When I first started living in China, as opposed to just being a regular visitor, I went through various stages of cultural acclimatisation. First there was the shock of the new – a different climate, a language I couldn’t speak or read, lack of a personal support group. Then I started adjusting and thought that life here was really the same as life in any big city, there were all the usual modern amenities, brands of goods, shops and cars that I was familiar with. However I have also learned that just under that surface is a country and people who are decidedly different from us in the west. And it is often in the little things that this shows most clearly.
Last year a friend here became pregnant with her second child (she and her husband already have a 6 year old daughter). One of the first things she had to get when the pregnancy was confirmed was a cactus. In fact friends bought and gave her cactii as soon as they heard her news. What was it with being pregnant and having a cactus??
In China it is widely believed that computers, telephones, laptops, ipads, mobile phones etc give off electromagnetic radiation which could damage a foetus. Cactii are thought to absorb these rays, so if pregnant, a cactus should be placed beside every one of these items both at home and in the workplace. The flower markets have whole stalls of cactii of every shape and size ready for just such a situation.
If you go into a large open-plan office, you can make an educated guess as to which members of staff might be pregnant by checking which desks have a cactus on them! Personally I think this whole myth must have been started by some clever cactus grower who hit on a fantastic marketing ploy.
In addition to cactii, there is a huge range of anti-radiation clothing (usually tunics or aprons) which pregnant women buy and wear. This manufacturing market is so big that it has its own trade association with no less than 60 member companies – despite which there are no industry standards – scientific it is not.
When I expressed surprise about the cactii and the clothing, and said that in the west we don’t bother with any such things, my female friends here were aghast. Surely, they said, we worried about the outcome for the babies, and as my daughter had a baby last year hadn’t I even considered such protection?
Nope. Never even crossed my mind. And why would it – a computer gives off less radiation than one gets from the sun if out for a walk, and on the whole our western babies are just fine.
I don’t think I can persuade them though, with most families sticking to the one-child policy no Chinese mums-to-be are prepared to take a chance.