May 6th, 2011
You just know that a day that starts with you being woken just after 5am and told “Get up and go light those firecrackers” is going to be exhausting. And that was how May Day started for me. It’s not just that I’m this family’s Fuse Lighter In Chief, not this time. That, and that I’m the father of the baby whose first month was to be celebrated that day. The first two strings of crackers went off without a hitch. Sparks from the third string set off strings four and five, creating quite a nice roar, leaving the sixth string as a pleasant denouement. Then my wife suggested I lie back down on the kang and get a bit more sleep. Too late, I’m wide awake now. There are reasons why I’m Fuse Lighter In Chief, and those reasons don’t stop at me being the only one either dumb or crazy (or quite possibly both) enough to get that close to explosives with short fuses carrying a naked flame.
Fortunately in the waiting that followed CCTV News broadcast one of those rare programmes actually worth watching, a documentary about five plays based on five of Lao She’s short stories in whose production Lao She’s son had been involved. Of course, watching this programme was interrupted several times by the demands of a month-old baby, but it seems these interruptions come with the territory.
Our daughter reached 满月 at the end of last week, one month old. Exactly which day depends on which calendar you’re using. This is a big deal here, and it’s not hard to imagine why. It’s not that long ago that, even in the fabled Western developed countries, life, especially in its early stages, was a very precarious experience, somewhat analogous to walking on ice at the top of a cliff. Chinese tradition requires a celebration.
Also, reaching 满月 means my wife and daughter are allowed outside again. One month’s confinement makes no difference to the baby, as she doesn’t know the difference, but it takes quite a toll on a woman who was never suited to the old-fashioned housewifely life. Fortunately a couple of her close friends did come to visit during that first month, and the improvement in my wife’s mood on the arrival of her friends was dramatically heartlifting. If she couldn’t go out, at least a little contact with the outside world would help stop her from going stark raving mad.
And here’s what bugged me about the process: Explaining to other non-Chinese that my wife was 坐月子/in her month of confinement after childbirth generally met with a “Oh, the Chinese are so superstitious!” response. And yes, that is as true as any other gross generalisation. And I was going home to a wife and child who, according to the strictest versions of the traditions, were not allowed to wash in any way for a month. And sometimes it got all a bit too much and my tongue bears the scars of much biting. How can the child of one born and raised in Wellington, of all places, be scared of wind?! And yet the confinement, wrapped up as it may be in so much superstition, fundamentally makes sense. A newborn baby has no immune system – that’s what colostrum is for. Giving birth is a stressful experience, and stress damages the immune system. Keeping mother and child away from the world for a time while they (re)build their immune systems strikes me as a pretty smart thing to do.
And so Friday I bundled my wife, daughter and mother in law and the requisite supplies into our tiny little Suzuki and drove them out to my wife’s home village where the official celebrations were to take place.
Mid-morning on the day that started early with firecrackers some of the extended family started gathering at my parents-in-law’s house, great aunties clucked and cooed over my daughter, debating which of us she looked most like, the paleness of her skin, and exactly what colour her hair will turn out to be. Uncles preferred to hang in the courtyard smoking and shooting the breeze. Cousins alternated between chatting with parents, uncles and aunts and chasing kids. At some point I was taken away to do chauffeur duty, first carting a few cartons and crates of drinks and smokes down to the restaurant on the other side of the old highway at the other end of the village, then to collect and deliver to the restaurant some of the elderly and less mobile members of the tribe. In other words, much driving through narrow village lanes, at super-slow speeds ready to stop at any sudden emergence from a gate or even narrower side lane – often putting the car in 2nd gear and leaving my right foot hovering over the brake, touching the accelerator ever so slightly where an uphill run required just that little bit more than an idling engine and 2nd gear could provide. There was much delicate easing between parked vehicles of varying descriptions and brick walls or power poles. I am glad, for many reasons, that we bought a small car.
The restaurant wasn’t much to look at from the outside. A one storey, probably brick coated in plaster and paint, building on the lower side of the old highway, a functional paint job and a sign pronouncing its (now forgotten) name. The front room was an iteration on the standard local restaurant theme, tile floor, plaster walls with minimal decoration, counter at one end behind which stood a shelf bearing the baijius on offer, wooden tables of the 4-seater size and matching wooden chairs in rows along both walls. Stepping through a door brought me into a large – note, not cavernous, as in those restaurants around the fringes of inner city Beijing that specialise in the wedding trade, nor even gigantic as one can find in such restaurants in Yanqing County Town, just large – room with three rows of five 10-seater sized tables and at one end a low platform with a permanent wedding decoration with gaps for the names of the new couple on the wall above it, and at the opposite end the kitchens. Apart from plastic vines trailed up the columns and along the base of the raised, skylighted ceiling, the decor was identical with that of the front room – pleasant and functional. A door led somewhere further back, apparently into another one storey brick building visible through the windows along the south wall that seemed connected to the restaurant.
And this, at three tables along the inner wall of the large room, is where the tribe gathered. Some so old they needed to be driven to the door, helped out of the car, and escorted to a seat, others so young they had no idea why they were here, but could see space to run around and soft drinks and good food. Everybody but she whose first month of life we were celebrating, her mother, and her mother’s cousin.
And it’s probably best that way, as when the uncles gather it’s not just baijiu that flows, but smoke too. So leaving my daughter at home, my wife there to take care of her, and one of my wife’s cousins to take care of my wife left the uncles free to celebrate as best they know how. And they did, trust me on that. I found myself pouring out baijiu for three old codgers, subject to the usual friendly ritual humiliation senior men dish out to their juniors, sticking to Sprite myself, still being on chauffeur duty, and glad for it knowing the livers of these three old codgers. Baibai is not dumb, and a bit of a trickster, but not quite as smart as he’d like to be. When he’s getting wasted he likes to hassle others, but in a friendly way, but he tends to lose track of just how far gone he himself is. Dagufu I don’t know very well, seeing him basically once a year at Spring Festival and then at big family gatherings as they happen. The tribe isn’t big enough that I’ve seen him more than twice in one year. Laogufu likes his drink just a bit too much, but he’s one of those fundamentally decent blokes with a slight protective streak who you know will call enough when enough has been reached. Sober he’s silent, and the drink brings him out, but in his eyes you can see the desire to nurture. Two of those three are grandfathers, and seeing them with their grandsons is a veritable picture of grandpaternal warmth.
A big, hearty meal, country-style, more food than the tables could hold, solid food, the kind that has good, strong flavour and plenty of fuel. A good meal, in other words. Then the crowd dispersed a thousand times quicker than it had gathered. Rural life gets you no holidays, no days off. The elderly were ferried home, not being up to walking to the other end of the village, then those who were too busy hosting finally got a chance to eat. Then we packed up the leftovers and headed home.
And after two hours of sleep, I still felt exhausted.
But our daughter’s first month of life was properly celebrated and, as exhausting as it may have been, it was a lot of fun.