“She doesn’t have socks on?,” he asked, pointing out the obvious. I had put away Ruby’s socks that had those nice anti-slip bumps under them after she removed them for the nth time most probably because her feet were hot and sweaty. “Aren’t her feet cold?,” he pursued.
And so it begins.
I have lived in China for two years and worked as an English teacher at a small university but this time, I experienced China in a completely different way lugging my almost two-year old daughter and being four months pregnant (but looking more like five). We went to Shanghai for the first time to visit my younger sister who works there. Since I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of stroller terrain, I decided to carry Ruby around with the Combi baby carrier, making me look like I had a baby-shaped mountain pack on my back. To ease the weight off my shoulders, I would often lean forward and put Ruby’s weight on my hips, further emphasizing my growing belly. It must have been a sight for the Chinese as we got stares everywhere we went. Then again, in my short stay in ultra-modern Shanghai, I never saw anyone use a baby carrier. Everyone with a child seem to be using a stroller. I must have looked like a typical Chinese peasant’s wife.
My younger sister had it planned that all three (four including baby bump) of us were going to ride her electric bike to get to nearby shops and restaurants since it would take forever to wait for the bus. My sister sat on the bike’s seat while pregnant me sat on the back seat with Ruby strapped to my back. I never learned to relax, no matter how much my younger sister reassured me that it’s perfectly safe, as I know how notoriously aggressive Chinese drivers and bikers can be on the road. One time, as we biked along, a lady passed us by and screamed at us. I almost jumped out of my seat. What happened? Were we blocking her way? Did we do anything wrong? Was there a near-accident? Turns out, she was screaming at us because she didn’t approve of Ruby hanging out from my back. Didn’t she know that her screaming almost caused an accident there?
Screaming seems to be the Chinese’ preferred way of sharing their opinion. It rained half the time during our visit and so we would still go around the city with umbrellas. One rainy afternoon just outside a subway station, I tried balancing an umbrella on my shoulder while fixing shoes on to Ruby who was still strapped to my back. A lady passed by and started shouting at us. At first I couldn’t make sense of what she was saying and thought I was blocking her way. What have I done to inspire such impassioned ire? As she continued ranting and pointing, I gathered that she was scolding me for not noticing that Ruby’s head was hanging slightly outside the umbrella and getting wet.
The red rashes on Ruby’s chin and on the folds of her arms and legs (from some food allergy) became a bountiful source of much unsolicited comments and advice, often delivered with much certainty and confidence. Some declared that these were definitely caused by the baby carrier rubbing against these spots (the carrier wasn’t even touching the spots). Others knew exactly what the red rashes were and had strong recommendations on specific remedies and medications.
It doesn’t help matters that Ruby is at an age when she has so much energy but not the language skills so her preferred method of expressing her frustration, anger, or excitement is by hitting, pinching, scratching, grabbing and pulling whoever is within reach. Sometimes her victims happen to be sympathetic souls whose initial surprise or annoyance would turn into a smile once they see Ruby. They would just shake their heads and say “It’s okay. She’s still a baby and doesn’t know any better,” to which Ruby would respond with an irresistible squinty-eyed smile of her own and even blow a kiss.
But not everyone is as understanding. On one occasion, Ruby grabbed the blouse of a woman walking past us and wouldn’t let go. I had to pry her fingers off. “What a vicious child,” the woman said as soon as she broke free and went on about what kind of wild animal Ruby was, shooting me a look that said “What kind of mother are you?” These people who are not in the least amused by Ruby’s behavior look at my growing belly with disbelief and clear disapproval as if to say “Horrors! She’s bringing another one of those into the world?!?” Yes I am… Yes I am.
I know I’m not a perfect mother but I do try my best. If anything, I have become more sympathetic towards other parents, even those who seem too pleased with themselves. My younger sister took us to an upscale dimsum restaurant for lunch. The food took a long time in coming and Ruby was becoming restless. I refused to let her run around and she decided to have one of her infamous meltdowns – a great time actually to count how many teeth she has as her mouth is open wide. I had to stand up and take her out several times. Sitting in the next table are two expensive looking women enjoying their lunch. They kept looking at me with what I could only guess is pity. It was amazing that I managed to wolf down some siomai in between meltdowns, but then that’s one of the few talents I discovered I had as a mother (another talent is memorizing several children’s books including One Fish Two Fish, Green Eggs and Ham, Baby Says, Goodnight Moon, and From Head to Toe to recite to Ruby and keep her occupied on subway rides). When we finally got a chance to settle down, the expensive looking woman next table was cuddling her three or four month old baby (I was surprised to see she had a baby. She didn’t look at all like the haggard mother that I was), while her nanny (that’s why!) kept busy eating her lunch. My younger sister overheard the expensive looking woman tell her baby smugly, “You’re a much better baby, no? Mommy doesn’t need to take you out because you don’t cry like that.” I wanted to laugh out loud. Ruby was the perfect angel when she was that small too. I wanted to tell her, “Oh sister, it doesn’t last.” I wanted to tell her to enjoy this time, but then again, she probably will never have to go through any difficult phase. She just has to say, “A-yi (what they call the nanny in China), can you take the baby out? I just did my nails today.”
I can’t help but think that meddling in other people’s affairs is a Chinese thing. I met a Chinese woman at the Italian Embassy here in Tokyo. We were both waiting to be called and I was breastfeeding Ruby at that time. She asked me how old Ruby was and why I was still breastfeeding her. “You should stop breastfeeding and give her formula. Japanese formula is very good. All my children were formula fed and they’re all doing well.” And she went on and on about how formula is better than breast milk, but more than that, she seemed to want to extract a commitment from me to quit breastfeeding this instant. Was she working for a formula company? I had to stop myself from telling her to back off and mind her own business.
My younger sister said that I’m just not used to the Chinese way anymore, having lived in Tokyo for more than two years. She said it’s just the Chinese way of showing concern. Perhaps being a new mom makes me more sensitive to comments and criticisms like these. I feel insecure and there are many times when I’m not sure that what I’m doing is right or good for my child; many times when I doubt myself and feel inadequate. Sometimes, I just want to hear, “You’re doing okay. You’re doing a good job.” I know I do. Ruby agrees as she gently touches my cheek and gives me a kiss.