care of S., she also spends a lot of time playing with and speaking to her. She is amazingly patient and converses with S. all day long in Mandarin mostly, with a few expressions of Shanghainese. She is twice as talkative as J. and I combined. So much so that S.’s first intonations sound Chinese and so are her first words (except for Papa). We hadn’t realised that until a trip to Europe where we were told that S.’s first noises weren’t the same as those of French, British or Lebanese toddlers.

While I was complaining about S.’s rejection to my cousins, it dawned on me that S. is probably going through a phase of thinking, or rather believing, that she too is Chinese. Although physically it couldn’t possibly be the case (she’s blond with blue eyes), she’s not conscious of what she looks like yet and I think she truly identifies with Chinese and, by default, Asian people. Think of it, she spends more time awake with her Chinese nanny than with us. Going out on the streets, she sees essentially Chinese faces who, due to her foreign features, blondness and – let’s face it – cuteness, are rarely indifferent to her. Her little buddies in our residential compound are a mix of Chinese and foreign kids, who are mostly looked after by Chinese nannies. She is therefore very much immersed in Chinese culture and language.

That S. may believe that she is Chinese and that only her parents are bizarre is actually something that J. and I have witnessed with our friends and neighbours’ daughter. The mum is Lebanese too and the dad Italian. We used to babysit their daughter regularly from the age of 4 months until S. was born. She is now four. Around the time she was 18 months, she would run around our place speaking Chinese to us, although she could clearly see we don’t have Chinese faces. She would run around our place shouting “wo lai le, wo lai le!” instead of saying: “I’m coming, I’m coming!” So much so that we would occasionally reply back in Chinese when we really wanted to make sure she understood us. However, with her parents she would speak her mum’s language, occasionally punctuated by Chinese words. Like S., she would be super friendly with Chinese people and really be attracted to Asian faces when abroad.

I still need to do my own little investigation and ask parents of other kids growing up in China, but I generally suspect that this is a common phenomenon amongst foreign children of a certain age who are looked after by Chinese ayis. These kids, if they spend a significant part of their childhood and teen age in a country which is not their parents’, will end up what is called “third-culture kids”, i.e. children who grow up immersed in cultures and languages different from those of their parents. These children, and later adults, are generally very good at navigating different cultures but the downside is that they also may not feel any sense of belonging in their parents’ country and culture of origin, or anywhere in particular for that matter.

3rd culture kids diagram

So here’s how our sense of self is supposed to work. Source: http://laurakeeney.weebly.com/third-cutlure-kids.html

 

I left Lebanon nearly 15 years ago now and, while I do feel it is still the home of my heart, until about a year ago (around the time ISIS came about) I always felt that, God forbids, should shit hit the fan in my life, I could always go back to Beirut. I often wonder how S. and her eventual sibling will relate to their “home” country Lebanon in the long run; whether, in spite of our efforts and regular visits, they’ll enjoy going there, appreciate its history, culture and uniqueness and melt in the warmth of its light or sight of the sea. I am all in favour for S.’s immersion in Chinese culture; in fact she has just joined a Chinese kindergarten. At the same time, I worry that Lebanon may just be another country for her and that she may not be able to develop any attachment to it or, worse, end up feeling rootless, with no sense of home for her multi-cultural self.

Where's my home

Source: melbourneriffraff.com.au

 

On hormones

7 Nov

I had a truly very easy pregnancy, for which I am really grateful. Unlike some of my friends, I’ve barely had any nausea or experienced any major complications or discomfort, which allowed me to remain very active well beyond my due date. I guess like any expecting woman, I had bouts of doubts and anxiety, especially after watching the news and all the crazy things going in this world (ISIS in the Middle East; global warming; pollution of air, food, water, you name it in China, etc.), and wondered why on earth would I bring a kid into life. But mostly I felt I was very serene during the whole nine months. I didn’t have any cravings or repulsion for particular foods or didn’t behave crazily at anytime. Or so I thought. In hindsight, the hormones did play some tricks on me, albeit on punctual occasions and isolated, but specific, events.

The crystallisation of these tricks happened to be T. the driver at J.’s office. The poor chap had of course the very best intentions at heart but the fact that he is culturally conditioned, his overzealousness and occasional nosiness during my pregnancy just got the best of me at a time when I wasn’t in full control of my reactions.

My resentment for him didn’t come gradually. It was triggered by his reaction when J. told him we were expecting a girl. He reportedly nearly choked on the spot in disappointment for J. Any remark on the fact that I was expecting a girl really put me off as much then as now, as a woman to start with and for my baby, unborn and already subject to prejudice. The guy couldn’t get over it and enquired a few times throughout the remaining months whether it was certain that we were having a girl. He really thought we were kidding or that results couldn’t be trusted. When I was nearly 8 months pregnant, he asked me: “So you are having a girl?” to which I calmly replied “yes”. He pondered for a minute and said, as if I had been pulling his leg: “nah, it’s a boy!” Even after S. was born, he texted J. enquiring whether the baby was indeed a girl.

That in itself, each time, drove me absolutely crazy. Unknowingly, he made matters worse for himself by sending me text messages telling me to take care of myself, rest, etc. It was out of consideration and fondness for J. and very well intentioned of course but by then I couldn’t stand the guy and would throw a fit every time he did anything at all. Whether he sent food, vitamins, text messages, told me I shouldn’t go swimming, or gave advice on which hospital to go to because (after having chatted with a nurse in our hospital and enquired about prices) ours was far too expensive and there were cheaper options. I had to tell him that I needed a doctor and staff with whom I could communicate and luckily the insurance was covering the costs.

My anger towards him became so irrational and obsessive that I once dreamt that he was going to pop into my hospital room unannounced and tell me and the nurses how to handle the baby. Or even try to impose his wife at home to help take care of the baby because we non-Chinese didn’t know any better. I would have to be very rude with him and tell him to fuck off and that I didn’t need him or his wife because my parents were here and that in other parts of the world people had newborns too and knew how to take care of them. Yes, the whole thing got very far in that little hormone-injected head of mine.

This self-winding up of mine continued for some time after S. was born and I would refuse that we go with him to the clinic whenever S. was due for a check-up. Thankfully, for him and my sanity, I’ve since then come back to my senses and do feel some degree of remorse.

Not that it recently occurred to me or that I am trying to justify the still fairly widespread tendency in China to prefer boys over girls, but I’ve given it some thought in the case of T. He has one child, a daughter, who lives in Beijing with her husband, child (I assume she has only one) and most probably her in-laws. In China, it is the tradition for the parents of the husband to move in with the new couple, so that the younger generation can take care of the older one and the older one can help out with the grand-child(ren). So T., as much as he loves his daughter, probably feels a bit screwed by the one child policy and the fact that he had a girl. In his early 60s, he doesn’t seem to have a comfortable retirement pension, if any and no one to take care of him and his wife but himself. He is sort of “doomed” to working many more years into his late age. Had he had a second child or, “better”, a boy that would’ve been his insurance for his old days.

With the abolishment of the single child policy last week (end October 2015, couples can now have two kids), 37 years after it was instated, the Chinese government intends to curb the forthcoming pension crisis. Hopefully it will also give a fairer chance for this working generation to be taken care of by their kids when they get older. In the meantime, T. happened to get in the way of my hormonal imbalance.

Deeply disturbed

23 May

The demographic issue in China is fascinating. The single child policy was set up in 1978 (and enacted in 1980) for the obvious reason of curbing the birth rate of the country. So (at least if I think of myself as still being young) it is not that old. In 2004 during my very first visit here, it had already struck me how convinced Chinese people are of this very drastic measure, how conscious they are too of their demographic “problem” and even that some of them feel a sense of responsibility to contribute to changing their country’s demographic profile. Coming from a tiny country (Lebanon) where the whole population (5 millions, including the current 1 million refugee population) is the equivalent of that of a third tier city in China, on a number of occasions I’ve had remarks such as: “It’s very good to have such a small population. In China, there are too many people” – a few times from taxi drivers as well as from people from other walks of life.

Even if it is being progressively loosened due to foreseeable pension funding problems, the single child policy remains a national matter and an individual responsibility. A long time ago now, I read an article that made me laugh. It reported with an unequivocal frown that Zhang Yimou, the famous movie director and mastermind of the Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, actually has four children! How unpatriotic! At the same time, I have been surprised by the number of Chinese people born post-1980 I met who have siblings. My first Chinese teacher has an older sister and more than a few of my ex-students also have brothers and sisters.

With the recent further loosening of the law*, it has become more acceptable to discuss the possibility of having a second child. I have often put the question to my Chinese friends or colleagues, out of sheer curiosity. While some of them do want a second child, it still surprised me how unused others are to the very concept. It feels that because so many people of my generation (I was born in 1980) and the later one grew up without a sibling that the whole idea is really alien to them and only seen through the lens of the financial “cost” of having a second child – which seems a bit reductive but understandable since you want to be able to afford the best for your offspring. Very recently however, it became clearer that there may actually be a generational damage regarding having a second child.

As I said, Chinese people are so conscious of their population problem and so unused by now to having a brother or a sister that it is even portrayed by media in part but also perhaps by new popular belief to be potentially harmful for the balance of the standard family of three. It was a conversation with two of my colleagues (one my age and the other 12 years younger, whom I consider to be highly educated) that revealed the extent of this damage. Earlier this week, I was asking my pregnant colleague (a singleton) whether she would consider having a second child. She said: “I don’t know… I hear parents cannot love two children in an equal way and will start to love the second child more than the first.” That in itself was a shock to me, the very possibility that generally parents’ love was limited to one child. Of course it can and does happen but it is rare and the family in question would be considered to be dysfunctional. Then my colleague carried on by supporting her statement by giving the example of a young (Chinese) teenage girl who committed suicide because her parents had another child. The worst part was to see how concerned both she and our younger colleague looked! I could see it in their eyes and feel the disapproval and anxiety on their faces of the possibility of having a second kid. I don’t know if it’s propaganda and brainwash or just sheer pragmatism, but either way I am still shocked that they could believe it and that media would portray having a little brother or sister to be so potentially harmful in the relationship between parents and their elder child. The mere idea of a brother or sister has not just become alien it has become inconceivable. I later found out that my younger colleague has a younger brother and has in fact really suffered from the son-preference culture that still prevails in some families in China (she also once shared that she really admired her grand-father for treating everyone, regardless of age, gender, etc. equally).

I may be a bit harsh here but I think what shocks me perhaps equally than this fear of bringing another kid into the family is how Sino-centred both my colleagues (and probably a whole lot of other, less educated people) are on this issue, how they couldn’t question this unfounded media or propaganda-generated theory or stretch their mind to all other countries of the world where the vast majority of people have one or more siblings and where the elder children are as loved by their parents as the younger ones.

*Until about two years ago, if both spouses were single children they were allowed to have two kids without paying any tax or penalty, however you want to call it. More recently, if just one of the spouses is a single child, then the couple is “allowed” to have two kids.

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