One of the things I most love about living in Brunei is how friendly Bruneians are. But since I’ve had a baby I have been blown away by how baby-friendly they are. It is quite utterly charming.
You expect the whole crowding-round-cooing-and-smiling thing from women, especially those who have children or grandchildren themselves. That happens in most countries. But here even the men are baby-mad, and not embarrassed to show it. I’m not saying that British fathers don’t dote on their own children, but I’d be surprised if a random man stopped me to ask ‘baby boy or girl?’ and talk to me about how beautiful my baby is. It happens here all the time.
I’ll admit to being slightly nervous when I was out pushing the pram other day, and a gang of teenage boys on bikes came round the corner, right towards me. They had an air of menacing nonchalance about them, and I was busily steeling myself to be calmly dismissive if necessary. And then the leader of the gang cycled up to me, wheeled his bike round, bent down to the pram….and beaming a massive smile, said ‘baaabbbbyyyyy!’ and proceeded to make clucking noises in an effort to make her smile. Which she obligingly did, much to the delight of all four teenage boys, who were now jostling for prime position around the pram.
And all of that is really quite incredibly sweet and endearing. It really is. But I am having to work really, really hard on not being freaked out and more than a little irritated by strangers constantly touching my baby. We were in a restaurant eating lunch the other day and about eight different hands must have stroked her cheek or played with her fingers. I’m very polite – perhaps too polite at times – but I do find it quite intrusive. Also, whilst I agree with the need to build up a baby’s immune system, I’m not sure I think it is a brilliant idea to bombard it on a daily basis unnecessarily! But then, I wonder whether I am thinking about it from the wrong angle.
A local Chinese Malay tells me that according to her culture, tickling a baby’s feet is believed to inhibit their ability to learn to walk so people never touch them, whilst pinching their cheek brings luck.
So perhaps it is all a matter of cultural perspective. In mainland China, people avoid touching a baby on the head out of respect for the baby’s spirit. Whilst in many Hispanic countries if someone compliments your baby they must then touch them, to avoid the evil eye being cast on the baby which would bring them bad luck and making them sick. Wary of the evil eye, in India, babies are sometimes even given marks on their foreheads to remind people not to compliment them.
When you grow up with something being a totally normal, every day part of your cultural existence, how are you to know that people from outside that culture might find it strange? The other day I found myself saying ‘touch wood’ and tapping my head at the end of a sentence when I was speaking to a Filipino lady. She looked at me like I had gone completely out of my mind, and I found myself trying to explain a rather bizarre English turn of phrase and custom.
I am working on relaxing a bit about the touching. And maybe remembering more often to pack the pram mosquito net cover to use as a barrier for when it all gets too much. It’s a work in progress!