Posted by: thelocaldialect | May 15, 2007

Mei Tais. How to carry your baby like a Chinese farmer.

Ok, so the title is sort of flippant, but I was truly surprised when, a couple of months ago, browsing on some websites about parenting and stuff, I noticed that there seemed to be a new trend in baby-carrying, that trend being strapping the baby to the mother’s back, Asian peasant style, with the aid of a beautifully embroidered rectangle of fabric and belts that go under the baby’s butt, making a seat out of the fabric and giving the baby a comfy piggy back ride, all while leaving the parent’s hands free to do other things (which, in China, would be things like planting rice seedlings. The US equivalent would be shopping at Whole Foods). In SouthWest China, where I live, these contraptions are called “bei” (pronounced “bay”) and just by looking at one, you’d have no idea how this thing would secure a child to your back, but they do, and have been in use for thousands of years.

Anyhow, some marketing genius seemed realized that these “bei” had the makings of a major parenting trend, and voila, the “Mei Tai” was born (I have no idea who came up with the name, but it sounds prettier than “bei” I suppose). Google Mei Tai and you can find many examples of the good old Chinese peasant baby carrier, fancied up with a few extra bells and whistles, being marketed to well-intentioned parents everywhere, for prices as high as 160 US dollars.

I showed a couple of these sites to my husband, and he was intrigued. We live in China, the land of the Mei Tai. We can get Mei Tai, and we can offer real, authentic Mei Tai to everyone out there who is sick of the commodification of native cultures and would like to support the continuation of a genuine Chinese tradition, which is, ironically, dying out in China. Upper class Chinese wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a Mei Tai, because doing so would basically be the same as announcing to the world that you work in the fields — not that there’s anything wrong with working in the fields, but this is not a misconception that city-bred folks are willing to risk. The bottom line is that, as China modernizes and develops, the practice of carrying babies on the back, of embroidering elaborate “bei” with symbols meant to bring good luck and prosperity for this purpose, is, like so many other traditional customs, is dying out. Which I think is kind of sad. But not sad enough that I feel like the Mei Tai market should be commodified and taken over by Western manufacturers who can charge customers an arm and a leg for them. Instead, I think it would be great if people who wanted Mei Tai would buy Chinese “bei” instead. Of course, not everyone has relatives and friends in China who can get “bei” so easily, and so, friends of this blog, I have a proposition to make …

I’m not trying to make a lot of money off of this, but if anyone is interested in getting a “bei” from China, contact me at jesslarsonwang@gmail.com. Here are a few pictures of some “bei” we picked up in my husband’s native village over the May Holiday:

I know the pictures aren’t that great, but “bei” are pretty basic. This one is a velvety fabric, red on a black background. The reverse side is a plain deep blue cotton. The straps are thicker, woven blue striped cotton. It’s fairly large and could easily carry either a new born or a 2 year old, if said 2 year old was cooperative enough! Anyhow, I don’t have a completely unlimited supply of these things, but if you contact me and let me know what you’re looking for, I’ll do my best to find a “bei” that suits you.


Responses

  1. I have one of these, but never really figured out how to wear it comfortably.

  2. Yeah, they are really hard to wear properly and it takes a lot of practice to get it right. I see women around here strap them on like it’s nothing, but without some serious lessons it would be hard to get the hang of.

  3. I would love a “bei”. I will mail you…

    The meitai thing in the US is actually quite interesting. Most attachment parenting goods (cloth diapers, cloth baby carriers etc.) are made by work-at-home moms and it’s a very interesting subculture.

    In Japan up until the war everyone carried their babies in onbuhimo on their backs, but this has pretty much been lost. I carry my son all the time and it is totally looked down upon as low-class when Japanese moms do it (I’ve even heard people say “oh, she doesn’t have enough money for a stroller”) but when I do it everyone asks about the new “american” styles of babywearing. It’s so odd!

  4. Babywearing has always been around. Before the bei in America, it was the Snuggli. I actually am a collector of different ways to wear your baby. My daughter had to be held 24 7 and that was the only way I could have sanity. That is quite beautiful fabric.


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