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.

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More on infrastructure: outside and in

I discovered the answer to my question about Ningbo’s need for such a huge new station late last week when I made another visit to Shanghai. I had to go and retrieve our passports, now complete with visas for our upcoming Spring Holiday trip to India. I only hope the holiday is worth the effort of dealing with Indian bureaucracy in China.

It was still a couple of weeks before the official Chinese New Year holiday, which sees the biggest temporary mass migration on earth, but already the waiting hall was very crowded. Every seat was taken, either with travellers or by huge sacks of belongings. The poorest migrant workers can’t afford suitcases and carry their clothes in thin, zipped laundry bags or empty rice sacks. I saw two men sitting next to industrial sized floor polishers; difficult to know if they were seeking work elsewhere or just taking their machines back home to show off or keep safe. The juxtaposition of Ningbo rich and poor was stark; migrant workers carry their sacks on their backs up the long new approach road to the station, while the middle classes get out of their Mercedes and BMWs at the dropping off point.

If this is the amount of people two weeks before Chinese New Year, the waiting hall will be absolutely jam packed on the peak travel days – not something I ever want to experience. Nevertheless, the capacity is obviously needed, even if only for a week or so a year. On the way back from the station in the evening the taxi driver established where I was from, and then asked me if we had roads like this (we were crossing a four lane highway in the usual anarchic style) in England. No – nor such big stations I told him.

Nearer to home earlier in the week I came across more development of the local infrastructure. I was on a mission to try and get some shoes re-heeled, having practised the relevant vocabulary with our cleaner. The small shoe-shine shop which I hoped would provide the service seemed to have gone out of business, so I continued out of the east gate towards the market. What a transformation! I hadn’t ventured this way for about three weeks, and in that time the pedestrianized street full of parked cars and small lorries selling fruit had become a functioning dual carriage way, connecting a new bridge with the highway on the other side of the compound. A low safety fence in the middle prevented me crossing over. Traffic lights had been installed at what was now a working crossroads.

The local informal economy on our side of the new road seemed to be unscathed – the steamed bun shop and the electrical ‘recycling’ shop were still operating, while farmers still had their wares laid out on the pavement. However, across the road a row of tumbledown sheds and stalls had been razed to the ground. I feared for Bicycle Man, whose truck-shop was usually near there. In fact, he had just moved himself around the corner and was clinging on to his business beside a pile of bricks and rubble.

I eventually found where to cross the road and turned towards the market, wondering if it would still be there. Now the new Green Tree hotel and pharmacy building and wider pavement built in the last 12 months made more sense – they were part of the upgrading of the area. Not everyone was impressed by this gentrification, however. In front of one of the new buildings a farmer had set up a stall to sell his recently slaughtered cow. The head was on full display, eyes still bright and tongue hanging out. The meat was laid out neatly, cut by cut.

To my relief, the market was open with most of the familiar stallholders who smiled and greeted me, and persuaded me of the superiority of their wares. No sign of ‘my’ market man though. Maybe the unsocial hours, the cold weather and the pace of change are just too much for him.

Today we are hoping for some new infrastructure in the apartment. Over the last week the electric water heater that supplies our shower has been operating inconsistently. Getting up to a tepid shower in an unheated room is too much for us weak westerners. We got Alice onto Landlady. To our surprise Landlady immediately ordered two new heaters for both of our bathrooms. She thought they were getting old and had been meaning to replace them. Servicing or checking out the trouble didn’t seem to be on the agenda. This is China; out with the old, in with the new.