Girl Gone.

With three years in China and Hong Kong behind me, it’s time to reveal my next move: a return to the good ol’ US of A with all her flaws and charms. Specifically, I will be moving to Boston at the end of August 2013. You are all invited to the tea party I will immediately throw myself as a housewarming ‘do and which will probably forever revoke the possibility of passing myself off as a true Bostonian.

Earlier this year I was accepted into Emerson College’s graduate program in Publishing & Writing, a 2-year MA program which will culminate in the spring of 2015. I am excited to take what I’ve learned from my time in the educational publishing and editing industry in Hong Kong and apply it to my studies at Emerson. I hope to make myself more relevant to industries outside of education, while infusing my career path with creativity and achieving a better understanding of how I can channel my passion into work that helps others. I’m not sure what that will look like yet, but I have some ideas…

With all this in mind, it’s time to put a period on this long, meandering sentence of a blog. From the ashy air of Beijing to the soul-opening view of the Himalayas to the poverty and war-torn history of Cambodia to the black volcanic sand of Indonesia to the dumplings of Shanghai to the drudgery and skill-building of a six-day work week in the colossally modern city of Hong Kong, it has been a hell of a trip. Thank you for your support and for following along here at Girl Gone China.

In comparison, my new professional site at mariesweetman.com may seem ho-hum if you’re not interested in publishing and books, but that’s where you’ll find me and I’ll do my best to keep it spicy.

Onward!

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Backlog of Travels: Part 4: Christmas in Shanghai

At 5:45am, two days before Christmas 2012, Cliff and I took a taxi to the airport and then a plane to Shanghai. It was bitterly cold there for us sub-tropics dwellers, at 30-odd degrees Fahrenheit, and immediately upon leaving the Shanghai metro we spotted a cleverly located shop selling hats, gloves, and scarves where we bedecked ourselves appropriately with winter wear.

We dropped our bags at the hostel and took off to find People’s Park, a journey which first led us astray to the aptly named Sculpture Park, which was sprinkled liberally with, you guessed it, sculptures of all makes and models. From giant animals to cascading showers of metallic trash, we took in the unexpected art tour and then had a conversation in our by-now-quite-rusty Mandarin with three park guards who had very different opinions about where People’s Park was.

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Once we found it, we were bewildered by the slow-moving, massive crowds of predominantly elderly women. Following the crush into a long, dark tunnel near the entrance of the park, we saw what the fuss was about. The tunnel, and indeed every path radiating out from the entrance of the park, was lined with what appeared to be resumes. They were each numbered, with a photo of the person and a detailed list of their physical attributes, career prospects, personalities, and more. I had found myself in what must have been one of the world’s largest dating pools in history, and it was all being conducted by the old aunties or grandmothers of  the bachelors and bachelorettes. The youngsters being pawned off on one another were in their twenties, thirties, or forties. Very few of them were in physical attendance, as you might imagine, but the resumes were all that was necessary for their elderly relatives to go about their matchmaking business.

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We made our way out of the crowd and found two things of interest: an art museum where we happily spent a couple hours, and then a rundown old fair with a few functioning rides. I could not be persuaded on them as they went too high into the air for my tastes, but Cliff gamely rode one.

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After visiting a bit of Shanghai, we took a train to spend a couple days of our brief trip in Nanjing, a city unfortunately known for the historical massacre of Chinese men, women, and children by Japanese invaders in 1937. This single horrific event has flavored Chinese-Japanese relations ever since, as the Japanese government has never formally apologized or even admitted that the massacre took place. Compare that to the vast reparations and official apologies that Germany has made in the wake of the Holocaust, and what it would have been like for the world if Germany had NOT done so, and you can see why there is so much anger left simmering in Chinese society toward basically Japanese anything.

Last year, during a lesson in which we read a story written from the point of view of a young Japanese child who lived in the US during World War II, a 5th grade student told me that her dad had told her that the Japanese were bad people for what they had done. I navigated the situation as gracefully as I could, but actually reading the short story by Yoshiko Uchida was much more effective than I was – reason #1,000,000,000 why literature is important to developing empathy and understanding. (I should mention that this was the same student who later agreed when another student said that he was “sometimes germaphobic” to a certain ethnic group. My vehement outrage at that statement was perhaps not my best teaching moment, but it got the point across. What children learn from their parents sticks, so PLEASE TEACH TOLERANCE.)

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The Japanese – Chinese feud is not omnipresent in the society, however. An opposing anecdote: I made friends my last couple weeks in Longgang, Shenzhen with a woman who had approached me while shopping to see if I wanted to get a cup of coffee. Thrown off guard, I said no, several times, but she was persistent and I’m no good in the face of persistence, and so I agreed to hang out with this perfect stranger. She was very nice, we chatted about not much at all, and I found out she lived in my apartment complex with her Japanese boyfriend, and that she worked at a Japanese company.

The best place in Nanjing to get information on the subject is the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, where Cliff and I went on Christmas day. The Memorial Hall did not mince words/images/etc. in regards to its history, nor should it have. The high estimate of massacre victims tallies around 300,000 – deaths not of soldiers but of unarmed, starved, defenseless citizens. Parts of the memorial hall were staggering in their simplicity and solemn beauty – an example being the gargantuan statue of an emaciated woman at the entrance, slumped with legs splayed, pain etched in her stone face. Other parts were overwhelming in their aggression and insistence – walls of photographs of atrocities, piles of bones.  Some parts were absurd, such as the cheaply mechanical recreation of a Japanese soldier entering a Chinese house.

Following through the museum led us out into a long dark corridor with candles illuminating name upon name of the known victims. After this reflection in the dark, there was light, as the tour ended outside with a long shallow pool of water leading to a giant stone memorial carved with words of peace.

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We also made time to walk the Nanjing City Wall. Having lived in the sweltering sub-tropics for three years, I have often felt starved for seasons, especially autumn. When our taxi driver – who was very kind and told us about all the different places we should try to see – dropped us off, the heaviness of the morning disintegrated and I felt actually frolicsome as I darted up the stone steps leading to the wide city wall. (Darted might be a bit of an exaggeration – my ankle was still swollen and twisted from a hiking incident a couple weeks before.) We were stopped for a couple pictures before we could get very far, but after we’d done our foreign-tourist photo duty, we were left alone on the wall.

Alone.

In a city of over 7 million souls, for the first time since I’d stepped off the plane in Beijing in August 2010: alone.

It was so beautiful up there, with a breathtaking view of the city and the lake. Leaves blanketed the top of the wall in autumn colors which seemed improbable at the end of December: yellows, oranges, browns. We walked a couple miles down the whole length of the wall – we knew we should turn back at some point but it felt so good to keep skipping ahead, to lean over the wall, to take pictures, to have impromptu races and to not be pushed or crowded or anything else that is daily life in a busy city.

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Eventually we ran out of wall and had to literally come down from our high, but that tall, leaf-strewn, expansive, and gloriously empty place that gave me such peace and joy on Christmas day is a forever-memory.

Though we could only experience each place briefly, I thought Shanghai and Nanjing exuded dynamism and vibrancy and would be amazing places to get to know for a longer stretch of time.

Wedding Bells in Hong Kong

My best friend here, Kai, was married at the end of March to her British love, Matthew. From beginning to end, the ceremony was this lovely blend of Hong Kong and UK tradition. Although I was battling a vicious case of food poisoning which decided to attack me the night before her wedding, that didn’t stop it from being one of the most beautiful and interesting ceremonies I’ve ever seen.

The bridesmaids all converged upon the bride’s parents’ home early in the morning of the wedding. The groom and groomsmen were there too, but they had to stay outside the house. Kai had just finished having her hair and makeup done, and she was enfolded in a traditional, red brocade Chinese gown with wide, flowing sleeves and a high neckline. Her hair was done up in intricate swoops and coils. Once she was ready, she was ensconced in her parents’ bedroom, where she was to sit with her father while the groom had to pass a series of obstacles to prove his worth as her future husband.

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The bridesmaids were in charge of doing their best to stop Matthew from winning Kai’s hand. He had to play several games, including passing an orange under his chin from one groomsmen to another without dropping it. He had to answer a series of difficult questions about Kai to show how well he knew her, and he also had to pay the bridesmaids a handsome sum of money before we would let him go inside the house.

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At that point, he retrieved Kai from her father, and they both came downstairs among cheering and clapping for the tea ceremony. During the tea ceremony, Kai’s parents and many aunts, uncles and cousins were each served tea in turn by both Kai and Matthew. In exchange, they showered the to-be-married couple with gifts of gold. Kai was laden with many necklaces, several watches, and various bracelets and other pieces of jewelry. Decked out in gold, the long tea ceremony over, everyone piled into a rented van to drive to the wedding registry wear the actual legal ceremony would take place.

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This portion of the day was very straightforward – both the groom’s and the bride’s family and friends all entered a small room lined with chairs with a table in the center. Matthew, tearing up (and making all the rest of us cry in the process), read the prescribed vows. Kai put her hand on Matthew’s arm and repeated her own vows. After signing the marriage certificate, they were wed!

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Many pictures were taken both inside and outside before some of the party headed back to Kai’s parents’ house for a lunch (and much-needed nap time for me and the bride, who had also been having trouble holding down food and water that day…) of roasted pork and various cakes.

Later, we got back into the vans to head to the banquet, which was held in a beautiful venue with many white tables with flowers and overlooked a river. Everyone who hadn’t come to the more intimate wedding ceremony of the morning was invited to the banquet. People milled about, chatting and laughing, waiting for the bride to appear. When she did, it was in a stunning Western style white gown, with exquisite beading and a short train trailing behind her. Kai and Matthew entered the room to great applause. The bridesmaids and groomsmen were introduced, speeches were given, and Kai and Matthew welcomed everyone to help celebrate their married life. We also watched a lovely video comprised of pictures of the two of them from the time they were infants to when they finally found each other.

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There was some dancing before the banquet, which was a never-ending parade of delicious Chinese dishes, including the traditional suckling pig and bird’s nest soup.

Hours later, at the end of a long, beautiful day, everyone piled into the vans to head back to their respective homes to finally give Mr. and Mrs. Matthew and Kai some much-deserved privacy!

Krakatau

5am departure to Carita from Jakarta. Tired after a delayed flight and late arrival the night before. Air is humid and smells a little smoky, heavy with evidence of the previous night’s rain. Headache from little sleep, dehydration. We’re on the highway for a quick minute before spending a couple hours on winding, potholed seaside roads lined with children readying themselves for school and brightly colored domiciles: sapphire tile, ruby tile, sunshine yellow tile.

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speedboat gliding out of the canals before hitting open ocean

8am arrival in Carita. Breakfast of fried rice and fresh orange juice. Later, I see abundant orange trees lining the road. We walk to the dock through a cluster of houses with children shouting and adults openly staring. The speedboat, maybe 20ft for six of us, revs to life, filling the air with gasoline fumes. It picks up speed. I put my head over the side of the boat like an eager dog. Remember fishing trips with Grandpa; remember tubing with Uncle Jeff. But I’ve never gone so fast, and never  on the open ocean. Exhilarating. So open – no land in sight. Beautiful sunny day and I keep seeing the ocean as water in a bowl about to spill over.

Theme of the day: prehistory, primordial ooze, the beginning of time.

We’re heading into storm clouds. Boat hits waves that toss us like rag dolls. No one else seems concerned that the blue water has turned a menacing gray: direct antithesis to my worst-case planning. Kick off shoes, I tell myself on repeat, hold onto the seat cover – looks like a flotation device. Be okay with tumbling through water for a while. Trust you’ll come back up. Get as big a breath as you can. Later, past danger, I found where the life vests were stowed.

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Krakatau seen smoking from the boat

Weather cleared as we had our first glimpse of Krakatau, which seemed to part the clouds and tame the sea as we approached. Krakatau is an active volcano which erupts regularly, most recently in September 2012. Smoke reeking of sulfur steamed and drifted from still-cooling piles of magma. It was two mountains in one: Krakatau’s peak and crater in the distance, pouring smoke, and the magma layer.

Our guide had seen it explode. “Like fireworks, the smoke, like thunder, boom boom.”

We hiked up to the summit of the first steep dune (sand, ash, stone), somewhat hardened by the rain the night before. We struggled up, slipping back each step, shoes filling with sand. At the top of the dune  we looked down into a valley of magma and up to Krakatau’s peak. There’s a clear path where the lava gushed forth and tumbled down to the sea, boiling the waters and killing all manner of sea-life. The piles of magma spew smoke and smolder red in some places, white ash in others, like hot coal. Freshly made pumice and other volcanic rock litters the volcano’s side. I take a piece home. I don’t feel guilty.

It is unreal to stand on an active volcano. It’s like being transported back in time a couple billion years ago to the

hot magma trailing down to the sea

hot magma trailing down to the sea

Earth’s rebellious adolescent years when continents and oceans were more vehemently in flux than they are now, like witnessing my great great great grandparents meet for the first time and realizing I would somehow result from that moment.

We hike back down. Get in the boat. Speed away to a little island for lunch on a beach overrun with too many little crabs scuttling to and fro, eyes on stalks, airs of suspicion.

We snorkel, briefly. Look through crystal clear water to unbelievable depths (tall towers of coral, brightly colored fish darting here and there) and listen to my own shaky terrified gasping breaths through the snorkel. I love snorkeling but each time (three times only) there is a long period of adjustment as I get used to the fear, the new way of breathing, the vastness of the wide unexplored ocean world. It’s nearly the same fear as of heights, combined with the mind-drenching terror of imagining free-floating in space, though there’s no real way for me to fall or even drown in the calm waters.

Meanwhile, as I struggle to regain myself, tiny jellyfish sting and sting – my thumb, my arm, my legs. Sharp isolated areas of buzzing pain that last for a half hour after I’m back in the boat.

Happy Chinese New Year! Spent the holiday and some of my annual leave in Indonesia, in and around the capital, Jakarta. The first day (recounted above) was eventful – the rest, spent on a tiny island an hour off the coast of Jakarta – was less so. I finished Anna Karenina if that’s any indication.

Apologies for the long absence. Love and miss you all!

Review: Country Driving by Peter Hessler

I take to my blog once again to expound on the narrative excellence of Peter Hessler. He’s not necessarily a magician with words, but he is a master of narrative flow and he captures China in ways that most foreigners could only dream of.

Country Driving: a Chinese Roadtrip is the summer vacation you never thought possible. This book follows three stories 1) two separate car trips following a path set out by Great Wall of China; 2) his sojourns to Sancha, a quiet rural village two hours north of his residence in Beijing; and 3) the life of a factory over two years in a small city in southeastern China, Lishui.

My favorite bits of this book were undoubtedly the time spent keeping track of Hessler’s time in Sancha. He had rented a small home in this village to have a place to get away from the hustle and bustle and dirt of Beijing. It was a gorgeous place to write and relax, but soon he became friends with some of the villagers, and his trips there became less about writing and more about visiting. Over the course of the book, he becomes particular friends with one sweet little boy who becomes very, very ill. Hessler has to advocate for the boy in Beijing because his poor rural background means the busy nurses and doctors barely even look at the boy’s parents as they shout for help during the midst of a medical emergency.

I loved this part especially because it showcases, first of all, the intense and immediate friendships that can spring up between near-strangers. But I especially like the idea of life encroaching on what you think of as your safe space. Hessler wanted to “get away from it all,” but he learned that you can’t become a hermit in another person’s home. The people of Sancha made him very aware of that. It also functioned as a microcosm of China as a whole – as just a few years passed by, Hessler witnessed Sancha go from this rural secret to a tourist pit stop. It brought money to the people of Sancha, but at what many would consider a great cost of natural beauty and privacy.

The chapters about the journey along the Great Wall just filled me with envy – Hessler took about a couple weeks to go as far as he could. There is a point where the Great Wall stutters to an abrupt halt at the shore of the sea, and I would love to see that.

All in all – another great Hessler read.

Snapshots

Odd images from my day-to-day have a way of stacking up and overflowing, becoming usual or even expected so that they inspire neither bemusement nor laughter nor disgust nor fear nor anything but someday I think these observations will feel new again if I can manage to remember them, so here they are, some of them, incomplete and fragmented as they appear to me walking down smoke & spice streets, pushing through iPhone-laden crowds, entering the welcome ice of air-conditioned lobbies, riding escalators to the sad point where stairs feel like an affront: a Buddhist monk wearing business casual on top but the usual red sarong below; a dead cockroach overturned in the gutter, legs weakly waving, as a swarm of minuscule ants carry away bits of him for dinner; men drinking beer with their two large, green, pet parrots perched without tethers in a public square; a corner shop emptied and stripped to the bare concrete walls overnight, yet boldly proclaiming clothing sales the following morning;

to be continued.

 

Summer days

I was home to Michigan for ten days in July to soak up the dusty summer heat and the dry grass and that short lovely road to my grandparents’ house and make note of all the changes, filing them away, to make sure my home was still mine: a tree felled, just missing our house, in a rough winter storm; Allan’s bedroom empty as he works his way through Marines boot camp; grass seeded and sprouting in Grandpa’s former vegetable garden; engagement and wedding rings on the hands of college friends; new people introduced to old places.

Thomas Wolfe might say that you can’t go home again. But you can, again and again, and you can leave it many times too, and there’s vigor to be found in both the coming and the going.

The hardest thing about growing up is losing one’s summer vacation. Not the vacation itself but what that free time means. As children in the US, we’re given these long months of freedom to explore our own hobbies and interests and to play outside to make our bodies strong. Why is that less valuable for adults?

I still make plans in the run-up to summer as if I had three free months to do with as I liked. I meant to finish a novel this summer, and update this blog regularly, and play outdoors frequently, and keep up with my email correspondence, and a myriad other lofty ambitions. Needless to say, the novel has progressed but remains unfinished, the blog has been dormant, the outdoors was experienced via my morning and evening commute to work as usual, and my inbox is a mess. I want a society that puts a little less emphasis on the working week and a little more emphasis on the weekend.

I’m heading into my third fall without any change in leaves or cooling of temperatures and it is very disappointing. I’ve half a mind to sneak out at midnight and paint the vegetation of Hong Kong proper autumnal colors, turning the ever-lush, emerald jungle canopy into a kaleidoscope of sunset hues.

In general news, I just moved into a new apartment; Birdie is growing up (she’s about to be spayed!); and work is bumping around mightily, with many new teachers, summer courses giving way to academic-year private lessons, and a slew of new projects for the Editing Department.

And in Hong Kong, ghosts are flitting freely through the night sky. The seventh month of the lunar calendar is Ghost Month, when the Gates of Hell spring open and all spirits, hungry or just plain malevolent, rush earthward to visit their descendants. The Chinese, therefore, have prepared food and incense to burn in offering to their ancestors at makeshift sidewalk altars. Outside my apartment, that mostly includes setting large fires in trash cans.

Throughout this month (August 17 – September 15 2012), one is not supposed to move house, take an evening stroll, or go swimming, as the spirits are just looking for excuses to nab you. So hunker down during this inauspicious time – and don’t risk moving apartments like I did!

burning “ghost money” so one’s ancestors might be pleased and appeased