Ripping Off the Band-Aid

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Portrait of a Sunday Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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!


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!