A Ku Indeed!

Dah Jah How (大家好), Raising Children and Culture Shock

Posted in China, Chinese Philosophy, Course Material by Chris on October 16, 2007

My wife and I hosted the visiting professor from Tsinghua University and his wife this weekend at our home (they slept over and we went to a local festival the next day). It was an interesting experience replete with all sorts of cultural differences. But before I talk about it, I want to tell a seeming unrelated story.

I’ve been listening to “Learn Mandarin” cds in my car so that I can stop listening to mindless talk radio and actually do something useful during my 2 hour daily car travels (it takes me an hour to get to Drury and back from my house, and Christie and I will be teaching at Tsinghua — in Beijing — for 6 months next year, so I need to understand some Mandarin). Anyway, somewhere in one of the first modules they teach you “dah jah how” which means “hello everybody.” Literally translated, it means “big” (da) “house” (ja) “good” (how), but “house” in Mandarin also implies “family” so it means “big family good” which then becomes “everyone is good” (which then becomes “hey everyone”). The odd jump here that I’m interested in is obviously the move from “big family” to “everyone”.

Of course, to anyone who has read any Confucianism, this is hardly surprising. For the Confucian, we are intimately connected with our families in such a way that our identities can’t be understood as separate. We aren’t separate individuals who happen to love each other and get along and visit on holidays; we literally to some degree share the same identity. Of course, one of the main messages of Confucianism is to learn to extend that intensely interpersonal familial relation outward to one’s extended family, one’s friends, the members of one’s community, and so on, so that ideally everyone becomes part of your family. So, seen from the Confucian perspective, “everyone” really is your “big family.” I’d be curious to know how much influence early Confucian thought had on those definitions (dah jah how). In any case, it’s pretty obvious that no one in the West would think of “everyone” as “one’s big family.” In the West we make a firm distinction between our family and everyone else. Not so in the East (or at least in Confucianism).

Now I’m ready for the story, because I saw Dah Jah How in action over the weekend. So the couple from Tsinghua stayed at our home overnight the other day. It was a really great experience, and they were good people and fun to be around. But one thing really stuck out as a serious cultural difference: beliefs about child care and child raising. Over the course of the night, I was pretty sure that they were horrified (they never said so, but it looked that way) by these things:

  • Parker could eat on her own with no assistance (at 2 and 3 months)

Seems like an odd thing, right? They were blown away by it. The reason for the difference? Chinese parents (especially mothers) feed their children for a long time. We don’t. Parker has been eating on her own for a long time, and we’ve encouraged that all along. To the Liu’s (that’s their name), this increased emphasis on independence, while interesting to them, seemed to be won at the cost of the cultivation of close relationships between parent and child. Essentially, it’s true; Parker’s eating experience is solitary, as are ours (Christie’s and mine). We don’t feed Parker, we just eat in the same room.

  • Parker sleeps in her crib in her own room, and has since birth.

This one, I think, really shocked them. They asked why we didn’t allow her to sleep in our bed with us. We said that we thought it was a bad idea, mainly because it created dependency issues. I could just hear how that sounded in their ears: dependency issues. As if cultivating close relationships was an issue to be avoided! They were really shocked by that one, almost to the point of shaking their heads in disbelief.

  • Parker plays on her own mostly.

We let Parker do her own thing. She plays with her toys, she watches Dora the Explorer…she’s a pretty content kid. She’s good at entertaining herself. And we encourage it. But the Liu’s were suspicious of the wisdom of this, I think. Mrs. Liu was almost always playing with Parker, and I got the impression that this is how the Chinese are with children. They are always interacting with them in one form or another, whereas we on the other hand are not, and encourage a kind of independence in Parker.

  • Parker wears diapers.

Okay, this one is a bit different. In China, they use “split pants”. Essentially, the parent is very keyed into the signals that the child gives, and realizes when the kid has to go. They then hold the kid over the appropriate area and let the kid take care of business, right through the “split” in the pants he or she is wearing (it’s open air, obviously!). From the Chinese perspective, the idea of having your kid walk around with feces or urine strapped to them must be just plain barbaric.

If you think of it, the diaper thing relates to independence vs relationality as well. Children with split pants must, to go to the bathroom, engage in a series of complicated rituals with their parents — they give signals, parents are attuned to them, they respond by taking care of the child’s needs, and so on. For Parker, it’s an individual thing. She goes in the diaper, and then eventually we change it. It’s pretty solitary. Nothing communal about it.

In short, what I was struck by was just how culturally influenced our child-rearing rituals are. I was struck strongly by this realization. There’s nothing natural about what we do. But it is designed to produce independent autonomous individuals. No surprise, I like in a culture that deifies such entities. For the Chinese, however, it is different. The goal is not the autonomous individual, but the harmonious relationship. And their parenting is designed to facilitate that. Makes you think, anyway, about what the right way to do it is. Surely, although I think that fostering a sense of independence in your children is important, it’s also pretty egoistic on the parent’s part. After all, the more independent, the less you have to interact with them.

My last point is this: I thought it was interesting how the Liu’s (especially Mrs. Lui) didn’t seem bothered by expressing her concern about these things (she was polite, but it was clear she was bothered). From the American perspective, you would take this as insulting. The reason is evident: self-regulating autonomous individuals do not comment in a judgmental way about the behavior of others unless the conduct is horribly egregious. As a result, we are trained to suspect that criticism of this sort must be seen as coming from a frantically concerned person. But I’m not sure that’s how it was meant. If it’s true that “Dah Jah How” means “big family good” then Parker, as well as Christie and me, are part of their larger extended family. And within such closer relational contexts, it may be perfectly normal to talk in such ways. Sort of like a “we’re all in it together” approach, where it’s meant as helpful if anything.

It was an interesting weekend, for sure! Christie and I (and Parker) are looking forward to our long time in Beijing, mostly because we’re really interested in having more cultural experiences just like that one!


3 Responses

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  1. Mark said, on October 16, 2007 at 6:50 pm

    That’s really amazing. I’m always intrigued by the norms and mores of other cultures, especially in the East. When it’s written out like this post, I really do get a strange feeling that we have gotten off on the wrong exit and other cultures are still on the right track. Perhaps they’re not right or wrong, just different. Still, very intriguing.

  2. Clint said, on January 20, 2008 at 8:52 am

    I know the pollution there is awful and we are considering a job there, but have been warned that our infant children could suffer lung damage. We have other international options and would love Beijing, but not a the risk of our child’s health. Your thoughts?

  3. Chris said, on January 20, 2008 at 11:36 am


    I’m really not educated at all on the health concerns, so I can’t really say. My wife and I will be in Beijing for the first 6 months of 2009, and we’re concerned about it, but not so much that we won’t go (we’ll be bringing a 6 month old and a 3 1/2 year old). The pollution problem is clearly not good. When we were in Beijing this past summer, however, the pollution wasn’t “that” bad. It was very bad in some other cities, but it seems that the effort to move the coal factories out of the city limits has done some good. I even saw a blue sky now and again. 🙂

    Of course, we’d only be there 6mo — you’d be taking a job. Of course, I’d research it thoroughly. If you find any medical information that is specific to the situation, I’d love to see it myself!

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