Exploring The Chinese Postnatal Tradition of Zuoyuezi: No Hair Washing, No Television, No Crying

 

For new Asian American mothers, the Chinese postnatal practice of zuoyuezi, or “sitting the month” — where bed rest is mandated, only certain foods can be eaten and you can’t even wash your hair — can be a confusing clash between Eastern traditions and Western conventions during those first critical 30 days after childbirth. But as Contributing Editor Ada Tseng learns, there is nothing wrong with a postpartum helping hand — whether it’s family or a zuoyuezi nanny for a month. In fact, when done in moderation, the ancient practice can serve as a more graceful transition into the daunting world of parenthood.

 

When I first told my husband about the postpartum tradition of zuoyuezi, he thought I was making it up. Literally translated to “sitting the month,” but sometimes referred to as “postpartum confinement,” zuoyuezi is a Chinese practice that encourages a new mother to rest in her home for one month after giving birth. During this time, there are many instructions on diet and recovery that range from drinking herbal soups and eating pork liver, to not washing your hair for 30 days and being confined to the house, room or even your bed, depending on how strictly one adheres to the tradition. In the meantime, family members, friends or hired help collectively pitch in to assist the new mother with cooking, cleaning and taking care of the baby so she can fully restore the balance to her body before attacking motherhood at 100 percent in month two.

“You just don’t want to do anything for a month,” my husband joked. He assumed that I, never one to be called maternal, was apprehensive about the drastic life change that motherhood would inevitably bring and was therefore excited about the idea of inviting anyone and everyone to come help us raise this baby. At least for 30 days.

This was only half true. Both my husband and I are Taiwanese Americans born and raised in California, and our links to our heritage can be traced more through our love of food (shaved ice and beef noodle soup), culture (Taiwanese films and karaoke songs) or general philosophy (respecting our parents!) than formal customs. Never in our years of knowing each other have either of us insisted on adhering to any tradition, so when I waxed poetic about this ancient zuoyuezi practice that dates back to the 1st century B.C., he wasn’t buying it.

That is, until he asked my OB/GYN, who happened to be Taiwanese American, about it, and she admitted that while the practice of zuoyuezi, which takes heavy influence from traditional Chinese medicine, was definitely not something that’s taught in medical school (most Western experts would argue that many of the benefits are unproven), her mother had made her do it when she gave birth to her own children.

I was surprised when my mother first mentioned that I should look into zuoyuezi resources partway through my pregnancy. At the time, my only knowledge of zuoyuezi came from the more extreme and divisive practices that get reported in the news — of the “look at the crazy things Chinese people do” variety. On one hand, it’s known as an antiquated tradition (some would say superstition) that’s more akin to torture than relaxation. The herbal soups you’re forced to eat are disgusting, you can’t wash yourself properly because you can’t risk any cold air touching any part of your body, you’re trapped in your own house, not allowed to watch TV or engage in any activities that will strain your eyes, and mothers or mothers-in-law are on your backs like drill sergeants to make sure you follow the often excessive and old-fashioned rules to a tee.

Alternately, several years ago, reports surfaced about a growing trend of luxury zuoyuezi postpartum confinement centers booming in places like mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which paints zuoyuezi as, for lack of a better description, something that rich people do. Taiwanese celebrities went on talk shows to rave about these facilities that are basically boutique hotels with first-rate nannies and doulas on hand to take care of your baby while you and your husband rest, take classes about parenthood or even enjoy their spa and salon services. And Taiwanese talk show viewers, like my mother, in turn, raved about how these celebrities were able to stay beautiful, skinny and youthful, even after having multiple kids, because they took care of themselves properly after giving birth.

The first scenario seemed unappealing and the second unrealistic, but my mother assured me that there was a middle ground. She explained it to me like this: Western culture likes to glamorize the act of bearing children with phrases like “the miracle of birth,” whereas the Chinese see labor as one of the worst traumas that can happen to the body. Special care is required to help us recalibrate. My mother didn’t feel the need to follow every single rule — for example, many people nowadays who practice zuoyuezi believe that rules like not washing your hair for a month are outdated, harkening back to the olden days when you would wash your hair in the bacteria-laden river, putting your baby’s health at risk. It was more about practicing the “spirit” of zuoyuezi: resting so you can gain your strength back as quickly as possible, maintaining a healthy diet and relaxed state of mind so you can properly feed and take care of your baby.

Later, when I told my mother my husband thought I was trying to get out of work, she laughed. “You’re going to be responsible for and worried about this child for the rest of your life,” she said. “Us helping you out for one month doesn’t get you out of that much work.”

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Many immigrants from my parents’ generation who grew up in Asia but gave birth in the United States believe in zuoyuezi, not necessarily because they had done it themselves, but precisely because they didn’t do it. The Chinese believe that postnatal recovery is critical to maintaining long-term health, so as a result, many women of my mothers’ generation, now seniors, blame their current health issues — whether it be migraines, backaches or arthritis — on the fact that they didn’t properly rest during the month after childbirth. Perhaps it was because their parents and extended family were abroad and unable to pitch in, maybe their in-laws didn’t believe in it, or perhaps they just didn’t have the resources at the time to find a support network in the United States, where postpartum care is still, for the most part, glossed over in the mainstream. (Even now, babies are coddled and scheduled for multiple check-ups right away, but new mothers, even if they are recovering poorly, often don’t return to their doctors until six weeks later.) Because of such regrets, these experienced mothers often vow not to let their daughters suffer the same consequences.

There are many ways to practice zuoyuezi, and while the details vary, the general principles are consistent (see below). Many opt for the do-it-your- self version, where the grandmothers take it upon themselves to carry out the tradition for their daughters or daughters-in-law. While this is the cheapest option, it’s a lot of work to ask of someone, especially in this day and age where many of us wait until we are older to have children. And by the time we do, our mothers are also older and less capable (or willing) to do the hours of shopping, preparation and cooking in order to prepare specific meals meant to heal the body, restore blood loss, prevent swelling, promote production of breast milk, speed up uterus contractions, restore hormone levels and help the new mother get her pre-pregnancy physique back.

Another option is the postpartum center mentioned previously. While it’s more common in Asia, these “mommy hotels” do exist in the U.S., though they’re more underground, often only advertised in Chinese-language newspapers and television programs. Though they carry a stigma in the Western world — as the sites of the “birthing tourism” controversy, where foreign mothers give birth in the States to secure their children the American citizenship that they can’t get themselves — more and more Asian American citizens take advantage of these centers where the mother and husband can stay for a month, while their babies sleep in a separate room, looked after by a team of nannies, nurses or doulas.

Somewhere in the middle lies the option of using food-delivery services — nowadays, there are even tastings for expectant mothers — or hiring a live-in nanny (ah yi or “auntie”) who will cook all your meals and take care of the mother and baby, especially at night, so the new parents can get their rest.

After considering our own specific needs and preferences, we opted for the live-in nanny, who would stay in our house to help out for the first month.

While I can only speak from my own experience, the process of hiring a live-in nanny in the United States remains strangely shrouded in mystery, and looking back, required more last-minute improvisation and luck of the draw than most people may prefer. Because these services are not widely advertised online or in English, we could only depend on word of mouth. Friends, and friend of friends, directed us to a woman who ran a nanny referral service from the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California. (Later, we would learn that there are many different nanny referral services, but at the time, it seemed like all our inquiries led to the same woman and cell phone number.)

Without a website or even a contract that outlined how this would work, the woman told us that we couldn’t meet or interview the nannies in advance, because they were all currently working for clients 24/7 (many of these nannies are literally booked for back-to-back months with no break), but we would be assigned a caregiver based on my projected due date. We were assured that all the nannies were extremely experienced and had proper certification. That said, because zuoyuezi traditions vary from region to region (not only China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, but many Southeast Asian countries have adopted their own versions of the postpartum traditions as well), it’s hard to believe there’s any sort of consistency.

The only instructions we got were that we needed to prepare a bed for the nanny in the baby room and to call back a month before my due date to work out other logistics. During that phone call, I was told that I was in luck: she had two nannies that would be available during the week of my delivery date. “What if I go into labor earlier than that?” I asked. “Don’t worry so much,” she said. “Then I’ll find someone else.”

Under normal circumstances, trusting a faceless voice on the other end of the line — and, sending her a check for the referral fee to reserve my spot, no less — seemed to defy all logic. There were even rumors that nannies were often sent back by unsatisfied clients, and as an American not used to taking leaps of faith to uphold Chinese traditions, there seemed to be no guarantee that this wasn’t all a scam. But my mother trusted in the process, and I, valuing the promise of postpartum help above all else, had committed to the ride. As it got closer and closer to my delivery date, I had become comfortable with the notion that this could go a myriad of ways, taking solace in the fact that, worst case, we’d send the nanny back.


Sure enough, I went into labor eight days early, and the nannies she had been reserving for me were still out of state, finishing up their previous jobs. But sure enough, she was able to go through her contacts to find another nanny, who had just finished up a job the day prior and could be picked up at a location 20 miles away from us the next day.

Looking back, there were many ways things could have gone wrong with the prospect of allowing an unvetted stranger to live with you for a month — not to mention, trusting that stranger with the high-stakes task of taking care of your baby. One of the most complex and frustrating aspects of having kids — from pregnancy, labor, post-labor recovery, to parenthood — is that everyone from family members to professionals give often-conflicting advice, and adding in a zuoyuezi nanny with her own convictions just adds an extra variable to the madness.

Especially for Asian Americans, clashes of East versus West beliefs abound, from macro levels (in a sense, the entire philosophy of confinement clashes with Western medical science that does encourage rest but not extreme bed rest, which may cause your muscles to atrophy and, in turn, cause you to recover slower) to the micro-minutiae (Westerners tell you to drink lots of water to generate breast milk, whereas Chinese believe that water makes you bloated and less able to shed your baby weight, opting instead for herbal drinks and teas).

However, the zuoyuezi ah yi can also serve as a neutral third party who is able to dispense advice and reach compromises with a new mother, without the emotional baggage of a nagging parent or the unintended consequences of disobeying the wishes of a well-meaning in-law. As a result, the experience can be an exercise in trust and communication, with much less at stake.

In my particular case, our nanny — a middle-aged woman who, as is typical, didn’t speak much English — had certain principles about how to properly sit the month, but was flexible about other aspects, turning a blind eye when I slipped out of the house every so often to get some fresh air, when I spent the better part of the day watching videos on my smartphone when I was supposed to be resting, when my hair was clearly washed every other day, or even when my mother, who was responsible for grocery shopping, took it upon herself to not even buy ingredients (like the infamous pork liver) that she assumed I wouldn’t like or certain Chinese herbs that she thought would stink up the entire house.

In the end, it was like my mother said: We didn’t follow all the rules, but we captured the “spirit” of zuoyuezi. Not only am I grateful for the recovery time where my sole responsibility was to rest and bond with my baby, but I was given the gift of one month to observe someone who’s been taking care of babies for decades; to practice regular acts of breastfeeding, burping and changing under professional guidance until I was comfortable; and to soak up her advice that was catered to my individual baby.

Two months later, I can say that I feel fully recovered, but perhaps more importantly, now that nannies and grandparents have left the nest, I’ve learned to trust myself a little bit more and be confident that, if nothing else, my month of zuoyuezi sent me off into the abyss of parenthood in the right direction.

As for the long-term effects, will the fact that I was able to practice zuoyuezi keep my body strong and slow down the aging effects associated with childbirth? Will I regret bending the rules and wish that I had resisted washing my hair for 30 days? Find me in 30 years, and I’ll let you know.

 

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This story was originally published in our Fall 2014 issue. Get your copy here

 

First Chinese Woman To Successfully Climb K2, One of the World’s Deadliest Mountains

 

For those of you unfamiliar with Mount Godwin-Austen, also called K2, it is the second highest mountain in the world following Mount Everest. With a peak elevation of 8,611 meters above sea level (28,251 ft) and subject to frequent, severe storms, it is also one of the deadliest and most difficult mountains to climb in the world. In fact, it is estimated that one in every four people die from trying.

Luo Jing, 39, however, recently became the first Chinese woman to successfully climb K2, which also makes her the fourth Chinese person ever to reach the summit. But this was no new challenge by any means for the single mom. Prior to the 41-day expedition, Luo already had seven other 8,000 meter level summits conquered under her belt. She even quit her job in the IT industry in 2008 to continue her lifelong dream of conquering 14 summits, the goal she set for herself.

 

 

As you can imagine, climbing mountains is no easy task regardless of gender and it is also the reason that Luo has developed a passion for this hobby.

Different from other sports, mountain-climbing has no female or male distinctions,” she tells China Daily. “Everyone has to face the same conditions and depend on themselves as soon as they start climbing, and no one can give you particular care because you are female.” She also admitted, however, that it has been increasingly difficult to persuade fellow females to embark on this dangerous journey with her. 

 

Feature photo courtesy of Women of China 

 

This Inspirational Chinese Village Teacher Single-Handedly Taught Hundreds of Orphans

 

I was never fond of elementary school. In fact, I was one of those kids who could never pay attention to anything but the sound of the ticking clock in the classroom, counting down the minutes until I could grab my friends and run outside to the playground.

Sound familiar? Well, maybe this story of a Chinese villager will change your mind about your animal cracker-eating days that have long since passed. Perhaps it will even make you feel nostalgic for your childhood as well.

Zeng Xiangwei was a villager living in rural Hunan (a province of south-central China), who was left to raise his two grandchildren. Despite the poor conditions of his home, Zeng raised them with his wife and gave them a proper family life.

 

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But his warmth and generosity didn’t just end there. Thirty-eight years ago, Zeng also volunteered to teach orphaned children in an old, dingy, abandoned warehouse that was converted into a school in the ’60s. Now at the age of 56 and doing double duty as headmaster of the school, Zeng has taught more than 600 children — 10 of whom have even gone on to study at universities in China. He is also the only teacher at this institution.

 

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To this day, he continues to teach his current 13 students with curricula that he plans and prepares by himself, but also makes sure to include fun activities.

 

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The crafty man also teaches his students the art of paper-folding.

 

 

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In addition to being a fatherly figure to his grandchildren and students, Zeng is also the village handyman and always steps up to fix satellite TVs wherever there may be a bad connection. On top of all of that, he returns home every day to tend to his three acres of rice fields.

 

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Zeng, who was nominated as one of the best village teachers in Hunan, says he has plans to retire in four years, but that he “has never regretted” the last 38 years of his life, single-handedly teaching hundreds of children.

 

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Fei Fei Sun, First Asian Model to Grace The Cover of “Vogue Italia”

 

Last year, we couldn’t be prouder when we saw high fashion Chinese model Fei Fei Sun’s face on the cover of Vogue Italia, and it came as no surprise. Fei Fei is currently regarded as the model with the most impressive resumé. She has not only walked for every major fashion designer in the industry, but she has also managed to be on the covers of Elle, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and Vogue.

 

 

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When Fei Fei was only 10 years old, her mother became concerned when her daughter shot up to 5-feet-5-inches, something that is quite unusual for a Chinese girl at that age, to say the least. Like many tall girls with gangly figures, Fei Fei experienced issues with her posture and had trouble standing up straight. Determined to fix it, Fei Fei decided that modeling was the way to go.

 

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Fei Fei, with Elite Model contestants

 

In 2008, at the age of 19, Fei Fei entered the Elite Model Look contest and — surprise, surprise — went home as its champion. With her old world looks, it wasn’t long before designers took notice of the now 5-foot-10.5-inch beauty. In fact, the next year, iconic designer Karl Lagerfeld himself handpicked Fei Fei to be in Chanel’s pre-fall 2010 Paris-Shanghai fashion show. Thus, her professional modeling career began.

 

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Fei Fei Sun at Chanel’s pre-fall 2010 Paris-Shanghai show.

Though she may look intimidating in her cover shoots and on the runway, fans gravitate towards this Chinese beauty, and it’s hard not to. She’s actually adorable.

 

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These days, while off-duty, the 25-year-old model resides in her apartment in Shanghai with her photographer boyfriend Liang Zi, and as you can see, they’re even more adorable.

 

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MUST SEE: World Cup Players With Chinese Tattoos That Don’t Really Make Sense

If you haven’t been paying attention to the soccer players in the World Cup this year, you may want to take a closer look at their bodies. No, I’m not talking about their rock-hard abs or their fine, chiseled features. Okay, maybe a little — but that’s beside the point. The point is that there seems to be a trend going around in the footie world: tattoos of Chinese characters.

Before we get into the pictures though, don’t get me wrong — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little ink. In fact, I’ll admit I would be lying if I said I didn’t think it was a little sexy. What girl isn’t secretly attracted to that bad boy look?

And okay, some aren’t really all that bad. Like Spanish defender Sergio Ramos’s tattoo, 狼 — which directly translates to “wolf.” We’ll let that one slide for now, but only because the other ones are much, much worse.

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For example, is it just me or is it a little strange when Columbian soccer player Freddy Guarin made the decision to ink himself with the Chinese characters 丹尼宗 (which directly translates to the Chinese name Danny Zong)? Unless it’s the name of his secret adopted child from rural China, we really don’t think it should be there.

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Other very strange ones include Greek striker’s Theofanis Gekas’ tattoo, which consists of the five characters 寒冷杀人魔。It directly translates to “cold-blooded killer demon.” Nothing wrong with being passionate about winning, but that just might be a little extreme. …

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Though Germany midfielder Torsten Frings is now retired, he too makes our list of failed tattoos. His reads: 龙蛇吉勇羊, or “dragon, snake, fortune, brave, sheep” in English. Those are just a string of words, dude.

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For those of you who unfortunately read Chinese, feel free to cringe with me.

 

Move Over Gwyneth Paltrow: Make Room For Chinese Celebrities in the Front Row at New York Fashion Week

 

It’s never been a surprise to see A-listers like Jessica Alba or Katie Holmes seated in the very front row at fashion week. If anything, they contribute more to the hype of the already well-known, exclusive event. What we were surprised to see, however, were major Chinese stars not only making an appearance at New York’s Fall/Winter 2014 Fashion Week this year but honored with front row seats as well!

Chinese celebrities photographed at the event included actress Zhang Lanxin (张蓝心), who was seen at Diane Von Furstenburg’s show with ballet dancer Hou Honglan (侯宏澜), as well as the TV show host, Li Siyu (李斯羽). Seated at Tory Burch was their “It girl” and Chinese actress/model Zhang Xin Yuan, who is reported to have 1.3 million followers on Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter).

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Li Siyu with designer Diane Von Furstenberg.

 

 

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Ballet dancer Hou Honglan with designer Tory Burch.

 

 

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Zhang Xin Yuan with designer Tory Burch.

 

This new honor bestowed on Chinese celebrities is a win-win situation for everyone: The celebrities get the best views of the latest collections of top designers and, in return, the top designers gain more publicity (and customers!) in the world’s fastest growing economy. According to Jing Daily, designer Tory Burch is even taking it one step further — her team is working to promote live-streamed shows in China, so that fans can also follow the event from the comfort of their own homes.

 

This Adorable 3-Year-Old Will Make Your Day With His Dance Moves

Even if you have the worst case of the Mondays, 3-year-old Zhang Junhao will certainly make your day.

A Chinese reality show, which appears to be similar to America’s Got Talent, recently had the brave young boy on their stage to impress the judges and bring the audience to their feet.

The boy doesn’t appear to have an ounce of bashfulness as he hugs his luggage, calls it his baby and says he will dance with his baby. The second Zhang Junhao walks on stage, he puts a smile on the faces of the judges including celebrity judge Jet Li.

After running up to the judges to give them all a kiss on the cheek, he begins showing off his adorable dance skills. He does everything from the robot to karate punches to skipping. Zhang Junhao may be young and his dancing may be completely random, but he certainly seems natural at putting a smile on someone’s face.

He bravely tells the judges that he was not afraid to perform and he dances for his entire family everyday. He then tells the judges that he loves dancing because it makes his mother laugh and laughter is happiness.

Trust us when we say young  Zhang Junhao will put a smile on your face.

(source)

59-Year-Old Casted For 16-Year-Old Role: A New Extreme For Asian Youth

Many Asian women have been told time and time again that they look much younger than their actual age. After all, there are now grandmothers who look as young as their daughters. While we generally get irritated about this youthful look in our twenties, we’re constantly reminded that this will be a blessing for us when we get older. “When you’re in your forties, you’ll be thankful,” strangers preach. As it turns out, some of us may be thanking our genetics even beyond our forties.

Chinese actress Liu Xiaoqing is testing the limits of her youthful face. Taking Asian youth to a new extreme, the 59-year-old actress is playing a 16-year-old girl.

Xiaoqing has had quite a number achievements under her belt. Before turning 30, Xiaoqing acted in a number of films including her breakthrough role in The Burning of the Imperial Palace (1983) which earned her a number of awards at the Chinese film festivals. In fact, with three Best Actress awards and one Best Supporting Role award, she holds a record for having won the most number of awards in the actress categories of the Hundred Flowers Awards.

Additionally, Xiaoqing is a business woman and a published author. In 1999, she appeared on Forbes’ list of the 50 richest Chinese businessmen and businesswomen.

Now Xiaoqing will focus on a new impressive achievement by playing a character who is more than four decades younger than her actual age. The drama, Lotus Lantern, has already stirred up quite a bit of controversy.

DramaFever claims, “Some Chinese netizens are sneering at her for acting with ‘a face full of Botox.’ Liu, however, feels that a woman should never give up on feeling beautiful at any age. The director of her new drama, Heroes of Sui and Tang Dynasties, also praises her as one of the best actors in China and says that young age does not equate to excellence in acting.”

Tell us what you think.

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(source)

Paris Fashion Week: Chinese Designer Yang Li

Story by Ruby Veridiano.

There was something eerie in the air inside the Palais des Beaux Arts as everyone hushed to prepare for Yang Li’s Autumn/Winter 2014 debut. Perhaps it was the elongated silence followed by Bruce Springsteen’s somber voice belting “Dream Baby Dream” that created a bit of a haunting feeling. That, and the word “DREAMER” in all capital letters mysteriously kept appearing.

It felt as if everyone in the room held their breath until the first look appeared on the runway. It was a steely blue dress that stopped inches above the kneecaps, clean and crisp except for the waist, where an overflowing peplum spilled out to be caught and held by the model’s right arm. If one piece described the tone of the entire show, it would be this one– a contrast between the seriousness of Li’s tailoring and an effort to bring an air of optimism through volume. Models slowly sauntered down the runway with a detached demeanor about them, adding to the air of seriousness, mystery, and goth. And yet, by etching the word “DREAMER” in a floor length skirt and an oversized top, Li still makes an effort to infuse a ray of hope amidst the gloom, making for something beautifully strange.

With black as a dominant color, asymmetrical, long-sleeved dresses paraded down the runway with lengths long in the front and short in the back. Paired with black hats, it looked like an outfit fit for a modern day witch with a prerogative to cast her spell. Burgundy and camel also made the palette, appearing as high-buttoned jackets, long skirts, and straight-legged pants that reminded me of military uniforms.

Fur pieces and unexpected peplums disrupted some of the seriousness in Li’s designs, hinting at a bit of whimsy. After all, no matter how dark a personality, there is indeed, a dreamer inside everyone.

Yang Li is a Chinese designer born in Beijing. He moved to Australia at age 10 where he played basketball and skateboarded frequently. He studied fashion in London at the famed Central Saint Martins School. He is a protégé of Raf Simons.

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The Dedication of a Single Parent: Father Carries Disabled Son Everyday

Chinese netizens have been moved by the story of 40-year-old Yu Xukang and his 12-year-old son Qiang.

Yu is not only a single father living in the rural areas of Sichuan, he also happens to be the father of a disabled child. Qiang suffers from a severely curved spine and a bent hand and foot. Because the condition is so rare, doctors have been unable to treat the young boy.

Needless to say, the condition has made things very difficult for the father and son, but Yu is determined not to give up despite the difficult circumstances.

According to Shanghaiist, Qiang’s mother abandoned the family when her son was only 3-years-old. As a result, Yu took on the responsibility of raising the child on his own.

Of course, this is no easy task. The rural area lacks of transportation and Qiang’s school is a two-hour walk away. Qiang cannot physically handle the walk, so Yu carries his 12-year-old son all the way to and from school.

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In total Yu walks 28 kilometers a day (roughly 6 hours) just to make sure his son is educated. The walk to school is down a difficult and rugged mountain road which eats away at Yu’s rubber shoes.

Despite the difficult situation, Yu shows an undying amount of determination. “We are never late,” he said proudly.

 

(source)