Much of the time, Beijingers strut the streets in an out-for-themselves, survival-of-the-fittest manner, swinging doors in faces, jumping queues, nudging each other off pavements, photo-bombing tourists and generally assuming other people are invisible until they need to ask for directions. In this respect, Beijing is the same as any other city in the world; but recently, DD and I discovered a notable exception to this rule. Chinese people, especially those in middle to old age, and particularly men, stop and talk to you if you have a baby.
What’s more, amazingly, they can always tell how old a baby is in weeks just by peering into the pram. And, somewhat less endearingly, they always have some unsolicited advice to offer.
During the first few weeks of Baby’s life, when according to Chinese custom neither he nor I should be outdoors at all, we got a lot of ‘tai xiao le!’ (‘he’s too young!’) as we took him for a spin in our apartment block gardens. This would be followed by further wagging of fingers that I, with my poor Mandarin listening skills, could never quite catch and was rather glad not to.
Once, we ended up in the lift in our building with a man in his sixties or so.
‘How old is he?’ The inevitable question came as soon as the lift doors closed.
‘Six weeks,’ DD replied, while I affected nonchalance and looked away.
The man nodded to indicate that this confirmed his guess.
‘Well,’ he continued sternly, ‘don’t take him out when it’s too hot. Or when it’s too cold. And definitely not when the air is too bad. Only take him out when it’s just right.’
Having spent the last six weeks in fits of guilt about how I couldn’t avoid exposing Baby to bad air, since even on a good day in Beijing the PM2.5 pollutant particle levels are multiple times worse than in London, I didn’t appreciate this piece of unrealistic advice from Mr Goldilocks and inwardly scowled.
But just then the lift stopped on Mr Goldilocks’ floor, and as he stepped out he turned back, put his hands together to say goodbye, bowed slightly, and flashed a wonderful ear-to-ear smile, eyes moon-shaped and brimming with warmth. My heart melted, and Mr Goldilocks was instantly promoted into my good books. It turns out that the way strangers here opine over your child is, despite the bluntness, underlined by genuine concern and affection.
I get a frequent reminder of this in my own home, with our ayi. In between the cleaning, cooking and shopping that she does for us, she often comes over to say hi to Baby and without fail has some critical observation to make.
‘He’s too chubby!’
‘His palms are dirty – you should clean them more often.’
‘You need to turn his head more. He tends to always look right.’
‘Don’t pick him up so often; he’s manipulating you with his crying.’
‘This towel is too hard on his skin, use a softer one.’
‘You’re feeding him too long. These red spots on his cheeks means he’s too hot being held against you. You only need to feed him for 20 minutes every three or four hours. Four would be fine, since he’s so chubby.’
Some of the time, she’s quite right; she’s pulling me up on something I’d been lax about. Other times she’s most definitely wrong. But either way, she delivers her commentary in such a cheery, breezy way that I find I’m not very offended. And when she declares that Baby is clever or cute, which she does with equal gusto, funnily enough I find myself minding even less.
I wonder if this love of babies among the older generations has anything to do with the one-child policy; whether the limitations on the number of children they could have make them treasure each one all the more, even other people’s. A few days ago, the government finally abandoned this controversial policy, and debate is rife about how this will shape the future of Chinese society. Whatever the impact of this change, though, I hope it won’t stop strangers giving ear-to-ear smiles to babies as they stroll by, and Baby, DD and I will continue to meet Mr Goldilockses in the years to come.
Copyright © 2015 followingdrdippy