Dear Mom, I know you’re so tired, so I got you a Mother’s Day gift from China—chicken blood

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Journalism professor Buck Ryan in Kentucky and English lecturer Lei Jiao in Wuhan, China, are back pursuing cross-cultural understanding through current events—this time a salute to all mothers, single or married, for a Happy Mother’s Day!

“Hey, Lei. Happy Mother’s Day!”

“Sorry, Buck. Hang on for a second.”

“Sure.”

“I was a little distracted. I’m stuck in traffic, taking Ruby back to school. What did you say?”

“I just wanted to wish you a Happy Mother’s Day.”

“That’s so sweet, Buck. But I’m not your mother.”

“Well I guess what we have here, Lei, is a failure to communicate.”

“OK, Cool Hand Buck, just so you know Mother’s Day in China is all about kids showing love for their moms.”

“Oh.”

“So Ruby will make you something nice at school for Mother’s Day?”

“Buck, that hasn’t happened since kindergarten. Things got serious for her in 1st grade.”

“So I guess you’ll get your mom a dozen red roses, eh?”

“An even number, yes, Buck, but for us red carnations are the thing.”

“So you give gifts in even numbers?”

“Yes, but not four.”

“Why?”

“That’s a sign of death.”

“OMG, Lei. You never fail to amaze me with how different our cultures are.”

“You mean your capitalism versus our socialism with Chinese characteristics?”

“I guess.”

“Buck, let me drop off Ruby, then buy a pick-me-up, and I’ll get right back to you.”

“That’s fine, Lei. What’s the pick-me-up, something from Starbucks?”

“No, Buck, chicken blood.”

“Chicken blood!”

“Gotcha, Buck. I’ll be back soon.”

THE INTERLUDE

Lei Jiao, a single mom with a 15-year-old daughter headed for the biggest standardized test of her life in late June (read high anxiety), battles the roads back-and-forth for two hours, if traffic is light, to get Ruby to her boarding school outside the Wuhan city center.

Ruby needs to arrive before 5:30 p.m. for her evening classes, so they bring food from home or takeout for the trip. Ruby’s suitcase is packed for the week after lots of laundry for Lei.

Weekends are Lei’s busiest days, especially when she’s tutoring Ruby on two of six test subjects—English and Morality and Law—for two or three hours a day.

Getting tested for Covid—every 48 hours now, since the Shanghai and Beijing outbreaks—can take only a few minutes. Lei needs to keep the green code on her phone (tested negative) from turning gray to pass through security checks for public transportation or for going to restaurants or malls.

Then there’s her job as an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology—teaching six courses (down from eight) six days a week with hundreds of papers to grade.

WELCOME BACK, LEI!

“Now, Buck, where were we?”

“We were talking about Mother’s Day, the second Sunday in May for us. When does China celebrate Mother’s Day?”

“May 8th this year, same as you. We follow the Western tradition, though that’s getting tricky.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the winds blowing in Beijing are driving out Western influences. We’re talking more and more about having our own Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving—you get the idea.”

“You mean a Mother’s Day with Chinese characteristics?”

“Bingo, Bucko. There is one Western tradition I long for.”

“What’s that, Lei?”

“Sunday as a day of rest.”

“LOL. Well, I hope you won’t be toasting with chicken blood on Sunday for Mother’s Day. What was up with that?”

“It’s an expression that dates back many moons, particularly to a Chinese doctor who experimented with injecting himself with chicken blood, then family members, then bring-your-own-chicken patients.”

“Why?”

“To increase energy.”

“Did it work?”

“Worked great until people started dying.”

“Oh gee.”

“Now the term Chicken Blood Mothers is overtaking Tiger Moms in China.”

“Chicken blood parenting, eh?”

“Yeah, it’s a parenting style that combines energetic helicopter parents with drill sergeants. So many mothers are stressing over their kids’ academics and extracurricular activities. Any precious down time is squeezed.”

“The poor children.”

“Buck, I’m talking about the mothers! They’re wound tighter than a 10-yuan watch.”

“Why is that?”

“Competition for jobs is getting so fierce that some mothers are booking their kids’ days at 15-minute intervals, trying relentlessly—and oppressively—to keep them on a path to success.”

“You, too?”

“No, Buck. I’m just a little Tiger Mom.”

“So what does that mean for Ruby?”

“At her boarding school, she’ll get up at 6:30, have five lessons in the morning until 12:10, a short break for lunch, then three lessons in the afternoon until 5:30 and three lessons in the evening until 10. Bedtime is 10:30.”

“That’s an impossible schedule!”

“Buck, it’s only five days a week.”

“Oh gee. Not much time for anything else.”

“That’s where the Tiger Mom comes in. I’m paying for her painting and zither lessons, plus her private tutoring sessions, mostly online these days, on Chinese, math, physics and chemistry. Those are required sections of the Zhongkao.”

“Ah, the Zhongkao, the PSAT of China. Ruby needs a high score on that standardized test to get into a high school honors program, right?”

“Correct.”

“How exhausting.”

“Yes, Buck, I appreciate your concern for me.”

“I meant Ruby!”

“Ah, another failure to communicate.”

“So, Lei, has China celebrated Mother’s Day only as long as we have?”

“No, Buck, for us you need to go back 24 centuries to the immortal mother of China’s Second Sage, Mencius.”

“You mean second after Confucius, right?”

“Right.”

“So what did his mother do?”

“Three moves—out of two bad neighborhoods and finally to one that shaped her son’s future as a scholar.”

“Oh, Lei, you’re always good for an ancient tale. What’s this one?”

“Well, Buck, Meng Mu was a widower with a bright young boy to raise and not a lot of money. Her husband died when her son was 3 years old. At first they lived by a cemetery, but the mother found the boy imitating the paid mourners.”

“Paid mourners?”

“Yes, Buck, the louder the howls of grief at a funeral, the more the deceased was viewed as a wonderful person, a great loss to the community.”

“So the family paid strangers to howl?”

“Yes, Buck, they still do.”

“Go on, please.”

“The second house was near a market, but the boy kept imitating the merchants hawking their goods.”

“Not too dignified.”

“Nope.”

“So the mother moved their house next to a school. There the boy, inspired by scholars and students, began to study. The rest is in the Chinese scholar history books.”

“Oh, Lei, you never disappoint. Do you know how long we have been celebrating Mother’s Day in the U.S.?”

“Since George Washington’s mother moved their house near a cherry tree?”

“LOL, not quite. 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May Mother’s Day.”

“So who was the Meng Mu behind that?”

“Anna Jarvis. Her activist mother died on the second Sunday of May in 1905.”

“I see.”

“The daughter started a tradition honoring her mother and all other mothers who sacrificed for their children with a quiet church service in West Virginia. There she handed out white carnations to mothers, sons and daughters.”

“White carnations, eh? How lovely for y’all. But white is the color of death for us.”

“No four white carnations for you, Lei Jiao!”

“Ha! So Anna spent many years building up a tradition that would be recognized by the president of the United States. That’s awesome.”

“Yes, Lei, but it didn’t end well.”

“Oh?”

“Card makers and candy stores tried to make a killing, florists jacked up the prices of white carnations, and Jarvis’s reverential tribute turned into a circus.”

“Oh no.”

“Jarvis even accused First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt of turning Mother’s Day into a fundraising scheme for charities to lower maternal and infant mortality rates.”

“My goodness.”

“Jarvis would go to her grave in 1948 lamenting the commercialization, even calling for the holiday to be repealed.”

“Buck, it sounds like that was the mother of all failures to communicate.”

About the authors: Buck Ryan, a University of Kentucky journalism professor, and Lei Jiao, an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology, Hubei Province, China, collaborate on articles to advance cross-cultural understanding. Ryan, who is doing a “participatory case study” of the News + Record, has been a visiting scholar at three universities in China, including Jiao’s WUT.

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