Forged

When I was considering applying to nurse-midwifery school, I read a lot of nursing students’ blogs. Invariably, these students reached a certain point at which they caved; they had previously had lots of nice ideas about how they were going to lead balanced lives, in which school was simply one of their pursuits, but eventually they gave up that pretense. FINE, they would say, addressing nursing school as an evil taskmaster. You win! Here is every ounce of my energy and every hour of my time! Let me know when you’d like a pound of my flesh!

Since I’m an arrogant jerk, I thought that they were kidding. Or that they didn’t know how to manage their time well. Or maybe that they were just sort of slow. You will notice, however, that I stopped blogging after week 3 of the summer term – that’s about when I too gave in and acknowledged that basically all I was going to to do this summer was commute, sit in class, go to the hospital, and study – every day, approximately 16 hours a day.

I’m now on vacation, which means that I made it through the first term and am gearing up to begin the second in less than two weeks. Before it all gets going again, I want to try to write something here that might be helpful for anyone else considering this education.

The kind of accelerated BSN/MSN program that I’m in involves a totally unreasonable, uncivilized amount of work: all-day lectures, constant examinations, basic care of real patients beginning in week 2. It’s also a kind of academic work that, for someone with a liberal arts undergraduate degree, resembles nothing so much as weight training. Whereas most of my previous education involved polishing my skills of writing, critical analysis, and argumentation, 80% of my work this summer has been the straight memorization and application of large quantities of information: I spend my weekends bench-pressing pharmacology. It has been a muscular, at times numbing, process.

The rapidity with which this process not only educates you but prepares you to take on a new identity as a clinician is breathtaking, and quietly thrilling. They call this first summer Boot Camp because it is the academic and clinical equivalent of shaving your head, waking you up at 5am with reveille, and running you through combat drills until you’re not totally positive that you remember your full name.

Your vocabulary is remade, and you annoyingly delight in telling friends and family members the medical terms for common conditions and physiological processes. (“Did you know that your stomach growls are called borborygmi?” “I see that your baby has a club foot – did you know the name for that is actually congenital talipes equinovarus?!!”) You can see how completely insufferable you are becoming but you can’t do anything about it because you’re so stuffed with new information that you JUST HAVE TO TELL SOMEONE.

You come to find it normal to get up at dawn, spend a full day at the hospital, come home and study for six or seven hours. You ask unsuspecting friends to remove their shirts so that you can listen to their lungs. You conduct full physical assessments of your parents, figuring that if they’ve agreed to support you through grad school they might as well see that you’re learning something. You practice identifying physical anomalies by scrutinizing fellow passengers on the subway. (Nail clubbing! Bouchard’s nodes! Acanthosis nigricans!)

When your lab instructor sets out a table of needles, bottles of saline, and sterile swabs and offers you the chance to inject your classmates, you feel not horror but elation and recognize this as the highlight of your week.

After a couple months in the hospital you realize that you can no longer smell the eerie, sterile, chemical aroma of the unit that you initially found so disturbing. You find that you are increasingly comfortable touching the bodies of sickly strangers. You are humbled, but no longer surprised, when patients stand in front of you naked as the day they were born, asking for your help to clean themselves.

This is how these programs begin to turn a bunch of East Asian Studies majors, financial analysts, and Peace Corps volunteers into advanced practice nurses and midwives: they kick your ass until you’re pretty sure this is what your life has always been like.

I know I’m going to regret saying this, but I can’t wait to start again in September (when I am considering blogging about something other than the sheer volume of work that I have). Having finished the first term of this education, and with the perspective that comes from being on vacation, I feel completely remade – and exhilarated.

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.

Meltdown Tuesdays!

This morning when I got up, I was feeling pretty good. I had been studying for days, felt like I basically understood what I had been taught so far, and was ready to take on Tuesday, my longest day of the week at school.

Oh plus, I had my first test of the year yesterday and I aced it. (NURSING SCHOOL I OWN YOU.) Et cetera.

I was even feeling pretty good around 4pm today, 7 hours into my 11-hour day of in-depth discussions about varieties of hideous, crusty, skin lesions and a lecture about hospital bureaucracy in New York State.

(This is where you start wishing you had my life, right?)

Things started to deteriorate about 30 minutes into my advanced physiology lecture, when I realized that I wasn’t entirely clear what the professor was talking about, and broke down entirely at the 2-hour mark (that’s 9 hours into the day, for those keeping track at home), when I realized that I just. didn’t. get it. I could see the professor standing at the front of the hall, and I could hear that there were words coming out of her mouth about the cellular-level workings of the endocrine system, and that’s about it.

I started to panic that I wasn’t ever going to understand this material, or any of the hideous crusty skin lesion material, and that I am going to fail, AND that the real point is that I am possibly a complete dolt.

Good thing that was about when we got a break and I was able to go hide in the bathroom for 5 minutes and collect myself.

I somehow made it through the final two hours of the lecture, had a moment of sanity with a new friend who admitted that she had no idea what a beta-1 adrenergic receptor was either, and collapsed into a mostly empty subway car headed back to Brooklyn. Suddenly, I had a stroke of genius – a moment that clearly proves that I am not a huge dolt – because I knew what would fix the tizzy of utter dejection and despair that I had worked myself into!

THE BOSS. The Boss would fix this.

I will leave you to imagine the break dance I did down the middle of the A train (as well as to ponder how you are going to find a headscarf as fetching as Steve Van Zandt’s).

I felt the panic dissipate, like a fever breaking. (Which is known as the defervescent third stage of pyrexia, just by the way.) I remembered one of my realizations from last week, which was that, as long as I study for hours and hours, I’m going to do just fine. I put my focus on tomorrow, when I’ll get to do such fascinating things as practice physical assessments on my unsuspecting labmates by poking around their ears and inspecting their skin for any suspicious looking moles – and then thought even further ahead to Thursday, when I will spend my first day in a hospital unit. Taking care of actual humans. Who don’t really care whether or not I had a meltdown during my physiology lecture.

And I emerged from the subway, back home in Brooklyn, to a gentle rain falling.

So when next Tuesday comes around and I’m curled up in a little ball on the floor wondering how I’m going to go on – remind me that Tuesdays are the worst, alright?

And that The Boss knows best.

The End of Week One!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Phase, New Blog: This Woman’s Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

STOP SOPA

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

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

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

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

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?

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: