Sunday, November 15, 2009

Life with Babies

Our nuclear family

Two-month old "couch potatoes"

Twins in the stroller out for a walk

On a hike
Now that we had babies, the benefits of a multi-generational household became quickly manifest. The Lius love babies, especially their own. At the end of my forty days, Pa ordered several tables of food and held a feast for the relatives and neighbors. We had three tables inside and two or three out in the alley in front of the house. At the “full month” celebration, they ate chicken and rice wine soup, pork hock and peanut stew (highly recommended for nursing mothers), and hard-boiled eggs dyed red as featured dishes. Of course, there were many other courses, too. Family members, who had not yet given the babies presents, gave red envelopes of money or solid gold baby rings. That feast marked my re-entry into society and the end of my confinement. I had to go back to work the following Monday.

Ma officially retired from construction work to take care of the babies. Since I usually worked in the afternoons and evenings, we worked out a schedule that divided the work. Yuni and I had the babies in our room all night, and I continued caring for them in the morning while Ma did the laundry. I would feed the babies and then put them in the double stroller (a gift from my American family). We would go out for a walk in the cool of the morning. By the end of the walk, the babies were usually ready for a morning nap, so I would clean the house, paying special attention to the floors.

Ma could spend all morning with the laundry. She gossiped with the neighbors who were doing washing on their roofs. She puttered in her rooftop herb and vegetable garden, and she hung all the clothes out to dry on bamboo poles under the eaves and an awning. She usually didn’t come down from doing the laundry until almost 11:00. By that time the babies were awake and hungry. We would each take one and feed her. Then I made lunch for Ma and me while she played with the babies. After lunch Ma and the babies took a nap in Yuntian’s room off the kitchen while I got ready and left for work.

While I was gone, Ma would play with the babies, feed them, give them a bath, and take them out for a walk in the early evening after it started to get cool. Ma and her daughters got dinner for the family. I would grab something at a noodle shop near my school between classes. When Pa and Yuni got home in the evening, they would take the babies while Ma and the girls cleaned up after dinner. Their method of babysitting usually consisted of holding the babies on their laps while they watched their TV shows and talking to the babies during commercials. After the dishes were done, my sisters-in-law would play with the kids. By the time I got home after class, the babies were tired out and ready to go upstairs to bed.

When Ma had first gotten married, Yuni’s grandfather told her that if she wanted smart children, she needed to talk to them from the time they were born. When she was playing with them or doing housework or taking the babies for their walk, Ma kept up a running patter to the kids. She would point out different kinds of birds that they could see lying in the stroller. She would tell them what she was cooking. As she was changing their diapers, she told them how much it cost for a package of diapers and why their parents had to work so hard. She also told them that when they got older they would need to work hard and earn money, too. She would tell them about the formula powder as she prepared their bottles. And she insisted that I keep up a running patter with them in English when I was caring for the kids. Ma and Pa only spoke to the babies in the Hakka dialect. I only spoke to them in English, and Yuni and his siblings only spoke to them in Mandarin Chinese. We were experimenting with a method for producing multi-lingual children that I had read about in a linguistics class at Georgetown. Each adult only speaks one language to the child from birth, and the child begins to associate the language with the adult’s face. Children raised this way learn to talk a little bit more slowly, but they usually become fluent in several languages.

My relatives had sent me numerous books on child-rearing while I was pregnant. I had great plans for how I was going to raise my children. I was not going to give them sugar until they were three years old. I was going to limit their time in front of the television. I was going to read to them every evening. I had so many plans. And all of them, except for reading to the children every day, went out the window as my husband’s family threw themselves exuberantly into loving their grandchildren.

The entire Liu family watched TV for several hours every evening when they got home from work. Since I was out teaching then, the children were included in the nightly TV watching ritual. Fortunately, for all of us, TV transmission was limited to several hours at noon and several hours in the evening. For most of the day, the TV was dark. And then there was the matter of sugar. Pa Liu has a sweet tooth. And he began buying suckers for the girls before they even had teeth. Several times a week, Pa came home with large, hard suckers that they couldn’t choke on. He always bought three: one for each of the girls and one for himself. And they would sit on the couch in the evenings watching TV and sucking on their candy. The only adjustment I was able to make in this matter was to convince him that the girls should not have their candy before they had eaten their regular food.

At first I got mad at these set backs to my grand plans for child-rearing. But upon reflection, I realized that the Lius had managed to raise seven children to adulthood in the face of terrible hardships. All their children were honest, hard-working, and well-adjusted. They were also very smart. If the worst thing I could say about my children was that they had bad teeth because of a doting grandfather, things would be very good for them, indeed. So I just made sure that the girls first had their milk and then later their rice and vegetables before they were given their dessert. And everyone was quite happy.


Sepiru Chris said...

How did the multi-lingual approach go for your family? I know of many, all in Taiwan, who tried it with varying success.

One day, I assume, we will be trying something similar.

Teresa said...

It takes great discipline on the part of the adults involved, especially when the kids start speaking. In Taiwan, they started speaking only Hakka with a little Mandarin, and the tmptation for me was to give in and not insist on English. Then we came to the States and within sixth months their English was better than their Chinese. Yuni began only speaking Hakka, and we had Mandarin speaking sub-tenants. Yuni and I only spoke Mandarin to each other and to the tenants. Then when they got to be school age, I decided to homeschool them so they would not lose the languages. There was a bit of rebellion as they got to be five or six, but after a few trips to Taiwan where they could not communicate without speaking Chinese, they decided that they wanted to learn so they could communicate with cousins and grandparents. The teenage years were another challenge, but all allowances and permissions were contingent on their asking their father in Hakka and me in English. If they couldn't get the Hakka, I would teach them the Mandarin, and they would ask their father in Mandarin to teach them the Hakka. Some days we wanted to tear our hair out, but we persevered. Since we did home school, we were able to accelerate their graduation and send them to Taiwan for a gap year of Mandarin study before they started university. Now they thank us, but since going away to school, their Chinese has regressed some. They can read and write and speak Hakka and Mandarin. Their English is excellent, too.

murat11 said...


I was curious about the success of the multi-lingual approach, too. Glad you expounded.

I love all the feasts! The Lius would fit right in in New Orleans, where any day was a good day for a feast. I love the idea of the party spilling out into the alley.

Love, too, the stories of Ma talking to the babies about anything and everything. All that gab is so rich and important to their - and our - lives.

Teresa said...

Hi Murat,

It was interesting to hear the things that Ma considered important in her monologue. There was a lot about the cost of food and the necessities of life and the need to work hard to earn a living when they grew up. I don't think I've heard any American parent or grandparent work out the cost per diaper in each package for a two month old.

Cloudia said...

You married into a wonderful and smart family! Good deal for all parties concerned...

Isn't looking at old pictures of ourselves ( I was yesterday)interesting?
Courage! We still have many adventures ahead, Teresa.

Nihau & Aloha, Friend!

Comfort Spiral

Teresa said...

Hi Cloudia, Thanks for stopping by. I agree that the family was wonderful, especially for the babies. It was a real blessing to be a part of it.

I am enjoying seeing pictures of the kids when they were little and remembering. Now they are sooo different. I guess I have changed, too, but I feel young at heart, and I have adventures all the time, so I'm not too worried about being old. In some ways I'm finding that the attitude of Asian mothers whose kids are grown is terribly freeing. They don't worry about being embarrassed or embarrassing anyone. They just barrel along having fun. I am doing something like that, although I do try to be somewhat careful of others' sensibilities.