I don’t usually like talking about living abroad. To be precise, I don’t like being questioned about living abroad, especially out of the blue. Questions like, “How was it? What was it like? What did you think was strange/interesting/different?” make my mind blank.
It’s an information overload, the kind that would require too much explanation. Which isn’t my strong point. But maybe I overthink it. Sometimes general questions only require general answers, especially in the opening gambits of conversation.
Living in another county long term is different from traveling in that you are always “on” during the latter. You’re trying to compact as many experiences and memories as you can in a limited frame of time and you’re damn well going to be cheerful about it because it’s a rare opportunity. But there were weeks and months over the past few years when I forgot I wasn’t in my home country and was just going about my life. I remember specific things about my weekend trips and last whirlwind around China better than the everyday life in Hangzhou. I was traveling in other places, but just living there.
Implied in that, living, experiencing, and observing, is gaining a lot of passive knowledge. I can’t articulate on the spot everything I learned about culture, even if I could somehow make sense of all the inactivated bits of knowledge in my head. Sometimes you need a trigger.
Cue this BBC article on US parenting trends. It’s typical for older generations to look at younger ones and find something lacking. I thought this article was interesting because it was a cross-cultural rather than cross-generational look. Margolis points out a lot of interesting things and I could rant about each one; I’ll limit myself to focus on the one about rule-making.
In China, I noticed a lack of a lot of things. Seeing babies under fifteen months smile was rare enough that I started pointing it out. The split pants instead of diapers. In the words of one of my friends, “The world is their toilet.” Very few strollers, no bags – not even for toys. A lot of interesting baby contraptions I wish I’d taken photos of – like the rectangular chair-like wicker baskets in Zhangjiajie. But often adults just carried babies, in their arms or in a harness, maybe on the grandmother’s back. I never heard a screaming fit, in public, or on a long train or flight.
It’s different. Chinese parents just picked up their baby and went about their business. Contrast this to an American mother, with a full diaper bag and toys to entertain the baby, who might not even want to leave the house because it’s such a chore.
In America, the idea is to bring up the child to be as independent as possible. Choices and preferences are honored from very early ages, and parents cater to them. Margolis writes that “this is a new(ish) breed of ‘empowering’ American parent who, either consciously or without realizing, lets their children make the rules for the family.”
Which isn’t to say that Chinese children aren’t making rules in other ways. The One-Child Policy generation has been named the “Little Emperors.” And economics and urbanization do play a large role in what they have. But I never got held up at the grocery store because parents were arguing with their children about what to have for dinner.
Now that I have friends and family with children of their own, it’s something I see and disapprove of, though being childless does make it easier to judge. I’m glad I lived abroad for countless reasons. Here’s another: being able to see how other families live, in different circumstances, maybe with less.
So to other expats and travelers: what have you noticed about families where you are?