Exactly the same, except when it’s different
There are few things in this world about which I can claim to be an expert. Having given birth four times in four different places, however, I can safely say I know a little about the subject. So I tell you with some certainty: While the actual process of giving birth is more or less the same as it is back home, the details sure are different.
Mostly, it’s the little things. I missed the cups of ice that nurses hand out during labor and delivery back home; we Americans love our ice cubes. There was no alarm strapped to my tiny newborn’s foot – no need, I suppose, in such a small ward with just one exit. Then there was the small matter of the doctor. Moments after delivering our baby, our Australian doctor came by to say good night – with a bicycle helmet tucked under one arm. That’s right: While I was in the throes of labor, twisting and yelping and generally feeling as though I was being ripped apart by lions, he was pedaling furiously to the hospital, dodging taxis and stray dogs, with speculums and stethoscopes trailing behind him in the dark Beijing night. Different, indeed. I’m pretty sure my doctors back home all drove to the delivery room.
After I left the hospital with my newborn baby daughter and a birth certificate I couldn’t read, things got even stranger. It turns out there are all sorts of postpartum traditions in China, and all of them seem to run counter to US beliefs. So when I walked into my son’s school just a few days after giving birth, the teachers all gasped in horror. Not only was I outside, but I was outside with bare arms! And sandals! And freshly washed hair! A few days later, I arrived at the school on a bike. I may as well have told the school director that I’d sold the baby to the circus – I thought she might collapse on the spot when she saw me.
Here in Beijing, it really does take a village to raise a child. That’s what I discovered when I took my 2-week-old to the Summer Palace. As our kids hopped out of the mini-van one by one, we were surrounded by a gape-mouthed mob. They watched as my husband loaded tiny Ainsley into the baby sling, and then they started squawking at him. My husband translated, and it was as I feared: They were scolding him for letting me and the baby outdoors. One woman shook her finger at Ainsley’s bare feet and she asked, “Where are her socks?” Not wanting to start an argument about whether babies need socks when it is blistering hot outside, I simply pointed at my bag and said, “In here.” “Well, put them on her,” she demanded, arms crossed.
The crowd followed us through the palace grounds, growing each time we stopped. When it was time to nurse Ainsley, I arranged myself discreetly underneath a blanket. The baby fed while I gazed out at my new fans, unnerved by the man pointing the telephoto lens at me. I loved the Summer Palace, with its breezy walkways along the lake and its elegant buildings, but we spent so much time posing for photos that we didn’t see much of the place.
As our baby gets bigger, I’m growing used to the attention. Now that we’ve passed the one-month mark, we still draw crowds, but people tend to keep their opinions about our baby-raising skills to themselves more often. Everywhere I go, people ask about my baby, about my kids. My Chinese isn’t ready for in-depth conversations, but I understand enough. “They’re beautiful,” passers-by tell me. “So cute!” strangers in the elevators exclaim. “Four children,” my neighbors remark in wonder. “You are so lucky.”
“Yes,” I reply. “Yes, I am lucky.” I smile back at them, and I know that everyone is right.
But I still won’t put socks on my baby.
Donna Scaramastra Gorman is a freelance writer and mother of four who has lived in Beijing for one year. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor.