There isn't a mathematician, statistician, or social scientist alive who could explain to me why there are so many babies in this country. Well, says the informed reader, it is a nation of some 1.5 billion souls, and at least some them are bound to be babies, right? To which I respond, yes, but still: there are far too many babies here for comfort. Even the campus I live on, which you would imagine as teeming with young coeds in skintight sweats with "CHINA WEST NORMAL UNIVERSITY" printed across the butt, is overrun with babies: babies crawling to class, babies doing kegstands, babies hazing younger babies. I jest - but seriously, you would not believe how many babies there are in China.
There are six babies living on the fourth floor of my apartment building, which doesn't make any sense, as there are only four apartments. There are rules here, remember. One of the apartments is mine, and I do not currently own any babies, biologically related or otherwise. My neighbors are well past childrearing age. It is unclear to which of the two remaining tenants the six babies belong to. They are free-range babies. The hallway is their rumpus room and there, the babies - all of them boys - love shooting each other, and me, with the same Made in China lazer guns that were such a big hit stateside during my own childhood. Last night, one of the babies pelted me in the stomach with a rubber ducky, and this morning I tripped over the sawed-off plastic shotgun that he'd left outside my door. The babies run this crib.
In China, even the babies are aware that you are a laowai. This morning, as I hustled to catch the last Toyotavan to school, I passed a baby who was so startled by my pale beardedness that he tripped over himself and faceplanted into the sidewalk. There was a brief lull in which the baby came to the realization that he was hurt, then he started bawling. I stopped to apologize and bowed deeply before the mother, who said Mei guanxi - No problem! - then hoisted the little shrieking bundle up into her arms and walked away. I once gave a toddler such a bad scare that he fell forward and cracked his forehead against a metal pipe. I begged forgiveness from the mother, or the grandmother, or the aunt - at any rate, the guardian of this screaming, bleeding child. "Mei guanxi," she said. "It's not your fault."
Contrary to what we think in the West, the Chinese baby is not lonely. Don't get me wrong: the Young Emperor is alive and well. He is 29, single, living at home, and spends his Friday nights locked in his room, sorting his glass clown collection by height. But because Chinese families are huge - and because China is dense - Chinese children have an infinity of potential playmates, or at least far more than I had at their age, a time when I could either get myself beat up by my sister, or play with the neighbor kid's Super Nintendo while in the bathroom, his big sister was helping him administer his very first hit from a crack pipe.
I am scared of babies. They know everything. Like other domestic animals, they are impeccable judges of character. Chinese babies have been known to point and shake their heads when I've picked up smoking again, and will scream and pee their pants when they catch me listening to the Wham! jams I keep stashed on my MP3 player for a rainy day. "The child is father of the man," William Wordsworth once wrote, and I believe it. Babies are smarter than us. If you give a baby an IQ test, he'll probably eat it or, if he is especially precocious, spit up on it. But who among us full-grown humans could master Sichuanese in three years? Here in Nanchong, I have been thoroughly insulted by babies who weren't even potty trained, and found myself unable to furnish a response. But then, babies are capable of many impossible feats, such as doubling their height and girth in as little as a year, and pooping over half their body mass in a single potty session. So perhaps we shouldn't regard them as human, but as little Übermenschen.
Because I fear their judgment, and because I am frightened by their vulnerability, I have always tended to avoid babies. I have never once held a baby, for the same reason that I don't bring an antique vase with me on a bender. But that has changed here in China, where babies are some of my best friends. To begin with, many of them cannot yet talk, so they will not address me as laowai. Their eyes may balloon out of their heads at the sight of me - they know something is amiss - but they are not yet vocally racist. Plus, everyone in China seems to keep at least one baby in tow, especially the shopkeeps, so for guanxi purposes, it helps to maintain a healthy rapport with the local babies.
They, too, want to improve their Oral English, these babies, though they cannot yet speak Chinese. Last night, the baby at the shop across the street - a pudgy little guy I had never seen before - told me that he was one year old. "Won," he said, holding up a carrot stick of a finger. "Won." This astounded me. This baby, who was in the womb a year ago and did not exist nine months before that, has at least some primitive conception of time, which is more than you can say for most of Latin America. He knows he has existed for roughly one of the earth's revolutions around the sun. He knows how to express units of time using his fingers, and in two languages to boot. Still disbelieving, I asked him again in Chinese: "Ni ji sui le?" I asked. "How old are you?"
"Won," he said, holding up the finger. "Won."
So this one-year-old could answer a question posed to him by a seedy-looking foreigner speaking in tones that weren't anywhere near correct. And that 26-year-old foreigner, just a few months ago, wouldn't have been able to answer the same question, couldn't even have indicated the answer with his fingers because he wouldn't have understood the question in the first place.
Then, the baby flipped it on me.
"Ni ji sui le?" he asked. "How old are you?"
I thought about it.
"Won," I said, holding up one finger. "Won."