The End of Week One!

In case you’re wondering how this first week of class went, allow me a brief, illustrative anecdote: I was intending to update here on Tuesday night, after the second day of class. Instead, I fell asleep in the laundromat over my notes on vital signs.

What I’d really like to tell you is that this week wasn’t as tough as I thought it would be, that I had just psyched myself out in advance and been worried for nothing – but that isn’t the truth. The truth is that I came home after 7 hours of class on Monday and reported to RP that the day had been terrifying, and that I came home on Tuesday after 11 hours of class half-convinced that this whole grad school plan was really, REALLY not going to work out.

Thank goodness I didn’t post on Tuesday night, hm?

I’ve since calmed down. Or rather, I’ve since spent hours and hours studying, and then calmed down. There are a few things that I’ve had to recognize:

  1. I am not being modest when I say this: not everyone in my program is finding this as difficult as I am. I think mostly what this summer is exposing is what each of us has just been doing; I have classmates who just graduated from other institutions with degrees in biology. I have classmates who have spent the past 5 years as nursing assistants in hospitals. They know a lot more about the topics we’re studying this summer – physiology, say, or physical assessment – than I do. They’re looking pretty relaxed right about now.
  2. Having said that, lots of my classmates are finding this just as difficult as I am. I’ve stopped a few people in the lecture hall during breaks just to confirm that I am not alone in already being sleep-deprived — check. People are already starting to show up to lectures in their pajamas, so I didn’t feel so bad when I looked at myself in the mirror today and noticed that, after only 5 days of lots of stress and less sleep than normal, I look terrible.
  3. The structure of the program means that students are bound to feel overwhelmed at the beginning; not only are we taking seven courses this summer, but we move from topics that are highly abstract to highly concrete as if it were no big deal. Yesterday I spent 8 hours memorizing facts about the nervous system. The day before, I learned how to change a bed pan.
  4. I’m not going to be doing much socializing for a while. Or possibly ever again.
  5. I’m going to be just fine as long as I don’t much other than study.

I was hoping to move through this summer with no problems, and with time to see friends, read novels, and hang out in Prospect Park. Between nursing fundamentals, physical assessment, advanced physiology, and pharmacology, it’s pretty clear that none of those things is going to be happening for the next couple months. And while it’s a little embarrassing to admit, I had been hoping that this process was going to be fun. I can now see that I’m going to have to take a slightly more adversarial position on the whole business, at least for this summer.

Nursing school: I am going to OWN YOU. Watch out!

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New Phase, New Blog: This Woman’s Work

Tomorrow begins a new chapter of my life: the first day of class in my nurse-midwifery program. For three years I housed my thoughts on trusty ole BirdAbroad, but this is a transition large enough to warrant a blog makeover. Welcome to This Woman’s Work, where I’ll be blogging about life as a student nurse-midwife, women’s health, healthcare in America, New York City, Jewish life in Brooklyn – and whatever else is on my mind.

I decided to become a nurse-midwife over two years ago, when RP and I still lived in China, and getting to this point has involved endless little steps: postbac prerequisites, training as a birth doula, harassing every midwife from New York to Beijing for their advice and guidance, applications, interviews, and decision-making. Having settled on a combined BS/MS program in New York City, RP and I have moved back here and settled into an apartment on a leafy street in Brooklyn; the thousand tiny tasks a new home demands have distracted me for a solid month from the fact that tomorrow is actually going to happen. It’s time to hang up my frame pack (at least temporarily), go back to school, and finally make this dream real.

What’s with the new blog title, you ask? There’s the Kate Bush reference, of course. For the uninitiated:

But the larger significance of this title is related to how my thought process has evolved about “women’s work.” As a feminist, I have been loathe to be too involved in this category of work – that is, the customary activities and skills not necessarily chosen by individual women, but foisted upon us as a group through tradition and sometimes with force. Care-taking, for example. Home-making. Mothering. Handiwork.

It’s not that I take issue with these activities themselves, but rather that I have a fear of leading a life unexamined, of embracing tradition without challenging it first. (God forbid anyone should think that I baked that bread because it’s my duty as a woman to have such skills, or that I wore a skirt because I think it’s my main job in life to look pretty!…etc.) The truth is that my fear of “women’s work” actually kept me from admitting that the issues I wanted to make my life’s work, the topics that most interested me intellectually, were “women’s issues”: reproductive and sexual health, pregnancy, birth, abortion. I wasted a lot of time trying to divert my mental energies into areas deemed more muscular, more formidable, more estimable.

So please don’t give me a quizzical look and ask whether or not I’ve considered medical school – I’ll get into that later. Please don’t ask if I’m becoming a midwife because I really want to get pregnant and have lots of babies. Please don’t lower your voice and say, “You’re not going to have to, ya know, clean up shit, are you?” (For the record: yes. That’s part of my training as a nurse.)

For the moment, just know that I am embracing what I really want to do in the world – which, I’ll admit, is “women’s work”: the arduous, astonishing, and worthy work of a nurse-midwife.

This is not to say that I’m over all of my hang-ups. When my stethoscope arrived in the mail and was pink, I have to say that my first thought was, “Oh come on! I’m already going to be a nurse, and now my stethoscope is PINK?!” And when I first tried on my regulation white nursing shoes, regulation white socks, and “honey beige” compression stockings, I was not so much thinking, “What a noble profession I’m joining,” as, “I’m pretty sure that nursing school is where radical feminism goes to die.”

At least what goes over this is blue scrubs instead of a little white dress.

My point is that I’ve got plenty of internal mishegas to deal with, which I’m sure will only become more pronounced as I move forward in my education. And tomorrow is Day 1.

After so much wind-up, I’m a bit of a nervous wreck – so let’s just rip the bandaid off and get started.

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I Hate America, or, What Happens When You Dine Alone

When I first came to China in 2004, I came alone. In the small town to which I moved to teach English, I would often eat out alone, poke around the streets alone, and wander through the nearby fields and villages alone. Except I wasn’t really alone; there was usually someone tagging along just behind me, or hanging around my dinner table, or moving through the grocery store aisle by my side. They were usually under the age of 30, and often came in pairs. They wanted to ask me where I was from, try out their few words of English, see what I was buying, or just generally observe my strangeness as I went about my business. People approached me often to take my photo.

When I came back to live in China again in 2009, I came with RP – and hardly anybody approached me anymore. China changed so much in the first decade of the new millennium that I simply assumed that people had become more sophisticated in the 5 years since I had last resided there. The Olympics had happened; a flood of foreigners had come to China to do business, teach English, and study Mandarin; average people were well-acquainted with American pop culture and Western products. I figured that people were just too cool now to be interested in foreigners, or at least too cool to appear interested.

TOTALLY WRONG.

It turns out that it was simply a case of being too intimidated to come up and speak to two foreigners walking down the street or eating dinner together. China’s general public may well be more sophisticated now than they were in 2004, but as soon as I was traveling alone this fall, the interest from strangers started up again with a vengeance.

This time, however, my Chinese was much improved. Since it was slightly off-season for tourists, I was often the only foreigner in the endless string of 8-to-a-room hostels I occupied – and unless you’re feeling really tough, it’s hard to keep up the ruse that you don’t understand when your bunk mates are all talking about you two feet away.

So I would introduce myself, and that would begin the two-hour conversation about life in America, life in China as an American, superficial analyses of China’s grand economic and political strategies, and so on. Occupy Wall Street activities were just hitting the Chinese news (and were uncensored, at least initially, I’m sure because the Chinese government took pleasure in the sight of what appeared to be massive anti-capitalist protests in the world’s richest nation).

The people staying in these hostels were usually university students traveling on their school break, and I found the prevailing attitude about the OWS protests to be fascinating: that it indicated the end of the United States. I had several people ask me, in all seriousness, when Obama would be resigning.

A common sentiment expressed to me by Chinese acquaintances in all walks of life has been that the worst attribute society can have is luan: disorder, or even chaos. But because of the heavy censorship of the press, I’m not sure most Chinese people know how luan society there already is; the huge protests in Wukan, Guangdong this fall and winter were only the most explosive of an increasing number of incidents of “social unrest” happening in China every year (some 180,000 in 2010 alone, according to Tsinghua University Professor of Sociology Sun Liping). Without access to that knowledge, you can see why people would look at images like the following being blasted all over the internet, and assume that the end is nigh:

I tried to explain that these were protests about economic inequality and outrageous corporate power in the US political process, and that if the US were going to crumble it probably wouldn’t be because of these incidents, but I’m not sure they believed me.

At any rate, I found these conversations refreshing for their (relative – very relative) depth. I don’t know if it’s because I spend a lot of time hanging out in the Chinese boondocks, but the average conversation someone strikes up with me about America go no further than this (verbatim, no joke):

Shop Keeper: Oh, you’re American! America is great.

Me: Why do you say that?

Shop Keeper: America is developed. (“美国的发展好.”)

While these conversations are usually painfully uninformed, they’re always very friendly. It’s certainly pretty unusual to hear a Chinese person say that they hate America. Much more typical is having someone inform you, completely unsolicited, that they hate hate HATE the Japanese, but that they think America is just terrific. So while I was getting used to having random people approach me for a quick chat again, I was unprepared for the following scene that occurred on my last afternoon in Hangzhou.

Scene: Bird sits in an anonymous restaurant eating braised tofu with rice. Mid-bite, a Random Old Man (ROM) plops himself down in the empty seat across from her.

ROM: Hey, are you Russian?

Bird: No, I’m not Russian. I’m American.

ROM: Not Russian, huh?

Bird: Nope.

ROM: China has good relations with Russia, you know. And Germany. And France.

Bird: You don’t say.

ROM: But you’re American. (Beat)  I hate America.

Bird: Why would that be?

ROM: You guys are messing with our economy!

Bird: We’re messing with your economy? Are you aware of the fact that the Chinese government owns over a trillion dollars of US debt? And that China has protectionist policies about its own industries while flooding the US with cheap, low-quality goods – goods whose price is only so low because the Chinese government controls the value of the renminbi?!

ROM: Hey, don’t get mad.

Bird: Sure, why should I be mad? You only interrupted my lunch to tell me that you hate my country.

ROM: It’s just that I hate Obama, that black guy.

Bird: Really – and why is that?

ROM: He’s made a really bad impression on average Chinese people.

Bird: Exactly which of Obama’s policies are you against?

ROM: Why is America involved in so many wars, like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan? Iraqis are people too, you know.

Bird: I’m sure most Americans would agree with you there. Actually, many Americans are against those wars. We have protested in the streets, but our government doesn’t listen to us. It’s important to remember that people are different from their governments – that governments make decisions without consulting their people, policies that often contradict the people’s wishes.

ROM: That’s because you Americans have too many political parties.

Bird: Actually we only really have two.

ROM: Well, that’s too many. We Chinese only have one. The Communist Party.

Bird: Yes I know that. Everyone knows that.

ROM: China’s a peaceful place, you know! We’re don’t go around starting wars with everybody!

Bird: My understanding is that China has so many internal conflicts that it doesn’t really need to wage war with anyone else.

ROM: Huh?

Bird: Forget it.

ROM: I think the Communist Party is really great. Particularly what they’re doing in places like Tibet. Tibet’s a better place now than it’s ever been before, wouldn’t you agree?

Bird: Check please!

ROM: Nah, come on – have some more rice!

Bird: CHECK PLEASE RIGHT NOW!

Fin.

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A Little Beauty to End the Weekend: Hangzhou’s West Lake

I wanted to visit Hangzhou because I had heard that it was some sort of watery, Chinese urban paradise.

You would think that I would have learned by now that Chinese cities inevitably come with hideous pollution, the same old chain restaurants, and a disturbing number of flyovers, but what can I say? I had read Tang poet Bai Juyi’s (白居易) lyric poems about Hangzhou and thought What the hell, maybe it’s still like this!

Come on – doesn’t this just slay you?

North of Lone Hill Temple, west of the Jia Pavilion,
The water’s surface has just smoothed, the foot of the cloud low.
Wherever you go new-risen orioles jostle for the warmest tree:
What are they after, the newborn swallows that peak at the spring mud?
A riot of blossoms not long from now will be dazzling to the eye,
The shallow grass can hardly yet submerge the horse’s hoof.
Best loved of all, to the east of the lake, where I can never walk enough,
In the shade of the green willows, the causeway of white sand.

孤山寺北贾亭西,水面初平云脚低。
几处早莺争暖树,谁家新燕啄春泥。
乱花渐欲迷人眼,浅草才能没马蹄。
最爱湖东行不足,绿杨阴里白沙堤。

Bai Juyi (白居易), Walking in Spring by West Lake (錢塘湖春行), trans. A.C. Graham

While Hangzhou is no urban paradise, West Lake is, indeed, a vision.

Like so many places of historic interest in China, the local tourist industry would have you believe that West Lake in its present form has been in continuous existence in Hangzhou for two thousand years – not so, of course. But in fairness, there are records dating back a couple millennia describing a large body of water known by a multitude of names including West Lake, Qiantang Lake, Fangsheng Pond, and – my personal favorite – Wulin Water. Plus, West Lake is so bewitching that I’m inclined to dispense with my normal skepticism.

So as we wind up the weekend, here’s a little beauty from West Lake to take with you.

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STOP SOPA

I don’t have the technical access to black out this blog today in solidarity with efforts to stop SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act that deeply threatens our internet freedoms in the US) – but if I could black it out, I would.

Read more about SOPA, why it is such a disaster, and why we must stop it, here.

Contact your Representative and Senators to tell them that you don’t support SOPA or the politicians that do.

ETA: Proud to host my blog on WordPress, who have blacked out their main site today in solidarity. More info on this strike can be found here.

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Hangzhou and the Grand Canal

I mostly share with you stories about journeys past, but here’s one about a journey yet to come: for a couple years now, RP and I have had a scheme for a massive walking journey, from Hangzhou to Beijing along China’s Grand Canal.

For those of you not in the know: the Grand Canal is one of history’s great works of human engineering. Some 2,500 years ago, southern sections of this canal began to be built to facilitate trade and create a military supply route; over the following 1,500 years further sections of the north-south canal were built, ignored, abandoned and rebuilt, based on the economic and military whims of subsequent dynasties’ emperors. It was not until the 13th century that the various pieces of the canal were all linked and repaired by the Mongols, those pesky invaders to whom present day China owes thanks for an entire tourist industry (see: The Great Wall).

In the nearly 1,000 years since that time, the Canal as a whole has gone through cycles of prominence and disuse, recently returning to the spotlight with the advent of the South-North Water Transfer Project which…well, don’t even get me started on the environmental, economic and social problems associated with this plan, the most massive water transfer project in the history of the world, involving as it does not just a transfer north from the Yangze River but also numerous other water sources including that of the Qinghai-Tibetan and Western Yunnan Plateaus.

In any event, the theoretical walk will follow the route below – we figure we’ll allow three months to do the whole thing, south to north.

Map created by Ian Kiu

There are a number of reasons this journey hasn’t happened yet (and probably won’t happen for years now that we’re back in the US), not the least of which is that it’s actually pretty difficult to figure out where you’re supposed to walk. The map above makes it look so simple - We’ll just follow that blue line until we get to Beijing! - but, of course, it wouldn’t be. It’s not like it’s got a boardwalk or anything.

This route would take us through some of the most (fascinatingly, disgustingly) industrial and least lovely parts of China, and would involve navigating by foot through sprawling cities, factory towns, and numerous restricted areas of government and military activity, no doubt – and those are just the places where there is a visible Canal to follow. We have heard that, particularly in the north, the Canal has become so silted up that you can’t even tell it’s a waterway at all.

In the end, it might be a journey of the mind more than anything else, with knowledge of the historical and social importance of the route playing as important a role as the sites along the walk itself. Either way, all I can say about the Grand Canal for the moment is this: I walked along it for one day.

After arriving in Hangzhou from Taipei via Shanghai (bullet trains truly are the most astounding technological development), I dropped my belongings at a friendly hostel and set out to experience a soupçon of our future walk along the Canal.

I took a public bus to a modestly interior point on my Hangzhou city map where the Canal seemed to appear, with the goal of following it east to its outlet into the Qiantang River, which flows out into the East China Sea. After a healthy dose of head scratching and asking eight people for directions (did I ever tell you I have a terrible sense of direction? It’s awful. It’s amazing that I make it out of so many strange places alive), I made it to the Grand Canal.

I figured that if any part of the Grand Canal were going to be charming, this would be it. And indeed, the city of Hangzhou has done a very nice job of curating little stretches of it in the downtown area, complete with continuous stone-paved pedestrian walkways from which to observe the amusing variety of crafts plying the waters of the Canal.

There are even places where you can rent city bikes along the Canal, all the better to impress your new girlfriend with your riding skills as she dangles precariously off the handle bars (or that seemed to be what people were using them for mainly, anyway).

Just as I was beginning to wonder how long all of this pedestrian-focused nicety would last, I had my answer:

Time for a little urban off-piste.

I followed the Canal along its non-pedestrian byways for a couple hours, past various people doing shady things including dumping hazardous waste; removing large, mangled fish from the water; and the inevitable small groups of dudes doing drugs. I’m a lot chiller around the open use of heavy drugs than I used to be, thanks to the work I did with IV drug users while living in Kunming. I gave them a quick smile, they gave me a look of utter mystification, and I carried on walking.

It was right around here that I noticed that the path ahead ran straight into the water, and that the pedestrian walkway picked back up on the other side of the Canal. (Why do I seem to be perpetually, in all such situations, on the wrong side of the water/highway/train tracks?)

I gamely asked the gentlemen you can see in the distance, ferrying mysterious cargo, if they would transport me to the other side. They laughed for longer than was necessary.

After scrambling up the steep bank to an overpass (get your tetanus shots before coming to China, everybody), I realized just how late the day had gotten.

I was going to have to hurry in order to make it to the Qiantang by dark, and my map had ceased to be sufficiently detailed to be useful. Racing alongside six-lane roadways and towering new housing developments that block out all of the daylight, dust from the construction sites (i.e. the whole eastern part of the city) rose in clouds. I wrapped a thin scarf around my nose and mouth.

After a final haul past a disused stadium, a gargantuan and sandy open lot that will probably be 5,000 new housing units next month, and a sudden proliferation of seedy hole-in-the-wall internet cafes, I made it to the point where the Grand Canal meets the Qiantang River.

It’s…not spectacular, is it? It’s too polluted to be spectacular. Instead, it’s just ordinarily vast – vast in a way that is not done justice by these photos.

But urban travel in China is like that; it’s mafan – a pain in the neck. It’s noisy, polluted, and more exhausting than seems reasonable. All of the quietude necessary for appreciation has to come from some deep, protected corner of your mind. You must survey this spot where water comes together with other water, as Raymond Carver wrote, and you must think:

This is the beginning of a path leading over a thousand miles to the north. Emperors, generals, peasants, and mercenary schemers of every kind have used this channel over two and half millenia for trade, for travel, for war. How many fortunes have been made along this canal? And how many lives were lost in creating it?

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Journey’s End: Sudden and Complete

Well now. How was that for some quality silence, hm?

I am, somehow, back in America; I’ve been back for over a month, actually. Having gotten so used to living Elsewhere, RP and I now find ourselves in a place as strange as Brooklyn, as William Styron wrote.

I’m always amazed by the suddenness of the end of a journey; the hiking trail opens out onto the road, and suddenly you’re on a bus or in a car being whisked back to civilization. Or your backpacking travels end and you’re on a plane, seemingly entering the country whose airline you’re flying as soon as you board. You watch a movie, perhaps you sleep, and twelve hours you’re on the other side of the world.

It’s unnatural and confusing to cover so much distance so quickly. The flight from New York to Shanghai is 15 hours; that’s 10 hours shorter than the bus ride RP and I took in May just to get from New Orleans to Miami, although the cultural distance we traversed was far greater in the first instance. If we still regularly traveled more slowly – walking instead of driving around our cities, taking boats across oceans and trains overland instead of flying – I think we would have more respect for the cultural differences we inevitably encounter when we travel. If it took you four weeks to get to another country instead of five hours, you would certainly expect it to be unlike the place you had come from.

For whatever reason, I usually find the culture shock of going to China far less severe than the shock of coming home. I used to have a personal myth that I didn’t experience culture shock at all when going to China – but one benefit of keeping a blog is that I know that isn’t true, since I wrote about it here, here and here.

I suppose I’ve gotten used to going between the US and China, such that I don’t experience the effects of reentry as acutely as I once did. Every time I come back to New York City I marvel at the charming streets and the small scale of city compared to the average Asian capital. I am astounded by how well ordered the public services are and, unavoidably, how much money there is sloshing around this town.

After my first stint of living in China in 2004 (I taught English in a small town in Guangxi province), I returned to New York during the peak of the city’s fine and fragrant late spring and cried for two days straight. (Something about being overwhelmed by the technicolor glory of Manhattan, as well as having a well-developed flare for the dramatic.) Coming back this time, however, has been a quiet experience; mostly mellow and happy. I remember that when I was newly arrived in Kunming in mid-2009, it struck me that I had made it back to China! Finally! With a job and an apartment and everything was going to be great! I was so joyful and optimistic that I did a little dance around my living room. And on my second night back in New York this November, I did the same little dance of joy – so I guess this must be the right decision, for now.

The relative speed with which you can now travel from the US to China is enough to give you cultural whiplash, but what makes it worse is that each of those countries is such a world – no, a universe – unto itself that being in one utterly erases the experience of the other. While living in China I couldn’t quite believe that I had ever lived in America – and I’ll admit that I’ve been hiding from my blog because I can’t quite believe that the experiences I describe here were ever really my life.

Still, I have plenty of moments in which I lift my head to survey my surroundings and wonder where on earth I am and – more to the point – why I don’t have a ticket booked to somewhere else.

A minor remedy to this feeling came recently, when I found out that I have finally (after many weeks of anxiety, 20 months of preparation, and boring RP to death with the details) been accepted to grad school to study nurse-midwifery. I am absurdly excited – but I’m also still waiting to interview at two other schools in January before committing to the place I’ve been admitted.

To that end, we’ll be on the road again in a few weeks’ time: we’ll vacate the sublet we’ve been holding down in central Brooklyn and take the train across the US from NYC to Chicago, and from there to San Francisco. At only 68 hours, the journey won’t come close to competing with the Trans-Siberian, but I’m entranced by the route we’ll be taking: during the first leg we’ll head north from New York City, and then west past three of the Great Lakes – Ontario, Erie, and Michigan.

From Chicago we’ll be riding the California Zephyr through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. For you seasoned American travelers out there, perhaps this seems old hat. But honestly, I know more about Laos than I do about Nebraska. I’ve spent more time in Indonesia than I have in Illinois.

So what do you think: can I be a tourist in my own country for a while? BirdAtHome? Let’s give it a try.

I do have a backlog of stuff from my final travels in China that I’ll post over the next couple weeks. Here’s a sneak preview from the city of Hangzhou:

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