On a summer Sunday afternoon, Joan and Sam Pho's white Colonial house south of Boston echoes with the cheerful sounds of children. As baby Christopher crawls around the living room, 4-year-old Brandon snuggles next to his grandmother on the sofa, singing a song with her. When they finish, laughter fills the air.
This is no ordinary song. The words are in Chinese, grandmother Kok An Yin's native language. It is one of many cultural gifts she has brought from her home in Ipoh, Malaysia, during extended stays with her daughter's family. Since Brandon's birth, Mrs. Kok has made this 9,500-mile journey three times. Her shortest stay was three months, her longest nearly a year.
"She just loves the kids a lot," says Mrs. Pho, of Canton, Mass., a restaurant manager. "She sees the baby's fat smile and she's stuck."
Kok is part of a small, largely invisible contingent of devoted Chinese grandparents who leave their homes, families, and friends for many months to care for young grandchildren in the United States. Their presence serves as a measure of the importance Chinese families place on the extended family.
"People still want to stay with their children and grandchildren," explains Amy Lin Tan, author of "Chinese American Children & Families." "The middle generation still understands deeply that it is an obligation to have the paternal grandparents living in the home."
No statistics track the number of Chinese grandparents who come as temporary visitors for this purpose. But as C.C. Tien, president of the Chinese American Forum in Seattle, observes, "It's not rare."
According to Ms. Tan, the grandparents come from three major areas: mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. The number of those from Southeast Asia, like Kok, is much smaller. Some arrive as couples. In other cases, a grandmother makes the trip alone. Kok's husband remains in Malaysia, tending their family farm.
"He keeps himself busy there," Pho says. "He says he doesn't mind, but I'm sure he misses my mother. My mom always worries about him."
Prepaid telephone cards, sometimes costing only pennies a minute, ease the separation. Pho's son Brandon sometimes bridges the miles by singing a Chinese song on the phone to his grandfather.
Kok also calls friends from Malaysia who are here caring for their grandchildren. One is in California, the other in New York.
These grandparents serve as far more than long-distance nannies. They also offer rich opportunities to pass along their language and culture to the youngest generation. Referring to Brandon, Pho says, "His Chinese is much improved since my mother has been here."
For Jimmy Hao and Angela Guo of Needham, Mass., international family bonds have involved both sets of their parents. When the couple's daughter, Daphne, was born two years ago, Ms. Guo's parents came from their home 300 miles north of Beijing. Her father, a mine safety engineer, stayed for three months. Her mother, a retired doctor, stayed six months. Two days after she left, Mr. Hao's parents, who live 200 miles north of Beijing, arrived. They stayed a year. His father, Changfu Hao, is a retired businessman.
"Grandparents love children so much they like to do almost anything for them," says Hao, who, like his wife, is a patent agent for a Boston law firm. Adds Guo, "They want to make themselves useful. My grandparents helped take care of us. Now they have some free time, and they want to help us."
Yet these long-distance caregivers face challenges. Most do not speak English or drive a car. "My mother always complained about the language difficulty," Guo says. Chinese movie channels on cable networks offer one connection with home.
"When they're 50, 60 years old, learning a new language is a big problem," says T.C. Peng, former managing editor of the Chinese American Forum in St. Louis.
When Pho's mother came the first time, she refused to step outside alone. "What if she got locked out?" Pho says. "She didn't even know how to make a phone call." With each visit she has gained confidence.
Communication can sometimes be difficult even within a family. Yan Xu, a biologist north of Boston, has welcomed her parents twice in the past three years, when her son and daughter were born. But Ms. Xu's husband, who is German, does not speak Chinese.
Some families also encounter cultural differences.
"There's a lot of traditional care for the newborn in China," Mr. Peng says. "If the grandparents come from a rural area, where the influence of modern medicine has not reached very far, that can be a big problem. If the baby goes for a checkup, the doctor says one thing and the grandparents say, 'No, no.' Everybody is thinking about the best for the baby. But what is best for one culture is not necessarily best for another culture."
In a traditional Chinese family, Peng continues, grandparents are not merely baby sitters. "They carry some authority. If the grandmother says we should take care of the baby this way, if the daughter is traditional, she would tend to follow the advice."
Describing her mother as "very, very traditional," Pho notes that some Chinese customs require mothers to stay in bed for a month after giving birth.
"Chinese also believe that we have to eat certain foods for the first month," she says. "We eat a lot of chicken and a lot of pork feet cooked in some kind of herb vinaigrette. We also must eat a lot of ginger. I ate 10 pounds of ginger that month - ginger and chicken, ginger and pork feet, ginger and fried rice."
Still, there are benefits for all members of the family. Those in the older generation sometimes find freedom they would not have at home.
"In China, or any Chinese community in general, generally speaking, parents do not live in a married daughter's household, because the daughter is married off to another family," says author Tan, a native of Taiwan. "But here in America, it's quite common. When their daughter has a full schedule and young children, the daughter's parents often come to help, especially the mother. In the Chinese community, people will kind of give you that look: 'Oh, now you live with your daughter?' Here, they are much more free to do so."
Similarly, Tan says, grandfathers in China normally do not help with child care - changing diapers and feeding babies. "Here they don't mind doing it. Nobody is watching. They don't have to worry about their image being ruined."
For some, a stay in the United States brings an added benefit: travel. Both Hao's and Guo's parents have enjoyed Chinese-language bus tours to New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Niagara Falls.
"This is a lifelong dream," Guo says.
When their visas expire and grandparents must leave the country, many bid tearful goodbyes to the grandchildren they have doted upon.
"It was very sad for all of us," Xu says, recalling the day her parents returned to China after their first stay. "Grandparents are one of the most important things you can give your children."
Still, despite all the advantages, Pho thinks it's possible that, for her family at least, the intergenerational child-care tradition could end with her mother's generation.
"For our generation, we all work," she says. "I'll probably need to keep my job instead of baby-sitting my grandchildren."