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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 December 2005, 13:08 GMT
Nursing China's superstitions

By Louisa Lim
BBC, Beijing

New mums should stay indoors, eat purple porridge and avoid drinking iced water. Or should they? Scratch below the surface in modern China and you will find that old superstitions remain very much in force, as Louisa Lim has found out since having a baby.

Daniel
Newborn Daniel is described as "perfect in every way"
I had nine months to prepare, but when I was presented with a tiny squalling bundle of scrawny arms and legs, it was still a shock.

My waters had broken a month before my due date. I hadn't even gone on maternity leave.

I was expecting to be at work, filing reports from our hot little studio.

Instead I found myself in labour, yelling like a banshee while fending off calls from the BBC news desk in London.

After several excruciating hours, our baby finally arrived. He was small but perfect in every way.

Traditionally the arrival of a grandson who will carry on the family name is a momentous event in any Chinese clan. And so it was with my in-laws.

My Chinese husband always called him the 'stinky little pig'
They adored the baby and spent hours cooing as he gurned and kicked.

As time went on, however, I noticed a strange thing.

As I am half-English, we had given our son both English and Chinese names: Daniel and Feng Yue, which means Moon.

But no one seemed to be using his given names.

Instead, my Chinese husband always called him the "stinky little pig".

And my father-in-law would stare tenderly at the baby, but mutter things like "dog fart".

Perplexed, I asked some Chinese friends what was going on.

"They're trying to fool the evil spirits," I was told. "They don't want the evil spirits to kidnap Feng Yue, so they are pretending he's just a stinky little pig or a dog fart."

Month in pyjamas

I had been expecting a tiny imperious master who would rule my life with his demands.

Actually we were blessed with a peaceful little being who spent his first few weeks of life fast asleep.

Dong Ayi in her pyjamas with Daniel
Dong Ayi has imposed traditional Chinese methods of child-rearing

But my days were ruled by another addition to the household: my maternity nurse, Dong Ayi.

She had been recommended by a Chinese friend, who had got through two other nurses during her first two days at home.

If Dong Ayi had managed to co-exist with her, I figured, she would be able to cope with me. But I had not reckoned on the cultural differences.

Dong Ayi was already waiting for us when we got home.

A small, compact woman, the first thing she did when we arrived was change into her pyjamas.

That is because in China, new mothers are not expected to leave their beds for a month after giving birth.

Both I and Dong Ayi were expected to spend the entire month pyjama-clad.

Prisoner to tradition

I had already warned Dong Ayi that I would not be "sitting the month" as they say in Chinese. But I soon discovered that besides not going outside, a host of other activities were also forbidden.

These included those most ordinary of acts: taking a shower, washing your hair, drinking cold water, opening the window, watching television and even reading a book.

All are considered unhealthy after childbirth.

When she saw me walking around barefoot, she was horrified

Most new mothers are too worried about the consequences to transgress.

For my part, I refused to be a prisoner to tradition and blithely ignored these taboos. And Dong Ayi did not exactly complain when I took a shower or opened the window or drank iced water.

She would just fix me with a baleful glare... a silent warning of the error of my ways.

In one area, however, she refused to compromise.

When she saw me walking around barefoot, she was horrified.

She kept warning of cold winds, which would enter my body through the soles of my feet, causing untold health problems.

At first I laughed off her concerns. Then as her laser stare followed my feet around the house, I started to feel aches in my heels and knees.

Finally she could bear it no longer and bought me a pair of soft black slippers.

Sensing defeat, I realised it would be easier just to wear them all the time, and miraculously the pains vanished.

Secret bananas

Food was another small battleground over which we skirmished.

The Chinese firmly believe that certain foods are beneficial after childbirth, particularly purple rice porridge with dates, pig trotter soup and black chicken broth.

On one memorable occasion, my in-laws even produced deep-fried pork-fat soup, which was surprisingly good.

The problem was that Dong Ayi firmly opposed my favourite foods: namely coffee, chocolate and bananas.

"Not for breastfeeding mothers," she said, banning them from my diet, "they're bad for Daniel's health."

I took the route of least resistance and meekly agreed, though I would visit friends' houses for clandestine coffee and secret bananas.

Found out

One day all this came to an end.

She was changing the baby's nappy and sniffing the air distractedly.

"This smells all wrong. He's got diarrhoea," she said. "You've been eating bananas, haven't you?"

I could only hang my head in shame and promise to stop.

Six months have now passed.

Thanks to my soup-filled diet, our stinky little pig is as chubby and bouncing as they come.

I am back at work, filing reports from the BBC's hot little studio. And Daniel is safe at home, still being looked after by Dong Ayi... still in her pyjamas.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 3 December, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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