Fresh Eyes and Missing Faces

Among longer-term expatriates in China I think there’s a bit of a tendency to downplay – or downright denigrate – the observations made by first-time visitors and newcomers. I’m not immune to this tendency. Indeed, I think the worst offenders might be members of my own cohort: turf-sensitive journalists and writers. Quite frankly, I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been in the company of China-based writers as they sniff proudly at the idea of “fly-in” journalists with no experience in China, writing about China (full disclosure: I’ve sniffed, too). It’s a natural tendency, I think, but also an unfortunate one insofar as it deprives jaded eyes of fresh ones.

A humbling example:

I spent the better part of the morning and early afternoon with an American ob-gyn on her first visit to China. She’s in her mid thirties, very well educated and very well traveled, particularly in India (she speaks Hindi). She also has a strong interest in the care of low-income women. In any case, prior to meeting up with me, she spent two days wandering the city (well, my neighborhood, mostly), taking in whatever she could see. And what she saw, she told me, was a city lacking in pregnant women and children.

I immediately took issue with this observation – “I see pregnant women and children all of the time,” I replied with a wizened expatriate’s confidence. But she wouldn’t hear any of it: instead, she just shook her head back at me, and shrugged: “It’s my job to notice these things. And there are fewer pregnant women and children around than there should be. I notice this stuff.”

I didn’t give this much thought until, just a few minutes ago, I came across Dune Lawrence’s Letter to China in today’s NYT. It concerns China’s “coming wave of elderly” and points out that:

The world’s third-largest economy is aging so rapidly that by 2050, there may be only two working-age people for every senior citizen, compared with 13 to one now.

As for Shanghai, a google search brings up several recent and older articles noting that the city is in the midst of a prolonged period of negative population growth.

Now, these trends are not entirely new to me or – I’m guessing – many of my readers. But I know about them because I’ve spent many years reading and listening to lots and lots of material related to China. Meanwhile, my friend, the American ob-gyn, has not; in fact, I think it’s safe to say that she’s not even particularly interested in China. And that’s why it’s all the more humbling to realize that – in the space of 48 hours in my neighborhood – she picked up on something that I failed to see in 6.5 years.

[UPDATE] I received a number of interesting responses to this post, both in comment form and emails. One very knowledgable respondent agrees that there are fewer children and women on the streets of Shanghai, though this correspodent ascribes the phenomenon to cultural factors that encourage the coddling of pregnant women and children – and not population factors (an email mentions the advent of cell-phone proof overalls for pregnant women!). Similar comments below.]


  1. Wait! Aren’t feelings of superiority a necessary qualification for belong to the Shanghai and Beijing chapters of the FCC?

  2. Watch the snark, Mr. SD. I’m not a member of the FCC, but I count many of them as my valued colleagues, and I will not truck insults hurled in that direction.

  3. My great aunt made a similar observation last spring when she was traveling in China, but I dismissed it as her just being in touristy areas and not anywhere residential. At the time I was still living in Shenzhen, and even after the mini-baby boom of the golden pig year, I really felt as though I could’t cross the street without bumping into a pregnant woman. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if real data showed that Shenzhen has a higher birthrate than the rest of the country. My neighborhood was overwhelmingly full of pregnant women and grandparents pushing strollers. But then again, that was one neighborhood of relatively rich Chinese people. We had many, many two-child homes there.

    Now that I am in Beijing, it is very different. I am often the only stroller pusher, or on a busy day one of two, that are walking down the street. My neighbors here aren’t as affluent as my Shenzhen homies, and the one-child policy is much stricter here.

    One flyer, though, in the visible absence of pregnant women and babies is the Chinese attitudes about allowing pre- and post-partum women and babies out of the house. Post-partum women in China are encouraged to stay in bed for a whole month and many keep their babies in the house for much longer than that. I have been told by more than one woman that a baby must never go outside until the fontanel closes (I’m sure they mean the posterior, because the anterior can take until the close to the kid’s second birthday). Also, if the day was chilly, damp, breezy, too bright sunlight–all these are some of the reasons I have been given in the past few weeks by the ayis and nainais why I am a bad mother for taking my five month old out of the house. I wonder if this might skew the perception of fewer babies to no babies. However, if your American friend has that much experience outside of the US, she probably already discounted for confinement and the like.

    That all being said, I’ve seen similar news reports about Guangzhou about to be in a world of hurt because it has so many retired people (I can’t say old or elderly because my own husband is near Chinese retirement age-ha!) and so few younger people. Even couples who are allowed to have one child haven’t been having that child (what I call the elective infertility of affluence).

    Birthrate is of particular interest to me, as if you didn’t already know.

  4. I hadn’t really noticed this, living in Beijing. But when I moved to Hong Kong I found myself thinking wow, there’s a lot of kids and pregnant women around here.
    A few revolutions of my not-too-bright brain machinery later I worked out that in fact this was probably the normal amount. And Hongkongers are, according to the odd alarmist government announcement, insufficiently fecund themselves.

  5. “Relatively recent one”–do you or your readers have any recommended resources that explain these ideas as a more recent invention? So many of the confinement rules sound so old-wive’s-tale–like wearing socks, not drinking cold drinks, not washing your hair–and some are clearly of a more recent invention–like wearing a lead-lined smock. I remember as a teenager hearing tell of hardy pregnant Chinese women that would just squat in the rice paddy, deliver a baby, and keep up with the harvest. Of coruse, I’m sure we’ve all heard variations on that theme, just substitute a different ethnicity and crop.

  6. Ambrose, I actually saw a Chinese lady on a CCTV9 show saying how until the late 1970s the women would have one day off work at most to have a kid, then be back in the rice paddy the next day. Our office has been full of pregnant women (all wearing (supposedly) radiation proof smocks so the computers won’t harm their babies) for the past couple of years. Then again, they are all of the ‘right’ age – 25 to 28 or so.

  7. I have been wondering about that smock my only 2 months pregnant staffer has been wearing!! now I know!

    Great post Adam, I have been refreshed a few times by visitors from afar who see things so differently than I do! excellent example here too.

    and I love Jen Ambrose’s term “the elective infertility of affluence!!”

  8. Interesting post and interesting comments. I’m sure that the advice on what not to do/eat during pregnancy varies greatly from culture to culture and country to country. I’m from northern Europe where pregnant women are supposed to avoid a variety of foodstuffs, especially fish/seafood. No advice on wearing smocks when in the proximity of electronics, though. In China it seems it is OK for pregnant women to consume fish and seafood grown in the muddy Chinese rivers just downstream from the city dump/chemicals factory/unfiltered municipal waste drain, as long as they wear smocks to protect them from electronic radiation…

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