Occasionally I will get e-mails from friends asking me whether or not it is possible, or advisable, to raise a family in China. Now, I do have a son who I am raising in China, but he was born here, which isn’t quite the same as bringing kids, especially older kids, over from another country. When people ask me about bringing their kids to China, I’m usually a bit torn. On the one hand, my son, along with millions of other Chinese children, seems to get along just fine. While China’s child mortality rate may not be the lowest in the world, it is certainly not the highest either, and it is safe to say that the majority of children in China grow up healthy, have at least a middle school education, and are typically upwardly mobile, that is, as adults they usually enjoy a higher standard of living than their parents. For many, China also offers relief from some of the “evils” of Western society. For some parents, the idea of raising a child in an environment where a child can still be a child, where kids still play on playgrounds rather than with X-Boxes, where Hannah Montana has not yet found a niche, and where the advertising aimed at kids, although it exists, is in a language most Western kids won’t understand, is an enticing one. My friends talk about instilling good values on their children – respect for their elders, reverence of education, humility – values that are supposedly lacking in today’s kids back home. China also offers adventure, history, a chance to learn that elusive second language that mom and dad always wish they’d learned, an opportunity to become a “global citizen.”
However, there are some harsh realities that every family must consider before deciding to pack up the kids and head to China to start a new life. Probably the first consideration for any parents planning on bringing their kids to China should be healthcare. China’s healthcare system is surprising to many who arrive here in that it operates in a way that appears, at least on the outside, to be fully private. Most Chinese citizens go to hospitals or clinics for whatever ails them and pay their entire medical fees in cash. The level of healthcare here varies wildly, from world class international hospitals found in Beijing or Shanghai, to third-world standard clinics where the doctors are likely to be mere college graduates, if that. One of the main problems with hospitals here is corruption, as hospitals rely on patients for income, and doctors will often prescribe unneeded medication, or unnecessary tests, in order to pad the bill. While Chinese hospitals are usually adequate for treating most common illnesses and injuries, a truly life threatening situation often requires more specialized care than what many Chinese hospitals can provide. Many foreign families would simply not trust their children’s care to Chinese hospitals. Families considering living abroad, especially in a country like China, should make health insurance a priority. Family health plans specifically for expats can be purchased for about $2000 a year, which will cover healthcare at China’s top hospitals, and even medical evacuation if needed. Those foreigners lucky enough to have handsome expat packages provided by their company do not need to worry, but English teachers, freelancers, students – anyone considering living in China long term – should consider independent insurance.
The next big concern, especially for anyone planning on bringing older children to China, should be education. Much can be said, good and bad about the Chinese education system, but no matter what your opinion may be, there is no denying that Chinese schools are extremely different from most Western schools. While students from Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries may find the structure similar, students used to the relative freedom of the Western classroom will find Chinese schools to be a real shock to the system. Many parents may find themselves philosophically opposed too, to a school system that is heavily centered around grades and testing, where students are ranked and grouped into classes according to test scores, where creativity is limited, and where there is a heavy emphasis on rote memorization rather than critical thinking. While there have been Western children who have thrived in the Chinese system, for most international parents, the Chinese school system is not a good choice. But if not the local school system, then what? International schools have good reputations and offer curricula in line with their counterparts abroad, but their tuitions range from 50,000RMB to nearly 200,000RMB a year, amounts that are not cheap even by Western standards. It goes without saying that International Schools are out of reach for most ESL teachers, as well as freelance translators, writers, artists, and musicians. For many families home schooling the only viable option, but for expats living in smaller towns home schooled children may lack opportunities to socialize with other foreign children.
So are there any advantages, any reasons to bring a family to China? The picture can seem rather bleak, with shoddy medical care and lackluster educational opportunities, especially for the average family looking to have an adventure abroad, without necessarily having the backing of a major multinational firm footing the bill. However, although planning a move to China with a family is not something that should be done lightly or on a whim, for certain families the experience can be invaluable. Mature, thoughtful children who adapt well to change and make friends easily will find China fascinating. Chinese culture loves children, as any parents in China soon discover, and Chinese people genuinely make an effort to extend small courtesies to families with small children, from the man who gives up his seat on the bus, to the old woman who makes sure your child has a special treat each time you visit the corner store. China is not a country for those parents who feel the need to be in control of their children’s every move, or those who are wary of their children interacting with strangers. In China, children are almost a form of communal property, and the “it takes a village” mentality can be seen strongly at work. Chinese people will offer you advice on everything from your child’s haircut to diet, but they will also be the first to offer you a helping hand if you’re struggling with wrestling your baby into a high chair. Many times when my son was younger we’d visit a restaurant and the waitress would voluntarily take the baby off our hands, entertaining him while my husband and I had a much needed meal in peace. China, like any other country, has its pros and cons, and any family considering a move to China should honestly examine their own parenting style and comfort level before making any decisions based more on ideals than on reality. For me, the reality of having a family in China is that while, yes, it is potentially dangerous, and sometimes stressful, raising a family here can also be immensely rewarding.
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