Adventures in cross-cultural parenting

Before she left, Ying told friends that her Canadian homestay family had three young children. This number would be highly unusual in China. “There will be toys everywhere!” she joked.

Turned out to be books everywhere instead.

Last August Ying joined our household as a member of the family while attending a local Christian high school. There had to be some culture shock in moving from Beijing, a city of 21 million people, to Newcastle, a village with just four stoplights. Our whole country has only 35 million people!

We’ve enjoyed getting to know Ying and hope that she is happy in our noisy home. The experience has been a good one for us. She is here to learn English and get to know Canadian culture. Those are easy requirements for any homestay family to meet. Stretching everyday family life to include a teenager from another country can be a little harder. Hard, but still good – we love learning a little bit about China from her. We have tried chopsticks, spicy dishes and black-bean moon cakes. We celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinese New Year.

But there’s no doubt she is doing the lion’s share of growth. She has learned how to live with rambunctious younger kids and participate in dull Saturday chores.

In the past months, she’s tried the following activities for the first time in her life: make cookies, chop vegetables, skate, toboggan, give and receive Christmas presents, crack an egg, do laundry and clean a bathroom. My cousin had a baby on April 2 and when we visited a few days later, it was the first time Ying had ever held a newborn (or any baby).

Nothing but the best
Habits and routines that we consider normal would stand out as strange if our family was transported to China. I’m guessing that thought crosses Ying’s mind often, though she’s too polite to say so.

The other day Ying asked me, “Do you like crying?”

It took me a minute to realize, once she added “Your children cry very much,” that she was asking if it’s in our DNA. I don’t think so. But it’s true that our kids can dissolve into tears over something like not getting the best chair at the table. Ying had more examples: “Ben cannot get his Cheerios for supper and so he cries, like ‘Life is so hard!’ In China most parents would say, ‘YOU EAT YOUR SUPPER!’”

This conversation led to some self-reflection. I felt guilty for a little while about my lax Western parenting styles. Chinese-American Yale professor Amy Chua would have a heyday here. In her controversial memoir The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua shares the Chinese parenting methods used in raising her daughters, which hinge on self-control and discipline. “Tiger parenting” is now shorthand for stressing a child’s academic achievements as the key to future career success.

Ying has described the pressure on Chinese kids to do well, to get good jobs. A girl’s parents will ask a serious boyfriend, “Where is your house? Where is your car? What can you give my daughter?” Schooling seems focused on how it will pay off financially. The weight of these expectations can lead to depression. But it also seems to produce a high proportion of young adults pursuing STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths).

All parents want what is best for their kids. I guess it depends how you define “best.” From what I’ve heard, many Chinese parents prioritize financial security. Chua’s daughters practised piano eight hours a day and never had a single sleepover or playdate. Their childhood accomplishments make an impressive resume. But kids aren’t tiny adults. They’re kids! Early-onset life pressure doesn’t sound like a great idea to me.

If you asked North American parents what they hope for their children’s futures, aren’t they likely to highlight happiness? Christians and non-Christians alike. But happiness is a thin and slippery goal. Like wealth, it won’t deliver meaning. And despite the number of self-help books with “happy” in the title, it can’t really be taught.

Does that put North American parents out of a job? What is the goal of parenting, then – if it’s not to ensure financial success or life-long happiness?

For us, it’s to raise children who feel loved by God; who sow righteousness, reap love and seek the Lord (Hos. 10:12). What a task! No wonder there are a few tears along the way.

Continuing education
When someone moves into your house for a year, your family’s true values become evident. Sometimes painfully evident. Ying has seen me snap at the kids, rush through prayer, skip the Bible reading after supper. . . .  

One can only hope that the better moments make an impression too – a good supper-table discussion, sharing a laugh, feeding a baby, figuring out how to skate.

By the way, Ying read this editorial. She corrected a few things. Chinese education is slowly changing, she says, to focus less on final grades and academic achievement. Articles in China ask how to incorporate Western teaching styles in the classroom.

Any way you look at it, there is still so much to learn.

  • Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

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