Superstitious Little Fried Chicken

Babies. I’ve never been much of a ‘baby’-person or really a ‘children’-person for that matter. Surely that has changed (not really by choice) in the past year as my neighborhood (and this country in general) is exploding with the little tater tots that you just have to like them. Evidence of this rapidly growing new generation of rugrats is unavoidable. I remember the thought first really manifesting itself back in August.  Everyone was out shopping for Idul Fitri goodies at a local supermarket in Mojokerto. I was waiting for my host family in the front of the store. It was jam-packed with people. Especially ripe tots. Literally every person that walked into the store had at least one bewildered looking baby attached at their hip in a polychromatic floral sling. And if it wasn’t a baby, it was a tot under the age of 10, shuffling along the among the chaos, desperately clinging to the tail of their parents’ shirt, aimlessly peering up and around, occasionally face-planting into their parents’ butt. The tots here are either super terrified of me and are on the verge of crying or else overly giggly with joy to see me, eating me up with their eyes, but when I catch wind of this, they nonchalantly pretend to look away. They know I’m different, they know I’m an outsider. When I learned of my host sister first being pregnant and the thought of having a newborn baby in the house, being able to watch it develop during my time here made me giddy. I’d never lived with a newborn before and really I’ve never been close-knit with anybody who’s had babies while I’ve been old enough to care and really understand babies (not that I understand babies much more now). Kids are wonderful but I don’t think I will ever fully appreciate them until I have my own one day.

But they’re so cute. Working in a restaurant, you learn to despise babies. Their painful screeches piercing the chill ambiance, sometimes their parents are too oblivious to their cries to remove them from disturbing others. Most of their food ends up smudged nicely into the high chair or on the floor. Their used wet-wipes smeared with questionable colors and goop, empty Gerber jars of pureed mush left for you to clean, not to mention the dirty diapers that parents leave in the bathroom waste bins. I mean, can’t they just keep the food in their baby’s mouth or else hire a babysitter? I’m allowed to say these things. I’m not a baby’s mama yet.

Puking. The first trimester was rough for my host sister. And for my poor sanity. Her morning sickness often progressed into afternoon sickness, evening sickness, and all around sickness, unable to keep anything down. I tried to be understanding through the retching and gagging but I have been terrified of vomit since I was in elementary school. It’s a real issue that still haunts me today. During that time, I often woke up like clockwork to my host sister violently retching and heaving outside of my bedroom window. I can think of a million of things I’d love to wake up to in the morning. Heaving and vomit splattering the ground is not one of them. I completely avoided going near the area where she would vomit for fear of seeing it. (I have made progress with my vomit fear!)

Big day (false alarm). Right before I left for Laos, my host sister looked like she was literally going to menggelegar (explode). Fun story: During one of the days while we were all waiting in anticipation for the big arrival, I had returned home from a bike ride. I saw a figure lying on the floor, without a shirt on, getting lathered up by someone, it wasn’t initially clear who. My heart stopped for a moment, thinking it was my host sister on the verge of giving birth right there! Once I got closer and my eyes adjusted to the light, it was actually my host father who had stopped by for the day from Surabaya. He was getting a massage in our living room. Kind of looked like a wet seal. A very brittle man (the masseuse), who looked approximately 102 years-old, smiled up at me as he moisturized my host father in a lavender lotion I had given to my family. I knew that I would miss my host sister melahirkan (give birth) to her baby while I was gone and that was that. She ended up having a C-section in Mojokerto city on Monday morning, April 16!

After my traveling nightmare, returning to site, to meet the new addition to our family, couldn’t have seemed more welcoming.

It’s a girl! Initial thoughts: Tiny. Pink. Peaceful. Ten fingers. Ten toes. Perfect. Looks like my host sister. Beautiful. Nameless? The next few days, I learned a lot about traditional rituals that pregnant women and newborn babies endure around/during this special time.

  • Her name? For the first week or so, we called her various cutesy terms of endearment, like ‘ancil’ ‘unyu-unyu’ and my favorite ‘ayam goreng’ which means fried chicken. In Indonesia, the umbilical cord of many babies isn’t cut off completely, leaving a couple of inches still intact. Once the papak puser (umbilical cord) falls off, the baby is given a name. Now that her umbilical cord has fallen off, she is whole enough for a real name: Khanza Nur Shakaila !
  • Next to the cooking area in our house, I found what appeared to be a small pile of dirt, with a halogen light bulb dangling precariously by a thin cord. When I asked my host sister about this mysterious little mound. She pointed to her stomach, made some fun hand gestures, said something of which the only word I recognized was saudara (sibling). Though confused, I interpreted this as having to do with preserving her placenta. The next morning I asked my counterpart to clarify. Surely enough, buried beneath the dirt, mixed with various seeds, was rahim (the womb) which many Javanese believe carries the spirit of the newborn’s sibling. The inauspicious spirit is kept for an indefinite amount of time. For female babies, it is kept inside the house, for male babies, it is kept outside. Sometimes there is a ritual performed, with a man (sometimes the father) dressed as a woman and scripture from the holy al-Quran is read.
  • Instead of a crib, baby Khanza sleeps under a collapsable net fixture, also known as slambut that keeps the mosquitoes away. The net fixture could easily be confused for the plastic cover that Indonesians place over food that is yet to be eaten, to keep insects away. Baby Khanza sleeps between two baby-sized (SO CUTE) body pillows. Hiding under one of the body pillows is a pair of scissors — also to ward off bad spirits. Some people hide scissors, others a knife. Sometimes both! 
  • Many traditional Javanese thinkers still believe that when there is a lunar eclipse, the pregnant woman must eat a hard-boiled egg, and either hide under their bed momentarily or else sit on top of a rice-shucking machine (commonly found in most villages). This is a ritual that even my counterpart performed though she doesn’t believe in the superstition. The saying goes that there’s a buto hijau (green ogre) that lives on the moon, and he’ll come and harm the baby if the pregnant woman doesn’t follow the ritual.

Other ‘no-no’s’:

  • before and after bathing, pregnant women should not wrap a towel around their neck. Consequence: while giving birth, the baby may become trapped/strangled by the umbilical cord.
  • pregnant women should not eat anything while standing in a doorway (who eats in front of doorways anyways, go sit down!). Consequence: will have difficulty giving birth.
  • pregnant women should not consume too many chilis (who’s to set a limit if everyone has differing tolerance levels?). Consequence: the baby will have many beneken (Javanese for ‘eye boogers’).

Other thoughts. I held baby Khanza for the first time the other day, she’s the cutest and calmest thing. She surely smells powdery and rosy as babies should. It was the first time I’d ever held a baby that tiny and well, new, before. Have you ever seen a newborn with hiccups? It is one of the most heart-wrenching things in the world. No joke. My house constantly smells like fresh laundry. My host sister has a mountain of gifts piling up in the corner of a room, there’s enough soap and laundry detergent to last until I start having children (which will be quiiiiiite a while from now). My host sister says that when she bathes Khanza, she tries to sculpt her nose to become more pointed like mine. The goal is to keep her skin as white as possible. I wish Indonesians would accept and embrace their natural complexion and nose shape, if we all looked the same, the world would be the most mundane place. Of course, the reality is that I have a light complexion and only a half Asian nose, and thus I am content.

Every Monday, I will be documenting Khanza’s growth (first picture is from week one and so on):

one week old

two weeks old!

three weeks old!

When my family has asked if there were any rituals that Americans have for pregnant women, nothing really came to mind. Does anyone know of any unique traditions? 


1 thought on “Superstitious Little Fried Chicken

  1. American customs…? Not sure.
    Chinese customs…the pregnant woman does not wash her hair; may stay in bed for weeks during the beginning of the pregnancy..

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