Articles Tagged with chinese culture

窗花/ Window Flower

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What is culture? Today at my home, culture is the traditional paper cutting for the upcoming Chinese New Year that’s being put onto the window. In Chinese it’s called 窗花, which can be translated literally into ‘window flower’.

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Like almost all Chinese charms, it’s red. This 窗花 follows the traditional patterns: a Chinese charater 福 (fortune/happiness/luck) in the middle, surrounded by two fish ( 鱼/fish in Chinese shares the same pronounciation as 余 (abundance) hence a lucky symbol that’s popular in festivity) and some decorative patterns. Traditionally it’s made by cutting patterns on a piece of red paper. Nowaday the commercial ones are routinely just machine made (like the ones I bought during our recent China trip), although traditional hand-cut 窗花 is still possible to find if you look for it.

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Nina and I put it together on Sunday afternoon and she had some fun. It felt for me a bit like putting up Christmas tree for many I suppose – it announced the beginning of a festive season, and from this moment on we were all reminded that it’s almost time to celebrate with family. We are in Sydney so it’s far from a total Chinese New Year experience, but at least we have something authentically Chinse!

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Ice Pop and Chicken Soup

ice pop Nina had her first operation in life – grommets. A grommet (or ‘tympanostomy tube’ as listed on the official paper) is a small ring that’s put into the eardrum that helps the air to pass through to the middle ear more easily and to clear the fluid within so that (in Nina’s case) she doesn’t get ear infection that easily.

To cut the long story short, the operation went well, and Nina coped by sleeping for almost two hours after the operation – to wear off the effort of the anesthesia I suppose. Then she woke up, being totally herself. That means she was ready to eat anything that was put in front of her.

So guess what was the first thing that the hospital gave to her? Ice pop (or ice lolly, ice block, popsicle, freeze pop, freezer pop as you would call it in some other parts of the world)!!!

If my mother was around at that time, she would have screamed. NO!!!! you cannot give a child – or anyone – anything icy/cold after an operation! She should be given chicken soup instead!!!

For Chinese, hot and soupy things are the best, and almost the only, things to give to the weak, the young, the pregnant, and the unwell. Ice is a big no no for these people. The body needs comfort from the warmth of the soup while icy stuff only agitates the body – that’s the theory behind that all. Chinese were educated from the very young age.

That’s why till this date, I didn’t dare to tell her that, right after delivering Nina in the hospital, while still on the theatre bed when the midwifes were checking/cleaning Nina, exhausted and hungry, I was given food and drink – and guess what was the drink? Icy cold lemonade … If she was around, I would have be given … you guessed it … the chicken soup.

It’s almost a guaranteed culture shock for Chinese to go overseas for the first time not being able to find 温水 easily (warm water – or boiled water that has become only warm), while non-Chinese for not being offered just cold water when visiting China for the first time.

When I was working for a French company in France, once while receiving a group of Chinese delegates (which didn’t happen very often by then), as the only Chinese in the company, I was pulled aside by one of the delegates to the back of the meeting room secretly asking for some 温水, as they just couldn’t stand the cold water anymore. I had to run around the office to mix the hot and cold water from the coffee machine to make 温水. Many colleagues asked me what I was doing.

I did end up drinking some chicken soup in the maternity ward of the hospital though – a visiting friend couple (Japanese/Korean wife and HK husband, so perhaps it’s an Asian thing) kindly brought me a big serve of home-made chicken soup. While I was heating it up in the microwave in the hospital kitchen, it started to smell extremely nice. It’s almost like smelling home. After all, no matter how further you have travelled away and how much you think you have changed, home is always there and always smells nice.

坐月子 ‘Sit Through the First Month’, eh?

Since I cannot get my mind off this HUGE Chinese tradition around what to do during the first post-natal month, and its big ripple effect in my little family, I thought I’ll just post a blog. I believe this could easily be one of the biggest cultural differences/shocks in play in any sino-foreign family.

This tradition is called 坐月子in Chinese, which if literally translated means ‘sit through the first month’ – a weird name though because according to the ‘real’ tradition, it should have been called ‘SLEEP through the first month’.

The tradition basically governs what a Chinese woman SHOULD do and SHOULD NOT do during the first month after delivery, in all possible aspects that you would think of, and beyond. Some are real eye-openers (to put it mildly) to Nicolas, my French husband who is not new to Chinese culture. A few of the rules that stand out are:

– she should not take shower nor wash hair for a month (‘ca pue !!’  (‘it stinks!!) Nicolas’ reaction)

– she should not brush the teeth

– she should lie on bed all the time except strict necessities (such as going to toilet). Breastfeeding is done on her bed. Holding baby while standing is not recommended.

– she and the baby should not go outside

– she should not touch cold water nor drink cold water

– she should avoid fruits and vegetables, but eat/drink lots of fluid-based food such as congee, brown sugar water, chicken soup, fish soup etc. Food is an important part, and the list of dos and don’ts can go on and on.

– She should not cry

– she should not start breast-feeding until 24 hours after birth

– … much more …

Chinese believe that these measures help the women to fully recover from labour and otherwise will have disastrous result even into their elder years. Many of these rules came from a time when hygiene could be a real concern and nutrition & food variety were not readily available. However in the modern society most of us fortunately live in, a lot of them are no longer relevant to say the least, if not against the best interest of the young mother’s recovery and young baby’s development. As more and more people in China including doctors start to argue the scientific (or rather non-scientific) value of these traditions, some young mothers would no longer follow strictly what the tradition says. However, many still do. In fact, from what I gathered on internet, an amazing vast majority still do, even to an extent more than I would have imagined.

Another interesting fact is that although many people (esp. young parents) have very vague idea about what 坐月子precisely means – indeed you can choose to follow from 100% to just 1% of the strict tradition – everyone subscribes to the prevailing idea – 坐月子 IS VITAL. Listen to your mom.

As a result, the young mother basically becomes ‘immobile’ – synonym of ‘useless’  – during that month. So traditionally the young-mother’s mother or mother-in-law will live with the family during the first month to take care of everything (the young mother, the new-born, and household chores). Some may stay much longer – that’s another story altogether.The modern interpretation is to hire a specialised helper (called 月嫂 or ‘first-month-auntie’) or to stay in a specialized resort/care center (月子中心 or ‘first-month-centre’) during the month.

That who is around during 坐月子becomes such an integral part of the tradition itself that nobody seems to ask the question ‘Do I really need some extra help apart from just me and my husband?’. It’s commonly neglected as a question worth asking. And this is something that Nicolas has to come to terms with. Me too.

With no exception, during the conversation with my Chinese friends, one inevitable comment comes up: ‘your mom is coming, isn’t she?!

My mom lives in China, 12-hour flight away. Her entire family except me lives in China. She knows nobody else but me in Sydney. She speaks no English. She eats no non-Chinese food. She has never taken a long-haul flight on her own. She would be comfortable that I do not take shower for a month. She may have very different idea about bringing up a baby.

But none of the above matters. It’s decided that she’s coming. No discussion is solicited. Suitcase is being packed.

And that got me to think. Is that what I want? Is that what Nicolas wants? Is that what our young growing family wants? And equally importantly, is it what my mom wants?

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the idea of being taken care of and doing as little house chore as possible, esp after a possibly stressful labour. And I LOVE the fact that my mom gets to spend time with her grand-daughter. But to what extent am I willing to trade/comprise/battle through potentially vast different opinion among my mom, Nicolas and myself? And how would it impact the dynamics of the family that’s already going through dramatic change with a new-born baby? And how much influence my mom will have on my following or not following some of the traditions?

I’m still looking for answer. I’m trying to find out each other’s expectation. I’m trying to understand where each of us stands for. I’m trying to figure out what each of us is willing to comprise, and what not. I’m trying to start a conversation that no one expects.

坐月子 is indeed a blur yet extremely powerful concept! It keeps me awake at night. I have four more months of such nights to reflect upon the subject before my 坐月子 period starts for real.

A Chinese-german artist illustrates the cultural differene betweens Chinese and the Westerners by graphics. Here are two about ‘child’ and ‘senior person’s life’.