Gym ≠ Gymboree… or does it? An expat’s reflection on Chinese parenting

Something that’s really been getting under my skin lately is how children are allowed to run rampant in my gym. I’m in a bit of a conundrum because I feel that I am powerless to complain about it. This type of playful, carefree behaviour is tolerated if not even expected of Chinese children. As seemingly the only person who is troubled by this behaviour in a gym whose staff and members are all Chinese, I feel like I’m swimming against the tide. It would seem to be a cultural difference rather than fundamentally inappropriate behaviour. It irritates me because there is absolutely no way children running amok in a member’s-only gym with expensive imported equipment would ever be tolerated in the US or the UK. Below I will discuss a couple of factors that I see making up this problem, both rooted in culturally relative behaviour. The first has to do with rules and the law, and the second is parenting methods.

The Law

As I understand it, where I come from (by which I mean the whole of my experience and upbringing, rather than any specific location),  many places have strict rules about children messing around in the gym because if they break something, the parents are liable and will have to pay for any damages. If the child is injured, the gym is liable and will also have to make amends. Nobody likes lawsuits. The law is different here in China, especially regarding assignment of liability. I don’t fully comprehend how it works yet, and suspect that studying Chinese law would only be a starting point as law in practice certainly diverges in varying degrees from what the books say.

But surely, regardless of how the law works here, a gym should take care to ensure that its equipment does not suffer unnecessary damage?


An issue that goes even deeper, one that I think about nearly every day as I live here and witness it, is the issue of parenting practices in China. I find it difficult to even begin to describe what I see, but I’d like to see this essay as the first of many in which I analyse this problem.

I will attempt to describe the way a typical Chinese child is raised, based on my observations so far. Many Westerners will describe modern Chinese parenting as an act of spoiling the child, which is true in many aspects. However they are also always quick to blame this on the one-child policy. Nowadays, the one-child policy is more relaxed than it was in the past, and in my opinion the issues I see go beyond the fact that many children are singletons surrounded by so many adults (parents and both sets of grandparents, and/or aunts, uncles, and nannies). I haven’t discussed the issue overly with my Chinese friends, so I don’t know what sort of advice young parents are given, what sorts of proverbs and sayings are thrown around. But what I observe is the strangest lack of respect in children for their parents and other elders. It seems to be believed that children should come before absolutely everything, to the extent that if a child does not wish to listen to what someone is telling them to do, this is perfectly acceptable. If a child wishes to interrupt two adults talking, this is tolerated. If a child runs through an area with adults at work, this is tolerated and the adults all chuckle at how precocious the child is. Basically, children are allowed to behave however they want, and no one says anything. What is this teaching the children? Certainly not how to function in the real world, where, like it or not, there is a hierarchy, and when a child from this upbringing is a university graduate looking for his/her first job, the top of the food chain will certainly not be them.

What’s interesting is that this is nearly a complete reversal of the Confucian concept of filial piety, which stipulates that a child should respect and care for their parents. Perhaps the adults think that after being cared for their whole lives, the children will return the favour. But having never been taught to respect these elders, the kids will only resent that once their parents grow old, there will no longer be anyone to spoil them. Having had everything handed to them their entire lives, how will they even know how to go out and get something for themselves, let alone do something for the sake of another?

You hear stories of Chinese parents following their children to university so that they can cook and do the laundry. The child isn’t expected to learn to do these basic things themselves because they should be focusing on their studies. I’ve seen a little girl playing skip-rope with her mother and aunty where every time the girl went to jump over the raised rope, the mother and aunty would drop the rope to ensure she always cleared it. Children are not allowed to fall on their face here. Never mind that making mistakes is the best way to learn. Perhaps I’m biased because my parents always let me fall, and always waited until I got up myself (a metaphor that extends from my toddler years to adulthood) . I know I am stronger and more capable because of it, and I pity anyone who is not given this opportunity.

It irritates me because I see it every day. The other day there was a toddler crying to be held by his grandma who was sitting across a crowded bus, and not only did the grandfather not shush the child and say that it was inconvenient to do so at that moment, but the woman sitting next to the grandmother shouted across the bus to say, “Bring him over, I’m getting off soon, you can take my seat.” I am not saying that in the US and the UK there are not parents who treat their children this way. But it is understood that this is “spoiling” them. We have all sorts of sayings, such as “children are to be seen, not heard,” which imply that children should respect the realm of adults.

I feel that even the individualism of Western countries and the collectivist mentality of the Chinese—a dichotomy that is in no way the only way to view all aspects of either culture—comes into play here. If the toddler of an American woman was trying to interrupt her workout, the mother would undoubtedly say “Not now, sweetie. Mommy’s busy” and send her away. Mommy’s time belongs to Mommy. Today in the gym a similar situation unfolded, and it was allowed. Mommy’s workout time belonged to everyone: herself, her trainer, her observing husband and her small toddler. I cannot fault this, as it is, in my opinion, a cultural behaviour. No one involved saw it as unnatural. However, in her runnings about, the toddler ran straight into another woman in a private training session, and was playing with the Bosu ball and Pilates mats as if they were toys.

I feel that as far as arguments go, if I were to attempt to address this issue with my gym, expressing my concern with children misusing the expensive gym equipment imported from America would be the most persuasive. Convincing a nation that their parenting practices are, in my opinion, simply wrong, is an impossible feat. After all, most of the children aren’t hurting anything or anyone; they are merely adorable little houseflies buzzing around in my peripheral vision. But what about the ones interrupting the workouts of others and misusing equipment? The trainers stand to one side and say nothing to these children. The child is never made to feel responsible for the gym equipment or for the personal space of the other members. Whose fault will it be when one day something is broken? Assignment of blame might be culturally relative, but everyone understands money. Should I use this truth to attempt to enact some change? I almost feel like an anthropologist caught in the objectivity/militancy debate. Do I remain an objective observer? or do I initiate contact and attempt to enlighten (is it even enlightening? Am I even in the right?)

Perhaps I think about it too much. As an expat, this feeling of alienation can be intense and seemingly interminable at times. Perhaps it would be better to just maintain a sense of my own identity, one which may at times be in opposition with the identity of my country of residence. I know that emigrants to America and the UK adapt similarly: they stick to communities of people from their own country, maintain their national dress and religion, or insist on speaking their mother-tongue at home. I guess I’m just suffering from the cultural schizophrenia any person genuinely interested in the language and culture of the country they’ve emigrated to experiences. Whether I decide to confront my gym or not, perhaps the more important question is: How do I not go crazy as an expat in China?

Agree with me? or think I’m totally out of line? Let me know, leave a comment!

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