Simon Gjeroe is a Danish writer and author of Made in China, published by Earnshaw Books. In his book, Simon Gjeroe humorously tackles the subject of becoming a father in China. In his book, Simon highlights the world of cross-cultural marriage and parenthood in China.
Where does the idea for the book come from? Where did you start?
Quite early on in Fu’s pregnancy, I realized that being “pregnant” in China was very different from what I had learned from friends in any other country I can think of. And why, of course, wouldn’t it be? I had thought, obviously, naively, that cultural differences wouldn’t be a cause for concern. It was “just” a pregnancy, something millions of fathers all around the world go through every year. But the questions quickly piled up: “Where can you go and who can you visit during the pregnancy?”, “Can you take your wife seriously if she starts to wear overalls with teddy bears or oversized dresses looking like an X-ray apron from the local hospital?”, “Do I have to eat the placenta?”, “Can you live with your wife if she has not showered for a month after the delivery?” I tried to find information for foreigners in China both online and in books but found it pretty much absent altogether. Since I hadn’t seen anyone else write about their experience of becoming a father in China, I thought to myself: why not try and write one or two articles about the whole situation? Apart from anything else, it would be fun for our children to read one day. So that’s exactly what I did. After many friends and acquaintances started to ask me to share my personal experiences, I decided to collate all of these experiences into a small book for the benefit of many more people both in China and around the world. And here it is.
What were the biggest challenges you have faced as a couple? How has the perception of mixed couples changed in China over the years?
No doubt, challenges definitely became bigger after we became parents and have had to find and provide our children with the best of both worlds and cultures. Naturally, we don’t always agree on what is the best and thus we have to find a middle ground. A case in point is the education system where the Chinese and the Danish system are rather different. In addition, even though Fu and I are happy that the boys are not in Chinese school, we can agree that sometimes the Danish system is too lax.
When I first moved to China in 1995, Chinese students at Sichuan University were not allowed to have girlfriends or boyfriends, and some had even been expelled for dating or marrying foreigners. Of course, it didn’t mean it didn’t happen, but it was definitely not easy and much happened in the dark bamboo groves at night. During the 1990s, traveling a little outside major cities, a foreign or mixed couple could easily draw crowds of more than 50 people just by sitting and eating a bowl of noodles in a small restaurant. Since then, a revolution has taken place, and everything from the way people are dressing, couples openly holding hands in large cities, and whom young people choose to date and maybe later end up marrying not who their parents want or maybe even chose, but who they really want. However, I do believe that it is no longer seen as outright rebellious to date or marry a foreigner and maybe we have even lost a bit of our charm, as the numbers of intermarriages seem to go down. But if stares were not already common before, they definitely became a daily occurring thing after Fu became pregnant and especially after the boys were born. As a family, even in Beijing or Shanghai, we have been the cause of numerous close-call traffic incidents with people literally walking into trees or street lights and ending up millimeters from being run over just because they were busy scrutinizing our children or looking up at us.
What did your wife think of your idea of writing a book about your experience as a couple?
She thought it would be fun as a memoir of our time in China both for our children and us. At the same time, we soon realized how quickly you forget many details and how differently we have experienced the same situations. Our marriage, pregnancies as well as motherhood, and fatherhood changed our lives forever and completely, and this will be a fun way for all to remember our journey together. However, it is also important to think, that as soon as the book is out, this will be the story for the future and the way our children and maybe even their children will remember and learn about it.
The book is an opportunity to describe contemporary Chinese society from an unusual point of view. How do you think Chinese society has evolved since you arrived in China?
I cannot emphasize enough that writing about our experience has in many ways been very difficult, both because it is so personal, but also because on the surface China is developing at the speed of light, but underneath that, age-old customs, traditions, and superstitions still play a very important role in most people’s everyday lives, and that is especially true when it comes to pregnancy and having children. It is important to remember that it is a memoir which in most ways ends when we decided to leave China, and many perceptions, as well as the reality of things, have surely already changed quite a lot since then. During the 25 years or so I have lived in and worked with China, it has nearly been impossible, at any point in time, to say anything about China, which is either true for all of China at the same time or for more than a short period, because Chinese society changes so fast. Maybe, in some ways, pregnancy, birthing, and raising babies is somewhat of an exception here as it seems even our most hipster Chinese friends have all gone completely traditional and old-school as soon as they became pregnant.
One of the frequently recurring themes in your book is the role of superstition in a couple’s personal life in China. How did you find a balance?
First, it was quite difficult to distinguish between superstition, common sense, and good advice. It really surprised me how traditions, superstitions, and what I would call ‘old wives tales’ take over in Chinese families when it comes to birthing and raising children. Some things I simply had to live with such as the food. As soon as Fu became pregnant, everybody – family, friends, neighbors as well as complete strangers saw it as their duty and right to tell her what to eat and what not to eat. First of all, food was categorized as either ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ and it had nothing to do with the temperature. I learned that cold foods eaten early in pregnancy could lead to premature birth or miscarriage, and some foods were to be avoided altogether or just eaten completely without any spices. For example, Fu had to abstain from eating rabbit heads, because the child would be born with a cleft lip and crabmeat because it would result in a naughty child. On the other hand, Fu ate large amounts of pig’s feat to boost her milk supply after our oldest boy was born. Then again, we did not have to discuss Fu wearing oversized overalls featuring some kind of cute and cuddly teddy bear on the front, eating the placenta, or not washing or brushing her teeth for a month after the delivery. However, our boys were “Made in China”, so why take any chances? As such, we decided it couldn’t harm to listen to and live by at least a large part of the well-meaning advice given to us.
How long did it take you to make this volume?
The short answer: It took much too long. I started out by writing a short article about the first pregnancy and now my oldest son is soon 12 years old. That says it all.
What is your next project?
I have a few other book projects in the drawer. But next, I would like to finish a book I have been working on for way too long. It’s about China’s greatest warlord Zhang Zuolin and his Danish weapon advisor Robert Christensen who built the world’s largest weapons factory for him during the 1920s. In his seven years of service, he was able to follow Zhang from the great dreams and successes of the beginning, through the conquest of large swathes of eastern China – including Beijing – to the final collapse of his armies, complete bankruptcy of the Manchurian economy, and his eventual assassination in 1928. Christensen also documented the development and change of Mukden (Shenyang), as well as the life of an ex-pat living through good times, with baijiu and champagne flowing freely. It is a great story! I cannot wait to tell it.