Back to the Hospital, and Shabbes in the Valley


I’ve parked myself with a can of beer in front of my room’s electric fan, vainly hoping that either will do something to cut through the humidity that has settled into the Valley over the past few days. Barbara and I just came back from dinner at the house of a foreign friend who lives near by; after dinner we sat with the lights off in the living room, eating a mountain of lychees to keep cool. I complimented her on her beautiful Peruvian wall tapestries, and was then distracted by the concept of a place as inconceivably distant from the Valley as Peru – it might as well be a fairy tale. I spent the rest of the evening staring out the window of her home, overlooking the skeleton of a small, ruined power station in which villagers now grow corn in tight rows.

Tomorrow morning we meet with two local women to prepare a training for village women on life-saving skills relating to pregnancy, the postpartum period, and newborn health. One of the women only speaks the local language – let’s call it Azu – and the other speaks Azu and Mandarin. I’ll translate from Mandarin to English for Barbara, and the whole thing will be a little round-robin of translation and take three times as long as it should, but as we say in Mandarin: mei banfa.

One of the ways I know that my Mandarin skills have improved since we moved to China is that the prospect of this kind of activity only makes me a little nervous, as opposed to paralyzingly nervous in a manner that requires closed eyes and deep breathing. Now I always do pretty well in these situations, if I do say so myself. It’s tomorrow afternoon’s plan, returning to the hospital, that’s got me a little worried.

Back at the Hospital

On Friday we stopped by to see the Matron, and when she wasn’t in that day we casually made rounds, mostly to check on the woman who had had the emergency cesarean and severe infection. She seemed to have improved somewhat from the day before, but as we stood by her bedside I looked at the woman lying in the bed next to her – and then I looked again.

I recognized the face peeking out from underneath heavy blankets, her eyes just showing beneath her “new mother’s” head scarf. When we had visited the day before, she had just arrived at the hospital in labor, with her water already broken. She didn’t seem to be in heavy labor yet, and when Barbara examined her she noted that the baby was posterior, its head wasn’t engaged in the pelvis, and there was very little amniotic fluid remaining. A posterior baby (“sunnyside up”) is often more painful to deliver, but will usually come out on its own with a little maneuvering. One whose head isn’t sufficiently engaged in the pelvis might not come out at all, necessitating a c-section.

There are ways to encourage the baby to move down, but the hospital doesn’t favor any of them. They don’t like the women to move around in general, and particularly not after the water has broken because they fear cord prolapse (that the cord will slip out before the baby, which can be fatal as it cuts off the baby’s oxygen supply). This is not a well-founded fear when there is very little amniotic fluid, so Barbara encouraged this woman to walk the hospital corridor and to stay well hydrated.

The whole thing was hopeless. Let me explain the issues.

The Problems of Hospital Birth for Azu Women

1) This woman had been hooked up to an IV of oxytocin, to make her contractions stronger – this IV bag hangs from a runner attached to the ceiling. It is not mobile. So if she wants to walk the halls (which the staff do not want her to do anyway), they have to unhook the IV from the ceiling and someone in her family has to trail around behind her, holding the bag over their head. This gets tiring, so they do it for 5 minutes, drop their arm, and then the staff tell her to get back in bed.

2) The woman was thirsty, but refused to drink water. She refused to drink not because she’s a fool, but because the maternity ward has no bathroom – so if she wants to use a bathroom she has to go at least downstairs to another ward, or to an outhouse outside the hospital, which is not all that appealing when you’re in labor. The maternity ward does encourage women to use bedpans, but they had run out of bedpans by the time this particular woman arrived. Even if they had given her one, the women don’t tend to use them because they are in open wards, with no curtains separating the beds, so they would have to use them in front of other women’s husbands and relatives. Not gonna happen if they can help it – so they drink as little as possible.

3) By the time this woman arrived, her water had already been broken for two days. She had waited so long to come in for numerous reasons, including: a) Azu women tend to minimize their pregnancies and labors as long as possible. There are taboos surrounding pregnancy and birth that mean such things are rarely spoken of; b) Many Azu women, including this one, live a tremendous distance from the two-street town center where the hospital is located – they don’t want to walk hours and hours down a mountain if they’re not sure whether or not they’re really in labor; and c) Azu women don’t really like the hospital. The care is free, and they’re even given a cash incentive to show up and give birth there, but they still often prefer to stay in their villages. The local government has made that a moot point by recently passing a law requiring them to come to the hospital, but many are still unhappy about it; they have a hard time communicating with the Chinese staff, many of whom don’t speak Azu at all. They feel looked down upon and condescended to by these more affluent “city folk”, who look different, speak differently, dress differently.

4) And then there are all of the larger reasons that any Azu woman here is disadvantaged giving birth; their diets tend to consist of only a few vitamin-poor staple foods at any given time (potatoes, cabbage, hominy). They generally receive no prenatal care, meaning that any problems tend to become emergencies, usually at the time of birth.

This particular woman finally received a cesarean several hours before we arrived at the hospital. In light of the other woman with the severe infection, seizures and emergency cesarean, the hospital staff had gotten too nervous to wait any longer – her labor had stopped, they told me.

And now here she was, under blankets, her baby in some distant part of the hospital. She was mumbling, delirious with pain, unable to open her eyes. I knelt down beside her and squeezed her hand – what else is there to do? – and tears began to stream from her eyes, forming a little reservoir where they reached her nose. She squeezed my hand back and began to sob and shake – I worried that I was making it worse.

I noticed a young man and an old couple nervously hovering against one wall of the room and asked if they were her family – yes, they said. Because the hospital has no chairs or stools for anyone to sit on, they didn’t know where to be. I managed to scrounge a stool from a closet so that her husband could sit next to her, so that at least she would know he was there. When I walked past the room later on, I saw him spooning soup into her mouth.

We’ll see if she’s doing any better tomorrow.

Shabbes in the Valley

I did not grow up an observant Jew, but I’ve been experimenting with a few things lately, trying them on to see how they fit. Last month I decided to start lighting candles on Friday nights, for Shabbes – I cover my head, I light the handles, I wave the flames toward me and cover my eyes, I say the prayers. When I’m done feeling like I’m playing dress up, the whole thing feels pretty good. The first prayer I should say, of course, is  to Adonai, Eloheinu, creator of the fruits of the internet – because seriously, I wouldn’t know how to do any of this stuff otherwise.

Shabbes is always supposed to be a welcome event in the week, but after Friday at the hospital it seemed particularly necessary to light the candles, to go through the steps, to create a break with what had happened before.

I hadn’t brought anything to the Valley with which to cover my head, so I went out and bought the first head scarf I could find, which is one traditionally worn by older Azu women. Barbara was suitably impressed, so she took this photo of me (in which I realize that the shirt-scarf combination is sort of a horrifying optical illusion of plaid – apologies).

On Saturday night, I lit an improvised Havdalah candle for the first time in my life, accompanied not by wine but by Coke Zero, which, unlike wine, is available all over the Valley. I liked Havdalah – maybe this coming week I’ll even spring for some fruit juice.

A New York Jew in China: A Year of Yiddish Videos

Over the past year, RP and I have made a series of 12 videos about various aspects of life in and around China, and I present them to you below, beginning with the final episode. They are in Yiddish, with English subtitles.

Yiddish?! you ask? Yes, Yiddish.

Some of you may not know that Yiddish is still spoken by anyone – some of you may think it is only spoken by ultra-Orthodox Jews. Many of you know some Yiddish words that have embedded themselves in English – shlep, nosh, oy! – but most of you have probably never actually heard Yiddish spoken.

For the curious: yes, Yiddish lives. An approximately 1,000-year old language, it is written in the Hebrew alphabet and is related to German. It is not a dialect, a jargon, or jabber, but is related to German much in the way that Dutch, Afrikaans and English are. It is a rich and beautiful language with influences from Hebrew and numerous western European and Slavic languages. Up until recently the lingua franca of Ashkenazi Jewry across the globe, the vernacular language of millions, the Holocaust and powerful forces of assimilation have driven it into decline. But Yiddish lives, still – and is even experiencing a modest revival among non-Orthodox Jews, according to some sources.

Why make videos in Yiddish instead of English, or even Hebrew? And why make them about life in Asia?

To take the second question first: why not? Yiddish is a living language spoken by well over a million people, and living languages should be used to document, describe and relate any and all experiences of their speakers. Yiddish enters its second millennium of life in the 21st century, bolstered by a dazzling history of literature, poetry, song and theater. It continues as a vernacular language in this century; Yiddish is emailed, texted, Skyped and Tweeted. Some people even make Yiddish videos and put them up on YouTube.

As for the first question – well, of course the author Isaac Bashevis Singer would have said it best. It may well be apocryphal, but he is reputed to have said of Yiddish:

It is the richest language in the world. Take such words as “a poor man”. You can say of a poor man, a pauper, a beggar, a mendicant, a panhandler…

But in Yiddish you can say: A poor shlemiel, a begging shlimazl, a pauper with dimples, a shnorer multiplied by eight, a shleper by the grace of God, an alms collector with a mission, a delegate from the Holy Land, dressed in seven coats of poverty, a crumb catcher, a bone-picker, a plate licker, a daily observance of the Yom Kippur fast and more and more.

There are some who call Yiddish a dead language, but so was Hebrew called for 2,000 years. Yiddish was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and kabbalists. It contains treasures that have not yet been revealed to the eyes of the world. I say, therefore, to my children: Come back to me. Learn me, and my sister’s Hebrew and Aramaic. Learn my and your history. Treasures are stored up for you, saved form a thousand fires, preserved through a thousand exiles, hidden and carried forth from enemies and tyrants. Yes, you will find many treasures but the greatest of all is yourself. You will find in me your inner being, your identity, your very soul.

Without further ado, here is one year of A New York Jew in China, A New Yorker Yid in Khine, אַ ניו־יאָרקער ייִד אין כינע . Hats off to my husband RP for his perseverance in driving this project forward, despite my endless kvetching.

Episode 12 – Birobidzhan: A Yiddishland in the Far East

From the Jewish Autonomous Oblast on the Russia-China border.

Episode 11 – Living a Jewish Life in China

Increasing numbers of expat Jews in China leading Jewish lives.

Episode 10 – Passover in Kaifeng

In the small community of Kaifeng Jews, in Henan province.

Episode 9 – Chinese Medicine

In which RP gets stuck with acupuncture needles.

Episode 8 – Growing Old in China

Playing mahjong, smoking pipes, dancing in the public squares.

Episode 7 – The Jews of Malaysia and Singapore

A little-known history of Jews in Southeast Asia.

Episode 6 – What Do Chinese People Think of Jews?

They think we’re really, really smart.

Episode 5 – On the Roof of the World

Reportage from the Himalayas.

Episode 4 – Jewish Shanghai Lost and Found

Revisiting the sites and history of the Jews of Shanghai.

Episode 3 – The Real Chinese Food

Who doesn’t like a little mooshoo pork?

Episode 2 – Disappearing Languages

What it takes to document a small, endangered language on the edge of the Himalayas.

Episode 1 – New Cities

The new cities of China, springing up around us.


Welcome to March! Never been more glad to see a new month begin!

Let’s kick it off with a Yid in Khine update, shall we? Just in case you’re not yet hip to the new hotness. Or whatever.

For some reason I’m particularly pleased with how this episode came out. Enjoy!

A Yid in Khine: Where Is there No Jewish History?

The Himalayas, that’s where.

Also, I bet you’ve never seen footage of an old Trung lady with a tattooed face performing divination – which is only one of the many reasons you should watch the most recent installment of A Yid In Khine:

I would like to point out that this is the last time I will be listening to RP when he says I don’t need to bring the tripod on one of our little filming adventures. Stupid shaky hand!


I woke up this morning to a storm raging outside and momentary confusion about where my husband was. It seems that the rainy season has yet to have released its grip on this part of the world.

Also, it seems that I am married.

The weeks that RP and I spent in the States are already a distant memory. Or a dream – most days it seems impossible that it all happened, that the wedding took place, that the few days we spent a year planning for have passed and that now we are back in China.

RP stayed through Rosh Hashana (l’shaha tova, happy 5771) and left yesterday evening to go back to Dulong Jiang. The fact that I’ve celebrated Rosh Hashana in Kunming for a second time helps bring me back to reality – that we still live here, that the wedding and the return to the States were fleeting joyful occasions and not the end of anything. That I am repeating events and days in China.

I need a second wind, a fresh start or a venturing deeper. I want to write here more frequently, but I don’t want to feel that it has to be about China or life in Kunming. There is so much going on in my head that I don’t write about here – daily activities that are pointing toward a potentially very different future. I have just started taking Anatomy and Physiology I, the first of three prerequisite courses to apply to the nursing schools I have in mind (Columbia, UCSF and Yale – a common triumverate due to their similar prereqs), in what will be a long path of becoming a nurse-midwife.

I’m trooping on at work, trying to assess what the coming 10 months will hold before my fellowship ends and I am left to my own devices here in China.

I try to remind myself occasionally, quietly, that I am someone’s wife now. And considering what it means to be a wife.

Hopefully the rain will clear, and there will be more from me soon. Until then: the most recent Yid in Khine video (the third of three so far – in case you missed them: part 1 and part 2 – the fourth has been made and is on its way).

In the Home Stretch

In case you’re wondering where I’ve been for the past couple weeks, the answer is: work. Mostly work. Crazy work. Work potentially worth a whole lot of money for my organization – fingers crossed. Throw in some wedding planning and some standardized testing*, minus a bunch of sleep, and you get why I’ve been a little stressed of late.

But! Today marks the end of the work (all projects submitted), the test taken, and the end of the wedding planning in sight. I even finished making our ksube (which, by the way, I recommend leaving to the professionals unless there is no one who can do Yiddish calligraphy within several thousand miles of your apartment, as with us). Slightly dark photo of the finished product:

It’s A2-sized in real life. The inspiration for this, in case you’re wondering, is the interesting fact that both the Chinese and European Jews have rich folk art traditions of paper cutting. Et voila: a Chinese paper cut Yiddish-English ksube.

Before you get too excited – I did not actually create these red paper cuts. But I did buy a huge number of them, slice out their details and piece them back together into what you see above! I’m just piggybacking on the tremendous skill of some of the artists in the area. Now I just have to get it back to the States in one piece.

RP and I will be back in New York City one week from right now, meaning that one week and one hour from right now I will have drunk my bodyweight in seltzer. Oh how I miss seltzer!

See you all soon…


*How to Register for the GREs in China

This was a fairly annoying process, so for those of you who are looking to take the GRE here – this is how it works:

  • In China, the GRE is split into two parts – first you take the writing section, then on a separate date you take the Verbal/Quant section. The V/Q section is only offered twice a year, although if where you are is like Kunming, you can take the writing section any day of the week up to 3 or 4 weeks before the V/Q. The next V/Q is being held on October 23, 2010.
  • You must register through, which is a buggy website with bad instructions. Also, it is all in Chinese, so if you can’t read you’re going to need someone to help you. It’s pretty straight forward – create a login, give your personal info, select test date/time etc.
  • One piece of useful information: the mysterious “country code” they want is CHN.
  • It costs 1,460 RMB, and there are limited ways to pay this fee. Probably easiest is to choose the bank transfer option. Once you’ve confirmed it will give you a form to print with a bunch of bank account info on it; take that to your nearest bank with your passport and the money, and they will handle the transfer for you. Your test date isn’t confirmed until your transfer has been received, which takes around 4 business days.
  • When you go to take the writing section of the test you will be registered for the next V/Q section.
  • FYI, depending on where you take it, all of the verbal instructions they give you when you go to take the test may be in Chinese also. Probably not much you can do about that.

Good luck!

A Yid in Khine Strikes Again!

Greetings from Bangkok, chickens! I’ve been shuttling back and forth between a hotel room and a conference room for the past week, concerning myself with grand strategizing and teaming agreements, throwing around vast sums of money on spreadsheets and generally feeling extremely important, all on my organization’s dime.

Ah, the joys of the first expat business trip.

While I’m siting here consuming pad thai from room service, enjoy the most recent installment of everyone’s favorite Yiddish internet content, A Yid in Khine! To those of who are convinced that RP is actually is a spy – and there are quite a few of you out there – I submit this as (shaky) evidence that he is actually getting up to something legitimate in northwest Yunnan.

Originally posted on the Forverts website’s video channel.

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.