Tag Archives: China

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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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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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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The Volcanoes of Tengchong

After the stresses of the Valley, I met up with RP for a few days in the town of Heshun, a snarl of tiny streets, a few restaurants and glut of largely empty guesthouses outside the small city of Tengchong, Yunnan.

Tengchong and Heshun are not really places that foreigners go unless they live here – they’re sort of third tier destinations, after you’ve hit up the classics of Dali/Lijiang, Xishuangbanna/Ruili, and even maybe Deqin/Zhongdian. Still, the county of Tengchong is a place of minor fame in Yunnan, largely for its history – it has been settled for over 2,000 years, longer than almost any part of this region, and was the site of well-known battles between the Japanese and the Chinese (aided by the Americans) during World War II. It is also increasingly well known for tourism due to its unique geography: Tengchong is ringed by inactive volcanoes and dotted with natural hot springs.

In our house, Tengchong is famous for marking the eastern terminus of the Ledo Road (also known as the Stillwell Road), an epic route that wends its way through Burma, ending in Ledo (Assam), India. This road was used as a supply route by the Allies to the Chinese during WWII – and if RP and I were rulers of the world, this route would be open and walkable today. It has been restored from Tengchong to Myitkyina in Burma, but no further, and we hear that the China-Burma border guards do not favor random Americans crossing it on foot.

Ledo Road and the Burma Road, 1944-1945

We weren’t really prepared for a major Himalayan hike anyway on this particular trip, so instead we spent a day taking in the volcanoes, soaked ourselves in the sulfur-tinged hot springs, and went for walks in the surrounding area.

In the evenings we sat on the balcony of our little guesthouse in Heshun, watching the volcanoes turn dark and the lights come on over the Ledo Road, that wide path of stone and cement disappearing though a break in the Gaoligong Mountains to the west, and on towards Burma.

Lately, we’ve been attempting these little getaways from the stresses of regular life in Kunming more and more frequently, bit by bit breaking our ties with this city that we will soon be leaving for good. We’ve had waves of friends over the past couple years here, and the majority of the most recent wave have left. It seems as though all of our possessions are limping along, worn out or broken. There’s a sense now that we’ve perhaps overstayed our welcome in Kunming – or rather, our interest. The work that brought me to China is done, and the work that brought RP to China almost so. A few days ago we happened to turn down a street that we haven’t walked in 18 months or so, and were shocked by how long ago that felt, by what shiny new foreigners we were here then.

When we occasionally run into another foreigner who we have known since the beginning of our time here, there’s a sense of mutual weariness and minor embarrassment. Oh, you’re still here? Yeah, we’re still here too.

More than that, there seems to be some sort of bad spirit that’s taken up residence in our lives, a poisonous malaise that follows us around, bringing unexplained tensions and bad moods. We manage to create oases within the murkiness – it was our first wedding anniversary on Sunday and we had such a sweet and relaxing day in a valley outside of Kunming – but deep stresses linger just below the surface of our mundane activities.

I’m seeking input. Anyone know any good rituals for banishing bad spirits?

The good news is that we’re headed out in half an hour on the overnight train to Lijiang, where we’ll set off to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge and then spend a few days in nearby-ish Shaxi. It might rain on us the whole time, but I’m hoping the mountain air will clear my head. I’ll report back with photos next week!

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Quick Hit: Advertising in Poor Taste

RP and I discovered this ad for sunglasses in the window of an optometrist’s shop in Tengchong, Yunnan.

Way to keep it classy, guys.

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Experience Overload Part 2: Hospital Regulars

We visited the hospital several times this week, checking up on the women who were of particular concern to Barbara. Their outcomes ran the gamut:

  • The woman with the seizures and infection had been doing better, but then her infection returned and she seemed to be retaining fluid at an undiminished rate. They had transferred her to a hospital in a city four hours away.
  • The woman who had had a cesarean after her labor stopped was much improved and, by our visit yesterday, had gone home with a healthy baby.
  • The woman with uterine cancer was gone from her bed, the sheets neatly folded. I assumed she had died, but was later told by a nurse that they had sent her home to die there – nothing more they could do for her at the hospital anyway, and they needed the bed.

For the record, I think this last outcome is probably a good thing. Just as a system in which hospital births are the norm for all women leads to lots of money being spent in achieving relatively poor outcomes, I think the same may be true of a system of hospitalized death.

In death, of course, unlike birth, the outcome is eventually the same for everyone. On the other hand, hospitalized birth and death have much in common: enormous potential for trauma; unnecessary and invasive procedures being performed, often without consent being given; massive quantities of money spent on these procedures; the transformation of a private, family affair into a sterile, clinical one. I’m still formulating my thoughts about this, and, in truth, have seen a dead body but have never actually seen someone die. Still, I think that establishing a system in which the beginning of life and the end of life generally occur out of the clutches of hospitals will be one in which more people have a good birth and a good death, instead of the undignified medical disasters so common now.

One of the nursing schools that I’m applying to has a minor in Palliative and End of Life Care; perhaps I’ll be their first midwifery student to take it up!

*****

One of the days we were at the hospital, Miriam (a foreign nurse friend of Barbara’s who has lived in the Valley for years) came by for a prenatal check up and ultrasound. The hospital staff were perfectly happy to lend Barbara a spare bed to perform the prenatal check up herself. Having seen Barbara do a few prenatal check ups, I knew that she would begin by asking a series of questions about Miriam’s general health and comfort, anything unusual during the pregnancy (Miriam has a number of children already, so she is very familiar with her pregnant body), and fetal movement. She then performs a Leopold maneuver, which is the process of manually palpating the woman’s belly to determine fetal position. Miriam said it would be fine if I wanted to palpate her belly as well – and judging from how exciting I thought this was, I can already tell what a geeky midwifery student I’m going to be.

Let me tell you: feeling the position of the fetus is not as easy as it looks. You think that if you palpate a pregnant woman’s belly you’ll be able to feel something concrete in there, but Miriam is around 7.5 months pregnant, so the fetus still has plenty of fluid around it. For the first few moments I couldn’t feel anything at all – just a dense orb of fluid, like a medicine ball. But then I felt a solid, unbroken line between her belly button and left flank – the fetal spine! – and followed it down to the head above the pubic bone. Her baby has been moving around a lot, but for now it’s in the perfect position for birth.

After using a Doppler fetal monitor to listen for the heartbeat (again, not as easy as it looks to get the fetal heart beat instead of the mother’s), we went with Miriam to another hospital building to get an ultrasound. I’ve only ever seen fetal ultrasounds done in China, so my experience is limited to what they do here, but so far I can’t tell a damn thing from looking at an ultrasound screen. It occurs to me that they may intentionally do them very quickly here, avoiding prolonged views of things you might recognize like the fetal torso, because ultrasound technicians are forbidden from revealing the baby’s sex. This is because one well-documented side effect of China’s “Family Planning Policy”, as it is known here, has been an exacerbation of the population’s lopsided male-female sex ratio, and a high prevalence of sex-selective abortion.

Supposedly, ultrasound technicians can lose their jobs if anyone finds out that they revealed the baby’s sex to the parents. However, I have also heard that bribing the technicians is common, and that technicians sometimes drop hints to eager parents – saying “Congratulations!” if it’s a boy but nothing if it’s a girl, for example. At the end of Miriam’s ultrasound, she and the technician exchanged a few words:

“It doesn’t matter to us what the sex is, since we’re definitely keeping the baby.”

“It may be a boy. We’re not allowed to give you any information because of the Family Planning Policy.”

Perhaps that was a hint, or perhaps they just say that to everyone.

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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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Are you listening, Steve Jobs?

UPDATE #2: Click here for updates on the fake Apple store, with video footage.

UPDATE #1: To address the main issue that people have been getting all bent out of shape about: the stores I photographed do not appear to be authorized Apple sellers. The list of resellers in Kunming that Apple’s website has published does not include the locations that I photographed. An employee at the main store photographed has confirmed that it is not an authorized reseller. Apple itself has confirmed that it is a fake.

I will not be publishing on this blog the addresses of the stores I photographed – if you live in China, you’ll understand why. Feel free to email me at birdabroadblog [AT] gmail [DOT] com.

*****

The Western news media is replete with pithy descriptions of the rapid changes taking place in China: China has the world’s fastest growing economy. China is undergoing remarkable and rapid change. This represents a unique moment for a society changing as quickly as China.

You probably read such things in the paper every day – but if you have never been to China, I’m not sure you know quite what this means on a mundane level. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, in the 2+ years that RP and I have been in our apartment, much of the area around us has been torn down, rebuilt, or gutted and renovated – in some cases, several times over. I had the thought, only half-jokingly, that when we returned from a couple months abroad, we might not be able to recognize our apartment building. Or that it might not be there at all.

As it turns out, my fears were baseless – our scrappy little home remains. The neighborhood, however, has definitely kicked it up a notch or seven. Starbucks has opened not one, but THREE branches (that I encountered) within a 10 minute walk of one another. An H&M has opened across from our apartment building. These are the kinds of major Western brands that were previously only represented in Kunming by fast food chains like McDonald’s and KFC. Our neighborhood has quickly become the swanky shopping center of the city.

So when we strolled down a street a few blocks from our house a couple weeks ago, I was only sort of surprised to see this new place, one that any American of my generation can probably recognize instantaneously:

It’s an Apple store!

Or is it?

RP and I went inside and poked around. They looked like Apple products. It looked like an Apple store. It had the classic Apple store winding staircase and weird upstairs sitting area. The employees were even wearing those blue t-shirts with the chunky Apple name tags around their necks.

We proceeded to place a bet on whether or not this was a genuine Apple store or just the best ripoff we had ever seen – and to be sporting, I bet that it was real.

I know, you guys are laughing: an Apple store in Kunming? No one who doesn’t know me personally has ever heard of Kunming before. Kunming is the end of the Earth. It’s all true – but seriously, China warps your mind into believing that anything is possible, if you stay here long enough. When we went back to this store 5 days later and couldn’t find it, having overshot by two blocks, I seriously thought that it had simply been torn down and replaced with a bank in the mean time – hey, it’s China. That could happen.

You have already guessed the punchline, of course: this was a total Apple store ripoff. A beautiful ripoff – a brilliant one – the best ripoff store we had ever seen (and we see them every day). But some things were just not right: the stairs were poorly made. The walls hadn’t been painted properly.

Apple never writes “Apple Store” on it’s signs – it just puts up the glowing, iconic fruit.

The name tags around the necks of the friendly salespeople didn’t actually have names on them – just an Apple logo and the anonymous designation “Staff”. And of course, Apple’s own website will tell you that they only have a few stores in Beijing and Shanghai, opened only recently; Apple famously opens new stores painstakingly, presumably to assure impeccable standards and lots of customer demand.

Is this store a copy of one of those in Beijing? A copy of a copy in another Chinese city? A copy of a copy of a copy?! While you’re pondering that, bear in mind: this is a near-perfect ripoff of a store selling products that were almost unknown when we first came to China. My white MacBook was likely to draw only blank stares or furrowed brows as I sat gnashing my teeth trying in vain to get a piece of Chinese software to run on it.

Being the curious types that we are, we struck up some conversation with these salespeople who, hand to God, all genuinely think they work for Apple. I tried to imagine the training that they went to when they were hired, in which they were pitched some big speech about how they were working for this innovative, global company – when really they’re just filling the pockets of some shyster living in a prefab mansion outside the city by standing around a fake store disinterestedly selling what may or may not be actual Apple products that fell off the back of a truck somewhere.

Clearly, they had also been told that above all, they must protect the brand. As I took these photos I was quickly accosted by two salespeople inside, and three plain clothes security guys outside, putting their hands in my face and telling me to stop taking photographs – that it wasn’t allowed. And why wasn’t it allowed? Because their boss told them so.

I…may or may not have told them that we were two American Apple employees visiting China and checking out the local stores. Either way, they got friendlier and allowed me to snap some pictures.

And the best part? A ten minute walk around the corner revealed not one, but TWO more rip-off Apple stores.

Some store managers may have dozed off briefly during certain parts of the lecture on How to Completely Ignore Intellectual Property Rights:

Anyone from Apple want to come down to Kunming and break open a can of IPR whoop-ass?

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