In Queens, New Mothers and Old Asian Custom - Printable Version
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In Queens, New Mothers and Old Asian Custom - starshine - 06-05-2011 02:46 PM
By Flora Lee Peir
Katy Lu opened the front door of the two-story house near the Queens Botanical Garden. “Why don’t I show you the babies first?” she said in Mandarin Chinese, leading the way up a staircase and past a small kitchen where a rice cooker sat on a table.
A dozen bassinets lined the walls of the warm, low-lit nursery where two babies slept and a woman tended to a third at a changing table. Blankets in some of the empty bassinets suggested that other newborns would spend the night here as well.
Across the hall, an open door offered a view of a double room, with one woman sitting up in her bed and another lying under a blanket. The women, both new mothers, were there for the Chinese practice of postpartum confinement — called zuo yuezi, or, in Mandarin, sitting the month.
To Western ears, confinement sounds like something out of a Victorian novel, but in some traditional Asian cultures, women still spend the month after a baby’s birth in pampered seclusion. Typically, a woman’s relatives would care for her, but more recently, the practice has been outsourced to postpartum doulas and confinement centers, like the one Ms. Lu operates. In the United States, they cater to middle-class immigrant women separated from their families. Business is steady enough in New York City to support at least four postpartum centers, tucked away in the heavily Asian-immigrant neighborhoods of Flushing and Bayside, Queens.
The centers largely fly below the radar of English-language authorities — they advertise online or in Chinese-language publications. They make up such a niche market that city and state authorities did not know they even existed. Jeffrey Hammond, a spokesman for the state Health Department, said that as long as the centers were not offering medical services, they would not require a license. A spokeswoman for the city Health Department said that it had no information on the centers.
But they made a brief appearance in the news when, in March, officials in San Gabriel, Calif., shut down what they said was a home for women who had come to the United States to give birth so that the children would be American citizens — so-called anchor babies.
It’s unclear whether New York’s confinement centers cater to that market. Generally they practice a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding their clients’ origins. Both Ms. Lu’s center and the ones run by Annie Gao, another Flushing confinement entrepreneur, give a Beijing phone number on their Web sites. Ms. Gao, when pressed on what kind of clients her center drew — older or younger, local or tourist — said: “I’ve never noticed any tendency. When a woman comes to me, I only see a mother. It’s a mother and a baby, and that’s all that matters.” (She, like the other women interviewed, spoke in Mandarin Chinese.)
There are no hard numbers on how many women might be using the New York centers for so-called maternity tourism. And nationwide, “we really have no way of knowing,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that seeks tougher immigration laws. Government agencies and immigration advocacy groups said they did not track such numbers.
In New York, many of the local clients are new immigrants who may be unable to secure visas for their own mothers to come from China. Others feel a center would be able to oversee the process better. Through their own savings and money sent by relatives, the clients come up with the $1,500 to $3,000 cost for a month’s stay. One of the first major postpartum houses to open in New York belongs to Ms. Gao, a mother of three whose bubbly spirit is matched only by her ambition. Ms. Gao, who moved to New York 10 years ago, said she would occasionally offer a spare bedroom to a friend who had just delivered and oversee her confinement. Word of her services spread, and she began taking in women regularly in 2004.
Until last March, she had run the Flushing branch of her service, Angel Baby Care Center, out of her home. In April, Ms. Gao, 40, showed off a three-bedroom unit on an apartment-house floor for mothers and newborns.
“I think of it as relatives coming for an extended visit,” she said. Now, on a typical day, she drops her children off at school, buys groceries for her family and her centers, visits any mothers who are still in the hospital and then shuttles between her two centers, one in Flushing, the other in a house an hour’s drive away in Suffolk County that appears to accommodate about 10 beds.
As with many traditions, there is no formal set of rules for confinement, but the emphasis is on warmth. Women stay inside and avoid cold drafts, because their bones are believed to be weak in the aftermath of the birth, and too much cold air could lead to rheumatism or arthritis. Cold foods, believed to slow the shrinking of the uterus, are forbidden for the entire month, as are foods believed to cool the body’s energy flow, like cabbage and watermelon. The women eat foods tempered with additives like eucommia bark and wolfberry (also known as goji berry), believed to purge the uterus. Soup made of adzuki beans is often served as a dessert because the beans are believed to reduce swelling.
A proper confinement, Ms. Lu said, lasts 45 to 60 days, but centers in the United States generally keep it to 30. The most notorious rule of confinement — a ban on showering and washing hair for the month — is generally considered anachronistic given the availability of clean, hot water.
Jeany Lin, an immigrant from Fujian Province whose daughter is now 3, said a friend from church recommended Ms. Gao. Ms. Lin, 26, said that during her stay she ate five meals a day and that she was encouraged to rest as much as possible early on. She breastfed her baby, but otherwise the infant remained largely in the doulas’ care for the first two weeks. Her husband, a restaurant worker, visited daily. “During the third and fourth weeks I could get up and chat with the other moms, and sometimes the aunties would give us little lessons on baby care,” she said.
Another mother, Li Yang, came to the center last fall after her second son was born. Ms. Yang, her husband and older son moved to the United States two years ago from Fujian. Uncomfortable with the idea of managing a newborn and a teenager while her husband worked evenings, Ms. Yang reserved a room with Ms. Gao and moved in after giving birth. Ms. Yang, 39, described her recovery as uneventful, though she said, unlike her previous confinement, the center provided her the luxury of choosing her meals.
“It’s good to have your family take care of you, but they’re not as good at providing options,” she said.
Food is perhaps the most contested aspect of the centers. Web sites show pictures of signature dishes like broths made from silkie chicken — a black-skinned breed highly valued by Chinese cooks — and steamed fish with tofu and wolfberries. The center operators spent large portions of their interviews explaining what set their menus apart: Ms. Lu, who takes a more Westernized tack, said that she relied far less on traditional Chinese medicine. She skips popular postpartum remedies like shenghua tang, a brew whose ingredients include Chinese angelica, licorice root and ginger. She puts only a few traditional ingredients, like wolfberries and ginger, in her dishes.
Ms. Gao offered a three-page menu with several kinds of congee and broths, heavy on chicken and seafood, but also described how mothers and doulas contributed confinement recipes from different Chinese-speaking regions. Taiwanese women, for instance, rely heavily on mayou ji, a chicken dish cooked in sesame oil and alcohol. Cantonese women are more likely to drink a thick soup made from pig knuckles. Breaking into English, Ms. Gao called her approach more “old school” but added in Mandarin: “We explain the traditions and encourage the mothers to follow them, but look, if a mother really wants ice cream, we’ll let her have ice cream.”
Ms. Gao and Ms. Lu say they have nurses check the newborns each day, and babies who show any sign of illness are taken to the hospital.
Caroline Ng, a lawyer from Queens who was born and raised in the United States, said she underwent a confinement to please her mother early last year. She stayed indoors for a month, a restriction that she found especially difficult, and, for the most part, drank “whatever my mom made me.”
“I honestly don’t know if I believe in it,” she said, “but if I can do it, well, better safe than sorry.”
Ms. Yang, who sat the month with Ms. Gao, added that though the practice could seem strange to Westerners, confinement had a straightforward goal.
“It’s healing yourself with food,” she said. “You have to heal yourself to take care of the baby, because that’s what’s the most important, right?”