Tag Archives: Musings

Encountering the Newborn

When I first decided to become a midwife, people would often remark, “Oh, you must just love babies!” or “You probably can’t wait to have your own babies!” (Do people who announce they want to become obstetricians get the latter reaction too? I’m guessing not so much.) In reality, midwives mostly care for babies when they’re still inside the mother. Midwives take care of women, pregnant and not; once a baby is out in the world, it’s generally the midwife’s purview only for the first few weeks of life.

The truth is that prior to nursing school, I didn’t think that babies, especially newborns, were all that fascinating. I was sure I would be fascinated by my own, but newborns as a whole seemed largely to sleep, and when they were awake they seemed largely to scream. Nothing too thrilling there.

Then I got to do my OB nursing rotation, and had an excuse to spend hours inspecting newborns: observing their entry into the world and their adjustment to its climate; their experimentation with their limbs, muscles, joints; the perpetual, quiet movements of their mouths; the almost elderly expressiveness of their foreheads.  As obvious as it may seem to anyone who has actually had a child, I discovered that for the brief periods when newborns are awake and alert, they get up to plenty of very subtle business. You just have to be paying attention to see it all.

But there is an encounter even beyond that. If you are attending a woman’s birth, and you get very lucky, you get a chance you stare into the eyes of a human being only a few minutes old. The conditions must be right: the room cannot be so bright that the baby refuses to open its eyes; the nurses cannot have applied so much antibiotic ointment that the baby physically cannot open its eyes; the baby cannot be too exhausted from a difficult labor or too dopey from analgesic drugs — and of course, the woman has to allow you to do it.

Today I got lucky. Despite enduring a long labor, the tiny girl emerged pink, alert and calm. Once she had been tidied and bundled according to hospital policy, and had a chance to be adored by her mother, I held her while the mother made herself comfortable on the bed. The girl fixed her eyes on mine, and I was reminded of the special color of the irises that only newborns have: a deep, dusky blue like the lightless ocean floor.

As a child, I remember the first time that I stared into the eyes of a bird — a pet canary — and was startled and frightened to find that they were not human eyes. It was my first understanding that my perspective was not that of all creatures, and that the minds of almost all others would be unknowable to me in the most fundamental way.

The eyes of a newborn force me to confront this fact again; there is a recognition that we come from the same root, but their look is otherworldly, ancient. As if they were a new immigrant from another universe. I am reminded that they have just gone through a process that I also went through, but have irretrievably forgotten. The preciousness with which we cradle them seems the only reasonable response.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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?

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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:

10 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Taiwan: China, But Not China

If you’ve lived in China, going to Taiwan is a like going to an alternate universe. China, but not China.

It’s a place that invites comparison and analogy, and I found myself struggling to get a grip on the enormous familiarity of the place while enumerating its many differences from the Mainland.

It’s like China but without all the people!

It’s like China but without all the authoritarianism!

It’s like China but everyone in Taiwan stands in line and says please and thank you!

It’s like China but with freedom of the press and tropical beaches and absurdly delicious Southeast Asian-influenced food!

And when I put it like that, it kind of sounds like China…but paradise.

There were plenty of things about Taiwan that flummoxed me – for example, the fact that I could speak to people, but had a really hard time reading anything at all. Taiwan uses traditional Chinese characters, whereas the Mainland uses a system of simplified Chinese characters; a brief example of how complicated this can be is the name of Taiwan itself. In simplified characters it looks like this: 台湾. In traditional characters, it’s this: 臺灣 – i.e. so complicated that you can’t even see all the individual strokes on your computer screen.

It seems to me that the difference between Mainland Mandarin and Taiwanese Mandarin is about as big as the difference between British and American English. As an American, you probably wouldn’t have too much trouble understanding British English – but that’s because you’re a native English speaker. (Unless a Brit told you to do something like “Kindly put your counterpane on the car bonnet,” in which case you’d probably be mystified.) As a non-native Mandarin speaker, I was often left wondering what on earth people were talking about when they told me I could ride my 机车 to the 捷運 (ride my motorcycle to the subway), because I would have said that I was going to ride my 电动车 to the 地铁.

I know this is all a little abstract if you don’t speak Chinese, so let me get right to the point: political realities aside, for those of you who are wondering if Taiwan feels like it’s a part of China when you visit – no. It does not. It feels like a different country.

*****

In the end, our trip to Taiwan was slightly star-crossed. First, we missed our flight, which caused much anxiety and laying out of additional dollar bills. After spending our first few days exploring Taipei, it began to bucket down rain the night before heading to Hualien.

By the time we hit Hualien, we were in the throes of Tropical Storm Nalgae, meaning that we could barely leave our hotel room for two full days. Then I woke up with the worst head cold I’ve had in years, complete with giant, swollen glands and a croaky voice that I was hoping sounded seductive but I’m pretty sure just sounded tubercular.

After the rain finally cleared we were able to see Taroko Gorge and Taiwan’s dazzling East Coast, and had a blissful couple days on Green Island – and then RP’s grandfather passed away. We ditched plans for visiting the city of Tainan and headed straight back to Taipei so that RP could get the next flight out to New York via Tokyo.

I figure that if I loved Taiwan, even considering all that went wrong, it must be a highly lovable place. My affection for the place, however, was tinged with the familiar feeling that there was some pretty serious misdirection going on when I was educated about “Chinese culture” as an undergrad in East Asian Studies.

I’ve written before about the importance that was given to Mainland China when I was an undergraduate – Taiwan was never spoken of except in little staged debates to test your vocabulary (“cross-strait relations”, “political autonomy”, “difference of opinion”…). When, as a first year student, I expressed interest in East Asian Studies, I was immediately counseled to go study in China – meaning Beijing. This was where “real China” was, I was told – the only China. But I’ve discovered that that is a little like a Chinese student wanting to study English in “the West” simply being told to go to America – as if there were no Canada, England, or Australia.

Having spent so much time studying Mandarin and being focused on the Mainland, going to Taiwan made me do a double take. Wait- I could have studied here instead? In this place where they speak and write a beautiful Mandarin? Where they have an entirely alternate history, dominant culture, religious practices, minority languages, and view of the world?

Why didn’t anyone tell me?!

Again, it’s not that the Mainland isn’t fascinating – it’s that there are other fascinating places to experience Chinese culture, and these places are usually ignored in institutional settings like universities. I have to admit that it’s a little late – or, better, just bad timing – for me to start over in my engagement with “Chinese culture”. You all know that I’m a little weary of the whole business. I’m hoping that, when I return to the States and take a bit of a break from all things Chinese, I’ll be ready to re-engage and that Taiwan (and diaspora Chinese cultures) will be a part of that process. Taiwan inspired me to reassess my education about China and my level of Mandarin ability (ugh), and in return I ought to give it some serious attention.

For now, here are the places we went on our little trip to an alternate universe:

As everyone does, we began with several days in Taipei.

Longshan Temple

Danshui Night Market. (Apologies to squid rights activitists; there has been lots of squid violence on this blog.)

Taipei 101, the 2nd tallest building in the world (Dubai is such a spoiler)

We then hopped on a train for the several hour ride to Hualien, generally viewed as a good base city for exploring the East Coast. When the tropical storm finally cleared, we managed to get out for a beautiful walk in classic RP fashion (RP walk = normal person walk duration [hours] x 4 + mud + bushwhacking).

Qixingtan

We finally decided to make a break for Taroko Gorge, our entire purpose for coming to Hualien. We rented a car in Hualien, drove to the parking lot of Taroko National Park, caught a public bus into the Gorge, and then walked the many kilometers back to the car. (Taroko National Park has a very good website here if you’re planning a trip.)

Even if you’ve just hiked Tiger Leaping Gorge, Taroko is totally worth it. Unfortunately, damage done by the storm meant that the normal crystal blue river flowing through the Gorge was mostly grey, and many of the small hiking trails were closed. It was glorious nonetheless.

After hiking out to the car, we drove down Taiwan’s East Coast Highway 11 as the sun set. We weren’t sure where we would be sleeping but, as if by magic, the world’s most perfect B&B appeared right on the coast. We were the only guests. We stepped out briefly for the freshest seafood dinner imaginable, being served up just down the road, and then sat on a deck overlooking the Philippine Sea, wondering how we might manage to convince the B&B owner to let us stay forever.

We awoke at 5:30am for the sunrise.

We ended our coastal drive at Taitung, where we returned the car and spent a night before getting on the ferry to Green Island, less than an hour’s ride away. (Note: Much is made of the fact that this is a very bumpy ride and people often get seasick. That’s all true, but if you just take a little sea sickness medicine in advance and have a few saltines, you’ll be totally fine. Seriously not worth paying double the price to take a puddle jumper flight…)

Green Island is a little gem off Taiwan’s southern east coast where you can snorkel, swim, and get yourself all wrinkly in the hot springs. Your motorcycling skills had better be up to snuff, since that’s how you get around the island. (I managed to motorcycle us all around and, unlike on Cat Bat in Vietnam, didn’t crash! Very pleased.)

Green Island is also a former penal colony for political prisoners during Taiwan’s martial law period; there is now a “Human Rights Memorial” to those prisoners. I was under the misapprehension that the island was only a former place of imprisonment, but in fact, you can walk right by the building that still incarcerates some of Taiwan’s (supposedly non-political) prisoners. Just in case you start to feel too good about your vacation.

Sleeping Beauty Rock

Human Rights Memorial

Perfect water for swimming

After finding out that we needed to get back to Taipei immediately, we took the ferry back to Taitung, took a train to Kaosiung, and managed to get the highspeed rail back to the capital. It’s amazing; you can get from Taiwan’s southern-most tip back to Taipei in just a few hours.

And the rest you know: after a couple days on my own in Taipei, I flew back to the Mainland for some solo adventuring.

More photos from our trip to Taiwan can be viewed here and here.

15 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

13 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Experience Overload Part 4: Danger in the Valley, and Making it Out

Barbara and I made it out of the Valley without incident, which is certainly not always a given. Last time we made our 5am exit (I kind of love doing that – stealing away under cover of darkness!) there was a giant mudslide following a night of torrential rain, and it looked like we wouldn’t be able to leave at all.

Before going to the Valley I had never encountered a mudslide and didn’t understand what the big deal was. So it’s some mud, right? Can’t you just…go over it? No, it’s not just “some mud” – it’s like a giant flood of rocky pea soup, up to your knees, or waist, or higher. You do not just “go over it”. Earlier this year, farther up the Valley, there was a mudslide that killed 30 people when it submerged an entire village – so don’t mess around with mudslides.

Life is full of little horrors like that in the Valley. It is a deeply beautiful place, and one in which life has become easier for the Azu over the past couple decades as they have become wealthier. On this past trip, all of the fields were ripe and bursting with greenery – mostly corn and rice, but there are also little orchards of peaches and apples,  and fields of tea bushes.

The Valley in April, when the rice was just starting to come up.

But the beauty and increasing fortune of Valley life belie the many dangers of living there.

The River that cuts through the Valley is a beast – broad and muddy, swirling with rapids and hidden boulders. Every year some number of people are carried off in it and drowned, including a little boy this summer who was pulled out into the River and died, after playing alone on its shores. He had been living with his grandparents, his father having run off and his mother away in another province working as a migrant laborer. Local authorities called his mother back to the Valley, telling her that her own mother was very ill. They feared that if they told her what had actually happened she wouldn’t even be able to withstand the journey, and they were probably right; upon hearing the news that her only child was dead she seemed to lose her mind, and was closely watched in case she should try to commit suicide.

Any little incident can turn into an emergency in a place like the Valley; even those who live on the Valley floor near the main road, and who are likely better off financially, are hours away from a hospital that could deal with any remotely serious issue. This is to say nothing of the poorer people who live many hours up into the mountains, which can only be accessed by footpath. A minor injury from a fall goes untreated and becomes a lifelong limp; a small cut from a tool or animal bite becomes infected and festers, turning deadly.

One day we were in the Valley, Barbara and I were riding down the main road in a little motorized vehicle when we saw a teenage girl we know pass us on her bike. We called out a greeting to her and she smiled, disappearing over a dip in the road. Sixty seconds later I spotted her again, this time lying unconscious by the side of the road. Her arms were bloodied and she couldn’t move – fortunately this was temporary and she was only in shock, probably having had a moderate concussion (wearing a helmet, thank god).

But what if she hadn’t been wearing a helmet? What if she had broken her back instead of cutting up her arms? The hospital in the Valley doesn’t know how to treat head injuries or perform involved, emergency surgery.

We managed to get her home and she is perfectly fine now – but you see how fortunes can change in an instant in the Valley.

I don’t know when I’ll next be able to go back with Barbara; the next few months are full of plans made or half-made, and then RP and I may be going back to the US. I’m trying to savor the experience of having been there as if it will never happen again. There is no classroom that offers the education that going to a place like the Valley can, but I’m excited to return to the classroom nonetheless; these experiences show you all of the gaps in your abilities, and teach you how insufficiently educated and unprepared you are to help people in situations of real hardship.

Here’s hoping that one of these nurse-midwifery programs will take me!

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

This Year I’m Springing for Wellingtons

A peaceful weekend.

The rainy season is in full force here, but that didn’t stop me and RP from taking a much needed break from work and our little city to spend the weekend hanging out in the hot springs of nearby Anning – I challenge you to name a better way to relax than sitting in an overly hot pool of lime green water vaguely scented with mint. We get the stupidly cheap package that allows you to sit in the springs all day, get your feet massaged and then get a VERY vigorous scrub down in the changing rooms by a kindly woman wearing exfoliating gloves. (You will be all red, but very soft, at the end.)

A quick detour here to discuss nakedness in China (I’m sure you’re curious!): As modest as the sexes are around one another in public, when things are gender segregated in a locker room people let it all hang out. I actually find it very comforting; people stand around naked, a little towel thrown over their shoulder, laughin’ and scratchin’ (as my dad would say). No one tries to hide their bodies, and no one appears to be embarrassed, unlike similar situations in the US. (Why is it that I know how to change from street clothes to a bathing suit without baring any skin?! So unnecessary.) Take note, America: it’s really so much nicer when you’re not ashamed of your body.

Ahem.

The weekend was made all the better since we got to stay in a mysterious and empty hotel (hotels in China are often empty – the mysterious part was the suit of armor guarding the rickety wooden staircase lined with faux-Euro oil paintings) totally free of charge. Something about the father of one of RP’s friends having good guanxi with the hotel owner. My new motto in China is: Don’t question it, just say thank you.

On top of that, RP and I took out an entire barbecued chicken basically in one sitting, walked through the woods in the pouring rain, and zipped back to Kunming in time for a home viewing of Reds and a very rare dinner meticulously cooked on our hot plate. (Have I mentioned that we don’t have a kitchen so we never eat meals at home? Seeing me stirring a pot over here is like spotting a jackalope.)

I’m sorry I haven’t been posting very much – life has been quiet and busy. I’m working hard and RP is writing his book. In between we’re hosting visiting friends and making wedding plans, and I’m realizing that I’ve seen this season before, which means that soon I’ll have been in China for one year. More on that as the anniversary approaches.

In the mean time I’m enjoying the many new and strange sights brought on by the damp weather, like this guy, who didn’t think a lightening storm was any reason not to tote a motorcyleful of inflated balloons through the streets:

Happy Father’s Day everyone! Dad, all of these are for you:

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized