Thursday, August 6, 2009

Don't let your babies be satellite babies...

An SVG map of China with Fujian province highl...Image via Wikipedia

What are satellite babies? It's a term believed to be coined by Yvonne Bohr, a chilinical psychologist at York University in Toronto. It describe children of Chinese-American families, whose parents are working so hard, they decided to send their recently born children to live with grandparents in China, and bring them back when they are old enough to attend preschool.

The problem is, these satellite babies grow up to have MASSIVE psychological issues adjusting to life in America after spending their earliest years in China, and they are not old enough to recognize and discuss such issues. Some refuse to recognize their parents, some want to leave and are perpetually unhappy, some cry for no particular reason (that adults can see), some even turn masochistic, such as hit their heads against walls or other self-harm acts. Many are initially (and mistakenly) diagnosed as autistic. ALL needed psychological help, and not all are getting it.

Interestingly, it is a phenomenon virtually unheard of outside the Chinese-American society, due to several... peculiarities of the Chinese culture.

1) Chinese value their filial duty, and many defer to their grandparents when it comes to childrearing
2) Living standards in China are much cheaper than in the US, even if you count the plane tickets and long distance calls
3) Chinese families often live on opposite sides of the world. The old generation stay behind while the younger generation venture out and establish life in America,
4) The Chinese parents are working way too hard to provide any sort of proper family life (many are small business owners who works like 80 to 100 hours a week), and
5) these said parents want some Chinese culture indoctrination for their children early on, lest their children turn into... banana (yellow outside, white inside, a derogatory term for American-Born Chinese who looks Chinese, but acts completely American, with no trace of Chinese heritage other than genetic)
6) the grandparents have NO exposure to American culture, language, and so on.
7) a mistaken belief that young children will more readily adapt to new environment

If you are a satellite baby, your earliest memories would be a Chinese upbringing. Everybody is speaking Chinese. Every care is taken care of around the clock. You learn to be quiet until spoken to, and to appear obedient and cute (in other words, passive, don't stand out, don't make waves...) and mostly, be spoiled rotten by doting grandparents.

Then suddenly, when you're three or four, old enough to be preschool, start to have some ideas about the surrounding world and how it works... BLINK, you're in America. Unfamiliar surroundings, nobody you'd really recognize, everybody speaks ENGLISH except at home, NONE of the stuff you learned in the past few years apply any more. Who are these adults (parents) that are taking care of me but don't really have time? Where are the kind people that took care of me? Why doesn't any one else speak my language? Who are all these strange looking people? Why doesn't anything make sense?

No wonder some kids go bonkers! It's like taking them from Earth and drop them in the middle of an alien culture! Combine that with the Chinese upbringing they already got (internalize everything, don't make waves, etc.) it's small wonders why their heads aren't more messed up! Children without the early Chinese conditioning will act out violently, such as fights, screaming, and so on. But Chinese children are taught NOT to cry, not to make waves, and so on. So they turn into self-harm, passive aggressive behavior, and so on. They internalize, often withdrew into their own world where they are in control, or act out control fantasies such as superhero (and everybody else is "bad guy", including the parents).

And I can attest to this bad adjustment first-hand. I have a friend who has two rambunctious kids that had been living with grandparents in China for past several years. They almost appear to be twins, even though they are a year apart. They show absolutely NO discipline when they first got here. I personally witness them them HIT (punch) their own parents! They aren't as bad though as these parents go back every few months, and I think the mom stayed in China for several months to acclimate the kids before bringing them back. Still, it was NOT a happy family for a while.

This phenomenon is not new. During WW2, Germany Luftwaffe was bombing London daily in the period known as the "London Blitz". Some children were evacuated from London without their parents, often with their parent's wishes. Later psychological studies show that many of these children were so traumatized by the separation, it may have been better to let them endure the danger of the bombing instead.

And the idea of satellite babies is not new either. Immigration experts pointed to Chinese women who were smuggled over over a decade ago, often from the Fujian province of China, having children here, but due to various circumstances, chose to send their children back to China for initial upbringing. These children, however, are brought back much later, often as elementary school students or even later. It was only in recent years, when free all-day childcare became available in the US, that younger and younger children are brought back, and the problem exacerbated.

What can be done? Don't create satellite babies in the first place. If yo're too busy to have children, then don't! If you got them, then make time for them! If you don't pay the price now, you will pay later... WITH INTEREST TACKED ON.

So what to do if you already have satellite baby(ies)? Find professional help ASAP. Most large cities have a "Newcomer's Center" which can often refer you to child psychologists who can help deal with the issues. Also check with your child's teacher(s) and other school resources, as some areas have recognized the problem and have developed therapy for such children. Even so, expect years of adjustment, and even then the child may not fully recover.

Just to show you that EVERYTHING has a price. You may not pay it, but your children may instead.

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