Real Intercultural Family in China: Chinese and English


Welcome Lizi and Da Jun!
Where are you from?
Lizi: U.K.
Da Jun: China
Where do you currently live and what countries have you lived in together?
Lizi: Beijing, China—we’ve lived here since we met, but we are currently in the throes of moving back to the U.K.
How did you meet?
Lizi: We met through friends during the SARS epidemic in 2003. There was nothing to do during that time—nothing was open—so people went ’round to visit friends. Da Jun was brought over to my flat by another girl who was chasing me (I didn’t like her). They were Internet friends or something. I was watching Lawrence of Arabia. She sat on the sofa, crossed her arms and said, “Oh, this old movie… nothing special.” I thought she was interesting and really different from other Chinese people I’d known.
Da Jun: 2003年SARS期间,大概是3、4月份,无聊得很,有个网友约见面,见面之后突然两人又好像没话可说,对方提议去朋友家玩,于是在那家遇见Lizi。记得是她开的门,满脸不高兴的样子,我心想这人怎么那么凶。我那个网友进门后就跑去里屋找另一个朋友聊天,扔下我跟Lizi,我俩只好一起坐着看电影。其实对她的第一印象不是很好。后来聊天发现算是同行,还算有共同语言。晚上大家一起出门吃饭,都要戴口罩,她带了一个非常小的口罩,还拉到鼻子下面,完全失去戴口罩的意义,看上去又好笑又可爱,我觉得这人挺有意思。
When I met up with my internet friend, we found nothing to say to each other, so she suggested we go to another friend’s house, which is where I met Lizi. I remember she opened the door with a displeased expression, and I thought—why is she so fierce? My Internet friend went into another room to chat with Lizi’s flatmate, leaving me with Lizi. We sat and watched a movie. My first impression of Lizi wasn’t so good. Then, after chatting, I discovered we were in the same business, so that meant we had something to talk about. All four of us went out for supper together—we all had to wear face masks. Lizi wore a really small one and refused to cover her nose, making the face mask pointless. It looked really funny and cute—I thought she was interesting.
How old are your children and where were they born?
Lizi: We have one child. I’m the birth mother. Ouwen is four and was born in Beijing.
What passports do you and the kids hold?
Lizi: He holds a British passport—we wouldn’t be able to get him Chinese nationality because I am not married to a Chinese man. Obviously, our British civil partnership is not recognized in China. The Brits had no trouble recognizing my child as a Brit. But I had huge trouble getting my child out of China, despite the fact he was already a British citizen. Any child born in China is considered Chinese by default. If the child is foreign, you have to apply for special certificates to take him out of the country before you can apply for a visa for this child. I couldn’t get these certificates because I didn’t have a marriage certificate. So I was falling through a loophole. I had to get the British Embassy to wade in (which they only did because I badgered them and paid them to write a diplomatic note for me). The Chinese authorities had no choice but to just give my son a visa and let him out of the country.
What languages do you each speak and what language do you speak together?
Lizi: I speak English and Chinese. I used to speak only Chinese at home. Now that Ouwen is around, I speak mainly English at home. I cross between English and Chinese when talking with my partner, especially in front of our son, but I speak mainly in Chinese when he’s not around.
In what languages do you speak to your child?
Lizi: I speak mainly English. I sometimes speak Chinese if I want someone else who is there to understand as well. I sometimes unconsciously speak to him in Chinese if he speaks to me in Chinese— depends on what we’re doing. She speaks only Chinese with our son. Her English isn’t very fluent, but she understands well enough.
What languages does you child speak?
Lizi: Both English and Chinese. He’s very fluent in both languages–as fluent as he would be in a single language. He usually speaks the correct language to other people depending on the colour of their skin or what they speak to him in! But he will mix them up sometimes, especially if he knows both languages will be understood. He even translates sometimes, just to show off.
How do you reinforce the languages beyond just the parents speaking it?
Lizi: Everyone around him speaks Chinese, so that’s easy. I speak English with foreign friends we visit. I’m very verbal, so he doesn’t lack English at all. We read. He watches British cartoons. I don’t let him watch Chinese television!! Chinese television is really bad.
What does raising a little global citizen mean to you?
Lizi: I’ve never really thought about it. I spent my childhood in Africa, being raised by British parents. Being overseas, you identify more with your home culture. I think it’s important that you know who you are—that includes what culture you come from—that doesn’t mean ‘the culture of the world’.
We are all part of different cultural units—the family, school, work place, city, country, etc. Each creates our identity in different ways. It’s only with this strong specific identity that you can go out and interact with the world. I want my son to have a strong grounding in both British and Chinese culture. I want him to learn Chinese fluently and be able to read and write—this is a big deal and will be very hard to achieve in the U.K. However, I think it’s more important that he gets a Western education—this is the reason we’re going back. He will get a wider understanding of the world in the U.K. than he would growing up in China. I hope we can go and live in another country too, after spending some time in the U.K.—hopefully so we can all learn a third language…But I want our base to be in the U.K. A strong base is very important.
Da Jun: 我在新疆的军队里长大,那里的少数民族文化跟汉人完全不一样。部队里又聚集着来自中国各地的汉人,中国很大,即使汉人之间,不同地区的文化也有差异,而我本身也算是少数民族,所以,我习惯于面对不同的文化。我父亲是个很开明的人,他非常喜欢西方音乐和文学,我也从小就受到西方文化的熏陶。八十年代中国刚开始开放,大量引进西方哲学、艺术思潮,事实上,我很惊讶的发现,中国人对西方文化的了解要多过西方人对中国的了解。当然,具体到生活上,了解不一定代表真正的理解,在遇到比较深刻的文化差异时,我们还会有冲突。关于文化差异,我的理解是,不同文化只是看问题角度不一样或者实施的方法不一样而已,最终大家追求的还是真善美的东西,本质上,我不认为文化有差异,历史上文化就是流动的变化的。如同罗素所说:参差多态乃幸福之源。孩子在两种文化的家庭中长大,会看到更丰富多态的生活,对他来说会是很好的经验。我希望在他小时候能够多经历多了解,学会包容和欣赏不一样的东西,至于他长大后选择英国还是中国文化作为他的根,这都不重要,重要的是他能够从不一样的东西中发现美。
I grew up in Xinjiang. Both my parents are army people, and we lived in an army hospital compound. The local culture of Xinjiang is completely different from that of the Han Chinese. The army community brought together people from all over China. China is really big—even between Han Chinese from different parts of China there are big differences. I belong to a minority—the Hui. Because of all this, I’m used to different cultures. My father is a very open-minded person—he loves Western music and literature—so I was influenced by Western ideas from a young age. In the 80s, China started opening up, bringing in a lot of Western philosophies and art. I was surprised to find that Chinese people were more knowledgeable about Western culture than Westerners were about China. Of course, knowing about something and understanding it are two different things.
Do you have any advice for parents raising multilingual kids on what works and what doesn’t?
Lizi: Speak to your kids naturally in your own language. Talk to them as equals—talk to them about everything—talk all the time. They’ll do the rest. Sing. Read. Make up silly rhymes. Language is so fun and so fantastic—it’s the greatest of play things.
It’s best if both parents are fluent in all the family’s languages. If not, I really think the parent without fluency should make the effort to learn. I cannot imagine a barrier like that existing within a family. My experience of such families is that the child is only strong in the family’s conversant language (i.e. if one parent speaks Hebrew, the other Russian, and they communicate in English, then the child will learn mainly English). This is a huge loss for the child, I think, especially if they live in a place where the main language is English. I think minority language at home is a good thing—we will do this when we get to the UK.
What religion are you both? And how are you raising the kids?
Lizi: Neither of us are religious. Da Jun comes from a Muslim minority (Hui)—but it’s a cultural rather than a religious distinction. She has chosen this identity—her father’s. Her mother is Han Chinese, so she could have chosen that—chosen to identify with the Chinese majority. But she chose to be different. She marks her difference by not eating pork. That’s all.
My father was brought up Catholic, but he was sent to a Jesuit school, which he hated. He rejected all things religious and we had no religion at home. He’s so against religion that he gets very upset when my mum turns hippy on him and goes on meditation weekends. We had dull Church of England at school.
Da Jun: 虽然来自穆斯林家庭,但几年前我决定信仰佛教.佛教非常宽容,所以我不会强迫家人必须跟我一样,孩子将来的精神和世俗生活由他自己选择.
Although I come from a Muslim household, I turned to Buddhism quite a few years ago. Buddhism is very tolerant, so I could never force anyone to be like me. Our son’s spiritual life is for him to decide.
What are some of your biggest cultural differences?
Lizi: There are so many cultural differences, but they only started to matter after we had our child. The way Chinese people raise children is so different—everything from how you give birth to who looks after the child, from potty training to when a child falls down (when Chinese children fall over, the carer will be there immediately to pick the child up and make a huge fuss and pat the dust off the child. A Westerner wouldn’t do that—a Westerner might ask the child to pick himself up, but probably wouldn’t need to, because the child would get up himself without being asked, coming to look for sympathy if he’s hurt). I have assimilated many Chinese things, but I’m still a Westerner. Da Jun has let me get on with it, which is fantastic. But I think we’ll have very different approaches to our son’s education. She’ll be strict—I’ll be ‘let him get on with it’. But it will be good for him to have difference.
The other difference is understanding of body. The Chinese worry about sickness all the time. Da Jun was brought up in a hospital (her parents were both doctors)—so she’s a complete hypochondriac. I can’t stand this. I was brought up with all my illnesses being ignored. I have no sympathy for illness. And I don’t want my son to be paranoid either. So I take him out in cold weather when he’s got a cold, I let him wear shorts in April, I let him sit on the ground, I let him get dirty—the Chinese can’t stand this!!
Da Jun: I think cultural differences are just a matter of different points of view and different ways of doing things. In the end, we’re all looking for the same things. As such, ultimately, there’s no such thing as cultural differences. It’s great that our son is growing up in a cross-cultural household—it means he’ll have a richer life. I hope he can have lots of experiences and learn to tolerate and appreciate lots of different types of things. If doesn’t matter if he chooses to identify with British of Chinese culture—this is not important. What’s important is that he can find beauty in different things.
What have been your greatest challenges as an intercultural family?
Lizi: I think our main challenge is up ahead of us—how are we going to make things work in the U.K.? It will be a complete re-working of our family dynamics and Da Jun’s understanding of herself.
One thing we’ve pretty much avoided is the Chinese family thing. Da Jun is the youngest, so she doesn’t have much pressure to carry on the family line or take care of her parents. Her brother and sister will probably take care of much of this. This means I don’t have to be a filial daughter-in-law so much. I would be terrible at this—I am terrible at this! Da Jun’s parents are much older, which meant they didn’t insist on coming to live with us to help with childcare when Ouwen was born. I wouldn’t have been able to deal with this. Her father did come for a short time, but we argued (he’s a lovely man—very un-argumentative, but we still managed to argue)—I didn’t want anyone telling me how I should raise my child. Chinese people have other people telling them all the time. So he left.
Her family has been very accepting of the fact that she’s with a woman not a man. They might not be able to get their head around it, but they don’t interfere. It helps that I’m a foreigner, If I were Chinese, they would have more to say, mainly about practicalities (such as what are you going to do when you’re old, you can’t get married or have children—this doesn’t work in China). As a foreigner, I’m just different, so it’s normal that I’m weird. I really like that they’re accepting about this, mainly because her father is so open-minded.
Da Jun: 最大的挑战是如何两全,一是如何从两种文化中选择好的方面来教育孩子:比如中国方式能够让孩子不用戴尿布,还有中国人比较注重孩子的社会性,英国人注重独立性,我们需要在日常生活中很好的平衡这两方面,让孩子意识到保持自己的独立性同时又不失灵活。另一个更重要的是,中国人有很强大的一套文化体系和社会习俗,而以英美为代表的西方文化目前在全世界都处于强势地位,骨子里我俩都有各自的文化优越感和自尊心,我希望孩子将来能够欣赏中国的书法、诗歌、琴棋书画等优雅的知性和灵性生活,Lizi有否期待我不清楚,但她表示过希望孩子文化的根是英国的,最终是否能够达到平衡?这很有趣。
Our biggest challenge has been how to take care of both sides. How do you choose the best of both cultures to educate your child? For example, in China it’s normal for children not to wear nappies. Also, Chinese people want their children to be ‘socialised’—British people want them to be ‘independent’. It’s hard to balance these things. More importantly, both of us come from strong cultures that we’re very proud of. I want my son to learn Chinese calligraphy and Chinese poetry—I want him to know about Chinese culture and be inspired by it. I don’t know if Lizi wants this too, but I know she hopes that Ouwen will have a British education. If he has a British education, how will he learn about China? Finding this balance is very interesting.
What have been your greatest joys as an intercultural family?
Lizi: We have access to both places and both cultures. We have a richer family life because of our mix— everything from language and ideas to food and rhythms.
Da Jun:我喜欢变化的、新鲜的生活,跨种族和跨文化家庭给我提供了很好的快乐源泉。前面所说的所有差异,如果不视为竞争,而以实验和欣赏的态度来看待,最终所有问题和冲突会转变为乐趣。差异–冲突—碰撞,有碰撞就会有火花,悲观的看,火花也许燃成大火毁掉一切,乐观的看,火花就是美丽的焰火。
I like change and new things. Having a cross-cultural family is very enjoyable for me. If you look at all our differences without thinking of them as points of conflict, but rather have an attitude of appreciation and experimentation, all problems and conflicts become joys. Differences equal friction—friction is what makes sparks. Fire can warm you or burn your house down—it just depends how you look at it.


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