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Don't shower — but do eat lots of pig knuckles and papaya fish soup

In 2010, an expecting Karin Mak wrote about the choe yuet, the "resting month" that a new mother is supposed to go through according to Chinese tradition. The rituals, Mak found, included not showering and eating plenty of papaya fish soup. After the birth of her healthy baby boy, Karin Mak tried not showering, but gave up after a few days. She wrote to the Source recently saying that she “did enjoy eating the vinegar egg dish.” She has since had another child, and she “did not get to practice any traditional Chinese post-partum practices after his birth, mostly due to the needs of taking care of two children instead of one.” Mak works at the Asian American Resource Center at Pomona College and also teaches the class "Asian Americans and Social Documentation" at Harvey Mudd College in the Department of Asian American Studies as an Adjunct Assistant Professor. 


My first-born child is due tomorrow. He will be the first grandchild on both sides of the family. So perhaps it's not suprising that for months my partner and I have been bombarded with advice on pre-natal health, parenting approaches, diapering, and all the stuff to buy. But what really caught me off guard was when my well-meaning mother recently warned me that my health would be forever compromised if during the month after the birth I left the house; took a shower; or failed to drink certain dishes, in particular one made with pigs knuckle, ginger, and eggs.

She explained that in many Chinese cultures the post-partum period is considered crucial for the mother to properly recover from the birth and elaborate rituals are followed. For the Cantonese, in particular, the choe yuet (坐月), or “resting month,” has profound effects on the mother’s health for the rest of her life.

This was all new to me. So my mother called my aunt in Hong Kong, who asked my cousin Danielle to e-mail me a list of the practices. She sent me a long list of what to do – and not do:

• Refrain from taking a shower or bath for a month. Use only water boiled with the skin of ginger to shower, if you really have to.• Try not to shampoo your hair for the first week at least. Again use ginger water to shampoo if you really have to. Blow dry hair immediately.• After giving birth, drink roasted rice water instead of plain water for several days.• Drink the roasted rice tea or boiled water. Do not drink straight from the tap.• Keep warm all the time.

Papaya fish soup | http://www.flickr.com/photos/geodanny/2579232383/

Danielle also gave me a list of things to eat, and not eat. Here is a selection:

  1. • Eat a dish made from pig’s knuckle, ginger, sweet black vinegar, and eggs to aid the recovery. Cook the pig knuckle ginger vinegar (at least) one month before the arrival of the baby. (Keep the ginger skin for the shower. Dry the ginger skin and store in bags.)
  2. • Do NOT eat pig livers or pigeons, or drink soups made from these ingredients, as they will stop the production of milk.
  3. • Any kind of fish soups or papaya fish soup will help the production of the milk.

For the most part, the list left me quite overwhelmed (except for avoiding pig livers and pigeons). No showering for one month? Or leaving home? My mother also told me about the importance of drinking certain nutritional soups, which I, of course, did not know how to make.

It was difficult for me to figure out how much I should follow and respect these traditions passed on from my mother, or should I act more “American” and ignore the “traditional wisdom?” A Taiwanese friend of mine compromised with her mother and agreed not to leave the house for two weeks. But I was told that Danielle’s sister Cressida in Hong Kong regrets not taking the period seriously and now is suffering from various health problems. Learning about the choe yuet was quite scary, particularly in my last month of pregnancy when I dealing with fear of how my life would change after the birth, and if I would regain the body I once knew.

The author's mother, preparing herbs to be taken after the birth

Danielle, who has maintained her youth and vitality, hired a woman who specialized in post-partum care to help take care of her and her baby and prepare the specific foods important to recovery. Living in Alhambra where about a third of the population has Chinese ancestry, I had a feeling there would be local resources about the postpartum period. I was right. I discovered three women, all working out of employment agencies, who offered services to help conduct these practices.

Finding their contacts was as far as I got. I realized that following choe yuet by the book wasn’t for me. I couldn’t do all the practices – and, despite Cressida’s experiences – didn’t believe I needed to. After all, access to nutritional food and modern amenities such as running hot water that most likely were not available when these customs were established. I will be open-minded and do what I can from the list, but not follow it blindly. And the pig knuckle in ginger vinegar is waiting in the fridge.

Recipes for pig's feet with ginger and vinegar and papaya fish soup. What are some of your customs or tips for post-partum care you were taught?

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4 thoughts on “Don't shower — but do eat lots of pig knuckles and papaya fish soup”

  1. Silly Asian myths for the most part. Common sense eating and general healthy habits are all that is needed. Women gave birth they didn’t contract a disease. Use sound judgment and do not follow these ridiculous cultural beliefs, and while they may have no overall affect on the woman, they are unnecessary.

  2. Congrats Karin on your first newborn!

    I’m Taiwanese and recently gave birth to my son. Both set of parents have also strongly encouraged, if not, commanded I follow the month-long sit-in. I try to eat and drink whatever the parents make me, including the vinegar egg concoction. It’s not something I favor, but I’ll do it since it’s supposed to help reduce arthritis later on in life. However, the no shower or washing of the hair rule is beyond me. I think I only lasted 4 days without it postpartum. I had to shower, but definitely blow dried my hair immediately. I’m still cooped up inside the house, but modern science is telling me that without direct contact with sunlight, postpartum depression is inevitable. I’m not sure how much longer I can stay indoors, but like you, not all of these traditions are for me. I’ll do what I can, but ultimately, I need to do what’s best for my emotional and mental state of mind.

    Thanks for writing the article.

  3. Very interesting article! Thanks for sharing. I find it fascinating that so many cultures have similar advice for new moms, especially the 40 day time period of either not going outdoors or showering. I find most advice relates somehow to keeping warm and avoiding cold.

    I think your approach to the advice is good and the experience will certainly be memorable. Enjoy the love and concern for you and your little one. Blessings to you both.

  4. Congratulations Karin. Enjoy your time with your child. It really is the most precious time of your life.

    Papaya soup is mmmmm mmmmmm good. Take it from me, you do not need to be a nursing mother to enjoy it. It is easy to make, too. 🙂

    I’m not sure that it matters, but I was told to use green papaya with a pork broth when making papaya soup for my wife. According to my mother-in-law, green papaya soup helps to shrink the uterus and decrease water retention, in addition to increasing milk production.

    However, the most important factor in increasing milk production is breast feeding. According to KP, “[t]he hormone that regulates milk production (prolactin) is stimulated by breast-feeding, so the more frequently you feed your baby and empty your breasts, the more milk your body produces.” Kaiser Permanente: Breast-Feeding and Your Milk Supply.

    That said, there might be something to the old-world tradition of serving papaya soup to nursing mothers. I served papaya soup to my wife after she gave birth. She produced more than enough milk for our son and to put in bottles just in case. I made papaya soup for her several times during the first couple months after our son was born and each time her milk supply increased. Whether this increase is attributable to the papaya soup or to our son hitting a growth spurt and thus eating more, I am not sure. Modern medicine is always amazed when an old treatment turns out to work. But neither of us minded eating another pot of papaya soup. 😉

    Also, apparently the tradition of serving papaya soup to new mothers soon after birth is shared by other Asian cultures. A few weeks before our son was born, my wife was given some advice by a grandmotherly Indian woman that included eating papaya soup soon after birth. She also suggested foods containing fenugreek to increase milk supply.