Every month, I pay our electric and heating/AC bills at the front desk of our apartment building. Cash only, and I never have exact change. A few days ago, I asked about some change they owe us, and was told it would be ready in two days. I said that was fine, and went on my way. Fast forward to today: I rode the elevator with a female maintenance worker whom I’ve never seen before. On the 20-second ride up, she asked me if I had gotten my money yet, and when I said no, she marched right up to the woman at the front desk and said, “Give her the change from her electric bill!” Slightly taken aback, the woman at the desk said, “Uh, it will be ready this afternoon, is that okay?” “Yeah,” I said, also startled.
A while later, I went out to buy some breads from the Muslim restaurant in our neighborhood. (Muslim, or Hui Chinese are China’s breadmakers.) The woman selling bread today was new; I’d never seen her before. I asked for two rounds of sesame-seed-topped flatbread, and paid her (63 cents) and turned to leave, but she stopped me and said, “Where’s your son?” “At home, with his ayi” I replied, somewhat but not completely surprised that she knew I had a baby (we do stand out, after all). “Are you single?” she continued, without missing a beat. “No, my husband is at school.” “Oh. Good. Walk slowly,” she chirped.(“Walk slowly” is the traditional Chinese parting).
Hours passed happily at home with the baby: grinning adoringly at the reflection in the mirror, practicing opening and closing the fridge ad infinitum, spitting up on the leather couch. I decided to take Owen out. Beforehand, it is very important to dress him for the weather, both for his comfort and for my own: if I slightly underdress or otherwise improperly clothe him, I’m subject to the criticism and shaming of a chain-smoker in a nursery. Today I took careful stock of the weather: windy with a slight nip in the air, and very sunny. This meant: shirt, pants, sweatshirt, socks pulled high, and sun hat for Owen, and I carried an umbrella for further sun protection. I also put on Owen some cute sunglasses we got him. As we waited for the elevator, the friendly but business-like woman at the front desk saw the baby’s sunglasses. She came completely undone, letting forth non-stop high-pitched giggles and covering her mouth with her hand while saying over and over, “So handsome, he is really so handsome, oh my goodness, so handsome, the sunglasses, oh wow.” She had not yet recovered when we left her.
We strolled to the grocery store, enjoying the cool wind and marveling at the Arctic winter outfits that have appeared since the weather turned from hot summer to warm fall: fur-lined, knee-length parkas; scarves wrapped eight times around the neck and falling to the ankles; babies in head-to-toe fleece-lined down snowsuits. At the store, I paused in the milk aisle to pick my poison (bad joke). But my attention was pulled back by the sound of a woman singing, and I turned to see a store worker (in uniform) literally dancing up and down as she sings Owen a well-rehearsed song. As if purposely building up the theatrics for a once-in-a-lifetime performance, she produced a red balloon and waved it around in the air, delighting Owen beyond anything I’ve ever seen. She continued her one-woman Superbowl Halftime Show for almost four more minutes, during which time a small crowd of shoppers and other store workers gathered to assess: her singing, the child, the mother. The saleswoman has delighted the baby, the baby is cute and foreign; there is palpable jealousy in the air. The struggle plays out:
Singing/Dancing Store Worker: “How old is the small foreigner?”
Me: “Almost 7 months.”
Singing/Dancing Store Worker: “Ah, then he can now crawl, but he cannot yet walk.”
Older Female Shopper: “His skin is very white and his eyes are very big.”
Older Female Shopper: “It is very, very cold outside.”
“Yes, it is a little cold.”
Older Female Shopper: “The baby must be cold.”
“He is okay.”
Older Female Shopper: “I wonder if he is cold or not.”
Singing/Dancing Saleswoman: “No, he is not cold. Look, he wears socks.”
Older Female Shopper: “Yes, he wears socks, but it is extremely cold and windy outside.”
Store Worker: “But with socks he is not cold.”
[Both women grimace and stare at Owen, trying to divine his internal body temperature based on his facial expression. Owen chews on his sleeve.]
At this point, I am more than ready to split, but the ornery older woman has now blocked my passage down the aisle. As the oldest of us three, her child-rearing admonitions should have been given greater deference, and now she is annoyed with the state of society. The store worker toes her cart, indicating that I need to get by, but she doesn’t budge. Everything is tense. Eventually, the the situation resolves when I insistently nudge the shopper’s cart with Owen’s stroller wheels. For the sake of the baby, she gets out of the way, flashing smiles at Own between long moments of evil-eyeing the saleswoman. I make a beeline for the check-out.
As I’m bagging my groceries, a woman passes by and yanks Owen’s teething ring toy, on which he is happily chewing, out of his mouth, chiding him, “You can’t eat that!” “It’s okay,” I explain. This is not the first time. “It’s a toy. There’s no problem.” Not sure what to make of this abusive foreign mother who gives her innocent child toys to eat, she smiles, laughs in the way that Chinese use to indicate awkwardness, and walks rapidly away.
It’s my impression that so much of being a Chinese person in Chinese society is being told, pressured, cajoled and shamed into conforming, thinking and behaving in certain ways. This pressure, intrusive and explicit, comes from teachers and friends, but mostly from family, and is non-stop from birth to death. A Chinese person simply has no illusions of being an individual unto himself, an independent agent. He is just one strand in a thick web of family duties, and the other members don’t let him forget it, not for one moment.
The intense pressures and responsibilities of family relationships usually mean, I think, that Chinese simply cannot afford, psychologically, to be concerned with anybody else. They will physically push a stranger out of the way and cut her in line without thinking twice. But these barriers break down in the presence of a baby, and the webs of personal involvement extend. When I step out onto the street with Owen, I am quickly wrapped up in the attention, concern, and insistent coercion of all who’ve ever been told how to take care of a baby themselves. After a few hours, it can be unbearable. And yet for everyone around me, that is their life.