Abigail Mary Ritter, also to be known as Flaming Apricot Twig, was trying to become the first American baby born in decades in this remote Chinese city, but her mother had been in labor 18 hours and the Chinese doctors were becoming nervous.
The umbilical cord was wrapped around Abigail's neck, they told her mother later, so Abigail came by Caesarean, another first for an American here. Many foreign residents of China go home or to Hong Kong to have their children. Laura Chandler, 29, and her husband Jon Ritter, 31, an adventurous couple who met in Washington, wanted to see first hand how it was done in the greatest baby producing nation on earth.
Chandler and Ritter have worked nearly two years at Anhui University as English, history and literature instructors. They are part of a vanguard of dozens of American teachers hired by the Chinese government, many of whom have gotten closer to Chinese life than any Americans since the missionaries and teachers who were ejected by the new communist government in the early 1950s.
Abigail's birth at 7:15 p.m. May 9 soon exposed the Chinese horror at the idea of babies sleeping on the stomach, the local love of folk medicine and the general dubiousness about the usefulness of female children.
Abigail is big and beautiful now, having been 8 pounds, 14 ounces and 21 inches long at birth. She starred at a banquet here for visiting Maryland Gov. Harry R. Hughes, since, with a grandmother living in Silver Spring and her mother a graduate of Albert Einstein High School, she qualified as perhaps Anhui's first Maryland baby.
Chandler's doctors, Sau Dezheng and Chang Dihua, watched her pregnancy carefully. She tried a strange herbal brew which miraculously rid her of morning sickness and restored her appetite. Chandler got a local anesthetic for her Caesarean, but was put to sleep shortly after she heard a Chinese friend in the room say: "It is a dgughter."
At the Anhui Province Medical College Hospital, the Chinese demonstrated a solicitousness which Chandler and Ritter said was unforgettable. "Doctor Sau was worried that I wasn't eating enough," Chandler said. "She made sure my food was heated up. She even acutally swept my room." Chinese hospitals are generally short on kitchens and attendants. A patient's family often takes over the burden of care and feeding. Chandler's English students decided they would help Ritter be her family, and organized themselves so that at least two visited her each night to help prepare her food and keep her company.
That led to a nightly seminar on sex and babies which Chandler's students found both fascinating and embarrassing. "We can talk to you about such things," one of the students said, "but we couldn't talk to anyone else about them."
When Chandler tried to give them a book she had on the subject, more explicit than the usually vague Chinese texts, "they were really embarrassed." e
The bill for Abigail's birth came to about $26.60, of which Chandler and Ritter paid only $2.60 for the milk supplied by the hospital. The university paid the rest, as it does for its other employes.
During her nine-day hospital stay, unusually long because the Chinese like to be careful with foreigners, Chandler began to hear some of the childcare theories that Chinese delight in passing around. "You don't have a towel around your head," one of her students said. "My mother said that when she was here, she had to keep a towel around her head so her brains would not get cold."
The nurses regularly swaddled Abigail with an arrangement of blankets and strings. Ritter said "she looked like a roll of baked ham at a deli somewhere. Abigail salami!" Chandler added, "It might be a good idea. She seemed to calm down when they wrapped her up." Since it was summer, the wrapping soon disappeared and Abigail began to defy Chinese convention by sleeping on her stomach. "In some places they even make Chinese babies sleep with their hands behind their heads," Chandler said. The Chinese said sleeping on the back helped the baby breathe.
Once Chandler returned to the two-room hotel suite where they live, the couple hired a nuse to watch Abigail while Chandler was at work. "She tried to put Abigail on her stomach," Chandler said, "but she really doesn't know how to do it."
Chinese women traditionally are not supposed to get out of bed for a month after childbirth. Most ignore the rule, but will still not venture outdoors during that period. Chandler said the nurse "would yell at me if I tried to read a book. 'You must rest, you must rest,'" she said. Chandler was also told not to wash her hands with cold water, in Chinese minds a cause of arthritis in young mothers.
Friends deluged them with gifts. "Students brought clothes for the baby. The diapers were made by the ladies at the hospital and now washed by the nurse in the hotel bathroom sink. A Chinese friend loaned them a cradle intended for his own baby, Chandler said.
Wendell Lepic, a Chicago graphic artist, saw a letter from the couple in an American magazine appealing for English books and magazines for their students. He sent many, then hearing of the birth, sent them printed birth announcements and a huge banner, "Ni Hao (hello) Abigail Mary," which now hangs over her crib. A Chinese friend made up the baby's Chinese name, Li Hongxing, Flaming Apricot Twig.
Students who had carefully read the U.S. Constitution, but not Supreme Court case law, said they were sorry "your baby cannot become president of the United States." Others said, in traditional fashion, "Congratulations, though it's a shame it was a daughter." Ritter, determined to raise Chinese male consciousness, told everyone a girl was exactly what they wanted.
Chandler and Ritter met when he was managing one restaurant in Washington and she was tending bar at another. They married shortly before arriving here in late 1978 and plan to stay until at least early next year. Many Chinese couples who have had their first child are cooperating now with a new government birth control program and signing a pledge they will have only one child. The American couple have not signed.
"We'll have only one in China," Chandler said, a counter-revolutionary look in her eye, "but I think we want about three."