Tag Archives: America

Open Your Mouth And Say “Aaah”

Somehow, it’s the end of week three – and I’m still sort of standing!

I really thought I was doing well; I’ve been on top of my work, doing well on tests, even managing to get a decent amount of sleep. And then today, after my 6am wake up for my weekly four hour pharmacology lecture, I realized that I am actually feeling an overwhelming sense of exhaustion and the desire to sit in a cool, dark room for the entire weekend. (Not that that’s an option, what with all the studying I need to do.)

Has it really only been three weeks of class? Hasn’t it been more like three months?

I keep reminding myself that this summer is a sprint: intense and over before you know it. Truly, there are aspects of this program that I’m loving – why don’t I go ahead and write them down to keep myself from turning this post into an unsavory whinge-fest:

  1. For the most part, the standard of the teaching is very high. I have enormous respect for my professors and instructors, and am constantly concocting little reasons to schedule an office hours meeting with them, despite the fact that I don’t have any questions of an academic nature. Just so that I can hang out with them and ask them about their lives and careers.
  2. My classmates are excellent – sharp, engaged, compassionate, and with a dizzying variety of backgrounds and accomplishments. I’m glad to know them and proud to be counted among them.
  3. I’m loving learning how to conduct a full physical exam. During this summer we’re each paired with a classmate on whom we practice inspecting, palpating, percussing, and auscultating from head to toe; I swear it’s like being given the keys to a secret garden of weirdness. Did you know that your optic disc looks like the sun setting inside your eye? Or that your ear’s tympanic membrane looks like mother of pearl? Or that there’s actually a reason that they ask you to open your mouth and say “aaaah” at the doctor’s office, apart from making you look like an idiot? (It’s to visualize your pharynx and tonsils, as well as to ensure that your soft palate rises symmetrically while your uvula stays midline – indications that your cranial nerve X isn’t damaged.)

Interestingly, I’m feeling a little more tepid about the thing that other members of my class seem most excited about: the one day each week that we spend in a hospital unit learning how to be actual nurses. There’s nothing like suddenly being assigned to care for an ill stranger in a hospital to make you realize that you are ignorant in the most fundamental of ways: how should you speak to the patient? How should you touch them? How do you walk the fine line of providing care appropriate to the professional role of a nurse, without veering into non-professional areas like socializing with them or being their “fetcher?” (Hint: pouring water from a pitcher on the bedside for a shaky patient whose medications give them dry mouth is a-OK – fetching them (or their cousin) a Coke from the vending machine – NO A SPRITE! NO A GINGER ALE! – just because they want one, is not.)

This isn’t my first time interacting with people and providing them with intimate care in a hospital setting – but the last time I did anything like this, it was as a doula in China. And those women weren’t sick – they were just pregnant. True, they were sometimes in pain, but the pain of “back labor,” and how to manage it, isn’t the same as someone who has back pain following surgery for a herniated disc. Those women didn’t have open sores as a result of being bedbound in their homes; they didn’t have central lines that needed cleaning or tracheostomy tubes that needed suctioning. They were never so neurologically impaired that you couldn’t tell if their sudden grimacing was because you were hurting them or because some mental demon was flashing before their eyes.

Or perhaps it was something about the hospitals I visited in China made that those experiences so different from this one. The hospital to which I am currently assigned is such a nice institution: it’s recently built, it mostly serves the surrounding community (as opposed to being a magnet for transfers from other communities or hospitals), it isn’t a level I trauma center. It is well staffed, and mostly calm. They even have “quiet hours” during the day on the unit where I work in which the lights are dimmed and people speak in hushed tones to allow the patients to get rest during the day.

As much as this is all to promote a healing environment for those being treated there, it also creates an otherworldly atmosphere that I find unsettling. When I enter the hospital I feel as if I’m leaving the world of the living and entering a place of sterility and suspension – a place somewhere between this world and the next. No matter how nice you try to make it, a hospital is a place that serves as a land of limbo for the sick and dying; it makes my heart hurt to be in one.

I didn’t have this feeling in China, and perhaps, perversely, it has to do with the fact that the hospitals I was in were nowhere near as “nice” as the one I work in now – they were chaotic and dirty. Families wandered all over the place, carrying in food, clothes, and supplies for their loved ones (who are otherwise not provided with these things by the hospital itself). At the hospital that I visited in The Valley, a stray animal or two could often be seen roaming the halls.

While this made them much worse places from a clinical standpoint (my God, the rates of infection), they felt like places in which life was happening on a continuum with the outside world. I felt, oddly, more comfortable in them.

My role is different now, of course. The expectations that my wonderful preceptor has for me and my classmates are high, which puts me in a state of mild terror every time I have to do something new – although I am pleased to say that I was able to rally my Spanish skills somehow to interact with the first patient for whom I was responsible, who did not speak any English at all.

I’m uneasy just at the moment. I hear that it passes.

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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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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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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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This Day, Again

For the past few years I’ve been seeing the 10th anniversary of 9/11 coming, wondering what it would be like when it arrived. Now here it is – and doesn’t it feel terrible?

Anything that happened less than 10 years ago can seem recent, but when you hit a decade you have to admit that, somewhere in there, a new era has dawned. In the past, I’ve referred to 9/11 as the most significant single event to happen in my lifetime, and I still believe that. But it has been eclipsed by all of the terrible events that have come since, in its name, with it as an excuse. The declaration of an ideological war that has created more enemies in the Muslim world that the West ever had previously, the massive and ongoing loss of lives. The implosion of the American financial system, the Great Recession.

It does feel as though we’ve been hiding out over here in China as the West eviscerates itself – there has been a certain blissful distance in this, and some guilt as well. I never know how to mark the more ordinary anniversaries of 9/11, let alone the passage of 10 years. RP and I talked about that day again; where we were; what it has meant for New York and New Yorkers; what has happened since for New Yorkers, the country, each of us personally. I don’t feel a decade older.

How do you mark the day?

*****

Despite all of this, you will be glad to hear that the bad spirit following us around seems to have departed. Thanks to all of you for your excellent suggestions on how to get rid of it! Now that it has gone, what’s left is the sense of being done with Kunming – so done. Beyond done. Let’s-get-on-a-plane-tomorrow done.

As an illustration: if you follow the Chinese human interest news, you may have read that China is becoming more culturally liberal, with such hallmarks of alternative youth culture as multi-day music festivals springing up around the country. RP and I have always been curious about what these music festivals might be like, wondering if these were the places where real Chinese youth culture and coolness could be seen – and, as luck would have it, the first such giant music festival in Kunming was held over the past couple days. Today we went to the last of it, all prepared to have a good time, and particularly prepared to see Cui Jian, the headlining act and most famous rock musician in Chinese history.

Well…Cui Jian was pretty good. The rest of it was sort of disastrous.

It was actually a great venue, a beautiful night, and a hilarious crowd for people-watching (old ladies bopping around – check. Wannabe Kunming hipsters – check. A healthy sampling of goofy Kunming foreigners attempting to dance with the cops – double check.)

But China just doesn’t know how to do this kind of thing. The music was mostly terrible (because no self-respecting Chinese band stays in Kunming for very long). The whole festival venue was submerged in corporate advertising of a kind I have never seen before: giant screens showing ads on a loop for Mercedes-Benz and Budweiser while the bands played in front of them, occasionally cutting off the bands’ sounds systems so that the ads could play with sound for a few minutes. The crowds stood there, mesmerized, watching the screens.

When Cui Jian finally came on at people cheered and hollered – he’s a big deal. It’s kind of like seeing Bruce Springsteen play, if America hadn’t produced another rock star since.

But the overwhelming feeling that came over me was that it’s time to go. Kunming and I are done with each other. I’m like that random guy still hanging out on the college campus a couple years after graduation – not cool.

Fortunately, my ticket is purchased – I’m on a plane to Beijing on Wednesday afternoon, to begin almost two weeks of a very happy tour guiding opportunity: my mom is coming to visit! She’s playing ambassador for my family, an emissary from Manhattan, here to check up on China and what on earth I’ve been up to for the past couple years. I’m totally thrilled.

And after that – the open road, as it were. Taiwan, Xinjiang. The great beyond.

Don’t you worry (weren’t you worried?!) – I’ll be keeping you all regularly updated with tales and photos. First up (tomorrow) pictures from our awesome trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge and Shaxi. Stay tuned.

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Kunming Fake Apple Stores Shut Down

The local authorities have reported their findings from the investigation they conducted into the fake Apple stores in Kunming, and a couple pieces of information have made it into the news.

The first is that they found five fake Apple stores in Kunming, not just three. I’m actually only surprised that it’s so few – the three that RP and I found were just the ones we happened to come across while walking home from dinner.

The second piece of information is that two of the five stores have been shut down – not for intellectual property rights violations, but because they didn’t have business licenses, the bare minimum necessary for a commercial retail operation.

What this means, of course, is that three of the five stores (coincidentally, the three that I put photos of on this blog) were issued valid business licenses by authorities who were, to give them serious benefit of the doubt, asleep at the wheel – and those stores continue to operate.

What this also means, I assume, is that by putting up that blog post, my husband and I are indirectly responsible for some number of people losing their jobs as employees of those stores. How do we feel about that? Terrible.

I want to explain again: when we photographed those stores and put up that blog post, it’s not because we found it shocking someone had ripped off Apple in China. I’ve been coming to China for almost eight years, and RP has been coming here for 10 years – we’re well aware of the prevalence of shanzhai goods and stores in this country. Even the street that the main fake Apple store is on has what we assume are numerous other ripoff stores – it has two shoddy Nike stores alone, and this is supposed to be the main upscale shopping street in the city.

We photographed these stores because they were such detailed and complete ripoffs that they almost rose to the level of artistry, if you look at them in the right frame of mind. And I put it on my blog because I thought that a few people outside my normal readership of, say, six people, might find it amusing too.

We’re not shills for Apple – we’re just appreciators of absurdity. And the idea that people might lose their jobs over a blog post seemed ridiculous. We hadn’t foreseen the fact that this story would sit perfectly at the intersection of Americans’ Applemania and Sinophobia and, as one article I read put it, “blow up the internet”.

This is not to say that I have no feelings about violations of IPR in China. I hold the prevailing Western opinion that a total disregard for IPR seriously hampers innovation. Given the extent to which IPR is ignored in a city like Kunming – and, I imagine, numerous other similar Chinese cities that you’ve never heard of, each containing millions of people – if I were a Chinese businesswoman, I would open a fake Apple store tomorrow. What’s the point of coming up with your own business idea if you can just lift an existing one wholesale that you know will be successful and won’t be shut down by the authorities?

I think it is a fair criticism that social injustice is being propagated by a system in which the workers who actually produce Apple’s products in China are unable to afford to purchase them. (Not that the Chinese people complaining on this blog about the price of Apple products are factory workers – let’s get real. You’re not labor activists, you just want Apple products as much as anyone, anywhere.) Indeed, an Apple product in China is likely to be more expensive than purchasing one in the US, or even Hong Kong. The reason for that, however, is because the Chinese government slaps a massive import tax on these and other such products, making it even less likely that people will be willing to buy the real thing and support enforcing IPR laws.

Shutting down these couple Apple stores in Kunming doesn’t represent a move to enforce IPR laws in China – they were shut down in a little show-trial move on the basis of having been so shady as to not even have business licenses. But if such stores were to be shut down en masse on that basis, despite the loss of retail jobs, I admit that I would support it. I think that supporting such a move represents the hope that China could be a thrilling country of innovators on a scale that the world has never before seen – and it certainly represents a blow to the insulting insinuation that shanzhai crap is China’s major cultural contribution to the planet.

If France can enforce smoking bans in bars, China can enforce IPR laws. Agreed?

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Equal Opportunity Excoriation Available

It has been pointed out to me by certain people to whom I am married that my criticism of China is getting a little…immoderate. That the way I criticize China makes it seem as if I am ignoring the exact same flaws in other countries and societies. I’ll agree that my criticism sometimes gets out of hand, or is simply petty – I have been overly cranky recently, and taking it out on “China” because it’s easy to do. Sometimes it makes me feel better, but often it just makes me crankier, and makes me more likely to act like an idiot for no reason. (Example: Almost laying down my life in front of an illegally turning city bus while shouting PEDESTRIANS FIRST! just to prove a point doesn’t really change the enforcement of traffic laws in Kunming.)

On the other hand, I criticize China because I’m submersed in China at the moment, and because many aspects of life here are highly deserving of criticism. Does this mean that the US isn’t deserving of criticism? Not at all – but I’m not taking random shots at one to be a facile booster of the other. (Unlike some people, coughTomFriedmanyouidiotcough.) And in fact, there are a great many of exactly the same aspects of Chinese and American society that deserve criticism – tremendous income inequality, environmental degradation, citizens’ xenophobia and narrow-mindedness, racism – I could go on.

That said, my absolutely least favorite excuse of people who defend harmful government policies or action/inaction is that the criticizer has no right to criticize, because other countries are or were just as bad. These conversations are exceedingly tiresome:

American: Wow, I can’t believe the government of Fascistan just killed hundreds of indigenous people in the south!

Fascistanian: The US government killed millions of American Indians in its quest to settle the continent! And the Australians did it too!

American: Are you saying that a genocide in the US is a good excuse for the brutal Fascitanian oppression of indigenous people here?!

Fascistanian: FOREIGNER! You can never understand our ways!

I’m not totally lacking in relativism, but my point is that governments and societies often engage in behavior that I find objectively stupid, corrupt, and harmful – China, the US, wherever. Actually, particularly China and the US.

So when we move back to the States I promise to start up a new blog – BirdAtHome, or whatever – and go to town on American stupidity and the totalitarian tendencies of the US government. But for now, we live here. So China gets it.

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