Case Study

"Doing the Month" and the "Full Month" Party: Chinese Birth Traditions in America

New York City, 1986

From an unpublished account by Barbara Loh

According to traditional Chinese beliefs, the mother and child are extremely vulnerable during the month after the birth, and therefore must remain inside during that time. The mother must also restore the balance of yin (female, dark, and cold) and yang (male, bright, and hot) in her body. Because it is believed that the woman has too much yin after giving birth, she should eat only warming foods and avoid showering or getting chilled in any way.

When Barbara Loh, a second-generation Chinese-American from New York City, gave birth to her first child, Jason, she Maintained many traditional Chinese birthing customs under the guidance of her grandmother. Here is her description of "doing the month."

It is traditional for the new mother to stay home and rest to regain her strength. She should eat pickled pig knuckles and chicken cooked in wine. My 89 year-old grandmother made up tons of this stuff. She said it would build up my health and rid my body of any germs that might have gotten from birth. I personally could not stomach the smell nor appreciate her culinary efforts so this part I did not adhere to. However, family members can eat this during the celebration and it was a treat for many of them. My grandmother did not do this when my daughter was born--she said it was all right that I didn't want to eat it.

The new mother should not go out, nor bathe, nor wash her hair. While my grandmother and my mother were concerned about me going out with the baby, they didn't comment about my need to shower and wash my hair. As for the going out, I did not go to public places or really venture too far away during the month. I would sit on the steps outside our apartment in Queens or my cousin Lorainne would drive me to her house in Long Island for a visit. I personally am not big on those restrictions, and should my daughter choose to make me a grandmother some day, I don't think I would even mention them to her.

At the end of one month the family holds a celebration called "full month" (mahn yueh, or mun yut) to integrate the mother back into regular life, and to welcome the baby into the family and the world. Because of the high level of infant mortality in pre-industrial cultures, it was common to wait for a period of time after birth before officially recognizing the baby's existence. Like many other Chinese-American parents, the Lohs decided to celebrate the full month for both their son and their daughter, although traditionally it is held only for male children. Here is Barbara Loh's description of the event:

It was important to us that we celebrate our heritage through this manner. We also had the same party for my daughter Kristine. We believe both our children to be of equal importance and equally deserving of joyous celebrations of birth

I believe we tried to remain as true to the traditions as we could. Jason was born on March 6, 1986 and on April 6 we did the ceremony at my in-law's house. We had immediate family over for that. I guess we deviated in that our big celebration for the more extended family and friends fell on a different date. The bigger party was done at Trader Vic's in New York, so obviously the menu deviated from the traditional food. What was stressed at both celebrations was the birth of the baby.

At the celebration the child is given his Chinese name by his paternal grandfather. My son's given name is Jason Douglas. His Chinese name is Lok, Mei-Foo, which translates into beautiful tiger. "Mei" is the generational name that he will share with all his Loh cousins. "Foo" means tiger, and because he was born in the year of the tiger, that was chosen. It was also chosen to masculinize the feminine "mei."

The child is given a new set of clothes. Jason's outfit was made by my cousin Susan Doshim and reflects the old style of dress. However, many babies simply wear American clothes. Jason's vest and hat were red, his dress was blue. I asked for the blue color simply because he's a boy, but my grandmother felt he should have been in all red. [In Chinese culture red symbolizes happiness and good luck.] His hat had tiny pieces of jade sewn on the band--those are pieces from my mother-in-law, from her father's jewelry store. Most hats, like my daughter's, have gods or words on them representing long life, health, and wealth. The clothing becomes more colorful as gifts of money in red envelopes and jewelry are added by relatives and friends. Gold represents wealth and jade represents health.

During the celebration the child has an egg rolled on his head, and a little snip of hair is cut. The egg, noted for its smoothness, is a symbol for good looks, and fertility. The family eats noodles which symbolize long life, and gives out red eggs to announce that a new baby has been born.

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