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Friday, September 12, 2014

Chinese pregnancy taboos

In every culture, there are protocols and traditions surrounding big events in one's life. In the Jewish tradition, the couple stomps on a glass during the wedding ceremony; it has become more and more popular to incorporate "jumping the broomstick" in weddings of all types, though it is a traditionally African notion.

We often are blind to the perhaps arbitrary or outdated source of some of our practices when they're in our own culture. It's easy to forget that we, too, have a culture, and our ideas come from somewhere. It's also easy to think that others are the ones with culture, or that they are just "doing it wrong," when in fact, their reasons are probably just as valid for doing things differently than ours once were.

One really interesting thing about being pregnant in a very different culture is all the various do's and don'ts that I've heard. I mentioned before that a few of my friends were pregnant last year; they're Chinese nationals, and went through the Chinese medical system as well. While I may not believe in or practice these traditions, my purpose with this post is not to poke fun, but instead to consider some of the things that we may take for granted in our own cultural practices surrounding pregnancy. My tone is of course humorous, but it's fascinating nonetheless to consider some of the things that it's said you can't do during pregnancy here:

  • Sex is absolutely out of the question! 
It's how you got here. Now you should never do it again until at least 3 months after the baby is born (preferably 6 months). The reasoning is that it can cause spontaneous abortion, it can hurt the baby, etc. All the old wives' tales apply.
  • Don't wear makeup! 
I never got an explanation for this one, but the rational part of my brain tells me it has something to do with absorption of chemicals. However, I was laughed at when I told my friends (now with babies in arms) that I didn't want to keep playing music at smoky bars because of all of the health risks associated with 2nd and even 3rd hand smoke. This makes me question my "absorption" explanation. They said "The first three months doesn't matter!" -- right after telling me the following tidbit:

  • Don't ride your bicycle! (Or do any exercise, especially for the first three months.)
Basically, it is believed that pretty much anything you do during the first three months is bound to make you miscarry or will permanently doom your child. You should just lay in bed and put your feet up until the first trimester is over.

  • Don't go outside after 7 pm!
I don't fully understand this one (okay, I'm not sure I fully understand any of them), but I've heard that it has something to do with a "harmful wind" that can touch you and the baby at night. I think it's a belief in bad spirits that can somehow infect you and your child. On a similar note...

I've never heard this one personally, but Brett found a great website with some common Chinese pregnancy taboos. This one is similar to the previous one: there's an idea that the place may not have been properly "spiritually cleansed," so you and your baby may be infected with bad spirits.

  • Don't eat fish, dog, soft-shelled turtle, crab, plums, pears, dark foods if you want a light-skinned baby, light foods if you want a dark-skinned baby, or food that has not been cut up with the proper care!
Again, see the website for full descriptions. Basically, each of these foods is thought to affect the outcome of the baby, whether developmentally, physiologically, or even behaviorally: Fish will give your baby scales; Dog will make your baby more likely to be aggressive and want to bite people; Soft-shelled turtle will give your baby a short neck; Crab will make your baby breech, as well as blow bubbles out of his/her mouth after birth; Sloppily cut food will make for a child who has a "careless disposition." And so on.

  • Don't use scissors!
There are all kinds of superstitions regarding sharp objects and their use, especially in bed, as this may cause physical deformities, or may even cut the umbilical cord in utero.

There's a lot of emphasis placed on not cutting or chopping things up in bed, which may sound like a bizarre thing to do in the first place. In traditional homes, especially in the northern part of China, the sleeping area is called a kang 炕, or "bed-stove." It's made of cooked bricks or concrete, and is hollow . There's a pipe that connects from the kitchen area, and you can regulate the temperature by keeping hot smoke circulating through it. Typically, it is used for sleeping at night; during the day, the blankets are rolled up and put away, and it is used for other activities, such as preparing and eating meals.
This picture shows the structure of kangs and ondols alike (the Korean version)
During the day, when the bedding is put away and it's become a table and general sitting area
  • Don't wear clothes that are tight on the belly (especially pants)!
This is likely to cause pressure on the baby during growth, which will cause it to have deformities, or may even cause a miscarriage. You see a lot of billowy, form-eradicating, muumuu-type affairs on otherwise lovely young ladies. Overall-style dresses are especially popular:

  • You must stay at home, in bed, without bathing, for one month after the baby is born!
Again, I don't really know the tradition behind this one. Unlike some of the others, this is one that is still rigorously practiced. From what I understand about Chinese traditions, it could be anything from the fear of infection by bad spirits to a more practical worry about infection (the water can't be drunk unless boiled here). I'm just not sure.

Needless to say, there are things that I'm doing (including riding my bicycle to and from work every day, though visibly pregnant) that get me straight-up stared at. I've had quite a few people, with genuine concern, tell me that I'm not supposed to be doing these things. We usually end up having a laugh when I tell them, "I know, but we Western women do things a little differently! I'm a bad Chinese!"

There are all kinds of other interesting traditions and superstitions, a few of which Brett and I will likely partake in. For example, we'll probably have a "100 days" celebration for the baby, as all of our friends did. It's the "coming out" party, so to speak, for the baby, as well as a traditional celebration to wish the child long life.

As with many Chinese traditions, the 100 days celebration centers around the linguistic similarities between different words. Remember, in Chinese, one phoneme can have up to 5 or 6 different meanings, depending on the pronunciation of the tone. The number "four" (sì 四) is considered bad luck because it sounds like the word for "death" (sǐ 死, or sǐ wáng 死亡). In much the same way, the pronunciation of the word for "tassel" (suì 穗) is the same as the word for "year" (suì 岁) in Chinese, so at the celebration, the baby should wear pants with a very long fringe of tassels to symbolize long life.
This baby is wearing his traditional "100 day" clothes, as well as the long life pendant (they make smaller ones that are more fitted to the baby's size now)

Are there any traditions in the US or elsewhere surrounding pregnancy and birth that seemed normal, but now seem strange to you once you think about it? I'd love to hear them, if so!

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