Raising bilingual kids in China

No matter if we are married to Chinese or just live in China with out family, all of us expats here come accross the issue of raising bilingual kids in China. Today I have guest post from Charlotte Edwards Zhang, she is an American teacher and writer, who has lived in China for 11 years and has been married to her Chinese husband for nine.

Charlotte loves spending time with her two children (ages 8 and 4) when she’s not stressed over school-related issues. An essay of her pregnancy with her son is featured in a soon-to-be-published anthology Knocked Up Abroad: Baby bumps, twists and turns from around the globe. Read 26 amazing stories from women who have been pregnant or birthed or raised (or possibly all three) their kids outside of their home country when you pre-order your copy on Kickstarter.


Raising bilingual kids in China

We didn’t really put much thought into how we’d raise our children to be bilingual. We sort of assumed it would happen rather naturally. Yes, you could say we didn’t really know what we were doing with kid #1.

Since I was nowhere near feeling confident about speaking Chinese, as I’d made little progress in my three years of self-study, I spoke English only to my firstborn. My husband is a whiz at studying and despite skipping out of all of his college English classes, he speaks fluently and uses big, fancy words that I’ve only read in books (thanks, TOEFL prep books). I felt that it would be best if he only spoke Chinese to our son, but since English was our language of communication, it was natural for Zhang to want to speak English to the baby, too.

So when it was just three of us together, English was used. With the two of them, or when yeye, nainai and any other Chinese family were present, it was Chinese.  Mandarin or Hubei dialect.
Now nearly eight years, and another child, later, there are some things that I feel we did really well and others that we could have done much better.


What I’d Do Again

I spent a lot of time reading to Nathaniel. During my zuo yue zi, I secretly read to him while his grandma was busying herself preparing our meals. I believe we went through a book of Bible stories twice in that 30-day period.  I also listened to various English-language podcasts while I cleaned, and he overheard the Chinese news after dinner.

He got daily lessons in Hubei dialect from his grandparents. He was just a month old when I had to go back to work, so we were lucky that his grandparents could watch him and influence his language, even if they don’t speak Mandarin. While we don’t go out of our way to encourage him to learn this dialect, he’s picked up the habit of saying a few words in it but can understand his grandparents perfectly.

Everything felt right, and months went by. As he grew and became more responsive, we could tell he understood us and would respond appropriately no matter what language was spoken to him. I felt we were on the right track with this dual-language thing.

Finally, around ten months he said “baba” which was soon followed by “yeye,” “mama,” and “nainai.” But all in Chinese. He continued to add Chinese words to his vocabulary, albeit more slowly than his peers. At two years old, his oral vocabulary–in both languages combined–was less than 100 words. But suddenly there was a huge leap in his progress and communication became much easier.
Of course there was the mixing of languages. Even though my husband and I never mix the two in a sentence, or even a conversation, Nathaniel would come to us with requests like, “Mommy, wo xiang eat ping guo.” I’d simply correct his speech by saying, “oh, you want to eat an apple?” and then give my reply. This was just to make him familiar with the correct way, but without telling him that I was correcting him.

It was effective, though slow; for example, two-year period in which he’d say “me” instead of “wo”, even when speaking Chinese. Every once in awhile, I would jump into teacher mode and give him a mini-lesson in hopes that he’d magically get it.


What I’d Do Differently

My husband is a voracious reader, but he’s not much into reading books to the kids. When he does it, he’s great. He makes voices and reads with emotion; I do not. To be honest, I don’t like reading aloud either. But I loved being the listener as a kid and in my teaching courses my professors were constantly stressing the benefits of reading aloud. So I did it anyway; kind of like how I eat mushrooms. I know they’re good for me, so I do it. But I never insisted that my husband read to the kids in Chinese.

But now that my son is in school, we can see that his Chinese lags behind his monolingual peers in some regards. He didn’t know many of the common measure words when he entered first grade, and we didn’t realize that he was lacking that knowledge. Reading good quality children’s books and literature is very important, no matter what the language is. I believe he missed out on quite a bit since he wasn’t being read to in Chinese. We’ve since become more intentional about reading aloud to the kids and now Nathaniel is able to read his Chinese books to his little sister.

My having a limited Chinese vocabulary has its benefits: it’s only been recently that I started speaking to him in Chinese, and surprisingly he hates this. With him, I wish I’d spoken to him even more than I did since his sister had the benefit of three people speaking to her.  Nathaniel was at a disadvantage since his parents are naturally quiet people who like to spend their evenings silently reading. Nor do we have any sort of social network that we hang out with and in which he’d get linguistic input from other adults.

I’m not a fan of most television programs, preferring the benefits of reading over mindlessly watching actors, but with my daughter I’ve been more lenient about watching television than I was with my son. I think finding quality shows is essential, but allowing him to listen to the television (or an app with audio programing, as we frequently do these days) would have given him additional language input.

Don’t get me wrong: my kids can speak both languages quite well. Their Chinese, overall, is better than their English, but that’s what happens when they only go to the USA every three years and the only English speakers around are Mom and Dad. I’m all about giving myself grace when it comes to this still new-to-me world of parenting so I don’t mentally beat myself up about them, but I hope all the parents and parents-to-be find my experiences and insights useful.


How to manage a 10-hour flight with a baby

Last Monday I took our 8 month old baby girl on a flight to Finland by myself. I was a bit worried how it will go as it was a daytime flight which meant most of the hours would be spent awake. Would she scream the whole way or would we receive unhappy states from fellow passengers?

At the airport my Manduca baby carrier was a life saver! I could carry Anna and still have my hands free to carry luggage, fill exit forms and buy snacks. I only took it off for the security check as the carrier needs to go through the checks as well. 

When we got to our seat I noticed the plane was almost full, but still the flight crew managed to arrange an empty seat next to us. Thank you for the man willing to change his seat!

I had reserved the first row seat so we could have more leg room and use the baby basket. We didn’t end up using the basket that much, except for our stuff, but I’m sure for the nighttime flight back to Guangzhou it will be very useful.

I brought a few toys for Anna, including the elephant you see in the photo, which was new for her (cousin’s toy) so it would keep her entertaint for some time.

But more than the toys she loved interacting with other passengers and luckily they liked her too. Chinese love babies, especially mixed babies!

For food she drank mostly breastmilk and some smoothies and snacks I brought with us. On my lunch tray there was salad and bread that were suitable for her as well. 

Only at the end of our flight Anna got too tired, it was 8pm Chinese time, and she cried a bit. Other than that our flight was a success! The crew was very helpful and made sure we had everything we needed so thank you Finnair.

Some tips for air travel with babies:

  • Baby carriers are golden at the airport and sometimes on the plane too.
  • Bring change of clothes for you and the baby. 
  • Bring warm clothes as the plane can get very cold.
  • Snacks for you and the baby are important too.
  • Bring a new toy with different functions, but water bottles are fun as well!
  • Book the baby basket seat if your baby is less than 70cm and 10kg or so. Or book it just for the extra legroom.
  • Be friendly to fellow passengers, they can be super helpful!

What other tips you have for flying with a baby? Please share your experiences in the comments.


The art of being super cute


Are you done taking photos?

Like I’ve written before, I like to take our baby out where ever I’m going. She took the bus when she was 2 weeks old, metro at 1 month old and just last week a plane at 5.5 months old. We’ve been to cafes, restaurants, parks, shopping malls and visiting friends. There is one common theme that happens every single time we go out the door.

Wow, your baby is soooo cute!

Words cute, beautiful, adorable all can be heard when ever we go outside with our baby girl. Strangers turn their heads and twist their necks to get a glimpse of our cute little mixed baby. They take out their phones, snap photos and send them on WeChat for their friends to see. They want to touch her little cheeks, caress her soft hands and make funny faces to get her to smile.

Most people are always ready to help out when they see a mom and baby to get into a bus or needing a hand. No need to think of any games to play for your child, the locals aunties and uncles will do that for you at the park nearby! I suddenly understand why Chinese grandparents always take grandkids outside, it’s so much easier than trying to entertain them at home.

I’m still not sure how I should response to all this attention our baby is getting, especially the photos. How would you reply when strangers keep telling your baby is the cutest ever all day long? ;)


Out and about with a baby


Staying at home day in day out isn’t really my thing, not even with a small baby. Even though I didn’t do the Chinese postpartum zuo yuezi, I still got bored of being at home as I was used to go around the city teaching my students. But how to go out and take your baby and all essential items with you?

In China, at least in Guangzhou, a stroller isn’t really the most convenient means of baby transport. Many metro stations aren’t really designed for baby wagons and busses are mostly impossible to get on with a stroller. Luckily I found a great and cheap answer to this problem in the form of a baby sling or baby wrap which you can see in the photo above.

A sling can be used from newborn to toddlers (depending on the sling material etc) and it leaves your hands free no matter if at home or outside. Luckily my baby has been happy with traveling in the safety of the sling, always next to me and hearing my heartbeat.

Going out with my baby here in Guangzhou has been easier than I thought. Anna gets lots of admiring glances and people are quite surprised to see that even a small baby can be carried this way. I have heard many discussions about carrying a baby while I’ve walked around the city, almost all in a very positive tone. The things people are worried about is if the baby is able to breathe freely and if the sling protects the neck well. I’ve been happy to tell that sling is a great way to carry a baby, much better than carrying in your hands.

With a small baby I’ve also encountered the need to feed my baby whenever and where ever she gets hungry. I’ve seen news about breastfeeding in China, both positive and negative comments have followed. I’m happy to notice that so far I haven’t gotten any negative comments about breastfeeding in public. I do try to feed my baby without bothering others and often people around me don’t even realize I’m breastfeeding.

In public transport I’m always given a seat when I’m carrying Anna. People have been jumping up from their seats to give me a seat. Occasionally I’ve noticed bus drivers to wait until I’m seated to continue the journey, making it thus safer for me and my baby.

So far I’ve been very happy to take Anna with me here in Guangzhou and hope that this way she will get used to going out with me. Actually I’ve noticed that on our days outside she sleeps so much better in the sling and loves exploring the view with her eyes.


Zuo yuezi – Chinese postpartum traditions


“While sitting the month you can’t be too active, you should lay on the bed and rest, you can’t take a shower, wash your hair or eat fruit…”

Yesterday I went to the park with our baby and my mother-in-law who was taking care of my nephew, her grandson. We had a lovely walk around the small pond, but then we got to the play ground where my nephew likes to look at other kids playing. He’s not even 6 months yet, so he can’t really join yet.

Lot of the mother’s and grandparents there know my mother-in-law and quickly came to talk with us. When they saw me and my two-week old baby girl in the sling, they asked were almost terrified on how I could take her out before she is one month old!

In China there is a tradition of zuo yuezi aka sitting the month, where the new mom stays at home for one month with the baby, and doesn’t go out at all. The rules and special diet to follow during this month varies from province to province. What the other mothers were the most shocked about were how I could take my baby out when she is too little and how I wasn’t wearing enough clothes.

The Chinese believe that everything you do during the first month affects your health for the rest of your life. Go to bed without drying your hair gets you headache when you’re old. Wearing too little hurts your bones in the old age. Drinking anything cold is of course out of the picture too. In more traditional families even taking a shower might still be prohibited and you need to be covered in thick clothing from head to toes. Eating a lot of chicken and drinking special soups is a must as well.

I briefly explained to the mothers that we don’t do “sitting the month” in the West and in Finland we can take our newborns out the very first day we get out from the hospital if it’s Summer. During the Winter it’s advised to wait a bit and perhaps stay at home if it’s colder than -10 Celsius. But this is Guangzhou and the weather has been around 28 Celsius degrees the whole two weeks I’ve been at home with the baby.

So am I doing the “zuo yuezi”? No, I wouldn’t say so and I don’t have the need to label this time either. I’m just simply doing what I think is best. At first I needed a lot of help from my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law because I had a C-section and the scar kept me from moving freely. My husband also only had seven days total off from work.

But now that I’m pretty much back to normal, of course still being careful, I can handle my self and the baby on my own. It feels good to be able to do things my self again! My mother-in-law keeps helping us with cooking, cleaning and giving a bath to our baby girl, while also helping out with her daughter and grandson!

Now that the first half of my first month after giving birth is over, I have to admit that I would go a bit nuts if I needed to follow the Chinese postpartum traditions to the letter. I’m feeling much better when I can go outside for a walk and do other things than laying in bed or on the sofa. Luckily my mother-in-law isn’t too strict with these and understands that I do things my own way.

Have you followed the “zuo yuezi” traditions or what kind of special traditions women have in your country? I’d love to hear in the comments!