Monday, October 31, 2011

Who's afraid of the Hong Kong autumn?

It's not the New England autumn of my childhood, with its falling leaves, but the Hong Kong fall is pretty nice.
(*Anyway, the Northeast is digging itself out of a freak snowstorm, so I've been feeling pretty lucky.)

For weeks, it has been sunny and in the mid-20s Celsius (or the 70s, for my American friends). The worst of the heat and humidity is gone, but it's still warm enough to go out in a T-shirt. 
I try to take Chloe out every day in her stroller, even if just to the park and playground next to our building. 
Slightly further afield, Marc has discovered a patch of grass that is actually not forbidden near our home, behind One Silver Sea and that new luxury development. The walk there is not entirely scenic -- there is, inexplicably, barbed wire and, inevitably, yet another construction site. But once you get past that, there's a square of well-tended emerald grass, trees and an ocean view.

The awkward walk is worth it when I see the bliss on my baby's face when she plays on the grass. She's just beginning to follow objects with her eyes, and can endlessly watch dappled sunlight and leaves moving in the wind. But shhhhh. I don't want the developers to read this blog and close the place off with more barbed wire.

I wonder why there are so few other children under the blue skies and fluffy white clouds. Our neighborhood is chock full of kids, and there are thousands of young families living within a 5-10 minute walk. But the patch of grass is empty except for one Eurasian toddler with a tricycle and a few poorly dressed old guys out fishing. 
Even the sanitized playground near my building is mostly empty. The few kids there are with Filipina amahs or maybe grandparents, even on weekends and holidays. Occasionally, there are some gweilos. 
I don't think this is entirely because Hong Kong parents have to work, since the shops are filled with young mothers eating, drinking, buying clothes and, one presumes, protecting their white skin. Strangely, many of them bring their children to the playground at night.
Where have all the babies gone? They all either at home, in the indoor play room or the awful, sunless mall -- with its low ceilings, crowds, stale air and blasting air con. Gangs of restless, pale youngsters hang out with their parents at Cafe de Coral (a local fast-food chain) and get reprimanded when they yell and run. It's not the kids' fault. I blame the parents for not bringing them somewhere with some space.
There's really no excuse. Hong Kong's parks and beaches are free to the public.
I don't care much for so-called childcare gurus. I always end up returning to the common sense of Dr. Benjamin Spock, the 20th-century pediatrician who penned the seminal book on childcare. He wrote:
"I grew up and practiced pediatrics in the northeastern part of the United States, where most conscientious parents took it for granted that babies and children should be outdoors for two to three hours a day. Children love to be outdoors, and it gives them pink cheeks and good appetites."
The most recent version of his book -- updated by current medical doctors -- dryly adds that body needs sunlight to make active vitamin D.
When Chloe was hospitalized for two nights with  jaundice, my father wondered why so many Hong Kong babies are diagnosed with the same thing. Was it because mothers here don't get sunlight?  
I didn't when I was pregnant -- I spent much of my days in an office. The hospital room I stayed in for 2 nights before Chloe's birth and 3 nights after was completely sunless -- I had a "window" that was actually a wall with an outdoor scene painted onto it. The nursery had no windows either, nor did the room where she was later treated for jaundice. I wonder if that had anything to do with it.
My Dad's belief is more than an old wives' tale. According to the Wikipedia entry on neonatal jaundice:
The use of phototherapy was discovered accidentally at Rochford Hospital in Essex, England. The ward sister of the premature baby unit believed that infants  benefited from fresh air and sunlight in the courtyard. This led to the first noticing of jaundice being improved with sunlight. Further studies progressed when a vial of blood sent for bilirubin measurement sat on a windowsill in the lab for several hours. The results indicated a much lower level of bilirubin than expected based on the patient's visible jaundice.
My mother remembers the "plump English maternity nurse" at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. Never mind if the mothers were sore or tired from giving birth -- the nurse would march them out to the courtyard for fresh air every day -- which is exactly the opposite of what is done in hospitals here, where new Chinese mothers are treated like invalids. Mom says she's glad I had the good sense to be born in August, instead of in the Canadian winter. 
If you look at baby pictures of me from the 70s, I was always naked and lying in a pool of sunshine. I began topless tanning early.

Looking back, I wonder if Chloe needed to be hospitalized at all. She didn't look jaundiced to my eye, or my parents' eye, and I think she was a mild case. She was miserable and frightened in that light-treatment thing. Maybe we should have left her on a windowsill instead.
When Marc's parents were here, we visited my brother and his wife in Discovery Bay. Chloe slept happily in her stroller, parked at a restaurant next to the sea.
My father takes  his other granddaughter to the same area. "She loves to listen to the ocean," he says.
It works better than baby relaxation CDs with terrible names like "Ultra Sounds." (That's a real one I saw at HMV). Why use canned ocean sounds when you have the real thing?
At DB, Chloe got a tiny red bump on her cheek -- maybe a little scratch or bite from a small insect.
When we returned home, our building doorman reacted as if we had allowed wild animals to tear off one of her limbs.
"What's that on her face? You must be more careful!"
I don't know how he even saw it -- it was the size of a pin prick. She took no notice of it, and it faded after two days.
The girls who work in our complex are the same. They coo and ahh over Chloe, but then immediately look worried that something, anything, might be wrong.
I started taking Chloe to the park when she was a month old. It was  September and very hot, and she was in a short-sleeved onesie.
One of the security girls said "Be careful, it's very hot and humid." Another said, "Be careful, it's getting cooler and dry these days." Which means that it was just about perfect, doesn't it?
Babies are not shy about their needs. If she was uncomfortable, she'd cry.

Babies are delicate, but she will not be blinded by a ray of sunlight, or catch a cold from a breeze. While it's important to have sunscreen and a sunhat, nobody will get skin cancer from being outside for 15 minutes -- though one almost wonders if Hong Kong women care more that their daughters not get "dark like a Filipina", as one mom warned me. (Though Eurasian, Chloe is not particularly white-skinned, which does not bother me in the least).
As delicate as baby skin is, she barely noticed the prick of grass against it. I was so delighted that she had begun to roll by herself at 2 months that I didn't even care that she got dirt on her outfit.
This is how I want her to grow up. I don't care if she ever becomes a doctor or a banker. I want her to be happy and fearless, not nervous and frightened of the great wide world outside. To use Dr. Spock's words, I want her to have pink cheeks and a good appetite for life.
I want her to jump and play in puddles when it rains.

Two months old, and already punching and kicking dad.

Friday, October 21, 2011

What's labor actually like?

Before the great unknown of childbirth, I took a prenatal class, surfed online, read baby books and wrote a birth plan. And I fretted. I did a lot of that, too.
Despite my preparation, no source gave me a realistic first-person account of what labor actually feels like. There's tons of medical information. But I wanted someone to tell me in simple English -- what's it like? How much does it hurt? Will I be able to do it?
It's different for every woman. But in summary -- it's not nearly as bad as I thought. With an epidural it was 90% uncomfortable, 10% painful. And the recovery was not bad. I was about as sore as I would be after a day of hard exercise. I didn't even take Panadol.
If anyone out there is deciding between C-section and natural birth, and being told by unscrupulous Hong Kong doctors that they "won't be able to take the pain" (as I was told repeatedly), just let me say that it's not true. I heard every excuse in the book -- I was "high risk", "too fat", "too tiny" (if there was ever a contradiction in terms), "might be carrying twins" (I wasn't), "not strong enough" and "of advanced maternal age" (I'm in my mid-30s). A top Central doctor told my husband that "if he loved me, he would buy me the safest option -- a C section." We didn't end up using him.
According to the World Health Organization, natural birth is  safer in the 80% of cases where there are no complications. It's better for both mom and baby, as there is no surgery, no cutting through layers of skin and muscle, no long recovery time, no antibiotics and fewer drugs.
I'm a wimp
Let's preface this by saying that I'm no super-athlete or natural birth activist who wants to go through pain.
I'm a very ordinary woman. I don't have particularly high tolerance or endurance. Sometimes I complain when Chinese massage gets too hard. 
The same goes for the women in my family. So far as I know, all have had natural birth, from grandmas to aunts to cousins to my own mom. We are all petite and un-athletic, and we've somehow all survived it.  If we can do it, you probably can, too.

Gratuitous picture of George Clooney. Dr. Jimmy Mak at Hong Kong Baptist Hospital  is excellent, but he does not look like this. And -- warning to new dads -- their nurses are not quite like this either.

Don't trust Hollywood
Why are women terrified of birth? Because we grew up with the Hollywood / T.V. version, which goes something like this: Your waters break like a biblical flood. It's an emergency and you are rushed to the hospital. You're strapped to a gurney and wheeled through endless hallways while your husband and a doctor who looks like George Clooney  run dramatically beside you. Now there's a cast of thousands  yelling "Push! Push!" while you scream and flair in unspeakable agony.
Before, I thought "Push! Push!" was the whole thing. That's why I was horrified when I heard of 30-, 40-hour labors. I thought, "Go through THAT for 30 hours? You'd have to be insane."
The reality is that "Push! Push!" is just the bit at the end. For me it was 30-40 minutes. And you don't push the whole time. You take breaks.
In reality, it's slower, quieter and less dramatic.

Don't trust most private Hong Kong doctors either
T.V. and movie producers have a reason to dramatize labor -- they're there to make entertainment, not impart medical information. No audience wants to watch a woman lying around for hours.
So I forgive Hollywood -- but not Hong Kong doctors. I don't think medical professionals should be allowed to make up fake complications, engage in fearmongering, or push C-sections like they are selling any other product. One had a folder in his waiting room with skewed information showing all the potential complications of natural birth (none of which I encountered myself) and skipping the major risks and complications of surgery. If a woman wants a C-section, all power to her. But many in Hong Kong choose them out of fear and ignorance, because their doctors give them biased information.

Early labor 
Here's what it felt like: Every 15-20 minutes, I had a tummy ache. Just a normal "Ow! I shouldn't have had that day-old sushi!" tummy ache.
Other than that, I felt normal.
I didn't even realize it was starting till I went in for a check-up at 38 weeks and  Doctor Mak said my cervix was softening. Since Baby Chloe was small -- she had intrauterine growth retardation, or I.U.G.R., which is a fancy way of saying she hadn't grown much since week 36 -- Doctor Mak recommended that we induce labor to get her out and get some milk into her. (A baby is full-term at 38 weeks. Average gestation is 40 weeks.)
Had they not hooked me up to a fetal heart monitor, I would not have noticed. Yes, my tummy hurt. But between Braxton Hicks contractions, having a 15-pound weight squashing your internal organs out of place, and the baby kicking, your tummy hurts all the time at this point anyway.
When Marc and I took the prenatal class, we saw a video of  American natural birth types taking walks through the sunset, hanging out on the couch, taking a bath and exercising with a ball, through early labor.
While this was clearly idealized, it wasn't crazy. Labor started out so mild that I could walk, talk, eat and drink more or less like normal. Now I understand why many women go through early labor in the comfort of their home, and only go the hospital when it gets bad.
Dr. Mak was cool, so I went home. With my helper, I walked to a cheap and cheerful Japanese place and had cold soba and veggie tempura for lunch. (Before any Chinese traditional type gives me grief over my lunch, I'd just like to say that I ate all manner of healthy juices, smoothies and salads -- all cold things -- through almost a year of pregnancy and breast-feeding, and didn't get sick once). 
Marc and I finally checked into the hospital at 8pm and they gave me medicine to hopefully induce me by morning.
I ate light foods, like toast and yoghurt, and  napped on and off.

This was Wednesday night. Nothing changed. All day Thursday was the same.  Mom and Dad visited and dropped off healthy snacks. Dr. Mak held fast to my desire to avoid surgery, so we just waited.
I was bracing for pain, but not tedium. It was like being stuck on an extremely long economy class flight, when I can't sleep well, but I've already read every word of my magazines and feel a little crampy. (In preparation for birth, I'd saved up three issues of The New Yorker.) 
Every few hours, a nurse would come in to measure something -- contractions, temperature, blood pressure -- or give me a cervical exam, which was uncomfortable but bearable.
In the maternity ward, one nurse wheels around a cart of painkillers and stops by every room and bed asking if you want some. I thought this was a bit much. I didn't even need a Panadol at this point.

The epidural
Finally, Friday morning, Dr. Mak said they would use an induction drip and get me into the delivery room. You can only let early labor go so long before it starts getting dangerous. 
I knew from the beginning that I wanted an epidural. The anesthesiologist advised that it was best to get it set up early on, even if they didn't turn the drugs on right away.
You lie on your side and roll up in a ball, with your knees up to your chest and your chin down.
There's a small shot to numb the area first.
The insertion of the actual epidural feels like pressure, like someone pushing a thumb repeatedly into your back. You have to hold very still, but it's just uncomfortable, not painful. If you have a C-section, you go through this, too.
My personal tips:
Tip #1: If they ask you if you want the slow induction or the fast one, go for the fast one. Both a friend and I chose the "slow" route thinking it would be gentler, and ended up waiting for more than 24 hours.
Tip #2: Get the epidural. I've had several friends say they were going to tough it out without, and they ended up getting it in the end anyway. As a friend of mine said recently, "I love my epidural." 
My anesthesiologist was a jolly, jocular Hong Kong guy who shrugged and said, "Why suffer?" Good point.
Tip #3: Get the epidural put in while you're still in early labor. They don't have to turn the meds on right away, but at least it's in place. I can't imagine trying to hold still once the real contractions start. Also, if you wait too long, it might be too late and then you really will be in pain.
Nobody can plan these things. I had nada happening for two days. Then in one hour, I dilated from 3 to 8 cm, meaning I went through most of my active labor in one intense shot. Once you hit 10 cm, you're ready to push the baby out.

Active labor
The aches got stronger and closer in frequency (10 minutes, then 5, then a few minutes). It would be incorrect to call them stomachaches, as it's not really the stomach. It's like a band tightening around your middle, from the abdomen to the lower back.
The hardest part is something called the "transition", which was about 8-10 cm dilation.
The anesthesiologist kept asking me how I was doing and just gave me "top ups" of medicine -- enough to keep me comfortable, but little enough that I could still wiggle my toes.
For about an hour, I held Marc's hand, closed my eyes and did yoga breathing through the pain. But that was it. No screaming, no yelling, no tears. Later, Marc told me he wasn't even sure if I was in pain. I was, but then the worst part was over.

At about 8-10 cm, the anesthesiologist  said he was going to turn off the pain meds. Those words struck of cord of fear, but it was unwarranted. They do that so that you can feel and use your legs, which makes pushing easier and faster. But there were still enough drugs in me so that it didn't really hurt.
They tilt the bed up so it's like a La-Z-Boy chair, and put your feet in stirrups. The midwife told me to lean forward, with my chin down to my chest, and hold onto handles under my knees.
This looks uncomfortable, but it's actually OK. It's just the best way to push. Not understanding Cantonese, Marc thought I was curled up in pain, but I was just following instructions.
At this point, all I felt was relief, because I knew the end was in sight.
There was no yelling and screaming because the midwife, who was excellent, told me to take a deep breath and hold it while pushing. If I made a noise, it was a sign that I had let out the breath and wasn't focusing my energies.
The pushes, which took maybe 10-30 seconds, were timed with contractions. I'd push, then  catch my breath, then push, then rest. The longer you hold each breath and each push, the better. (I believe that prenatal yoga helped this). Each time, the baby would inch forward a bit more.
According to Marc, this looked like the worst part from the outside. But all that sweating and scrunching up my face was because of exertion, not pain. 
It was like working out with a personal trainer who's pushing you to  do reps with a heavy weight. It hurts a little, but you're straining because you're trying so hard.
Dr. Mak reminded me of the various problems I had overcome through 8 months and said this was near the end. He told me I was strong and he had faith that I could do it. He told me he could see the hair on the top of her head. And before I knew it, she was out. 
So there it was. I'm not saying every woman's labor will be like mine. But I've never met a woman who went through natural birth, and regretted it. 

Initially, I was not going to post this photo, thinking it was both too intimate and, frankly, not very flattering.
But, two months later, I'm thinking -- why not? It's a natural process and nothing to be embarrassed of.
This is five minutes after birth, and I'm fine and smiling. I was tired and dazed, but mobile and not hurting. No, really. I didn't "forget the pain" as some people say.
Before giving birth, I asked a mom, "Does it hurt? It is awful?" At that point, I was still focusing only on the potential awfulness. And she said, "No, it's wonderful." And she was right.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Hong Kong still a cultural desert?

My French in-laws are in town for two weeks and I'm struggling to find ways of keeping them entertained.
Why is there nothing going on in this city?

O.K., maybe that is not quite fair. I'm stuck in a sticky situation that is not Hong Kong's fault
* I'm breastfeeding Baby Chloe every three hours, and have to cram my own needs -- sleeping, eating, showering -- into two-hour segments between feeds. That means I can only pop out once a day briefly. Plus, I'm exhausted.
* Usually, I'm the family's tour guide. Marc the Metrosexual is not particularly social, so restaurant reservations and concert ticket bookings are my job. He's not the kind of person who will take them to a museum or a walk around SoHo.
* The weather is terrible and will continue to be. The usual outdoor stuff they like -- Stanley, The Peak, outlying islands -- are a wash until it clears up. The French are not stoic about rain like the Brits.
* My in-laws don't speak English, so most films, plays and other entertainment are out. I checked to see if there are French movies on, but no luck.
* My in-laws, who live in a quiet small city in Normandy, are not big city people. They don't like crowds or shopping. They went to IFC yesterday and lasted less than two hours.
(I'm jealous! I would like to go to IFC to check out the new Apple store, but have not had the time.)
They might enjoy a historic emporium like Harrod's in London -- but not a characterless modern mall filled with mainlanders crowding to buy LV bags.
* There's a limit to how much Chinese food they will eat. The restaurants we want to take them to are all al fresco, as they dislike being indoors in the air con. So we have that weather problem again.
* They've been to Hong Kong before.

But still, but still... If this were Paris or London or New York, it would be easy. There would be dozens of historic sites and amazing museums in which they could spend a rainy day by themselves. I can't, in all honesty, recommend any of Hong Kong's museums to people who are well acquainted with the Louvre. I checked the LCSD's website to see if any special exhibitions are on and .. oooh -- the history of Hong Kong ship-building....

Never mind Paris or New York. Even Taipei, Beijing and Shanghai have major museums of Chinese history and culture that beat the pants off of ours.  Don't get me started on Tokyo. We're a cultural speck of dust compared to Tokyo.

If this were London or New York, there would be  live entertainment all the time. Even if you don't understand English, a West End or Broadway show is a special experience. Just walking through the theatre districts gives you a feeling of the culture. Hong Kong has nothing close. We have a few more plays than, say, a decade ago, but nothing you'd fly across the world for. And on the rare occasion that we have a fully staged musical or opera, it's usually a Western import.

I checked Time Out's listings. There are a few concerts that may or may not interest them. But when I compare what we have to, say, the weekly listings I read in the New Yorker, I feel a bit ashamed of Hong Kong. Where are our jazz clubs? Our street artists? Our awesome author talks?

Our culture comes in fits and starts. When it's Le French May, or the art, film or literature festivals, there's tons on. But when there's no major festival, we have the cultural offerings of an average small city, not a major metropolis. (There's also my pet peeve of why all our festivals seem to happen at the same time, but that's a different gripe).

Even my native Montreal, which has half of Hong Kong's population, usually has more on.

As for our private art galleries... some are good, some are not-so-good, but all are quite small. This is why I rarely write articles about one gallery show -- partly because it reads like an advertorial, and partly because I wouldn't send tourists to seeing six paintings in one small room. When I do cover galleries, I do a whole bunch in one neighborhood at a time, like in this NYT article.

So what to do? Well, the baby is crying again, so I'm off. Any suggestions would be appreciated. If I could just send them in a taxi to spend a culturally rich afternoon somewhere, it would be great. Otherwise, it's just sitting in my living room watching TV5 with me in my bathrobe!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Usually, I'm annoyed by Google AdSense...

In fact, I almost forgot that my site had them. I haven't checked my so-called (non-existent) earnings for months, and now realize that I have only "made" a whopping US $25. "Made" is in quotes because I still haven't qualified to receive a bloody cent from them -- not that I'm so anxious about that. I've always made clear that my Google AdSense experiment was just an experiment in online advertising, and not a real attempt at making money.

Most of the ads are as tacky and irrelevant as hell. But this one was a little cute, which is the point of this post. Clever entrepreneur, who got the iMissSteve T-shirt site up and advertised so quickly.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Rest in Peace, Steve Jobs

I'm not going to say anything that hasn't already been said all over the blogosphere, but perhaps it bears repeating. Rest in peace, Steve Jobs. I learned to write and to design, the tricks of my trade, on your machines.

Apple not only changed the way we worked and thought, it amused and delighted and surprised us -- a perfect balance of form and function.

If you want full coverage, the NYT has a very long, comprehensive, five-page article, plus multimedia package, here.

 Here are some excerpts:
Mr. Jobs was neither a hardware engineer nor a software programmer, nor did he think of himself as a manager. He considered himself a technology leader, choosing the best people possible, encouraging and prodding them, and making the final call on product design.

“Toy Story,” for example, took four years to make while Pixar struggled, yet Mr. Jobs never let up on his colleagues. “‘You need a lot more than vision," said a co-founder of Pixar. 
 The article goes into his personal background -- perhaps a lesson for Hong Kong, where people think every child must have elite kindergartens and private tutors to make it in this world. Jobs was a free spirit who dropped out of a small no-name school, dated Joan Baez and had Ella Fitzgerald sing at his birthday.

There are two quotes that stand out. One was from a Twitter used named Matt Galligan:“R.I.P. Steve Jobs. You touched an ugly world of technology and made it beautiful.”

The other was his saying at Stanford University: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

Marc and I were just talking about this the other day. He dreams of opening his own restaurant, I dream of writing full time -- maybe short fiction or books. We both someday want to return to the lives we grew up with, with space and fresh air. But we cling onto the security of our Hong Kong jobs and salaries, citing the need to pay off the mortgage, or private school for Chloe when the time comes.  Have we lost our hunger for our work? Are we too cowardly to do something wonderful and foolish, like sell the Hong Kong flat and buy an old French farmhouse?