…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row
Late last year, Vivian, my Accounting Manager and right-hand person in China told me on internet messenger that she was (finally) formally getting married:
Me: Congrats! So…you’re pregnant?
Vivian: How did you know?!
Apparently, after about five years of living together with her fiance/boyfriend and his insufferable mother, Vivian was becoming legit by having an almost-illegitimate child. This is one thing I will never understand about China. You’d think people in China are prudes, but men and women live with each other for years, have a baby, and years after that we discover they had gotten married along the way but just neglected to inform everyone. In Vivian’s case, she had gotten married in a civil ceremony, but was waiting for the kid to come along before making it official.
When Vivian was six months pregnant, I returned to China and found that a sweating heap of female hormones had replaced my Accounting Manager. There was no visible demarcation between her arms and wrists and her feet and ankles. Her limbs enlarged into something that looked like painfully over-yeasted bread. Her feet were the size of generous banana loaves. As Vivian slowly shuffled through the door of my tiny office, I threw myself onto my desk, hoping her bulk wouldn’t drag my computer cords, paper and pens onto the floor.
“Boy, your office is so hot, Susan! How can you stand it?” Vivian took out a well-used piece of Kleenex and started dabbing the sweat from her face, with the Kleenex coming off in bits and pieces on her chin and nose. “Can’t you turn the A/C up?”
“Um…are you sure the cold temperature is good for the baby?”
“Damn the baby, it’s not born yet! I’m the mother and I say I’m dying of heat!”
Not having a child myself, heavily pregnant women like Vivian terrify me. I know a woman’s not supposed to deliver a child till at about 9 months, but for some reason, whenever I’m around a woman who’s visibly pregnant, I think she’s going to drop the child at any moment, as she looks like she’ll explode if she doesn’t – an alternative that’s just as frightening. I think of these women having babies as one would drop kick a football that mistakenly lands right at your feet. Touchdown. There it is. The football/baby. What do you do now? Put it back in?
Having a baby in China for a native Chinese is tricky enough, even without the obstetrical accompaniments. Ultrasounds are illegal to prevent the forced abortions of female fetuses. Families with their hukou (registration) in the cities are allowed one child, while those who are registered in the countryside are allowed two, if the first-born is a female. Having a more than the government-prescribed number of kids carries a heavy fine. If a family can’t pay the fine, they might be forced to abort the baby, even at very late term. To bypass the policy, some families may opt to have their babies in Hong Kong, which is part of China, but is democratic and doesn’t have this policy. There are even travel agencies who specialize in this cross-border baby deliveries.
“You think I can get on a ferry to Hong Kong without sinking it? I can’t even get on my bed without feeling like I’m going to fall to the floor below. No thanks, I’m having the baby right here in this city, I’ve got it all arranged. I’m going to have it at the Hospital for Obstetrics. I found a good doctor there.”
After Vivian left, I Googled, How many pregnant employees have had babies or have exploded in front of their bosses, and thankfully came up with nothing. It’s a kind of game I developed while living in China to maintain my illusory sense of sanity. Whenever a problem would come up I might Google it and reading the sometimes-whacky search results would make me forget about what bothered me in the first place. (Having little short-term memory helps, too.) Previous searches have ranged from, What is that fuzzy white thing growing on raw chicken breast, to, Am I the fattest woman in China? (Google tells me no, but my blog search term statistics, say yes.)
The next day, Vivian returned to my office with a bag of what looked like pieces of food or garbage that had fallen in between the cushions of your sofa or your car seat, except these pieces were purple and smelled like vinegar.
“What is this?!”
Vivian glared at me, “This is organic dried fruit with Chinese medicines – it’s very nutritious and full of anti-oxidants. It’s good for your skin and your digestive health. It’s full of fiber!”
“But I think my skin is fine and my digestive health is great. I don’t need this, you’re the one who’s pregnant!”
“It’s very good for you! My friend had to bring it all the way from Northwest China. It’s natural! It’s organic! Here, I’m giving it to you! You eat it!”
By the afternoon, Vivian returned. “That dried fruit snack is terrible! It’s made me so empty and hungry now! Quick, do you have that peanut candy I gave you?”
“What peanut candy?”
“Remember? When I came back from Hainan I gave you some peanut candy.”
“That was more than three years ago! I don’t have that peanut candy now, it would’ve been eaten by insects or rats if I still had it!” And Vivian knew I wasn’t exaggerating. Ethernet and power cords in our office often had the rubber casing bitten off of them by rats and cockroaches. I once opened my desk drawer to see a conga line of ants getting ready to do the Marcarena on a half-eaten granola bar. There was a huge rat cage in my office that never caught anything, but always had the bait missing. One day, somebody had put a pen ink cartridge inside the cage as a joke, but that was also gone within a month.
In the subsequent weeks I was in China, Vivian would ask me for food (or beg me not to have certain things, like coffee, because SHE couldn’t have any, and the smell of my coffee was driving her insane). One day after work, she came into my office on the verge of tears, claiming she couldn’t do accounting anymore.
“…all those numbers…they don’t…add up! I’ve gone over them a thousand times…and we must file the income tax next wee…wee…WAHHHHH….”
“Maybe you should go home and rest now, then try it again tomorrow morning when you’re feeling better.”
“You don’t understand! I’ve already asked for an extension, I can’t ask for another one. If we don’t file next week, I don’t know what will happen!”
After I sent Vivian home with my some high fiber granola bars I Googled, Will a company get audited and its owner jailed, because its pregnant accounting manager is a heap of female hormones, I found nothing, except for an article interestingly titled, “Toyah Wilcox to lead cast of Hormonal Housewives in Wimbledon“.
The article wasn’t so interesting, however.
When Vivian was admitted to the hospital to have the baby, I was no longer in China. Vivian took an early pregnancy leave, as the doctor had ordered her to strict bed rest: her wrists were painfully swollen and it hurt her to stand. She was also getting contractions before her due date. Then, Vivian’s due date came and went and she was still on Messenger in the hospital, no closer to having the baby.
Me: What are you doing online? Shouldn’t you be having the baby already??
Vivian: What can I do? The baby doesn’t want to come out! They make me drink things and they poke at me with instruments. They even give me this I.V. They try all these different methods, but nothing’s happening.
It just so happened that the guy I’m dating now – Gyno Guy – is a retired OBGYN. He told me to ask Vivian a series of questions to find out how far along she was.
Question #1: How many centimeters is she dilated?
I wasn’t 100% sure what dilated was in English, much less Chinese. I knew the opening of the womanly part down there/in there had to expand to a certain size so the baby can pass through. Google Translator defined How many centimeters is she dilated as, How many centimeters is she expanded cardiomyopathy, in Chinese. There was a corresponding term in Chinese, but I just couldn’t find it online. I didn’t want to get too explicit in terminology with Vivian and was too embarrassed to ask Gyno Guy (for the third time) what dilated really meant, having only ever had the pupils of my eyes dilated - which wasn’t a pleasant experience, but far less painful than childbirth. I was on my own.
Me: Hey Vivian, how big in diameter is your…birthing area? How many centimeters big?
Vivian: What area of birth? What are you talking about?
Me: I have a friend who’s a retired OBGYN and maybe he can help you. But he needs to know how big is your cervix (which is another term for neck, and this is what my translation software came up with as the main definition).
Vivian: What are you talking about? What does my NECK have to do with anything?! I’M HAVING A BABY. And the BABY won’t come out!
Question #2: How far apart are the contractions?
By this time it was getting very late, so I just directly copied the Chinese word for contractions from the Google translator, except I had typed contradictions instead.
Me: My friend wants to know how far apart are your contradictions. Are they close together? If so, by how much?
Vivian: :( Susan, maybe it’s easier if you type in English.
On May 23, 2013 at 2:13pm – after nine months, five days, and two harrowing Messenger conversations with her incompetent employer - Vivian finally gave birth to a healthy eight-pound-six-ounce baby boy. He came into the world with a head full of hair and big, brown eyes. Both mom and baby are doing fine, in spite of my help. Vivian looks forward to the day when she can really celebrate with strong coffee then even stronger alcohol. Fortunately, I – as her incompetent employer – don’t have to wait that long.
Other posts featuring the Vivacious Vivian: