Posts Tagged ‘Parenting’

A Few Reflections Before Saying Goodbye To My Constant Travel Companion, The Breast Pump

June 28, 2016

Security check at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. The blue jug at bottom left is to dump liquids above 150ml.

Yet again I was standing over several bottles of my breastmilk splayed out in a bin. My bag got pulled for an extra look at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport security checkpoint, something that happens pretty often when you’re carrying lots of liquids, I guess. The Japanese security agent pointed out the milk in plastic bottles he had removed exceeded the 150ml limit. (At least I think that’s what he was saying. I don’t speak Japanese, and he kept pointing at the 150ml line on the bottle.) Then he pulled up a giant blue plastic jug that looked like one of those tanks you carry spare gasoline in. It was half-full with a swamp-colored mix of whatever previous passengers must have dumped out. He started unscrewing the lid of one of my bottles.

“Oh no, no,” I said, starting to panic. “This is MY milk. It’s from my body. I can’t dump it. I can’t.” I started doing the two-hands-squeezing-in-the-air motion, in front of my chest. I have made this hand gesture for “boob sucking” so many times that I can only remember a single trip in Asia when I didn’t do it.

He turned pink. My arm hairs were stood up. The passenger who could understand English standing nearby started cracking up.

“Oh ok ok ok ok,” the Japanese guard said, sheepishly. I packed up and scurried to the customs check.

I pass through two airports a week, nearly every week, as part of my job as a foreign correspondent. I’m also the breastfeeding mom of an infant. I love nursing, I do not love pumping. But to continue doing the former, I have to do the latter when I’m away from baby. Which means every time I travel without daughter Isabel, a milk-extracting contraption powered by batteries or an AC adapter must travel with me, along with attachments and the storage bottles and ice packs necessary to keep the milk from going bad before it’s transferred home.

As the baby gets close to turning one, a milestone at which she can drink cow’s milk instead of mine, I am preparing to stop globetrotting with my constant companion — the breast pump and the milk.

What a year we’ve had together.

There was today’s close call, when I almost had to pour out the four bottles full of “liquid gold” I’d extracted from my body with the suck-simulating device I strap myself to in between conducting interviews and other reportage.

There was the time two Beijing airport guards took out the plastic suction parts — the catalog calls them ‘breastshields’ — in front of a line of people behind us, examining them like a frog they were about to dissect for 9th grade biology class.

“We’ve never seen one of these pass through before,” one of the twenty-something year old guards said to me, of the machine.

There was the other time a Chinese guard demanded I show him all the parts of the pump, how the tubes connected to the base, and to turn it on before he let it pass.

There are the questions at security about where is the baby, to which I have to explain, good god if they baby were with me I wouldn’t have this overpriced contraption instead, would I?

The ritual when I return home. Transferring the pumped milk from the trip into storage bags so there’s a stock for next time.

Then there are the hassles I brought upon myself, due to carelessness. The first time I fired up the pump in my new home of Seoul, I blew out the pump’s power pack when I plugged it into Korea’s 220V. (The device was designed for America’s 120V.) Without that I couldn’t operate it, so a friend with military ties had to rush on to the U.S. base to buy me a new machine from the commissary.

Rule of thumb: Never leave any part at home. When I forgot to pack the critical suction cups, er, ‘breastshields,’ for a five-day trip to Beijing, I spent an entire morning on an odyssey to Chinese malls instead of reporting, because I HAD TO find parts close enough to what I needed so I could express my boobs before passing out from pressure and pain.

The adventures are always made more amusing (and challenging) because there’s a clock ticking on pumping — if you don’t do it every few hours, it’s not just uncomfortable but unhealthy.

Which is why a photographer I’d just met had to see (and hear) my pumping from the backseat of a cramped rental car as we drove through Fukushima’s temporary housing projects. Or why I have to reluctantly link up with the clunky device while in the middle seat of a plane, a blanket thrown over me and hoping not to wake the dudes sleeping on both sides.

The day President Obama visited Hiroshima I had about 20 minutes before he arrived to express my breasts in a bathroom stall. The State Department and U.S. Embassy press wranglers rushed my milk to the kitchen of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum so it could be refrigerated until the event was over. When the museum restaurant with the fridge closed, the Japanese staff had expertly packed ice packs around the bottles to keep cool until I was done working. (The Japanese are serious about their packaging.)

Before I know it, this spinoff story of my Asia adventure, the one starring an awkwardly purring machine, will be over. Maybe I’ll miss it, most likely I won’t. And either way, I’ll always have a reminder of the year of pumping endlessly. It’s the wee one at home, who’s the real power source for the pumping.

A pretty experienced traveler herself. Isabel, 11 months.
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How Living and Breathing In An Asian Megacity Has Changed My Notions of Freedom

May 30, 2016

Daughter Eva, on a day when pollution in Seoul measured “hazardous for all groups,” not just children and old people.

Before I moved to Asia, my notion of freedom largely existed in the realm of figurative freedom, that is, to live in the moment and be free of worry about what was next, or what was buzzing on my smartphone. “How to live freely” was notional — a mental freedom, because the other kinds were a given.

A year into this Asian life, my entire freedom construct has changed. The areas where freedom was default — the freedom to breathe without endangering my health, the freedom to browse the Internet without hitting walls, the freedom to speak and be understood, are no longer a given.

I have come to know the challenge of not having a common language in which to communicate with sources, and in everyday life. Korea and Japan, my coverage areas, are famously homogenous societies. In Korea, the number of other “foreigners” living here is three percent. My Korean interpreter is excellent, but there is a certain captivity when speaking through someone else’s voice; something I never understood so clearly until living this way for the past year. Would I be able to get that one interview if I were expressing myself properly, or if there were a way to do nuance when speaking through a proxy? Is there an entire world that could be unlocked to us if we could understand what the hell was going on around us?

It is my job to monitor North Korea, but North Korean sites are more accessible from the Chinese internet famous for its ‘Great Firewall’ than they are in Seoul, where South Korea blocks North Korean news and information sites under a Cold War-era national security law, a holdover from the time of fear that communist ideology would creep south of the border. Getting on trusted Western news sites in China, meanwhile, makes you long for the dial-up internet speeds of the early 1990s. VPNs can help, but only so long as the Chinese censors don’t kick you off of them just as you’re getting connected.

But my main anxiety is the environment. Each morning my first phone check is not for the news or my emails but instead, the levels of the harmful, invisible particulate matter, PM2.5, to decide whether I can exercise outdoors, or whether the baby gets to go out on a walk in the afternoon. On many days this year, the levels have been too high for my girls to go outdoors. “The air is bad today” coming out of the mouth of a three-year-old is quietly heartbreaking. The hacking cough sounds of a baby are even worse.

Eva figures out how to roll down a grassy knoll. Okinawa, March 2016.

In March, my husband, daughters and parents joined me for a long weekend in Okinawa after I finished up some reporting there. The six of us were walking to dinner (we found a Red Lobster in Japan and I’ve never met a chain restaurant I didn’t love). My mom and my older daughter, Eva, disappeared for a few minutes. Later, when they caught up with us, my mom told me they had come upon a steep grassy hill and young Japanese kids were rolling down it for fun. Eva found it puzzling and delightful. She tried to do it, but it took her a few attempts before she could figure it out — the girl had never rolled down a hill before, because she hasn’t grown up around enough grass or hills to do so, nor does she get to play outside that much. I was aghast; I grew up a tomboy in the suburbs, playing in creeks in the summertime and sledding down neighborhood slopes when it snowed.

On balance, I think what we gain from my posting in Seoul and traveling around the region outweighs staying close to the shoreline back home. But this urban existence in an Asian megacity has made me value small, yet huge, freedoms I never thought about before, and consider them more fully when deciding what to do next.

When I was 20, I imagined I’d someday want to cover China, from China. It’s my ancestral homeland and I thought I should put my Mandarin to good use. These days, given the alarming pollution levels there, I’m not so sure. Millions of people in China and India’s megacities have it far worse than those of us in Seoul when it comes to pollution, and millions of children are growing up breathing the same air my children would breathe if I moved to, say, Shanghai, for a couple of years. But, I have a choice; many of their parents do not have the same choice. 99 percent of the time my parenting philosophy is kids are adaptable and flexible; they can easily fold into their families’ lives. But I feel like pollution and lifelong lung capacity falls in the one percent of instances where I should adapt to what they need, first.

Internet hassles and lost in translation moments are the stuff of a job as a foreign correspondent, they’ll shape me, amuse me and give me a little edginess, over time. I find pollution far more pernicious. Its effects may not be known for a while, and it may never be clear how or if they do.

The privileges of my life and work have so far spared me a “I can’t have it all” moment, until now. I think this is it. I want my children to be able to play outside and to cover arguably the biggest global story outside a war zone. I don’t think I get to have both.

(Cross-posted at HeyElise.com.)