“It’s your period,” she says to me, “You can eat whatever you want.”
I can’t wipe this stupid grin off my face, it gets me every time my Chinese best friend says something like this to me. Type A and bossy, she’s given me the side eye more than once when I’ve been spotted taking a piece of chocolate offered to me at a party, but when my 来M or period arrives, all bets are off and I’m allowed to indulge as much as I want. (As long as it’s not on the list of forbidden foods SEE BELOW). The period in China to my American eyes is more like a holiday or birthday. You can lay around and eat whatever you want and generally act like you wish and not be held accountable for it. Some might say it’s brilliant. In fact, one of the euphemistic words for the menstrual period in China is 例假(lijia), which usually means official or legal holiday.
Having my period in China is probably my favorite bits of Chinese culture. (Although I must admit that dealing with the PMS of my Chinese friends is probably one of my least favorite things as Chinese girls seem to take their period as a license to act however they please.)
Chinese girls in general do a number of things during their period that previously were actually quite foreign to me as an American. These include:
1. Not Keeping It A Secret
When my Chinese girlfriends have their periods, let me tell you, I know about it. They almost always let me know when they’re not feeling well as a result of their period. As a teacher at a university, I often have students who ask for leave during their monthly cycle, something that I would have found way too embarrassing to do at university.
Back in America, I think I remember only telling my friends that I had my period when it seemed absolutely necessary, like if I needed to apologize for something…. And I certainly would never let a guy friend know that I was having my period. But here, there’s no stigma. I’ve been at big class dinner parties where girls refused to drink the soda or tea (because it was cold, SEE FORBIDDEN FOODS LIST) and I unknowingly asked why and she’d announced it to the entire class, unabashedly, that she was on her period.
In addition to knowing that my friends are on their periods, it’s quite normal for some of them to tell me HOW MUCH they are bleeding and in turn, for them to ask me if I’m bleeding a lot or a little. And now, weirdly, I’ve gotten in the habit of asking them the same question. In my experience the amount of blood you have coming out of you is in direct correlation to the amount of sympathy and loving care you will receive from your friends. Unsurprisingly, my period now lasts longer and I have a much heavier flow since moving to China…
Of course Chinese girls don’t keep their periods a secret, because they’re taught from a young age that it’s a time when they need to rest. As an American, this idea was kinda foreign to me. With my American ideals of pushing through and not showing weakness, at first I kinda scoffed at this idea. But once it became acceptable culturally for me to rest during my period, I began to realize how necessary it actually is and how tired I really am on my period.
Indeed, some of my students will even have their roommates bring their meals to them in their dormitories when they have their periods. I just… the thought of asking my roommate to bring my food to me due to my period… I can’t even. The idea is laughable. But now that I’m working on my third year in China, I see it as so sweet and great show of how friendships here are different (will write about this later).
3. Eating A Lot
“What? I need my energy…” my friend says in answer to the dumbfounded look on my face. She’s eaten an entire bag of Skittles and half a can of Pringles before breakfast, which is totally unlike her; unless, of course, she’s on her period, a time when she simply eats anything and everything.
Chinese girls, from my observations, tend to eat A LOT while on their periods. And without guilt. I’m not saying that in America we don’t do this, we do. But we don’t have a firm belief that it’s something we SHOULD do, and that I think is where the difference lies. Chinese girls firmly believe that they NEED to eat a lot more than usual during their periods. And strangely, the idea of eating red meat or dark leafy vegetables isn’t really in vogue here. There doesn’t seem to be a nutritional understanding of what one SHOULD eat to replenish energy, and it seems that there’s no difference between junk food and healthy foods; you simply should eat A LOT.
There is however a long list of foods which girls here believe should not be eaten while they’re having their Lai M.
FORBIDDEN FOODS ON YOUR PERIOD IN CHINA
cold foods (ANYTHING that is below body temperature, especially ice cream)
(actually a lot of fruit in general)
There are reasons for the food restrictions and mostly they have to do with Chinese traditional medicine . Mostly cold foods and spicy foods are avoided because it’s believed that they will stop your flow and/or give you cramps. But my students told me that they avoid durian because sometimes it causes constipation.
The Chinese believe/faith in traditional medicine is so strong that when I have experienced cramps on my period, my friends have sometimes attributed it to the times I have broken the rules of Chinese traditional medicine.
“Hey, I feel bushufu…” I say, holding my abdomen.
That’s because yesterday you had that iced coffee, my friend says, looking at me cooly.
Yes, I’ve actually had this conversation. And no, it doesn’t make sense for cramps to happen because of an ice coffee I had THE DAY BEFORE.
To be honest, although I enjoy having my period in China and I like stealing some of these cultural attitudes toward the period; Chinese girls still have it pretty rough. For one thing, the only thing available here as far as feminine hygiene goes are maxi pads. That’s right, just maxi pads. Tampons are a total taboo in China, it’s thought that you’re wrecking your virginity if you use a tampon. And what about married women? Well I have no idea, but tampons are shunned completely, you can only get them if you order them from abroad. And diva cups or other things? No, get out of town. Maxi pads of all shapes and sizes are the only things you can get. Keep in mind that I live in subtropical, humid China. It’s 90F here for 9 months out of the year. Most days, I’ve got sweat pouring down my back before I reach my classroom. So, of course Chinese women rest and stay indoors while they are on their period because it’s completely uncomfortable for them to go anywhere!
Also worth noting is the belief that you should not take a cold shower while you have your period. Actually, in ancient China I think women were not supposed to shower or get their head wet at all. This makes sense considering your body is vulnerable at this time and you don’t want to catch a chill. HOWEVER, if you are on your period and you’ve just slept overnight on a train in Thailand, the news that you’re “not allowed” to use the showers in Bangkok Central Station because they have cold water and you’re on your period (how can you forget? you just slept on a train… you need a shower) that news might come as a bit of a blow.
For me, the source or inspiration behind the Chinese woman’s Lijia (monthly rest time) is also a source of quandary, but I feel like I have reason to doubt that it’s just about the woman’s comfort. When I’ve told (Chinese) friends in the past that I usually have a light flow, the confession was met with gasps and worried looks. You think that means it will be hard for me to have a baby? I asked. The answer was yes, a worried yes. I’m 29 and single, was my response, I think I’ll cross that road when I come to it.
But it’s more than that. When I asked my students in the past why it was so important for them not to eat cold foods, the answer was simply that “one must protect the womb” and the implications of that were clear. Fertility is a huge taboo in China, and traditionally, the blame has always been placed on the woman. So, it makes sense for Chinese girls to be protective of their bodies, because even today, a woman’s inability to conceive is a common cause of divorce in China.