The Way the Day Begins

I sleep, unwisely, right next to a large set of windows. On these long summer days, I’m woken in the morning by the diffuse, white sunlight before I need to be up for work — a terrible curse for a sleep-deprived midwife. I could move my bed, of course, but I just can’t give up staring at the stars at night. As a child I had a skylight right above my bed and I seem always to be trying to get back there.

Today I wake up slowly after a 5am rain to the sound of cars passing lazily through the puddles down below, convinced in my half-sleep that it’s the sound of waves breaking on the beach. I roll over to the open window and lay my head on the sill. The dregs of last night’s activities on my tiny street are still playing themselves out: a single firework from an unknown location explodes in a sharp crack, upsetting a yappy little white dog occupying a window frame across the way. A pair of teenagers sing to each other in a tipsy drawl. A woman wanders slowly up the sidewalk repeating, sing-song, Somebody please heeeeeelp me, somebody please…

Scenes of yesterday’s prenatal clinic replay drowsily in my head: the muffled feeling of babies’ elbows and feet rearranging themselves in utero under my probing hands. The woman with an infection so severe I can diagnose it on smell alone from five feet away. The minute I take to compose myself before telling a woman that her fetus has Down Syndrome. The Syrian woman whose previous prenatal records I try to obtain before she gently stops me: The hospital over there burned down, miss. Everything burned down.

I resign myself to being awake and push myself up against my pillows. I give a glace to the other side of the bed, to the place that used to be occupied by my husband, back when I was a wife. I pull on the worn jeans and white t-shirt that will be wet through with sweat by the time I finish my hour-long walk to the hospital in the early morning humidity. I am ready to leave my apartment in minutes.

I love my walk to work; I am treasuring it particularly now that I will soon be moving to a neighborhood far from the hospital where I was lucky enough to find a job a few months ago, my first real midwife job. My mornings will consist of a long subway journey from one end of New York City to another, overground and underground, and I’ll miss the strange landscape that I now wend my way through each day, making note of the objects strewn across the sidewalks like props leftover after the actors have taken their bows:

A stiffened brown sparrow that the flies have taken to; an open bag of half-eaten green grapes; a small pile of watermelon rinds right on the concrete corner. A single stiletto in matte gold, upright on its needle heel; a boxy TV overturned on its face. A calico deli cat, ears flattened in displeasure at my approaching step. Tiny ziploc baggies that last night held heroin or cocaine.

The faintest whisper of a particular sickly odor reaches my nostrils and I hold my breath before it can overwhelm; it is the smell of dead animals that leaks out from under the rolling metal shutters of a storefront market selling poultry, rabbits and guinea pigs.

On my right I pass a caged basketball court containing a teenage boy practicing his dribbling before-hours, the ball tied up tightly in plastic shopping bags to keep it looking brand new. The train clackety-clacks relentlessly overhead, mostly empty of passengers at this hour, as I turn the corner towards my hospital. I arrive at the front doors breathing heavily, full of energy, as the hot sun punches through the clouds overhead.

Out of Asia – Part I: New Zealand

Let’s face it: my life is bound up with Asia. Between my birth and first few years spent in Singapore, my years spent living in China, and all of my travel in South and Southeast Asia (I’ve now been to every SE Asian country except Brunei), I will have spent more than a quarter of my life in Asia by the time RP and I make our real exit from China next spring.

So I think it’s understandable that Asia and I need a little time away from each other sometimes. Often I haven’t been able to pinpoint this as the exact source of my weariness, but then when we landed in New Zealand for our honeymoon it was as if a huge weight had been lifted from my chest; I breathed easily for the first time in what seemed like months. And when I flew into Beirut a couple weeks ago, sailing over the snow-covered peaks of the Mount Lebanon range and descending towards the sparkling embrace of the Mediterranean, all I could think was Oh yes – the rest of the world. I remember you.

The different cultural reference points, staple ingredients, language families, religions – the impression these things make is immediate and profound. The Chinese sphere of cultural influence is wide and deep; you can get on a plane and travels for many hours in several directions, and still be within it.

Because China is such a deeply foreign place to live as an American, and because I have lived here for a little while, it can be tempting to think that I know about “the world”. That’s not the case, of course – I know about China. And a few other places in Asia. But there is so much more to see, so much that I don’t understand, so many peoples of whom I know almost nothing.

(Case in point: it took most of the flight from Kunming to Dubai, en route to Lebanon, to put my finger on where the 35 boisterous and brightly dressed women with Central Asian features who refused to sit down on my flight were from. Not Arabic speaking, and able to speak only broken Mandarin…anyone know? They were Uighur, of course.)

I’ve been coming to China for the past seven and a half years, and while I’m not done with this place – we’re not planning on moving back to the States until next year – I am ready for a little diversity. Next up, later this summer: Russia, by way of Berlin. Oh yes! I’m talkin St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, my friends.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, a photo catch-up. First, the greatest honeymoon in history (biased, whatever): Kunming –> Singapore –> New Zealand –> Melbourne –> Kunming.

It’s already taken me FOUR DAYS to try to put up this post, so enough gabbing…Each pic below links to the full gallery of photos we took in that place.

There’s no way to fly straight from Kunming to New Zealand, so we stopped over in Singapore:

Here’s the apartment building I lived in when I was a baby…

Then on to Christchurch (after the September 2010 earthquake that disturbed people severely and damaged buildings, but before the mid-February 2011 earthquake that killed over 160 people and destroyed buildings. A tragedy for this lovely place…).

Then a bus to the city of Dunedin, and the Otago Peninsula, where we biked, rode horses, and saw the most beautiful animals – yellow-eyed penguins, sea lions, albatrosses – all living in the wild.

Another bus brought us to Te Anau, to the epic Fiordlands of the south island and an unforgettable four days walking the Milford Track.

A bus to Queenstown, home of the world’s most picturesque airport, where we took a staggeringly beautiful flight to the Auckland, on the north island. (It was on this flight that I actually got upset with how stunning the world looks from that vantage point, so close to the Arctic Circle, the Pacific stretching out toward the horizon. It was almost heartbreaking.)

A ferry to Waiheke Island, nearby Auckland, with its rolling green hills, beaches and vineyards – where I learned to love white wine.

And an early flight to Melbourne, where we were lucky to spend a day before heading back to Kunming. (I know – no one’s told you how cool Melbourne is. Trust me when I say that it’s hipster central.)

Best trip ever.

A zisn Peysakh, everybody!

Pen and Paper

Recently, the government has stepped up its efforts in internet censorship over here, and that’s why I haven’t been posting. It takes forever to get this page to open, when it works at all, and then things are all malfunctioning…don’t even get me started on trying to post photos.

I’ve started keeping a diary – a real live pen and paper affair. It’s mundane, but I think I’ve downplayed too much the importance of recording the mundane. March has passed, and it’s been freezing cold and grey. We crowd our feet around our little space heater and wear our long johns every day.

I’m going to try to keep posting here – change is afoot! I’m leaving for Lebanon on Saturday, for a work-related conference. I’m staring down the end of my time at this job, which will mark two years in China (where did that time go?). I’m barely keeping up, having not posted anything here about the staggeringly awesome trip that was our honeymoon. New Zealand is paradise – did you know that? 100% paradise. I can’t remember when I’ve been so happy.

It’s already taken me an hour to put this up, what with the internet crappiness, so here is a minor teaser photo, from the Port Hills of Christchurch, of a New Yorker in New Zealand:

Here’s hoping I hope I can post more soon.

Updates in Photos

Warning, if your internet connection is slow: this post features lots of pictures, because I’m WAY behind on posting photos I’ve been hanging onto for a while…

I’m writing from a hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where RP and I fled a few days ago after he emerged from behind a landslide and a particularly grueling period of fieldwork in NW Yunnan. Desperate to get out of the province during China’s National Day holiday, we hopped over the border to Vietnam. I’ll be posting stories and photos from China’s southern neighbor shortly (aren’t you curious to know what it’s like when  city is celebrating its 1,000th anniversary?!) but for now, catch up:

  • I stayed for the midwifery conference and explored Qingdao for another day before heading back to Kunming. I was particularly interested to hear Ngai Fen Cheung speak – she is a Scottish-educated Chinese midwife who has written a number of great papers about returning normal birth to China. So I followed her around for a while like a little midwifery groupie, then headed to downtown Qingdao to the museum (closed, but beautiful)…
    …and to eat some seafood, which was plentiful on the streets and complemented by a healthy helping of bugs!

    With the few hours I had before catching my plane back to Kunming, I walked around the former German colonial area and stopped by St. Michael’s Cathedral, built only in 1934, a scant 8 years before the Japanese took it over during WWII…

    Yes, I blew a lot of cash going to Qingdao for the weekend. But it was totally worth it. Click the little naked boy below for the rest of the weekend’s photos…

  • Since my own wedding, I’ve been to two more (which is a 300% increase in the number of weddings I’ve been to in my entire life). One was the charming white wedding of a friend in Massachusetts, the other was a wedding in Kunming that I think was trying to be the wedding in Massachusetts, without actually knowing it. It was the wedding of a coworker who is very interested in all things Western, and whose wedding reflected an attempt to have a Western white wedding, Kunming-style. In case you’re wondering what has made it into the Chinese version of a Western wedding, it includes the bride wearing a frothy white dress, walked down the aisle by her father…A cake-cutting during the ceremony…And the big finish of the ceremony – the bouquet toss! Caught by one of my male coworkers!There then followed a reception during which the groom serenaded the bride, clips from Pixar movies were shown, the bride and groom went up in a froth of bubbles, and the groom drank a disgusting mixture of whatever was on the dinner table, as is traditional.I would like to point out that my coworkers, upon seeing the photos from my and RP’s wedding, with all of the color/musicians/dancing in the streets, exclaimed, “Oh! It’s like a village wedding!!”For the rest of the Kunming white wedding photos, click the customary plate of candy, sunflower seeds and cigarettes below…

I think that’s enough photos. OH, but I didn’t even mention that the Mid-Autumn Festival has passed again! I actually managed to secure some nice moon cakes this year – ones that weren’t quite so disgusting! I was given them as a gift by my HR department, who offered them to me in pity, saying they were giving them to me because I am a foreigner, and it’s very sad that I was alone and not in my home country on this special day. They said it was to give me “a warm feeling”.

I told you last year that the packaging is more important than the cakes, right?

Also, because I work in public health, I got mini-moon cakes packaged with complementary condoms! So cute!

Enough! My next post will be Vietnam-related. Hope you’re having a good weekend!


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!

Friday Love List

In keeping with being tardy in everything lately, the Love List on a Saturday:

  • Most importantly, Big Sister M. Happy Birthday, sister!! I’ll be home soon to give you presents and birthday love.
  • Finding money in your pants when you pull them out of the laundry.
  • Art projects. RP and I are getting married 5 weeks from today, which means it’s time to seriously get moving on the ksube. So far, it looks like this:

    What else could BirdAbroad do but fill it with birds?!

I’ll be back in NYC in less than 3 weeks – phew. I’ve been working like crazy and need to come up for air.

Staying Married

Today is my parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. In case you’re wondering what they looked like celebrating their engagement, wonder no further:

When I was a small child, I didn’t understand how I was meant to celebrate their anniversary and didn’t quite know what it had to do with me. Now that I am getting married myself, I see the fact that I didn’t understand their anniversary’s significance as really good sign: I never thought that there was any reason that they shouldn’t be married. I assumed that marriage was their normal state, as was staying married forever.

It so happens that I don’t think that simply having been married a long time is a great reason to stay married if things are truly and irredeemably terrible. I do think that to get married you have to be an optimist, and to stay married you have to be a fighter. I count myself lucky that I come from people who value fighting for their marriage over fighting in it, and who know what real commitment means.

(And in case you should think it’s only on my side: RP’s parents just celebrated their 34th anniversary! If they would like to supply me with a fresh-faced photo of themselves from the late 1970s I would be happy to post it here as well…)

So today I’m raising a glass to another 30 years for my parents, congratulating them, and wishing I could celebrate with them. Love to you, Mom and Dad!


And now for the interactive portion of the show: today I’m also taking that advice that you’ve always wanted to give but worried might make you seem overbearing and self-righteous! I’ve heard lots of advice on what it takes to stay married, ranging from “Don’t go to sleep angry” (which I totally don’t subscribe to…I believe in the healing effects of a night of sleep) to things that are not fit to print on a blog that my parents read.

Tell me, dear reader: what do you think it takes to stay married?

Getting Back in the Swing of Things

Sorry for my absence, All. I’m here, but have being doing a lot of scheming and thinking and haven’t been prepared to set it down in words. Still not prepared – maybe tomorrow.

I will say that the prospect of a wedding and – much more importantly – a marriage brings up many more thoughts and questions for me than I had ever anticipated. There have been few traditional rites of passage in my life, and this one comes after a period of many years of tumult and change, at a time of both uncertainty and deep hopefulness.

On a related note, today I’ve been listening to the album “Saints and Tzadiks”, a collaboration between Susan McKeown and Lorin Sklamberg celebrating Yiddish and Irish folk music. All at once! Lots of violins and phlegm-y consonants. Check it out. (Sorry for the linking- WordPress won’t let me upload.)

Saints and Tzadiks

I’m back: Help me find Yayoi

Back from Burma. It was hot as hell. More on that later. For now:

RP and I are scheming set ups for our wedding. If you can tell me how to have a ceremony in this photograph I will be your best friend forever:

Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity, 2009
Mixed media installation
(was installed at the Gagosian from April to June 2009)