a joint column for and by mamas in the 'du
"Ni gei ni di nanhai'er rennai ma?"
It wasn't a mom at playgroup asking me if I breastfed my infant son asleep on my chest. It was a stooped old man in an oversized Mao jacket at the grocery store.
Shocked, I couldn't help but nod yes and then watch as his cheeks crinkled up into a beaming smile. "Hen hao, hen hao!" he said before telling me to eat plenty of fish soup and shuffling away toward the meat section.
As any expat parent in Chengdu knows, going out with a blue-eyed, blond-haired baby in tow is rarely anything less than an ordeal—there are no quick or anonymous trips to the market with a laowai baby involved. Before our son Will was born, I thought people in China were nice, if a bit distant. I'd get in a cab or enter a market and, after covering those oh-so-poignant topics of weather, traffic and the deliciousness of Sichuan food, our conversations would trail off with an awkward "Zai jian!" that always left me feeling slightly more out of place, more foreign, than when the conversation began.
Then Will was born and suddenly my foreignness seemed far less relevant to everyone around me than the sleeping bundle of baby on my chest. Taxi drivers transformed into sweetly protective older-brother figures, and the neighborhood popos began to feel like long-lost relatives, swooping in from the alleyways to adjust my son's clothing and help me with my grocery bags.
I found myself walking down the street and stopping, constantly, to have halting conversations with everyone from vegetable vendors to teenage boys waiting for the bus. They asked my son's age, what he ate, whether he was sleeping well and of course, whether I was really sure if he was warm enough in his Western-style winter clothes. They took note of the dark circles of sleeplessness under my eyes and offered kind words of reassurance; they told me I was doing well and to take care of myself.
It turns out there's something about parenthood that is so universal that it transcends barriers of language, culture and politics. You don't need a whole lot of Chinese vocabulary to commiserate over a colicky baby or to appreciate the efforts of passersby trying their best to make a baby smile.
Knowing people, getting close to people is never easy. It's not all "kumbaya" and diaper diplomacy. We've had our fair share of frustrating experiences: airport personnel wanting to take our child away from us while going through security, Chinese tourists literally grabbing our son out of my Chinese-American husband's arms at tourist sites around town not realizing that he was the father, and of course the incessant requests for pictures at the most inopportune moments.
But we've also experienced a level of kindness and connection with ordinary people that I would have never thought possible before Will was born.
Walking through Yulin market was sometimes time-consuming, pausing every few feet for all of the popos to be able to coo over Will, but there was also something truly comforting about having five different popos assure me in Sichuanhua that their kids didn't have teeth at 8 months old either.
There was the laoban at our favorite noodle shop who always offered to hold Will while I ate. She would wave off both the strangers wanting to touch him and the inevitable criticisms of his dress (never enough layers!) with such fierceness that it was as if Will was her own child.
And I'll never forget the trio of popos who gave up their seats and formed an entourage around my baby and me as I struggled not to fall to the floor of an overcrowded, swerving airport bus at Shuangliu Airport. One hauled me into her seat while another supported my baby's head and a third tenderly pulled my jacket up tighter around my shoulders. They refused to leave my side until they'd delivered me safely to the baggage claim and then slipped away quietly, leaving me speechless with gratitude.
We're in the U.S. for a little while right now, and while there are some days when I breathe a deep sigh of relief for the ability to walk to the grocery store again in blessed anonymity, a part of me will always miss the comforting community we enjoyed living amongst the popos and ayis and other kind strangers we met in Chengdu.
This article by Danielle Dumm was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 59 ("community").