There are a few really interesting things that everyone should know about Chinese babies. First of all, they are absolutely adorable. This is probably due to the fact that for ten months of the year they are bundled up in no less than six layers of thick, fluffy clothing. There are few things cuter than a baby waddling along the street, unable to bend over, sit down, or even touch his own nose.
Secondly, babies seem to enjoy a level of freedom above that of all other Chinese citizens. In fact, this freedom seems to extend well into the toddler years depending on where in China you are. The main benefit of this freedom is that babies can go to the bathroom anywhere that they want, anytime that they want. They even wear special crotch-less pants that naturally part when you squat allowing hands-free relief for those who wear them. When you first arrive in China, you might think that it’s silly that with so many people, seats in the train station will be used for holding bags while many people are standing beside them. However, after you see your first score of babies/toddlers who support China’s “Urination Without Discretion" and "Defecation Without Discrimination” policies, you think twice before using the ground as anything but a foothold.
Lastly, as can be seen in the title of this post, Chinese babies grow up as de facto racists. Now, don’t be alarmed and start envisioning little babies swaddled in six layers of KKK winter robes with crotch-slits. Their “racism,” for lack of a better word, is just the natural reaction of shock and horror at seeing a face of a different color, shape, and proportion. Picture seeing the witch from Snow White in real life, when all you’d been exposed to prior to her was eyes of roughly half the size, hair whose spectrum went from naturally black to dyed rotten pumpkin orange, and a nose that seems to be almost 2D when compared with the IMAX-3D schnoz of a caucasian.
When seeing someone alien, these Chinese babies give reason to believe that the most natural response is fear. Most babies I see for the first time begin to cower, search for mommy, and start crying. Oddly enough, this is the internal response of many “adults” I meet the first time as well. They are nervous, surprised, and seek the most abrupt/awkward way out of my presence, which is often just averting their eyes and walking away sans valediction.1 Fortunately for me2, there is a baby who pretty much lives at the English department where both of her parents teach. I couldn’t help using this prolonged exposure to a test subject to run some of my own experiments.
1-year old: Test subject #24601 looks at me with glazed over eyes and is curious to the point of being unable to do anything else while I am in its line of sight... including but not limited to blinking.
2-years old - first meeting: For some reason, things changed when the test subject could talk. If she sees me anywhere within ten meters, her face slowly wilts in on itself, and she cries until I back up to an appropriate distance.3
2nd to 24th meeting: Crying and retreating to mommy continue, but the restraining order seems to be lifted a little each time with crying taking place later and later in the interaction.4
25th meeting: Still unwilling to speak in my presence, the subject is willing to tolerate physical contact, (a hand shake).
28th meeting: First words spoken by test subject… “Bye bye.”
30th meeting: Test subject is willing to touch the face she was once afraid of. A situation similar to Tarzan reaching out to touch Jane’s nose, eyes, and hair, confirming that this odd specimen is not an illusion.
31st meeting: Test subject smiles when she sees me and responds to my questions with gestures, (head nods and pointing), yet there is still no verbal back-and-forth.
The development of my relationship with Test Subject #24601 has been an odd parallel to my relationship with many Chinese nationals of all ages. The initial response is either deeply distracting curiosity5 or fear.6 Similar to babies, Chinese adults will be more/less reticent for a first interaction depending on your race or appearance and home it overlaps with what they have experienced so far. After the first interaction, people slowly open up and begin responding to me, but remain somewhat reserved when it come to expressing their own personal viewpoints or feelings. If some feeling is shared, it’s a generalization or the perspective of some absent third party with whom the speaker probably agrees, but not for sure. Unlike with babies, I do however manage to transgress this final barrier and have full conversations with adults here. As a goal before I leave, I'd like to have a conversation with Test Subject #24601 to set a positive example for Sino-caucasian-alien-infant relations everywhere.
1. I’ve yet to make an adult cry though, they’ve managed to internalize their fear of the alien.
2. Possibly scarring for the baby.
3. My site mate, Shri, who is Indian-American, does not make the baby cry. She stares at him for a few seconds with deep confusion, and after rearranging her universe to accept this odd-featured man, starts smiling. This is the exact response of most Chinese adults to Shri, internal and external response.
4. If I wear sunglasses, the test subject permits me to get closer and holds off crying for longer.
5. Some people, mainly teenage girls and middle-aged men, (don’t ask me why), will bump into others, stop driving, or cut off mid-McDonald’s order while just gazing dumbly at me.
6. Mainly restaurant workers, who are trapped behind the counter, seem to experience a claustrophobic panic induced by both my appearance AND the fear of what terrible apocalyptic catastrophe might occur if for some reason I placed my order in English. Normally, once I speak Chinese, the panic subsides and humor takes over or flirtation in the case of female ice-cream vendors.