Category Archives: From Beijing…

Ovaries: Putting Reproductive Health on the Line at Work

I never imagined I’d have to talk to my boss about my ovaries, but that’s just what happened when I came up against a blockade in the insurance system.

I was going through a harrowing few weeks of stress and pain that culminated on my twenty-sixth birthday. My periods had been getting more and more painful for a while, and I got a recurring dull pain at other times in the month, but I self-medicated and continued to ignore it. It took a pain in my abdomen so sharp that a full night of drinking couldn’t take the edge off before I knew I could no longer stand it.

It still took me two weeks to see a doctor.

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“Champ” from Mostly It’s Just Uncomfortable © Zoe Buckman | image from zoebuckman

Should I making this public knowledge?” I cross-examine myself. It’s literally a sensitive issue.

I’ve vowed to myself that my body is my public, political sphere as well as my private, personal sphere. It’s my mannequin on which to display my beliefs, my vehicle in the fight for gender rights, my pathway to strength and to weakness. I’m not afraid to bare the truth to the world.

What doesn’t help is feeling that the system is pitted against me because I speak a different language, because I am a foreigner, and because I am a woman.

uterus-bird
image from pinterest

In September, I’d asked a friend to help me get an appointment at a Chinese hospital where I knew they’d accept my insurance. She had to call for me, because I couldn’t speak enough Chinese to get through the phone system. She was the only friend I felt comfortable asking this of. We discussed dates. She called. We tried and tried to get an appointment. But there were just too many people to get through the system. I kept waiting, trying to ride out the pain.

By the last week of December, I was desperate. I couldn’t wait for the Chinese system to find space for me, and opted for an appointment at an international clinic.

It was New Years Eve when my boyfriend and I finally went to the clinic. I felt frail and scared and lucky to have him there with me. It was a Thursday, so I’d had to teach an 8am class that morning but had the rest of the day free, tomorrow would be a holiday followed by a weekend. I’d done the legwork to ensure a few days’ rest incase something drastic had to be done about whatever was going on inside of me. I was terrified that what I felt was an ectopic pregnancy – an embryo growing outside of my womb, either in the fallopian tube or just floating around between my organs – caused in part by my IUD.

The place was almost empty – a privilege I paid for – and there wasn’t much of a wait before a nurse weighed me, tested my blood pressure, and showed me through to the doctor’s office. I was glad my preference for a female gynaecologist had been heard; she made me feel so much more comfortable. She was gentle but feisty, professional yet funny. I realised I would have been fine if I were on my own. I was in safe hands.

The initial examination didn’t uncover anything but good health, which worried rather than placated me. I insisted that there was something wrong. I had never experienced pain so bad. So she gave me an ultrasound, showing me where my IUD was, and what my ovaries looked like. Then she found it.

It wasn’t an ectopic pregnancy, thank fuck. It was something far more common and much simpler to treat. I had a cyst on my right ovary that was 5 centimetres in diameter (which is pretty huge). She prescribed me three month’s worth of the combined Pill (oestrogen and progesterone) and told me to come back in three months to make sure the cyst had gone.

I left feeling positive about everything but the price. It had cost me 4000 RMB, which is a little under £500 (or $600 US), and about 70% of my monthly salary at the time.

Harking from the UK, I am not used to forking out for my reproductive health. A country where the National Health Service is managing to cling to high-expenditure existence after almost 70 years, women get most forms of protection on the house. My only saving grace was that my job provides insurance. All I had to do was provide our International Cooperation Office with the invoice.

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Uterus Necklace | image from etsy

My Chinese colleague at the ICO took a few minutes to process the number she saw in front of her. She told me she didn’t think the insurance could cover this cost, that she’d need me to get further paperwork from the clinic, and asked why I hadn’t just gone to a “normal hospital”?

Communication across a language barrier, however minimal, doesn’t help when trying to explain that it felt like an emergency, that I’d tried getting appointments in other places, that I worried about having a male doctor, that I couldn’t explain my pain in Chinese.

She looked back at the invoice and tried to tell me it was the wrong colour for the university’s insurance provider to accept it. I didn’t have to go to the one they’d recommended, but this international clinic was not registered as a hospital and therefore wouldn’t be covered. Additionally, the amount I’d paid exceeded the maximum insurance payment for the year by double. She might be able to get me 2000 RMB, but there was no guarantee.

She mentioned that next time, I should go to a Chinese hospital, that she would recommend a doctor, and that gynaecologists in China are all female.

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“Heavy flow” metal cast tampons © Zoe Buckman | image from zoebuckman

Two months later, when I’d returned from a vacation feeling stronger and healthier than ever, if haunted by the Pill that I was eager to finish taking as soon as possible, my direct boss called asking me to come over. He needed to talk to me and he couldn’t explain over the phone.

I sat down in a low chair opposite him in his book-strewn apartment, wondering what on earth this could possibly be about. He explained he’d had a long, winding conversation with our female colleague at the ICO (the only female colleague I had any regular contact with, for I was the only woman among the international teachers at the time). He thought it better if he explain the inner workings of the insurance system to me himself, to save time. I believe that was a genuine concern, since our colleague’s English tended to falter when the subject matter got tough. Still, it did not seem fair that my medical issue had been discussed without my knowledge, nor did I want my older male boss involved in this issue.

He essentially repeated what she’d told me two months earlier (I’d gone back to collect 2000 RMB in cash, thanked her for her hard work, and we’d discussed insurance), thinking he was doing me a favour by initiating a tense conversation about my health.

He stressed again that the insurance would not pay anything towards another appointment of any kind at an international clinic within twelve months. He didn’t want to force me into going to a Chinese doctor, if I believed this was a risk to my health, but I really must try to trust the local system. It works for everyone else here, he told me, and my last appointment had been so expensive compared with the salary.

Suddenly this conversation became a way to assess my ability to assimilate with Chinese culture, and being affected by a “woman’s problem” wasn’t helping the case. My boss did not seem to think me capable of making informed decisions about my own health and my own money. Never before had I felt my womanness was an obstacle in this job, despite having only male colleagues and no-one to ask for help. Perhaps he was worried how this health issue could affect my ability to do my job.

I had not foreseen ever talking to my boss about my ovaries, but there I was explaining the pain and the cyst and the stress and the small likelihood that I would need surgery if it didn’t deflate. And there he was, suddenly compassionate.

I didn’t think I was biased against the system. I would go to a Chinese hospital for a problem with my eyes or my kidneys, but this was different. The mainstream system hadn’t worked for me. I had found a (woman) doctor I trusted and liked, at a clinic that provides the full range of healthcare options I expect as a westerner, and that doctor had my medical records so was best equipped to carry out the check-up later.

I did look into other options, but I ultimately decided to go back to the place I knew and trusted. The place where I knew I could communicate, where they knew my medical history, and where I felt comfortable going alone. That second appointment cost me close to 8000RMB – almost £950 (or $1,200 US). But that’s a story for another time.

 

Read on

Mostly It’s Just Uncomfortable is feminist artist Zoe Buckman’s response to the attack on Planned Parenthood in the United States. Check out this and other work on her website.

 

Embracing Labels: Small Steps Toward a Big Goal

Guest Post | Alexandra Sieh 

Looking up from my book, I scanned the crowded subway car, eager for some good people-watching. But as a new group of folks clambered on, I cringed at some of the actions and attitudes I saw.

Boyfriends pushing (excuse me, “guiding”) their girlfriend onto the train, or speaking to them as if they were children. Women dressed in wildly uncomfortable clothes that align with current fashion trends. Men speaking over the women in their group, or taking no notice of them at all.

From my point of view, these sort of cultural interactions encourage frail, helpless women and domineering men. But as I watch, I try to look past the (irritating) face value of the situation, and understand what societal norm encouraged it. Other times, I mutter angrily under my breath about bullshit men and their bullshit behavior and all these bullshit societal expectations women felt they needed to live up to.

But whether it manifests as deep consideration or silent fuming, it’s always a very quiet sort of rumination on rights and equality, or lack thereof.

I’m sure some reading this would argue my response isn’t much of a response at all. That observation or contemplation aren’t enough – they won’t create change.

Perhaps not.

But despite always having strong views and clear opinions, I’ve often avoided direct action. Rarely would I self-identify as a liberal or feminist or activist (though I am all those things). Ultimately, I was simply avoided labels.

Why? I found them intimidating.

These labels seemed too rigid, too narrow, and far too easy to use as a crutch in writing your own self-definition.

Beyonce's 2014 MTV Video Music Awards
Beyonce’s performance at 2014 MTV Video Music Awards | image from: Independent

I saw many paint broad strokes based on a label, and often their interpretation of that label was inaccurate from the start. Kellyanne Conway anyone? Often, it seemed:

If you’re a *insert label here*, you’re x, y, z.

If you agree with that person or their label, “x, y, z” can be encouraging, positive associations. If you don’t agree, “x, y, z” become negative, and often inaccurate, slurs.

What was my incentive to don these labels, just to have someone assume they knew me based solely on those words?

Well, now I’m not so easily intimidated.

Whether it’s age or perspective or an expat-driven need to further self-identify, I find I’m more comfortable slipping into those labels. Thanks largely to my time living abroad, I no longer feel timidity over being the real me.

Increasingly, I feel a need to go beyond identifying as what I am, by using my own personality and actions to reinforce a positive, more realistic, definition of that label. If I can present myself as a strong, capable, kind, loving, forceful woman and identify as a liberal, a feminist, etc., then perhaps people will start to correlate the two.

Within my life in China, that correlation is often on as small a level as my classroom interactions each day.

I challenge what my students think a woman should wear by donning the mismatched, often baggy or faded, clothing that I love to wear. I pair a feminine skirt with a man’s oversized flannel, because that’s my style. That way, my students see a woman they describe as beautiful deciding herself how she’ll dress and act.

Chinese kids in a training school | image from GRCS
Chinese kids attending a training school | image from GRCS

I purposefully twist my hair into a frazzled, messy pile atop my head to show individuality and even a touch of eccentricity. “That looks crazy, teacher!” “Well it’s good to be a little crazy.”

Despite my being in a loving relationship, I argue every day that women don’t need a man to achieve all their dreams. Nor does finding a partner – man or woman – mean they cede their dreams.

With my brilliant little girls, I celebrate their intelligence. I tell them to dream big. Through some personal (and probably knee-jerk) response to this country’s blatant patriarchy, I go out of my way to push these girls to be forces of nature, strong enough to challenge any societal norms they’re up against.

With my clever little boys, I try to teach them equality by quieting their disrespect, and praising their teamwork.

I do my part, and spend that subway-ride home dreaming about how I hope my students will grow up to be.

So, while I may not be setting the world ablaze with radical thought or loud protest, I thrive through more close-to-home feminism. I may not be powering grassroots movements, but I’m making sure everyone around me supports equality. I may not be rallying, but I’m empowering the women in my life, looking up to them and giving them my support.

I also hope I’m teaching the men in my life how great a world it would be if they did the same. By being powerful, independent, intelligent and strong-willed, I hope to help men see the beauty of that kind of woman. I want to help them shed any fear they have of what a world equality would look like – help them see it’s not about their subordination to women, but their standing alongside women.

Wearing the labels I’m now comfortable owning, I take small steps and celebrate them. Whether it changes the world, I know it changes the world of those around me. And for now, that role is one I am more than happy to play.



Alexandra Sieh is a freelance writer currently working as a marketing director and English teacher in Beijing, China. Read more from Alexandra at Wild-Eyed and Wandering.


Featured image from: Global Girl Media Network

China’s International Women’s Day in Pictures

A quick rundown of how International Women’s Day looked from the perspective of women in China – in pictures.

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Chinese news outlet Global Times provided a timely reminder of International Men’s Day | image from: twitter 

Global Times, a daily newspaper owned and published by the state-affiliated People’s Daily, decided International Women’s Day (known as Women’s Day in China), was an appropriate time to remind readers of International Men’s Day. Apparently, Global Times thought Men’s Day seemed a more effective “time to celebrate our achievements and fight against discrimination” than Women’s Day. Here’s looking forward to November 19th to see how they do so.

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Chinese search engine Baidu’s IWD doodle | image from baidu

Chinese search engine, Baidu, went for a celebratory angle this year, promoting restaurant, cinema and shopping deals for women on their special day. The image is a distinct improvement on the controversial doodle of 2015, going for a “modern women can have it all” feel.

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Google’s dynamic International Women’s Day doodle | image from: google 

In comparison, Google’s doodle was diverse and dynamic, including representations of a variety of influential women, and stressing the importance of intergenerational relationships – every women pictured (whether or not she had children in life) was shown sharing her experiences with a young girl.

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Demonstrators in NYC showed their support for Feminist Voices © Jun Chen

Demonstrators around the world showed their support for Feminist Voices, the Chinese women’s rights organisation whose social media accounts were temporarily blocked on 20th February for criticising Donald Trump’s misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic and racist policies. The overlaid green text is a reminder that the account has been forcibly inactive for 20 days so far (the total given was 30 days).

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Feminist activist Li Maizi spoke in London this week © Li Maizi 

Chinese feminist activist, Li Maizi (or Li Tingting), spoke at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), in London this week:

Marking two years since her arrest by Chinese authorities, activist Li Maizi of China’s ‘Feminist Five’ is joined at SOAS by a panel of experts to share her activism experience, and discuss the current state and future of feminism in mainland China. Unprecedented in the UK, this is a chance to hear from one of the PRC’s leading activists and one of the most inspirational figures in global feminist and LGBTQIA+ networks.

from: zhuanlan

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Storytelling was just one of a myriad of Beijing events that recognised International Women’s Day © Cas Sutherland

Meanwhile, in Beijing, feminists, women, members of the LGBTQ community and their allies celebrated in a variety of ways, meeting in solidarity to show continued support for the cause.

 

Protesting on International Women’s Day? History is on Your Side

International Women’s Day began as a day of women’s protest in Europe and the United States. Celebrating this socialist holiday largely died out in the US, while communists in China have been commemorating Women’s Day annually since 1922. The tables have turned this year. Women in the US are striking today, while working women in China are enjoying a half-day off work.

A highly politicised holiday this year in the US, with vast support drummed up organisers of the Women’s March on 20th January, women are demonstrating to raise awareness about economic inequality, reproductive rights, civil liberties and ending violence.

Meanwhile in China, thousands of women are taking the half-day to focus on themselves, hanging out with girlfriends and spending their money online or in major shopping malls advertising huge women’s day discounts.

There’s no question that this vast disparity stems from women’s feelings of political and economic safety on the one (Eastern) hand, and women’s desperation at the current political and economic situation on the other side of the Pacific.

While women are commemorating International Women’s Day in their own ways, it might help to remember that the history is on the side of those protesting today.

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German poster for a women’s suffrage demonstration on 8th March 1914 | image from: German History Docs

First observed in the US on February 28th, 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay, and the right to vote. The Socialist Party of America organised a strike on the same day in 1909. Similar demonstrations marked the last Sunday of February for the following five years.

European women were also staging demonstrations throughout this same period, calling for the right to vote, economic equality and civil liberties. A consensus was reached, and International Women’s Day became truly international on March 8th 1914.

In London that day, during a march from Bow to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage, Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square.

The women’s march in Petrograd on 8th March 1917 sparked the Russian Revolution, which lasted for 8 days. Women in St. Petersburg went on strike for “Bread and Peace” that day, demanding the end of World War I. Women’s Day was officially adopted as a holiday by Soviet Russia that year, and later made a non-working day. As a result, celebrations took place on March 8th in socialist communities and communist countries worldwide for fifty years.

Women’s Day was celebrated by communists in China from 1922. After the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the state council proclaimed that March 8 would be an official holiday with women in China given a half-day off.

In 1975 the United Nations recognised the importance of March 8th and announced today as International Women’s Day, to be celebrated the world over.

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100,000 Iranian women gathered to protest the headscarf on 8th March 1979 | image from: NYTimes

People are taking stock, today, of how gender equality stands in a variety of arenas, from political power, to earning parity, to family leave. We’ve come a long way since the women of Europe and the US began protesting in the early 1900s, because those women changed things. Let’s hope those protesting today can harness that power and show the world what International Women’s Day is really about.

 

Read on

‘What is it with China and Women?’ Zhendegender

‘A Brief But Fascinating History of International Women’s Day’, Fortune

”A Day Without a Woman’ strike aims to raise awareness’, Aljazeera

‘Hard Times for feminists in China’, supchina

Header image from Hudson Institute

Sorry, I am not a dog

Yesterday I was locking up my bike when a policeman barked at me. He was fifty metres away. He started walking towards me, and yelled again. No words, just sounds. Then he whistled. A high piercing tone designed to scare me off. He clapped his hands three times, loudly, and shouted again, a sound equivalent to “Oi!”

WRONG! That’s not how you speak to a human. Sorry. Try again. 

He did not extend me the privilege of talking in words (wild idea, I know). Rather he made himself as big as possible and made as much noise as he could. I can only guess that he assumed this would startle me, shock me into submission, or get me to run away.

In case you hadn’t realised by now, I am a human. I am not a dog. But he treated me like a dog. Why? Because of my skin colour. This policeman took one look at me and decided that language would not have any effect.

Everyone knows foreign people cannot speak Chinese. Foreign people can only communicate in foreign languages. He gave up on communication before he even saw my face.

I turned to face him and asked him politely “where can I lock it?” He faltered, pointed and shouted incomprehensibly. He didn’t recognise his own language, coming from my lips. His preconceptions had deafened him. He continued shouting until I was out of earshot.

I was inexplicably angry. Kidding. I knew exactly why I was angry:

I am tired of being treated as a second-class citizen.

I am privileged: my nationality, my race, my class, my education, my sexuality, my physical ablity, and my earning power are all privileges. I am lucky to be where I am and to do what I do. But what I work hard to understand as my privilege is often mistranslated. Too often, people look to me as a shortcut to education, a commodity to exploit, an exile, an impostor, and an alien.

What really struck me was the familiarity of second-class treatment. Years before I moved to China I knew what it felt like. I have always known. Because I am a woman.

Like many women, I internalised my presumed inferiority at a young age, and have struggled with bringing it to bear ever since. Like many women, I have had to learn to recognise sexism and train myself to shout about it. Like many women, I have been combatting relentless sexism all my life. But this was about race, not gender.

I hadn’t trained myself for racism. I am lucky enough not to have needed to, but I think my impulse would be the same.

I was fuming. My immediate reaction was to lock my bike in a place even less convenient for them, thus causing significant anguish for three policemen in the area, revolution coursing through my veins. I pretended it wasn’t mine when they remembered how to use words long enough to ask. I was polite and I didn’t do any damage, but I refused to be reasonable. I rebelled. It gave me an overwhelming sense of empowerment.

Words and Women: Adrienne Rich

The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.

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Adrienne Rich, image from: coldfrontmag

Adrienne Rich was an American poet, essayist and radical feminist. She was credited with bringing “the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse” (Flood).

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you…it means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”

Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions–predigested books and ideas…marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short…and this, in turn, means resisting the forces in society which say that women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others, and stay in the places assigned to us. It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different”…The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.”

Read on

Flood, Alison. “Adrienne Rich, Award-winning poet and essayist, dies at 82.” The Guardian. 29th March 2012.


Words and Women is a regular feature that spotlights short quotations from influential women activists, artists, and authors.

Princess of Peace

Reading this in China? Watch on youku

“Don’t tell me that all Chinese guys like skinny girls, that’s just not true!” Yuan Xiaodan’s experience tells otherwise: her high school nickname, ‘Princess of Peace’ has another meaning. In this short film, Xiaodan tells us a heartwarming story about bullying, family relationships, and lasting friendships.

Princess of Peace is the second Narrate China film, created by China Narrative Collective who aim to vividly share stories of real life experiences in China and make intimate perspectives accessible online.

Read on:

Learn more about Narrate China