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Raising them rooted – raising an African child in China

Nancy Boledi Monnya
  • Raising her daughter in China made Nancy realise the need to separate her own fears from her daughter's experiences

Nancy is a teacher and mother of a four-year-old daughter who she is homeschooling. She resides in Beijing and is an avid writer, reader and teacher. As part of our ‘This is my livity series’, she speaks on raising her daughter as a proud African while thousands of miles away from home in China.

The uniform nature of this country means anyone else who looks different will immediately stand out. And if you have a darker skin shade, you will be as a lone bright star in the dark skies. Being an African in China means you are constantly aware of your ‘strangeness’ by how people react to you. From the stares, the startled and sometimes fearful looks, the fascination with your hair and your skin, and many other reactions that come from people who are ignorant of what they are seeing.

Think about how it sometimes feels when that happens, and then think about it happening to children.

When I brought my daughter to live with me in Beijing, I expected some challenges, but mostly to do with adjusting to a new environment and her education. Since I am a homeschooler, the challenge here would be finding a home-schooling black community with an established homeschooling co-op. However, I was soon faced with more challenges I didn’t anticipate.

Having her here taught me this: parents oftentimes overreact. We react to things happening to our children based on our experiences and emotions. Having experienced rude stares, unwanted hair touching and crazy dashes away from me, I wanted to shield my daughter from it. I wanted to make sure she never had to experience feeling like a zoo animal when you walk around Beijing zoo because people forget about the animals and start to look or follow you. I wanted to make sure she never had to experience someone standing up on the bus or subway to avoid sitting next to her. Or experience being shooed away when trying to ask for directions or to buy something. Do you see where this is leading to? Making sure that she does not experience any of this meant that I would stop her from living. I would have to lock her up in the house and not take her out anywhere. What kind of life is that? Not only would that keep her away from potential nasty ignorant people, but it would also keep her from having an authentic Chinese experience. It would have kept her from making friends with the amazing locals she has met so far.

I had to remind myself that my experiences are not hers. She has to have her own experiences. And my duty was to ensure she was rooted in who she was as an African child living in a predominantly Chinese environment. We faced challenges on this path. The major one being the loss of our native tongue Sepedi. She spoke Sepedi fluently and understood English enough to communicate when she lived in South Africa. But here, we were the only two people she knew who spoke it and she slowly began to drop it. And her fascination with Chinese did not help. I feared that my child was becoming monolingual.

The second challenge was playing. This should be a simple thing right? Children just play. Back home she would have been able to go outside and join other children out playing. But here, one is constantly aware that this is not home and that fear of parents pulling their children away from her and leaving is still there. It happens sometimes. She asks why and this is where the lessons come in.

As a teacher and homeschooler, I always say we teach at all times and at these times, it is where the lessons come in. Helping her understand that the problem is not with neither is it with the other child. The problem is with the parent who pulled the child away. I find myself giving a lot of these lessons. She’s had to learn that if she says hello and no one responds, it is not her problem. It is just human beings who do not understand that back home we greet our neighbors. She never stops saying hello though and is very excited when she sees one old lady she calls grandma who always calls out ‘hello!’.

My approach? I make her understand that she is not in control of what others do or say. But she is in control of how she feels and what she does. And the best lesson I think is her watching what I do. I had to pull myself out of the secure cocoon I had created to avoid ignorant people and start to go out with her more. Arrange play dates with Chinese parents and children.

I started taking her out to play and deliberately approaching parents with children and greet them and let know I brought my daughter out to play. These are great lessons that I see her begin to emulate. And I believe she is able to enjoy being here and have a great experience because I make it my duty to make her understand that she is an African, with beautiful hair and skin tone and there is nothing wrong with her.

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At some point she asked why she had darker skin. This was influenced by a tv program she had watched with the nanny and this was my second hardest moment as a mom in this country. The first was my child losing her mother tongue and now my child was aware of her skin colour and she was questioning it. I had neglected talking about skin colour because it is the least important thing about us humans but living with another person, her issues with her dark skin popped up once in a while and children pick up what adults do or say.

I told myself that I am raising a young African girl, rooted in her culture and identity, and proud of herself. For me to achieve this I had to make it a rule to only talk to her in Sepedi even though she didn’t respond. She understands and will eventually remember. Then I had to face the skin colour issue. It took me 2 days of intentional discussions and lessons for her to see what I meant by “you are beautiful in your skin shade and you must never wish to be anyone else”. From then on my control of the tv became even stricter and I went on a search for videos and tv programs that depicted Black children and mostly with African settings. From Akili and Me, to the Princess and the Frog, I hoarded all of them and began playing them all the time.

My biggest lesson from this? Expose the children to their language and their culture out here. My daughter told a police officer once that she was from China. Yes here I had neglected to tell her that we don’t necessarily come from the country we live in. I’m grateful that I’m homeschooling because I can tailor our lessons to address these issues as they arise. We are in the process of learning about the world, the African continent and our country South Africa. Back home I wouldn’t have to fully teach this because we would be exposed to all the cultures and languages and she would learn through interactions. But here, for her to be rooted, she has to learn about where home is and what it means to say that is home.

She now knows the stares will come and that sometimes some ignorant mom or dad or even grandma will pull their child away from us; but she also knows that she can make friends and meet amazing people. She also knows that being different is her superpower. She is beautiful in her uniqueness and should never question that. All she has to do is walk proudly and never feel less for being different. And as a mother, I have a duty to model for her. To make sure she is rooted in our African spiritual systems, our dress, our way of life, our languages and that she learns about the greatness of her continent and her people who are spread across the world and the great things they do. This is why I am grateful that I can home school her and teach her things she would not be exposed to in school.

I always say, you got to parent consciously. This way, you see things in your children that would have slipped through the cracks and you can allow your children to have a great experience, especially out here where racial diversity is not common.

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  • This was touching to read! It can’t be easy to homeschool in a place like China with all the internet restrictions too, but this princess will have a great future ahead of her now that she is learning Chinese and has such an early international experience. Well done Nancy!

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