One thing that I have concluded as a result of last semester’s kindergarten experience is that recent immigrant parents need a break and more support from schools. So much of the sociological literature on immigrant parents suggests that they are too busy making ends meet and adjusting to life in a new country to put significant effort into overseeing their children’s education and getting involved in school life. I am sure this is true. However, it is also the case that parenting cross-culturally makes it difficult for parents who would like to become involved and support their children to do so.
I like to think I am a fairly conscientious parent. I keep up on the parenting and child development literature. I try to make sure that my children play with toys that are safe, developmentally appropriate, and consistent with the values we hope to instill in them. I read to them frequently and insure that they have access to a steady supply of quality children’s literature. I try to offer opportunities to learn, experiment, develop self-confidence, etc, etc. I dress my children in clothes that I consider to be good quality, clean, and good looking.
Despite my efforts, the fact of the matter is that here in China I am fairly certain I sometimes come off as quirky, flighty, disinterested, disorganized, and, even negligent as a parent. The reasons for this are numerous.
First off, I cannot read the weekly notices the teachers put up on the bulletin board, the many signs hung at the front gate, and the frequent handouts and surveys sent home with my daughter. I know I could get help with all of this, but it is really quite a lot of written material – except for the clearly important items, too much to pawn off on bilingual friends.
There are also different parenting norms. For example, when I drop Jie-jie off in the morning, if she is feeling a little clingy I want to stay for a few minutes of “transition time.” The norm, however, is that parents peel the clingy/sobbing children off themselves and walk away while a teacher swoops in to bring them to their seat. I can tell that Jie-jie’s teachers are not fans of my approach – likely reading it as demonstrative of a lack of confidence in them. These norms also come into play with attire and hair. My tolerance of spots on clothing and messy hair must appear absolutely slovenly here where freshly laundered stained clothing is considered dirtier than yesterday’s unblemished shirt, and every afternoon the teachers comb out and rebraid the children’s hair because it has been mussed during naptime.
The food is another issue. We subscribe to the belief that a parent offers healthy meals and snacks and the kid eats it or not. Here you eat what is given to you when it is given to you. Sometime Jie-jie just doesn’t want to eat what she is given and when I pick her up the teacher will tell me that she wouldn’t eat. I say something like, “She was not hungry today.” But this does nothing to allay the teachers concern that either my daughter is ill or she doesn’t care for the school food.
The biggest issue, however, is just my cultural outsider status and all the things I do not know as a result. The teachers do try to give me a heads up when some special event is coming, but some things are just so commonsensical for them that they do not think to fill me in (e.g. the children wear small towels, hand towels, under their shirts when exercising to keep their shirts from getting sweaty. It is my job to supply these towels and know when they are in need of cleaning).
While each of these is just a small thing, they combine to create a picture of myself, and possibly my daughter, that is not particularly flattering. For a time it bothered me that I had so little control over the impression that I am making – so little power when it came to self-presentation. I’ve now reached the point at which I understand that when I learn something new about the educational practices at my daughter’s school, I can decide what behaviors maximize the balance between my desire for all involved to have a good experience, respect for different norms and practices, and adhering to values that I hold important. An invaluable experience even if I am not going to end up the kindergarten’s mother of the year!