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How to scandalize your Chinese neighbours: Evil stepmother edition

Brace yourself; we’re going down the cross-cultural rabbit hole.

China’s Good Samaritan Exception

As you may have heard, Mainland Chinese are (in)famous for not being Good Samaritans; they really don’t want to get entangled in some other family’s problems. Domestic abuse, public medical emergencies, blatant pickpocketing — if it’s not their family, it’s not their problem, and it’s too risky to get involved anyway. But I’ve found an exception to this rule: our kids.

What happened yesterday is a prime example. Jessica took the girls to play outside while I was teaching. It was pushing 34’C and neighbour kids were playing in some water on the sidewalk and invited ours to play. Scandal ensued.

Pop Quiz: Spot the Scandal

Now, Chinese culture pop quiz: Why is this stranger grabbing our kid?

There are clues in the photo. But there’s nothing special about the water (the pipe delivering potable water to the building sprung a leak, so free clean water!) or the ground; it’s just kids playing in water on the sidewalk. But if China had a Child Protective Services and Chinese people cared to use it, they’d consider calling it on account of our horrible parenting on display in this picture.

The parents and grandparents (not all the kids & caregivers are pictured) were visibly disturbed and provoked to intervene more than once when Jessica didn’t stop K, our youngest, from sitting down on the wet sidewalk. They’d try to stand her up, and she’d just give them a look and sit back down (notice the stools in the picture). And of course they hassled Jessica about it. According to our language tutor, if a Chinese person let her kid play this way, neighbours would gossip that she can’t be the biological mother (妈妈), that she must be a stepmother (后妈后娘) because only an uncaring non-relative would let a kid do that. “She just doesn’t look after her!” (不怎么) is what they actually said in front of Jessica.

Oh, I… see.

Of course, Jessica asked questions to get them to explain. She knows a good educational entertainment opportunity when she sees it.

Jessica: “What’s the matter with her sitting down?”

Neighbours (looking like Jessica has three heads): “Dampness! Moistness!” ( / 湿)

Jessica: “So? What will happen?”

Neighbours: “She’ll get sick!” (得病)

Jessica: “You mean she’ll get a cold?”

Neighbours: “No!”

Jessica: “Then what sickness?”

Neighbours: “Her bones will get sore.” Then they quickly discuss what the proper term is, and say: “Rheumatism!” (风湿症)

As with a great many of the stark, mutually-appalling Chinese v. North American parenting differences, this one is rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). By TCM I mean the health theory (学术理论中医学)), not Chinese herbs (中药) like ginseng or specific applications (具体应用) like acupuncture (针灸), guasha (刮痧), or fire cupping (拔罐).

TCM is a fundamental given for the Chinese, part of their basic fabric of reality. And it’s so deeply culturally determined that it’s virtually incomprehensible to Westerners. (Fun game: If you want to get yourself patronized like a silly little child, go explain to a Chinese friend how TCM is make-believe and inferior to Western medical science.) But I won’t let a little thing like that stop me from trying to explain! :)

The problem is, according to the popular TCM understanding of our neighbours and of our sharp and foreigner-accustomed language tutor (I could write several posts on the reasons she gives for her real or imagined ailments), if our daughter sits in the water on a bricked sidewalk, she’ll get Damp (). (Well, shoot dang! No kidding. She might get wet, too. Maybe even soaked!) But they don’t mean damp like what you’re thinking; it’s more like damp+. Being affected by Damp Air (潮气) is a particular TCM health condition; Damp involves but is not entirely reducible to the purely physical/material/scientifically investigate-able and explainable phenomenon we think of. Ditto for related TCM concepts like Cold () and Moist (湿) and Wind (), all of which can get into your body in some nonspecific unobservable way and give you future health problems. Maybe like cooties? With Chinese characteristics?

The fear is that because of the water and the material that bricks are made of, Cold Air (寒气) could get into our daughter’s body or bones (身体/骨骼). She would therefore “get/receive/be subjected to Cold” (受寒). This would cause her to get sick (得病), not in the sense of “catch a cold” (curious we say it that way, eh?), but in the specific sense that Cold entering her bones when she was almost 1-and-a-half-years-old will cause her to have rheumatism when she’s old.

Anyway, this little episode is interesting to me for a couple reasons: the TCM stuff, but also because it’s a situation in which normal Chinese people actually intervene on a regular basis. I wonder if us being foreigners makes them more or less willing to intervene like this.

More about being a bad parent in China:

About getting involved in other people’s business:

And about TCM:

5 thoughts on “How to scandalize your Chinese neighbours: Evil stepmother edition”

  1. I’m curious, Joel, how you typically respond? Like most westerners in China, I’ve had the same discussions, but I’ve yet to find a response (other than the usual “western bodies are different than Chinese bodies” explanation Chinese friends give me) that politely allows me to continue with my chosen behaviour without interference. I suppose I’m not asking about smaller things you can let go by, like the stool on the sidewalk, but the larger things that impinge on your choices for raising your children or yourself. Have you found a polite response that is accepted?

  2. Scarlett, is there a specific larger situation you’re thinking of?

    I can’t think of a situation where this has been a serious problem for us — it’s annoying at worst, but basically harmless. I can imagine how we could end up in serious conflict with an overzealous traditional teacher for our girls. But they don’t have one like that. People haven’t persisted in trying to intervene after we’ve engaged them in conversation about whatever it is we’re doing ‘wrong’ at the time. In our experience so far we’ve found people are plenty willing to offer negative commentary, but at the same time they’re also willing to live and let live.

    Some form of “foreigners are just different” usually works, and in the moment when we’ve got ten other things on our minds that’s sometimes how we automatically respond. But I always feel like that’s a cop-out; it just emphasizes our differences instead of increasing mutual understanding.

    Sometimes I say “Foreigners aren’t afraid of Cold/Wind/Damp/etc” or “Foreigners can’t get [TCM condition]” — those are at least true to the best of my knowledge. :)

  3. The ground is typically a lot dirtier in China. Kids pee on it all the time and it is just not taken care of. In China people are very leery about how dirty the ground, roads and sidewalks are and rightly so. To them you were letting your kids sit in a sewer.

    1. That would have been my first guess, too, if all I’d heard was that neighbours were trying to stop our kids from sitting directly on the ground and that they’d brought stools out for them. There are different attitudes toward outdoors surfaces here (and after the few years we’ve been here, we’ve more or less adopted those attitudes, too).

      But ‘dirty’ was not the answer our neighbours gave. And here they tend not to care about the ground being ‘dirty’ as much as our neighbours in Tianjin did — in TJ they wouldn’t sit on park benches without a newspaper, but they don’t carry newspapers around with them here. In the play areas of course they don’t want kids touching the ground on account of all the pee, but this wasn’t near a play area.

  4. You should have seen the looks on people’s faces when I let my children play un-protected in the rain on an 85 degree day. Though most people are kind enough to chalk it up to foreigners and Chinese being biologically different (if only all the politically correct Americans could hear my Chinese friends insist that we must be biologically different when talking about why TCM doesn’t work for foreigners, and why the “damp” doesn’t make us sick). The air conditioner sickness thing drives me up the wall. I try to turn it off when my Chinese friends come to my house so that they won’t give me a lecture about it. I love the look on your littlest daughter’s face. It’s a bit more polite than the looks my children give sometimes :).

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