NO BATHING, NO VISITING AND NO DRINKING WATER: THE CONFINEMENT OF CHINESE MOTHERS
By Lydia Teh, Malaysia
Imagine this scenario: You cannot bathe or wash your hair for an entire month. Forget about shopping, visiting friends or even going for a stroll in the neighborhood. Practically the only food to touch your lips must be cooked in sesame oil and ginger, and you can't even have a glass of water. Sounds like a new form of house arrest? In a way it is. Welcome to the confinement period mandatory for Chinese mothers, so termed for obvious reasons. As a Chinese woman living in Malaysia, I endured this after the births of each of my three children. The purpose of the month-long confinement period, a centuries-old tradition, is to nurture the mother's health back to its pre-natal state. The emphasis is on keeping the body warm and driving out fong (wind) which has entered the mother's body during childbirth. A general practitioner would call fong flatulence, but a sinseh (practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine) would call it the element which produces pain that is not localized like the natural phenomenon of wind which blows, stops or changes direction. Fong that is not eliminated after pregnancy is believed to bring on an onslaught of ailments such as rheumatism, headaches and backaches during old age. Crucial to the confinement is the Pui Yuet, a Cantonese term meaning companion for a month. The Pui Yuet's job is to cook and care for the mother, baby and other children throughout the confinement. Those who can afford it hire a Pui Yuet. But sometimes a mother or mother-in-law is substituted either out of financial consideration, respect, or inability to procure a Pui Yuet due to high demand. I was fortunate that my mother is a professional and highly-regarded Pui Yuet. She agreed to be my Pui Yuet for the birth of my youngest child last year, as she had been for my second child. A few days before my due date, she purchased the core ingredients for my special diet: A few kilograms of old ginger, a few bottles of Chinese red wine, rice wine and Benedectine DOM brandy, sesame oil, packets of red and black dates, and Chinese herbs such as ghizhi (medlar seeds, the dried orange-red seeds of a fruit resembling a small brown apple), tong kuei (angelica) and dang shen (the Chinese herb codonopsis pilosula). These herbs are believed to improve blood circulation and revitalize health.
The Chinese have two basic classifications of food, cooling and heating. Too much cooling food -- such as leafy vegetables and melons -- is believed to produce wind, muscle cramps and rheumatism. However, excessive heating food -- such as beef, spices, brandy, and some local fruits like durian (a strong smelling fruit with a green thorny exterior and delicious creamy yellow interior) -- causes yuet hei (hot air). The symptoms of this ailment are dry throat and lips. The idea is to strike a good balance, and not to eat an excess of either kinds of foods. Rice, pork, poultry and certain fish such as pomfret, found in the Indian and Pacific ocean, are said to be neutral, but their qualities can be altered by the method of cooking. Frying food imbues it with the heating element, whereas steaming food is cooling. Old ginger, sesame oil and rice wine reinforce the heating elements of food. That is why the confinement diet uses an excessive amount of these three ingredients. I still remember vividly the confinement meal I ate after my most recent birth. It had been a difficult delivery. What little food I ate hours before the onslaught of labour had been expended during childbirth. My stomach was growling with hunger. A whiff of the meal's aroma was enough to put my salivary glands into over-drive. The single dish to accompany the white rice consisted of thin slices of pig kidney, pig liver, lean pork and juliennes of ginger swimming in brown, oily gravy of sesame oil and Chinese wine. Not even one grain of rice remained on my plate when I finished eating. That was the state of my plate after every meal for about four days. Subsequently, leftovers on my plate became a common sight. I had tired of the same old food, pork and chicken, cooked in lots of sesame oil and Chinese wine. I do not eat beef and mutton as a matter of personal preference, so my diet was even more restrictive. To provide variation, my mom sometimes deep-fried the chicken pieces and pork slices. Shredded old ginger, besides being used as a flavouring, can be deep-fried to make a tasty side dish. Thankfully, after a fortnight, the diet widened to include fish such as white pomfret which is good for stimulating breast milk. Vegetables like broccoli and french beans were permitted. There is less flexibility in liquids. During the entire month, I was only permitted to quench my thirst with tea made of red dates. Every night my mother put some red dates, dang shen, dried longan (the fruit of the Chinese evergreen tree) and medlar seeds into a slow cooker. By morning, the fragrant aroma of the tea permeated the kitchen. She kept the tea warm in a thermos flask. Throughout the day I had to drink this brew instead of plain water so as to prevent water retention and revitalize health. I yearned for clear sky juice much like one would thirst for a drop of
water in the desert. My mother constantly warned me about the consequences of drinking plain water which would purportedly make the veins swell. I tested out the theory when she was not in the kitchen. No swelling of veins but I refrained from cheating too often lest I get caught. No point in bringing on the lectures from mom and mother-in-law who even though she lives in another state, kept reminding me to comply with the rules. To keep warm and revitalize my health, every night I had to drink a special brew of chicken broth, ginger juice and brandy. It was like drinking chili-flavoured syrup which I quickly washed down with red date tea to mask the strong taste. The soup never failed to bring on streams of sweat. Considering my scanty personal hygiene practice, perspiration only added to my "unclean" condition. For nine days after birth, I could not take a bath at all. I kept clean by sponging myself with a towel rinsed in hot boiled water. The hot weather and my attire, which consisted only of a blouse and sarong (brightly coloured rectangular piece of cloth worn as a long skirt) to prevent wind from getting into my legs, further compounded my discomfort. On the tenth day, I was allowed my first bath with water boiled with ginger and lemon grass. The water resembled tea, not very alluring for a bath but after nine days of dry cleaning, it was immaterial whether the water was brown, yellow or green. The feel of the water running down my back was pure ecstasy. And the water was really hot. This is supposed to prevent wind from entering the body during the bath. My mom repeatedly asked me not to add cold water to the brew because tap water could produce wind. I did not respond to her words but when the bathroom door was closed, I quietly added in a few dippers of cold water to lower the temperature. Subsequently, I took a bath every five days until the end of the confinement period. The most unbearable confinement "law" that I had to endure was not being able to wash my hair. Not even one drop of water must touch the head for fear that wind will penetrate the head. The first week inched by slowly. Later I grew accustomed to my dirty hair which must have gained a few grams of weight in dust and grime. Dry shampoo -- coarse white powder rubbed into the scalp, then brushed off -- helped a little in ridding the smell and oiliness, for a while. When I finally got to wash my hair albeit with ginger water on the thirtieth day, my head became light as a floating balloon. I felt like a model in a shampoo advertisement, swinging my hair happily to show off the bounce. It is important for the new mother to rest during her confinement. So I was not allowed to do anything strenuous. Even carrying my baby for too
long was considered an over-exertion, although I did breastfeed. The days stretched by boringly with nothing to do but sleep, eat and lie around. Sitting up too much is frowned upon as it may produce backaches later on in life. Activities that require too much concentration for the eyes such as watching television and reading are also discouraged. The bottom line is that every part of the body needs to rest, except the mouth. The only relief is the friends and relatives who come bearing gifts like chicken essence for the new mother's health and ang pow (red packets containing money) from the day of delivery until the baby celebrates its first full month. It is also taboo for the mother to leave the house. As the emphasis is on keeping the body warm, the likelihood of catching a chill is greater outdoors. Even if I were to so much as step out onto the porch, my mom would quickly shoo me inside. That is also part of her job as a Pui Yuet, to protect her charge from any untoward incidences. As a Pui Yuet, my mom is in great demand. She has to be booked months in advance. She knows how to cook delicious confinement food and is good with babies. Those are all the qualifications needed. The downside of being a Pui Yuet is that she must be prepared to lose sleep at night in caring for the baby, and she has to relinquish her freedom for one month. She stays with her employer during the duration of the confinement. Usually she sleeps with the newborn in a spare room so that the mother can have a proper night's sleep. The pay is lucrative starting from a minimum of RM2,000 (USD500) for the month, depending on the area. Those living in cities have to fork out about ten percent more than their counterparts in smaller towns. Just how much in demand these Pui Yuets are can be seen by their earnings which have more than doubled since 1990 when the rate was only RM800 (USD200). During the Chinese New Year festival which lasts two weeks, it is doubly hard to employ a Pui Yuet. As birth is considered by the Chinese as "impure", most Pui Yuets do not want to work during this period as they would be defiled and cannot perform New Year prayers. Even if they decide to take on the assignment during this auspicious celebration, the pay could escalate to double the normal rate. There are many taboos which most of us Chinese women, even though educated, feel obliged to toe the line. There is a minority of women who do not regard the confinement tradition seriously. Usually, these are the ones who have lived abroad for some time.
Ruby had her two older boys in Malaysia and went through the customary confinement period on both occasions. Her third baby was born in Australia. She laughingly recounted how the nurses shooed her into the shower after delivery to wash off the mess. There was no way that she could have observed confinement Down Under. She had no Pui Yuet and the culture was entirely different. Cheng gave birth to her first baby in Hong Kong. Her mother-in-law flew over to help her with the confinement. But it was not a confinement in the strictest sense of the word. She had to do the marketing since her mother-in-law was not familiar with the area. Cheng had her second baby in Malaysia. Even though she could have employed a Pui Yuet, she chose not to. She taught her maid how to cook some confinement dishes, but she did not remain housebound or observe the personal hygiene regiment. Will Ruby and Cheng regret their actions later in their lives? I do not know, but I salute them for their courage to go against tradition. I am like the majority of Chinese women who feel that we may as well "play it safe." Two or three months of discomfort is a small price to pay to avoid ailments which may plague me later on in life. Moreover, when it comes to a choice between keeping the confinement tradition or being subject to lectures from mom, mom-in-law, grandmas on both sides and the Pui Yuet, I am among those who find confinement the easier path to take. I look forward to a healthy old age.
Lydia Teh is a freelance writer born, bred and based in Malaysia. Her articles have appeared in local newspapers and magazines. She has also won a children's writing competition.