Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Babies, Here and There

Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting Julia and Chris, the young couple who raced my own Darrell and Sam to the delivery room (See The Great Baby Race entry, posted last month). This was my first time seeing Julia since her confinement and the first time laying eyes on their baby, Tian-Tian. I have seen Chris in the interval; he is already back to work. He has shown me pictures of his baby but nothing could have prepared me for the breathless beauty of their child.

Before I actually beheld him, Julia met me at the door, clinging tightly to me. I hugged just as fast. I suspect she sees me as more than just a good friend and confidante. I certainly feel a maternal protectiveness and love toward her. Chris looked on until I snaked an arm away from his wife to include him into the embrace. We stood that way for a while. Before letting go, I rained kisses on both their heads. They are truly precious to me.

From there the afternoon progressed: holding and caring for the baby, talking girly stuff (or, if you will, mother-daughter stuff) with Julia while Chris divided his attention between helping his mother in the kitchen and helping Julia with the baby. Not put out or put upon at all is Young Chris by this double duty. He would gladly do this and more, so deep is his love for his wife and his commitment to his family. He is a fine young man, and he helped host a pleasant evening.

This entry would have gone much differently had I not paid a rare visit to Starbucks today. The steadily falling rain, coupled with a lack of internet connection at home (again!) drove me out of the house for fear that boredom and melancholy would engulf me, should I stay. I would rather visit any other café than that franchise but I had to exchange a mosquito netting tent I had bought for my bed at Walmart, and, here in China where there is a Walmart invariably there is a Starbucks.

There is also a McDonald’s, but their chairs are not conducive to curling up with a good book and whiling away the afternoon, sipping tea and reading. Furthermore, why would I want to eat anything from McDonald’s, when I can get a Chicken César wrap and a cup of tea from Starbucks? A little more expensive but much better tasting, and with comfortable chairs.

After assuring my patronage by plunking down nearly 50Yuan for the above mentioned treats I selected a comfortable seat across from two computer jockeys facing their laptops. They confirmed those chairs were vacant and invited me to sit. Perhaps they were reassured by my supposed inability to understand anything they say, them being Chinese and their mouths set to rapid-fire speaking mode. I didn’t care to eavesdrop anyway.

Across the aisle, in a large group seating section were three mothers who were Caucasian. Each had a toddler playing around, thus occupying the whole area. They did not visibly acknowledge my presence, just as I did not try to connect with them. Foreigners in China have a strange habit of ignoring one another, presumably so that their own ‘authentic Chinese experience’ does not get tainted. Yes, even at Starbucks, foreigners tend to not mingle.

Getting comfortable, I pulled out my phone to answer a few text messages. While doing so I noticed one of the babies from across the aisle ogling me. I smiled and waved at Little Mr. Baby. He smiled back, cute little guy that he was. I smiled again, waved again and said “Hi, Baby!” Delighted with this new game, my little friend widened his smile.

We could have played on forever had I not glanced up, still smiling, and caught the young mother’s baleful eye. Mind you I had not moved from my seat, leaned forward or in any way gotten any closer to her baby. That little tyke had made no move to cross the aisle, had not started crying and had not indicated in any way he was fearful or in danger. I have no idea what that young woman was thinking, but she set my mind to thinking… thus the tone of this entry.   

Let’s be perfectly objective here: I am a big woman. At 6 feet tall in my bare feet and weighing in at a solid one hundred ninety pounds, little of it fat, I cut an imposing figure. Some might even say an intimidating figure. Short of the NBA lineup and the mythical Amazon tribe I am bigger than most, on any continent. My hands are big enough to palm a basketball. I already told you about my dauntingly large feet in The Quest for Shoes, way back in August of 2010.

Nevertheless I enjoy being attractive and feminine. I like wearing jewelry and makeup, I enjoy styling my hair and, while I don’t exactly wear clinging, revealing clothing I am easily recognizable as a woman by virtue of my anatomy. However, I am aware that I could easily be mistaken for a man, just for my size. In fact, if I was to wear a bulky jacket, omit the earrings and not dab on the little bit of makeup that I’m never seen without, I would, more often than not be called ‘sir’.

I go to great lengths to minimize my intimidating appearance. I modulate my voice into a softer contralto range, even though, when speaking seriously my voice does tend to dip down into lower registers. Not as far as bass; more like an upper-range tenor. I smile a lot and make eye contact. I use non-aggressive body language. I suppose that is why children of all ages do not perceive me as a threat. Their parents, on the other hand…

No, scratch that. Parents of Chinese children delight when I take any type of notice of their baby. They encourage their offspring to mingle with the tall, smiling stranger. Many invite me to hold their child. Knowing what an honor that is I gladly consent, always. Invariably they will take a picture or 5 of their child, smiling up at the large, foreign stranger who is smiling at him/her.

Parents of Caucasian babies react to me in the exact opposite way. While their children also show no fear and are in fact drawn to me, should I interact with their child they are immediately wary and protective. They admonish their child to ‘not bother’ me and hastily gather their progeny, even when said child cries and resists being forced away from someone they felt drawn to.

I have no idea what quality I possess that draws children to me. And I have no idea what drives parents of Caucasian children to fear and avoid me. I am well aware that there is much written about kidnappings and children being harmed. The list of cautions against strangers wishing to mingle with children is miles long.

Apparently such a list does not exist in China. Not only do I not encounter avoidance when making eye contact with any person who is Chinese and, in fact have to be cautious lest I be embroiled to a greater degree than I wish, but the warmth, sincerity and open respect I enjoy by their treatment leaves me that much more dumbfounded when encountering the blatant iciness of people who are Caucasian.

Here, it is perfectly OK for me to give a small treat to any child I encounter on the street, be it a street I travel often and am well known on or a street in some small village I’m visiting. The parents do not snatch away the goodie to inspect it microscopically later on. More likely, the treat will be preserved as something given by The Foreigner. Stateside, paying attention to someone’s baby without invitation stirs suspicion and giving candy to a child is a social faux pas, indicating anything from possible pedophilia to attempted kidnapping.

Sadly, I admit that it is true: such actions have led to tragedy in the past. The trusting child, unaware that bad people inhabit this world, has reached for that candy and gotten snatched up. Not just in the Western world are kids snatched though. In China children are kidnapped too. So why is the nature of people who are Chinese more open and trusting than that of their counterparts who are Caucasian?

And what is wrong with delighting in the beauty of a child of any race or ethnicity, especially if such delight is manifested from a safe, non-threatening distance?

I would have thought that young mother today would have smiled benevolently at her child who was learning how to be social and meeting not a menacing stranger but one who exhibits only safe, comfortable behaviors from afar. It pains me to think that this innocent child will eventually be stilted and stunted by his parents’ prejudice. Even sadder: he might not be much safer in this world, for all their caution, admonishments and care.  

On the other hand, I did get to hold Tian-Tian again last night, before leaving. Mr. Baby was being a bit fussy. Both parents had told me their little prince was giving them trouble when it came to sleeping. It seems he never wants to. I had an idea that Little Tian-Tian was probably a bit gassy seeing as he is breast fed and does not burp after meals. I demonstrated a way to hold him at a forty five degree angle, all while rocking him on my knees and chattering softly to him. To their surprise and delight, their baby was asleep within 2 minutes. Of course, out came the cameras. Naturally, I smiled my most engaging smile. 

He stirred when I handed him off to Chris, who tried the same technique I had just demonstrated. Tian-Tian fell right back to sleep. Relieved, Julia and Chris bade me farewell and put their baby to bed.

See? Babies love me and I mean them no harm in spite of my imposing figure. Why can’t parents of Caucasian babies realize that?             

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