Tag Archives: Seasons

Ripping Off the Band-Aid

When I moved to China in 2009 with the intent of writing about my experiences there, I believe I began simply by beginning. When too much has happened in your life, you begin to feel as though you can never catch up in recounting it all — meaning that perhaps you never try. So now, as then, I’ll just begin again, and hope that the stories of the past year that I have wanted to share will simply surface.

If this is the first of my posts you’ve read, let me save you a little trouble: when I moved back to America in 2012, I tried writing about nursing school as it was beginning — but what ended up coming out was a lot of narishkayt about how much homework I had. It’s true that in the past 16 months I’ve sat through lecture upon lecture, studied for hours and days on end, and passed my nursing boards a few months ago — but so did everyone else in my class.

I’m now in my second semester of midwifery school, and since this past week I had my own patients for the first time (as in, alone in a room with a pregnant woman doing her 20-week prenatal visit), I have been thinking about the many firsts of the past year: the first patient I cared for as a nursing student (a 54-year old man with liver failure), the first patient whose body I bathed (an 81-year old woman with a small bowel obstruction), the first patient I had who made me feel so insignificant and incompetent that I cried in the medication room (a 16-year old girl — of course — with bone cancer and a serious attitude).

The first patient I had who died in my care. She was 3 years older than I am. I was alone in the room with her, my hands on her chest.

The first patient I had whose life I knew I had changed, and who in turn changed me. She was a Chasidic woman, and though I have now seen perhaps 75 women give birth (not many, in the life of a midwife), this woman immediately held some special power over me. I stayed with her for 12 hours as she labored with her 6th baby, predicted to be not much larger than the 7 lbs of each of her previous children. She labored all day, struggling with her daughter still inside her, doing the slow dance of the birthing woman that speaks of a deep and private pain. Towards the end of her labor she lost almost all of her English, speaking only Yiddish, a language in which I could not then communicate — but she dropped her head on my shoulder and wailed to me that she could not, that this work was not possible. And somehow, with the low words that were all she wanted, I helped her to believe that indeed she could. She gave birth to her 11-pound daughter not long after, and the love I felt for that moment, for her strength, is still with me. One of the great moments of my life.

I began learning to speak Yiddish in earnest a month later, and found a deep ethnic identity that I did not know I had lost — another first. Perhaps more about that later on.

*****

Autumn has arrived in earnest in the past few days, and it’s approaching midnight — both of which I will blame for the mawkish turn of this post. I used to write poetry, and this moment in my life is a time that is probably deserving of such attention, but I’m finding it enough to read the poetry of others. I recently found Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ slim volume,”Miracle Arrhythmia,” on the shelves of a second-hand bookstore in Brooklyn. Recently I’ve been thinking of ordinary things that anchor a life — of food, of sleep, of mending tears in a shirt. This is what I read tonight:

Portrait of a Sunday Woman

Once I saw your mother as a wife.
Sunday morning she stood at the stove,
pressing her wrist simply against her hip.

She wore a robe, red as temper.
Her shorn hair glowed like a burn. Fire
haloed the filter of her cigarette.

One bare breast welcomed the sun; steam
curved from the tin kettle. She wiped
her eyes, over and over.

Turning her head, silent as a bird, your mother
lifted a wedge of lemon and sucked
the dull dream from rind.

By then I had been kissed by a man and knew
something of the crumple around the corners of
the mouth on those godless mornings.

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Nobody Puts China in a Corner!

As this is my first Christmas in China (last year I went back to NYC), I was all prepared to deal with it by mostly ignoring it. Since people here mostly wouldn’t be celebrating it, I assumed, this wouldn’t be that difficult.

Ahahahahaha!

It turns out that, with the building of new shopping malls, comes Christmas – even to places where almost nobody knows what Christmas is. The number of new malls and fancy stores that have opened in my neighborhood in the past year is staggering, and means that instead of one instance of Christmas unicorns, this year every shop had pasted up in its windows snowflake decals and cutouts of Santa’s rosy visage.

Santa at the local drug store

Fake Christmas trees are ubiquitous.

Perturbed by this sudden outpouring of holiday cheer, I took to asking random people what they thought Christmas is. The answer I got was mostly, “I have no idea.”

Do you know who that fat guy with the white beard is?

Do you know who Jesus is?

Do you know why your shop manager is making you wear an ungainly red suit and jaunty little hat this week?

You can probably guess what the answer to these questions was.

It turns out that the fancy malls with international brands had got wind that what you do at this time of year is put up styrofoam snowmen in your stores and offer big discounts, and that this increases your business. Then, of course, all of the smaller shops wanted in on the game – so they did the same thing. And enough people here have seen American movies featuring Christmas that they know it’s some international, or at least Western, thing to do – so of course they want to participate.

In case you should think this is a weird, Christmas-specific phenomenon, think again. Why did every company in China have World Cup-themed ad campaigns over the summer, despite the fact that Chinese people don’t really like soccer and China wasn’t even in the World Cup? Because it was a big deal internationally, and China doesn’t like to be left out. Why was the Olympics the most massive event in post-1980′s Chinese history? Because hosting the Olympics means that your country has been recognized by the international community as being worthy of positive attention. Why is the Chinese government particularly mad about this year’s Nobel peace prize? Because the government freakin’ LOVES the Nobel prizes – international recognition of the highest order! Except when it doesn’t make you look so good.

So of course, with something as internationally massive as Christmas, being left out of the fun simply won’t do – even if none of your citizens have any clue what it’s all about, to the extent that signs saying Merry Christmas 2011! are all over the city, because people assume that it must be some sort of new year’s event.

In fairness, it seems as if a few local traditions have begun springing up around Christmas that I simply wasn’t aware of. For example, apparently in the past couple of years it has become tradition to sell very wet and messy cans of Silly String on the streets of Kunming in the couple days before Christmas. Then, on Christmas Eve, massive crowds gather in the streets and public squares around the center of the city (where I live) wearing Santa hats, and spray each other, and random foreign passersby, with the noxious stuff. I think it’s meant to resemble snow (not that it ever snows here).

Or anyway, this is what I found out after I had barricaded myself inside my apartment last night and looked at the local news. But did I know this when I was walking home after dinner? No. And so when a few jerky valet parking guys at a local karaoke bar started spraying me and RP with Silly String, did I accept it as just a bit of local fun? Uh, no.

Instead, I started beating them physically around the shoulders with my gloves, shouting WHAT! THE! FUCK!

(Not my most glorious moment, I admit. But I’m trying to be honest here.)

Anyway. You can probably tell that I’m pretty peeved about Christmas in Kunming. I hate the ignorant and superficial appropriation of other cultural groups’ traditions, and that is unfortunately what mainstream Han Chinese culture seems to specialize in. The only thing that’s saved me from intractable Scrooge-iness is having stayed up until 2:30am last night watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” – it really does make everything better.

So Merry Christmas from me to you! And China wishes you a Merry Christmas too, even if it’s not sure why.

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First Thanksgiving in China

Actually, this is my third Thanksgiving in China – but the first year I ignored it and the second year RP and I went and ate Hui food at a local restaurant (there was a duck involved, so it was sort of Thanksgiving-like).

This year we had a huge American feast, courtesy of my friend Matt.

…and this photo doesn’t even show the two kinds of pie he brought out for dessert, including a blueberry cheesecake the likes of which I have not tasted in – how long have I been here? – ah yes, a year and a half.

(I could really take a cue from Matt. There are some people, like me, who complain about the things they miss about home. Then there are those people who suck it up, spend the money, and just buy the things they miss at the one store around here that sells such things at a large markup.)

I find, as I get older, that I’m thankful for the clichéd things everyone always mentions – but I really mean it! (just like everyone else!) – particularly: my parents and sisters who love me even though I live on the other side of the planet, and all the new family members I gained this year by getting married. Every year, as a person who used to have a truckload of health problems, I’m thankful for my health. But I’m also thankful for this unique time in my life in which RP and I often get to travel on a whim to new countries and cultures and, because we have simple lives and Kunming is a cheap place to live, we never worry about money.

(…which reminds me that I still haven’t put my photos up from Vietnam…soon!)

RP has already passed out from the quantity of food that we consumed tonight, and I’m about to follow suit. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! As someone who lives in the future and has already learned this lesson today, trust me: take it easy on the pie.

 

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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:

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Rabbi Tarfon Sayeth: Damn, Your Kharoses is Awesome

If Passover had a flavor, for me it would taste like kharoses. Although I was a little short on certain key seder ingredients (there’s horseradish in wasabi paste, right?…) I was not going to go without kharoses the way my family  always makes it. I didn’t have the recipe and it came out a little chunkier than normal since I got a little lazy after cracking open an entire bag of whole walnuts, but after 26 years of seders I can basically make it up:

A zisn Peysakh, everyone! Wish I were with family today.

P.S. I took the occasion of Passover to learn a handy new sentence in Chinese: “摩西率领以色列人脱离在埃及的奴隶生涯.” (Moxi shuailing Yiseliren tuoli zai Aiji de nuli shengya – Moses led the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt.) I swear if someone doesn’t ask me what Passover is about and make it worthwhile that I learned that sentence, I’m just going to go up to someone on the street and tell ‘em.

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Friday Love List

  • Spring. I will grant you that it never gets very cold in Kunming, but Spring is finally here and I haven’t worn a jacket to work in a week. Aaaaah!
    This image does also show you the other side of living at a high altitude; how am I supposed to dress for a 40-degree difference between night and day…?
  • The casualness of Chinese dress. The first time you get invited to a wedding in China you will probably make a fool of yourself by wearing, say, a tie. Then you will get to the banquet hall and notice that all the rest of the guests are wearing jeans and sweaters and basically look like they just rolled out of bed.

    Chinese people around here almost NEVER get dressed up and, for foreigners like me, this is a little confusing at first. But we’re going to a business meeting with a top government official – don’t you want to comb your hair?…But you’re interviewing for a Director-level position at our organization – don’t you think it would have been wise to put on a sport coat?…But you’re OUTSIDE YOUR APARTMENT – don’t you think you should have changed out of your pink pajama set and giant fluffy slippers before going to the bank? (True story.)

    But at this point, I like it; it’s sort of like living in a giant dormitory. Everyone is relaxed about their clothing all the time. I never worry that I’m inappropriately dressed for a social activity, or a restaurant, or a business meeting. And should I ever feel the need to get a bowl of spicy noodles in the middle of having my hair done, as apparently the woman sitting next to me in a restaurant yesterday did, I won’t worry about people staring at me even if I’ve got rollers on the bottom half of my head, little sheets of folded tinfoil pleating the top half of my head, and a shiny salon gown still wrapped around my neck. Because hey, you’ve gotta eat. And that salon gown handily doubles as a bib when you spill chili oil down your front.

  • My white hairs. I think I spotted my first white hair when I was a teenager – although it soon fell out and I never paid much attention to it – but this is the first year of my life that I have a couple of white hairs that are always there. When I first noticed this I made a decision not to be self-conscious about it, and in fact have noticed that all of my twenty-something friends have a strand or two of white. Coincidentally, I usually part my hair in a way that doesn’t show my white hairs. But even when they don’t show, I periodically go looking for them; I seek out the single strands and hold them up to the light, inspecting their lack of color and their slight coarseness. There is something about them that I find inexplicably comforting. Plus, they remind me to get a move on: I won’t be young forever.

Devilishly speaking of which: Happy 30th Birthday, N! Wish I could be at the festivities with you all tonight.

P.S. I put my first post on this blog about a year ago, months before we moved to China. Read my first post from snowy Brooklyn here.

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“Spring City, My Ass…”

This past week we had a college friend visit us from the States. You had to feel bad for the poor guy – he thought he was coming to The Spring City (as Kunming has managed to market itself), and instead it dropped to freezing temperatures and even SNOWED, for crying out loud.

Snow outside our window

While the temptation was strong to stay bundled in our apartment and drink all afternoon (for warming purposes, of course!), on Saturday we braved the cold with no winter coats and walked up Xishan – the Western Hills – one of Kunming’s beauties and the place that RP proposed, incidentally.

 

View from the side of Xishan - the Western Hills

Xishan is dotted with temples for thousands of feet up, and is full of little treasures left over from a time when monks went there to pray and meditate. One enterprising holy-man carved winding tunnel in the mountain – and it only took him 14 years!

It was great to get out and be really active in the cold, but man – what a difference a couple months makes. For comparison, below is a photo of me and RP, taken by a friendly Chinese soldier-in-training, just after we got engaged:

Here is the same location not even two months later, with me wearing everything warm I own, namely: a long-sleeved shirt, two sweaters, a jacket, a fleece and a windbreaker:

Nevertheless, if there had been a Friday Love List last week (sorry about that…) Xishan would have been on it. Having a beautiful mountain to climb only a bus ride away from your apartment is a great thing.

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Autumn, I Hardly Knew Ye

Today I made a very scientific discovery about Kunming people: not a single one owns a hat. Except one old guy wearing a Houston Rockets baseball cap. The reason I know this is because it has very suddenly dropped to freezing temperatures in Kunming – something that I was not entirely prepared for – so I got to see a display of how Kunming people deal with this while scurrying between my office and my apartment.

(My theory is that this hatlessness relates to Kunming people’s vanity over their hairstyles – which are, in fairness, elaborate. In a sea of extravagantly teased bouffants and bird’s nest-like explosions, I am a ruddy-haired anomaly. But at least I know how to keep my ears warm.)

To give you some perspective, cold in China is not like cold in America, because there is no central heating. You may not appreciate the role that central heating plays in your life, but I will put it to you this way: I know several burly and macho Canadians who boasted about their ability to survive in their underpants in the frozen Yukon, only to be reduced to tears by a single winter in Shanghai. And Shanghai is hot.

So now all of my plans for making it back to America without buying a winter coat are now shot, as are the fuses in my office ever since we tried to plug in two space heaters at once so as to avoid frostbite.

The reason this cold snap is doubly cruel is because I was just getting ready to write a post about how I finally found Autumn! I got my dose of fall colors by going to Kunming’s Botanical Garden in the far north of the city over the weekend. So let us now bask in the warmth and glory of only a few days ago, as we sit and shiver in our fleecy blankets!

Act I: The Botanical Garden has a great walkway lined with trees that gloriously change colors before dropping their leaves. On the left-hand side of this photo you can see some of the giant camera gear that people hauled out to take photos of the leaves, leading me to the following further realization about US-China differences: Americans act like tourists only when they leave home for somewhere new; Chinese people act like tourists EVERYWHERE THEY GO.

Act II: In addition to photo-taking, there are lots of other pastimes to enjoy in a park if you live in Kunming, namely: putting on your frothy wedding dress and taking dramatic photos among the trees (sadly I do not have a photo of the woman who lay tragically among her swirling skirts on the ground, in the manner of the Lady of Shallot); and dragging your shiny new tent out to a crowded clearing and camping out until the park closes. Chinese people have a new-found fascination with outdoorsy-ness, and appear to express it by buying a lot of random neon exercise clothing and expensive woodsy gear.

Believe it or not, this is also part of a wedding shoot. A new engagement tradition in China is a day-long series of photos of you and your spouse-to-be dressed in absurd outfits, kept for future reminiscing and humiliation. But, you know, no judgment.

Act III: In keeping with my theory that children are the same everywhere in the world, the younger set may occupy themselves with the age-old activity of slaying the bad guy.

Goodbye, Autumn! Goodbye, feeling in my extremities! See you next year.

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Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Welcome to September, everybody!

Depending on what part of the world you live in, this means a number of different things: if you live in Johannesburg, it means that Spring is finally here. If you live in Kunming, it means you’re gearing up for the nicest couple months of the year – sunshine, clear skies, mild temperatures. If you live in Singapore, I’ll grant you, it doesn’t mean very much at all – but that’s what you get for living on the equator, homies.

And if you happen to live in a very particular place called the Northeastern United States, you’re about to get something spectacular: Autumn.

I am a person of the transitional seasons – I get depressed and fidgety after only a few cold Winter days, and cranky and sunburned after only a few hot Summer days. (So I’m really a JOY to be around 6 months of the year.) I’ll take Autumn over Spring any day, and not just because my birthday is in October.

I have been thinking recently about my affinity for this most beautiful season, not only because Kunming won’t have it, but also because the feelings that come over me at this time of year are so very specific. I want:

  • the leaves to change color
  • the faint smell of cold coming on in the air
  • days where the sunlight is (gulp) golden, and where the night comes on just a little early
  • back-to-school items, specifically: a new backpack, a new pencil case and a new 5-subject notebook

I can’t stop these sentimental images from flashing through my head – yellow school buses, patterned sweaters, warm apple cider for god’s sake. The anticipation of Halloween and Thanksgiving – the great American holidays. All too soon, Autumn is swallowed by the absolutes of Winter, but it is glorious in its brevity.

You’d think I grew up in suburban New Hampshire for how strongly I crave these things, but I didn’t – I grew up in London where there is a kind of imitation of these seasons without actually getting it right. In London, Autumn means waking up every morning to a cement-colored sky – and it doesn’t clear up until April. By Halloween the sun has set at 4pm and you begin to question if the feeling of warmth on your face was just a fantasy of your own creation.

(Side note: I remember one Halloween in London when my older sister dressed up as a piece of coal. You’ll have to ask her to explain that one. But even though we went trick-or-treating in the late afternoon, we kept losing track of her because IT WAS SO DARK that her black-on-black costume just blended into the background. BOO!)

We did have Guy Fawke’s Day, a gruesome holiday celebrated with giant bonfires on which you burn the treasonous Guy in effigy, but by its celebration on November 5th it was generally so cold that you sort of wished someone would toss you on the bonfire as well.

My point is that even though these syrupy notions of halcyon Autumn days feel like a childhood memory, they are actually not something I really experienced as a child. Fortunately, London had something more powerful than the drizzle and gloom: AMERICAN. TVSHOWS.

The impact of these shows that so classically depict the changing of the seasons in suburban America (Is it Spring? Let us picnic among the daffodils and butterflies. Is it Autumn? Let us carve pumpkins among the gently falling leaves) was apparently enough to blot out the memories of my actual life. For I am here to tell you that if you watch these programs regularly, you will begin to believe that Kevin Arnold is about to show up at your door to toss a football in the backyard and that AC Slater wants you to be his date to the Halloween dance.

Alright I think this is getting into a weird area, so I’m going to leave off here. But I’ll just say that I’m trying not to think about it too much, since it’s sort of getting me down. Last year for my birthday, RP took me on a great camping trip in the Berkshires. It looked like this:

This year I have a feeling it’s going to look more like this:

I know – boo hoo for me and my stunningly beautiful surroundings.

It’s just not the same, that’s all.

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In Like a Lion

This is what it looks like in Brooklyn today:

100_16331

You’ll have to forgive the graininess, but I’m not venturing out – I know you can’t tell, but it’s bucketing down with snow, blizzard-style. When I moved myself and my boyfriend RP to New York for my job, it was scenes like the above that I had in mind, climate-wise. Real East Coast seasons! (Not like in California, where we were living at the time.) Real winters with snow that I love!! (Not like London, where we lived before California.)

What I forgot was the fact that winter is a whole season, not just a nice week of snow around Christmas (or March…). This winter has been a big smack in the head for me – so reminder to Self: Jessica, you do not like winter. It is dark and freezing and oppressive and forces you to wear this hideous thing every day:

100_1641

What you like, Jessica, is going away somewhere cold for a week to ooh and aah at the pretty snowy landscape, to stay inside and drink hot chocolate, and then to return to temperate climes. Duly noted.

Fortunately, this is a temporary problem; not only will this probably be the last gasp of this frigid season, but RP and I are moving to Kunming (the capital city of Yunnan province in southwest China) in a few months.

And that’s what this blog is all about.

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