Next week’s Chinese New Year will be extra special for one Chinese couple who have lived and worked in Dublin for the past 12 years.
Ray Chen (31) and Ting Ting (32) are travelling back to China for the celebrations, which means they can share them with their seven-year-old daughter, who is being raised there by her grandparents. For their younger child Cooper, who is three years old, it will be the first time he will be able to hug his big sister Coleen, who he knows only through a video link.
The couple, both from south-east China, came to Ireland independently and hadn’t met until they were introduced by a mutual friend in 2009. They married the following year and were expecting a child by early 2012.
“We were so young, I was 23 and she was 24, and we didn’t know how to look after a child,” says Ray. “I was so panicked, I said maybe it’s a good idea that we go back to China so our parents can look after our child.”
They were on student visas, so Ting Ting returned home at seven months pregnant to have the baby. After their daughter was born in China, Ray could stay only four weeks before returning to Ireland and his wife followed him two months later.
When they left Coleen in the care of Ray’s parents, they thought it would only be for three years, at most, before they would return to live in China. But less than three years later they were expecting their second child, who was born here.
While all three now have Irish residency visas, it is a slow process to obtain one for Coleen. They hope that she will be able to join them within the next two years.
Ray and Ting Ting, who both work full-time in catering, use the WeChat app every few days to talk to Coleen from their Dublin city-centre apartment. But on parenting matters, they defer to Ray’s mother and father.
“They raised me so I trust their ability to raise Coleen well,” he says. “She is going to the drawing class and the dancing class at weekends and she is doing really good at school.”
They speak Mandarin to Cooper at home and he is picking up English at the creche. “When he sees Chinese people, he speaks Chinese. I don’t know how he manages to know”.
Ray had no problem integrating into Irish society, having made many friends through his job at the Guinness Enterprise Centre. But he knows it is not always easy for other Chinese people.
The 2016 Census recorded 19,447 people of Chinese ethnicity among the “usually resident” population, making up just 0.4 per cent of the total.
It's estimated that a further 3,500 Chinese students come here on an annual basis, says Aimee van Wylick, producer of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival that runs from February 1st to 17th.
The primary aim of the festival, hosted by the Dublin City Council and now in its 12th year, is to celebrate Sino-Irish relations.
Not only does it showcase new year events for the Chinese community but it also has a role in educating the Irish/international community, she adds, about Chinese culture and traditions.
The Chinese government allows people to have two children now but a lot of people don't want to, it is so expensive
Ray envisages his son will have a mostly Irish upbringing, with a little bit of Chinese culture. For their daughter, once she joins them, it is more likely to be “half and half”. Coleen is very outgoing, so he thinks she will cope with the transition.
As to what aspects of Chinese culture he wants to pass on, Ray says language is a priority. He would also like them to know about traditions, such as celebrating New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival at which “mooncake” is eaten.
Ray has an older sister who came to Ireland before him. The one-child policy was not enforced in the rural part of China where he grew up – particularly if the first child was a girl, he explains.
“The Chinese government allows people to have two now but a lot of people don’t want to, it is so expensive.”
He doesn’t want the entire focus of his children’s lives to be on academic study and will encourage them to play sport, which, he believes, will make them happier.
For school work, he says he will just tell them, “don’t shame yourself”.
This laid-back attitude is not typical of Chinese parents but Ray knows from experience that constant pressure is stressful. His father, a landscape gardener, expected him to study very hard.
“I don’t want to be like that. You don’t get much out of it. You might get a really good grade but I don’t see the point.”
He loves the relaxed way of life in Ireland. “I have become so lazy,” he jokes. However, he is not sure if this slower pace will be good for his son if he doesn’t know any other way.
“The whole of China is fast,” he says and if Cooper were to go back there, “life would be very quick for him”.
It was only the arrival of Cooper that made Ray realise that leaving Coleen in China was “a bad decision”.
“I was like, ‘oh my God, I missed so much quality time with Coleen that I have with Cooper now’ .” It makes him sad but he also gets annoyed, he adds, if people judge them for doing what they thought best at the time.
Angela Wang (39), who has spent half her life in Ireland, says it is quite common for Chinese parents to have a baby here and bring him or her to grandparents in China, when just two or three months old.
While Angela believes she treats her son 'just like an Irish kid', she does want him to know everything about China
Couples want to make as much money as they can “and here a childminder is very expensive”, she says. Whereas in China, the grandparents are usually “fighting to look after the child”. Parents are also keen that their child learns Chinese before returning to Ireland for the rest of their education.
“They leave the child there until they are 10 or 12 years old and then bring them back. It’s very sad.”
She regards her own son, Luke Wang (12), as “very Irish”. She is raising him with her Irish partner, Mick O’Connor. Luke can speak but not write Mandarin, and she talks both it and English at home.
Angela is from Shenyang in northern China, where both her parents “were very strict for me at school. It is not like in Ireland, where the kids are very happy and finish school early.”
Luke’s school day at the all-boys St Brigid’s National School in Foxrock, south Dublin is over at 2.40pm, whereas at his age, she was in school from 7.30 am to 6pm or 7pm.
“We finished proper school at 5pm but you had to join homework club afterwards.” She also remembers her parents asking her to study for an hour before school and weekends were taken up with art and music classes.
While Angela believes she treats her son “just like an Irish kid”, she does want him to know everything about China and he is very interested. But Luke, having heard about the experiences of some friends who left Ireland to go into the Chinese school system, has told his mother that is certainly not a move he wants to make.
Clearly an Irish boy at heart.
Motherhood is one culture shock that Shimeng Zhou was totally unprepared for when she and her husband Dong Wang left China for the first time to come to Ireland at the end of 2013.
He is an engineer and had been offered a good job with a financial trading company in Dublin. “At the time we were both a bit tired of the life in Beijing and decided we wanted to make a move,” she says.
Within 10 days of their arrival, Shimeng thought she had a serious stomach bug and sought medical help. She was shocked to discover that she was unexpectedly pregnant at the age of 26 – news she found hard to come to terms with.
Not only was she having to adjust to life in an English-speaking, Western country where the couple knew nobody and she was unable to work, it also meant that her plan to stay here just a year before going to a university in Hong Kong for post-graduate study was no longer possible.
“It was the loss of independence and the social status that was a huge problem for me,” Shimeng explains.
I was struggling with myself and how to put myself back in shape, to have a life of my own
While she is outgoing and enjoyed a busy social life in China, Dong is introvert by nature. It was not easy for him to make friends here through work, to build a social network for both of them.
“I feel I was stuck in jail, not having a life,” she says.
Determined to get back on track, she started to study art history at Trinity College just eight weeks after their daughter, Shinyee, was born.
In hindsight, she believes that was too early but the plans had been made before the reality of motherhood hit. Dong arranged to work from home for a while to enable her to go to college but it was a difficult time for both of them.
Shimeng feels it contributed to her post-natal depression and anxiety. About six months after the birth, she had a serious panic attack. “I thought I was having a heart attack.”
It was not caring for a baby that she found so challenging. “I was struggling with myself and how to put myself back in shape, to have a life of my own.”
But four years later, and with the help of the college counselling service, it’s a very different story.
Shinyee started to attend the creche in Trinity College from the age of six months and Shimeng’s part-time course evolved into a Masters in European art history, which she completed over three years. Now she is seeking a doctoral programme in art history research and her daughter will be starting primary school in September.
“Surprisingly”, she says, she no longer has a sense of being an outsider in Ireland. “I feel very attached to society now.” Two days before we spoke, the couple had filed their application for Irish citizenship.
They are raising Shinyee bilingually, speaking only Mandarin at home in Crumlin. “But we make sure if we go out with her that we speak English. We don’t want people to feel we don’t speak English. We love to make connections and friends.”
Born in 1980s China, as society was opening up and the economy beginning to boom, Shimeng excelled at English from an early age and considers herself quite Westernised. She was never going to take the strict “tiger parenting” approach that was typical of her parents’ generation.
They believed it was in children’s best interests to be driven hard to succeed and to learn self-reliance. “They wanted to prepare [you for] the worst; they wanted you to grow up a strong figure.”
Shimeng knew she was expected to be “first, first, first” in everything. “I was always punching myself for not being the perfect one.”
That’s not what she wants for her daughter. “I want to make sure she is happy; I don’t want to make sure she is perfect in other people’s eyes.”
Having returned to Beijing for a visit in December 2017, Shimeng saw that this more relaxed and affectionate style of parenting was shared by university friends who also had children.
“We kiss them as much as they need, give them love – always give them support and praise.”
Whereas the emphasis in their own childhood would have been on what not to do and try harder. She believes they are the first Chinese generation to start a fundamental shift in their approach to parenting.
Growing up as their country was opening up, they were exposed to a mix of cultures and English-language television, which made them realise three-wheeler other ways. “We give a lot more respect and love than push.” Whether this is good or bad, only time will tell, she laughs.
Struggles and disagreements
Certainly, Shimeng knows she was a lot more independent, and from the age of seven was walking to and from school alone and cooking for herself.
“I am a strong figure because of the way I was raised. I was always trying to figure out how to get through a problem because I had to rely on myself.”
She thinks fatherhood has been more of a struggle for Dong, as he was raised in an even stricter family. It means they can’t always agree on parenting matters.
“It is difficult for him: he loves the girl but sometimes he’s very strict with her. I say ‘you need to respect her a little bit more’ .”
However, she reckons she is probably still quite strict compared with Irish parents, in the way she lays down rules for her daughter.
“For example, in the house I ask her to respect each of our spaces. She can’t really put toys in the living room – she has a little playroom for herself and she has to put everything back at the end of the day.” In other homes she would notice people don’t mind if children throw things around everywhere.
Otherwise, she reckons her approach is similar. She sees how Irish parents also insist on their children being polite and well behaved.
However, one other difference, she adds, is her tendency to be “over-protective” of Shinyee. She doesn’t know whether that comes from growing up in a one-child-policy society – although she herself has a twin sister – or just her own nature.
“I am very protective of her. Sometimes I let her be ‘my baby’ whenever she wants.” Whereas, she points out, if Shinyee was the first born in a typical Irish family, she would probably have had a younger sibling after a year or two.
“They have to learn to be independent, to be the ‘big one’ in the family. But my little girl is always the baby, so she’s spoiled and gets whatever the attention she needs.”
Chinese New Year Festival events
The flagship event of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival, from February 1st to 17th, is the Spring Festival Fair on February 9th and 10th in the CHQ Building in the Docklands.
It will feature workshops ranging from calligraphy and clay-making to Tai Chi and acupuncture, cultural performances, film screenings and food stalls.
Celebrating the Year of the Pig, which starts on February 5th, other family-friendly festival events include:
All-age Chinese Square Dancing: Sunday, February 3rd, 2pm-4pm, Temple Bar's Meeting House Square, free.
Animals of the Zodiac: workshop for pre-school children, Wednesday, February 6th, 10.30am, The Chester Beatty, free.
Sketching Swine – Pig Life Drawing Workshop: Dublin City Farm, St Anne's Park, Saturday February 16th, at 10am, 12 noon, 2pm, for all ages, tickets €6.