“You travel pregnant all on your own?” another traveler at the hostel asks. It’s the beginning of July, 2016, and I arrive at a hostel in the oasis town of Turpan in the Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang, China’s Far West, 28 weeks pregnant. “And your husband agrees?” she asks incredulously. My husband fully supported my decision to take my bump to Xinjiang. The traveler is a 21-year-old woman from Sichuan province, or a 辣妹 (Spice Girl), as young women from Sichuan are also called. She has tanned skin and is wearing a short dark grey hemp dress. A student of online trade, she’s using her holidays to travel China’s most western provinces, Xinjiang and Tibet, solo. A teacher, illustrator and mom, I’m using these two weeks to travel China’s westernmost oasis towns, solo with bump. Except for the fact that we’re at completely different stages in our life, I don’t think we’re actually that different.
But she’s right. Most Chinese women wouldn’t travel solo during their pregnancy. Most Western women probably wouldn’t either in the third trimester, but traveling pregnant with a friend, spouse, or family member isn’t all unheard of in Western countries. Another young Chinese woman I meet on the train from Turpan to Kuqa, another oasis town in Xinjiang, says, “You are really brave. My friends all completely disappear from society once they are pregnant. They stay at home throughout their pregnancy, eat and sleep all day, and don’t even pick up the phone because they are afraid the radiation will hurt the unborn child.”
The first time I became pregnant was in 2013. My husband and I lived in the bustling city of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong. Young people who moved to Shenzhen from other places in China originally enjoyed the freedom of being away from the restrictive traditions of their hometowns, but also felt lost within the anonymity and rootlessness of the Overnight City, a city that was said to “have sprung up overnight” less than three decades ago. I worked in an ad agency in Shenzhen’s fancy Creative Culture Park, a green central area that features architect firms, ad agencies, expensive cars, and hipster cafés and restaurants in a jungle-like setting. During my first pregnancy, I was able to get a good glimpse into what being pregnant means for contemporary Chinese women. Even though Shenzhen is known for its relative freedom, when it comes to pregnancy, it doesn’t seem different from most other places in China. You can summarize pregnancy in China with one word: Restrictions.
“No lifting of heavy things, no tripping, no ‘sharing the room’ (having sex),” is what the 50-year-old gynecologist from Hunan told me after having looked at my positive pregnancy test. “No walking barefoot, no squatting down, no coming in contact with cold water,” is what my 60-year-old Chinese mother-in-law from Northeast China told me. “No glutinous rice balls, no sexy clothes, no scary movies,” is what my 20-something female co-workers from all over China told me. “No hawthorn fruit,” is what the 30-year-old male clerk from the fruit shop downstairs of our high-rise building told me as he refused to sell me hawthorn fruit. I have listened to some of the advice and ignored the rest.
2000 miles further north, three years and a pregnancy later, I still get a lot of unsolicited pregnancy advice.
One late afternoon in the 2016 spring, my mother-in-law pushed the stroller down the small road leading from my in-laws’ place to our apartment. The skies were blue and without a touch of clouds, and the locals streamed to the open-air vegetable market we always cross on our way back home. My mother-in-law pointed to a tall woman’s loose blue jeans and said, “These trousers would look really good on you. They fit tall women with slim legs.” I knew what she was getting at and started to feel annoyed. I simply replied, “I don’t like the style.” Ever since having accompanied me to my last pregnancy check-up a few days earlier and having overheard the doctor tell me I should wear looser clothes, my mother-in-law has been pointing out other women’s clothes, telling me they’d suit me well. After having heard the same response from me three days in a row, she changed tactics, “The doctor thinks you won’t feel comfortable in your tight trousers.” I snap back, “I decide what kind of clothes I wear. If I’m uncomfortable, I’ll know it. I’m the one wearing my clothes, not the doctor.” This ended all discussions about my maternity wear.
The thing is, restrictions on my clothes are just the tip of the iceberg. While I appreciate the fact that people in China generally care a lot about pregnant strangers – sometimes going out of their way to make sure a pregnant woman will get a seat on the subway or won’t have to queue in a long line at the airport – many of the restrictions I have encountered try to deprive a woman of the freedom to choose for herself.
Compared to my first pregnancy, I have started to stand up more for myself during this pregnancy. Pretending I’m not bothered by all the restrictions neither helps me, nor anyone else, especially if these are people I’m close with or have to deal with often. In the case of my mother-in-law, standing up for myself hasn’t actually made our relationship worse, but better. I have learned that she’s okay with me directly confronting issues when they come up, and I’ve also learned how to communicate with her so she’ll respect my boundaries. When my husband told his parents I am taking my bump to Xinjiang, they didn’t try to stop me, but just cautioned me to take good care of myself.
As for traveling, if you have a healthy pregnancy and feel like giving in to your wanderlust before you get a little more sedentary after giving birth, I’d say definitely go for it.
Photos courtesy of Ruth Silbermayr-Song
Ruth Silbermayr-Song is an Austrian illustrator, German teacher and mother of a 2-year-old. She writes about life in China as a foreign woman, her cross-cultural marriage, and child rearing bridging cultures and languages on her blog China Elevator Stories. Her story of being pregnant and raising her son in China will appear in the anthology “Knocked Up Abroad Again – Baby bumps, twists and turns around the globe”.