Pregnancy taboos bring headaches

(No.10, Vol.3, Nov 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

From the time she became pregnant until seven months after child birth, my wife heard hundreds of exhortations about the imperativeness of avoiding certain taboos the way people did in the past. I was surprised to learn that folk culture still permeates modern society in such a tangible fashion.
Seeing that my wife, who was three months pregnant at the time, was sitting on the threshold of our front door, my mother said, ‘You can’t sit like that!’ Seeing that her daughter-in-law was confused, my mother admonished, ‘Not only is it not okay to sit on the threshold, it is also no good to turn back into the house without first going all the way out into the alley. On the whole, if you aren’t decisive and thorough whenever you do something, then, during childbirth, the baby will pop in and out forever, unwilling to come out. When the baby grows up, your child will have an indecisive temperament and will not follow through on anything he or she does.’
Once she finished explaining, my eighty-three year old mother said, ‘Daughters these days are no good; they’re unwilling to obey taboos. In the old days, I had to follow hundreds of taboos when I was pregnant.’
After some thought, the to-be grandmother advised, ‘Now, I won’t force you to observe all the taboos like in the past, but you must take heed of keeping a salubrious mindset and character. Stay cheerful and keep your hands busy. Eat foods that are not too harmful to eat and sleep just enough. Don’t sleep-in or sleep during the day. If you can do that, then later the baby will be born facilely and he or she will grow up to be robust, gentle, and hard working.’
‘The thing that you must be most mindful of is that, whenever you see a funeral, you must stay far away. Otherwise, if the ghost of the deceased were to become attached to the human world and possess the unborn child, it would be very dangerous.’
My elder sister, who is sixty years old this year, urges her sister-in-law to avoid taboos whenever they meet. There must be several dozens of them. Among them, my sister emphasized, ‘You mustn’t go under a string used to dry women’s clothes.’ My wife appeared mystified. My sister, a farmer by trade, spoke, ‘Whatever grandfather and grandmother displayed in the past is what we shall do, too.’
‘We’ve got to know the reason for it before we can avoid the taboo,’ I said.
My sister conceded, ‘The string used to hang women’s clothes builds up a lot of impurities, since pants are often hung out to dry when women menstruate. If you go under them, then your child will be dim-witted.’
Over thirty taboos imposed by my parents in Quang Ngai, South Central Vietnam, still echo in the ears of my wife and I. And then my wife’s mother, who comes from the rural area of Nam Dinh, a province near Hanoi, called us in Saigon to further exhort nearly twenty more things: First, ‘eat lots of carp so that the baby’s skin will be fair and rosy with red lips,’ and then ‘eating lots of goose eggs makes for a facile birth — if she’s a girl then you have to eat nine eggs while, if a boy, seven.’
My wife’s grandmother and aunts also called from Hanoi, Dong Nai, and Nam Dinh with exhortations regarding taboos.
All this advice made me realize that, owing to the life of a petite being, the family became emotionally close-knit. Yet, my wife — a twenty-nine year old pregnant woman who had earned a university degree — did not appreciate it. She chided, ‘The grandparents are already old, and my sister and aunts have also aged, so they’re antiquated. I won’t listen to them.’
Once my wife’s belly was big enough for people outside to see and recognize that she was pregnant, none too few people were keen to make sure that, when they met my wife on the street or on the bus, they asked about her health and then advised all sorts of taboos. Some people offered advice similar to our mother’s, sister’s, and aunts’. Others simply suggested drinking plenty of coconut juice and sugar cane so that the baby would be clean after childbirth.
One morning, my wife went to the market and heard an elderly woman say that merchants don’t like it when pregnant women make the first purchase of the day, since they are afraid that customers will be scarce and uninterested in their wares.
The exhortations from many strangers caused my wife to start paying more attention to the taboo customs of the past. Thus, she confided in any pregnant woman she met. My wife’s younger cousin told her, ‘I’m not any different from you. Sometimes I hear even more advice than you do, and it’s all about taboos that sound quite ridiculous.’
My wife immediately went to websites dedicated to pregnant women and mothers with newborn children and saw that taboos were hot topics on the internet. She read hundreds of commentaries on taboos from people from regions all over the country. Some people complained out of exhaustion, since both paternal and maternal relatives forced them to observe many taboos. Others supported taboos, saying that the more you observe, the better, because ‘with taboos come felicities.’ Others still objected, saying that the taboos of the past are all
Perhaps after consulting so many people, my wife’s mentality changed from objection to compliance. Whenever she wanted to do something, eat something, lie down somewhere, or turn her head in some direction, my wife would always consider very carefully. And my wife frequently reminded me to buy goose eggs, carp, sugar cane, and coconut juice, etc.
One day, on the way to work, we suddenly saw a funeral up ahead. My wife immediately commanded me to turn the vehicle around and look for another way. Then, while she was at it, she exhorted me, ‘From now on you, too, are not allowed to go to funerals anymore because I’m scared that a dead spirit will follow you home and torment our child.’
When she heard that her daughter-in-law was in labour, my mother urged, ‘Remember to place a knife at the head of the bed on which your wife and child lie.’
‘In order to do what, mom?’ I asked.
‘In order to exorcise ghosts who harass babies,’ mother responded.
When my older sister learned that her sister-in-law was in labour, she immediately instructed me, ‘On the road back home from the hospital, remember to scatter several thousands of spare dong over a stretch of a few hundred meters.’

‘Why do that?’ I asked.
‘Whatever grandfather and grandmother did in the past, just imitate. Don’t question it — you shouldn’t,’ my sister said in a stern voice.
I presented the story to my eighty-four year old consanguineous aunt. The old lady was still very quick-witted and explained, ‘The spirits of people who die in vain because of traffic accidents or premature death, when they die, lack relatives to accept their corpses. They often desire to remain attached to the human world, so they tend to manifest as wraiths, pestering and tormenting young children or causing them to die in order to have friends. People of old held such concepts, so they often scattered money in order to ‘bribe’ those beyond purview (the dead) with the hope that their children will be safe.’
When the taxi brought my wife and child back close to home, my wife’s mother advised, ‘You should burn the fruit of a honey locust tree (which has a pungent odour when burned) right at the door so that mother and child can step through.’ Seeing that I was dumbfounded, mother explained, ‘In the past, our grandfather and grandmother usually did that in order to ward off ghosts.’
Three days later, my wife’s mother said, ‘We need to buy three traditional Vietnamese medicinal concoctions to bring home and fumigate for your wife and child in order to expel miasma through the hair follicles and release it outside.’ After instructing me, the grandmother spoke to her daughter, ‘Starting now and for fifteen more days, you mustn’t shower or brush your teeth. You have to wear clothes that cover you from head to toe, and you need to take the child’s umbilical cord and hang it close to an electric light bulb so that, in the future, the baby will have bright skin. For the next 100 days, you must restrain from crackling laughter, or else later on the child will talk her mouth off. If anyone stands outside in the alley and hollers for you, ignore them. If you reply, then later on the child will speak with a lisp.’ Among the things that my mother-in-law advised, my wife and I only carried out the medicinal fumigation and the suspension of the umbilical cord close to an electric light bulb.
After fifteen days and nights, my child frequently burst out wailing at night, causing my wife and me to worry. I complained about this to many people, hoping that I would pick up a bit of experience about ‘curing’ the newborn’s nocturnal crying.
When she heard about this, my niece immediately said, ‘When my child was first born, the child would cry from 20:00 at night until 3:00 in the morning. The child cried like that for three months on end, causing terrible heartache for my husband and me. Seeing this, an older woman, who works with me at my company, told me that previously her child also used to wail dreadfully at night. Witnessing this, an elder told her to ask for a candle from the head of a coffin in order to bring it home and light whenever her child cried. My co-worker is Catholic, so she doesn’t believe anything relating to superstitions. But seeing that her child would cry all night, she became so apprehensive that she heeded the advice. Who would have guessed that, after lighting the candle three times, her child stopped crying through the night? Hearing this, I, too, looked for all kinds of ways to plead for a candle at the head of a coffin and brought one home. After having lit the candle a few times, the child stopped crying! Do as I did. Your child will stop crying at night right away.’
When my father caught wind of the news that his grandchild cried during the night, he immediately called me on the phone and exhorted, ‘If you take the child and ‘sell her off’ to a Buddhist pagoda, then she’ll be easy to raise.’ Thus spoken, my father led me through the way to ‘sell off’ my child to the pagoda: Father and mother carry the child to the pagoda. After offering a tray of fruit and lighting incense before the altar of the Buddha, father and mother basically pray, ‘Our child, who is named so-and-so and was born on such-and-such a day, month, and year, is being tormented by phantoms from the netherworld and so is difficult to raise. Therefore, today we pray that the Venerable Buddha will allow our naïve child to stay at the pagoda, where she shall be sheltered.’ Once finished, father and mother carry the child home as if only the child’s spirit has been sold off. When the child reaches twelve years of age, they return to redeem her back home.
My father’s words called to mind the book Viết cho các bà mẹ sinh con đầu lòng (‘Written for First-Time Mothers’) by Professor Do Hong Ngoc, PhD, who was born in 1940 and has almost twenty years of experience providing emergency care to infants. A section of the book reads, ‘I cannot count the number of situations in which a child contracted typhoid fever, pneumonia, or dengue fever, but the child’s relatives believed that the child was possessed by a malicious spirit. Since many people have such conceptions, I saw that a lot of infants bore talismans on their hands, feet, and neck, and sometimes even had a knife behind their backs. Once, when I checked up on a patient, I did not see the baby anywhere. A moment later, an elderly lady carried the baby inside and said that she took the baby outside to throw the child away in the rubbish bin as if discarding the baby so that the ‘grandfather’ wouldn’t follow after and seize the child anymore. I’ve also become accustomed to scenes in which I treat an infant’s illness while, in a corner of the hospital, an elderly woman lights incense and propitiates the spirits.’

When my daughter was one month old, I was preparing to buy oblations to offer and name my daughter according to an ancient custom when my father called with advice, ‘Look for ugly names to give the child so that she’ll be easy to raise.’
‘Why would naming her with an awful name make her easy to bring up?’ I asked questioningly.
‘Those who have absconded (ghosts of the deceased), the armies of the netherworld, and forlorn ghosts, when they hear an ugly name, will not bother to pay any attention’ (that is not cause children to fall ill, contract disease, or perish), my father elucidated. Then he told me, ‘In the old days, rich families that had trouble conceiving a child, once they bore a child, feared that ghosts and spirits would possess the child. Thus, they assigned very ugly names for the child like shit, dick, cunt, crap, imbecile and dunce, gleaned someplace, and picked-up somewhere.’
After a month of taboo sequestration, in which mother and child are not allowed to leave the house and interact with anyone, according to the customs of the ancients, my wife and child began to go outside. Seeing them, neighbours came to chat with my wife and, afterwards, did not neglect to mention so many taboos that we could not possibly remember them all.
When my daughter was two years old, I often carried her out for a walk. Seeing that my child’s hair stood on end, as many as three people did not fail to advise me that it was because I had allowed some girl, who had yet to find a husband, touch my daughter’s head.
One morning, I carried my child out to get some sunlight. Suddenly, a strange woman came up to me and said, ‘Your daughter’s head is so pointy. Slam her head into a wall, and it won’t be pointy anymore.
Aghast, I replied, ‘She’ll just split her head open!’
‘No, you only slam the head as a thaumaturgic ritual such that you lift your hand up high but just strike softly. For a boy, slam it seven times; for a girl, slam it nine times,’ the woman explained.
When my daughter was seven months old, my wife and I went to visit the home of my older sister in the village. When we went to return home, my sister immediately grabbed soot from a pot and drew a cross on my daughter’s forehead. Dismayed, my wife asked, ‘What’s that for?’
My sister grinned coyly and uttered, ‘Don’t ask — you shouldn’t. Just take the child home.’
When we got home, my wife told the story to her blood-uncle named Nguyen Chung. After hearing it, the uncle, who was eighty-eight years old but very sharp-witted, said, ‘In the old days, the ancients believed that, since children are always lovely and their hearts pure, phantoms from the netherworld and forlorn ghosts (forsaken souls without relatives) have a penchant for bedevilling them, so children get sick easily or are snatched away to die along with the nether spirits. Therefore, the ancients usually took soot and smeared a cross on the foreheads of children who did not yet know how to speak before carrying them out on the streets so that wraiths would fear the imposing might of Ông Táo Chúa, the Kitchen God (the soot mark symbolizes the presence of the Kitchen God), and won’t dare to harass them; or the ghosts, seeing that the children are soiled, wouldn’t bother to bedevil them.’

Text by Nguyen Dang Khoa and cartoons by duc lai
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