With Respect for East Asian Carriers

When it comes to terms for types of traditional baby carriers– what is disrespectful?

(the infographic that inspired this post)

Recently there has been some groups within the babywearing community who posit that babywearers are disrespecting East Asian cultures by 1. not fluently pronouncing the names of carriers 2. abbreviating the names of carriers 3. generalizing the type of carrier under one name, though similar types are seen in other cultures under different names. For novice babywearers, this can feel like a minefield of arcane semantic rules which confuse and exclude those who are not “in” on the most recent babywearing politics. As an educational group, we want to explore the issue in more depth.

We consider ourselves to be very fortunate to live in an area of cultural diversity. In Iowa City is it not unusual to hear four or five different languages on the bus, at the store, or along a nature trail. Yet, the majority of our members are native English speakers without fluency in Korean, Japanese, or Chinese (or any of the dialects within those nations) and it can be difficult to pronounce the names of carriers in those languages using American-English phonemes, let alone the issue of lexical tones in East Asian languages that non-native speakers can’t even hear. For example, English speakers tend to pronounce “Meh-Dai” as “Mei-Tai” because English speakers do not aspirate “H” or “D” sounds and the closest sound we have is the dipthong “ei” and “T”.

Often, the names of objects used to carry children did not have specific names until outsiders saw and inquired about them, and those names have been transliterated into Latin script for westerners to be able read; in some cases (like with Vietnamese) there was no native written language. American-English speakers’ sounds for latin letters will be different than German speakers or even British-English speakers and so the transliterated spellings will be different. The terms that contemporary American babywearers have developed over the past generation or so for Asian Baby Carriers are what they are for a reason, with all due respect for the cultures that shared them with the world.

If you shorten the word Onbuhimo to Onbu, or Podaegi to Pod, that is fine. It is also fine if you use the name in full. Native Japanese and Korean speakers do the same thing. In the Iowa City Babywearers, you will be understood to be referring to a specific type of carrier whether you shorten the word or not, without inferring your level respect or disrespect to Japanese or Korean culture.

Generalization is something that happens within all languages. We find something that has similar features to something we know and use that term for similar things. We are more likely to say “Look at that dog!” versus “Look at that Alaskan Malamute!” The level of specificity in the latter statement is more appropriate at a dog show where everyone is expected to have a similar level of expertise in dog breeds. The same goes for carriers in the babywearing world. ICBW meetings and social media platforms are not a babywearing conference– we want someone with zero knowledge of infant carriers to feel welcomed. Consider the guidelines in our pinned post on our Facebook group wall:

“We want this group to be inclusive– even for those who aren’t entirely well-versed on the latest politically correct jargon. We’re here to help *everyone* learn about babywearing.”

Aradia using an unquilted wide blanket podaegi, 2009.

Podaegi is a general term that is used for a variety of different styles of carriers– in the United States and in Korea. In both nations, they are used for front and back carries and come with different options, for example, wide vs. narrow/ long blanket and quilted vs. unquilted panels. All varieties are generally referred to as podaegi with a descriptive qualifier such as, “wide blanket podaegi” or “narrow blanket podaegi” ( aka “long blanket podaegi”) or use a brand name, like I-Phyeonhae. There are newer iterations of the podaegi in Korea too, which include velcro,  plastic buckles, sometimes resembling vests with fixed arm holes for adults and are also used for front and back carries (sometimes referred to as podaegi-chunei  which can be shortened to chunei.)

Aradia using an I-Phyeonhae chunei, 2007.

“The I-Phyeonhae mesh chunei is a modernized version of the traditional Korean baby carrier (podaegi). With the velcro and buckled waist belt, it provides better support than the podaegi.” –KoreanBaby.com

There are similar looking carriers to the narrow/ long blanket podaegi, such as the Dai Nyia used by the Hmong people. Just as there are Boegs (Sweden) and Ngoi of the Kamba people (Kenya) which look like the Chinese mei-tai and would generally be referred to as a mei-tai by English speakers living in the United States. Marketing plays a large part of this: it is easier to purchase a mass produced podaegi or a mei-tai than it is to purchase a dai nyia or boeg or ngoi. Concerns over cultural appropriation play into this: who has the right to manufacture and sell these carriers (let alone use them)? Korean, Japanese, and Chinese companies are actively manufacturing and exporting their traditional infant carriers (along with the transliterated names for the carriers) throughout the world; whereas ethnic groups like the Kamba and Hmong are not.

Infant carriers are beneficial for all humans, their invention predates any human culture, their use should be something that unites humanity. The motivation that prompted someone to create that infographic had nothing to do with respecting East Asian culture and everything to do with exercising power over people who are vulnerable, who need help learning about infant carriers. It’s not about learning it’s about conforming, not “this is what this kind of carrier is called” but “you’re a bad person if you call it anything else”. It’s just another reason people are terrified of asking questions in babywearing groups, they’re afraid of saying the wrong word or mispronouncing the current correct word. There is nothing more toxic to a community than belief in the microaggression because it’s entirely in the eye of the beholder; it comes down to intentionally misinterpreting a person’s behavior as hateful. Theory of Mind is something that newborns learn, helped in part by close contact with caregivers, they’re able to recognize the intentions of people around them without even understanding language. Let’s not lose that.

TL/DR: Use whatever terms you’re comfortable with for a type of carrier. Not knowing, mispronouncing, or abbreviating a term for a type of carrier is not indicative of your level of respect for the culture the carrier is associated with. Whatever you call it, we will be very happy to help you learn how to use it. 

Note: Both the wide blanket pod and the chunei featured in this post are available to try at our meetings, just let us know in advance so we can pack them.

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