Coda: bringing up baby in China

Although I didn’t think I would write any more blogs, recent conversations about children, childbirth and childrearing have proved so revealing about ‘new’ China, that I feel compelled to record them. Both of the two young women we know best are pregnant. They married recently and convention dictates that a child must follow soon after the wedding.

Chinese society, at least in a third tier city like Ningbo, is stiflingly conservative. Traditions seem to apply with extraordinary rigidity in the context of pregnancy and childbirth. My language teacher, Yona first announced she was pregnant when she arrived for a lesson and refused my usual offering of green tea. She hadn’t yet told her mother. The doctor told her she must only drink hot water from now on. Fintan’s assistant Alice is also pregnant, and for the first few weeks, her mother arrived in her office at lunchtime with hot food for her.

Yona attends regular check-ups at one of Ningbo’s hospitals. I asked her the other day if she had access to any classes about childbirth or childcare, or a peer-group of young parents-to-be. She looked surprised at my question, although she said there were one or two ‘lectures’ at the hospital. ‘We do what our mothers tell us’, she said.

In China, for the first month after childbirth the mother ‘rests’ while traditionally the father’s mother looks after her and the baby. Neither mother nor baby leaves the house for 28 days. However, urbanisation has meant that nowadays many young couples have moved away and mother-in-law may not be available. Sometimes there is a tussle between the two grandmothers as to who will get this important role. Alice’s mother-in-law is sick, so her own mother will move in for at least a month to take care of her and the baby, along with a live-in ayi or nanny. Another couple we know have a house in the UK, to which they recently returned to have their second child. The mother is Chinese and her parents went back to the UK with them to ensure the month’s rest.

Fintan recorded an amusing conversation with Alice. She asked him what help we had when our children were born. She looked bemused when he explained that we didn’t have or expect any, other than a loving grandmother in the same city who occasionally gave advice if asked. The fact that, as a man, he provided all the necessary care and attention I needed, was met with stunned surprise. He casually described a useful piece of kit he’d recommend, a ‘bouncy’ chair for the baby, which kept the baby happy with a few toys, while he cooked or did housework. After 10 minutes he gave up trying to explain about the chair. Why would you need such a thing when you always have one or two grandmothers to hold the baby?

Yona is far more ambivalent about the mother-in-law/mother tradition. She realises that she cannot fight against the one month’s rest rule, although she draws the line at some parts of it. For example, she intends to wash her hair during the 28 days, a rebellious act in itself. It will be her mother who moves in, as her mother-in-law lives a couple of hours’ drive away.

But despite the distance, her in-laws have certain expectations. As they don’t see so much of his parents, her husband feels it is necessary to go to his village for New Year, which next year falls when their baby will be about three weeks old. They should then be able to celebrate the baby’s first milestone – reaching one month – with his family.

This leaves Yona in a difficult position. Is it safe or desirable to travel with such a tiny baby she wonders? How will her mother react? How will her mother-in-law react if they don’t go? She has already told her mother that she, Yona, is planning to take care of the baby herself after the first month, and not go back to work full-time. To her parents and grandmother this is incomprehensible, and I imagine difficult to accept emotionally. There is a strong expectation that grandmothers will take care of the child for the years before kindergarten. But Yona now lives in a completely different world from her semi-literate parents. She has knowledge of child development, especially in terms of language, and realises the importance of early years’ education. She realises that the old ways of doing things in rural China are not necessarily the safest or the most desirable. She has aspirations to teach her child English as early as possible.

Recently, my Chinese lessons have been taken up with these and similar problems. For example, yesterday we discussed where the baby should sleep – in traditional China, the baby sleeps in bed with its parents. We start in Chinese, but often revert to English as Yona desperately wants some answers to help her chart a course through her dilemmas. Although I am a foreigner from a very different culture, she clearly feels that I have more understanding of her aspirations for her child and knowledge of the kind of world in which he/she will grow up in than her own mother could possibly have. In a way it is flattering, but I feel both frightened by the responsibility and a pang of sadness for her mother.

Chinese music lessons

As I sit in my study in our flat in East Lake Garden in the evening I can usually hear someone practising western music, usually on the piano, but sometimes on the clarinet. The strangest experience for me is the daily sound from Upper Neighbour’s flat – crystal clear through the inadequately insulated ceiling – of piano practice. I don’t know who is practising – grandma, granddad, mother or son (aged about 5) – but ‘Bobby Shaftoe’ or ‘The Ash Tree’ comes through loud and clear. So far whoever it is can only play with one hand. I am eagerly waiting for the left hand to join in.
As the daughter of a piano teacher, I feel I am back in my childhood home, except that I don’t hear my mother shouting out ‘F sharp’, as she frequently did to me or other pupils who were not quite up to scratch. Learning to play the piano in the western style is endemic on the compound. There are at least three music tuition shops within walking distance of our flat, where children can go to learn. On Saturday mornings a steady stream of small children and their parents go to and fro for lessons. As this is China, there is no privacy, and you can peer in and watch the poor infants struggling through their arpeggios.
Despite the apparent hunger for learning to play a western classical instrument, you rarely hear classical music being played or enjoyed for its own sake. It may be that people are walking around listening to Mozart on their headsets, but somehow I doubt it. Learning classical piano seems to be just one more way in which Chinese parents stress out their children. The other day at a Christmas party, I sat next to an earnest young Chinese man who told me very seriously that his seven year old daughter was ‘out of control’. I enquired further – it turned out she was simply reluctant to do her daily three hours of homework and her piano practice, and then there was the problem of looking after the pet rabbit (she didn’t want to).
On the way to Hong Kong, where we spent Christmas, I read in the South China Morning Post of a clever ruse to make children perform even better at school. A teacher divided the class into 10 groups. After a test, the bottom two groups were fined 10 yuan each (about £1) and this money was given as a reward to the top two groups. Perhaps my Chinese dinner companion should consider something similar to exert parental control.
Hong Kong’s many plush shopping malls were alive with Christmas cheer – huge sparkling trees, snowflakes and lights and of course the canned music. It seems that Hong Kongers dream constantly of a white Christmas, despite the fact that the temperature is around 15 degrees centigrade and the weather was nice enough for us to eat lunch on Christmas Eve outside on the beach. ‘Frosty the Snowman’ was another favourite – sung with great gusto by the Hong Kong Children’s Choir at their annual televised Christmas Concert – complete with false snow.
Music in public places is actually a fascinating phenomenon in China proper. Walking in an urban park, you frequently come across groups of older musicians playing and singing Beijing Opera or other traditional Chinese music, younger people doing karaoke and older men and women with a radio in their hand which is blaring out Chinese recorded music. On our recent trip to Nanjing we came across a group of 6 little girls, aged between about 6 and 12, all dressed in identical pastel outfits with the same hair does and sitting at zithers (guqin) set out at the side of the street. They played an impossibly complicated programme for many minutes with great gusto, in front of an audience of adoring mums and dads.
I’ve recently become aware of a group of older women at East Lake, just visible from our kitchen window, who exercise to music in the middle of the morning, wrapped up in their down jackets against the cold. Their music tape includes a kind of rap version of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ – the rhythm allows them to shake their hands and feet with great energy. I notice that the older men stand to the side in their own group, not moving, but just shooting the breeze. Obviously the music just doesn’t do it for them.