Lights! Camera! Flowers!

My mother and I celebrated her birthday a month early with a trip to the Philadelphia Flower Show on Saturday afternoon. This year’s Flower Show theme is “Celebrate the Movies,” so the entrance is done up as a movie premiere, with a marquee and red carpet—and the smell of popcorn wafting through the air.

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Disney is a major sponsor of the show this year, so the exhibit designers were instructed to design displays inspired by [Disney] movies, but not directly replicate scenes from them. So, for example, we saw a classical Chinese garden (Mulan) and a treehouse in the jungle (Tarzan). “Pooh’s Hunny Depot” had honey (“hunny”) pots serving as planters and featured the bridge where he and Piglet played Poohsticks.

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I liked this little Irish cottage, but needed the placard to tell me it was inspired by The Quiet Man. Several people around me were guessing it was Lord of the Rings, but it couldn’t be—LOTR isn’t a Disney property. There are rules, people.

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One of the centerpiece exhibits, of course, was the Frozen display, which depicted winter spreading out from Elsa’s ice castle over the rest of Arendelle. The exhibit seemed so empty, though—we felt like Elsa should have been walking down the staircase.

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I preferred the Ratatouille display, which showed a gorgeous Parisian restaurant setup …

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… and lots of stuffed rats.

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There were also many smaller exhibits: table centerpieces inspired by movies set in Philadelphia; hats decorated with flowers; shadowboxes of scenes from classic films; pictures of cartoon characters made from pieces of dried flowers (those were done by area school students, who are amazingly talented).

But when all was said and done, my favorite exhibit had nothing to do with the movies. It was the topiary Phillie Phanatic. I’m looking forward to seeing the real thing in action soon; unfortunately, it’s usually more fun to watch the Phanatic than the actual Phillies.

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Mom and I spent a long time strolling around the Marketplace, where vendors were hawking every good under the sun to sell: jewelry, clothing, garden decorations, gardening tools that will revolutionize your life, life-size statues cast to look like your family. Mom remarked that the Marketplace was like how she imagined a medieval fair to be—a lively scene with stalls offering a mixture of useful stuff and fun junk.

IMG_7176We had planned to walk across the street to Reading Terminal Market after the show to get cannoli at Termini Brothers, but discovered that the market had come to us. Terminis and several other Reading Terminal vendors had set up stands inside the Flower Show, so our cannoli were only steps away.

Unlike visits to Longwood Gardens, going to the Flower Show isn’t an “every year” sort of thing for either of us; in fact, although both Mom and I have been to the show with others from time to time in past years, I’m pretty sure we haven’t gone together since I was in elementary school. I’m trying to start a new tradition, because it’s really a nice way to spend an afternoon in the depths of winter—and makes you believe spring might one day arrive.

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Ten Years Ago In China

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One of the side effects of finally moving into a (hopefully) semi-permanent living situation is that I can finally reclaim the random boxes of my belongings that have accumulated in my parents’ basement over the past decade. In unpacking one of those boxes, I found that it contained souvenirs from my first trip to China—a walk down memory lane, which revealed quite a few forgotten memories along the way.

I landed in Beijing on February 16, 2005. I had tried to go to China before: as a junior in college, I’d signed up for a summer study-abroad program, only to see it canceled due to the SARS crisis, and I’d spent my senior year working through the interminable Peace Corps application process, only to be offered a placement in Turkmenistan. I’d been kind of frightened off from the Peace Corps by that point, anyway, so I decided to get to China on my own, as a language student. And so when I exited the Beijing airport late that February night, relieved to have spotted a Starbucks in the terminal (China couldn’t be that different, right?), I climbed onto a bus with the rest of the students bound for the CET Academic Program dorm at the Beijing Institute of Education, my home for the next six months.

I didn’t have to go to China as a CET student; I had graduated from college the spring before and could have just moved to Beijing on my own. If I had been braver or more sure of my ability to negotiate the world—to find a job, rent an apartment, make a life in China by myself—maybe I would have done that. But the same fear that made me skitter away from the Peace Corps when the time came to make a choice also told me to choose a familiar, safe role in China: be a student. I’d have structure, and more importantly, I’d have backup in case China turned out to be more than I could handle.

In some ways, China was way more than I could handle. I had traveled outside the U.S. before, but never to a place where I was so visibly different. My three semesters of college Chinese hadn’t prepared me to answer questions about why my hair was red or how my skin had come to be covered in freckles. (Answering that recurrent inquiry led to this essay, my first-ever paid publication, which will always and forever remain stubbornly on the first page of my Google search results, no matter how much I wish it would fade to the third or fourth.) And although I knew enough Chinese to get around, I regularly found myself in conversations far over my head, cursed with an unfortunate tendency to nod and agree when I didn’t know what was going on. Heaven only knows what I agreed with during those months.

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With Teachers Tian and Fang, who regularly brought me to tears but really didn’t mean to.

So I cried. I am not a crier, but I cried more during those six months than at any other time since early childhood. Sometimes I cried alone in my dorm room after a particularly bad Chinese tutoring session, frustrated by my inability to grasp a language that literally a billion people could speak better than I ever would. Sometimes I cried in public, like when I trudged over to the Japan Airlines ticketing office on a brutally hot July day and the agent told me they didn’t have my name on the manifest for the flight I was supposed to take back to the U.S. in mid-August and therefore couldn’t issue me a ticket. (In that case, bursting into tears and sobbing, “I want to go home” flummoxed the agent enough to produce a ticket that got me on that plane.)

Except, I didn’t exactly want to go home. On days that China didn’t bring me to tears, I was having the best time of my life. I was there entirely on my own time and my own dime, and with the exchange rate still fixed at 8.2RMB to the dollar back then, my dimes went really far. (Oh, 8.2, I miss you.) Determined to get the most I could out of my time in the country—who knew if I would ever go back? ha ha—I said yes to nearly every opportunity that came my way, though unlike when I agreed with incomprehensible things in Chinese, I usually knew what I was saying yes to (or I thought I did). Sifting through the contents of that box from my parents’ basement, I find mementos from things I don’t even remember saying yes to. I went to a soccer game at Worker’s Stadium? Oh right, I did; here’s the ticket stub. I ate at a Sizzler? Here’s the business card, so I guess so. And now I remember—I did go to a midnight showing of the third Star Wars movie on the day it was released.

While hiking on the unrestored Great Wall, convinced I would fall over the side

Taken while hiking on the unrestored Great Wall, convinced I would fall over the side

But there are plenty of experiences I remember saying yes to even without photos or ticket stubs to spark my memory. I said yes to trying both tofu and eggplant for the first time and learned that they’re two of my favorite foods; I said yes to drinking hot soymilk and learned that it makes me gag. I said yes to a four-hour hike on the unrestored Great Wall (and broke down in tears halfway through) and yes to camping there overnight, which meant I saw a spectacular sunrise. I said yes to riding a horse on the grasslands in Inner Mongolia, which was a terrifying enough experience that I said no the next day to riding a camel in the desert. I said yes to a train ride from Beijing to Hong Kong, which I still remember as a 24-hour oasis of peace and relaxation, spent reading a cheap copy of Wuthering Heights as the rough brown of northern China gave way to the soft green of the south. I said yes to a release party for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, at which one other classmate and I were practically the only people in attendance and the imported book was so expensive that neither of us bought a copy. I said yes to an unforgettable trip to Yangshuo, during which I both ate a rat and took a hot-air balloon ride. Rat aside, that week in Yangshuo was so perfect that although I’ve thought about going back there many times, I’m reluctant to return and risk spoiling the memory of that trip.

The countryside around Yangshuo, seen from a hot-air balloon

The countryside around Yangshuo, seen from a hot-air balloon

Saying yes, of course, implies that I was responding to suggestions from others, and I was. I didn’t come up with any of the above ideas myself; either an opportunity came my way (someone offering free soccer tickets that I accepted) or I assented to someone else’s proposal (a classmate’s suggestion that we travel to Inner Mongolia or Yangshuo). Going to China had been my idea, but I hadn’t made any plans beyond that first big, bold step. Call it the Sports Night approach: “First we show up, then we see what happens.”

Sometimes what happened left me in tears, convinced that I would never feel comfortable in China and thinking that I should leave and never return. But much more often than not, saying yes led me to a place I never imagined I would be and made me think about how much of China I had yet to see. I’ve never again been as completely free as I was on that first trip; since then, lack of time or money, or the press of other obligations, has constrained my ability to pursue every opportunity. In the intervening decade, though, I’ve not only continued saying yes, I’ve learned to make my own plans and to trust that things will work out, not spend my time imagining how they won’t. The language classes were useful, but the importance of saying yes was probably the most important lesson of those first six months in China.

And yes, there is a story behind the rat dinner, and yes, I have photos. Another post for another day.

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Bookshelf: Midnight in Siberia

Midnight in Siberia coverFor me, a ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway would be an interesting vacation, and one I’ve long wanted to take. For Russians in the past, Trans-Siberian trains carried people away from their homes into exile. But for millions of Russians today, the Trans-Siberian is simply a mode of transport—the most cost-effective way to get from Point A to Point B in an enormous country. Trains have lumbered across Russia’s expanse for over a century, a constant presence even as the country surrounding the tracks has fractured from political upheaval. The Trans-Siberian traces and also forms “the spine of Russia,” journalist David Greene writes: “As I traversed Russia in a train, I couldn’t help but feel I was traveling on the only concrete thing holding this nation together.”

That thought comes from Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey Into the Heart of Russia, Greene’s recently released account of an extended Trans-Siberian trip he took in 2013, after concluding a stint as NPR’s Moscow bureau chief and returning to the U.S. to cohost Morning Edition. Like former NPR Beijing correspondent Rob Gifford, author of China Road: A Journey Into the Future of a Rising Power, Greene uses a long trip as a framing device for his discussions of life and politics in today’s Russia. Midnight in Siberia really isn’t about the ride, though; Greene’s focus is on the stops he makes and the people he meets along the way. Each chapter centers on on one person’s story (his or her name serving as chapter title), and these accounts merge with Greene’s musings on how the past has shaped today’s Russians, and where the country might be headed in the future.

To those of us watching the country from the pages of the New York Times, of course, twenty-first century Russia “seems to stand for little besides wealth at the top, corruption, an uneven playing field, and the repression of civil rights,” so it’s unsurprising that Greene’s is not exactly an optimistic story, though he finds moments of humor. “Crazy shit just happens” in Russia, Greene writes, and he seems to enjoy absurdity (a required trait for anyone dealing with the remnants of a communist bureaucracy). But Greene meets people who have endured unimaginable difficulties: parents who lost their hockey-player son when his team’s plane crashed, in an incident some suggest Vladimir Putin orchestrated; a former police officer arrested on spurious charges who became paralyzed when he jumped from a police station window to avoid further questioning and torture. Several of Greene’s younger interviewees speak of belonging to a “lost generation”—not one from the years of Stalin or Brezhnev, but rather those who came of age under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Having grown up in one country, they now face adulthood in another for which they were not prepared, and they have drifted.

Hearing these stories of hardship is difficult, and Greene struggles with the clash between his desire for Russians to embrace democracy and the indifference that many of them feel. Why, he wonders, won’t people fight harder for change when conditions in the country would seem to call for it? It’s a matter of security, he decides, summing up the choice that Russians face: “Stand for change that could be messy and unpredictable, or settle for and endorse a status quo that is unsavory but somehow safe?”

Most people choose the latter option, but Greene meets a few who are attempting to effect small changes in the system. He speaks with villagers who filed a lawsuit against a corrupt local government, and won. An innkeeper he encounters explains how she works to keep her business administratively beyond reproach so local authorities can’t come around and slap her with fines of obscure origin. Although these actions are limited, Greene realizes that they are far from unimportant: “It can be so tempting to look for the big battles in Russia—big elections, big rallies, an Arab Spring. And it can be deflating when you don’t see Russia rise up, when you see what looks like a citizenry that’s lazy or resigned. But maybe this is overlooking the smaller battles.” Westerners—Americans—always expect that things will change quickly, and in the manner we favor. But maybe we need to give Russia more time to work through the remnants of the Soviet era and the messiness of the post-1991 years, and perhaps that will take place mostly on an incremental, local level.

Greene certainly doesn’t know how things will turn out for Russia—to state the obvious, no one does—so the best he can do is chronicle what he sees in the country now. Midnight in Siberia offers a few dozen snapshots of life in the small cities and villages that the Trans-Siberian Railway trundles past. It makes for an interesting and informative book, and the train trip an effective framing device. “There’s nothing boring about riding the Trans-Siberian,” Greene writes; the epic journey is “hard yet poetic, perplexing yet entertaining.” I doubt anyone has ever said the same about Amtrak.

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LA Review of Books: Q&A with Michael Meyer, Author of In Manchuria

Now up at the LA Review of Books China Blog, my interview with Michael Meyer, author of a wonderful new travelogue/history/memoir about life in China’s Northeast called In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China:

Meyer coverMEC: You write that you first voiced the idea of moving from Beijing to Wasteland “after too many shots of 120-proof liquor” one night. How did the idea go from there to reality?

MM: “One day, I just showed up with a suitcase.” After nearly a decade in Beijing, I had moved to New York City, where my wife had a job offer as an attorney. I spent a year-and-a-half in the 42nd Street library, rummaging through its surprisingly large collection of northeast China history, dreaming of traveling the region. I mean, literally dreaming – at night, I’d be walking down Broadway and see the Winter Garden’s marquee reading not “Mama Mia!” but “Manchuria! The Musical.” After my wife’s father died, she decided she wanted to spend some time back home, and so she quit her job, we put our things in storage, and boarded a plane.

I highly recommend picking up this book—it’s the perfect thing to hole up with at a time when the northeastern United States is doing its best to stage a Manchurian winter for us (more snow is falling outside my living room window even as I type).

Read the rest of my Q&A with Meyer here.

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Suitable for Framing

Diploma

Look what finally arrived! It wasn’t just a dream … I really am done.

Now, tell me more about these “rights and privileges.”

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My New York Napkin Collection

At first I wanted the napkins.

Anyone who has eaten a few meals at mid- or lower-end restaurants in China knows that getting table napkins can require the persistence and negotiating skills of a senior diplomat. You’d think the waitstaff were personally paying for each napkin out of their own paychecks (wait, maybe they are?) by the way they generally first ignore, then contest, your request for napkins. Eventually, if you’re patient, you might receive a single thin napkin. Use it wisely.

Many restaurants charge for napkins—ask for canjinzhi and you’ll be told that a packet will cost you an additional renminbi or two (though at least you’ll probably have a few extra napkins in your pocket for next time). And slightly higher-end places might provide plastic-wrapped wet wipes or moist towels at each place setting—which will cost you several yuan the minute you rip open the wrapper. (As language students in Beijing back in 2005, my friends and I would immediately collect the packets as soon as we sat down in our favorite dumpling restaurant, return them to the waiter, and then pore over the messy handwritten bill at the end of the meal to ensure we hadn’t been charged for opening them.) One of the Chinese lessons I learned the fastest was to always have a pack of Kleenex in my bag and expect them to serve triple-duty as tissues, toilet paper, and napkins.

In New York, on the other hand, whenever I don’t bring a lunch from home I find that my salads and sandwiches inevitably come with a side of napkins. The counter clerks at Just Salad and the Four Seasons Deli and Cosi and IndiKitch all have a routine: they tote up the bill on the computer touchscreen with one hand, while the other gathers at least half a dozen napkins and a fork and adds them to my bag or tray. I use one or maybe two during the course of my meal, then take the rest and put them in my briefcase, because I can’t stand the idea of throwing five perfectly good paper napkins in the trash. As a result, one of my desk drawers now looks like this:

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Why the extreme napkin generosity, New York? Most of us could make do with two—okay, I’ll even go up to three—napkins during the course of a normal lunch (obviously, something like barbecued ribs requires many more). At any given meal, I receive at least double the number of paper napkins I need—paper napkins that cost money and require environmental resources to make. I’m guessing that some people, like me, save unused napkins and hold onto them for another time, but an equal number just toss the leftover napkins out with the rest of their trash.

So now I’m doing something that would have been unthinkable in my China life: I’m refusing paper napkins when I get takeout. As I see the counter clerk’s hand moving toward the stack, preparing to shove a handful in my bag, I jump to stop him or her. “I don’t need any napkins,” I say, and the counterperson looks at me with confusion or just ignores me altogether. I’ve broken the rhythm of their checkout routine. (This occasionally means I find myself without utensils, but I have a stash of those in my desk drawer, too.)

Still, it feels like I’m fighting a losing battle agains the paper napkin tide. They just keep showing up, and I just keep adding them to my collection. I’ve resigned myself to always having a glut of napkins. At least I’ll be ready for my next trip to China.

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Magic-Loop Mittens, Knit Without Fear

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Ready in time for the 3-5″ of snow predicted for Tuesday.

I promise, I will not turn this site into a knitting blog. I actually have at least half a dozen other posts in rough draft form—book reviews! photographs! China stuff!—and need to clean those up and publish them. But first, one last post (for now) about knitting.

My favorite knitting blogger is Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, known by the nom de knit Yarn Harlot. Steph (I’ll pretend we’re on a first-name basis) is wonderfully reassuring in her advice about knitting; in both her blog posts and books, she speaks with calm authority. Her basic message is: knitting is not brain surgery. Sure, there are some tricky parts and you may mess them up a time or ten, but just rip your work back and try again. It’s not a big deal. Steph posts about the mistakes she’s made, just to prove that even someone who has been knitting for four-plus decades is capable of screwing up—regularly, and on an occasionally epic scale.

The thing is, although I have read Steph’s blog and books for nearly a decade now, I haven’t really taken this message to heart. I’ve been a very cautious knitter. I learned a ton of stuff really quickly, got reasonably good at it, and then stopped trying new things. I learned to knit cuff-down socks, so I’ve never attempted a pair of toe-up. I’ve knit probably a dozen sweaters, but every single one has been a seamless raglan so I wouldn’t have to sew anything together. I’ve never done colorwork, even though I love the look of classic Norwegian knits and would like a star hat. Whenever I look through patterns on Ravelry, I immediately toss out the ones that involve techniques I haven’t learned, regardless of how much I like the finished objects.

I’m trying to get better at knitting fearlessly, as the Yarn Harlot advocates, and what better place to start than with a project she inspired me to do? I saw these fingerless mitts on her blog in December and ordered the yarn right away. But then I delayed casting on, because as much as I wanted those mitts, I knew I was going to have to Magic Loop them—and that meant I was going to have to learn how to Magic Loop.

Quick explanation: the basic way to knit small-circumference circular things is to use a set of double-pointed needles (DPNs), which form a triangle or square (depending on the number of needles in play). This is how I learned to knit in the round. But a lot of knitters are very fond of a newer technique called the Magic Loop, which employs one long circular needle to accomplish the same result.

(That’s a very poor explanation of something you really have to see to understand. Sorry.)

Because the yarn for the mitts is a super-bulky weight, it would require #11 or 13 DPNs, neither of which I own. They’re kind of an odd size, so I’d have to order them online; depending on what brand and source I chose, I’d probably wind up paying $10-15 for the needles and shipping. And I wasn’t sure if I’d need size 11 or 13, so it would be safest to buy both.

Or I could suck it up, pull out one of the many circular needles I already own, and learn to Magic Loop.

So rather than spend $30 on more DPNs, I decided to try Magic Looping. Last Sunday afternoon, I sat down with my yarn and needles and a cup of coffee and watched a couple of tutorials on YouTube. I cast on and started knitting and realized about ten stitches in that I’d messed up. I found more tutorials online and eventually stumbled over one that clicked and made Magic Looping seem obvious and easy. In between work and phone calls and laundry, I knit the entire first mitt before the end of Sunday, and then I knocked out the second one in a couple of post-dinner knitting sessions during the week. By the time I finished, it was like I’d been Magic Looping since childhood.

Knitting isn’t brain surgery, in either its complexity or stakes. I need to remember that more often.

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Gone Grant: UC Pacific Rim Research Program Ends

In the reading room at Shanghai’s Bibliotheca Zikawei, on the afternoon I finished and submitted my dissertation.

In the reading room at Shanghai’s Bibliotheca Zikawei, on the afternoon I finished and submitted my dissertation.

I have a very clear memory of finding out that I’d been awarded a UC Pacific Rim Research Grant, because I thought I’d been rejected.

I was kind of on a break from grad school in the spring of 2012, working on ChinaFile at the Asia Society and living in Princeton. As I rode the train home from New York one evening, my BlackBerry buzzed with an email—the results of the PacRim application I’d submitted earlier that year. The email didn’t look good; the message said something like “Thank you for your interest in the Pacific Rim grant. The results of your application are attached.” That seemed ominous. But when I clicked on the PDF attachment, for some reason my phone wouldn’t download it. I spent the rest of the trip home mentally preparing myself for the moment when I would open the attachment on my computer and see “We are sorry to inform you that …”

I had already received two letters like that (though I’d also been awarded two small grants by professional organizations), and I’d decided that if the PacRim didn’t go my way, I was done with graduate school. In some ways, I would have to be done: I couldn’t self-fund a yearlong research trip to China, and I couldn’t write my dissertation and finish the PhD without that trip. But I was also feeling done in a broader sense: if none of the major grant organizations I had applied to thought my research was worth funding, I would take that as a sign that academia was not the place for me. I already had a pretty strong hunch that might be the case.

So I walked into my apartment and took my time getting settled—changing out of my work clothes, unpacking my briefcase, fixing a snack. I finally opened my email and clicked on that attachment, seeing with great surprise that the first sentence read, “I write with happy news.” I had money to fund my research year.

Future UC students won’t get that happy news, because the Pacific Rim grant has just been ended. (Apparently that information was posted on January 1, but the announcement just made its way into my social media networks.) The program had been gutted a couple of years ago, when the full-scale grants like the one I received were suspended and only mini-grants were available (something I wrote about for the LA Review of Books at the time). But now the UC Office of the President has declined to renew the PacRim funding, and the program is over.

I find this incredibly frustrating—and I’m standing at a distance. I can’t imagine how it feels for the second- and third-year grad students who are looking ahead at the next couple of years and seeing that another major funding source has dried up. Well, there’s still the Fulbright-Hays … if you’re a U.S. citizen, and if the program isn’t suddenly suspended (that’s already almost happened once, which I wrote about for China Beat back in 2011). Many other grants, such as those offered by the Luce/ACLS China Studies Program, are for pre-dissertation summer fieldwork, or they’re like the ones I received from the Association for Asian Studies and the Children’s Literature Association—small grants of $1500 or $2000. Those grants are useful and important, but not enough for a long research trip.

I regularly talk to prospective grad students who are interested in studying at UC Irvine and want answers to their questions. I’m still enthusiastic about UCI and its Chinese history program, but I’m also honest with those applicants: the biggest funding challenge they’ll face isn’t as PhD students in California, since UCI History now guarantees a certain level of funding for everyone entering the program. Instead, they’ll face a problem when it comes time to do research overseas, because there just aren’t that many places offering money right now. Too many people are applying for too few dollars.

Receiving the PacRim kept me in graduate school for an additional two years—the years I needed to research and write my dissertation. Getting that grant was also, to be honest, an incredible boost of confidence at a time when I felt very little in my academic skills. It signaled to me that someone beyond my advisors and professors at UCI thought I had good ideas that were worth pursuing. I took the research conducted with PacRim support and turned it first into a dissertation and then into a book proposal that’s now under contract with Oxford University Press. So even though I didn’t wind up with a traditional tenure-track academic job, I’d like to think that the PacRim administrators would look at me today and see money spent wisely.

Even if someone thinks the funds weren’t put to good use in my particular case, there are more than 800 other projects that the PacRim has supported since it began in 1986. Those projects cover academic fields ranging from history to public health and investigate countries all around the Pacific Rim. The PacRim program was broad, both geographically and disciplinarily, and resulted in enhanced understanding of an enormous region. Why, I have to ask, is that not worth continuing?

Posted in China, Dissertation, Higher Education | 1 Comment

Knitters Take Manhattan: Vogue Knitting Live! NYC

IMG_1998(Random side note: although I loved both of my apartments in Shanghai, one thing neither ever offered was quiet, primarily due to the incessant renovations other residents were always undertaking. It just struck me how wonderful it is to sit down with my coffee and laptop early on a Sunday morning and write without the rattle of the despised hammer-drills distracting me. Ten points in Jersey City’s column.)

I changed my mind half a dozen times about whether or not I would go to Vogue Knitting Live! in New York this weekend. I didn’t learn about the show until last week, so almost all of the classes were already filled to capacity, and the few remaining didn’t appeal to me. If I went, my participation was going to be limited to buying a $20 Marketplace ticket and wandering around a big sales hall of yarn that I shouldn’t buy at a time when there are other outlets for my money. (I have plenty of yarn. I do not, however, have a sofa.) Twenty dollars to window shop and talk myself out of impulse purchases didn’t seem like a responsible use of funds.

And yet …

I wanted to go. I wanted to see what a knitting show was all about, as I’d never been to one before. I wanted to check out new patterns and get inspired, because I seem to be stuck in a scarf rut. I wanted to see interesting yarns in person and make mental notes about what I should buy when I have more(/any) disposable income. And spending a few hours at a knitting show seemed infinitely more appealing than unpacking the last of my kitchen boxes. (Which I will do today, it’s on the list, I swear. I hate moving.)

Saturday morning, I made the final decision as I was eating breakfast: I was going. I accessorized my outfit with some favorite hand-knits, as I had a suspicion that one wants to show off one’s best creations at a knitting show, and made my way up to the Marriott at Times Square. Twenty dollars handed over at the ticket booth and I was sporting a hot-pink wristband allowing me entry to the two-floor Marketplace.

Inside the Vogue Knitting Live! Marketplace

Inside the Vogue Knitting Live! Marketplace

I realized about 30 seconds after walking into the Marketplace that there was actually very little danger that I would walk out with a bag stuffed full of yarn. The hall was so packed with people that we could barely move through the aisles; making my way into the tiny and crowded booths to inspect yarn up close seemed an exercise in futility, and making [responsible] purchasing decisions practically impossible. It’s a good thing that knitters tend to be a friendly and understanding group of people, because everyone kept bumping into each other as they inched through the Marketplace. This provided many opportunities for conversations about the hand-knits people were wearing—as I’d expected, nearly everyone had donned at least one of their finished objects. I heard a lot of exclamations of “That is so beautiful! Which yarn is that?” and “Don’t tell me you made up that pattern yourself!” (One guy asked me which pattern I’d used to make the scarf I was wearing, which satisfied the desire of my knitter’s ego for recognition.)

I did one slow circuit of the room, ducking into less crowded booths to check things out whenever I could. There were quite a few yarn producers exhibiting their wares, as well as many knitting stores selling various luxury yarns, plus every knitting accessory you can imagine: shawl pins, stitch markers, fancy needles, yarn bowls, “knit one, sip two” wine glasses, pillows that massage your lower back to prevent pain while sitting and knitting.

“I just like to pet the silk,” one shop owner told me, and while this statement might seem bizarre to non-knitters, I completely understood. I can’t stand scratchy yarn; tweedy Irish wool might look nice, but it’s hell to wear. When I’m yarn-shopping (or browsing), soft wins. Merino wool, silk, cashmere, bison, qiviut … oh, qiviut. One shop had some beautiful qiviut for $220 a skein—a little outside my price range.

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$220 qiviut (the two larger skeins on the left)

When I needed a break from the Marketplace after an hour, I went out into the gathering area and found the “Seven Wonders of the Yarn World,” an exhibit of models created from yarn and different knitting techniques.

Granny-square Great Wall of China

Granny-square Great Wall of China

I ate the lunch I’d brought (and noticed many others at nearby tables also eating brown-bag style; knitters tend to be a thrifty bunch, except when it comes to buying yarn) and pulled out the scarf I’ve been working on to get in a little knitting time. All the tables around me were filled with women doing the same,* often sharing advice and trading knitting war stories or pulling out their phones to show off pictures of projects. (I heard more than a few “my husband’s gonna freak out if I come home with one more skein of yarn” jokes, too.) I mostly prefer knitting alone—it clears my mind and gives me something to do while I watch TV—but there’s something pleasant and companionable about being surrounded by a knitting community, too.

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Eventually, I put my scarf away and headed up to the second floor of the Marketplace, which was even more crowded than the first. The second floor had a lot of big booths and some of the superstar vendors, as well as the main stage, where fashion shows were taking place. It. Was. Insane.

Without a doubt, my favorite element was the “knitting as art” exhibit outside the second floor of the Marketplace, where people who take knitting to another level were showing off their work. I saw wearable knitted animal-head masks and knitted glass, knitted toys and dolls and close-up photographs of knitted work. The exhibitor who really takes the cake (pun intended), though, was “Madame Tricot,” who knits sculptures of food. She had a sweets table

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And a well-stocked fridge.

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Perhaps predictably, I did not attain my goal of leaving Vogue Knitting Live! without buying anything. But I also didn’t leave VKL with much. I bought a pattern (for the Grus cowl; $6) and one skein of a hand-dyed lace-weight yarn from a farm in New York ($16). Plus, I saw a lot of cool knitted stuff, added half a dozen patterns to my Ravelry queue (now 436 project long; I might need to quit my job and knit full-time), and decided that yes, Vogue Knitting Live! is more than worth the price of admission. Sign me up for next year.

* Knitting is overwhelmingly a women’s hobby; I saw a few men at the show, but they probably composed under 10% of vendors and attendees combined. Several were clearly bag-men brought along by their wives to carry the woman’s purchases and leave her hands free to pet the yarn.

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A Longwood Christmas

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Remember how I swore I was in for the winter and had no plans to go anywhere as long as the mid-Atlantic region was doing its North Pole imitation?

Well, as Mary Poppins would say, that was a piecrust promise (“easily made, easily broken”), because my mother, brother, and I decided to go to Longwood Gardens on Saturday to see their Christmas display before it ended.

Longwood Gardens is one of my absolute favorite places. It started out as the estate of Pierre du Pont, an industrial magnate whose true passion was horticulture and landscape design. In 1906, du Pont purchased a farm in Kennett Square, PA and quickly began designing gardens for the grounds. By 1921, du Pont’s vision had increased in scale: he oversaw the construction of the “Conservatory,” a stunning greenhouse that eventually also featured the world’s largest pipe organ in a private residence. Additionally, du Pont was fascinated by fountains and designed elaborate landscapes around them. After his death in 1954, Longwood was turned into a public attraction—one of the best things to do in the Philadelphia area (though it’s about an hour’s drive from the city).

Mom, Bren, and I have a long tradition of going to Longwood, in both summer and winter. I kind of prefer it during the summer, because there’s more to see and my favorite water features are all closed during the winter, but that’s certainly not to say that a cold-weather visit is a waste of time! The Longwood Christmas display is always something special.

Saturday was cold—we’d all dressed as warmly as possible, but still made a beeline for the Conservatory as soon as we entered the gardens, walking quickly past the decorated outdoor trees. We wanted to be indoors.

Every year, the Christmas design team picks a theme for the decorations; this year’s was birds.

As Mom pointed out in several places, the designers create impressive displays using some very basic materials—things often look more complicated than they actually are. Like this pinecone penguin, for example:

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Not to say that most of us would come up with the initial idea for making an ornament like this, but it wouldn’t be that difficult to replicate it. Right? (Famous last words.)

We walked around and around the Conservatory—you have to look at everything twice. There are so many subtle details to the displays that you always miss something the first time.

IMG_1946Plus, pretty flowers to look at and smell!

After a while, we race-walked from the Conservatory to the restaurant for soup and sandwiches, then practically ran back to the Conservatory as the sun was beginning to set and the air, unbelievably, got even colder.

We found seats in the Music Room and waited for an organ concert to begin. Last year we went to the gardens closer to Christmas and the concert was a sing-along of holiday songs. But this year we just sat and listened as the organist played.

By the time the concert ended, it was truly dark and all the lights were on, both inside …

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.. and out.

IMG_1975Arctic weather aside, the trip was totally worth it—Longwood never disappoints.

Now, back to hibernation!

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