I Took My American Kids To Live Like Locals In China for 50 days....Here's What Happened
The hardest part about living in the United States for the past 16 years has been the fact that I am 8000 miles away from my family in China. The thought that my children could be strangers to my brother’s children saddened me. In the 8 years since we had our first son, even though we made 5 trips to China, it was not until our trip last summer that my children were able to truly connect with their Chinese heritage and language in a transforming way.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to take my two sons, Kai Kai (7) and Ming Ming (3) to spend 50 days in a lovely city by the Yangtze River in southwest China. This time, instead of our usual summer schedule—two weeks traveling around the country and one week visiting with my relatives—I decided to take them to live, as much as possible, like local Chinese children. Both of my sons enrolled in a local private preschool, hopped on city bus to go to school everyday, lived with their grandparents, traveled on the weekend with their cousins and ran wild with neighborhood kids. Both kids had such a blast that they didn’t want to leave.
Kai Kai proclaimed: I wish we could move our house and all my friends’ houses to China so that we can stay here forever!
Living-like-the-locals last summer was one of the best experiences that my husband and I were ever able to provide to the boys.
Their Chinese exploded.
By the time we left China, Ming Ming was speaking Chinese as fluently as a native Chinese 3-year-old. Kai Kai went from rarely speaking Chinese to being able to carry on basic conversations.
Their personalities blossomed.
Both kids’ self-esteem and openness to others flourished in a culture deeply interwoven with warmth, friendliness, attentiveness, and expressive hospitality. Some Westerners may hold a stereotype of Chinese people as reserved and stern. Far from it! A western visitor from afar is considered a guest. In the long Chinese history, guests are to be treated with the best food a home has. As the Chinese saying goes: put guests before one's hunger (忍嘴待客 rěn zǐu dài kè ).
It is not uncommon that a host will insist to sleep on the couch so that the guests can take their home’s best bed. When a western visitor speaks the local language and mingles with the locals, he is considered not only a guest, but also an “insider” or 自己人(zì jǐ rén). The Chinese communications styles can be vastly different when the Chinese interact with 自己人(zì jǐ rén) “insiders” and 外人(wài rén) “outsiders”. Insiders are family, friends, and people they consider to be in the same social circles. Reserved as they seem to be in public, the Chinese are highly engaged, lively, loud and expressive with insiders. There is a family-like intimacy within the insider group.
Oh, and when a Western child speaks Chinese, he is not just a guest to be taken care of, or even an insider to be treated as family. He is also so adorable! He is an instant star. I can't describe the countless hugs, food and gifts my children received from neighbors, teachers, relatives and many times, strangers! Kai Kai grew up relatively “quiet". It was intriguing for me to see him opening up, tentatively at first, but very soon throwing all of himself into this bubbling and inviting environment-- talking, laughing playing, initiating conversation with strangers, and figuring out his little purchasing deals with street vendors. He experienced that the world has different colors, people are diverse, and being different is wonderful.
“Mom, everybody thinks I am so cute here,” Kai Kai said. He literally came home a louder child. He speaks so loudly now that we constantly remind him to turn his volume down. “People were loud in China,” he hollers.
Their motivation to learn Chinese surged.
As Kai Kai has grown, it has become increasingly difficult to motivate him to “study” Chinese. Plenty of weekend Chinese schools, homework, memorization, and tests, but no place for him to use the language naturally in his life as a 7-year-old boy. Living in China for a short period of time provided its own reward for learning Chinese: the ability to build connections with friends in a way hardly possible for a monolingual person. One of Ming Ming’s teachers at daycare is still talking to Ming Ming through WeChat and sending video clips of his little friends. Kai Kai begs to go back to China again this summer to see his cousins and new best friends. Kai Kai even negotiated a deal with me: speaking Chinese every single day to earn another trip to China.
Their eyes and minds opened.
Luzhou, the vibrant small city on the Yangtze River in southwest China is a world of difference from the quiet Atlanta suburbs where we live. Forests of high-rises, schools of taxis, cars and buses, popsicle stands and street food vendors overflowing into the sidewalk, and crowds of kids playing and chasing in the condominium courtyard (sometimes without parental supervision). This city of 2 million is filled with people, sweat and action, while all was clean, safe and orderly. At every major street crossing, a dedicated city employee was assigned to keep pedestrians in order!
I wonder what was happening to my boys’ little brains if exposure to diversity best stimulates neural growth. Kai Kai marveled that Chinese elementary students could spent 12 hours at school. He discovered that most Chinese kids his age spoke English. He was perplexed that a boy his age rode the city bus home all by himself. He was awed that his 11-year-old cousin was reading the book Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and making up his mind to change the world. This new generation of curious, independent, well-rounded and English-speaking Chinese children became my son’s friends and inspiration. When the future indeed comes to Asia (Parag Khanna on The Rise of Asia), I hope that our kids' generation of Americans are well versed in the Eastern environment, just like their peers in Asia who are growing up well-versed in Western culture.
So, in short, if you can find a way to make it happen, I whole-heartedly recommend that you don’t take your child to see China, but take them to live China. It takes much planning, and it does help tremendously to have relatives in China, but it might not be as expensive or impossible as you think.
(Update 5/2019: If you want to try to figure out how to do this sort of trip without relatives in China, you may want to read Tim Ferriss' book The 4-hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. )
Learnings from our living in China
Live like the locals, with a host family of same-aged children
Kai Kai making dumplings with family.
If you have relatives in China, try to stay with family that have kids your child’s age. My mother would be in tears if we didn’t stay with her, but we tried to take out-of-town trips and do sleepovers with my children’s cousins in my brother’s home. Try to find a host family even if you don't have relatives in China. There are rising middle class families who would love to host English-speaking visitors because they have English-learning children.
Ask your Chinese American colleagues, neighbors and friends about their summer plans and whether they know a trustworthy family who might be willing to host you. They might even be willing to take you along on their trip to visit family. I used to work at a large company where employees voluntarily organized an internal summer exchange program. Colleagues could sign up to send their kids to live with another colleague’s family in another country. Many Chinese Americans travel to China with their kids during the summer, so, ask around and see what you can find!
This summer, I am taking my boys to China again for 4 weeks. Our friend Caelyn and her two boys (3 and 5) are going with us to live with a local host family that we trust. My own boys benefited from their trip so much that we are thrilled to bring the same amazing experience to families like Caelyn’s that may not have the local connections and know-how to experience it the same way on their own.
If your child is younger than 6, enroll her at a local preschool
As soon as we landed in China last summer, I visited local preschools and enrolled both of my boys in the one we fell in love with. It was a private preschool within walking distance from my mother’s home. However, we ended up taking the bus for one stop every day just because the kids felt like they were in Disney World! When looking for schools, I went by the following criteria:
-Private school that has a flexible policy for admitting foreign children
-Clean and safe
-Loving staff and teachers
-A teaching philosophy/pedagogy that encourage individualism and protect child’s self-esteem (some old teaching styles can be too rigid)
-No English-speaking teachers on staff (those with English-speaking teachers can be 2 or 3 times more expensive. Why would I take my kids all the way to China to speak English?!)
The teachers were so caring and attentive with their children that I often ran short of words to express my gratitude. One day, Ming Ming had a poop accident at school, but his pants came home clean and washed! The teachers ordered a cake and made a farewell slide show of Ming Ming at his farewell party. Ming Ming loved, loved, loved his school and teachers and is still talking about his 幼儿园 (yòu ér yuǎn-preschool) school in China all the time.
My first-grader Kai Kai, however, had a harder time. It was after all a preschool. Kai Kai was in the oldest class with 6-year-olds. He disliked the 2-hour nap time, the simple math and “little-kid” crafts. He wanted to play with older kids and to do big kid cool stuff. After a two-week trial, I decided to pull him out of the preschool.
If your child is older than 7, enroll her at a club or summer camp
As soon as summer break begins in early July, a plethora of summer camps become available: swimming, soccer, music… you name it. I was especially interested in one camp where 7-10 year old children would live in an underprivileged village to engage in volunteering work with the villagers.
Set up not just play dates, but Chinese-speaking rules
One major problem for our boys in China: most school age children speak decent English and they are eager to speak English! We set up many play dates for Kai Kai, but five minutes into a play date, I would hear Kai Kai and his friends speaking English. I started setting rules for playdates: first half-Chinese, second half-English!
- Let your child run wild with children in the neighborhood
Save money when you can
-Make your ticket reservation early. Airfare is more expensive in July and August when school is out in China. In the U.S., school is usually out in late May or June. The earlier you can leave in Summer, the cheaper the tickets.
-Avoid mega cities like Beijing or Shanghai. Think about your bills when you travel to New York city.
-Avoid international schools in China (much more expensive for having native English-speaking teachers).
-If your child is going to a private daycare in the U.S., talk to their school about waiving their summer tuition when you are traveling. We did that and saved my son’s tuition to buy his tickets.
Because the preschool didn't work out for my 7-year-old who believed he was 10, finding meaningful ways to engage him when other kids were at school was challenging: summer camp had not yet started, full-time elementary schools may be too demanding, and no children were around to play with except during the evenings and weekends. Kai Kai ended up doing his homework and visiting places and people with me during those times. Although he was content, I wish there were summer programs tailored to school-age campers like Kai Kai, where he could interact with children and be engaged with projects and activities at a local school. This coming summer, for Kai Kai I will try to look for a local elementary school that is willing to accommodate international visitors.
What else to know if you have not recently lived in China?
Mosquitoes. Always keep a good bug repellent with your child when they are out playing.
Not every family has a private bathroom with every bedroom. If that is a requirement, make it clear when you are looking for a host family.
Some toilets might be squatting toilets. Specify if a toilet seat is a requirement.
Some condos do not come with elevators.
Not every family car, especially taxis, are equipped with child safety seats. Take your portable car seats with you.
Small cities (population of less than 2 million in Chinese standard) are more ideal than Tier 1 cities. Beijing and Shanghai are modern, trendy, magnificent, with international hospitals…but also have much more traffic and pollution, fewer relaxed, friendly locals, and are less rich in pure Chinese culture.
Chinese hospitality could be overwhelming: fighting for bills, gifting, stuffing food in your plates…bring some gifts so that you have something to give back.
No experience or mechanism for handling food allergies. Ming Ming’s food allergies largely confined his option to travel with most summer camps.
The whole nation is on WeChat, similar to Facebook. You will find a WeChat account very handy for making payments (a Chinese bank account is a requirement), reserving cars, and sending packages.
You can still make cash payments. Most business accept Visa or Mastercard. But you may want to check with your credit card provider whether there is an international transaction fee.
Medical insurance and hospitals in China.
Unless you are in rural areas of the country, most hospitals are equipped with the newest international standard equipment. However, few hospitals have English interpretation services. You will need access to an English speaking interpreter in case of a medical emergency.
Your existing health insurance policy may or may not cover international trips. Clarify that with the policy holder.
Most Chinese hospitals require cash payment upfront for services even if you have insurance.
Since our existing insurance covers emergency room visits in China, we never purchased separate insurance when traveling to China. Last summer, Ming Ming spent 5 hours in an emergency room treating asthma, my bill was a pleasantly modest $60. We did not bother to make a claim with our insurance.
Here is a good article about Health Insurance for Travel to China.
It was two years ago, I overheard my then 6-year-old son Kai Kai bragging about cousins with a couple of friends: I have two cousins. They live in New York!...” I listened in, waiting for him to talk about his two Chinese cousins next. But there was no “next”. After my friendly reminder. He exclaimed: “Oh, I forgot!”
I don’t believe he will forget his Chinese cousins again. The other day, he uttered: “我好久没有见到我另一半的家里人了！(wǒ hǎo jǐu méi yǒu jiàn dào wǒ de lìng yí bàn de jiā lǐ rén le- I haven’t seen my Chinese side of the family for a long time)! My heart was full. I am so glad to be able to provide my sons the opportunity to return to see their cousins again this summer and to share the experience with American friends this time. I think I will continue to try to do it for as long as I can, because, in addition to the time that they get with family, I think it is one of the greatest educational experiences I can give them during this extremely formative time in their lives.
Do not just take you child to see China. Take them to live China.
Raising kids who speak Chinese in a predominately English-speaking country can feel daunting and lonely. If you enjoyed this post or found anything about it helpful, please share the learning with others by liking, commenting, or posting to your social media feeds using the buttons below.
Thanks for reading!