When you dare take your week-old infant to the neighbourhood vegetable market in China

The days following a birth are up and down, so Jessica tells me. Some days it’s all, “I love my baby!!! I love my kids!!! I love my husband!!!” while on occasional days the smallest criticism can provoke tears. Jessica was feeling good and feisty today. She was also tired of sitting inside and so decided to brave our neighbourhood streetside vegetable market for the first time since giving birth — with our 9-day-old son in a Ergo carrier.

baby_in_the_marketShe knew it’d be pushing the buttons of every Chinese auntie and grannie in sight and generate non-stop commentary from the moment she stepped out the door (because she’s done it before), but she didn’t care. Besides, it’s not like she hasn’t already been accused of being an evil stepmother. ;)

Here’s what she was repeatedly criticized for during her fifteen minutes in the market:

  • being outside
  • bringing the baby outside
  • wearing short sleeves (it’s 20’C and sunny at the end of May)
  • buying tomatoes (they’re a “Cold” food, as in Traditional Chinese Medicine theory “Cold”; eating “Cold” things is exactly what post-partum women aren’t supposed to do)
  • being so thin and losing weight since the birth (how much weight exactly?)
  • being too active during pregnancy and not eating the right things (and that’s why he’s so small) (he was 3kg at birth)

She opted not to mention that we’d already been to Beijing and back for an embassy run. ;)

This is our third time to have an infant in China, so none of this is a big deal and it’s completely understandable. It’s certainly not our first time to draw a crowd with a foreign baby or receive well-intentioned-but-unsolicited-and-annoyingly-personal criticism (criticism often conveys concern or interest in China; it’s not usually meant to be mean). But it’s still kind of funny, especially because her sister-in-law is here from the States to help out — a ‘fresh’ foreigner encountering China for the first time.

Way back when we were preparing to bring our first infant to China, Australian friends who’d had their kid in China around the time ours was born in Canada sent us a list of everything we had to look forward to/brace ourselves for. It’s still funny (and full of valuable information)!

Links in this post:

market_flower

Chinese belly button voodoo

Took kid #2 to the local hospital because of some stubborn tummy trouble, and came home with some Chinese medicine:
bellybutton_voodoo2bellybuttonherbs
Of course herbal belly button plugs are a thing:
bellybuttonplug
I hope we’re doing this right:
bellybutton_voodoo1 According to my Weixin pengyous, we should be OK. (And to be fair, China’s not the only place that comes up with novel health remedies.)

Waving turtles at traffic

After so many years here, we rarely see anything “new.” But this recently made me do a double-take:

turtlefisher

I’ve passed this woman twice now, and each time I asked about her on Weixin (what we use in China instead of Facebook). It’s a handy way to get interesting answers to cultural questions (like that time my superstitious neighbours made me uproot trees I’d planted in our shared grass area). Also, “What turtle?” 什么龟 and “What the heck?!” 什么鬼 are near homophones (shénme guī/guǐ), so it’s fun. You usually get a variety of answers because even if various regions share similar traditions, sometimes the stories and reasons behind them are different. But I couldn’t get much of a consensus on this one, except for: “It’s a scam!”

turtlefishing

Weixin friends gave me various explanations. Here’s a sampling:

  • She’s advertising a traditional turtle soup (very nutritious!) 炖汤很滋补。见过有人停车买。
  • She’s selling turtles 路边卖老鳖
  • She’s extorting Buddhists, who will pay her to let the turtle go free (but then she’ll go catch it again!) 悲催的乌龟先生被人贩子以积德行善名义高价卖给有缘人(一般会是信佛教的人)去放生,然后他会偷偷的跟着买家等放生后用一种技巧召回乌龟,继续卖。周而复始……我弟弟亲眼见过,而且这样的人喜欢在河附近的大马路上卖乌龟。有人会做大补的食物买去,也有人会被卖家说服了去放生。“Miserable Mr. Turtle, kidnapped in order to be sold at a high price to those fated to accumulate merit through good works (usually its people who believe in Buddhism) who buy them to set them free, and then he’ll secretly follow the buyer and wait until after its been released, and use a special trick to call the turtle back and continue selling it. Over and over again… My younger brother saw it with his own eyes, also this kind of person likes to sell turtles near rivers. Some people make a really nutritious food to sell, other people will be convinced by the seller to release it for merit.”
  • Chinese medicine 中药
  • She’s scamming people by passing off raised turtles as wild turtles. 骗人的 / 忽悠人的 / 这个人是骗子 / 这些人是骗钱的,很便宜的价格买进鳄龟,然后把它们身上搞上点泥土,再打扮成农民工的某样,说这龟是在河里干活捉到的野生龟,可以卖高价格,千万别上当。 “These people are scammers, they purchase cheaply priced turtles and put mud on them, then dress up like migrant peasant workers and say they caught this wild turtle while working at the river, they can be sold for a really high price, by all means do not be taken in!”

Imagine this in the average North American family restaurant

Imagine this, from the front counter of a neighbourhood restaurant, suddenly appearing one night in an average North American restaurant:
Chinese_health_drink
Perhaps, you can’t believe your eyes. But it’s exactly what it looks like: a full set of some male animal’s genitalia (seal, I’m guessing) soaking with gǒuqǐ berries and some other, unidentified ingredients in báijiǔ, China’s infamously impression-leaving hard liquor.

These health tonics in glass barrels on restaurant counters are pretty common in our area. For a fuller description, see:

Curiosity + China = way more than I bargained for

Drink this for your yang

Welcome to China! Here’s your (surprise!) free fire-cupping!

We got more than we asked for on the grandma-&-granddaughter foot massage outing when they decided to throw in a free firecupping… without telling us first.

Surprise free firecupping!
We didn’t see this coming…

More about fire-cupping:

Chinese-as-a-Second-Language, Episode 6: Coffee enemas

Maybe you think writing about coffee enemas is… in poor taste. Well, this isn’t about coffee enemas; it’s about the crazy stuff that floats through our daily conversations in China and the deliciously odd experience of encountering it in a second language. Like last week’s little exchange:

“Hey, Dajiang! I sent you a Weixin message for Jessica, to help her recovery.” (Jessica recently had surgery, and our Chinese friends have been super supportive.)

“Oh, yeah? What is it?”

“It’s about a treatment that’s really popular right now: coffee guàncháng. It’s helping lots of cancer patients recover.”

(I’ve never heard the word guàncháng before, so I just ignore it. You can usually get through a conversation without understanding every single word.) “Ha, if I tell Jessica she has to drink more coffee to get better she’ll be very happy.”

“No, Dajiang. It’s coffee *guàncháng*.”

I think it’s interesting how our brains handle this kind of Chinese-as-a-language situation. All within a split-second, your brain realizes that this word does matter and searches out your best guess from within the Chinese you have. Our brains are wondrously quick and powerful, but not foolproof (as I’m about to discover).

Context is extra important in Chinese, with its relatively small number of syllables and incredible number of homophones. Every syllable is a character, and a single word can be one or more syllables (“big” + “learn” = university 大学). Guàn-cháng is two Chinese syllables, which my brain takes one at a time, starting with the most familiar:

  1. Cháng is easy. We’re talking about health so I assume it’s the cháng for intestines 肠, a character we see all the time in the market and on restaurant menus, rather than the cháng for “often” 常, “long” 长, “taste” 尝, “big flat open space” 场 or the surname 常.
  2. Guàn — Ok, medical and health topic, something about intestines, medicine that you don’t drink… guàn guàn guàn… the only guàn that comes to mind is this thing we occasionally ate for lunch in Tianjin called jīdàn guànbǐng, not very much like an oily Chinese egg McMuffin, where they slice open one side of the biscuit and crack an egg into it before frying it. I’d never paid attention to the literal meaning of the name: egg (jīdàn) + enclose? + Chinese biscuit (bǐng).

So the train of thought goes like this:

  1. “cháng”
  2. + medical treatment context
  3. = intestines.
  4. “guàn”
  5. jīdàn guànbǐng?
  6. “egg” + “enclosed”? + “biscuit”
  7. “guàn-cháng” = “enclose” + “intestines”
  8. + medicine association
  9. = “enclose” in the “intestines”?
  10. = …suppository?
  11. “kāfēi guàncháng” = “coffee suppository”?

So I’m going with coffee suppositories and the conversation doesn’t miss a beat; that whole thought process takes just a split second. But I do whip out my Pleco dictionary as we’re talking to make sure. And according to Pleco, indispensable lifeline of Chinese language students everywhere, guàncháng = enema. (Turns out guàn means “pour” or “irrigate”, not “enclose”; “egg-poured biscuit” makes more sense, too). So we’re talking about coffee enemas — “coffee-poured intestines” — not coffee suppositories. Or maybe I should think of it as “coffee-irrigated intestines”? This conversation just keeps getting better and better.

“You believe it?”

“Yeah, look! It’s not just in Hunan province — that’s just the TV station that aired the program. Lots of places are doing this!”

“Well thanks! I’ll definitely tell her!”

If you’re curious about the health benefits of multiple daily coffee enemas aka 咖啡灌肠, you can drop this link‘s text into Google translate.

You can also browse lots more Chinese health, language learning and cross-cultural fun:

P.S. — Just to be fair, this is a China blog so I write about China stuff. If I were writing a North America blog, I could mention the trendy North American health advice I received last year from an American friend who e-mailed me suggesting I use garlic as a suppository to help beat a lingering cold.

P.P.S. — For the good kind of North American health advice, see Wellness With Joanna (though as far as I know, she has not yet commented on garlic or coffee as suppositories or enemas).