“Only when fathers lower their positions to the same level as their kids can their children feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with their dads. Guidance and thoughts can be shared with kids much easier when they are friends. To be friends, fathers need to speak the same language, play the same game and sometimes do silly things with their kids. I enjoy doing these things with my son, and he sees me as someone he can talk to and hang with.” David sent me this message through WeChat once my host family in Shanghai connected us. The consensus in China is for fathers to spend more time with their children.
Certain idea surfaced in the interviews about fatherhood. First, people often described their father as quiet. Second, people particularly appreciated open-minded fathers. Third, grandparents integrate themselves into the life of the grandchildren. Fourth, the socio-political environment greatly affected families in China. These greatly influenced the role of fatherhood in China.
Quiet fathers showed their love in different ways. Jeff’s father showed his love through basketball: “Years ago, I was a high school student and a big fan of basketball, the Chicago Bulls. I was a Michael Jordan fan. My father was not familiar with basketball, but he knew I liked it. So, he took any opportunity to learn basketball’s rules, and he read basketball magazines to know the teams’ information. In 1998 during the last game of the NBA finals, which was Michael Jordan’s last game on the Chicago Bulls, my father got up very early with me to watch the final game. He is also a very quiet person; he gave me a lot of silent love. He didn’t say much, but I felt his love.” Once Jeff’s father noticed he likes the Chicago Bulls, he wanted to enjoy the sport with his son. Jeff’s dad dedicated himself to learning all about basketball. For Jeff, this selfless commitment showed his father loved him. Jeff has a son now. He told me, “If I have the opportunity, I will tell my son I love him.” Jeff wants to talk more than the previous generation of quiet fathers.
Grandparents impact the family one of two ways. Grandparents help parents with daily care of the kids. For example, grandparents might pick up their grandchildren from school while their parents are at work. When parents pick up their kids, the whole family has dinner together. Another way grandparents help is when their grandchildren move in with them. In Vee’s interview, she described her family's experience. During the Cultural Revolution, Vee’s father was sent from Shanghai to work in Xinjiang for 16 years, where he got married and had Vee’s older brother. Vee said, “When my mother had my brother, my grandparents said that living in Xinjiang did not have as much opportunity for a child. My brother went to Shanghai to live with my grandparents. I always stayed with my parents. [My brother] came back to the us once we moved to Jiangsu closer to Shanghai.” Vee was 10 years old before her family moved back to Shanghai to have better education opportunities. Vee now has a daughter and Vee’s mother has been a huge help: “After having my daughter, my mother lived with me for 4 years to take care of my daughter. When she went to kindergarten, my mother moved back.” A common challenge for fathers is getting quality education for their kids. Grandparents in China have helped in that make the difference by integrating themselves into the lives of their grandchildren.
People feel loved and respected when their fathers are open-minded. These fathers gave their kids space to make decisions and develop opinions about the world. Jen said, “What I like about my father is that he is very open to me making my own choice. He lets me decide which university I want to go to, which city I want to live in, and when I want to get married. He wants me to make every choice. He respects me a lot. He believes in me. He always says, ‘I believe my daughter should have her own choice.’” Jen loves this about her father. She told me an open mind lets kids teach their father something. Jen cited the novel, The Little Prince, when she told me, “The Little Prince is good because it shows that children have great imaginations and see what adults don’t always see. I think adults always have one view on things and limit imagination. Kids believe every plant and every flower is special, and I think that is beautiful. I think you should learn from your child. I think if after work you spend more time playing with your kids you can learn more from them.” An open mind lets kids teach their fathers something about the world.
The Cultural Revolution and the one child policy caused huge challenges for fathers in China. First, multiple people described how their father was forced to move during the Cultural Revolution. This new town had limited resources to support a family. Jane said in her interview, “During that time families in China were not rich and resources were very scarce. It was not like today’s China. My mom was a teacher too; she taught English. Most of their time and energy has been occupied by their profession. The rest of their time they did housework because we didn’t have maids like today. I could sense by the way [my father] looked at me that he loved me. I grew up in a very warm family even thought here was not a lot of communication. Although we were not that rich, I never felt that there were not enough food or clothes. They spent every penny on me and my sister. My parents do not go for luxury at all; they are very humble. There were only two things my father spent money on: cigarettes and books.” Jane’s father could not control the political environment, but his sacrifice taught Jane diligence. She credits her father for her teaching her how to work hard. Kids learn some of their most important lessons from their father’s example.
My favorite piece of advice on fatherhood came from Jack: tell your child, “If you like, you do.” During my interview, he proudly showed me a photo of his daughter, who graduates from high school this year. She has a talent for dance. Jack told his daughter, “If you like, you do. And if you do, you'll do well.” After graduating, she plans to continue practicing with a dance instructor. Jack thinks, “If they like sports or dancing, then they do it. My daughter doesn’t like water but likes Coke and I say that Coke is not good and she must drink water. In her heart, water is still not good and Coke is. I would have to tell her that Coke is okay; if you like it then drink it.” This philosophy can help make their kids happy. If someone wants a Coke, then their father cannot force her to want water.
With the limits of English-speakers and two weeks, I studied the impact of fatherhood in China. A few valuable lessons were learned. Fathers who befriend their children make happier kids. To befriends, fathers are open-minded and playful whenever possible. Fathers show love and respect when they support what their children like: “if you like, you do.” When uncontrollable circumstances arise, a father’s parents can be extremely supportive.
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