My nearly 14-month-old daughter was placed in a sitting position on the floor against the wall, all bundled up by her 奶奶 (Nainai). Her parents were getting ready to make the journey back to Beijing after Spring Festival. I was on the other side of the room and noticed her slipping to one side. Her arms were too stiff to right herself. She compensated by rolling herself over onto her stomach, but then her legs were also too stiff to get up on her knees to crawl. As I was crossing the room to scoop her up, I heard her say her newest word: “Uh-oh!”
From our trip to Canada over the holidays, I brought back a secondhand snowsuit that was heavily inspected and then “approved” by my Chinese in-laws. I prematurely assumed that I’d won the battle regarding overdressing. Little did I know that the suit, two sizes too big for her in Canada, would seem tight in China. No amount of arguing about its windproof fabrics could persuade them to dress her in less underneath. The poor kid looked like a sumo wrestler with an infant head.
During winter in Beijing, it’s not unusual to find my daughter wearing five layers, and that includes a mian’ao (棉袄), or traditional Chinese cotton padded jacket handmade by my husband’s aunt. When my family in Canada saw pictures of prior to our arrival, they expected a chubby, round baby. She’s really quite little once freed from the layers,
In defense of my Chinese family, our house in China is colder than an average Canadian home. Even though the temperatures outside may not drop as low in China, walls are not as well insulated, windows are only single-paned, and drafty doorways are the norm. Whereas in Canada, two layers are enough indoors, even when temperatures drop to 20 below!
Back in China for the New Year’s celebrations, I laughed to hear my husband’s relatives remark that our daughter is bushou (不瘦) or “not thin.” I know they were saying she looked healthy and well-fed, but all I could think was, “How can anyone tell what size she is with all those clothes on her?”
This is yet another example of the array of our cultural differences. Certainly no one wants a child to feel cold, but my Western sensibilities tell me that overheating should also be avoided. Sweaty warmth trapped under layers creates the perfect zone for bacteria to grow, skin rashes to develop, and a higher susceptibility to fevers.
So, when I truly believe she’s wearing too much, I peel her back like an onion. Often my husband or mother-in-law notice her wearing fewer layers and hastily dress her back up again. I have to laugh. The way I see it, her mixed cultural heritage will act as her own private thermostat. When she gets too cold, the Chinese furnaces will go on full blast. When she’s overheated, the Canadian air conditioner (aka Mom) will come to the rescue.
When we left that day after spring festival, my daughter could hardly move her arm enough to wave goodbye to the relatives. I took off her snowsuit as soon as we got in the car. She happily stretched her limbs before I strapped her into the car seat. We were already halfway home when her daddy noticed. “别冻着她!” (Don’t freeze her!) he said from behind the wheel. Before I could answer, a little voice said,“Uh-oh!”
We all laughed.
illustration by Sun Zheng