Living Abroad in China
Moving to China with Children
2006 © Stuart & Barbara Strother, from Moon Living Abroad in China, 1st Edition. Used by permission of Stuart & Barbara Strother, and Avalon Travel Publishing. All rights reserved.
When we first announced we were taking our twin two-year-olds to the Middle Kingdom, our friends and family were worried. To some, the idea of moving children to China sounds downright frightening. And we have to admit, there were times that it was frustrating and even frightening to have our little guys with us, though for the most part we were pleasantly amazed at what a great place China is to raise kids.
If you are preparing for a move to China with children, we think you’re in for a real treat. The Chinese love kids, and little ones are given quite a bit more freedom to just be kids than they are in the West. School-age kids have great experiences attending top-notch international schools and making friends from around the world. Of course you’ll have different trials living overseas than you would at home, and each age group presents its own challenges and rewards.
Preparing Kids for the Move
Making a move overseas is stressful for every member of a family. The littlest ones have the hardest time understanding what is to come, but they can be prepared by talking about what the move will mean as much as possible. Try to read books and watch shows about moving and about China (we had Big Bird goes to China just about memorized before we left). Bring along as much as possible from home that they are attached to, such as favorite blankets, toys, or movies, to keep things in their life somewhat familiar.
School-age kids and teenagers can get ready for the move in some of the same ways, by learning about China and packing personal items that mean the most to them. These older kids will struggle with losing friends and having to make new ones. Be sure to keep email and mailing addresses of their friends, and budget for phone calls to old buddies and grandparents during the adjustment period. Giving older kids the opportunity to be involved in the decision-making, such as what house or apartment to choose, which room will be theirs and how to decorate it, and which school they will attend, helps as well. The choice to move to China may be out of their control, but allowing them some freedom to make other decisions will help them feel like their whole life is not out of their hands.
One good exercise to do during the move is to take stock of the things (personal items, events, relationships, routines, hobbies, sports) in your kids’ lives that define who they are, the things they enjoy the most. Be proactive in helping them find these things in China, or find good replacements, which will make the adjustment period much shorter.
Moving with Babies
One of the best things about living in China with a baby is the abundance of inexpensive domestic help. The majority of expats in China have at least one part-time ayi (literally “Auntie,” a term used for any female providing domestic support). Ayis can handle everything from cooking, laundry, and cleaning to taking care of pets and, most importantly, child care. Some expat families with two working parents find it such a benefit to have the help of inexpensive ayis that they hire one for each child in the family. Even if you only use an ayi to come a few days a week for laundry and cleaning, you’ll be able to spend more time with your kids and less time on domestic chores.
One of the worst things about living in China with a baby is the lack of equipment. Restaurant high chairs and public diaper-changing stations are extremely rare. Public transportation doesn’t allow for car seats; bumpy public sidewalks and a lack of elevators are not conducive to strollers. Child safety is not high on the priority list of many Chinese manufacturers or architects. At least department stores and supermarkets now carry a decent selection of baby items, though you’ll pay much more for the quality imported items. Unlike the States, good used items are very hard to find.
Moving with Preschoolers
Life with preschoolers in China is often much easier than in the West. Cheap toys are sold everywhere; kiddie rides are around every corner. Potty training can be easier in a nation where bathrooms are not requisite to taking care of your business (if you’re male). On the other hand, emergency runs to public bathrooms in China can be terrifying to adults, let alone kids who are already not so sure about this whole toilet thing to begin with.
Bring a few of their favorite things from home, and beyond that, they may just have to grow up a little quicker than they normally would. Our boys had to learn quickly to sit in seats without booster chairs and sleep in big beds without a railing. Chopsticks can be a challenge to someone who’s hardly learned to use a fork, but luckily Chinese soup spoons are available at every restaurant.
Moving with Elementary-Age Kids
The elementary age is a great time to move to a foreign country. At this age kids are not yet so settled into their friendships as to create a catastrophe by leaving them, and still of an age to pick up a second language with amazing quickness. As long as you are moving to a major city, they’ll have plenty of great school choices. Plus they’ll retain much more of the memories of their time in China than the younger ones will.
As far as packing for this age, there are a few things that are hard to find in China. If you’d like to have your own educational materials (whether for home-schooling or for supplements to regular school), materials for this age are hard to find in any subject, though the classics in English (adult classics made for kids, not kids’ pop classics like Harry Potter) can always be picked up at large bookstores. Additionally, boys’ clothing is best brought with you, unless your boy likes to wear jeans with embroidered teddy bears.
Moving with Pre-Teens and Teens
Though perhaps the most difficult to move, this age can have more amazing experiences in China than their younger siblings. School trips may take them to exotic locations; sports games may let them experience new Asian cities. The new friends they meet will be people they visit for years to come, jet-setting to Singapore or Australia to connect with old high school buddies. And learning Chinese language and culture will help them tremendously in the global business world of their future careers.
Being exposed to the multiculturalism of international schools can be both a blessing and a curse, however. Although you may be an American family that believes that children shouldn’t ever drink alcohol, your kids will be exposed to new ways of thinking as they interact with friends from other countries who’ve grown up with wine or beer on the nightly dinner table. China does not enforce a minimum drinking age, meaning kids can get alcohol easily. The upside is that you won’t have to worry about your teen’s friends drinking and driving, because it will most likely be a taxi or personal driver who’s taking them around town. Drugs do exist in China, though on nowhere near the scale of America, so you will have much less to worry about. And the violence that has been plaguing American schools will be a faint memory in this land of gun control.
Your teens won’t miss American movies because they’ll be able to pick up an unlimited supply of cheap pirated DVDs from the nearest sidewalk vendor, but they may miss their favorite music. Being out of the country also leaves them a little out of the pop-culture loop, making it hard to return home without feeling like an outsider. Repatriation for teens is an especially tricky time and should be proactively treated with care.