With babes in arms they sit, breastfeeding beside a busy Beijing footpath. A gathering of mothers on a wilting summer’s day, there to share experiences, stories and advice concerning children. Parents and husbands too they discuss, perhaps a spouse in a distant city, parents who expect too much. They are like any other group of mothers, I guess, with time on their hands during the long day before their children go to school.
Or so is my initial impression. After passing them a few times over the following days, I begin to notice that some things are a little amiss. The first is the absence of grandparents. To an outside observer, mothers with their children would seem normal. Is this not what mothers do? Take their children for a walk, meet with others and talk? Not so in China. That is the task of grandmothers and grandfathers. Given the importance of filial piety (xiao), given the fact that grandparents virtually move in for the first year after a grandchild is born, given that parents are usually busy with work, grandparents are more often than not the prime carers. Ask a young man or woman and they will say that one or both of their grandmothers raised them.
Invariably, a baby in a pram or a child out playing has a grandparent in tow. During the day, a grandmother may take a querulous toddler out for a ride in a stroller to put it to sleep. Or a grandfather may drop off a child at school and then pick her up at the end of the day. Of an evening, when people are out after a meal, the kids gather in open areas and run around yelling, throwing balls, falling off bicycles, with grandparents desperately trying to keep up. Or they are propped on dodgy knees as the old fogeys chat. So to see a gathering of mothers with their children is a rather odd sight.
Another item also is not quite right: the tanned faces of the mothers in the club. Deep tans are for farmers out on the fields, for builders and police officers, for fruit and vegetable sellers, and for transport workers. Otherwise, women tend to avoid the sun, popping up elaborate umbrellas as sun shields if they have to be out. Not so the mothers club. Their tans speak of days and weeks in the sun. This is not a gathering for an hour or so once every few days. Whenever I walk past they are there, from first thing in the morning until after dusk. Either they are really bored at home or they have some other reason for being there.
Finally, I espy that reason. A young stops and speaks to one of the mothers. She unzips a pouch belted around her waist, pulls out a small booklet for him to see. He opens it and studies the official looking card inside. They haggle for some time, she calls on her phone to a third party, and they settle. He coughs up some money and she hands over the booklet. Soon enough another young man does the same.
‘Do you know what they are doing?’ My companion asks.
‘I thought it was a mothers club?’ I suggest.
He laughs. ‘No, they are selling student IDs’.
‘But can’t students get them at the university?’ I say.
‘Yes, of course’, he says, ‘but only legitimate ones at the university’.
‘So these are …?’ I say.
‘Counterfeit’, he says. ‘It’s a busy travel season, so people buy these fake IDs for transport concessions. The ones sold here are famous throughout China’.
Suddenly, a call goes out from one of the mothers at the far end. Money belts are hastily hidden beneath clothes, the mothers gather in a circle, babies and toddlers become the focus of attention, and they chat innocently as though they have just met. A couple of policemen appear and stop to talk with the mothers. Is an arrest to be made? Will the operation be closed down? No, after a few moments the police officers saunter on.
‘Surely the police know what is going on,’ I say.
‘Of course’, he says. ‘They know and the mothers know, but everyone pretends that it doesn’t. Transport is expensive for most people, so they don’t mind. The police have more serious concerns. Besides, the law states that pregnant women or those who are breast-feeding children under the age of one cannot be put in prison. On matters like these, the mere fact that they know means that they feel in control’.
‘Is that they way life works here?’ I ask.
‘In some way, yes’, he says. ‘There are laws and then there’s life. We get on at both levels’.