Once again, my quest for insight into the lives of modern fathers has led me halfway across the globe, to Chengdu, China, where I’ve been engaged in up-close observation of diaper-changing techniques, the ratio of toddlers-to-chain-smokers in area bars, and the price tags on Dong Feng brand attack strollers. Also, I’ve been eating a ton of insanely spicy food.
Sadly, however, I don’t have all that much to report about Chinese parenthood (and childhood) that will surprise you. Yes, little kids really do wear those split trousers until they’re potty-trained. Yes, the kids are antarctically bundled up against the deathly cold 68-degree weather. Yes, children respect their parents absolutely, staying close to home when asked and fearing their ultimate judgment.
Nor will it surprise you, perhaps, to learn that stay-at-home dads are a non-phenomenon here. No one I’ve met, young or old, male or female, considered it a possibility. Even my translator, a young woman with excellent job prospects and a cunning independent streak, expects to marry a guy who will make more money than her and, on some level, take care of her while she tends the kids (and works a good job, too).
Individual SAHDs may exist, but they’re far from gaining mainstream acceptance. A story in the People’s Daily from a few years back illuminates the general attitude with typical bluntness:
Sociologists have found the full-time househusband emerges in three main situations.
Firstly, if the wife is ambitious, well-paid and has good job prospects, while her husband is paid poorly and has no job prospects, it makes economic sense for the female to become the main income earner for the household. Secondly, if the wife is tired of household chores and eager to work outside the home, her husband may forfeit his job for her sake. Thirdly, if the husband can do his work at home, he may take this option as it allows him more time to take care of the family.
On the plus side, they have a great business institution here, the nongjiale. Literally translated as a “happy farmer’s house,” nongjiale are country restaurants where families while away Sundays eating good food, playing mahjongg, and letting their children run absolutely wild in the open air. Kind of like a Chuck E. Cheese with twice-cooked pork, chili oil, and cigarettes.
The one parenting issue that comes up frequently, however, is the one-child policy—mainly because I keep forgetting that it exists and that none of the people I’m meeting have siblings. Actually, to put it in such absolute terms is wrong. Some people have siblings, because of where they live or who they are, and the policy itself allows some flexibility: A man and woman who are themselves only children are allowed to have two kids. How neat!
But still, my acquaintances here have definitely romanticized the idea of siblings. They talk about how great it would be to have an older brother or younger sister, without really understanding what intra-family dynamics are like. Not that they’re necessarily bad—just fraught and messy, no matter which country you live in.
Finally, if you happen to be watching Sichuan TV in the next few days, keep an eye out for the laowai with a high level of chili tolerance. And remember that he is paid poorly and has no job prospects.