Running errands in my neighborhood after work is sometimes my favorite time of day. It’s the time of day when I see children out playing; grandparents and parents picking up their little ones up from school; mommies and daddies helping stumbling toddlers learning to walk in the park and when I can witness the overall love and devotion that the Chinese people tend to shower on their children. It always brings a huge smile to my face. That and the little ones here are ridiculously adorable. In the winter, they’re dressed up in about 20 layers of clothes and look like little “ball babies” waddling around. In the warmer months, the babies and toddlers have split pants over their rear ends so that they can easily go to the bathroom anywhere- yes anywhere- whether it’s on the sidewalk for the entire public to see or on a subway train. Once the little ones start talking, it’s simply endearing to hear their children’s voices speaking Chinese.
As a foreign lady here in China, I frequently have a certain privilege and carte blanche to go up to interact with small children- even if I am a stranger. Parents frequently seem comfortable if not delighted when I approach them to say hello to their child and even to take a picture of them. Really small children don’t know what to make of me until their parents grab their hands and start waving it up and down and say to their child, “Say hello! Ni hao!!” Some of those children I’m sure find it a bit of a strange practice to say hello at the request of their parents to this tall, strange unusual figure in front of them.
Occasionally, children’s parents also catch a glimpse of me. One time a mother and her child came up to me. The mother warmly exclaimed to her three year old while pointing at me, “Look at her! You’re Chinese! She’s a foreigner! Do you see?” Some may find such behavior unsettling but I didn’t mind. It was done in a friendly tone. I also enjoy watching the occasional surprise reaction of children themselves when they spot me. I am surprised that in this day and age in Nanjing, a major Chinese city with a large expat population, I still have the odd encounter with children who are bewildered, excited or intrigued by a sighting of me. Last week my friend Mike and I were on a major intersection after grocery shopping. While waiting to cross the intersection, a man and three kids were wedged on a bicycle. One of the boys on the bike spotted us and pointed with excitement with a huge grin on his face when he saw us. Another time I had a funny encounter with some children outside of a restaurant while waiting for a friend. After the children got over their initial curiosity and skepticism of me, they let me teach them the game of “Give me a five, on the side, up high, down low, too slow!!!!” Still, when my Chinese friend Ryan showed up to meet me, the children starting asking all sorts of questions about me. Who is this strange person? What’s her name? What planet is she from?
In addition to the curiosity and warmth I feel extended to me when I encounter children and their parents, I also appreciate how devoted and loving parents and grandparents are to children here. I especially enjoy seeing all the grandparents with little ones. China’s one child policy has been put into place now for over thirty years. This means that some younger parents out there are single children themselves- and their child is therefore the only grandchild. Mom, Dad and both sets of grandparents give full devotion to the child who is seen as the future for the family. When a child is born, it is not uncommon for the grandparents to move into the home to devote their time to being with and raising the grandchild. Many moms and dads work full time so rather than day care, it’s grandma and grandpa who look after the little one. And they relish it too! I see many grandmothers and grandfathers out at different times of day with their little ones- whether it’s for picking up a child at school; kicking a ball with him or her in the park; walking a toddler around the track; or taking her or him out for a stroll with other grandparents and little ones. Grandparent and grandchild are very close- partners in crime or kindred spirits. There’s no lack of public affection. I see shoulder carrying and piggyback riding, hand-holding, hugging, head patting, sweet singing and a whole lot of outpouring of love. It warms my heart to see the special bond of a grandchild or grandparent because I am reminded of my own grandparents and how they meant- and still mean- the world to me.
Many of today’s children I encounter in this part of China are growing up in a vastly different world than that of their parents or grandparents. Previous generations endured many hardships as well as political and economic oppression. Children born in the 1990’s and after have grown up with technology, a connection to the outside world and greater education and economic opportunities. Some of these younger adults are my students. Many of them appreciate the opportunities that have been afforded to them thanks to the devotion, love and sacrifices of their parents and grandparents. Many of them feel a sense of duty to their parents and grandparents. Someday soon, they too hope to get a good job, get married and start a family of their own so that they can provide security, a comfortable home and a companionable grandchild to their aging parents.
For additional reading:
Year of the Dragon: Time to Have a Baby