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 (亲妈妈), 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!” (不怎么管她) 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!” (潮 / 湿)
Jessica: “So? What will happen?”
Neighbours: “She’ll get sick!” (得病)
Jessica: “You mean she’ll get a cold?”
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 (中医学术理论（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 (潮). (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 (寒) and Moist (湿) and Wind (风), 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: