Slitting a chicken’s throat is among the last things one would expect to do as a yuesao (月嫂), or live-in caretaker of a mother and her newborn child in the first month after birth.
But according to Tseng Chao-chih (曾昭智), when you’re in Guam sometimes that’s what you have to do to get fresh poultry to make chicken soup, an essential component of a postpartum woman’s diet according to Taiwanese zuoyuezi (坐月子) custom.
Roughly translated as “sitting for a month” or “one month confinement,” zuoyuezi is a traditional practice where new mothers rest for one month directly after giving birth. Since Taiwanese believe that the body of a new mother is vulnerable to various ailments — depression, headaches — that may affect them for life, they have to follow certain lifestyle rules during this period to ensure a smooth recovery.
While there is substantial local demand for professional yuesao, some agencies are turning their focus overseas as the birthrate in Taiwan drops and an increasing number of affluent Chinese around the world require the service.
“The general consensus among Chinese is that Taiwan’s yuezi culture is the most advanced,” says Tseng, the founder of iAunty (愛月嫂), a yuesao agency that has clients who live in places as far flung as Iceland and Australia.
While zuoyuezi is part of both Chinese and Taiwanese culture, Tseng says Taiwan has a longer history of training professional yuesao, who are required to obtain a nanny’s license and take specialized classes. Tseng says even Chinese living in China often prefer to fly in a yuesao from Taiwan instead of hiring a local.
LIKE A WORKING HOLIDAY
Tseng says most of the international yuesao are middle-aged women whose children are old enough and they can spend substantial time away from home. They earn an average of NT$100,000 a month in addition to free travel. On average, a zuoyuezi center in Taipei will charge NT$4,500 per day — a figure that’s regulated by the government. Tseng wouldn’t say how much he charged.
“Taiwanese culture is still quite patriarchal. Women are bound to taking care of their families, and they don’t have much opportunity to travel,” he says. “This is like a working holiday for middle-aged women.”
Still, it is a demanding job with little time off — the yuesao has to cook at least six times per day for the mother, provide breast and uterus massages, help her with girdles, perform basic cleaning duties, buy groceries and also take care of the baby.
Yuesao can generally work as much as they want. Chiang Yu-yin (江育音) takes about two cases annually, while Hung Shu-chuan (洪淑娟) is pretty much booked until the end of the year. Hung is currently in Australia and will head to Germany and the Czech Republic next.
Both started as domestic yuesao before taking the international route. Hung has 13 years of experience in addition to working as a nanny.
Neither has needed to slit the throat of a chicken so far, and both say that there isn’t that much culture shock because they spend most of their time with the Chinese-speaking family, usually venturing out alone only to run errands or buy groceries.
Chiang’s first overseas gig was in Redding, California, a town where the nearest Chinese market is four hours drive away. It was her first time traveling outside Taiwan. The mother was in poor health, and requested two yuesao to provide 24-hour care.