Middleburgh - Rugrats
Part 3 in the Births, Deaths and Marriage Trilogy
Birth of a new child is accompanied by local rituals and customs. However because we are a cosmopolitan bunch here in Hong Kong, the local customs are frequently blended with imports depending on where the parents originate from.
A significant number of pregnant women come to Hong Kong from the mainland to have their babies. There are basically two reasons:
- a perception that medical services are better here than on the mainland (probably true) and
- under the HK constitution babies born here acquire permanent right of abode (deemed desirable in some quarters).
This has a number of implications not least that there was tremendous pressure on public maternity services in HK such that
- HK resident mothers to be could have difficulty getting timely access to services and
- HK taxpayers were paying for the walk in patients’ treatment.
The government responded by making services chargeable to "non residents” (addressing taxpayer concerns) through a two tier scheme. Non HK residents who attend approved prenatal treatments and pre-book delivery beds etc (thereby minimizing risk of complications and emergency procedures at birth) are charged at one rate and a punitive rate intended to discourage “walk ins” is charged for the rest. The rates are set to cover costs and fund better services for HK residents!!
And to ensure that “out of town” mothers don't turn up at A+E in final stages of labour to get “free” services, immigration officers have the power to refuse entry of pregnant women into Hong Kong. In practice this means that any women wearing baggy clothes who is “fat” etc may be stopped at border on suspicion of smuggling an unborn baby:
The one group who got a bum deal out of this were HK men with a mainland resident wife. Although they may be an HK "citizen" and may even pay HK taxes, they have to pay for maternity services for their wife/child like other cross border births if they bring their wife "home" to have baby in HK.
As I understand it the actual prenatal experience in HK is similar to that in West with 3 exceptions:
- because Chinese diets are different to western diets the list of foods which pregnant women should not eat because they might induce a miscarriage is more exotic. eg papaya , winter, hairy and bitter melons to name but a few
- acupuncture is routinely practiced to reduce risk of miscarriage. Coincidentally there was a recent article in the guardian about the value of acupuncture where IFV used.. and in HK, IVF is quite popular!!
- hospitals and clinics routinely give away DVD's to parents of the ultrasound scans as souvenirs. I think this is is relatively recent practice because I have not yet seen one shown in the "baby shots" shown at weddings. Nor for that matter have I seen any of the pictures of the IVF embryos (but it’s only a matter of time!!). I am told that parents also have taken to using their mobile phones to record the baby's early heartbeats whilst in the womb off of the monitor. Personally I think that's more impressive than the scans because you can hear the "beat of life".
Apart from the medical side there are some prenatal activities which I think are peculiar to china/Hong Kong (at least I am not aware they occur elsewhere)
- pregnant women paint their bellies and expose themselves en mass -literally - I kid you not !!!
- if one or other parent is non Chinese (NB I have a lot of mixed marriage’d friends) the first question Chinese relatives ask, after determining the baby's sex, is whether he or she will go to an international school ?? (apparently there is total shock if the answer is anything other than yes !!)
- if one or other of parents is non Chinese the next question is “will the baby have blue eyes ?? and if non Chinese partner actually has blue eyes any "no" answer will be totally disbelieved. When the baby is born relatives may even go so far as to deliberately wake it up to check whether it has blue eyes.
- there may be a family conference to determine the babies name(s). Chinese names consist of three syllables, the first being the family(clan) name and the following couplet the personal name. This couplet typically has a symbolic/literal meaning. Some families use related names eg sharing a common pictogram. Grandparents are consulted about the suitability of potential names. If the child is of mixed heritage he/she usually receives a non Chinese name and if the father is non Chinese one of the challenges for the Chinese relatives is choosing an appropriate Chinese surname.
Public Hospitals in Hong Kong especially the maternity units are equal to any in the west and arguably are better than some. A friend of mine who was pregnant met two clients from the UK. When they realised that her husband was British one of them asked if she was going "home" (meaning the UK) to have the baby. They were speechless when she told them she wasn't, because her husband thought it would be much more dangerous for her and the baby to give birth in a British hospital than here in HK. It's ironic considering that the local public hospital service was set up by the British and is modeled on the National Health Service (pre UK reforms)
Natural births and breast feeding is encouraged. Mother and baby are normally kept for no more than 2 days before being sent home with the owner’s manual and log book. Not surprisingly hospitals get upset if the baby is returned for whatever or dies before being taken to the antenatal clinic.) First visit is normally scheduled a couple days after leaving hospital.
Unlike the US where circumcision is the norm, it has to be arranged privately (like Ireland and UK) I know a couple whose baby was circumcised the day after he was discharged from hospital On arrival at local baby clinic the baby was "unpacked" for weighing, measuring and checking Apparently the nurse exclaimed loudly in Chinese "Wah .. there’s a bit missing !"
Use of formula milk is discouraged and in those cases where it is unavoidable hospitals/clinics recommend foreign brands. Even before the recent melamine scandal there was a well established practice where mainland mothers crossed the border to buy foreign milk formula in HK. It is worth noting that these formulas are available in China. The reason the mothers still buy in HK is because they fear that the product available in china may be "counterfeit" and if you think that is unlikely consider: if someone was prepared to put melamine in formula to make a buck, is it any less likely that someone would put substandard formula in fake packaging in order to pass it off as the real thing. Chinese mothers have more confidence in the security of the supply chain in HK and the ethics of HK supermarkets than in their local equivalent. (NB It is rumored that in Shanghai 5% of children below age of 5, have kidney problems)
Local antenatal customs/practices include:
- The "Ginger Soup": This is special soup consisting of pork knuckle and eggs stewed with copious quantities of black Chinese ginger especially prepared for the mother, as an traditional after birth tonic. I know of one case where it was delivered under police escort (The mother's nephew who is a policeman was instructed to delivery it by his mother who had prepared it!!) From my limited experience of visiting new mothers, the soup is offered to and consumed by visitors rather than the mother (which seems to me to defeat the exercise)
- declaring the baby is ugly: when visitors are in the presence of the baby they are not allowed to say "what a pretty/handsome baby' or equivalent. They may say it very quietly in the next room where the baby can't hear. Instead the relatives queue up and verbally abuse the poor mite telling him/her how ugly they are. Apparently this is all to do with preventing the baby getting a big head and full of himself.
- giving of gifts: Historically the life expectancy of new born babies in china was low so formal gifts are not given until the baby is one lunar month old ie has survived the first 28 days. Immediately after the birth the baby gets practical gifts such as clothes etc. I normally give a really good "mobile for the cot"
The one time I bought clothes (a 0-3mth 3x vest set) from M&S the parents thanked me but returned them and bought Chinese baby clothes. Now the learning lesson for me (once I had examined a set of Chinese baby clothes) was that they were far more practical and better engineered than western baby clothes - easier to get on and off - cooler - easier to change nappies and the garment life cycle garment was longer ie one size fitter a wider age span. Same with the baby wraps as compared to western blankets/towels etc.
I remember visiting a Chinese friend in hospital. A couple of beds away was an Irish woman being collected by her husband(?).She was struggling to dress the newborn baby 'western style" including the hat. The clothes were what you might expect to see on a baby in Dublin when temperature is about 16C not in HK at 25C. No one had shown her the benefits of local baby clothes.
- close relatives may give either a piece of jade (supposed to have a calming effect on babies) or a gold ankle bracelet: These have little bells attached which make a noise when the baby is awake and moving his legs - is a Chinese baby alarm
one month after baby is born there is a formal family meal held to celebrate the arrival of the baby; It is a normal family banquet other than when the baby is passed around like “pass the parcel”. Aunts vie with one another to demonstrate they haven’t lost their maternal skills, unmarried women get a test run at holding a live baby to see if their biological clock is primed; Stress levels go up when baby is passed to husbands and in particular boyfriends and the baby is given formal gifts such as gold or cash. I know of one case where the baby received from immediate relatives (who were not particularly affluent) over 10,000 HK$.
Under Hong Kong law a baby’s birth must be registered within 40 days (and you can't register until any hospital charges have been paid – traps mainlanders who might skip without paying)
If child has two names both have to be registered although one is designated as a primary which has future implications for issuance of ID cards etc. and if either of the child’s parents are foreign they may also have to get a consular birth certificate in order to establish a claim to an overseas nationality eg for US or member state in EU.
ONE CHILD/FAMILY POLICY
Doesn't apply in Hong Kong !!