Published on June 13th, 2019 | by Rachel Aimee0
The Train to Chongqing
July 7, 2010
“I feel like we’re on a train in Asia.”
I was actually lying in a bed in a corridor in the labor ward of Maimonedes Hospital in Borough Park, Brooklyn, wearing a hospital robe and starting to feel contractions. We were nowhere near Asia but Paul laughed because he knew exactly what I meant. It was weird and fluorescently lit and uncomfortable. It was the middle of the night, we were surrounded by strangers speaking different languages (in this case, Hebrew and Spanish), and we didn’t really know what was coming next. Also, Bao was there.
Bao was a stuffed toy leopard that we’d bought at the Singapore Zoo the year before, halfway through a five-month-long backpacking trip around Asia. We’d bought Bao mainly because we missed our cats, but also as a gift for our first baby. The baby we would start working on as soon as we got back home. If we ever made it back. Traveling was great and all, but five months was a long time.
Bao had accompanied us through Hong Kong, China, and Japan. We had a photo of her riding the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Now that we were back home in Brooklyn, Bao had taken second place to our cats, who were about to take second place to our baby. But for the moment it was just the three of us: Paul, Bao, and me, in an overcrowded hospital, at the peak of one of the hottest heatwaves ever to hit New York City (103 degrees that day), waiting for whatever was coming next.
We had taken a cab to the hospital earlier that evening because I felt sick and nervous. When it turned out that my water had already broken (What? I thought it was pee!) I was told I had to stay and be induced immediately.
It was 10:30 p.m. They set me up in a bed in a corridor because there were no rooms available, and the midwife sent Paul home to get our overnight bag. (We had brought Bao but nothing else?) I asked the midwife if she was sure the baby wouldn’t be born before Paul got back—I was born in four hours and my mum had convinced me my own labor would be similarly fast—and she laughed. At least I had Bao to keep me company.
By the time Paul got back, the Cervidil was kicking in and I was starting to feel minor contractions. It was sort of exciting.
“I feel like we’re on a train in Asia,” I said.
“Well, hopefully it won’t take twenty-five hours,” said Paul.
And then, novice birthing doofuses that we were, we got out our stopwatch—bought for the purpose of timing my contractions during early labor so we’d knew when it was time to go to the hospital—and began timing my contractions. In the hospital.
April 24, 2009
“I liked China because it was full of Chinese people.” That’s what a friend jokingly said after I told her I was trying to find a way to talk about why I loved traveling in China that didn’t sound embarrassingly colonial. I have yet to find a way. I liked China because it was full of Chinese people. And no one else. At least in many of the cities we traveled to and through.
Paul and I arrived in Guangdong Province, China, in April 2009 after three months of traveling through India, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, where we had followed paths well-trodden by hordes of other Western backpackers whom we ran into again and again in guest houses, playing cards, commiserating over train schedules, and watching American movies dubbed into other languages with hilariously inaccurate English subtitles. In China, after we left the city of Guangzhou and headed west, we were on our own. (Not including hundreds of millions of Chinese people.)
We arrived in Fenghuang early in the morning after a miserable night sitting upright on hard benches on a crowded train from Yangshuo, wedged between passengers who chain-smoked through the night while the smell of shit from the bathroom car wafted through the carriage. (We had tried to buy tickets for the sleeper car but were told “mei you”—”don’t have”—our most familiar and most dreaded Mandarin phrase.)
Fenghuang was a tourist trap, for sure. The whole city revolved around tourists. But not tourists like us. Chinese families on vacation, taking boat rides down the river that ran through the town, admiring the Qing Dynasty architecture, and dressing up as Chinese ethnic minorities to pose for photos—apparently a favorite vacation activity here. None of the eating establishments had English menus so we resorted to pointing, sometimes with unexpected consequences. One time we thought we were picking out ingredients to be chopped up and added to soup, but we ended up with entire meal-sized portions of each item we’d pointed to, including an entire chicken each, with the heads and feet still attached.
On our last morning, we rose early and took the bus to Tongren with the intention of buying train tickets to Chongqing, from where we would take a two-day ferry ride down the Yangzee River. We got in line at the ticket booth at Tongren train station with our Lonely Planet guidebook open to the Useful Phrases page, ready to point to the Mandarin characters if the ticket staffer didn’t understand our mis-intonated pronunciation of “two tickets to Chongqing.” The problem was, she understood but she said “mei you.”
July 7, 2010
Being pregnant in Park Slope, the crunchy center of Brooklyn, meant hearing a lot about how important it was to be prepared to resist everything that doctors and hospital staff tell you because they are only looking out for their own interests. Doctors will tell you to focus on breathing through the pain because they’re trying to silence women; ignore them and scream as loud as you want. Doctors will tell you to lie on your back because it makes their lives easier; ignore them and move around as much as you want. Doctors will attach all kinds of tubes to your arms and legs so you can’t move around because they want to restrict your movements; tell them you want to forgo all tubes and demand to get in the shower instead. I’m not saying that any of this is necessarily bad advice, but in my case the last thing I wanted to do was get in the shower.
After about half an hour of timing my contractions with our stopwatch in the corridor, Paul and I were convinced that the baby was about to pop out because my contractions were so close together, and no amount of reasoning by the nurse could convince us otherwise. I was feeling the contractions (a bit), so I screamed (a lot). Partly because I wanted them to believe that the baby was about to be born so that they would move me into a room and I wouldn’t have to give birth in a corridor, and partly because I was a woman in labor and I would not be silenced, goddamnit. (“You’re really going to have an easier time with this if you try to breathe through the contractions,” the nurse kept trying to tell me.)
Eventually my screaming worked and/or a room became available and we set up camp. Paul had come armed with a fully inflated birthing ball and a notebook filled with helpful phrases for being a good birth partner. “Is the IV really necessary?” “Can she walk around?” “Do you want me to rub your back harder or softer?” After much trial and error and bemused looks from the hospital staff, I realized that what I really wanted was an epidural. And for nobody to touch me. Or talk to me.
But what I really wish I’d learned in birthing class, and what I tell every pregnant person I ever meet, is that if you get an epidural you have to lie on your back for at least twenty minutes after the injection, not because of misogyny or power-tripping doctors but because the epidural is a liquid medication and if you’re lying on your side it will only numb one half of your body. I screamed and breathed and screamed for over an hour after the epidural should’ve kicked in because I refused to follow the doctor’s orders to lie on my back. Turned out he was right, and after he topped up my epidural for the third time and yelled at me to lie on my back this time, goddamnit, the epidural finally kicked in—on both sides of my body—and I went to beautiful sleep.
April 24, 2009
We didn’t know how to say “Why not?” and if we had, we wouldn’t have understood the answer. We also didn’t know how to say, “So how do we get to Chongqing then?” We were lost—truly lost—in a city that wasn’t even mapped in the Lonely Planet. It was just the place you were supposed to go to buy your train tickets to Chongqing. But without those train tickets, how would we ever get out?
If we couldn’t get a train, maybe we could get a bus. We didn’t know where the bus station was, but we knew how to hail a taxi and point to the Mandarin characters for “Where is the long-distance bus station?” in our guidebook. At the long-distance bus station, we asked, once more, for two tickets to Chongqing. We were told, once more, “Mei you.” We consulted Lonely Planet again and figured out an alternative route to Chongqing: Huaihua via Jishou. So we hailed another taxi and pointed to the characters for “short-distance bus station,” where we managed to buy a bus ticket to Jishou.
In Jishou, we were finally able to buy the train tickets we needed: Jishou to Huiahua, two hours; Huaihua to Chongqing, eight hours. At 10:00 p.m., we boarded the train to Chongqing. A “hard sleeper” train, it was a significant step up from the “hard seat” train we’d taken to Fenghuang a few days earlier. We found an empty set of bunk beds in the carriage full of sleeping travelers and lay down, hugging our huge, filthy backpacks, to try to get some sleep before the train arrived in Chongqing at 6:00 a.m.
July 8, 2010
It was 10:00 a.m. and things were about to get real. After twelve hours, I was still only three centimeters dilated. So much for a four-hour labor. It was time for Pitocin.
Whatever. I was high on epidural and I couldn’t feel a thing.
However, the other thing they don’t tell you in birthing class is that epidurals don’t last forever. After a while, they need to be topped up. And sometimes the anesthesiologist is busy administering epidurals to two other patients who are having emergency C sections and your pain is not a priority. And even if you keep screaming at your husband about how much you need more epidural, you may just not get it. For hours. And if a volunteer doula shows up and puts her hand on your back and tells you her daughter’s name is also Rachel, you may just scream, “DON’T TOUCH ME!” and not feel bad at all, but instead feel a thrill of satisfaction for saying how you really feel for a change.
“I felt like I was dying” is how I described it later, to anyone who casually asked how the labor was.
At some point the anesthesiologist graced me with his presence and topped up my epidural. It worked, for a while. Then it stopped working again and I cried for more, and the midwife reappeared and told me it was time to push, and also that her shift was up and she was leaving. I cried for her to stay, and I cried because the epidural wasn’t working, and the mean new midwife told me, with little patience, that I was just going to feel it from now on, epidural or no epidural, and it was time to push, goddamnit.
April 25, 2009
By 6:00 a.m. we were awake and eagerly anticipating our arrival in Chongqing. By 8:00 a.m. we were getting restless. By 10:00 a.m. we were examining the various maps in our guidebook, checking and re-checking the scale, and asking each other “What the fuck?” We couldn’t ask anyone else because none of the other passengers spoke English. What’s more, none of them seemed surprised that the train was four hours late and showing no signs of approaching Chongqing.
We sat on the train and sat on the train and sat on the train.
Back in our real lives in New York City, Paul and I had very different schedules. He worked days, I worked nights. I was usually asleep when he left for work and he was usually asleep when I got home at night. Saturdays were our hangout time. Usually we would wake late, go for brunch at our favorite East Village spot, then spend the rest of the day lazily exploring some random neighborhood or other. We had a lot to talk about on Saturdays because we’d barely seen each other all week. “If we had to spend every night together, we’d run out of things to say,” I used to say, half joking, half maybe not.
We both knew on some level that our lifestyle would have to change when we had kids. Having kids had always been a part of our plan, but it was a very theoretical part. As the time approached to make that plan a reality, I don’t want to say panic set in but I did struggle to visualize my true self in this version of our future.
Before we got to the part where we had kids, however, we got to the part where we took a leave of absence from our jobs and went traveling around Asia for five months. Traveling would be a test of sorts. An exercise in being together. Five months of waking up and going to bed at the same time, with no jobs, brunch, or even cats to distract us from each other. Just us, being together.
Four months in and halfway across China, we were doing it. Right? I mean, here we were, on the train.
July 8, 2010
I’d been in labor for twenty-two hours and I was pushing. At least, I was trying to push. It felt futile, but what else could I do?
In between contractions, I zoned out and went somewhere else. In that other place, the contractions were just a bad dream. If only there was a way to stay in that other place.
But the back-splitting pain kept dragging me out of it.
“I can’t do this,” I cried.
“You’re doing it,” said Paul.
But that didn’t feel like the truth. I just happened to be stuck here with no way out.
The place I went when I wasn’t having contractions was a dark place too. I was lost in a vast, bleak expanse of human experience, disconnected from everything that usually grounded me and gave me purpose. Empathy with other human beings overtook me to the point where I was no longer sure I had a self. I certainly had no control.
But when the contractions came, I had to push. I had to do it, because there was no-one else here to do it.
April 25, 2009
One thing we did have on the train was music. To be specific, we had a shared iPod with twelve songs on it. We had been listening to those twelve songs on repeat ever since Singapore, where we had purchased the iPod and downloaded the songs in an Internet café a few weeks earlier. The songs were, in no particular order: “Wuthering Heights,” by Kate Bush; “Break the Ice,” by Britney Spears; “Stronger,” by Kanye West; “Maria,” by Blondie; “Long Train Runnin’,” by the Doobie Brothers; “Bust Your Windows,” by Jazmine Sullivan; “Across 110th Street,” by Bobby Womack; “Quiet Storm,” by Mobb Deep; “Gimme More,” by Britney Spears; “Jolene,” by Dolly Parton; “I’ll Stand by You,” by the Pretenders; and “Southern Hospitality,” by Ludacris.
As iPod virgins up until that point, we were super excited to have music at our fingertips for the first time in months. In India, the first country we’d visited, I’d had “Who Am I?” from Les Miserables stuck in my head for seven weeks because we’d listened to it in my parents’ car on the way to the airport, and in India we had no music to replace it—just a lot of long evenings spent sipping mango lassis quietly at wooden tables in guesthouse courtyards, surrounded by nature and other backpackers who seemed to get something vital out of sitting quietly in India. I guess Paul and I just weren’t India people?
With music, it became easier to transport ourselves out of the monotony. At least, for about the first seven long-distance bus rides in China. But at a certain point, when you’ve been on a train for twelve hours and counting, even Britney Spears singing breathlessly about how she can make you feel nice can’t take you out of the present moment anymore. Daydreaming can’t take you anywhere real. You’re just stuck here.
Outside the window, China kept going and going.
We climbed back into our separate bunks to stare at the ceiling again.
It was 3:00 p.m. and we’d been on the train for seventeen hours. Even Paul, who has a magical memory for food and geography, can’t remember what we ate on the train. There must’ve been a food cart. We must’ve chosen food by pointing. We probably ate our food cart-purchased food at the table while staring out of the window at China.
We’d been on the train for eighteen hours. Now nineteen hours. Now twenty.
“Are we ever going to get off this train?” I asked.
Paul, who usually has all the answers, just shrugged.
July 8, 2010
“Is it working?” I cried.
The midwife looked at a screen and printed out a long sheet of paper with wiggly lines on it. (Or did I imagine that?)
“Yes.” She seemed as surprised as I was. “You’re doing better than the lady in the next room.” She exchanged an eye roll with the nurse. (I may have imagined that.) I felt a surge of pride. I was doing better than the lady in the next room!
“At some point, you’re going to need to lie on your back so I can help you get the baby out,” said the midwife.
She could help me? Suddenly, there was a light.
I lay on my back.
April 25, 2009
An avalanche. There had been an avalanche somewhere in China and it had blocked a tunnel through the mountains so all trains to Chongqing had been re-routed around the mountains. That’s why we hadn’t been able to buy tickets from Tongren to Chongqing the previous day. And that’s why the train from Huiahua, which was supposed to take eight hours, had taken twenty hours and counting. This we discovered around 6:00 p.m. when some English-speaking passengers passed through our carriage and took pity on miserable us.
We had been sitting on this train for twenty-one hours, but at least now we knew why. If there was a reason then maybe one day there would be an ending.
Around 9:00 p.m. the train reached the outskirts of Chongqing and … slowed down. By 10:00 p.m. we could see the train station but the train was just standing there on the tracks, not pulling in. A few people jumped out of the windows and ran along the tracks toward the station while other passengers cheered them on. Should we jump too? Probably not a good idea.
The train stayed where it was. We stayed on the train.
July 8, 2010
“I can see the head!”
It seemed like something midwives say in movies. But why would she say it if it wasn’t true?
Realizing that I was pushing toward something real and imminent, things went from bleak and back-splittingly unbearable to still back-splittingly unbearable but less bleak. I was not just pushing the imaginary concept of a baby but an actual baby that I could now feel coming out of my body.
(Afterward I asked Paul what it had looked like when our daughter had been half in and half out, because it must’ve looked totally weird, right? He said he’d been too squeamish to watch.)
The baby was out but now the placenta had to come out, the midwife informed me.
“Do I have to push it out?” I cried.
“No,” she said.
I screamed like hell when she stuck her hand inside me and pulled the placenta out, but then it was over. It was actually over. It was 11:30 p.m. and I had finished giving birth. It had taken twenty-five hours.
April 25, 2009
Twenty-five hours after boarding the train at Huaihua, we pulled up at Chongqing station and dragged our huge, filthy backpacks through the doors and onto the platform. It was 11:00 p.m. We had made it off the train.
July 8, 2010
I’ve never been a baby person and I assumed I’d find my own newborn kind of gross, but as I held my tiny daughter, both of us dazed, I realized that some kind of maternal magic had kicked in after all. She was beautiful and I loved her immediately.
Another magical thing was the turkey and muenster sandwich Paul brought me from a nearby deli. It was somehow imbued with flavors I’d never experienced in a sandwich before or since.
As I savored my sandwich, Paul got ready to go home, feed the cats, and sleep. Out there, it was two in the morning and still the hottest heatwave in the history of New York City, though I couldn’t conceive of anything outside the walls of this hospital room just yet.
“It did take as long as the train to Chongqing,” I said.
“I was going to say that right before she was born but I thought you might find it annoying,” Paul said.
Bao, the Singaporean leopard, looked on from a table in the corner.