In a China where “married with kids” is the unspoken rule, I’m the ultimate oddity – a longtime married woman who has no children. I love my Chinese husband, and I love living in China. But over the years, it has meant getting used to some awkward comments and questions from curious people.
Here are 4 awkward things I’ve heard in China as a married woman with no kids:
#1: “How many children do you have?”
In China, asking if you’re married and have kids is as common as the question “How are you?” in the West. A way to show people care. After all, the assumption for most people in China is, if you’re married you have kids. It’s filial to give birth to the next generation and carry on the family line.
It’s why people are stunned to discover I’m child-free.
Sometimes, people will leapfrog over the question of whether I actually have kids – thinking I’m just like the average married couple in China – to how many I have. Never thinking, of course, that I actually have no kids at all.
There’s no avoiding awkwardness here. I invariably have to say something like, “Uh, sorry, I don’t have children.” Sometimes leading to an embarrassing pause in the conversation.
But more often than not, this is followed by another awkward question:
#2: “Why don’t you have any children?”
Upon learning that I’ve yet to fall in step with the average Chinese married couple, new friends or acquaintances get really curious. They want answers. They want to understand the “why” behind my childlessness.
Of course, this is super-awkward territory. Any reason always gets pretty personal – so personal I don’t even discuss these things with anyone else except my husband. How could I possibly share something so private with someone I just met? Giving an answer would be akin to hanging my intimates out on a laundry line for everyone to see.
Sorry, no can do.
I don’t fault them for asking. After all, this is par for the course in a China where people will inquire about everything from how much money you make, to whether you believe in God. It’s just a cultural difference between China and the America I grew up in.
That’s why I gently respond by saying it’s not in my cultural upbringing to discuss why I don’t have children. People in China understand that foreigners can do things a little differently, so it’s a tidy and face-saving explanation for everyone.
Still, despite the fact I may have successfully dodged this question, the conversation could lead in other awkward directions, such as:
#3: “You should get pregnant now.”
If you’ve lived in China for a few months or years, then you know how it is about advice. Everyone you meet has an opinion on everything, from how to dress (especially during the winter), to what meds or traditional herbs you should take for your cold, to why it’s bad for you to drink cold water.
Well, sometimes that advice can stretch all the way to what you ought to be doing with your uterus. (Never mind that it’s one of the most personal and intimate parts of your body.)
Oh, how I would secretly love to give a smart-ass response to this one. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of thing that helps to win friends and influence people, particularly across international borders. It also doesn’t help that I’ve actually heard friends and family urge me to start “getting busy” – you know, people who would probably talk about my smart-ass remarks for years.
In this case, sometimes it’s just better to pull on an uneasy grin (to hide the fact that I’m kind of shocked someone would say this). Or nudge my husband to respond instead (perhaps to prove that the couple who gets embarrassed together stays together).
Still, some people can be persistent, sometimes leading to the following awkward comment:
#4: Everyone is waiting to see your beautiful (mixed-race) baby
“Mixed race babies are smarter and more beautiful.” I’ve heard so many variations on this theme in China, but the premise (or rather, stereotype) is the same. My babies would be so much better. Therefore, if anyone should have children, it should be me.
I understand the strong drive in China to have your own progeny. And I know when people say things like this, they’re just really trying to show they care. But I never thought I would hear someone speak of my hypothetical children as though they were the year’s long-awaited Broadway show yet to be opened.
What could I possibly say in return?
If I’m sitting around the dinner table, I think of this as the perfect moment to shovel a spoonful of peanuts into my mouth or try my hand at cracking a few sunflower seeds open.
Then again, why not counter one awkward comment with another? My personal favorite is, “I really need to pee, would you excuse me for a moment?”
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Yep, these same questions pop up in Mongolia. I was SO offended at the line of questioning when I first arrived, but have slowly become desensitized. I try to bow out by referencing the obvious–my age (for some this is uncomfortable–but I own my age and don’t get embarrassed or shy around it). But there are plenty of Mongolian women having babies in their 40s. Course….they also had a child in their 20s and/or 30s…..their bodies know what to do. I’m blessed to have an amazing stepson who calls me mom–as a secondary educator, teenagers are way more my speed. 🙂 The part that baffles me….everyone (Mongolians) is/are obsessed with the IDEA of family/babies, but far less experience on BEING quality/connected family/parents (from how I quantify it…that is).
Wow, sounds a lot like how things are in China! You are very lucky to have a wonderful stepson — glad everything worked out for you.
Haha, I wish I had a nickel for every time someone said #4! I’d be so rich! 🙂 Even my (very white) dad has got on that train.
We’ve been somewhat shielded, but I think now that we are both working and are slightly more stable (aaaand in our 30s….) the parents are starting to let us know of their itch for grand-babies. 😛 I think our reply is something along the lines of, “Soon enough, we’re getting there…” Not sure ourselves when “soon” is exactly, but… 🙂
Thanks for sharing a topic that is so near and dear to many of us! ^_^
Thanks for the comment, Christine! Whoa, even your dad mentions #4? Has to be hard for feel that pressure…sending you guys hugs and lots of understanding!
I can relate to this a lot! My Chinese husband and I have been married for less than 6 months, and I’ve already heard #3 and #4 from people who barely know us, haha! Definitely some of the most awkward moments I’ve had in China so far. Here’s to many more! 😉
Thanks for the comment Katie. Wow, only 6 months of marriage and you’re already feeling the pressure!
I remember having a taxi-driver straight out laughing at me, after telling him which country I came from, what my monthly salary was, whether I owned a house, my age (over 30), wasn’t married and had no kids.
Later, a friend gave us a celebratory card, explicitly hoping we had “lots of mixed blood babies”.
After a while, it’s water off a ducks back.
But the common question that bedevilled all relationships between foreigners and locals, was “What’s your exit plan? When are you leaving China?”
Thanks for sharing Jon! So true about the whole “exit plan” question. 🙂
I know how you feel! If it helps having a baby doesn’t stop the comments, I just gave birth five months ago and they’re already starting up with the ‘when are you going to have another one’, ‘mixed blood babies are the most smart and most beautiful, you need to have more’ and ‘you need to have another one soon, your getting old’. I always wish I could make some great comeback but all you can do is smile and nod and then go home and laugh about it with your friends and family.
Thanks for the comment Jessica — it does help to know that! 🙂
Can relate to this so well. Have been dealing with this for at least 7 years now. It has caused me a great deal of anxiety too. The only good thing is I have learned to be more sensitive to others now, as i realise it’s not always a black and white situation (or of any one elses concern!)
Thanks so much akoalagirlinapandaworld! Glad the article spoke to you — and also glad you’ve come to realize it isn’t black and white all the time (or other people’s business).