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!”

Drink this for your yang

What, there’s a lineup of huge glass jars of whole snakes, lizards and deer penises soaking in booze on the drink counter? Well what did you expect to find there? This is China; China’s a whole nother version of normal.

Our preschool staff had Teacher’s Day dinner at an extravagant BBQ buffet, which included all-you-can-drink beer and traditional Chinese health tonics:

lizardjiu

Lizards, snakes, various roots, gǒuqǐ berries (枸杞), etc. of various combinations soaked in hard Chinese liquor (白酒):

lizardjiu

These kinds of tonics are not uncommon in Chinese restaurants around here. They’re usually intended to 补阳 (supplement your male qualities).

These things aren’t especially notable within China, and all the ingredients are available at the nearby traditional market (photos!), though this is the first time I’d seen these traditional drinks lined up in a ritzy buffet right next to the Coke and coffee machines. But if we’re talking outside of China… there’s just no end to the stuff around here that would raise a few eyebrows outside of China.

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:

Summer heat… with Chinese characteristics

Last week on Wednesday afternoon it was over 30’C. We were sweating in the office — not because we don’t have big air conditioners but because everyone except me is afraid or unwilling to use them enough to actually make the room comfortable. A coworker thoughtfully brought me a cup of water, bless her soul, which she’d poured from a hot thermos. I knew it would be that way, and as my already-sweaty hand felt the heat through the “Little Foreigner”-brand (洋人) cup’s paper sides, I knew it was time for a summer-in-China post.

Turns out (big surprise!) the Chinese tend to manage the heat differently than we do; for foreigners this basically means unnecessary sweating. When I remember to think, I see these big differences over ultimately little things as opportunities to practice understanding and getting along with people who have fundamentally different perspectives from you — something our Western societies tend to do a pitiful job of in general. And we need the practice, because if you have Chinese friends you’ll easily discover big differences over bigger things, too.

1. Cold will give you chronic health problems

Our Chinese tutor is thoroughly convinced that the reason she has painful cramping every month is all due to a particular event in her childhood. When she was 12 or 13, right around the time when she had her first period — I should mention here that if talking about your periods and diarrhea and weight and acne and other body-related things makes you uncomfortable, China will either cure you of that or make you cry, maybe both. When it comes to casually discussing these kinds of body things, Westerners tend to be hypersensitive by comparison. Now back to our language tutor’s menstrual cycle… — she’d been out playing sports on a really hot day. She was all flushed and sweaty and came inside to have a shower. She stood under the shower and turned it on, but the water came out really cold and shocked her. She’s convinced that that untimely instance of drastic temperature change — a hot sweaty body getting doused in extra cold water right at the time her body was changing — is why her monthly cycle is painful to this day.

She comes over for three hours twice a week. We put the air conditioner on “dehumidify” instead of cool. Don’t want coming to our apartment to cause her to fear for her health.

2. Hot sand is good for your bones

Friends in Vancouver, Canada – which neighbours called HONGcouver when I was a kid – asked on Instagram:

I didn’t know, though I guessed it had to do with TCM. So I ask our tutor, and she immediately replies, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that lots of times.” She didn’t know why the lady was wearing a shirt and shorts, but apparently it’s not uncommon for some people go to the beach, get wet, and then cover their skin in hot sand. This helps get the ‘Wind’ and ‘Damp’ our of your bones to prevent “Wind-Damp disease” (风湿症 aka rheumatism) in the future. That was out tutor’s explanation, anyway. (More about this and links to more TCM stuff here: How to scandalize your Chinese neighbours: Evil stepmother edition.)

3. Air conditioners make you sick

Jessica goes to a Chinese book club; it’s great for meeting people and improving her Chinese. This particular group happens to be the more ‘cosmopolitan’ kind of Chinese: younger, educated, disposable income, international travel experience, lots of ‘foreigner friends’, and they love practicing their English so much that many of them only know each other by their ‘English names’ and not their real names. Point here being they’re less typical. Not saying they’re less Chinese, just that they’re a particular breed that’s more foreign-influenced.

So they meet last week, everyone shows up sweaty, and they turn on the air conditioner. Then one more person comes in. She has a cold. She sits directly in front of the air conditioner and then asks if they can turn it off because she’s sick. There are sympathetic comments about ‘air conditioner disease‘ (空调病) making lots of people sick right now, but no one wants to turn it off. This group has figured out that not sweating indoors is nice. They hint at her to sit somewhere else and that they don’t want to turn it off, but this only child is either oblivious or unwilling. So they turn it off, and everybody sweats. After all, she had a point: air conditioners are bad for you.

P.S. – Cross-cultural anecdotes

This is not a disclaimer, but I do want to say something about cross-cultural anecdotes and what they mean and don’t mean.

Anecdotes are powerful; they make impressions. They don’t prove anything, but they can vividly illuminate or mislead depending on how they’re used. I’m not making this stuff up, and I’m not trying to give a particular impression of China or Chinese people. The stories on this blog are not a representative summary of Chinese thought and culture. But they are China as we encounter it. If they illuminate and help outsiders better understand Chinese culture, great. I hope so. Regardless of how accurately this blog portrays the Chinese, what our stories truly represent is one North America family’s personal encounter with and growing understanding of Chinese culture. I hope our experiences, and our understanding of our experiences, accurately reflect Chinese culture, but we’re learning as we go here.