Friday, July 31, 2015

Beijing 2022

1194 days to go! Me in Beijing, May 2005
I am super excited about the Olympic committee's decision today. Beijing narrowly beat out Almaty in its bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, becoming the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. 加油北京!Go Beijing!

When I first moved to China in early 2005, I was struck by how excited Chinese people were about the Olympics. There were "Beijing 2008" signs (and countdowns, see photo) in Beijing, sure, but I remember seeing advertisements everywhere I traveled in China, as far south as Guilin. Being from the US, the Olympics are certainly popular, but hosting them isn't cause for much excitement; in fact, it often creates a lot of grumbling. As costs for hosting rise, the appeal to host has become less and less enticing for some countries, such as my own. But that's certainly not the case for China or Asia (which will be hosting three Olympic Games in a row--Pyeong Chang 2018, Tokyo 2020, and Beijing 2022).

Beijing Paralympics, Sept 2008

I lived in Beijing during the run up to the Olympics and watched the city transform. When I first arrived, Beijing had only three subway lines, but beginning in 2007, a new line seemed to open every few months (and this trend continues today). Ramshackle restaurants soon began to disappear, as did much street food. A small part of me mourned such developments, though I had to concede most changes were probably for the best. Citizens were coached on how to treat foreign guests, with tips posted in various places throughout the city (perhaps the whole country) and red banners urging people to "act civilized." Volunteer attendants strictly guarded bus stops and subway platforms, yelling at anyone who pushed or rushed an opening door. Locals spit less and stood in line more. The feeling of excitement and pride was palpable. It was also contagious. I couldn't help but feel happy for Beijingers and China as 2007 came to a close. I also felt sad to be leaving the country at such a momentous time.

view of the Water Cube from inside the Nest
But due to unforeseen events, Ming and I returned to China in early 2008. The price of rent in Beijing had, by then, skyrocketed. For example, our one bedroom apartment near the student district of Wudaokou had increased from 1700 rmb/month (US$220 at the time) to 2500 rmb. There was really no reason for us to return to the capital, so we decided to settle in Ming's hometown instead. I had my heart set on going to the games, but scoring tickets seemed like a sport in and of itself. From what I remember, it involved signing up on a Chinese website as soon as a certain set of tickets became available. Tickets often sold out quickly, some within minutes. The purchased tickets later had to be picked up at a designated time and place. The whole process seemed beyond my ability or patience level. Moreover, finding a hotel would be impossible or cause bankruptcy. I soon turned to plan B. We'd skip the hassle of the Summer Olympics and attend the Beijing Paralympics in fall.

It turned out to be a brilliant plan. Tickets were relatively easy to obtain by simply purchasing them online. I opted for some basic seats to watch track and field which was held in the famed Bird's Nest stadium--the total for two tickets wasn't much more than 100 rmb. Once our tickets were secured, we had no trouble finding cheap accommodation. On the day of the event, we left our hostel early, but getting to the Nest was pretty time-consuming. I'd rather not imagine what it would have been like during the summer games. The Olympic subway line was packed and we had to wait a considerable amount of time just to board a train. Once we were finally in the stadium's vicinity we stood gobsmacked at the snaking line for security. We decided to take out time outside, as we were already late for the start of the event anyways. We snapped some pictures and eventually made it through the long line.
Ming and I outside the Nest, 2008

The actual event was awesome. The stadium was completely packed with onlookers, which surprised me. But what was truly amazing was the athletes themselves. Though all participants were disabled, most of them physically, though I believe some of them mentally, they were capable of achieving things I couldn't even imagine. I was deeply moved by their ability not only to overcome their disabilities, but also to achieve such difficult feats athletically. Sure, attending the Olympics must be great and something I hope to do at some point in my life, but I think the Paralympics are very special in their own right. I'm really glad I had the chance to experience them, especially in a city I had briefly called my home, Beijing.

Have you ever attended the Olympic Games? Has your country ever hosted them?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Books about China: My Picks and Pans

What I'm glad I read before coming to China
1. Peter Hessler's River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. I fell in love with China (and maybe a little bit with Peter Hessler) while reading this book. Hessler came to China in the 90's as a Peace Corp member stationed in a remote town on the Yangtze River. He captures the everyday intricacies of life in China beautifully and helped me to understand what it would be like to teach English in China before I arrived. For “old China hands” I would probably recommend his book Country Driving, but for those who are less familiar with China, this is a great book to get your feet wet.

2. I knew nothing about Chinese history before my arrival and what I did know came from  Jung Chang's Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. This book makes history accessible to even those who loathe to read about it. Her story includes her mother and grandmother's own stories and nearly brings us through the entire 20th century in China. Wild Swans is never dull, reading more like a novel. It is at times both heartbreaking and rage inducing.

My favorite guilty pleasures
1. I remember the first time I saw Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, sitting on the lower bunk of a fellow traveler when I was staying in a Beijing hostel. “God, I'm glad I've graduated from reading such crap,” I thought to myself, rolling my eyes at the title. It must have been about a year later that I came across Susan Jane Gilman's memoir again and decided to have a quick look. I was immediately engrossed in a tale of two young American women who came to China shortly after its opening. Reading about China in the 1980's was fascinating in itself, but the story of these young women takes a terrifying turn which is sure to keep most readers up late, desperate to know how it all ends.

2. Another fun memoir, Rachel DeWoskin's Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China is a coming-of-age story both for the writer and the city she is living in. I loved reading about Beijing as it was in the 90's. It helps put in perspective how fast the city, and the country as a whole, has changed. DeWoskin also provides the reader into a view that many people don't often get to see. What's it like to star on a Chinese soap opera? Date a Chinese man? Experience local backlash after a terrorist attack? Read to find out!

On a more serious note
1. The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by was a book passed on to me by another expat. Get the tissues out for this one, it's a painful read, but worth it. It's not so much about the author, Beijing journalist Xinran, but of the harrowing tales she encountered over the years working as a talkshow host at Nanjing Radio Station in the 1980's. Though the rights of women in China have improved considerably in recent years, there stories are no less powerful. I have a terrible memory when it comes to novels and movies; most of them I forget as soon as I am finished. But years after reading this book, I still recall some of the women's heartbreaking experiences.
2. Ha Jin's Waiting. I can and do read fiction, though I find true accounts of China more rewarding than their fictional counterparts. Jin's novel is an exception to this rule. His story captures the plight of a man and his lover during a tightly controlled Communist China. After reading the book, I felt grateful to live in a time in place in which I am free to pick my own destiny. It was not so long ago, that most Chinese people's entire lives were mapped out by familial duty and government restrictions.

I was less impressed with
1. I am hesitant to pan this one (and I promise my lack of enthusiasm has no relation to my coveting the author's husband), but I struggled to finish Leslie Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. It's a book that tops the lists of China “must read” books and one that I thought sounded intriguing. Chang follows the development of China's boom towns and chronicles the lives of the migrant women who go to live there. Doesn't that sound interesting? In the very beginning, I suppose it was, but after awhile the stories grew hard to follow and repetitive. I began confusing the names of the different women Chang follows as she jumped between people and places. She also devotes a large part of the book to her own family's history which has no relation to the subject matter and, unfortunately, is boring. There, I said it.

2. I read Adeline Yen Mah's Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter ten years ago and I still clearly remember my disappointment with it. Another memoir (this list is heavy with memoirs), this one focuses on a young Chinese girl's abuse at the hands of her step-mother. The book has interesting snippets about Chinese history and culture, but it's hard to read about a child being severely mistreated. I continued reading, hoping that the writer would somehow triumph, but I finished the book feeling she would forever remain in her role as victim. 

On my “to-read” list
1. Right now I'm working on Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French. If reading about expat life in China at the end of the 20th century is interesting, reading about early 20th century life is truly fascinating. This true story is about the mysterious death of a young British woman who lived in Beijing with her diplomat father during the lead up to World War Two.
2. Amy Tan's latest novel, The Valley of Amazement. I loved Tan's The Joy Luck Club which beautifully portrays the struggle between mothers and daughters, as well as the cross-cultural conflict between immigrants and their first generation children. It sounds like her new novel revisits those themes through a very different story.
3. My ultimate goal: To read Yu Hua's To Live in Chinese. 

Have you read any books about China? What are your favorites? What's on your summer's "to-read" list?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What's wrong with your skin?

photo via photobucket (krashcdm)
I am indisputable Irish. You can perhaps tell just by looking at me; I've been told by real Irishmen that I look the part. It's also there in old US census records. I traced back my mom's lineage to the "old country" and my maternal grandpa's paternal grandpa was indeed born somewhere in Ireland. Everyone loves the Irish, don't they? What other country has a drunken holiday entirely devoted to it? Could you get away with wearing a "Kiss me, I'm German" shirt? I think not.

So I suppose it's a good thing to be part Irish. Except for the times when it isn't--like those summer days when I would lay out on our asphalted driveway with the neighbor girl, desperately hoping to get a tan and ending up looking like a lobster. Or when the movie Casper came out and suddenly all my middle school classmates found it hilarious to nickname me after a ghost. Yes, I have very, very white skin and I always hated it, until I came to China.

The Chinese, and I suppose Asians in general, have a thing for white skin. They use lotion with whiteners and spend the entire summer hiding under a parasol. In Asia, I have often been complimented on my skin tone, which has been an adjustment after it having it been under constant scrutiny growing up. In recent years, I've come to embrace my paleness and no long hide my frighteningly white legs in summer. I wear shorts, almost with pride.

While I'm not longer ashamed of my fairness, I have become somewhat shy about something else--my freckles. As a kid, I never minded them. I was told they were cute. But the Chinese don't seem to agree. I remember once watching an episode of the TV show Lost with Ming. One of the characters, Kate, was given the pet name of "Freckles" by another character that seemed to have the hots for her. Ming looked at me confused.

"Why's he calling her that? I thought he liked her." In his mind, it was like calling your crush a fatso. It made no sense and would totally ruin a dude's game.

"He does like her. He calls her that because he thinks her freckles are cute. They are cute," I assured him.

"Hmm," he mulled it over for a bit, "I guess they could be. . . "

"What? You don't think my freckles are cute?" I teased.

"Well, I guess now I do!"

Thank heavens for Lost, it allowed Ming to see my freckles in a whole new light! Unfortunately, he's probably the only one out of a population of 1.3 billion. I was reminded of this not once, but twice, this past week. . . .

It starts with a concerned look at my arm and then an obvious attempt to grasp at the appropriate words in English, words that won't be too insulting. The conversation goes something like this:

"What are those on your arm?" asks Concerned Chinese Person (CCP).

"Freckles," I answer, knowing damn well CCP hasn't the slightest idea what that means. I'm not trying to be a jerk, but I can never remember the word in Chinese.

Curiosity tends to override manners now, so goes the follow-up question, "I'm sorry. What's wrong with your skin?"

"Nothing is wrong. They are called freckles. Many foreigners have them," I explain.

I see the suspicion in CCP's eyes and maybe even a little pity. CCP fears I have cancer or some other disease.

"It's because I'm part Irish. Irish people often have these. I'm not sick," I reassure CCP. This generally seems to satisfy the questioner on the topic of freckles even if my arm is still looked at with distaste.

My freckles are out in full blaze now that it's summer but I try not to be too self-conscious. While sometimes I wish people wouldn't look at my freckles like they are the sign of some underlying illness, I know that beauty standards are different everywhere. I can think freckles are cute even if they don't.

What about you? Is there a feature you have that you've been teased about? Have you ever found that beauty standards are different when you've lived or traveled in places far from where you grew up?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Attitudes toward homosexuality in China: What are fǔnǚ?

With the recent US Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, some people in countries such as China are being forced to face a topic they rather sweep under the carpet. But for others, the ruling provides an opportunity for them to come out when perhaps they may not have otherwise. One such instance happened earlier this month when a graduate of Sun Yat-Sen came on stage wearing a rainbow flag and asked for the university president's support.

In ten years living in China, I have not come across any Chinese friends or acquaintances who were openly gay. In fact, the vast majority of Chinese people say they don't know anyone who is gay. I'm not particularly surprised by this as most gays and lesbians try to live an outwardly straight life in an attempt to appease their families and society. Gay men often marry, some to straight women and others to lesbians. The pressure to marry is great, but perhaps the pressure to have a child is even greater. Nowadays, gays and lesbians can turn online and to "marriage markets" so that they can find a partner to enter into a heterosexual marriage and later have a baby.

I recently talked to one of my adult students, a post-90's generation young woman, what she thought about the Supreme Court ruling and her impression of the overall attitude towards gays in China. The conversation veered in an unexpected direction.

"Do you know what fǔnǚ (腐女) are?" she asked.

“Fùnǚ (妇女)? You mean women?" I answered, confused.

She laughed.

I had mixed up two near homophones. I had her write the characters down for clarification. The first one, fǔ (腐) means "rotten or decayed" in Chinese (for those beancurd haters out there, it's also the first character in the Chinese word for tofu). Nǚ simply means "female or woman." A strange word at first glance, but it's actually a transliteration of the Japanese word (ふじょし,fujoshi) for this phenomenon.

What phenomenon? She explained that there is a raising trend of teenage girls and young women obsessing over BL (online slang for "Boy Love," yeah, I had to look that up), delighting in gay romance found in books, movies, and anime. There are large groups of women online that swap BL photos and recommend stories, films, and shows featuring BL. Initially, I thought it odd but more-or-less harmless; maybe not so different from the recent popularity of "Bromance" in the US. But there was more.

These girls also like to pair heterosexual males together, often in photos, for their own amusement. My student showed me a cartoon featuring Kim Jung-un and Barack Obama sitting together shirtless, staring at each other lovingly; this is one such example of the types of stuff that get passed around the internet. But the fǔnǚs fixation isn't strictly reserved to online shenanigans. They may harass male classmates and friends when they show any form of attention or affection towards the same sex, encouraging them to marry or kiss. For fear of being labeled as gay, some young men lash out, making ugly, homophobic comments in an attempt to ward off any further comments.

I find this trend bizarre and unfortunately, I don't know that it's doing anything to help the plight of the gay community in China, but hopefully the Supreme Court ruling will.

BL anime, from

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Exporting your pet from China

Ming with puppy Fei Fei
Updated post (Aug 18, 2015)
Second Update (Sept 12, 2015)

While it isn't quite official, we will most likely be moving back to the US this fall. My hope is to return sometime in September, with our pooch in tow. Though I am an animal lover, I never expected to get a dog while in China. Ming, my husband, randomly went into a pet shop near our daughter's school and fell in love. He fell madly, deeply, truly for a teeny, tiny poodle. After seeing her, he came home and convinced me to go have a look at her. She was adorable and exactly the kind of dog I imagined owning, but the timing just wasn't right. The next month we were heading off to Europe on vacation for three weeks, hardly an ideal time to get a dog. I promised him we could keep looking and get an idea of what kind of dog we wanted; after our trip we would commit.

The next weekend we took a stroll through an outdoor market outside Chengde's Summer Mountain Resort. A local pet store had brought some of its animals there. We decided to take a peek. As we approached, we immediately spotted the teeny, tiny poodle. . . in the arms of another man! He was admiring her while his girlfriend looked on and the pet shop owner sang the dog's praises. Ming strutted up quickly and snatched the puppy from the stranger's arms.

"This is my dog!" he declared. Then he turned to me and said with utter conviction, "Rosie, go run to the ATM. We're buying this dog!" And so we got our dog, Fei Fei.

That was over six years ago. My husband still adores the dog, at times referring to her as his "dog daughter." He is so distressed at the thought of her dying that he has convinced himself that she will one day be a world record holder and live to be 100. There was no question she'd be coming to the US with us. And so we are beginning the process.

Teddy and Fei Fei

This is what you need to find out first:

1. The requirements of the country you are flying to.
It's extremely important you look into this well in advance as some countries require tests done months in ahead of departure. For example, pets traveling from China to the EU are required to have a rabies antibody titre test. This is best to have done 6 months or before you leave, though express options may be available. On the other hand, some countries have fairly lax requirements. The US only requires a rabies vaccination, though this must be done at least one month (but less than a year) before departure from China. 

2. The policy of the airline you are flying.
I will most likely fly from Beijing to Chicago, so I called the carriers I have flown with in the past on that route. Here is what I found out:
 -American Airlines: Will not accept pets (as cargo or carry-on) for flights (plus typical check-in time and disembarkment) longer than 12 hours. In other words, they will not accept any pets on flights from China to the US, Canada, most of Europe, etc.
 -Hainan Airlines: Will only accept pets as cargo. The price is based on a head-scratching formula that takes in account variables such as your dog's length, width, and height.
-Delta Airlines: Cats and small dogs (less than 10 lbs/5 kilos) can be carried on (US$200 each way). Larger pets can be checked as cargo. I'm not sure of the price of checking a pet as cargo.
-United Airlines: Cats and small dogs can be carried on (US$125 each way). Larger pets can be checked in their special PetSafe program. Prices vary depending on weight of dog (small dogs priced at about US$700 each way).

Here is what you need to do second:

3. Fill the requirements of the country you are flying to.
Your going to need to find a vet and not just any old vet will do. From what I've read, only certain vets are certified to administer tests and vaccines for pets that will be exported. I looked into a few vets in Beijing and found the International Center for Veterinary Services as well as Doctors Beck and Stone. I think I'm going to make an appointment with the latter as they were very prompt and profession in answering my emails.

4. Purchase the proper carrier/kennel if you don't own one already.
Iris crate sold on Taobao
I plan to carry-on so I bought a soft carrier. I purchased the Sherpa Delta Airlines Deluxe Carrier on (the US site, not the Chinese one). The price of the carrier plus shipping was about US$50 (delivers in 2-3 with standard international shipping). I didn't find any soft carriers I liked on Taobao, but I did find some crates that fit IATA standards, had I needed to check our dog as cargo. It is a Japanese brand, Iris (爱丽思 in Chinese characters), and prices are fairly reasonable. I think such crates can also be found in some Chinese pet shops and veterinarian offices. For more information about IATA, check their website. Some detailed instructions on choosing the right crate for your international jet-setting dog, have a look at .

5. Go through the procedures required by the Chinese government.  
There is some variation depending on what city you are exiting from. For those leaving from Beijing, you'll be dealing with Guan Shang Animal Hospital. You'll need to visit their office about 7-10 days before departure. They require all pets they see to be micro-chipped. Doctors Beck and Stone offer micro-chipping for 535 RMB plus vet consulting fee (ranging from 50-300 RMB, depending on experience level of vet). You'll also need to provide them with the red vaccination booklet (we actually were given a sheet of paper) you should have received from the vet who provided your pet's previous vaccinations (such as rabies).

At Guan Shang, they will perform an exam on your pet and may run some tests. Of course, this doesn't come free. The fee depends on the tests are run. We ended up paying 675 RMB (a little over US$100). The results take one to two days, and if Fido/Fluffy is set to jet, he'll be awarded a "International Companion Animal Health Inspection Form." You then must take that form (valid for 7 days) upstairs to the Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau. You show them the form as well as the vaccination booklet/papers and your passport, give them some cash (100 RMB, but don't quote me on that), and wait another day or two to pick up the "Animal Health Certificate" (i.e. export permit, valid for 14 days). If you live outside of Beijing and don't want to wait around for the paperwork, Guan Shang will actually do the legwork for you. After the exam results were out, they picked up the export permit for us and sent it to our home by express mail (total cost: 450 RMB, time frame: arrived 2 days from date of exam).

Guan Shang's contact information is as follows:
  • Address in English: 1/F, 7 North Third Ring Road (300 meters West of An Hua Qiao, on the north side of the street), Chaoyang District
  • Address in Chinese: 朝阳区北三环中路7 号一层(安华桥往西三百米路北)
  • Hours: Daily 8.30am-10.30pm
  • Phone: 400-700-1542、62051944、62366641、62049631、62371359
6. Book your ticket. 
You definitely need to call the airline to let them know you are traveling with a pet. Try to do it early as there is only a certain number of pets allowed on-board and policies in cargo can vary. I'll be flying Delta and they allow 4 pets in-cabin (economy seating only). They made a note that I will be traveling with a pet and I will pay for her when I check-in a the airport. Some airlines have very strict requirements about the size of your carrier. Be sure to ask, multiple times (and write down the date, time, and name of whoever you speak to in case there is a problem down the road--as happened to me!). If flying your pet cargo, be aware that some airlines won't allow pets to be checked if the temperature is too high or too low.

I've tried to put together some links from blogs of people who have traveled with there pets. A recent one from Chocolate Chick in China describes the trials and tribulations of traveling between cities in China with a pet. My Hong Kong Husband wrote a post about her experiences taking a cat from the US to Ireland. The Love Blender also have a detailed post about traveling with her cat from Taiwan to the EU. I'll try to add any links I find of other reports.

If you have gone through the process yourself and have something to add, or if you have any questions, please comment!

Friday, July 10, 2015

Crazy $h!t that's happened to me in Asia: Hostage crisis

With this chapter of my life soon coming to a close, I can't help but look back at everything that's happened over the past ten years. Now that I'm older, now that I'm someone's mother, I can't believe some of the situations I put myself into. I was at times naive, stupid, and lucky (or perhaps unlucky, if you're a glass-half-full kinda person). Many of my most bizarre experiences I never wrote about, but it's not too late. In fact, I think now is the perfect time to reflect and share my craziest adventures living in traveling in Asia. I'm going to start with my favorite, the time I got held for ransom in the Sumatran jungle.

The story starts out typically enough, at least for anyone whose a globetrotter. My friend M and I wanted to meet up. She was in the US, I in China. She'd already visited me in China once before and I had recently been home to the States for a visit. We needed a totally new venue. Somehow, we settled on going to Sumatra—I think it was because M was hoping to spot a tiger in the jungle. We rendezvoused in Kuala Lumpur before taking a quick flight down to Banda Aceh, which is a large city on the northern tip of Indonesia's island of Sumatra.

boat stranded on top of housing, Banda Ache

Our short time spent in Banda Aceh was a bit surreal, a precursor for what was yet to come on what was overall a very intense trip. Banda Aceh is a difficult place to visit for a couple of reasons. The first being that it was the place hardest hit by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Everyone in the city lost someone that day, many people lost everything. We toured the city with a local, who showed us numerous inland shipwrecks, boats that were washed ashore by the tidal waves, too heavy ever to be returned to the sea. The tsunami museum was truly heartbreaking, with a wall commemorating the dead, flags honoring the countries who donated to the city's reconstruction, and live footage of the actual event.

boat stranded inland, Banda Ache
Not only was the sadness that surrounded the tsunami hard to swallow, but I was also overwhelmed by the staunch conservatism there. I'd been to Indonesia before and knew it was a predominantly Muslim country, but nothing quite prepared me for being in a state of the country that practiced sharia law. Suddenly, I felt very aware of the fact that I didn't have a headscarf on, very aware of the fact that I was simply a woman, roaming around freely in public. Everywhere we went were packs of men, but very few woman. At one point a young man in a cafe made a lewd gesture at us. Another time I was berated by an old man for wearing inappropriate clothing (a fitted, collared blouse with 3/4-length sleeves). I was indeed a strange person in a strange land.

From Banda Aceh, we moved on to a more relaxed local, Pulau Weh, an island renowned for its diving. I chickened out on the diving bit, thanks to an irrational fear of water I've harbored since early childhood. No matter, an island vacation is still paradise with or without a dive. After the island, we headed to Bukit Lawang.

river running through Bukit Lawang

Bukit Lawang. How can I even describe such a place? It's hardly a dot on a map. A small town by a river with a number of cafes and guesthouses catering to mostly foreign tourists. This place attracts travelers thanks to the nearby national park and orangutan sanctuary as well as its reputation for organizing decent treks to spot orangutans in their natural environment (and other animals too; if you are really, REALLY fortunate, you might see a rare Sumatran rhino or tiger). When we arrived, we immediately signed-up for a trek. We decided to do a basic one, two days and one night in the jungle with a near guarantee of spotting orangutans. Perfect.

Before setting out, I had done a little reading about these treks. Both online and in my Lonely Planet guidebook, I read warnings about a certain orangutan, known by local guides as Mona. Mona was a force not to be reckoned with. If she wanted something, you gave it to her. End of story. I, who in my previous travels had already had a number of unpleasant run-ins with monkeys, made an early note to stay clear of Mona.

Naturally, we spotted Mona early-on in our trek. I was a bit nervous, but the guide made a peace offering of rambutans and she let us go on our way, unscathed. I was happy to have seen an orangutan--a famed one, at that. I felt like I'd already gotten my money's worth. If given the chance, I would have headed back to camp, but I was forced to press on. I quickly realized that I was in worse shape than anyone in our group. I've always known that I wouldn't stand a chance if I was caught in some sort of Hunger Games situation, but I wouldn't expect myself to be the first dead. In this case, I was definitely the group's weakest link.

our trekking group, post-trek
I fell further and further behind as I sludged miserably through leech infested mud and climbed up slippery mountain slopes, grasping at tree roots to avoid sliding down and off the narrow trail. Before long, I was losing sight of our group and guides. One lone Frenchman took pity on me and slowed down his pace so I wouldn't be left in the dust (mud). I began to cry in frustration.

"We are going to lose the group. Just leave me!" I urged him dramatically.

"I can still see them up there. If you are worried, we can just call back one of the guides. It's their job to keep us together," he assured me.

"Okay," I sobbed, "I think I'm about to have a panic attack."

I didn't have a panic attack, though I definitely felt something close to panic. The kind Frenchman told me to stop and take it easy and then called to the guides. One of them came back to join us and I felt immediate relief.

With my new escort, the Frenchman picked up his pace and joined the rest of the group ahead, but I could easily see them in the distance. But suddenly there was something else I could see in the distance. . . another orangutan. It was swinging towards us. It was swinging down towards the ground and was coming straight for us. Oh, wait. No, coming straight for me. I stood frozen. Before I knew it, she was on me.

pure terror behind my smile
I was filled with pure terror. After all my bad run-ins with monkeys and stories I heard about rabies, this was my worst nightmare come true. She held my wrist as I looked into her brown eyes, face to face with my captor (and her offspring), trying to make sense of it all. What did she want from me? Was she going to try and take me up into the trees and integrate me into orangutan society?

At this point, our group had stopped and everyone made their way towards us. Soon they began snapping photos.

"Rosie, just turn your arm and slip out of her grip!" M called to me.

I made one futile attempt at that. It wasn't going to happen; my wrist was in a vise. This was an animal who spent most of her time swinging from branches. She was going to hold onto me as long as she wanted to hold on to me. Luckily, our guide had a plan. He was going to bribe her with fruit. She quickly ate through a pile of oranges and a bunch of rambutans, but still she refused to release me. I was beginning to wonder if there was anything left in our guide's backpack. He pulled out a large bunch of bananas and set them on a long vine. He somehow managed to jimmy the bananas up high off the ground. He then pointed them out to the clinging beast. She let go.

She was off running to claim the prize extorted from us. We didn't bother to stick around to see if she reached it, scurrying quickly, deeper into the jungle. "That was Jackie. She does it all the time," the guide said casually as we continued on our way. Why was this not mentioned in the guidebooks?!

That night, as we settled into camp, I was the envy of the group. Everyone else wished they could have had some one-on-one time with an orangutan. But the experience just cemented my fear of monkeys and now I am full-blown phobic. It might just be the craziest thing that has ever happened to me.

What about you? What is the strangest thing that ever happened to you while on vacation?

my jungle hat

Monday, July 06, 2015

Giving birth in China: 10 things to expect

One of my good friend's just had a baby this past weekend. Like me, she is a foreigner who gave birth in China. I'm amazed at her courage, as her husband (also foreign) has been out of the country recently so she's had to navigate the Chinese hospital system mostly on her own. She also has rather rudimentary spoken Chinese which presents other challenges. Though we live far apart, I've tried to be as helpful as possible during her pregnancy. We've talked a lot about differences between pregnancy and giving birth in China versus our home countries. Though I've talked about some of my experiences in other posts, I thought I'd put together a list of some of the issues I discussed with my friend. For those interested, here is my list of what to expect when giving birth in China:

the hospital where I gave birth

1. Your partner will not be allowed in the delivery room
Most people I've talked to who gave birth in China told me their husbands were not allowed inside the delivery room. I was told that my doctor that I would only be accompanied by nurses during labor. Chinese Potpourri gives a good account of her experience here. When I pushed my doctor to allow my husband to accompany me during labor, she eventually relented. If you give birth at a private or international hospital, I expect you'll have more options, but if going local, be prepared for the fact that you may be giving birth without your significant other.

2. You may not be offered an epidural
I didn't realize that in many countries, epidurals (spinal anesthesia) aren't standard procedure. In the US, you practically have to beg NOT to be given one. You will face eye rolls and questions, “The drugs are available, why not take them?” This was my attitude before, but after learning I'd be having a natural labor I educated myself more about going through labor and delivery without drugs. I now have a better understanding of why they aren't administered and why some women opt not to have them. But it is a harsh reality to face if you are expecting them only to find they are not given, as was my case. Be sure to talk this over with your doctor. If you will be giving birth naturally, I did find some solace in the book Mindful Birthing and Active Birth was a worthy read as well.

3. You will be allowed to move somewhat freely as well as eat and drink during (early) labor
This is a side note that I found interested. After reading about giving birth naturally, I learned that it was best to eat and drink during labor to keep up your strength. It is also good to move around and find positions most comfortable for you. In the US, since most women are administered epidurals, they aren't allowed food or drink (only ice chips, from what I've heard) and are mostly restricted to their bed. I asked my Chinese doctor about this and she said I was definitely free to eat, drink, and move about while in labor.

4. You may end up with a c-section
I spent a lot of time worrying about who would be in the delivery room with me and how I was going to get through a natural labor only to end up having an emergency c-section. My friend who just gave birth also ended up needing an emergency c-section. In China, c-sections are incredibly common and many women decide to have them electively. In the US, people tend to look down on them and even the women who have them. I didn't want one and honestly, I felt (and still feel) like a bit of a failure because I did. Which is stupid, as I should be grateful to live in a time when such technology even exists. But the moral of the story is this: You don't know how your birth will go. You may end up with a c-section. While it may be the last thing you want, try to learn some of the basics about what it entails just in case.

5. Recovery from a c-section sucks
As someone who had a c-section in China, I can tell this, it is rough. I'm sure giving birth the other way is no walk in the park either, but I can only attest to the suckiness of a c-section. The day I found out I'd be having a c-section (the day before I gave birth), I called the only person I knew back home who had had one. She was a bundle of positivity. “It's a breeze!” She assured me. “I felt fine by the second day and I was even up and walking around the first night!” That is not how it went for me. Not AT all. I was forced to lay flat on my back, without a pillow, for eight hours after surgery (which is a torture I would not wish inflicted on anyone; forget bamboo shoots up the fingernails). I was hooked up to numerous tubes and a machine to monitor my vitals. I was unable to hold my baby. They tried to set him on my chest, but it was awkward. There was no way I could try to breastfeed him. It took two days for me to get out of bed. I couldn't even make it to the bathroom. I felt weak and pathetic. Worst of all, I didn't feel like I got to properly bond with my baby.

I know it's not like this for everyone, not by a long shot. But I write this for those who prefer to prepare for the worst. I wish I had had a better idea of what recovery after a c-section would be. For me, the first two days were utter hell, the third day was awful, and after that it was much better. It took about two weeks for me to feel comfortable being myself (as I didn't want to open or infect my incision) and three months before I dared to do any real exercise.

6. You will likely be very hot
This wasn't much of a problem for me, as I have birth in April. But for those who give birth in summer, be prepared. Due to Chinese beliefs about wind and temperature and all that good stuff, don't expect an air-conditioner to be turned on. Don't even expect a window to be opened. You can try begging or just do what you want if you have your own room (you will get scolded when you are caught).

7. Dietary restrictions
Phase one: If you have a c-section, don't expect to be eating for awhile. After giving birth, I wasn't allowed to have anything until I could manage to pass gas. I think I triumphantly accomplished that on the day after surgery. I was rewarded, by my mother-in-law, with a steaming bowl of turnip soup. It may have been the best thing I've ever tasted. I wasn't allowed any protein or sugars until I had a successful Number 2. Anyone who's had surgery can probably attest to the difficulty of accomplishing that. It didn't happen for me until I was out of the hospital.

Phase two: Regardless of how you give birth, you may find that you also have to deal with some very unfamiliar dietary restrictions. This is particularly true if you or your partner is Chinese. Even if you are a foreign couple, you may get accosted by the doctors or nurses if they catch you eating or drinking anything improper. I can't provide a full list of such items, but the most basic rule of thumb is that you are expected to eat and drink everything warm. There are lots of particular foods that are “off limits” but it's nearly impossible to keep track of them all! This was perhaps one of the hardest issues for me to deal with postpartum, but I had a rather insistent husband and mother-in-law.

8. Differences in handling the baby
This is where things may start to get emotional. Most parents have a specific way they want their baby treated after birth. I, for example, didn't want my baby washed off as there is evidence that it is actually healthier for the baby not to be cleaned right way. Of course, they bathed William immediately after birth, despite my wish that they didn't. 

While I was uncomfortable with the idea, I did agree to giving the baby water as that is the practice in China. Be prepared for doctors and nurses who encourage this. Another issue, I did not want him to have formula until I had a chance to work on breastfeeding, but most Chinese people who insist on formula feeding the baby until a mother is able to properly breastfeed (if that's what she plans to do). Many western doctors advise against relying too much on formula (if at all) to mothers who want to establish proper breastfeeding.

A final issue: clothing. The baby will be overdressed. In fact, William broke out into hives due to all the clothes and blankets he was swaddled in after being born! As I wrote in his birth story, my American baby clothes were deemed completely inappropriate and my mother-in-law actually ran out to buy him other baby clothes the very day he was born.

9. You pay first
Before any of the prior stuff even can happen, you need to pay up. Do not expect care in a Chinese hospital without paying or putting down a sizable deposit first. In my case, I think we somewhat paid as we went, paying 1000 or 2000 rmb (US$150-300) when I checked-in and then adding to that after my surgery. When I checked-out we settled the bill down to the last mao (cent) and were give a print out of all the charges. My friend, on the other hand, was told to deposit 5000 rmb (over US$800) into her patient account before giving birth. The cost of birth can widely vary, even at a local hospital. At a standard hospital where I live, a vaginally delivery is about 2500 RMB and a c-section twice that. Double those figures for the “best” local hospital. In larger cities or at private hospitals, the cost will probably be more.

10. You will need someone to mind you and the baby
This is last, though it's perhaps the most important. At a local Chinese hospital, you cannot expect the nurses to take care of you or the baby. They will only attend to the most basic of tasks and often only when prompted. I don't say this as a criticism of them, this is simply how the system works.

Whenever you stay at a local hospital, you need to be damn sure you have a friend or family member around to take care of you. You need people to help you change your clothes, go to the bathroom, bring you food and water, keep an eye on your IV, etc. After giving birth, the baby will likely be in-room with you and someone must be around to help feed, change, and hold him. The nurses won't. If you have a c-section, you physically won't be able to do it. No matter how you give birth, you will be exhausted and need people around you to help. If you, for whatever reason, don't have someone, you can hire someone. In Chengde, the going rate for a 24-hour minder is less than 200 rmb/day (US$30/day). They are called hugong (护工) in Chinese and you should be able to ask the hospital staff about arranging one.

My final advice: Assume nothing. And ask lots of questions so there are fewer surprises. My hope is that I didn't scare anyone by writing this, but provided a realistic view of some of the experiences you might expect. Remember, most things are negotiable, so if you try talking to your doctor or nurses, you may be able to have some things done “your (crazy foreigner) way” but it's easier to accomplish this if you have such talks before you are actually in labor! If you have any questions or comments, please post.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Beating the heat in China

It's been awhile since I last published a post. The more time passes, the harder it becomes. Writer's block? No. Laziness? Not exactly. One might say I've been in a bit of a rut, not feeling particularly inspired by anything. Just floating along, allowing each day to run into the next.

But this morning was somehow different. I felt inspired by red bean popsicles and a blog post. Their common theme? Dealing with the heat. The way Chinese cope with summer is different from what I'm used to, that I've known since my first summer here. I've learned more as time has passed, particularly last summer during which I had to navigate through a sweltering July while caring for a newborn. I am still not familiar with all the intricacies of Chinese beliefs relating to hot and cold, they are incredible complex, thanks in part to traditional Chinese medicine. On a more superficial level, I do know some of the do's and don'ts of summer. Here is what I (think I) know:

1. Never expose your stomach, unless you are an overweight middle-aged Chinese man.
William in a dudou.
Last summer, when the thermometer hit the 30's (that's around the neighborhood of 85-95, my Fahrenheit friends), I was planning on letting William lay around in a diaper. I was immediately shot down. "You can't leave his stomach exposed! It's bad for his qi!" both my husband and mother-in-law exclaimed. In other words, not wearing a shirt would be bad for his life force. Who can argue with that? Instead of going topless, William sported a dùdōu (肚兜) for most of the summer. Dùdōus are popular among kids and even (supermodel thin) young women. They are designed like an apron so that the front is covered and back is open, with strings that tie around the neck and waist.

For reasons I have yet to understand, it is okay for men to walk around with their stomachs out. I'd think that this would leave their qi vulnerable, but it only leaves them looking ridiculous. Now I can very much appreciate a man without his shirt on. Moreover, I'm a realist and don't expect men to have rock hard abs. I do understand the desire to let the beer gut out for a breather from time to time and that's all good. But I just can't get behind the Beijing Bikini (as it's affectionately called) which is a summer "style" popular among a certain set of Chinese men. The Beijing Bikini requires the wearer to roll up his t-shirt well above the navel, often resting on top of the protruding gut, leaving his entire midsection flapping in the wind. Why not fully commit to going shirtless and take it all off? That's the sensible thing to do and it looks better, no matter what the physique.

2. Eat popsicles with abandon but only if you are strong enough for it.
William enjoying a red bean popsicle
I am a lover of ice cream and enjoy popsicles from time to time. Quite frankly, I'm suspicious of anyone who says they don't like such treats (along with the weirdos who don't like chocolate). The quality of Chinese popsicles is often questionable, but what they lack in fine ingredients and hygiene, they make up for in flavor intrigue. You can find everything from taro to corn, green bean to hawthorn. One of the most popular flavors among locals is red bean, which also happens to be William's favorite. One of my Chinese friends explained to me that red bean is considered a "warm" food which helps neutralize the coldness of the ice, making such popsicles less harmful to the stomach.

There is a lot of concern over the temperature of foods and drinks, as well as if a food is considered "warm" or "cold" (this has nothing to do with actual temperature but relates to Chinese traditional medicine). We have been scolded, usually by strangers, for allowing William to eat popsicles and they are considered too cold for babies whose bodies are still weak. Those who are menstruating, recovering from an illness, or practicing zuo yuezi must also not indulge in cold desserts.

3. NEVER walk barefoot, especially if you are a woman.
This is a lesson I learned early on and has become one of the things I miss most about home. I look forward to the day I can kick off my shoes and walk barefoot through the soft grass during summer. I have been chastised for going about barefoot or even in socks in my home. I have been told I may catch a cold and that it may lead to stomach cancer in women. While I think it's total nonsense, I have put this on my list of "battles I rather not fight" (it's currently a very long list).
"Summer Sneakers" photo via taobao

Instead of going barefoot, most Chinese people purchase summer shoes. This is a concept I'm still a little foggy on. I always considered sandals to be my summer shoes and when I needed something with a bit more coverage and support, I'd wear my regular sneakers. While many Chinese people do wear sandals, it is also popular to buy a pair of "summer sneakers" which are lighter and more breathable than "winter sneakers." My husband nags me every summer to buy "summer sneakers" but I'm perfectly happy with the shoes I already have. He frets over my feet, claiming they will be too warm, but I manage to convince him that my feet really don't know the difference.

4. Use the air-conditioner sparingly and only if you are strong enough for it.
It gets very hot and incredibly humid in many parts of China during the summer. Despite it's reputation for being a cool respite for Beijingers, Chengde is also uncomfortably warm in July and August. I admit to letting my air-conditioner run all day, most days, during those two months. Last summer, however, our AC got a bit of a break and my CO2 foot print got ever slightly smaller. Come early July, despite us all being dripping in sweat by mid-morning, my mother-in-law was vehemently opposed to any AC usage. My husband and I would turn it on secretly on the days she didn't come over, but eventually it became so hot that we won her over. She agreed to using it sparingly. I'm under the impression that older Chinese believe air conditioning to be harmful, particularly when weaklings (such as babies) are exposed to it. I'm not sure what I think, but when the indoor temperature creeps near 30 degrees and all I can think about is how miserable I am, I'd rather just turn it on.

5. Shave your (baby's) head
Bald William with my friend, Marie
I put it off as long as I could, though I knew it was inevitable. . . the baby head shave. Many Chinese babies have their heads shaved as infants, as it is a widely held belief that shaving the head with allow the hair to come back in much fuller. In fact, I have one friend who claims her hair is thin and stringy (it's actually beautifully thick and lush, but there's no telling her that) because her mom failed to shave her hair off as a newborn. I compromised with my husband and mother-in-law, agreeing to William's first buzz cut after he turned one. Chinese toddlers, both male and female, usually sport a buzz during summer. I find it very odd, as American toddlers, even boys, rarely have shaved heads. But it's only hair and I can see how being without it during summer would be comfortable. Nevertheless, I was quite shocked to see William after his first haircut. It's been two months now and it is growing back nicely; my mother-in-law is very quick to point out how thick it is.

Do you have any tips for dealing with the heat?