Around the World in 80 Days

The past three months have been a whirl of activity and travel – we actually traveled around the globe in about 80 days – and now we find ourselves back in Kunming for a last burst of activity.

Although we’re now into Year 3 of living in China, we’re fast closing in on the end of our time here: my fellowship is done, I’m dashing off my applications for nurse-midwifery school, RP is finishing up his fieldwork. We have to leave our apartment a little over two months from now, and then we’ll be homeless or itinerant (depending on your view of it) for six months or so, before probably ending up back in the US in the late spring.

But before we get to next spring, let’s start with this one: the end of April and May were spent in the US, moving from place to place as RP promoted his (BRILLIANT! CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED!) book, and checking in with family. From there it was off to Berlin and then St. Petersburg for me, and London for him, finally rendezvousing in Moscow for our Great Trans-Siberian Adventure.

We spent a few weeks traveling across Russia by way of the Trans-Siberian: alighting in eight cities of Siberia and the Far East, eating smoked fish, watching the steppe and then the taiga pass by the window, stumbling through conversations in Russian, sharing tea and biscuits with fellow train travelers, sitting with our thoughts for hours.

All 600 photos I took were lost with my camera, so you will just have to believe me when I say that I saw the sun set at midnight in St. Petersburg, stood and looked out at the Gulf of Finland, put my feet in the freezing, clear waters of Lake Baikal, and took in the Pacific Ocean from the top of a funicular in gritty Vladivostok, where we finally landed. My favorite few minutes of the whole trip happened during twilight leaving Irkutsk for the east, when the train sailed right along the edge of Baikal and I felt as though I were staring out at the edge of the planet.

9,909 km – 6,157 miles – from end to end. An epic journey through a vast stretch of land unlike any other I’ve seen. I’m a lucky one, for sure.

Russia is so enormous that a map showing the basic route we took across that one country alone can’t be displayed on this blog in its entirety…so I decided to make a map showing the entire route that we took around the world and each of the stops we made; by plane, train, bus, van and ferry; from Kunming to Beijing, up over the Arctic Circle to America; through Europe to Russia; and across Eurasia back to Beijing and Kunming. Click “View Larger Map” below to see the whole thing.

And while you’re at it, here are the photos that RP took on the Trans-Siberian journey. Click photo below to see full album.

In Kazan, Going into a Church

We made the last episode of A New York Yid in Khine from Birobidzhan (…not Khine…whatever) that will give you a feeling for what the trip across Russia was actually like, even better than the photos do. Stay tuned for that shortly!

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!

Beer, Beaches and Babies

I find myself in Qingdao (yes, of the eponymous beer), a formerly colonial coastal city almost 2,000 miles from Kunming. I say that I find myself here, because I do seem to have landed here on a whim that sounds about as strange to everyone I tell as it feels to me.

A few weeks ago I got in touch with the International Alliance of Midwives (IAM), asked who their China contact was, and emailed that person out of the blue about whether or not she knew any midwives in Kunming that I could speak to, since I couldn’t find any actually practicing midwifery.

A step back, by way of exceedingly brief explanation: in China’s zeal to lower its maternal and infant mortality rates (MMR and IMR) – a hugely worthy goal – it seems that it looked to the United States, as it does for so many things, good or bad. The government decided that the way to get the MMR and IMR out of the stratosphere was to get every birthing woman into a hospital and have her “delivered” (I know it’s common parlance, but I’m turning against it) by an obstetrician. China didn’t have a long tradition of strong, professionalized midwifery to begin with, but in the process of medicalizing childbirth in China, it basically ended dedicated midwifery education in 1994. Midwives trained in China prior to that time now function with a drastically reduced scope of practice, as labor and delivery nurses or doulas. China has made massive improvements in a short period of time to its MMR and IMR – but now has a 46% c-section rate (the US rate is 32%), which is four to five times what the WHO indicates could possibly be necessary and carries its own issues of increased risk of hemorrhage, infection and long term pain. Plus, China still has a MMR more than twice as high as that of the US. And the US MMR really sucks.

That is to say, it’s not too surprising that I couldn’t find anyone actually practicing midwifery in Kunming. The China contact for the IAM told me that if I wanted to meet midwives, I should get myself to Qingdao posthaste for a unique midwifery conference being held by a fledgling Chinese midwifery organization. So I registered on the deadline, booked my plane ticket last week, and arrived in Qingdao in the middle of the night yesterday.

Nurses in China = All Pink All the Time

I had a whole plan for how I was going to approach this weekend-long, Mandarin-only (and vocab-specific) event ; it involved a lot of hanging back, watching, and then approaching specific midwives I had identified and learned something about to ask questions.

I am so naive.

Seriously, I’ve been in China upwards of a year – you’d think that by now I would get that, in a room of 330 Chinese midwives, I am…noticeable. And as soon as I open my mouth and speak Chinese to people – in other words, as soon as people know that  I am approachable – the jig is up. I get placed at the front of the room, have my photo taken in front of promotional posters, and get sat at the head table during meals.

That last point actually worked out well for me this time (unlike other times, when the head table has been full of stultifyingly dull government officials). It is striking how similar the conversations are among Chinese midwives and American ones – the focus on the terribly high c-section rate, the general lack of prenatal education and the uselessness of the prenatal education most people are given, the lack of respect from the medical establishment, etc.

I sat through a hilarious demonstration by one prominent midwife of the breathing methods recommended by Dr. Lamaze, which are now generally discredited as being more trouble than they’re worth. Hee hee hooooo, hee hee hooooo, she puffed, as we passed the shrimp. Who can keep track of all those patterns and counting when they’re in labor?! And what if she “forgets” how to breathe – what then?!)

The midwives at the conference seem genuinely hungry for information, although I was surprised at how basic most of it seemed (as in, I basically understood all of it). And I’m having a great and slightly surreal time of it, although I have to constantly clear up totally valid confusion about who exactly I am and what I could possibly want with a bunch of midwives in Qingdao.

So, where did you do your training?

Well, I’m not actually a midwife yet. I’m training to be a doula.

Oh. So you’re a student?

Sort of. I work in public health in Kunming.

And you came all the way here just for this?!

Well, yes. I’m very interested!

And how old are you?

Twenty-six.

ALREADY twenty-six and you STILL want to be a midwife?!!

I’ll admit that I skipped out a little early on the last presentation of the day to go hang out on the beach. The beach near the hotel where the conference is being held is beautiful – clean, uncrowded, calm. Despite how relatively northerly Qingdao is and the fact that we’re half way through September, it was a perfect beach afternoon. I walked through the surf, breathing deeply, feeling an overwhelming sense of well being and a calm that I haven’t felt in weeks, since the day after the wedding. I lay on a sloping rock for an hour and stared out at Fushan Bay, which becomes the East China Sea and stretches out to the shores of South Korea, feeling the relief that comes over me when I am back in a coastal place.

I am definitely meant to live on a coast; despite the loveliness of the Kunming climate, being landlocked makes me edgy. The coasts are for me, with their invitations to immigrate, flourish and think expansively. Unless you are actually a seafarer, it’s all an illusion, of course – you’re just as stuck staring at the water as you are 1,000 miles inland. But the winds, the disintegration of the continent into the water, the sense of infinity – these are things that ease the Locked-In Syndrome of being human.

Tiny man off to the right says it all

Floating

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).