A blog reader who will be bringing three blond headed children to China to live for a few years emailed me to ask, among other things, how I deal with all the attention the my daughter gets from local people.
She’s smart to think ahead to this issue. Foreign children get a lot of attention in China! They are considered “foreign dolls.” And total strangers will come up to touch them and test their Chinese.
After I responded to her email, I thought that I may as well share this information with others. So here is my edited response to that mom–my thoughts on raising your children among a culture of curious onlookers.
1. Remember that the attention is because they think your kids are the cutest ever.
It’s not because they are mean. The pointing, touching and commenting is their way of expressing admiration. We may (DO!) perceive it differently because of our cultural values. But to them the meaning is, “I like you. You are wonderful!”
2. Your children come first.
Your first priority is to protect them. So even if the Chinese person is trying to be loving (you know that from #1), if your child is terrified or really annoyed, your main objective is to protect the child even if that means putting the Chinese person off. This is a fine line. You don’t want to be a jerk and alienate Chinese people. But again, your children are more important, relationally, than the strangers. You don’t want your child to grow up feeling that you honored strangers more than you honored her.
3. Try to be super observant and head off problems.
Get between your child and people who have that “honing in” look. You can politely touch an arm that is reaching out to your child. If done with a smile, it is well received.
4. Teach your kids some polite phrases such as “please do not touch me.”
Chinese people will laugh and touch anyway. They do not have the concept of a child having authority over his own body. He can repeat, “I said, please don’t touch me.” Then you can come in as well and repeat the request to give some strength to it. But empower your children to politely refuse behavior that bothers them.
5. Support the child.
Not all parents agree here. But we’ve always had the stance that we will not force our child to hug someone or take a picture with someone. People will ask you if they can take a pic with your child. I always say, “You can ask my daughter. If she is willing, then sure.” If not, I support her decision. Sprite has even used the requests for photos as an opportunity to earn a little extra money.
Personally I believe this gives the child a sense of empowerment. She is not helpless when faced with these intrusive strangers. She has the ability and right (which mom and dad will back up) to refuse. (Why do I feel so strongly about this? I believe that if my daughter is taught to always comply with requests from adults regardless of how it makes her feel, then she’s prime candidate for abuse. “Come sit on my lap, pretty little girl” kind of thing.)
6. Don’t allow others to interrupt your child.
One thing that is really annoying is how people will interrupt you when you are talking to a child or spouse. (I’m still not sure if this is a cultural thing or simply because they don’t understand what you’re saying in English, they consider it okay to butt in.) I usually say, “Excuse me, I’m talking to her right now.” Then when I’m done, if that person is still around, I’ll say, “What were you saying?” I will not allow them to butt in and make my child feel that what she’s saying is not important.
7. Look at it from the onlooker’s perspective.
Remind your children and yourself that even though you’ve answered the same questions a multitude of times and they are SO BORING to you, it’s the first time that stranger has seen you and asked you that question. So try to be patient. It’s really hard. Sometimes my daughter will just spill out a small resume of facts at the first question.
8. Be prepared for total inability to comprehend homeschooling.
It’s just not done. Not thought of. This is a good tactic and one they can accept — “We are Americans. We want our children to go to American university. So we use an American curriculum.” If they go down the socialization line, remind them that your children have siblings (unlike theirs) and also that learning is learning and friends are friends–two separate things. I usually cause them to think when I say, “Oh, so you send your child to school to make friends? Hmmm… we do school for learning. Friends are for evenings and weekends.” Then they realize how silly it is to say that school is for socialization. There is no time at school for playing or for friends. And they know that. So remind them.
9. And since you have three kids, be prepared for comparisions.
Strangers will right to your face, outloud say things like “The middle girl is prettier.” Or “The oldest has better Chinese.” This is normal behavior. So you’ll have to work against some stereotypes that will be reinforced by strangers.
So, blog readers, what are your thoughts about and experiences with this type of thing? Do you think my advice is harsh or sound? How would you do things differently? I’d love to hear what you think.