When I arrived in Beijing in the fall, a friend was just leaving. On her last day, her Facebook status bar read, “Farewell to…publicly urinating babies!”
She’s not the first to complain about the “split pants” phenomenon. If you’ve been to China, especially poorer parts of it, then you’ve seen plenty of baby bottoms mooning you from under crotchless pants. Sometimes these overexposed babies are toddling around the sidewalk spontaneously squatting down for a pee. Other times their mothers are holding their legs open and whistling up a storm (“Xuuuuu, xuuuu”) as a stream of natural fertilizer hits the nearest tree.
What’s up with that? Why do Chinese parents relieve their kids in public and what’s whistling got to do with it? I looked into it (not literally) and found that split pants — or “kaidangku” (literally “open crotch pants”) — are no simple matter. Not so much a fashion choice, they have more to do with tradition, income, and the environment.
Google isn’t much help when it comes to “split pants.” Your top hits will lead you to a Youtube video of some poor kid named Alice bending over to pick something up, a SpongeBob SquarePants song, and pictures of Brad chivalrously covering up Angie’s leather-clad behind on the red carpet. Apparently Chinese baby bottoms aren’t that relevant in online searches.
I’ll have to draw from memory to explain the intended function of split pants. Chinese parents put their kids into these pants with holes cut into the middle at the ages of one to three. The idea is to give toddlers the convenience of squatting down anywhere, anytime, without soiling their clothes, while avoiding a diaper rash (from traditional cloth diapers) on a hot day. I find this sensible enough, given Chinese attitudes about waste (imagine people who keep the plastic covers on their sofas for years throwing out thick bundles of disposable diapers daily).
So it’s a tradition, but it is unsightly and unhygienic in an urban setting, where baby poop may be sitting on the sidewalk for days (or worse, get stuck to somebody’s leather soles). Before you hate on the split pants, consider that it’s a greener alternative than disposable diapers.
The cloth versus disposable diaper debate has been going on in America ever since Pampers showed up on supermarket shelves in 1961. The diaper industry maintains that cloth diapers are just as damaging to the environment as their fancy products. Yes, cleaning cloth diapers uses up water and electricity, but I find it hard to believe that two extra loads of household laundry every week outdoes the disposable diaper factories. Additionally, disposables are 70% made of trees (more than 200,000 trees a year, in fact) and 30% of petroleum. When they’re used up, they add to landfills and can contaminate water supplies. Even without statistics, you can intuit how much waste a single-use disposable diaper generates compared to a cloth diaper, which can be used on average 75 times.
So what about “green diapers”? In 1981, American mommies and daddies could buy “biodegradable” diapers for the first time, but there is still no evidence to back up the environmental claim. Nothing really biodegrades in a landfill for lack of adequate exposure to oxygen and sunlight. The reincarnation process for these supposedly “green” disposables is probably a few hundred years.
After reading that the average American baby goes through 5000 diapers before being potty trained, I made up my mind to swathe my future children in cloths. I’ll at least give the natural method a try before reaching for Pampers. (I still haven’t made up my mind about split pants though – perhaps there’s a more aesthetic way to raise earth babies?). When I tried to find out more on proper use of cloth diapers, I discovered fervent proponents on the internet, mostly outside of China. There are countless websites that discuss “traditional” potty training techniques and attire (including split pants), and parents debate the issue as hotly as right wingers defend their right to own guns.
I finally found my way to a reliable source, the “the pee and poop guru”. Ingrid Bauer is the author of the definitive guide to diaperless child rearing and coined the term “elimination communication” (EC). EC describes traditional methods of potty training babies (starting as early as birth) and draws from cultures as far ranging as Indian and Italian. The idea is to avoid diapers as much as possible, if not entirely.
The most active bulletin boards on EC and split pants I found are run by American mothers who adopted Chinese babies. Many of them were shocked to find that the 9-month olds they brought home could find their way to the potty and “go” on command. Others were appalled by the split pants they saw at orphanages and put their adoptees in disposable diapers ASAP. The most interesting thing I learned about EC is that “cueing” is an essential part of the method. The cue for babies to relieve themselves is usually a whistling or a clucking of the tongue by the caretaker. Aha! This explains why Chinese mothers whistle while holding out their bare-bottomed babies to pee in public!
Next time you see a split pant-wearing baby in China (this is getting rarer and rarer as Proctor & Gamble take over the market) you might instinctively wrinkle your nose in disgust. But think also about the environmental benefits of these children’s unsightly attire, consider the affordability of disposable diapers for average Chinese parents, and read up a little on schools of toilet training thought. There are plenty of greenies and earth mothers out there who will make a better case for the split pant than I can!