Mothers of small babies worldwide, I’m sure, are used to receiving unsolicited advice about parenting. It seems to be a universal phenomenon.
I first experienced it when Myles was a baby, and we still lived in the US. Strangers would offer comments, sometimes assertively, about such things as the use or absence of a pacifier or whether he was wearing appropriate clothes. I learned to shrug these off, though I understood these strangers’ sometimes-conflicting opinions. I had grown up around them, and books like the What to Expect series devoted chapters to these issues.
Family members would be, thankfully, more subtle. My mother and her sisters never said anything to me directly, but their gifts of sunhats for my little hairless child communicated in a kind way that I really should cover his tender pate whenever we were outdoors.
“Doesn’t that hat look cute with his outfit?” one would say to me as the other two would nod in conspiratorial agreement.
After their message was received, I never dared to take a baby outside without a hat.
We had been living in China for a few years when Brigid was born (she is now eight). By then I had read enough expat blogs and talked with several foreign friends that I was aware I had exchanged the watchful eyes of American observers for the much more vigilant ones of Chinese grandmothers. I knew that leaving the house with a baby under a month old was going to be frowned upon, and that many Chinese parents stopped using diapers months before the baby’s first birthday. Their pediatricians recommended a different, stricter schedule of introducing solid foods than mine who only gave broad suggestions. I was prepared for cultural differences that would be amplified by the presence of my baby.
Or so I thought.
One sunny July morning, I had brought my kids to the park so then five-year-old Myles could have time on the playground before the intense afternoon heat hit. Brigid was eight months old, sitting up in her pram that I had parked under a tree. She was, of course, even in the shade wearing a sun bonnet to prevent any stray UV rays from reaching her vulnerable scalp.
There were many grandmothers who had likewise arrived at the park to give the preschoolers in their charge some physical activity before lunch. Some of the grandmothers broke from their conversation to coo over baby Brigid who was always receptive to that kind of attention.
One of the grandmothers then asked me, “Why do you have a hat on that baby? It is too hot out here.”
I hadn’t heard before that hats on babies could be objectionable in Beijing. It surprised me, too, because here women often shielded themselves with umbrellas on sunny days. Then again, maybe it was just this particular grandmother.
“Well,” I began slowly, searching for the right words. “I don’t want her to get sunburn on her head.”
This was not the correct answer. The grandmother tried to recruit others in her campaign.
“Look at that baby! It is too hot to wear a hat.”
After a few minutes of stumbling in Chinese, I was struck with a response that I hoped would get me out of this jam.
“My mother says she should wear a hat outside.”
My mother says. These weren’t quite magic words of absolution, but these seemed to diffuse the situation. If there were anything that could transcend the cultural misunderstanding in our midst, it was that I was dutifully following my mother’s advice all the way to China.
“I was prepared for cultural differences that would be amplified by the presence of my baby.
Or so I thought.”
About the Writer
Jennifer Ambrose hails from Western Pennsylvania and misses it terribly. She still maintains an intense devotion to the Pittsburgh Steelers. She has lived in China since 2006 and is currently an at-home mother. With her husband Randy and children Myles and Brigid, she resides outside Sixth Ring Road in Changping. Her blog can be found at jenambrose.blogspot.com.
This article originally appeared on page 42 of the October 2016 Issue of beijingkids magazine. Click here for your free online copy. To find out how you can obtain a hard copy, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.