Friday, May 4, 2007

Dinner with Si Bo's Family

We had a wonderful evening yesterday – we were invited to dinner at Si Bo’s home (remember Si Bo, pictured above, from our law school excursions?). Si Bo and his mother, Han, met us in front of Xiada kindergarten to lead us to their apartment. They took us there by a round-about way, and I didn’t realize until we left how close we were to the law school!

The Apartment

Their fourth-floor apartment was really nice. We entered a white-tiled living room, which they had set up as a combined living/dining room. Through an archway with built-in display cabinets was another room next to the kitchen that was supposed to serve as a dining room, but they left it empty so that Si Bo would have more room for play. The apartment had 3 bedrooms, each with wood laminate flooring. Each bedroom had a conventional bed – not the platform/rattan mat you find in many homes in China. One bedroom was set up as a home office, with desk top and lap top computers. Si Bo also had a computer in his room. And the beds had mosquito-netting tents. There were two bathrooms – one with a squat toilet and the other with a western toilet AND bidet! They had every modern convenience you could wish for – in addition to the three computers I’ve already mentioned, they had two TVs, an electronic keyboard, a treadmill, a rowing machine, air conditioning and washing machine. The kitchen was small, with the same two-burner gas stove top I have, but they supplemented that with a microwave, electric rice cooker and electric hotplate.

I didn’t ask, but Han told me that they pay 2,000 yuan a month in rent – that’s about $250.00. They rent the apartment from a Xiada faculty member who owns it. About 5 years ago, Xiada allowed faculty to buy their apartments rather than rent them from the school. Han says they’ve all been purchased now, and some faculty managed to buy more than one apartment and now rent them out. She also said that they find it difficult to pay so much rent.

When I was telling my parents about our evening, my dad asked if the family would be considered rich in China to have such a nice apartment and so many consumer goods. I’d put them firmly in the middle class – that is, if China has classes, which it doesn’t (remember? The revolution of 1949 was to end class distinctions?!). Han was telling me that the new apartment buildings near the law school, but off Xiada campus, would rent for more than 10,000 yuan a month. Only rich people could live there, she said.

Han also cleared up a few mysteries for us – yes, all primary school children come home for lunch. The campus is always over-run with children from about 11-2:30, and I wondered if everyone came home or only some. There are no meals served at school after kindergarten grade, and parents come home to cook full meals for the kids! And the men who ride around the residential areas on bicycles yelling something are collecting heavy recycling or are offering to fix things in the apartments.

The Food

Han’s husband cooked while we talked, and what a spread they put on! All told, I counted 14 dishes: 1) duck, bought specially because I mentioned that Maya loved duck during one of our bus-ride conversations; 2) noodles, because I mentioned it was Zoe’s favorite; 3) rice, because I mentioned it was Maya’s favorite; 3) pork dumplings; 4) fried chicken wings; 5) fish with black beans; 6) tofu in a hot sauce; 7) sautéed cucumbers; 8) snow peas; 9) Chinese broccoli; 10) American broccoli; 11) an egg-and-leek dish; 12) soup with radish; 13) another vegetable I didn’t recognize (and Han didn’t even know the name of it in Chinese since it doesn’t grow in her home province); 14) vegetable dumplings. Oh, and after, we had watermelon, so I guess that counts as 15 dishes! And it was all wonderful! There were so many vegetable dishes because I had mentioned in that same bus conversation that I really enjoyed all the fresh vegetables in China.

They were really embarrassed because in the middle of cooking all of this they ran out of gas and had to call to have another tank delivered. So they plied us with snacks and more snacks, and the girls did not do justice to the meal. Maya ate nothing but duck, and Zoe was too interested in playing with Si Bo, who inhaled his food and left the table. To compensate, I ate WAY more than I should have – good thing there was a long walk home!


The girls loved playing with Si Bo. Zoe brought her Leapster, and Si Bo enjoyed playing with that, and then showed Zoe some games on his computer. He also showed us that he is learning to write Chinese calligraphy with ink and brush. They do not teach calligraphy in school anymore, I’m told, so children go to lessons outside school. Si Bo also takes swim lessons and piano lessons, and played for us on the electronic keyboard.

He has a race track for cars in the apartment and a remote-control car, so there were many races going on. But by far the most entertaining play for them was chasing each other from room to room with guns. Si Bo kept getting in trouble for locking the doors, and Zoe kept getting in trouble (with me at least – Han was too nice to do anything but laugh) for slamming doors. And Maya mostly lolled on the bed and watched TV! They definitely wore each other out, because the girls slept until 8:30 this morning, which is completely out of character for my early risers.

The Conversation

Han and I had lots to talk about, and in many ways the conversation was just like those I have with working moms in the U.S. – how to balance work and family and the challenges of raising kids. And we shared the same lament as most professors – how to balance teaching and scholarship (research and writing).

Han said that at Xiada, publishing books and articles is considered more important than teaching, and the only way to get promoted is to publish. She’s recently published a book about the WTO, for example. Her husband teaches at another university in Xiamen, and she says that publishing isn’t quite as important there. She also said they were very fortunate to find jobs in the same city – a frequent problem for academic couples in the U.S. as well. In fact, they lived apart for a number of years for reasons of work. She came to Xiada in 2003 to work on a Ph.D., after having taught for several years at home, and her husband and Si Bo stayed behind in their hometown near Shanghai. Si Bo and his dad have only been in Xiamen for a year.

Han asked me if it was hard to raise children in the U.S. How to answer that? Yes, but so many people do it without really thinking about it. Is it hard in China? Yes, she said, because it is so expensive. I hear this from lots of parents, that raising children is financially draining. (It seems to be an underpinning of the one-child policy, that it is too expensive to have more than one child, and not because of the fine for over-quota children but just because things are expensive.) So what is so expensive, I asked? Schooling for one thing – there is no free public schooling in China. And it is also considered important to do extra things like calligraphy lessons.

And the other hard part, Han said, was knowing how to do the right things to make sure your child grows up to be “a productive member of society.” I thought that was interesting – I think parents in America would agree that they want their children to be productive members of society. But I think we are probably more likely to say first that we want our children to grow up to be happy.

We talked quite a bit about the one-child policy (or one-family, one-child policy as it is called here), because I’m interested for obvious reasons. Han confirmed what I understood about the policy – that in rural areas it is a two-child policy if your first child is a girl, but in urban areas it is a fairly strict one-child policy. If you have twins, however, you need not pay a fine for over-quota birth. We’ve actually seen quite a few twins here, and Han said that some families use reproductive technologies to have twins. (I guess that explains the Xiamen Clinic for Infertility and Reproductive Health that we pass on the bus on the way to Zhongshan Park). Wouldn’t it be cheaper to just pay the fine for over-quota births? Yes, Han said, but there are other consequences to having extra children. It seems there is social pressure to conform, and it might affect your ability to get promotions at work.

Han would really like to have more children, but she says there is no way they can afford it. She also disagrees with the one-child policy because she thinks it will create many problems in the future. She thinks that the gender imbalance means that men are going to have to look abroad to find wives.

She said that Zoe and Maya are “famous” at the law school, and that one professor is now considering adopting a second child now that her daughter is in college! Isn’t that amazing?! Han also asked me if there were many “bachelors” – meaning single women – who adopt children in America! Apparently, one of the things that make Zoe and Maya so famous at the law school is that everyone is amazed at how independent they are. Han asked me if all children in America were so independent, and I said I thought it had more to do with different parents’ ideas about child-rearing and the children’s inherent personalities. I think Zoe and Maya are independent because they’ve had to be – being a single mom sometimes means I can’t do everything for them, so they have learned to do for themselves.

We were ultimately at their house for 6 hours, so I’m sure there’s a lot more we talked about that I cannot remember. I’ll post more about it if it comes to me!

It was wonderful to be invited to their home – they are such a nice family and I learned much about family life in China. We came bearing gifts, of course, since we had been invited to dinner, but they gave us gifts as well. Han got the girls beaded necklaces, and can you believe she actually managed to find a beautiful silk nightgown that is actually big enough to fit me! The best gift of all was their friendship.


Anonymous said...

This is wonderful! Thanks for sharing.


Anonymous said...

I think the stone in front is referring to water. The square with the line through it means like middle or medium and the other is water. They are upside down too. If I'm right the stones mark utility lines.

mimifrancoise said...

Thanks for the very informative entry. I am so glad you were invited to their home. This is the only way to really "see" the real China (or whatever country you are visiting). Han seems like a very nice lady and I hope I get a chance to meet her.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting visit! All the while I was reading this, I was thinking "I wonder what their thoughts are on adopting, and you as a single parent." It would really be wonderful if your experience leads to lots of girls being adopted by Chinese parents. I wonder if they think that Zoe and Maya are unique compared to other kids in the SWIs?

Elizabeth J.

Anonymous said...

You are providing a wonderful
example of adoption to the
people that you work with.
They can see how much you and
the girls love each other.
It probably makes them think,
I sure like what I see and hear.
Adoption might be something I
can do , too!