Tag Archives: China

You Are My Sunshine

16 Jan

I sit in the darkness, my son nursing in my lap, my daughter lying beside me under a pile of warm blankets, holding my hand. The room is still as I sing the familiar lullaby lyrics I sing every night.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy, when skies are grey…

I treasure these words. How true they are, I think to myself, as I stroke my daughter’s silky cheeks and listen to my son’s soft, snurfling breathing against my sweater.

Anyone who has visited or lived in Chengdu knows that the skies here are grey—simply grey, or yellowish-grey, or grayish-grey, or whitish-grey. On a very rare occasion, they might even be described as bluish-grey, even sunny-ish-grey if you’re really, really lucky. But they are always and forever grey. It’s fog, it’s smoke, it’s coal particulate, it’s clouds…whatever the case, it’s grey.

My son has never seen his shadow, and on bright-ish days when the obscured sun “shines” in the midday sky, my daughter excitedly points and says, “Mommy, look! There’s the moon!” That’s exactly what it looks like, too.

It’s not easy living under a thick, grey sky…far from home, far from friends and family, far from like-minded mothers and parks and open spaces that stretch majestically beneath a clear blue sky. It’s not easy struggling day after day with a colossal language barrier and the constant challenges that come with living in a foreign culture. The skies can feel very grey indeed.

I hold my glass under the water dispenser and make frog sounds—gung, gung, gung, gung—to imitate the sound of the air bubbles as the water flows into my glass. My son, who is sitting on my hip, starts giggling, and before long the two of us are laughing ourselves silly.

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you…

We head outside, and my son spots the gate guard at the entrance to our apartment complex. He is an older gentleman in a black police uniform, small in stature, with bright, mischievous eyes and a wide smile. His eyes twinkle when he sees us, and he growls a menacing growl; their daily game of chase begins. My son hides behind my legs, peeking out and squealing with delight. Soon all of us are laughing.

At the market, on the way home from preschool, by the fish pond, at the park, on the sidewalk, my children make friends. No matter that they speak only a handful of Chinese words. Everywhere they go people greet them, smile at them, offer them gifts, and laugh with warmth and friendliness. Barriers dissolve, hearts open. We connect with the most unlikely souls—construction workers, street sweepers, taxi drivers, fruit sellers, grandparents, noodle-makers, cashiers. The bonds are fleeting, but each is genuine and warm-hearted.

I often hear that children are the true ambassadors of peace in the world. I can completely see why. I am so grateful to tag along behind these two beautiful kids, their senses so vibrant and clear, their spirits ever buoyant, their hearts and minds so wide open. Without them, my feelings of isolation here in China would be so much more intense, and the grey skies above me would be so much more oppressive. Thanks to them, my days are flooded with the brightest, warmest sunshine.

Please don’t take my sunshine away.

 

For the whole song (I only ever sing the first verse), visit http://kids.niehs.nih.gov/games/songs/childrens/sunshinemid.htm

——————
Heidi Nevin, who is not normally this sentimental, resides in Chengdu, China with her Tibetan husband and two young kids, ages 4 and 1.

White Ghosts

12 Jan

One day about twelve years ago I was walking across an overpass in downtown Chengdu, when a small child saw me and shouted out “lao wai!” (old foreigner) His father looked at me and I expected him to correct the child, as parents often do, and tell him to call me “ayi” (aunty). Instead he leaned down, pointed at me, and said, “yes, that’s right, look at the lao wai’s big nose!”

I haven’t been called a big nose for a long time and I am no longer surrounded by crowds of curious onlookers as I used to be when I first travelled in China in the 1980s, but I still hear the word “foreigner” at least once a day, especially from children. And when I am out with my own children, people of all ages call out “xiao lao wai!” (little old foreigner) or “yang wawa!” (foreign baby). They all agree that the yang wawa are extremely cute. One woman stood next to us in the wet market and puzzled aloud how it is that foreign babies can be so cute, but all grow up to be so ugly.

I often wonder if I feel more foreign here than a Chinese person feels in a western country. I wonder if Chinese visitors to London feel unwelcome when no-one asks them friendly questions about how they like the food or tells them how well they speak English. London and New York, the western cities I am most familiar with, are thronged with people from every part of the world, and no-one comments on your race or even your language ability. People might ask where you come from, but no-one would ever call you a foreigner. The US and Canada, Australia, the UK and many European countries have such diverse populations that being British or American or whatever nationality is not generally associated with the colour of your skin, at least not in urban centres.

But in China you cannot be Chinese unless you are 100 percent Chinese. Recently I had a conversation with a taxi driver on this subject. He said he had noticed there are a lot more mixed marriages between Chinese and foreigners these days, and he asked me whether the children of these marriages are Chinese or not. I said it depends on many factors, such as where they grow up, where they go to school, what language they speak. He shook his head,

“No that’s not it. Are they Chinese or do they have the nationality of their other parent?”

I said that depends on what passport their parents get for them. Because the Chinese government won’t allow duel nationality, their parents have to choose whether they have a Chinese passport, or the other one. He shook his head again.

“No, I don’t mean language or passport or any of that. I mean, are they Chinese or are they not?”

Finally I got it. It was a rhetorical question, with only one possible answer.

“They are not Chinese,” I said.

He nodded. “Right. They are not. They are hun-xuer (mixed blood). They cannot be Chinese.”

This is a concept I struggle with. Sometimes it feels like the elephant in the room of our peaceful, happy-go-lucky life here; an elephant that could potentially turn nasty. I know there are some fascinating anthropological studies about the construction of race and nationhood in China, but as I haven’t read them I am left puzzling over the tiny patches of the elephant that I can see. What I do know is that a random global event, such as the bombing of a Chinese embassy or the reaction of a London crowd to China’s Olympic torch, can ignite powerful nationalistic emotions across China, emotions that see me and my family as part of the problem because we are foreigners.

Once at Chengdu airport a man behind us in the queue touched my son’s hair. When my son turned around and saw it was a stranger touching him, he backed away and pulled a face. The man made a comment in Sichuan dialect that I didn’t understand, so the friend who was with me translated.

“He said, you westerners have humiliated us for hundreds of years and now your children are still humiliating us.” I must have looked shocked because my friend rushed to reassure me.

“Oh don’t worry, we don’t hate you. It’s the Japanese we really hate.”

It could take hundreds of pages to unpack that particular exchange.

No matter how long I live here, how well I learn to speak Chinese or eat with chopsticks or enjoy spicy food, no matter how many good friends I make, no matter if I marry a Chinese man and have hun-xuer children (too late for me to do this now, but I know many people who have), I will always be a lao-wai, a white ghost, a foreigner. A Chinese person living in the UK or the US must feel foreign too, must struggle with homesickness and cultural displacement and must often wonder if it’s worth it and why not just go home. But at least they know that if they choose to stay, their child will grow up to belong in their new country. My children won’t, not even my son who has never lived anywhere else and speaks Chinese with perfect tones. They’re not even hun-xuer, they’re just plain lao-wai. I worry about the impact it has on them, to be living in a world where they are outsiders. My older son is already clear in his mind that he would prefer to live in England or the USA where everyone speaks English and no-one stares at him on the street, or runs up to take his photo and tell him how cute he is. He has heard so many times what an advantage it will be for him later in life to speak Chinese, that he just ignores it now, and it does nothing to motivate him to study the language.

But perhaps being called foreign doesn’t have to be negative. After all it is a fact of life, akin to how Chinese people call a fat person a fat person, in an upfront way that western cultures avoid. We call someone fat behind their back but not to their faces. Similarly we don’t call people foreign to their faces but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the same feelings about outsiders. London and New York, Sydney and Paris welcome people of all races. Anyone can walk the streets of those cities without being noticed or commented on, as I suppose they can these days in Beijing and Shanghai. But once they move out into the smaller towns and the countryside, there people will start to notice and comment on their being foreign. Not to their face of course, but behind their back. Jackie Kay writes movingly about growing up 100% Scottish of Nigerian extraction in her memoir Red Dust Road. A Chinese friend told me that he loved New York because no-one paid any attention to him there, whereas in the Ohio town where he studied, shop-keepers struggled to understand him and he felt like a foreigner.

In multi-cultural western societies, ethnicity, nationality and cultural identity are of course also vast and complex issues, but we deal with them differently. In the west we are shy of calling people foreign to their faces, even as we struggle openly day by day with issues thrown up by the cultural melting-pot, in the press, in schools and in communities. Whereas in China, foreigners are openly labeled as such, with a prevailing attitude of friendly welcome, but with clear boundaries attached: no messy questions of integration and multi-culturalism. In both cases, when questions of national pride emerge, sinister undercurrents rise to the surface and play out in ways that are hard to fathom. For me, they are harder to fathom here than they are at home.

I wrestle with the choice I have made, to live in a country where I will always be a foreigner, but after all it is my choice. Some days I’m OK with it and others I’m not, but surprisingly I don’t mind being called a big nose. It reminds me of the time I went rafting with a group of my students in Taiwan shortly after a typhoon, and our raft capsized in the rapids and catapulted us all into the churning water. I heard the lifeguards shouting in Taiwanese, “get the big nose!” and I was the first to be hauled out of the water and dumped back on the boat. My students teased me that I was the easiest to find because my nose stuck so far out of the water. They also told me that I spoke in perfect Chinese for at least an hour afterwards. Apparently the cold and shock activated some dormant neurons in my brain and, huddling on the plastic raft with my friends, I experienced a brief period of total fluency, the closest I will ever come to being Chinese.

About me: originally from the UK, I first came to China as a student in the 1980s and my life has intersected with China one way and another ever since. For the past 7 years I have been based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province China with my American husband and our two sons aged 6 and 11. I work freelance for non-profit organisations and on my own writing, editing and translation projects.

Breastfeeding in China

3 Jan

This afternoon, while my little son was sleeping, I had the rare pleasure of taking a midday bath with my four-year-old daughter, Clara. It was nice to spend some cozy alone time with her, soaking in our beautiful juniper tub. At one point, she paddled over and asked if she could have a taste of my milk.

“You don’t nurse anymore, silly. You’re a big girl!” I laughed.

“I just want to taste it,” she pleaded, looking forlorn.

“You drank my milk for almost 3 years,” I reminded her.

“But, Mommy, I can’t remember!” I pulled her close to me and let her suckle.

“Yummy,” she smiled. “It’s sweet!”

Breastfeeding my babies has been, and continues to be, one of my very favorite parts of motherhood. The intimacy and tenderness of the nursing relationship is truly indescribable. How heavenly to gaze into the eyes of a nursing baby, so perfectly nourished and fulfilled! I have often thought to myself, as I cradled a gorgeous baby in my arms, that it is LOVE that makes a child grow healthy and strong, and the flow of sweet milk from mother’s breast is certainly one of the purest forms of love.

I was blessed to give birth to both my children at home and nurse them without delay, as instructed and encouraged by my parents and midwives. Such a fantastic rush of joy and relief it is to have a newborn infant placed upon one’s breast, cord still pulsing, skin wrinkled and red, deep-blue eyes quietly alert and blinking in the soft light, tiny mouth latched onto the nipple! It is a timeless, weightless moment, that first greeting between mother and child, a sweet and unforgettable celebration of the bond formed within. That precious bond, so crucial for the health and well-being of mother and child, is what is nurtured most intensively by the nursing relationship.

The industrialization and modernization of human societies has dramatically affected many women’s understanding and experience of childbirth. Here in China, as elsewhere in the industrialized world, urban women almost invariably give birth in a hospital setting, frequently by Cesarean section. The World Health Organization reports that rates of Cesarean sections performed in urban China may be as high as 63%. The report goes on to say:

Many Chinese couples now opt for delivery by caesarean section to avoid pain. Apart from the clinical indications for caesarean section – breech presentation, dystocia and suspected fetal compromise – there is growing evidence that many women choose delivery by caesarean section for personal reasons, particularly in profit-motivated institutional settings that may provide implicit or explicit encouragement for such interventions.[1]

Not surprisingly, just as more and more women opt for expensive and potentially dangerous medical interventions in lieu of natural childbirth, fewer and fewer are choosing to breastfeed their babies.

During my time here in China over the past six years, when I have always been either pregnant or nursing, I’ve chatted with numerous Chinese mothers and gleaned from them the following impressions. The general perception seems to be that breastfeeding is old-fashioned and inconvenient for the modern career woman. Infant formula or cow’s milk are the preferred substitutes for breast milk. The sexual objectification of the female body by the media also seems to have played a role, making Chinese women fearful of losing their youthful figures by nursing their babies. There is also the widespread belief among mothers that they have no milk. How many times have I heard Chinese women say, “Wo mei you nai.” (I have no milk.) While low milk production (and various other circumstances) can certainly be a challenge for a small percentage of women, this issue more than likely arises from a general lack of knowledge and support from family, doctors, and the culture at large. Several women have also expressed to me the mistaken idea that breast milk becomes un-nutritious after the first six months.

When my kids play in our apartment compound, our Chinese neighbors regularly admire them and tell me how strong and healthy they look. “What do you feed them?” they ask, assuming that it must be lots of meat (of which we eat none). “Breast milk!” I say proudly, gazing down at my young son’s glowing pink cheeks. This surprises them and often precipitates a conversation with the older generation of onlookers, many of whom survived the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961). Invariably, they recall their own years of nursing babies and confirm the benefits of breastfeeding. Sadly, that information seems to be largely forgotten or ignored, lost in the mad rush for socio-economic “progress”.

China is certainly not alone in this arena. The World Health Organization states that:

Despite the recommendation that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months, less than 40% of infants less than this age are exclusively breastfed worldwide. The overwhelming majority of American babies are not exclusively breastfed for this period – in 2005 under 12% of babies were breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months, with over 60% of babies of 2 months of age being fed formula and approximately one in four breastfed infants having infant formula feeding within two days of birth.[2]

 Alas, breastfeeding seems to be just one of many terrible casualties of modernism and capitalistic greed. The complexity of this subject far exceeds the scope of a blog entry, for sure, but being that it is so close to my heart, I thought it worth sharing some thoughts. I wonder how long it will be before the breastfeeding promotion programs forged elsewhere in the world spread to China and begin to make a difference in the lives of women and children.

While Clara may have forgotten the sweet taste of my milk, I know that she will never forget the sweetness of my love. She is of that love—it is in her heart, her blood, her bones. And I feel sure that when her time comes, she will not hesitate to draw her baby to her breast and share her own milk, that most sublime nourishment for body and soul.

Heidi is an American married to a Tibetan, living in Chengdu, China. She has two young children, ages 4 and 1.

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[1] WHO: Delivery settings and caesarean section rates in China

[2] Wikipedia: Infant Formula

Between Worlds

20 Nov

I was born in Crete, Greece and raised in Maryland, USA, on a beautiful, 86-acre, off-the-grid homestead. My parents, products of the hippie era, were inspired by the simple, self-sufficient lives of the Cretan villagers, and we had no electricity or indoor plumbing in the hand-hewn house where I grew up. Instead of a TV, we had a trapeze in the living room. It was a paradise for kids, and I grew up with an innate love of nature and a keen sense of responsibility for the health of our Mother Earth. My parents strove to awaken in us an awareness of the effects of our actions and to provide us with an alternative to the modern lifestyle of rampant consumptive greed. They supplemented our public school education with frequent journeys overseas, and by the time I was 18, our family of four had toured nearly 25 countries, mostly on tandem bicycle.

As an adult, I continued to travel widely and for longer periods, eventually spending nearly seven years in India and Nepal studying the Tibetan language and practicing Buddhism. Before long, as hormones would have it, I fell in love and married into another culture, another race, another language, another dimension. Tsultrim and I come from wildly different worlds—he a monk from a tiny village in Tibet, I the product of an American subculture of left-winged eco-hippies. We were married in 2003, first on the black market in Nepal and later in our flower garden in Maryland. During eight tumultuous years of marriage, we have made nearly that many moves across the planet, from my country to his and back again, one of us always suffering from culture shock and social isolation. The learning curve has been, and continues to be, incredibly steep. Yet for some reason—no doubt our stubborn Taurean personalities and a fat load of karma—we’re still together, still laughing.

Along the way, we have been blessed with two gorgeous kids—our daughter Clara, aged 4 ½, and our son Tashi, aged 17 months. Admittedly, part of the reason I wanted to have a second child was to give our first-born a companion, someone who would truly appreciate the complexity of her multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-lingual situation. I worried that she would be friendless and alone in her ever-shifting world, with no one to share the long airplane rides, discuss her weird parents, or understand who she really was.

We traveled in Asia during both of my pregnancies, but I drew the line when it came to their births—those were occasions when I truly needed my own family, culture, and language, everything that I equate with the safety and comfort of home. Both our children were born in my parents’ new home in Oregon, USA, gently lifted onto my chest by the loving hands of homebirth midwives. I love to think that Tsultrim’s graceful presence at the births of his children purified generations of Tibetan tradition, in which men have avoided (and been excluded from) the ‘filthy’ scene of childbirth.

Shortly after both births, we returned to Tibet bearing the new baby, washing our cloth diapers in the freezing winter water and soaking up the salt-of-the-earth goodness of Tsultrim’s beautiful family. These journeys were terrifying and traumatic for me, the fretting new mother of an infant, and with each passing year I have yearned more and more intensely for a stable home, for roots in nurturing soil, for a solid community of like-minded mothers and the support of my family. The carefree wanderlust of my youth has long since faded away, leaving in its place an anxious, fearful woman rapidly approaching her 40th birthday, still without a place to call home and no prospects for one on the horizon. The Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment and impermanence do little to ease the ache in my heart, the pull to plunge my fingers into warm brown earth. We are settled in the Chengdu mega-metropolis for the (un)foreseeable future, not living the lavish life of the typical expat but camped out in my brother-in-law’s apartment, while Tsultrim tries his luck at selling construction supplies in the booming Chinese economy. We all sleep in a row on the floor of our single bedroom, our clothes and medicines and children’s books stuffed into a few small shelves. Clouds of fog and smog hang heavy in the Chengdu sky, and miles of constipated highway snake around us in every direction.

Even as I celebrate our children’s immersion into diverse cultures and languages and watch them grow and thrive in each, I wonder how I will share with them the lessons of my childhood, the deep reverence for the natural world that comes with being of and near the earth, season after season, year after year, in a place called home. Can a family of nomads engender a sense of place and belonging in its children? More importantly, will there ever be a place where we all feel at home, such that we can live a gentle, carbon-neutral existence on this fragile planet?

Oh Boy!

20 Nov

“Rahul is a sweetheart! He let Leila have the train,” I declare proudly as he hands back her toy upon request.

“Thanks Rahul.” I continue.

“Afu BOY,” he quickly corrects me, worried. (He calls himself Afu; the Sichuanese version of his Chinese name.)

“Yes. Afu boy.” I confirm, without going into how he can also be a sweetheart!

“Leila girl,” he double-checks.

“Yes. Leila girl.”

He looks up, eyes shining, up to something. “Afu GIRL!”

“Afu girl? Nnnnnno, Afu boy!” I reply with a chuckle.

He bursts out laughing.

The 4 of us are downstairs, L on her train, R on his duck-car, ayi (meaning aunt, what he calls their nanny) and me.

He continues with some powerful declarations of identity: “Afu zizi.” (A cute way for children to say penis in French.)

“Leila kiki.” (A cute way for children to say vagina in French.)

“Yes honey, you’re right. You have a zizi, and Leila has a kiki.”

Then he goes wild: “Papa zizi. Mama kiki. Ayi kiki. Shu shu zizi.” (Shu shu is uncle in Mandarin, what the children call any young man they need to address.)

Our uncontrollable, loud laughter attracts some attention.

“It’s a good thing the Chinese people don’t understand him,” ayi says between squeals of laughter; her face red as a tomato.

———————–

Natasha lives in Chengdu, China with her husband Maher, and two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul. She was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until her little yogis became the teachers. You can read more of her stories at Our Little Yogis (http://natashadevalia.com)

 

Only French

19 Nov

By Pascaline: Born in Greece, I grew up in a bilingual French / Greek environment. I lived between Greece, Africa and France. My husband, “I”, French of Lebanese and Syrian origin is also multilingual: French/English/Arabic, and has lived in France, Africa and Canada. We are both what some people call, “Third culture kids,” our parents being expats for most of our childhood. In 2008 when we decided to move to China, we became expats ourselves.

In January 2011, I gave birth to a baby girl, N.

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“What languages do you talk to your baby?” I am often asked after introducing our family. Immediately, I feel awkward,”We speak French.”

“Only French?” is the standard reply.

I feel guilty.

My husband and I speak 3 languages fluently. We both speak French at home. I speak Greek with my family; he speaks Arabic with his. We speak English with our friends; we live in China, so Chinese is always around.

So, “Only French?” makes me feel really guilty.

Am I a denying my daughter precious knowledge?

Long gone is the time language specialists believed that having more than one language around babies “pollutes” their abilities and results in poor command of the language. Complaints or disadvantages ranged from: the bilingual child speaks later and less than others of the same age, he will have difficulty in his language development, and he will never be able to speak one language properly.

Today the (same?) specialists say that bilingual children are more creative, more open and flexible than others. Being bilingual is to be equally comfortable in both languages and have references in two cultures allowing to understand and accept differences.

So many advantages, so why is it so hard? Let’s be honest, to raise a child with two or more languages requires hard work. It’s easy to give in to pressure from the majority language – French for us – and forget the minority languages (Greek and Arabic). Both my husband and I learned our second languages in an unusual way.

My husband learned basic Arabic from listening to his mother – since he was a baby – talking to her friends on the phone or over cups of coffee. At first, he had a basic understanding, and then by interacting with people who speak Arabic, his ability to understand and speak has developed more naturally.

I was bilingual until the age of 7; my mother spoke Greek to us. When she passed away however, French became the only language at home. I completely forgot Greek. At the age of 12, we moved to Greece and I had to take Greek classes – beginner’s level. Despite that, I discovered that it was easier for me to learn Greek compared to my French classmates, I didn’t remember a single word from my childhood, but I was able to speak and write faster than the others, and I didn’t have a French accent!

I want to talk to my daughter in Greek. I want her to learn about Greek culture (and no it’s not only about the lousy financial situation, riots and paying of taxes for many generations). I want to find those sweet Greek words and I want to sing those Greek lullabies from my childhood. Later, it will be up to her to choose: to either develop it, or to drop it. But at least I would have given her the basis for a good start.

A close friend told me that in order to maintain the minority language to a satisfactory level, we have to offer the child a rich and stimulating environment in that language – books, songs, friends.

I bought Greek children’s books, but I always pick the French and English ones. The animals in the Greek books look at me strangely.

When I play lullabies for my daughter, even the Spanish songs sound better; the Greek ones are awkward.

Greek family and friends? As most people living away from their countries, we see them once a year, not long enough for our daughter to learn anything. And where we live now, we speak English with our friends.

So we have the books and the songs and a few friends, but with a common family language (French) and a social language (English), where can poor little Greek fit in? She hears a lot of French, some English, and some Chinese, but we speak only French to her.

And I still feel guilty.

Greek just doesn’t come naturally.

How did you introduce a minority language to your kids? How did you deal with it?

Related article – Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language

Afu ge ge, Leila mei mei

19 Nov

“Which twin is older?” The question is absurd. In China, I get it all the time. And it works me up.
“They are twins. They are the same age.” I reply, irritated.
“Yes, but they didn’t both come out at the same time, did they? One had to have been born first.”
They insist, “Is she the older sister or is he the older brother?”
“But they were born minutes apart. What’s the big deal?!”

In Chinese there are no words for sister or brother; only for older brother “ge ge”, younger brother “di di”, older sister “jie jie”, and younger sister “mei mei.”

I don’t want to impose birth-order stereotypes on L and R; they are born 7 minutes apart. When L joined us at home, 3 weeks after R, Maher and I both unintentionally spoke to Rahul referring to Leila as his little sister. It was more in the sense of endearment and physical size than of age. But we quickly realized that it was untrue, and imagined implications of such labeling. We stopped.

When we returned to Chengdu from Hong Kong 5 months after the birth, our ayi (nanny) would tell R, “Look, Leila mei mei is sleeping. Why don’t you sleep as well?” I was upset. Drop the comparison, that issue is for another post. I firmly asked the people close to us – ayi’s (nannies), Chinese friends – not to use ge ge and mei mei; but to refer to Rahul and Leila as Rahul and Leila. Initially, they considered my request strange. I was interfering with cultural norms and habits. I insisted. They complied, at first with an uncomfortable smile, and probably a thought of how the lao wai (foreigners) always do things strangely. Now, they don’t hesitate. I’ve heard our ayi herself telling people in the street – “How can one be older? They are twins.” And if pushed she says, “I don’t know who was born first,” and then she looks at me to save her from the situation!

From what I remember of my Social Psychology 101 class, and various family talks, the oldest child is more responsible, self-motivated, and more dutiful, the middle child struggles for attention, and the youngest child is light-hearted, sometimes babied. It’s not as “straightforward” as that in reality, and certainly not in our household. I hope R doesn’t turn around one day and say a silly thing like, “That’s the way it goes because I am your older brother,” or someone guilt trips him with, “but she’s your little sister.”

When we go downstairs to play with the other kids in the complex, mums often tell their children, “You are her older brother. Let her play with your toy.” In China today, it’s rare that a child has a brother or a sister; so mum is usually referring to her child’s playmate. L and R may not know any of their friend’s names, but they know who is older and who is younger than them.

About half a year ago, R surprised me when he pointed at himself and said, “Afu, ge ge”. (R calls himself Afu. It’s his Sichuanese name.) In another incident, a mum of a two-year old girl asked me if L is a jie jie or a mei mei. Before I could say anything, L pointed at herself and replied proudly, “Leila, mei mei.”

L and R were obviously beginning to understand what people say. I realized that unless they use the words describing their relationships, they won’t be able to refer to their friends or themselves in an understandable, and respectable manner.

I am impressed that they know the words, and maybe the meaning. I don’t think they understand what the words imply in relation to each other, but they know that’s who they are.

A few weeks ago, a pair of 22-year-old identical Chinese twin girls automatically introduced themselves to me as older sister and younger sister. When I dug deeper, probed them on whether they really feel like one is older and if they live by that, “not really,” older sister replied, “At home we call each other by name. It is for others that we use mei mei and jie jie.”

Other than it being a naming issue, it is a cultural one. We live in China, L and R were born in HK, and speak Chinese, so it only makes sense that they follow the social and cultural norms when engaging in society here. Now, when people in the street ask me the question, I answer straight up, R ge ge and L mei mei. Still some days, when I am in a feisty mood, I refuse to answer.

At home, with ayi’s and friends, we stick to L and R.

——————–

Natasha lives in Chengdu, China with her husband Maher, and two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul. She was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until her little yogis became the teachers. You can read more of her stories at Our Little Yogis. (http://natashadevalia.com)