Archive by Author

You Are My Sunshine

16 Jan

I sit in the darkness, my son nursing in my lap, my daughter lying beside me under a pile of warm blankets, holding my hand. The room is still as I sing the familiar lullaby lyrics I sing every night.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy, when skies are grey…

I treasure these words. How true they are, I think to myself, as I stroke my daughter’s silky cheeks and listen to my son’s soft, snurfling breathing against my sweater.

Anyone who has visited or lived in Chengdu knows that the skies here are grey—simply grey, or yellowish-grey, or grayish-grey, or whitish-grey. On a very rare occasion, they might even be described as bluish-grey, even sunny-ish-grey if you’re really, really lucky. But they are always and forever grey. It’s fog, it’s smoke, it’s coal particulate, it’s clouds…whatever the case, it’s grey.

My son has never seen his shadow, and on bright-ish days when the obscured sun “shines” in the midday sky, my daughter excitedly points and says, “Mommy, look! There’s the moon!” That’s exactly what it looks like, too.

It’s not easy living under a thick, grey sky…far from home, far from friends and family, far from like-minded mothers and parks and open spaces that stretch majestically beneath a clear blue sky. It’s not easy struggling day after day with a colossal language barrier and the constant challenges that come with living in a foreign culture. The skies can feel very grey indeed.

I hold my glass under the water dispenser and make frog sounds—gung, gung, gung, gung—to imitate the sound of the air bubbles as the water flows into my glass. My son, who is sitting on my hip, starts giggling, and before long the two of us are laughing ourselves silly.

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you…

We head outside, and my son spots the gate guard at the entrance to our apartment complex. He is an older gentleman in a black police uniform, small in stature, with bright, mischievous eyes and a wide smile. His eyes twinkle when he sees us, and he growls a menacing growl; their daily game of chase begins. My son hides behind my legs, peeking out and squealing with delight. Soon all of us are laughing.

At the market, on the way home from preschool, by the fish pond, at the park, on the sidewalk, my children make friends. No matter that they speak only a handful of Chinese words. Everywhere they go people greet them, smile at them, offer them gifts, and laugh with warmth and friendliness. Barriers dissolve, hearts open. We connect with the most unlikely souls—construction workers, street sweepers, taxi drivers, fruit sellers, grandparents, noodle-makers, cashiers. The bonds are fleeting, but each is genuine and warm-hearted.

I often hear that children are the true ambassadors of peace in the world. I can completely see why. I am so grateful to tag along behind these two beautiful kids, their senses so vibrant and clear, their spirits ever buoyant, their hearts and minds so wide open. Without them, my feelings of isolation here in China would be so much more intense, and the grey skies above me would be so much more oppressive. Thanks to them, my days are flooded with the brightest, warmest sunshine.

Please don’t take my sunshine away.

 

For the whole song (I only ever sing the first verse), visit http://kids.niehs.nih.gov/games/songs/childrens/sunshinemid.htm

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Heidi Nevin, who is not normally this sentimental, resides in Chengdu, China with her Tibetan husband and two young kids, ages 4 and 1.

Breastfeeding in China

3 Jan

This afternoon, while my little son was sleeping, I had the rare pleasure of taking a midday bath with my four-year-old daughter, Clara. It was nice to spend some cozy alone time with her, soaking in our beautiful juniper tub. At one point, she paddled over and asked if she could have a taste of my milk.

“You don’t nurse anymore, silly. You’re a big girl!” I laughed.

“I just want to taste it,” she pleaded, looking forlorn.

“You drank my milk for almost 3 years,” I reminded her.

“But, Mommy, I can’t remember!” I pulled her close to me and let her suckle.

“Yummy,” she smiled. “It’s sweet!”

Breastfeeding my babies has been, and continues to be, one of my very favorite parts of motherhood. The intimacy and tenderness of the nursing relationship is truly indescribable. How heavenly to gaze into the eyes of a nursing baby, so perfectly nourished and fulfilled! I have often thought to myself, as I cradled a gorgeous baby in my arms, that it is LOVE that makes a child grow healthy and strong, and the flow of sweet milk from mother’s breast is certainly one of the purest forms of love.

I was blessed to give birth to both my children at home and nurse them without delay, as instructed and encouraged by my parents and midwives. Such a fantastic rush of joy and relief it is to have a newborn infant placed upon one’s breast, cord still pulsing, skin wrinkled and red, deep-blue eyes quietly alert and blinking in the soft light, tiny mouth latched onto the nipple! It is a timeless, weightless moment, that first greeting between mother and child, a sweet and unforgettable celebration of the bond formed within. That precious bond, so crucial for the health and well-being of mother and child, is what is nurtured most intensively by the nursing relationship.

The industrialization and modernization of human societies has dramatically affected many women’s understanding and experience of childbirth. Here in China, as elsewhere in the industrialized world, urban women almost invariably give birth in a hospital setting, frequently by Cesarean section. The World Health Organization reports that rates of Cesarean sections performed in urban China may be as high as 63%. The report goes on to say:

Many Chinese couples now opt for delivery by caesarean section to avoid pain. Apart from the clinical indications for caesarean section – breech presentation, dystocia and suspected fetal compromise – there is growing evidence that many women choose delivery by caesarean section for personal reasons, particularly in profit-motivated institutional settings that may provide implicit or explicit encouragement for such interventions.[1]

Not surprisingly, just as more and more women opt for expensive and potentially dangerous medical interventions in lieu of natural childbirth, fewer and fewer are choosing to breastfeed their babies.

During my time here in China over the past six years, when I have always been either pregnant or nursing, I’ve chatted with numerous Chinese mothers and gleaned from them the following impressions. The general perception seems to be that breastfeeding is old-fashioned and inconvenient for the modern career woman. Infant formula or cow’s milk are the preferred substitutes for breast milk. The sexual objectification of the female body by the media also seems to have played a role, making Chinese women fearful of losing their youthful figures by nursing their babies. There is also the widespread belief among mothers that they have no milk. How many times have I heard Chinese women say, “Wo mei you nai.” (I have no milk.) While low milk production (and various other circumstances) can certainly be a challenge for a small percentage of women, this issue more than likely arises from a general lack of knowledge and support from family, doctors, and the culture at large. Several women have also expressed to me the mistaken idea that breast milk becomes un-nutritious after the first six months.

When my kids play in our apartment compound, our Chinese neighbors regularly admire them and tell me how strong and healthy they look. “What do you feed them?” they ask, assuming that it must be lots of meat (of which we eat none). “Breast milk!” I say proudly, gazing down at my young son’s glowing pink cheeks. This surprises them and often precipitates a conversation with the older generation of onlookers, many of whom survived the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961). Invariably, they recall their own years of nursing babies and confirm the benefits of breastfeeding. Sadly, that information seems to be largely forgotten or ignored, lost in the mad rush for socio-economic “progress”.

China is certainly not alone in this arena. The World Health Organization states that:

Despite the recommendation that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months, less than 40% of infants less than this age are exclusively breastfed worldwide. The overwhelming majority of American babies are not exclusively breastfed for this period – in 2005 under 12% of babies were breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months, with over 60% of babies of 2 months of age being fed formula and approximately one in four breastfed infants having infant formula feeding within two days of birth.[2]

 Alas, breastfeeding seems to be just one of many terrible casualties of modernism and capitalistic greed. The complexity of this subject far exceeds the scope of a blog entry, for sure, but being that it is so close to my heart, I thought it worth sharing some thoughts. I wonder how long it will be before the breastfeeding promotion programs forged elsewhere in the world spread to China and begin to make a difference in the lives of women and children.

While Clara may have forgotten the sweet taste of my milk, I know that she will never forget the sweetness of my love. She is of that love—it is in her heart, her blood, her bones. And I feel sure that when her time comes, she will not hesitate to draw her baby to her breast and share her own milk, that most sublime nourishment for body and soul.

Heidi is an American married to a Tibetan, living in Chengdu, China. She has two young children, ages 4 and 1.

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[1] WHO: Delivery settings and caesarean section rates in China

[2] Wikipedia: Infant Formula

Between Worlds

20 Nov

I was born in Crete, Greece and raised in Maryland, USA, on a beautiful, 86-acre, off-the-grid homestead. My parents, products of the hippie era, were inspired by the simple, self-sufficient lives of the Cretan villagers, and we had no electricity or indoor plumbing in the hand-hewn house where I grew up. Instead of a TV, we had a trapeze in the living room. It was a paradise for kids, and I grew up with an innate love of nature and a keen sense of responsibility for the health of our Mother Earth. My parents strove to awaken in us an awareness of the effects of our actions and to provide us with an alternative to the modern lifestyle of rampant consumptive greed. They supplemented our public school education with frequent journeys overseas, and by the time I was 18, our family of four had toured nearly 25 countries, mostly on tandem bicycle.

As an adult, I continued to travel widely and for longer periods, eventually spending nearly seven years in India and Nepal studying the Tibetan language and practicing Buddhism. Before long, as hormones would have it, I fell in love and married into another culture, another race, another language, another dimension. Tsultrim and I come from wildly different worlds—he a monk from a tiny village in Tibet, I the product of an American subculture of left-winged eco-hippies. We were married in 2003, first on the black market in Nepal and later in our flower garden in Maryland. During eight tumultuous years of marriage, we have made nearly that many moves across the planet, from my country to his and back again, one of us always suffering from culture shock and social isolation. The learning curve has been, and continues to be, incredibly steep. Yet for some reason—no doubt our stubborn Taurean personalities and a fat load of karma—we’re still together, still laughing.

Along the way, we have been blessed with two gorgeous kids—our daughter Clara, aged 4 ½, and our son Tashi, aged 17 months. Admittedly, part of the reason I wanted to have a second child was to give our first-born a companion, someone who would truly appreciate the complexity of her multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-lingual situation. I worried that she would be friendless and alone in her ever-shifting world, with no one to share the long airplane rides, discuss her weird parents, or understand who she really was.

We traveled in Asia during both of my pregnancies, but I drew the line when it came to their births—those were occasions when I truly needed my own family, culture, and language, everything that I equate with the safety and comfort of home. Both our children were born in my parents’ new home in Oregon, USA, gently lifted onto my chest by the loving hands of homebirth midwives. I love to think that Tsultrim’s graceful presence at the births of his children purified generations of Tibetan tradition, in which men have avoided (and been excluded from) the ‘filthy’ scene of childbirth.

Shortly after both births, we returned to Tibet bearing the new baby, washing our cloth diapers in the freezing winter water and soaking up the salt-of-the-earth goodness of Tsultrim’s beautiful family. These journeys were terrifying and traumatic for me, the fretting new mother of an infant, and with each passing year I have yearned more and more intensely for a stable home, for roots in nurturing soil, for a solid community of like-minded mothers and the support of my family. The carefree wanderlust of my youth has long since faded away, leaving in its place an anxious, fearful woman rapidly approaching her 40th birthday, still without a place to call home and no prospects for one on the horizon. The Buddha’s teachings on non-attachment and impermanence do little to ease the ache in my heart, the pull to plunge my fingers into warm brown earth. We are settled in the Chengdu mega-metropolis for the (un)foreseeable future, not living the lavish life of the typical expat but camped out in my brother-in-law’s apartment, while Tsultrim tries his luck at selling construction supplies in the booming Chinese economy. We all sleep in a row on the floor of our single bedroom, our clothes and medicines and children’s books stuffed into a few small shelves. Clouds of fog and smog hang heavy in the Chengdu sky, and miles of constipated highway snake around us in every direction.

Even as I celebrate our children’s immersion into diverse cultures and languages and watch them grow and thrive in each, I wonder how I will share with them the lessons of my childhood, the deep reverence for the natural world that comes with being of and near the earth, season after season, year after year, in a place called home. Can a family of nomads engender a sense of place and belonging in its children? More importantly, will there ever be a place where we all feel at home, such that we can live a gentle, carbon-neutral existence on this fragile planet?