Global Mamas: China

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

We’re profiling one mother from every country on the planet. (Current tally: 12 down, 180 countries to go!)


Born in Beijing in early morning, journalist Xiaoni Chen’s name (the Chinese characters) means “dawn girl.” She received a BA in journalism in China, then a master degree in journalism at UT Austin, and has spent much of her career working as a TV news producer. In fact, it was a mutual journo friend who connected us. So, let’s just say that journalism figures large in her life. Xiaoni has two sons: Dandan (means Red) who is 7.5 and Kai (means Happy) who will turn 3 next month.

Here’s her story …

Photo by Xiaoni Chen

Life before baby … 
Home was a place where I went to sleep and shower. The only meal my husband and I had at home was breakfast. At that time, I knew almost all new clubs, restaurants and hair salons in town. Life was about my husband, colleagues and friends. I watched stage performances with friends. I traveled and read books with my husband.

My ideas about motherhood …
I was never ready to have kids, so I never prepared for it. I couldn’t picture myself as a mom, even years after I got married. I was happy with what I had at that time — a good job, an understanding and supportive husband, and  a diversified social life.

Nothing changed my mind until I found out myself pregnant. I was so unprepared for it. I cried the night when the news was confirmed. I felt like my life had been changed to an unknown world — probably a very dark one — and my good life and work would be destroyed. I was debating whether nor not to keep the baby. Then I thought I was not young anymore, maybe it’s time to give it a try.

During the last month of my pregnancy, I was getting so afraid of delivery and the pain that would come with it. But really, that was the point of no return. I took the entire last month off and tired to get myself ready.

Then came baby …
I was amazed to see the tiny and wrinkled one lying there, breathing, yawning and sleeping. It’s hard to believe this little thing just came out of me. And it’s hard to imagine this little thing will grow bigger, eventually, taller than me.

Life was busy at the beginning. In China, people say “raise the first kid according to books, raise the second one like a piggy.” It’s true. After the baby was born, books were my best teachers. If something went wrong, I always turned to books first. It’s very important to have two or three good and complete baby books handy.

There’s absolutely no time to think of anything else during the first month. My mom came to help, but it was still stressful. I needed to plan my day carefully. According to Chinese traditions ( or tradition in some areas), I shouldn’t breastfeed right after taking a shower or if I just came back home from outside. So when to take a shower became part of my daily planning.

The biggest change was that home was no longer a place only for sleeping and showering. It had transformed into a busy place that was full of noise, smells, joy, and love.

Now when I came home from work, I can see the bedroom window is lit up from far away. Someone at home is waiting for me, and that “helpless” little person totally counts on me and relies on me. At the beginning, it’s a bit scary to have such big responsibility.

The most challenging part of motherhood …
How to educate children is the most challenging part of motherhood. It needs patient, insistency and strategy. Giving birth and feeding kids seems too easy comparing with how to educate them.

Education should start earlier — such as how to respect others, how to handle conflicts. Don’t think kids are too young to understand what you say. They understand a lot.

On balancing work and life …
Fulltime work is hard for moms who breastfeed. I was still breastfeeding when I returned to office, three months after giving birth. It’s not easy because I tried not to give baby too much formula. So I needed to leave enough milk at home. I tried to keep all the milk I pumped during the day. But when I worked late, I would run out of clean bottles or clean milk pump. Soon the baby had nipple confusion. That was very frustrating for both baby and me.

There was a reporting trip outside Beijing not long after I returned to work. I was given choice not to go, but I still signed up for it. One day, I sat in a car for a long time to film a windmill on top of a mountain. The moment we arrived at the destination, I dashed to a hiding place to pump milk — it was getting too painful. Later I was too embarrassed to explain to my colleagues.

I was offered a scholarship from Oxford University when my first boy was 6 months old. My husband encouraged me to take the opportunity. It was not easy for all of us. That’s how my baby weaned. But the experience with the medieval town and the 900-year-old university was unique and worth it. My husband and the baby visited me twice in Oxford.

The best part about raising a child in China …
I am close to my parents. Whenever needed, they come to help. Grandparents and relatives are big help as well. A lot of grandparents volunteer to look after their grandchildren. It’s common to see three generations living together.

Also, in China most of families with small kids hire helpers. We call them Ayi in Chinese. Life is a lot easier with their help.

The parts I wish were different …
The biggest challenge is the different concepts of school education. Most Chinese kids start education (reading, writing and mathematics) early. Chinese curriculum is very demanding, and doing well in school means everything. Most Chinese children already obtain good language and mathematic skills before they start grade one.

My boy is not in Chinese education system. He’s a grade two student in an international school. The school teaches kids according to their readiness and level. But from where I came from and what I’ve been though in school, I wish my kid could have a bit more homework from school.

I am having mixed feeling about raising children in Beijing. I am happy that my kids are surrounded by Chinese culture. We shoot off fireworks on Chinese New Year Eve. We go to watch stage performance <Monkey King>. But the infamous Beijing pollution is a big headache for me. In my kids’ school, one bell is normal bell just like anywhere else in the world. Two bells means pollution, play indoors only. Very often, my son complains he can’t play outside in school.

Another disadvantage of Beijing is that it doesn’t have much in terms of kids-friendly facilities and there’s a lack of nature.

Best piece of advice I ever heard …
“You are the one that knows your kids best.” I read it from a book and it’s so true. I know my boy’s personality and know how to handle it accordingly.

If we could jump into the DeLorean and race back in time …
I would tell myself, “It’s not a big deal. Relax and enjoy it before your kids grow up.”


We’ve got over 170 countries to go (yeah, whoa.). So if you would like to nominate a mother who is living and raising a family abroad to be featured on MMM’s Global Mamas series, do let us know! Drop a line to: get[dot]msmack[at]gmail[dot]com.

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