Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Child is Born

Year before last I had the pleasure of welcoming my granddaughter into the world, two days before Christmas. Last year, being as I was here I missed her first birthday but I did get plenty of pictures of her. And, I do see her regularly on Skype. She doesn’t talk as much as Gabriel but she is quite the adorable baby with her curly red hair and blue eyes and baby-babblings.

Last year Sam and his wife had a baby girl, whom I had the pleasure of giving an English name to. After long and due consideration – about 20 seconds worth, I chose Erica for her. ‘Erica’ means ‘Eternal Ruler’, a name quite fitting for this serious baby who has my friend Sam and his parents wrapped around her little finger.

This year, Marjorie welcomed her first grandchild into her family. How well I know her ecstasy at holding him! She gushes so about him, but it is good gushing, and well deserved. She has looked forward to this time for years. I wouldn’t take anything away from her or cheat her of her joy in any way.

It seems babies are being born on the East Coast, West Coast in Asia and… all over the place!

Since I’ve been in China I’ve become acquainted with social mores as they relate to babies and child rearing. Some strike me as particularly strange and others give me that ‘DUH’ feeling – ‘why don’t parents in the West do that?’ type thoughts.

It seems that Chinese babies are not allowed an oral fixation. I have not seen a single baby with a pacifier dangling from his mouth, nor have I seen any pacifiers for sale in any stores. Not only do babies not get pacifiers here, but they are not allowed to put anything into their mouths. No fingers – little hands are promptly swatted away by whichever attentive adult is monitoring baby activity. No toys in the mouth either, not that babies here go out and about with many toys to begin with. The toy reference comes from my observance of babies in their home settings, on the occasions I have been invited to homes equipped with babies. Drool is wiped away before it can even form a proper bead on Baby’s lower lip whether at home or out and about. A bottle as constant companion is unheard of. Giving a baby formula is considered negligence; breast-feeding is the norm. Working mothers even get an extra hour for lunch break to go home and feed baby.

As straight as Chinese teeth are, and as few dental problems as they have, I have to wonder: does denying Baby an oral fixation have something to do with it?

Making ‘goo-goo, gaa-gaa’ noises at babies is construed as a sign of madness. If you are going to talk to a Chinese baby, then TALK to him/her, don’t babble. The baby gains nothing by being babbled at. However, it is OK to make strange noises such as: clucking your tongue, whistling and whoo-hooing to get baby’s attention. NOTE: whistling at Baby is reserved to induce bathroom functions, as mentioned in More Chinese Idiosyncrasies.

Babies here do not eat baby food. They eat regular food. As early as one month old, Sam was feeding Erica egg yolk and rice. Apparently she suffered no digestive ills and has since moved on to vegetables. Yesterday I visited a home where another baby was present and his grandmother was feeding him meat. He was just over one year old. Now I wonder: could the lack of processed foods also contribute to Chinese people’s long-term dental health?

And, speaking of one month old…

It seems that only the one month, one year and ten year birthdays are relevant, significant and celebrated in China. At one month old, the baby’s head is completely shorn. That is to bring about good luck; to let the blessings rain down on and soak in on Baby. As hair would impede such soaking, all hair is removed from baby girls as well as baby boys. Of course, the hair is preserved. But, Baby runs around hairless until his/her hair grows out again.

Makes me wonder: I’ve never seen a Chinese person with a cowlick. Have you? And, their hair is so thick. Could that early shaving have something to do with it?

On the morning of the baby's 30th day, sacrifices are offered to the gods so that the gods will protect the baby in his subsequent life. Ancestors are also virtually informed of the arrival of the new member in the family. According to the customs, relatives and friends receive gifts from the child's parents. Types of gifts vary from place to place, but eggs dyed red are usually a must both in town and the countryside.

At one year old, a general hoopla of joy is sounded. Baby is the focus of such hoopla. Because he/she has made it an entire year, it is thought that the baby will grow into a healthy, normal child. Historically, so many babies have died or evinced certain diseases that, if baby is normal and healthy by one year old, then the start of his/her life is commemorated by a huge party. The baby, being only one year old, has no idea of what is going on, only that he/she is the focus of attention. In this celebration, Chinese and American babies share the same bewilderment and joy. Chinese babies to do not get a whole cake to themselves, though.

At ten years old, the child is declared no longer a child. Not that he or she is cast out into the street and made to fend for him-herself, but that child-like behaviors are no longer tolerated. By age 10 a child is supposed to know what direction his/her life is going. In the old days it was not uncommon to summon a fortuneteller. Still today some parents consult oracles to make sure their child’s feet are pointed in the right direction. Kids are supposed to avidly pursue that direction, come what may. Parents start pushing, gently and not so gently. Even the educational system is geared toward engendering this distinction. The schools are split. The future doctors, lawyers, teachers, linguists and bureaucrats go to what is called ‘normal’ type schools for their elevated education; for those with trade school aptitude, they are relegated to middle schools that foster an environment conducive to trade school mentality. Students with artistic ability test early and go to their respective academies. No word on schools for ne’er-do-wells. Maybe because there aren’t any.

I can’t help but notice the same age distinctions in the West, and in religion. In the catholic system, by one month old a child is baptized. By one year old he or she is….. and on or by age 10, the child is either planning or has undergone his or her first confirmation ceremony. In general, whereas the one-month birthday is not that important other than for baptismal rites, the one-year and ten-year birthdays have certain significance. In education standards, at or around age 10 the child moves into middle school – the preparatory arena for higher education. Of course, everyone knows what happens at one year old: the baby gets her own cake and becomes an adorable laughing stock.

Whereas in the West, every birthday is commemorated, in China birthdays stop mattering until you turn 60. Apparently the ability to last that long is worth noticing and a big party is thrown for the birthday boy or girl. After that, every 10 years of life is marked by a huge family gathering and celebration until the person dies. It seems like, in the West, people want to STOP counting the years when they turn 60.

How did this parallel behavior come about? Curious, especially with regard to religion…

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