Beijing’s cold winters cause heated debates between parents and ayis
Nothing gets parents and their ayis hot in the face like Beijing’s cold winter days. Mom turns her back for just a moment, and junior’s buried under yet another layer – take it off, and ayi’s face sours, letting mom know she’s wondering if Western parents really do care about their children as much as Chinese parents do. It’s a classic clash of cultures, a battle that often leaves both sides convinced that the other has no idea how to look after a child.
Maybe ayi’s right – after all, Beijing’s cold weather is nothing to be sneezed at. Its brutal winters bring illness and suffering to the region each year, and have driven a long-standing dread of the cold deep into the local psyche. Parents demonstrate this fear more than anyone, and not without reason – Beijing’s children’s hospitals are filled to capacity each winter. Knowing this, it’s not difficult to understand why Chinese parents wrap their kids in layer after layer and stare incredulously at Western kids playing outside clad in just one jacket.
Beijing mother Ying Hongxia isn’t willing to take chances. “Chinese living standards are still way below those of the West,” she says, “and Beijing’s high latitude means that winters are hard on children. Here, it’s essential to wear appropriate clothing to ward off the cold.” Another local mother, Helen Wei, shares her concerns, noting that Chinese tradition dictates that babies should be dressed warmly and that children should not be taken outside in cold weather. “I’m constantly afraid of my son getting cold or running a fever,” she confesses. “I don’t have the heart to see him suffer.”
Australian mother Rebecca Malzacher uses similar logic to explain why she attends to her son’s comfort first. “Even 3-4 year olds can’t say when they’re too hot, or express what they’re feeling,” she says, “but you can see if they’re sweaty or grumpy, or agitated when they’re outside. You can take a layer off to see if it makes a difference.”
Malzacher and her ayi Jennifer Zhang have long since buried the hatchet on this issue. “Sure, she used to take him out with too many clothes on him, and he’d come home all sweaty,” Malzacher recalls. But over time, both mother and ayi have learned to respect each other’s methods and work well together.
“She used to dress him in these huge, itchy tights she’d knitted for him,” Malchazer says. “It was a lovely thing that she did, but we had to refuse to let him wear them. We introduced her to cotton tights, which were more comfortable.” Of course, comfort is not all that matters – Zhang Ayi’s long experience with Western families has taught her that their children are allowed to develop a resistance to the cold, and that the high living standard of expat families goes a long way towards nurturing a child’s health. “The Chinese method is very tender,” she explains. “A Chinese mother will hold a sleeping baby for hours to protect it from the cold – but Westerners pay more attention to fostering good habits and building resistance.”
No matter if they prefer baby in 22 layers or only two, both parents and ayis clearly have the child’s best interests at heart. Making a decision about exactly how to respond when the temperature drops, though, will get much easier with good communication (check out our vocab list for handy lingo), time, experience, and, of course, attention to the bambino itself. “A long-term ayi will be familiar with the baby’s health,” says Zhang Ayi. “If the baby’s health is good, you can relax a little. With Nicholas, if his palms are sweaty, I’ll take off some of his clothes. If his hands are cold, I’ll put on another layer.”