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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

Backlog of Travels: Part 3: Kaiping

Wonder of wonders, I had a two day weekend at the beginning of May. Cliff, on the recommendation of some of our friends, suggested we use the time to visit Kaiping. I booked a hotel for the night, he got the bus tickets, and away we went.

Kaiping (开平) is the ancestral homeland of many overseas Chinese who fled for their lives due to various conflicts, from the Punti-Hakka clan wars in the late 1800’s to WWII. Those who returned from abroad brought with them Western architectural knowledge which they combined with traditional eastern architectural style, leading to the construction of the Kaiping Diaolou (碉樓), some of the loveliest buildings I’ve ever seen.

A diaolou at Jinjiangli

The diaolou are fortified watchtowers (the tallest is nine stories high) that were used in defense against Japanese invaders at one point in time and now live on as memorialized, unused anomalies dotted across a green rice-paddy landscape.

Cliff and I took a 3.5 hour bus from Shenzhen, arriving in Kaiping in the early evening. We checked into our hotel before heading out to find dinner, which we finally found after walking through weirdly empty streets. It was only around 7:30pm on a Saturday, but almost everything seemed to be closed. After dinner, on the way back, it started down-pouring, crashing sheets of rain.

This continued all night, however resulting in a gorgeous, sunny, swelteringly sticky day. We ate dim sum at the hotel before heading out to find the diaolou. The city was pretty, cut through by a wide, muddy river. Eventually we arranged for a taxi driver to take us to two of the main tourist spots, Jinjiangli village (famous for having the most diaolou in a concentrated area) and Chikan (a historic overseas Chinese village).

Jinjiangli was completely underwater. Because the paths were flooded, we got lost again, this time walking past farms with way too many geese.

Way too many geese

In the picture above, you’ll notice that water comes right up to the diaolou’s door. In dryer times, that water is nowhere present, and you could walk to the diaolou without wearing flippers. Cliff and I gamely took off our shoes to wade to the entrance of one of the diaolou. Inside, we climbed five or six flights of stairs to get onto the roof and take in the view.

While on the roof, a man stopped us, gesturing with his camera. However, he didn’t want the ordinary tourist photo with the resident foreign couple. He wanted us to pretend to be Rose and Jack from Titanic. Titanic 3D was a huge hit in the mainland (and in Hong Kong as well). Laughing, we did as he asked, letting him position us facing outward from the diaolou with our hands spread out. “I’m King of the World!”

Chikan Village

I wish we had spent more time in Jinjiangli, because Chikan was much less exciting. The street on the river was lovely and we found a curious antique shop with tea cups, masks, snake wine (complete with snakes curled up inside the jars) and various other junk that has no reason to be fascinating except it’s all old, and dusty, and is meant to make us think that if we can take home a little piece of exotica our houses, and by extension, our lives, will be a little less boring.

In Chikan we ate honey twirled on a stick for 1 yuan, a sickeningly sweet and quite chewy piece of candy. Later on, our appetites raging after just three dishes of dim sum that morning and heavy walking, sweating, and picture-taking all day, we finally found a little shop that served us my perennially favorite, excessively simple Chinese meal: 10-15 pork and cabbage dumplings with peanut sauce, chili sauce, and soy sauce to flavor.

After our late lunch, we returned to our friendly taxi driver who had stuck with us all day so that we could get to the bus station and head back to Shenzhen, very sweaty, sun-burned, and pleasantly worn out.

Backlog of Travels: Part 2: April Fools: Taiwan

The build up to the arrival of one of my best friends and our subsequent trip to Taiwan left much to be desired. I was one of the first to come down with a vicious flu that made the rounds of the office in true Hong Kong/Contagion style. The last class of the day on Thursday takes on dreamlike qualities in my memory: I slipped in and out of a fever while nodding at my student and dropping guiding questions and writing assignments to wile away the two hour private lesson with as little talking as I could manage.

The next day I woke up (cruel world! Shouldn’t we just sleep through illnesses?) to the works: aches, pains, shivers, coughing, sore throat, a touch of nausea. I called in sick, but had to work the following Saturday and half a day on Sunday, the day of Cathe’s arrival, as well.

All this to say: I met Cathe at the airport Sunday afternoon with a pathetic smile, a raging fever, a warning that as much as we wanted to squeeze each other she might want to maintain her distance, and an apology for the inevitable illness that would descend upon her.

In two days we were on a flight to Taiwan. For me it was a massive thrill, unlike any I’ve had in awhile. I was constantly amazed by both the similarities and differences of Taiwan to Hong Kong and the mainland. My brain couldn’t see Taiwan for what it was, only as a comparison to where I’d been before. Nonetheless, it was a favorable comparison: all the (nearly) untarnished flavor of the mainland but with the social standards of Hong Kong (e.g. no public spitting, defecating, or staring). Don’t get me wrong, there were still McDonald’s everywhere, but the Western influence was definitely less in Taiwan than in Hong Kong.


Taipei 101

And the skyline was so low. There’s one massive skyscraper on the Taipei skyline, Taipei 101. I felt so clear-sighted, reveling in a country that was mostly trees, not mostly buildings, a country that still has its priorities in order.

Because Cathe’s a wonderful writer and keeps her own blog over at Andorran Adventures about her travels as she completes her year as an English Teacher on the Fulbright Scholarship in Andorra, I’m going to post her account and reflections of our trip here. Cathe’s insight is, I think, fairer to Taiwan than mine would be, “polluted” as I am with the comparisons I couldn’t help but make between the other Asian cities and countries I’ve been to. Without further ado:

     “As someone who’s only well travelled in Europe, Asia was overwhelming.  The crowds, the smells, the characters, the colors all inundated me the moment I arrived.  I was a little taken aback by the strict health measures at work in the airport: upon deplaning, I immediately ran into personnel wearing masks over their faces and had to walk past a body temperature scanner that verified I was healthy enough to not have a fever.  Though English is very common in both Hong Kong and Taipei, I found myself tongue-tied and stumbly as I navigated my way out of customs and into my friend’s embrace.

     The poor girl was coming off a bad flu, and I myself had been on a plane or an airport or a bus for the better part of 20 hours, so the first night we relaxed in her super swank 26-floor studio apartment overlooking the bay before heading to the most delicious Chinese dinner I’ve ever had in my life.  The restaurant, Crystal Jade, was located in a mall.  Everything seemed to require passing through a mall in both Hong Kong and Taipei: money talks there and status is about things.  We (I) fell asleep to a movie on her couch after and had a leisurely start to our tour of Hong Kong.  Since I’ve long been a tea-fanatic, we settled on touring Hong Kong Park (after snapping a photo of that Batman building nearby, natch), wherein lies this modest, old British-style colonial house-turned-museum and tea house.  I was fascinated reading up on the ancient, sacred history of tea making, the different ceremonial ways of preparing it, the artistry of creating teapots.  The history of the Chinese dynasties stretches so far back that my American brain struggles to contain them.


I was informed later that in fact, one does not eat the shell of tea eggs!

     Afterwards we had delicious dim sum and tea, enjoying the custom and watching our waiter pour it in the traditional way, his wrist turning as if in a dance.

     We walked around some more before heading to Kowloon across the bay from Hong Kong Island, where all the museums and flashy hotels seem to be, as well as enough bright lights and advertisements it seemed to my eyes to put Times Square to shame (maybe the foreignness of the Chinese characters and crowds made it seem bigger to me, I don’t know).  We had the most spectacular Indian food (I made her promise to shower me with all the kinds of food I love that is hard to come by in Andorra) and then enjoyed the light show over the bay before taking the ferry back to the island.  We also tried these “tea eggs”–eggs hard boiled in a sweet smelling tea like substance that smelled waaaaay better than it tasted.  We watched an Asian couple bite into the egg, shell and all, so we followed suit before spitting it right back out.

     The next morning we had an early flight out to Taipei.  Coming off of the budget airlines in Spain, I was pleasantly surprised to note that Asian airlines still provide complimentary food, drinks, even tea on flights less than 3 hours.  Once in Taipei’s airport, we took a bus ride into the city, amazed at the way the urban landscape ducked in and out of a sweaty, jade jungle.  The city itself was incredibly crowded; we stayed near the Main Station, and the underground was a swarm of people, malls (of course), and signs, while the outside was a jumble of stalls selling foods I had never even imagined (stinky tofu being one that immediately activated my gag reflexes).  Marie introduced me to her favorites after we dumped our things at probably the cleanest hostel I have ever seen due to its insistence we take off our shoes and leave them on shelves by the door.

     We spent the night exploring the famous (crowded) Night Market, which seemed to me to be a mixture between a fair/carnival and street vendors.  Sipping on bubble tea, wandering in and out of stalls/shops, munching on sweet and spicy fried chicken wings, fresh fruit, and staring at a snake in a cage filed much of our evening.

     The next day we decided to check out the Maokong tea fields, temples, and exposition center, located at the top of this valley overlooking Taipei’s zoo.  We took a gondola ride over the jungle and the tea fields up to the top and then spent a lovely afternoon walking around, sampling tea, passing by red and gold temples, breathing in the herbal scent of the leaves, and hiking down the paths to the river/naturally forming pothole rocks.  We then got an amazing dinner in one of the malls (of course) near our hostel of noodles in a peanut sauce and Taiwan beer before finding a bar and gabbing the night away.  It was so nice to catch up in person with someone so dear to me.  One of the things I hate about our mobile my generation is is that my network of amazing friends keep scattering across the globe.  But then again, leading such different lives has a built-in excuse to travel.  I just would not be opposed if one day we all ended up in the same state again.

    The following day we headed out to Taroko Gorge for a three-night stay deep in the national park.  The train ride was comfortable; big bucket seats, and we wiled away the time reading and gasping over Jane Mead’s Usable Field.  Again, I so miss having friends around me who enjoy the same things, but I digress.  We spent the afternoon exploring the not-so-picturesque town of Hualien while we awaited the shuttle that would take us to where we were staying in nearby TG.  The shuttle ride itself was as winding and as harrowing as the rides up to Andorra, but I nonetheless felt a little sick.  The views were stunning, though.  The air was misty, casting all the colors in a silvery light: the 

grey-green of the leaves, the slate blue of the river, the plunge of the rock.  We marveled over the views from our room, eager to head out into the jungle’s paths the next morning.


hiking in Taroko Gorge

     Our hike was 5.5 km and took the better part of the daylight.  The views were stunning, the bugs unforgiving, the plant sizes engulfing, the suspension bridges harrowing, and the chain and ropes we needed to descend several narrow, wobbling, steep rocks nerve-wracking.  At several points it started raining, making our already difficult trail even more slippery and unstable.  I love the feeling of hiking for this very reason, however.  The banality of our deadline-driven lives fades into the bush; all that is left is the immediacy of your foot in front of the other, the steady stab of air into your lungs, the insistent thump of your heart and your blood pumping, the calculation of how to proceed forward, never back, the intense appreciation for the beauty of your surroundings, a beauty that can be deadly if you do not carefully honor it.  Food never tastes better than when consumed at the half-way point high in the forest.

     The hike ended near the Wenshan hot springs, which smelled of sulfur and created a heady steam as it rushed out to meet the roar of the cold river.  It was bliss to soak my legs after the exhausting hike at dusk.  We ended up walking back to the hotel on the dark,


Our gorgeous 5 star hotel; many thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Shubert!

windy roads, our nerves laced with the panic that inevitably floods any female traveling alone, but made it back without incident or cause for alarm.  The hotel had a nice, Western restaurant we treated ourselves to before soaking in the rooftop jacuzzi overlooking the gorge.

    The next day we lazily spent at the hotel, since it rained the better part of the day before grabbing dinner at a Chinese restaurant, which unfortunately contributed to a night of food poisoning for me (Marie smartly avoided the odd texture of the prawns after one bite; I was greedy).  While I was paying homage to the porcelain gods, I felt the earth literally move from under us; ricochets, we later learned, of the Papua New Guinea earthquake.  I was so miserably ill I, not sure how close imminent disaster was, bitterly welcomed it (“TAKE ME NOW”) while Marie imagined how we’d have to get into doorways for safety. We are, as she said, such worst casers.

     The next day was rather miserable for me as I once again navigated public transit with fever and nausea while sitting next to a kind, comforting Marie (for other tales of such nature, see our Spring Break 2009, or my solo trip to France 2008). Since the train had been overbooked, we did not have seats and instead crouched on the floor near the sliding doors of one of the train cars, having to stand up to let in new passengers at each stop of an increasingly overcrowded train.  We made it back to the hostel late afternoon and I collapsed into my bunk in the hostel, entirely spent and entirely empty, choking down water and tiny nibbles of crackers.

     The next day we flew out early out of Taipei back to Hong Kong, and this time, an overbooked flight worked in our favor; the airline bumped us up to first class.  Both of us spent after our (mis)adventure the day before, we passed right out in the comfy thrones they have up in business class (flying CAN be super comfortable) and once we made the long trip via public transit to Marie’s apartment, passed out until the afternoon.  We then did a little tour of other parts of Hong Kong before Marie took me to her favorite Mexican restaurant, which sadly did not sit well with me, so we called it an early night before my last day in Asia.

     The final day was blindingly gorgeous so we headed to Shek-O and its not apt name of Repulse Bay.  The water was turquoise, the sands white, the sun hot.  We spent a lovely afternoon napping in the sun (getting ridiculously burned, whoops) and then wandering around the brightly painted jumble of a town. We got back in time to grab my stuff and head to the airport for my 11PM flight.”

I was back to work the next day, fully valuing and already missing what it means to have a close friend with you connected not just by your mutual past and mutual friendships but also by the way you think and feel and approach the world in so many ways. I miss that, living here, definitely, how could I not?

Likewise, the hike we did in Taroko Gorge awoke something in me that is crying out for space to move and breathe, for green things to touch and dirt to roll around in without the roar of traffic in the not-so-distant background.

But that’s a good thing: to be reminded of what I want, what’s important to me, and to be motivated to go get it, to carve out space in my life here for the things that will make it fulfilling.


Repulse Bay

It’s November. You know, that drizzly gray month where the charm of autumn has waned and the cold is starting to take itself really seriously? I spent part of last Sunday lazing on the beach. We went down to Repulse Bay, a beach towards the southern end of the island with a low wall decorated with brightly-colored cartoon fishes (including one disturbing picture of a fish fishing for other fishes), gravelly sand, and murky ocean bottom. The South China Sea was filled that day with small rusty-hued globules, and I honestly don’t know if they were some kind of pollution or some kind of organism, and I didn’t take any pictures…but I prefer to think it was the latter. Once we swam out past the shallows however, the little blobs dispersed and the water felt great, and the sun came out for a bit… Just a November day in the subtropics. It’ll be getting much colder in the next couple months, so I’m enjoying this while it lasts.

November also means that I’m doing National Novel Writing Month again. I’m well on my way to that 50,000-word novel by 11:59pm on November 30th, 2011. So far I’ve kept on track. The story’s coming along and I’m more than 11,000 words in. It seems to go better when I’m extremely busy with the rest of my life. I use the novel to procrastinate at work, or use work to procrastinate at the novel and so either way I’m being more productive than I would be otherwise. Win-win?

These last couple weeks, and this week especially, have been very teaching-heavy. I’ve got nearly 30 hours of lessons this week with the remaining few hours for lesson planning and my editing duties. But I’m really getting into the groove, I think. Some of my students are wonderful, and I look forward to the hour or two I spend with them a week. More of them are duds, but eh, you win some, you lose some. I’m a better teacher now (as evidence, more students have requested me than my schedule could allow), and hopefully that trend continues.

totally comfy

As for the publishing department, in the last month I’ve sat in on a meeting with a potential new book distributor for our International Baccalaureate series, reviewed the proposal they sent us, finished writing four articles (and editing all the rest) for the magazine out in December, and contributed decisions regarding layout and style. It’s exciting, not just to finally get to do the things I’ve thought I’ve always wanted to do, but to do them and realize that so far, I really, truly enjoy doing those things.

I’m running a hotel this week, it seems–from last Friday to this coming Sunday there’s been and will be a steady string of friends from Shenzhen crashing on my couch. They’re all off for midterms on the mainland, so visits are in order. The couch wouldn’t mind some Michigan bodies on it, either…hint, hint.

Love to all. Be well!

The Truth, If I Could Tell Her


    Hi,I miss you so much.

    Where are you?What do you do?Are you happy now?

    We have just finished the final exam,and I have time to write a letter to you.

    Many studentsin senior 3 in Pinggang failed their exams.They must be very sad.

    I regret that I didn’t choose arts.I really love painting.However,my parents disagree.I doesn’t mean that I don’t love my parents.In fact,I love them very much.I know they love me too.They gave me a best childhood in the world,I think.They have rights to ask me to do everything.It is my responsibility to obey their request,though I am unhappy.I hope that they can be happy when they live.

     Do you know?In China,‘孝’is important.It means ‘filial piety’.It may be different from that in America,right?

     Only two years can I prepare for the college  entrance exam.I must do my best.So I might have less time to write letters to you.I have been a little tired.I must insist.

     I still remember what you told us—-go and play.And I want to go to America to play.

     OK.I am going to go to bed.Bye.





Hi. I miss you too, even though, if I’m being honest, I don’t remember which exactly of my 600 students you are.

I’m in my home, on my bed, in northern Michigan with a computer on my lap. I’m worlds away from you. I do things–today, on a lazy Sunday–like fold clothes, clean my room, eat grilled chicken with rice and salad, do the dishes, and play with my new camera. No, I’m not very happy. But I’m working on it.

Congratulations on finishing your exam. The fact that you’re laboring to write me a letter in English after the completion of said exams fills me with pride. I’m lucky for knowing you.

My heart goes out to the Senior 3 students who failed their exams. Their lives are altered now in ways I can only imagine. For one, their chance to go to college–any college–has just gone out the window.

I wish you’d chosen the Arts major, despite your parents. Pig, I hope you’re painting right now. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a Humanities degree it’s that your passion can thrive right alongside your day job. It’s just a shame it has to take a back seat to the Science major your parents are pushing you–a high school student–into. I did know about 孝 (xiao4), and no, it’s not the same in the United States. Filial piety is an important concept and a good basis for a family, but here it is manifested in different ways. My parents, for example, are proud of me for chasing the things that make me happy, not for obeying their every whim and becoming a mini-clone of their own forgotten hopes and dreams, nor a ticket to their future financial stability. I hope your parents can be happy while they live, too, but your unhappiness should not be the price of their contentment.

You only have two years to prepare for the college entrance exam that a bunch of Senior 3’s just failed. Good luck. You must do your best because the social pressures on you are greater than on anyone else in the history of humankind. Females in China have the highest suicide rate in the world at about 15 in every 100,000 women and you’re dealing with that every day. You’ll “insist” because you “must.” You’ll strike those frail little fists against every exam and application and every all night study session where you’re so tired your head drops onto the stacks of books open on your desk. You’ll stop eating and sleeping and you’ll punish yourself brutally for every wrong answer. For what? The infinitesimal chance of going somewhere else. I wish you didn’t have to work so hard, but at least there’s this: it’s worth it. Going somewhere else is worth it.

Go and play, Pig.



Review: Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

A year ago, before I left for China, I read and reviewed Hessler’s “River Town,” a book about his 2-year stint as a Peace Corps member in the rural village of Fuling along the Yangtze River. The book was inspiring, thought-provoking, and compelling, in that I was compelled to think hard and dream big about the myriad ways my own experience as an English teacher in modern China could and would play out.

Reading “Oracle Bones” after the completion of my year abroad, I found myself nodding along to the cultural quirks, shaking my head at the recounting of struggles between protesters and oppressors, and feeling deep sadness for a culture that is congruently burying a past, living in a present, and ignoring a future except in the abstract.

Oracle bones are usually ox scapula or the underside of turtle shells which have been heated and cracked. The crack lines are used to divine oracles which are then scratched into or written on the bones. They weren’t recognized for what they were until 1899, when a Qing dynasty official, Wang Yirong, went to the pharmacy for some ailment and was prescribed oracle bone as a cure. He noticed the written glyphs on the bone before it was ground to powder, and he bought the pharmacy out so the bones could be studied. No one knows how many oracle bones had been ingested by your average Chinese citizen before the value of the bones were discovered.

Hessler’s a journalist who lives in the ever-changing cityscape of Beijing. “Oracle Bones” gracefully entwines the past and present of Chinese history by chronicling a few ‘ordinary’ lives: Polat, a black-market money-trading Uighur who seeks political asylum in the United States, William Jefferson Foster and Nancy Drew, two of Hessler’s former students who migrate to Wenzhou for work, Emily, another former student who migrates to what’s been called the “soulless” city of Shenzhen, and Chen Mengjia, a scholar of oracle-bones whose story is remade, obscured, and revealed in small glimpses of truth all the time by the different people who tell it. Also chronicled are the brutal shutdowns of the peaceful protests of Falun Gong practitioners. Falun Gong is a religion based on meditation and qigong exercises introduced in China in 1992 and subsequently forbidden and prosecuted by the government.

Falun Gong members practicing meditation in front of their insignia.

Lacking some of the momentum and flow of “River Town,” “Oracle Bones” nonetheless creates an impressive dialogue between a complicated, hazy past and a likewise complicated and hazy present. It seems in all this history, a very common divination of the oracle bones is all that can be hoped for: “In the next ten days, there will be no disasters.” Throughout the book, or rather, throughout Chinese history as evoked by the book, there’s the sense that looking ahead further than those ten days would be nonsensical. In a world riddled with oppression and a rapidly changing and growing economy, there’s no guarantee that the future will in any way resemble what the world looked like a week ago.

An untitled farewell poem composed two months ago

I want to leave my voice with this place
along with strands of hair and the skin
of my cheeks, a tiny drop of blood,
bits of me I don’t need, so leaving them doesn’t make me less.
Rather, I will be added to you
in a simple equation
that reads the same back to front:
you have added to me, too.

If I could just become part of the accumulation
of things here, of small, flimsy, lined notebooks and exams
the size of newspapers, of chalk dust and cigarette butts
in the last stall of the girls’ bathroom… oh, if I could just be
part of the mundane here, accepted as fact…

What I wanted to do was tell you what I know
in the language I know it in.
What I’ve done
is soak you up the way rice does gravy.

I will leave behind only the nonessential, just enough
so when I’m home again someday, some thin whisper—
perhaps music like screeching or food
so pungent I gag and then consume
will give me pause
and though I may be in the tallest building
in the biggest city in the hot middle of the day,
I’ll face east and hear a cock crowing.

just a few things I’ll miss

The way children are adored here, the more precious because there is only ever one per family, their little bare bottoms peeking from the split bottom pants, the way they freely urinate in public.

The food, the variety of it, the vegetables, the fish, the eggplant and rice noodles and dumplings and ricericericerice and teateateatea and green beans and meat with all the fat and bones intact and chicken feet and tofu that smells like a sewer and tofu that tastes sweet as sugar, and lotus, and the sauces that transform normal garden produce into something exotic and intensely flavorful, the spice, the little black balls of spice that numb your mouth, and the fruit–mangoes, mangosteen, durian, dragonfruit, pears–sweet, cheap, abundant.

The vibrant vegetation, the way the tree at the end of the road of my apartment complex burst into flower over the weekend without anyone noticing. After the heavy day-long rain this tree had a sunset painted over its fern-like leaves, small red flowers catching the daylight and tossing it this way and that. Under the tree red petals littered the ground and caught in bushes nearby like snow in hair and my, how lovely.

The freedom to travel, the rush of joy at a new city, how they’re all so different and all the same.

The lived-in feeling of public transportation, the relative ease with which I can cross a city–this city, my city–as big as a state.

The way when you meet someone there’s no preamble. Immediately phone numbers are exchanged, immediately someone says to you, “I hope we can be friends,” immediately you are a part of their life.

The way students disobey and sleep during class and ignore your questions and still love you fiercely as one of their own, as someone to be proud of, as a member of their community.