I am so excited to be featuring our first article on this new series: Mamas Around The World. Interviewing Shannon brought back lots of memories of my own. Having been raised in a largely Chinese culture myself, I can relate to many of her experiences and admire her for braving and embracing a foreign culture even at its most challenging.
Here, I present to you, our first Mama Around The World, Shannon Soh, sharing surprising parenting advice she learned from being an American mom living in Nanjing, China.
Shannon Soh is a California-born, Texas-raised wife and mother who now lives in Nanjing, China with her husband Ben and son Levi. Her husband is Singaporean-Chinese and they met while doing a cross-cultural preparation course back in 2009. They have since lived and worked in China for nearly six years, and just had their first child in January 2015.
Nanjing is an incredible city. And it most definitely has the trademarks of a city: traffic, concrete buildings, beeping horns, and throngs of people. But it is also beautifully buzzing with life, surrounded by rivers and mountains and parks, and a significantly historic place in China. Nanjing was at one time the capital city of China and where the first president of China, Sun Yet San, is buried. It was once where all Chinese Scholars would take their Imperial Exams, the ship yard and sending port of the Chinese Naval Fleet, as well as the site of the infamous Nanjing Massacre. The city is a treasure-trove of the old and new, the historic and the modern, and I feel so excited to live and raise a family here.
I came to China when I was 22 and single, and studied Mandarin both in a local university and in my everyday life buying vegetables, making friends, and taking taxis. I’m grateful that by the time my husband and I were married three years later, I was quite conversational. Though I will be forever envious of my husband who, being from Singapore, has total command of both English and Mandarin!
We hope for our son to be bi-lingual and plan to speak English in the home among family, and Mandarin with our Chinese co-workers and friends. As well, we plan to send him to a local kindergarten and elementary school where I’m sure he will be speaking better Mandarin than mommy in no time!
On having babies in China:
Of course, in China, the common practice is to only have one child, possibly two if the law allows you (one of the parents must themselves be an only child in order to be permitted a second child). But it is also widely known here that other countries do not have these restrictions, and we are often told that we should have 3 or 4. As for us personally, we are definitely wanting at least one or two more kids.
On baby grooming practices:
Levi was born in January in America and we came back to China at the beginning of April. As spring warmed up, and the sun was calling us outdoors, we would often get scolded for not putting enough clothes on our son. The Chinese are very afraid of cold (weather, water, and food) as they believe a healthy body should maintain a warm temperature, and if it gets shocked say, by ice water, then it is easy to get sick. So even though our baby was sweating in the sun, we were told he was freezing.
We were also surprised to hear, when we told some friends that we gave Levi a bath last night, they exclaimed, You mean you gave him a bath in your home?! We didn’t know what they meant until they explained that many Chinese families bring their babies to a special place and pay to get them bathed in a heated room so they do not take the risk of getting cold. We took our chances with our baby tub in the living room.
Oh, to be pregnant in a foreign culture! It is not easy! I was terribly nauseous my whole first trimester, and though I absolutely love Chinese food normally, all I wanted to eat was sandwiches, cheese, and a million other American foods I couldn’t find here. Thankfully, I had an amazing husband that ran out at all hours to find me anything that sounded appetizing.
On top of feeling very sick and tired, I had to make the huge adjustment from being American where people give you space to do what you think is best, to being Asian where there is only one right way to do things - especially pregnancy.
I was told everything from You can’t drink ice water because the baby will cough to You must wear socks at all times so the womb doesn’t get cold (It was July, and 95 degrees outside).
But, by far, the hardest thing was food. I didn’t want to eat around anyone because there would be, without a doubt, a comment about what I must and must not eat. If I was feeling sick and at someone’s house for dinner, I would tell them Sorry, I’m not feeling that well, I don’t think I’ll eat much tonight, but they would still proceed to put load all kinds of fish, pork and normally-delicious, but currently-repulsive food in my bowl because it was good for the baby. I don’t know how many times I secretly passed food under the table to my husband while no one was looking.
Also worth noting, in China you cannot find out the gender of your child. Because of the one-child policy and the strong tendency towards boys, the nation has outlawed gender-revealing ultrasounds in order to protect girls from being aborted. I am all for this idea and protecting the life of girls, but I had thought that since I was not Chinese, I would be able to find out the sex of my baby. Sadly, I was told many times that it was against the law, even though my husband and I were not Chinese. So I had to wait until I went back to America and was around 6 months pregnant to find out I was having a baby boy.
On giving birth:
I gave birth in America, and it was a great experience. I loved my hospital, and being home in a culture I understood and felt comfortable in was incredible. I was very grateful to have more freedom in navigating those first few weeks of parenthood, and the ability to ask for help on my terms.
On traditional post-pregnancy confinement:
Confinement is a one-month period Chinese mothers observe after giving birth. Chinese women are seen as fragile in general, but especially after birth, they are meticulously regulated (as well as the baby). This tradition dates back thousands of years and is still upheld in very much the same way as it has always been, meaning it can appear quite archaic and odd to the modern world.
For example, the mother and child are not allowed to leave the home, some even say cannot leave the bed in order to allow the body to rest and heal, and protect the baby from the elements. The mother is not permitted to shower, or more specifically wash her hair, and after asking several friend why, it seems it simply goes back to the fear of cold again, meaning the water or wet hair would cause sickness. The mother's diet is strictly regulated, usually consisting of chicken soup, re-heated everyday, eggs, fish and anything seen as good for healing or milk production or for maintaining beauty after pregnancy. The woman's mother or mother-in-law is usually the one around doing all the house work and cooking and ensuring all confinement rules are being followed properly, but in modern times where some women don't have their in-laws around in the city with them, they can even check into a hotel that offers confinement services and basically live there and be looked after.
Since I was in America, I did not do a confinement month, but even if I was in Nanjing, I don’t think I would do one because it is simply not in my culture or worldview. I'm very thankful that my mother-in-law didn't insist on me honoring any of these traditions, and gave me no pressure whatsoever. Of course, I rested and was consumed with the baby and all the newness of parenthood, but contrary to confinement rules, I regularly showered, ate what I wanted, and went out shopping occasionally with my sister while my mom watched Levi. These actions would be unthinkable in China, and even when Levi was two months old in Nanjing, we were often told he was too small to be taken outside.
On maternity leave:
Being self-employed, I thankfully had a lot of flexibility with my maternity leave. I ended up taking two-months after the baby was born to completely focus on being a mom; then after two months we flew back to China and I began balancing work and taking care of the baby.
Chinese people are curious and direct and have no hesitation commenting on areas that, in Western culture, are very personal territory. Your salary, weight, age, eating habits, parenting
choices, and just about anything that someone could have an opinion on are all free game.
My son did not take to breastfeeding, and though we tried, after many frustrating weeks and plenty of tears, we switched to formula. Every person I met after we arrived back in Nanjing had two questions when they saw me: 1. How old is he? 2. Are you breastfeeding?
Complete strangers, random women of all ages ask me if I give him breastmilk, and when I said no, they then proceeded to lecture me on how that is dangerous, that it's necessary for his health to have breastmilk. Many times I seethed in anger or went home crying because of this. It took me a good week or two to really deal with this issue again on my own and come to a place of confidence about my decision. Levi is six months old now, and I still have people ask me almost everyday about breastfeeding, one woman even touched my breast in the elevator as she said oh, because you don't have any milk.
The most difficult thing for me to deal with coming back was the comments about my weight. It's very common here to have someone greet you and tell you right away if you are looking skinny or chubby lately, a huge taboo in the West.
Though I am slowly losing weight, it did not all melt away in the three months post-partum like it did for so many of my friends. Take my huge unmet expectation, and combine it with every one of my Chinese friends instantly exclaiming when they saw me for the first time after having Levi, Shannon, you got so fat! This was an intense personal battle for me, and even with my amazing husband alongside me loving and and affirming my self-worth, I was fighting it inwardly and failing. My husband, rising to my defense, would often answer for me, in clear annoyance, and say She just had a baby! She looks amazing!
In the Chinese mindset their comment is just an observation, a fact said out loud that somehow seems to be of no consequence. It was a clear cut cultural difference in communication, and being a foreigner living in Nanjing, it is a reality of my life here. I have learned that I cannot expect them to follow an American form of social protocol, so I have learned to be grateful, not for the comments, but for the inner negativity they forced me to face. I had to deal with my insecurities head on, and come to a place of accepting and loving myself regardless of people's commentary about my body.
I went and bought new glasses, I went shopping for new clothes in new sizes, and I allowed myself to feel beautiful in my new body instead of beating myself up for not fitting into all my pre-baby clothes right now. My new body, with all its changes and scars and transformation, is what gave me my precious son, and for that fact alone, it is beautiful.
This was single-handedly the the most difficult cultural adjustment I had to make coming back to Nanjing as a mom.
On daycare for working moms:
In China, daycare is not a viable option. The children are raised by their grandparents (who often live together with the family) and both parents work. Sometimes, as is common in the country-side, the parents leave and come to the city to work while the child stays in the countryside to be raised by the grandparents. The fact that my husband and I take care of our child ourselves, and rotate responsibilities of family and work is often baffling to local people. Most of my encounters with other children involve talking to the grandmother or grandfather who is watching them.
On activities with children:
We are fortunate to have a mall nearby by us with a large section devoted to kids. There is a ropes course set up indoors, craft-making stores, and a kids’ gym area all within the mall. Other than that, we take lots of walks and bring Levi with us on most outings.
On toys and books:
We have a mix of things I’ve brought over from the States (little toys and English books) and things we order online here in China. I look mostly for educational toys and low-tech items, because just like in America now, iPads, iPhones, computers, and TV are a big pastimes for kids of all ages here.
On work / life balance:
I think the main temptation for a mom raising a family in a foreign country is to withdraw. When the outside world is unfamiliar or stressful, the home becomes the area you feel a sense of control over and it can unknowingly become your entire world.
I found that in the beginning weeks I opted to stay home with the baby while my husband went out for work because the thought of taking the baby with us and hearing all the comments about how you’re not holding him/feeding him/burping him/ right or you shouldn’t give formula, you should breastfeed or even having a complete stranger grab him and whisk him away to play was just too much. It was all so overwhelming that I simply said to Ben, go ahead, I’ll stay here…, but that ‘it’s easier this way’ attitude, quickly turned into frustration and resentment. Especially when my husband came home with great stories and exciting news of what happened when I wasn’t there.
So, we talked and we decided; we were going to take the baby with us. Using the carrier or stroller and sucking up my pride, we went out there and faced whatever situation came to us. Levi is always the star of the show, especially being a little white baby in Chinese culture, and though I’m always tired when I get home, I’m also energized and satisfied that we got out there and connected to the world as a family.
I also take walks. Along the river mostly, and it is my personal time to destress, pray, and get in some exercise. I sometimes take Levi along in the stroller if I'm feeling particularly angelic and want to let Ben sleep in, ha!
We also love to travel, and do travel quite a bit for work. We love making memories and exploring new places together. We are excited to start including our kids into that as well, and hopefully they will grow up with a broad and cohesive understanding of the world and all the beautiful cultures and peoples that exist in it.
On local cuisine:
We love Chinese food and eat a diet of mostly tofu, fruit, veggies, meat & fish. So far, we’ve made our own baby food for Levi by grinding our own rice and pureeing fruits and veggies. There are so many more fresh fruits and vegetables in Asia than in the West, and I love how accessible and inexpensive they are. We have three markets right outside our front door.
On discipline, mindfulness, independence:
Generally, Chinese children are over-sheltered and not allowed much independence. You have to understand the mindset here that when you only get one child, that child is a precious commodity who will later become the sole source of stability and income for the parents. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on the child, and from a young age his or her life is often solely focused on academics and achieving the highest test scores, while things like character, social skills, and creativity are not seen as worthwhile.
This feeds into discipline as well; or lack-thereof. Either there is a give them whatever keeps them from crying attitude or a quick scolding or smack for doing something wrong without much explanation or calm communication as to why that was wrong.
On nightlife / datenights:
If you want that city-vibe, you can leisurely stroll downtown or in a mall, snacking on some local treats, and be among the people. If you want more romance, there are lots of parks and rivers nearby with lanterns and lights that make for a peaceful walk at the end of the day. When Ben and get time to ourselves during the week, we like to go out for a walk and eat together. A cheap, yummy dinner, cruise through the mall, holding hands, and chatting about whatever we like. It's simple, but its something we try to do once or twice a week at least. We also go and stay at a nice hotel in the city every once in a while (Singaporeans LOVE their hotels), and we get a little stay-cation that way. It's nice to escape the city life, go to the gym and pool sans crowds of people, and eat a nice buffet breakfast. We sometimes go by ourselves, and have a friend watch Levi overnight, but we took Levi with us recently, and it was a fun family event!
Chinese people are extremely friendly and hospitable, especially to foreigners with cute babies! Most people will stop to look at the baby, some will even stop and talk to me, and they love to touch his feet or legs. I appreciate that people do not touch his face or let their young children touch him, especially when he was only a few months old.
Let’s just say if I stand at the wet market and pick out my vegetables, there will be a crowd of at least 6 people looking at Levi when I turn around. Our apartment complex security guard who loves Levi tells every person who comes in and out that he’s a beautiful, smart, mixed baby.
On hygiene & pollution:
Well, there is no five-second rule in China as the ground outside (or inside!) is a widely accepted place to spit on and allow your child to urinate on. With that said, I don’t let myself freak out much about germs, I just take our environment into account. We avoid restaurants with smokers or ask for a private room, we go out and get fresh air especially after it rains since air pollution is a factor, and we make sure to give baby a good bath when we come home if we have been out for the day or he’s had a lot of people holding or touching him.
On one thing about motherhood you love the most living in your city:
Though being an American mom in a Chinese culture has it’s challenges, it has shaped me into a more relaxed and humble person. I actually love being a mom in Nanjing because it is a challenge for me. It keeps my structure-loving, over-controlling tendencies in check and forces me to be adaptable to our changing environment and open to help in whatever form. No self-proclaimed supermom here. I am fully in need of help and I can certainly find it from the security guard downstairs to the grandma at the park. There is always someone there to help me, if I am willing to let them.
On your mantra for raising Levi in Nanjing:
A happy marriage, makes a happy home.
Thank you so much Shannon!
( Photos courtesy of Shannon & Ben Soh )