Ms. Magazine blog: “The Faulty Logic of China’s Most Radical Experiment”

I have a new post at the Ms. Magazine blog, a review of journalist Mei Fong’s recent book, One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment. An excerpt:

On Oct. 29, 2015, the Chinese government announced that it was moving away from the one-child policy it had enacted more than 35 years before. After nearly four decades of mandatory sterilizations, forced abortions, skewed sex ratios, abandoned children and fines for those who violated the family-planning regulations, the policy had worked—too well.

Read the whole review here.

Posted in Books, China, Writing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Panda-monium at the Bronx Zoo: A History

Song Meiling with panda

Song Meiling with panda

Last week, the New York Times ran a long article detailing the efforts of Representative Carolyn B. Maloney to secure two pandas for the Bronx Zoo. Maloney’s quest faces political hurdles in both New York and Beijing: Mayor Bill de Blasio won’t support any panda plan that requires public funding (building a habitat, leasing the bears from China, and caring for them will cost tens of millions of dollars, per the NYT), while Chinese officials say that the United States has reached max panda, as zoos in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Memphis, and San Diego already have bears on display. Given how difficult it is to breed and raise the animals, PRC authorities are reluctant to share too many of them with any single country. Maloney, undeterred, has convinced de Blasio to sign a letter of support and coaxed Beijing’s ambassador to the U.S. to agree that China will “consider the formal initiation of cooperation when conditions are mature.” So someday it might be the Bronx Zoo posting videos of adorable pandas rolling around in the snow—but probably not anytime soon.

Reading this story sparked a memory from my dissertation research: I was pretty sure that the Bronx Zoo had previously received pandas from China. Digging through my computer files, I did indeed find a newspaper clipping from December 1941, which said that two young pandas had reached San Francisco en route from China to the Bronx. The reason this small clip had turned up in my research was that the pandas were the gifts of Song Meiling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek) and her sister, Song Ailing; both leading figures in the child-welfare movement, they had sent the bears to the children of the U.S. in thanks for the contributions they had made to the Chinese war effort. Song Meiling was a major character in the chapter I wrote about child welfare during World War II and American efforts to aid the children of China, but the panda story was merely a bit of color. I only had the one clip and didn’t look for anything more. The article about Maloney, however, prompted me to visit the New York Times online archive and get the full story of those Bronx Zoo pandas from 1941.

The two pandas sent by Song Meiling were actually replacements for Pan and Pandora, earlier bears that had died. Those pandas—New York’s first—had arrived in the Bronx in 1938, then switched boroughs for a time to hang out at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens. They were popular attractions at both places. By the middle of 1941, however, both Pan and Pandora were dead, rendering the Bronx Zoo panda-less. China had been mired in war with Japan since 1937, and although the United States had yet to officially join that fight, people across the country had been supporting aid organizations, most significantly United China Relief, which boasted names like Pearl Buck, John D. Rockefeller III, and David O. Selznick (producer of Gone With the Wind) on its board of directors. A panda, though rare and difficult to capture, must have seemed a reasonable goodwill gesture to give such a staunch wartime ally.

So in early September 1941, Song Meiling cabled the United China Relief office to inform the organization that she had authorized the gift of one panda to the Bronx Zoo, a “special concession” by the Chinese government, which usually prevented the capture and export of the rare mammal. As recounted by American missionary David Crockett Graham, who lived in Sichuan province and was enlisted to assist in the hunt for a panda, the matter was of great urgency to Chiang Kai-shek’s government. Officials worried that if they were unable to deliver a bear expeditiously, Americans would sour on China, so Graham and his search party were dispatched on the panda beat immediately, with no regard given to his protests that it was the wrong time of year to go panda-hunting. The group first tried to capture a bear in the wild, but despite assembling “probably the biggest panda hunt ever organized at one time,” they wound up buying a panda from someone else who had captured one. By the end of September, New York Zoological Society staffer John Tee-Van was on his way to Chongqing to pick up a panda to go.

Tee-Van, however, would actually receive not one, but two pandas when he arrived in southwest China: Graham’s group had secured one, while another search party had managed to capture a second. (Presumably, the idea of nabbing a panda quickly had been seen as so difficult that multiple groups were sent out on the mission, no one imagining that more than one group would emerge with bear in hand.) At a send-off ceremony in Chongqing on November 9, Song Meiling proclaimed that she hoped “that their playful antics will bring as much joy to American children as American friendship has brought to our Chinese people.” Tee-Van announced that the pair of pandas would live “as man and wife” at the zoo—an idea that had to be scuttled when both turned out to be female.

Tee-Van and the pandas set off from Chongqing on a six-week voyage to the Bronx, one notable leg of which involved crossing the Pacific by boat shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Arriving safely, the pandas were formally presented to the zoo on December 30, 1941 by the Chinese consul general in New York and immediately put on display. The zoo and United China Relief also opened a nationwide contest to name the animals, which were christened Pan-dee and Pan-dah five months later at the suggestion of 11-year-old Nancy Lostutter of Columbus, Indiana. Ensconced in the “Pandorium,” the pair settled in to their new home.

While the arrival of Pan-dee and Pan-dah had inadvertently coincided with the official cementing of the Sino-American wartime partnership as the United States entered the fight, their respective deaths aligned with the deterioration of relations between the two countries. Pan-dee went first, falling victim to peritonitis on October 4, 1945, less than two months after the Japanese defeat. By this point, the U.S.-China alliance was breaking down, American leaders no longer feeling a need to hide their disdain for Chiang Kai-shek or support his corrupt government. Pan-dah (renamed Susie at some point) continued roaming the Pandorium until October 31, 1951, when she was found facedown in the habitat’s pool, cause of death unknown. With Mao Zedong’s communist government now leading China and U.S.-China relations decisively on the outs, there was no hope of obtaining a new panda to replace Pan-dah/Susie, thus ending the Bronx Zoo’s panda exhibit.

Since the resumption of “panda diplomacy” with the United States in 1972 following Richard Nixon’s trip to China, there have been only occasional moves to bring pandas back to the Bronx. In 1984, New York Mayor Ed Koch allegedly told Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang that “If I get two pandas, I’ll get re-elected.” Although Koch did win another term in office, he only wrangled a short-term panda loan, which resulted in a special two-bear exhibit at the zoo in the summer of 1987 that attracted over a million visitors. In an October 2000 Times article about the zoo’s panda-free state, a member of the zoo’s leadership said that “Maybe, way down the road” they would explore the possibility of acquiring the black-and-white animals.

Despite Maloney’s efforts, it doesn’t sound like we’ve arrived at that point “way down the road” yet, as both New York and Beijing seem lukewarm on the proposal right now. Don’t be fooled by their innocent-looking faces: pandas are political animals. And as the story of Pan-dee and Pan-dah shows, they have been for a long, long time.

New York Times Archival Sources
“Bronx to Get New Panda” (September 12, 1941)
“Zoo Sending for Panda” (September 23, 1941)
“Two Pandas Are Presented to Bronx Zoo By Chinese at Ceremony in Chungking” (November 10, 1941)
“Zoo Gets Pandas; Debut Is Formal” (December 31, 1941)
“Pan-Dee and Pan-Dah Cut Capers Before Accepting Names at the Zoo” (May 28, 1942)
“Panda Dies at the Zoo” (October 5, 1945)
“Susie, Last of Bronx Zoo’s Giant Pandas, Found Dead in the Shallow Pool in Her Pen” (November 1, 1951)

Photo credit: Shanghai 1937 blog.

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Declaring To-Do List Bankruptcy

To-Do List

I have three to-do lists, in three different formats, going at all times. First, there’s the legal pad that lives on my office desk that contains my work to-do list. That one is straightforward. Second is my daily home to-do list, a habit I picked up from my mother. Like her, every morning I take a piece of scrap paper and fold it in half, then write down absolutely everything I can think of that I need to do that day, even the stuff that I do every day and would never forget (“shower” “wash dishes”). I don’t go to the extreme of jotting down “wake up” or “eat lunch,” but it’s pretty close. I try really hard to keep that list both specific and realistic; I don’t just write “knit,” but rather “knit two pattern repeats on hat,” and I don’t say “answer all emails,” but “email X, Y, and Z” instead. My goal every day is to have all the items on that list crossed off by the time I go to sleep. I rarely achieve that goal, but I often get close enough to remain happy with myself.

But then there’s my master to-do list—the monster that resides in a Word file on my computer desktop. That list is everything I need or want to do EVER, from “buy a birthday card for Mom” to “swim in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.” Bills to pay, blog posts I want to write, things I want to buy—as soon as I get a notice or have an idea, I put it on the list. As things get done, I strike them out, and every once in a while I go through the whole file and delete all the struck-out lines to tidy things up.

I’m not so good, however, about deleting things that should no longer be on the list at all, and as a result, that master to-do list is long. Very long. So long that just opening up the file and seeing all the stuff I have yet to do is enough to discourage me. Where do I even start?

I finally decided last weekend that the time had come to declare to-do list bankruptcy. I know people who periodically declare email bankruptcy, deleting/archiving all unanswered messages older than a specified period of time and telling themselves that anyone who really needs an answer will write again. I definitely need to do a thorough clean-up of my personal email inbox (I’ve slipped away from Inbox Zero, which always used to be my goal), but that’s not my main organizational problem right now. The to-do list is.

There are many entries on that master list that are absolutely never going to happen—and which no longer need to happen. Their time has passed. For example: I took a trip to Utah last October and intended to write a blog post about it. I haven’t. And given that I didn’t take great notes during my trip and can’t begin to recapture the things I meant to say at the time, I never will. It should not still be sitting on my to-do list, a frustrating reminder of one more thing I planned to do but never managed to get done.

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See? Arches National Park in Utah. I was there, and that’s all I’ll ever say about that.

So that master monster to-do list? I’m wiping it clean. Declaring to-do list bankruptcy and starting fresh. I have, of course, “creditors” who need to be “paid”—certain things on the list can’t just be swept away (Mom, I will buy you a birthday card, I promise!), and those entries will be transferred to the clean list I’m starting. But I’ve also realized that I need to break down the master monster list into sub-categories to keep things straight, and also not overwhelm me. “Swim in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland” belongs in a category called “Travel Ideas,” not mixed in with “Pay Visa bill (due Feb 22)” and “frame Ph.D.” (someday). (And those two entries belong in “Financial Stuff” and “Household Tasks,” respectively.)

I hate the feeling of looking at my master to-do list and acknowledging that the time has come to declare bankruptcy. I wanted to do all that stuff. I planned to do all that stuff. I really, really thought I could, if I just budgeted my time properly. But that doesn’t always happen, and I often bite off more than I can chew. Throw in the unpredictabilities of life, and the result is a long, intimidating list of good intentions that are simply never going to be realized.

So it’s time for a clean page and a fresh start.

And hey, now I can cross “blog post about to-do lists” off today’s to-do list!

In the middle of writing this post, my colleague Kate showed me her Trello to-do list setup, which is amazing. I’ll admit that I can easily fall victim to thinking that the right tool will solve all my problems, but Trello looks like it offers the kind of task categorization and workflow assistance I need right now. And since I’m starting fresh, this is a natural opportunity to give Trello a try. I’ll see how it goes.

So-true-it-stings cartoon by Adrienne Hedger and used with respect and admiration.

Posted in Work/Life, Writing | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Uncompromising Jill Lepore

high resolution, croppedI’ve mentioned here before my enormous history-geek fangirling for Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore. Lepore is an excellent example of someone who works inside and outside “the academy” (aka the university) with equal success, which is one of the reasons I have so much admiration for her (the other being the precision and skill with which she researches and writes; her articles and books are meticulous but still enjoyable reads). Her impressive dual-track career is also why Lepore made perfect sense to deliver the keynote address at Columbia University’s recent “History in Action” conference, the theme of which was “The Many Conversations of the Historian.”

The professor introducing Lepore said that while she hadn’t titled her talk, she had told him that it could be called “How Not to Become a Historian.” She was mainly speaking to the many graduate students in the room, especially those who intend to make a career in the academy but want to work outside it—as writers, consultants, or commentators—as well. In general, graduate advisors don’t encourage that type of career plan, especially when students are still in grad school, since they’re supposed to focus on amassing a list of academic publications, conference presentations, research grants, and other accolades during that period.* Career-diversity programs like History in Action are relatively rare (Columbia hosts one of four pilot sites funded by an American Historical Association-Mellon award), and as Lepore noted early in her talk, “We don’t have this conversation at Harvard.” In many departments, it’s still heretical for grad students to suggest that they want to do work aimed at a non-academic audience. Their professors might do that very same work—but that’s considered a privilege of tenure.

Lepore’s chatty, funny, pop-culture-filled talk, however, could have been titled “Don’t Wait for Tenure to Be the Historian You Want to Be.” Reflecting on her own career, Lepore discussed how she’s been able to do the things she’s done—in addition to the New Yorker gig, she’s also founded an online magazine, co-written a romance novel, and tried to produce a history TV show for kids (which never got made)—while still rising through the academic ranks. The short answer to all of this seems to be that she doesn’t compromise and produces excellent work. Lepore adheres to rigorous standards in everything she does: background reading, primary source research, writing, teaching. “If you’re going to do work outside the academy, never abandon your standards of academic excellence,” she told the conference-goers; there’s no reason to do less good work for the public just because those efforts don’t “count” in the academic world.

But Lepore also refuses to compromise in another sense of the word: she’s very secure in her sense of self and has been willing to walk away from her academic career rather than give up on something that she really wants to do. She acknowledged that she has the privilege of being able to take that step now, as a renowned professor and writer (Lepore’s also married and presumably not the sole economic contributor to her household, which is another kind of security), but described holding the same attitude even while in graduate school. “Don’t put the cat in the cradle,” she advised, riffing off a song that promptly got stuck in my head for the remainder of the day. Meaning, in the academic context: if there’s something you really want to do, don’t put it off, because you’ll never reach the imaginary point where you’ll feel truly free to do it. First there’s grad school (my advisor will be angry if I spend my time on that project!), then there’s the tenure track, if you’re lucky (I have to get tenure, I can’t spend my time on that project!), and by the time you get tenure (if you get tenure), so many other things have come along that it seems impossible to pick up something you put down over a decade ago. If there’s something you feel passionate about, Lepore declared, you just have to make the decision that you’re going to do it. And if others tell you that pursuing your passion is a career-killer, sit down and think about what’s most important to you, keeping in mind that you’ll never get a second chance at your career (or life!).

Lepore gave plenty of other good advice that I hope some of the grad students in the room will take to heart, but much of her talk covered ground that I, personally, have already grappled with. The part that really hit home with me, and which I’ve been reminding myself on a daily basis since the conference ended, came up in the Q&A. One of the audience members (not a graduate student) asked Lepore how she manages her time—how can she possibly teach, write books, write for the New Yorker, attend conferences, and so forth, in addition to being a partner and mother?

Again, Lepore’s answer is that she’s uncompromising. She does not compromise on deadlines—her own or anyone else’s. “Academics have been socialized into believing that deadlines don’t matter,” she lamented, as I slid down in my seat and averted my eyes, and many of them (us) work “indefensibly slowly” as they (we) attempt to achieve perfection. She fights this at every turn, holding her students to firm deadlines and making it a matter of principle that she’ll meet her own. Her advice for making this happen: think with clarity about a project at the outset, get a good sense for how long it’s going to take you to finish it, work efficiently, and complete the project on the schedule that you set. And as for perfection? “It’s not a work of art, it’s a piece of work,” Lepore stated, a maxim that I should needlepoint and hang over my writing desk.

Now, I know plenty of scholars who will push back against this stance. A project takes as long as it takes, they’ll say, and you never know what’s going to pop up in your research and send it spinning off into an entirely new direction. Writing is hard and can go surprisingly slowly. You just can’t rush these things. And certainly, sometimes life intervenes and prevents us from completing things on schedule. On the whole, however, I agree more with Lepore’s line of thinking than the counter-arguments. It’s unquestionably important, as she emphasized, to do excellent work, for any audience. But there’s also a lot to be said for being responsible, reliable, and realistic. Working efficiently and acknowledging when I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns (will adding four more books to my list of background reading really improve my work, or were the first two books sufficient?) are probably the two things I struggle with most in my writing, and they’re the things that keep me from meeting deadlines. And missing deadlines not only makes me feel like crap, it makes editors less interested in working with me in the future.

I am trying. I’m trying really, really hard, and I have both a spreadsheet of commitments and a Google Calendar filled with reminders to help me with these efforts. The spreadsheet and calendar aren’t magic; they’re tools to assist me. My job is to know what I need to do and work—methodically, efficiently, but still meticulously—to get it done.

I still want to be Jill Lepore when I grow up. And dammit, Jill Lepore meets deadlines.

* I did my share of traditional academic work during graduate school, but spent a good portion of my time on non-academic stuff, like editing and writing for general audiences. Outside the walls of UC Irvine’s History Department, I heard a lot of faculty (and often other grad students as well) express surprise that my advisor “let” me be so “distracted” by that kind of work.

First of all, paternalistic bullshit like that drives me crazy. Advisors are not in charge of their students; they advise their students, who then make choices informed (hopefully) by that advice. Second, my advisor and I talked before I even applied to the program and I described the kind of alternative-academic career path I planned to pursue. His enthusiasm for my goals was one of the major reasons I chose UCI History, where I found many other professors and peers who were equally supportive. My advisor didn’t “let” me work outside academia—he actively encouraged and assisted me in making that happen, while also reminding me that there were certain academic benchmarks I still needed to hit if I wanted that Ph.D. How I balanced my two pursuits was up to me.

Photo via Harvard University. Credit: Dari Michele.

Posted in Higher Education, History, Writing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

On Resolutions and Resolve

512px-New-Year_Resolutions_list

I have traditionally been very cynical about the idea of making new year’s resolutions. Yes, we all have good intentions, and often get off to a strong start, but it’s hard to maintain the momentum of going to the gym every day, or committing to a frugal lifestyle, or whatever vow we’ve chosen that will (we hope) help us live our best lives. If it was something we found difficult to do on December 31, I don’t see why it should suddenly become easier on January 1.

But as 2015 wound down, I looked back at the previous 12 months in my life and felt dissatisfied. Not entirely—there were many things that went well last year. But there were plenty of other things that didn’t. Namely, pretty much everything related to writing, deadlines, and following through on my promises related to said writing and deadlines. I think I met zero writing deadlines the entire year. (Well, maybe one?) Missing deadlines sent me into a spiral: as days passed and writing didn’t get done, and I fell further and further behind on what I’d said I’d do, I just felt more and more incapable of catching up, and less and less sure of where to even start.

Now, I’ve admittedly never been good with deadlines. I am a terrible procrastinator—a trait that I dislike in myself and always swear I’ll change … someday. (Haha, bad procrastination joke.) But this was procrastination mixed with something else, something I had basically never encountered before: an inflexible schedule.

Two thousand fifteen was the year I truly realized what it means to be a writer with a full-time job. It was the first full year since … 1986? … when I wasn’t in school, or writing my dissertation, or freelancing, and I was completely unprepared for what that would be like. I had gone through long stretches of graduate school when I would go to bed at a “normal” time, wake up at 3am, write until 8 or 9 in the morning, then read/research/watch TV/knit/take a nap during the rest of the day. If left to my own devices, that’s my preferred schedule.

Now? I have to be at work at 9am, and there’s no naptime built into my afternoon. I can’t just do whatever I want to do in whatever order I want to do it. (#firstworldproblems) I no longer have five or six hours at a stretch to sit at my computer and write, and sometimes, when I do have that kind of time—a day off, or a weekend—I don’t want to. I want to spend my free time time with people, have fun, and be lazy.

So in 2015, I made excuses. I regularly told myself that 15 minutes, or 30 minutes, or an hour—whatever free time I had—wasn’t enough time to really focus and do the writing I wanted to, so it wasn’t even worth starting. And then I fell behind and was at even more of a loss about how to get myself back on track.

That needs to change.

My new year’s resolution isn’t just to write more. No, my new year’s resolution is to commit to writing, to finding a way to be a writer even (or especially!) when it’s difficult. To stop whining about not having huge chunks of time to wait for my muse (or, more accurately, mess around on the internet while pretending to think about what I’ll write) and take the moments I do have to open my laptop and put words on the screen. To stop focusing on what I can’t do and focus on how much I can.

Because I can write, just not in the way I had grown used to. I wrote this blog post in three chunks of time: one day before starting work, one evening on the bus ride home, and the next night after the workday ended while I waited to meet up with a friend. Maybe that broken-up schedule isn’t exactly how I’d have chosen to write if I had the option, but it’s how I choose to write now. Because I spent 2015 upset with myself for missing deadlines, but even more upset with myself for not knowing how to sit down and write. I missed writing. I need to write. I choose to write—wherever, whenever, however I can manage it.

That’s my new year’s resolution.

Image via Wikimedia and used under a Creative Commons license.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , | 1 Comment

LA Review of Books China Blog: Documenting Public Space in China

I haven’t been blogging much lately—life, work, and longer-term projects need to come first right now—but finally got a chance a few weeks ago to sit down and write a post for the LA Review of Books China Blog. This is one that I’d been meaning to write for months, ever since seeing two excellent documentary films screened at events in New York:

People’s Park and The Iron Ministry are both challenging and heavily theorized films, the documentary equivalent of an academic monograph. For anyone who has lived in or studied China, they will surely resonate; both contained more than a few moments that brought back memories for me. Audience members without a China connection or interest in documentary filmmaking might find these works less accessible, but my hope is that viewers don’t let themselves be intimidated, as both films are well worth the investment of time and focus. [Director] Sniadecki’s immersive, sensory-intensive approach comes as close as I can imagine is possible to replicating the experience of walking through a Chinese park or riding in a hard-seat train carriage.

Read the rest here.

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LA Review of Books China Blog: Let 100 Voices Speak

My latest LA Review of Books China Blog post went up on the site last week, but I was away on a work trip and didn’t have time to link to it until now. In the post, I interview Liz Carter, a Washington, D.C.-based translator and author of Let 100 Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything, a great introduction to the importance of social media in China:

Your book discusses the evolution of social media in China over the past decade or so. What do you consider two or three landmark events that really changed the social media landscape there?

I think the rise and fall of various platforms, as well as the intermittent government crackdowns, have had the greatest effect. The blocking of Twitter, Google, YouTube, and Facebook definitely restricted the social media sphere, while the subsequent rise of China’s own Sina Weibo marked a period of really open discussion, debate and criticism. Finally, the crackdown on social media that began in 2013, which coincided with a rise in mobile internet use and the increasing popularity of WeChat, changed the way people use the internet and restricted the space for free expression.

Liz is also the newest addition to our team of regular contributors at the China Blog. Read more about her in the full Q&A, here.

Posted in Books, China, Writing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Snapshots from a Sojourn in Kansas

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“Are you dining alone, honey?” the waitress at Arthur Bryant’s BBQ asked me, surveying my table, three of its four seats empty, with a dismayed glance. Arthur Bryant’s, I had realized, is not a place where people eat solo. The tables around me were filled with families enjoying a Sunday afternoon barbecue lunch, plates stacked high with bones stripped of their meat, pitchers of beer and paper cups of sweet tea drained as the diners talked and laughed and argued and commented on the Chiefs game playing on TVs above the dining room. My bare table announced, just as clearly as my nasal East Coast voice (turned even more gratingly nasal by a cold I’d had all week), that I wasn’t from around there—a tourist who’d wandered into a spot frequented by regulars.

The waitress clucked her tongue when I explained that I was alone in Kansas City, just passing through for the day on my way to Kansas State University. For half a second I thought she was going to play matchmaker and find me a table to join, to save me from my solitary meal. But instead, she thanked me for making Arthur Bryant’s my Kansas City barbecue of choice and walked away, leaving me to once again contemplate the pile of pulled pork and coleslaw sitting on the plate before me. My “pig on a bun” was enormous, and I’d foolishly added a side of baked beans as well. It was easily enough for two meals, but my hotel room didn’t come with a fridge to store leftovers. Wielding knife and fork, I methodically worked my way through the sandwich, consuming three-quarters of the delicious saucy pork before I couldn’t manage another bite. The waitress returned as she saw me preparing to leave, clucking once again over my failure to clear the plate. I assured her the meal was fantastic and that I would not need to eat again for the rest of the day, and she smiled. “Spread the word, honey!”

***

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The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum sits in Kansas City’s historic 18th & Vine district, the center of African American culture in the city. 18th & Vine is most famous as one of the birthplaces of jazz, but the streets were quiet as I walked around last Sunday, a raw and overcast afternoon that felt more like late November than the first weekend of October. It’s clear that Kansas City has tried to develop the 18th & Vine area into a tourist destination, but most of the storefronts looked vacant. I entered the large brick building that houses both the baseball museum and one devoted to jazz; the lobby was nearly empty, save a security guard and ticket seller. After purchasing my ticket, I passed through a stadium turnstile and began looking at the exhibits in the small but thorough Negro Leagues museum.

Most of what I know about the Negro Leagues comes from repeated viewings of Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary, and the museum covered mostly the same ground but went into further detail. I had known, for example, that the Negro Leagues were never as stable—in structure or finances—as the Major Leagues, but I hadn’t realized how frequently different Negro Leagues dissolved and were reconstituted. I also hadn’t known that Negro Leagues teams began playing baseball at night in 1930—five years before the Major Leagues—because black fans were generally unable to take time off from work to attend daytime games. And I’d never heard that Negro Leagues players often went to Latin America and the Caribbean to play for more money: they could earn $600 to $4000 a contract there, plus expenses, versus $500 a month less expenses in the Negro Leagues.

I saw only four or five other visitors to the museum during the hour I spent there, which is a shame: the exhibits hold a treasure trove of memorabilia and examine the history of the Negro Leagues from almost every angle imaginable. The curators have done a commendable job of celebrating the Negro Leagues and the role that their teams played in the black community, while also criticizing the fact that segregated teams existed in the first place. And while famous figures like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Jackie Robinson get their share of attention in museum exhibits, the NLBM emphasizes that its mission is to cover the entirety of Negro Leagues history; it is not a hall of fame. They leave that role to the museum in Cooperstown. “The Negro Leagues existed in the face of segregation,” the museum’s webpage explains, but “Baseball’s shrines should not be segregated today.”

***

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Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que is considerably more polished than Arthur Bryant’s, and no one batted an eye at a single diner by herself. But it also felt far more corporate and commercialized, with a full line of slick souvenirs and gift boxes of barbecue sauce available for purchase. The menu lacked Arthur Bryant’s take-it-or-leave-it simplicity: Arthur Bryant’s sells meat and sides, nothing more. Joe’s offers chili, gumbo, salads, and even a portobello mushroom sandwich for vegetarians who somehow wander in. The counter staff was friendly (everyone in Kansas is friendly, I’ve decided), if less effusive than their counterparts at Arthur Bryant’s.

I ordered another pulled pork sandwich, skipping the coleslaw on top in favor of a potato salad side, attempting an imperfect comparison between the two famous barbecue joints. Except, I found, they were too dissimilar to really be compared. The Arthur Bryant’s sandwich had been huge and unwieldy, a feast of shredded pork and sauce. Joe’s produced a far more compact sandwich—one that I could actually pick up to eat—with larger chunks of pork and only the barest trace of sauce (though you could add more of your favorite style from bottles on the table). Each was, in its own way, fantastic. Let the Kansas City barbecue debates rage on … I couldn’t choose.

***

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I had more to do in Kansas than eat barbecue. I needed to get to the “Little Apple”—Manhattan, Kansas—home of Kansas State University to speak at their CHINA Town Hall on Monday night. As I drove along Interstate 80 on Monday afternoon, I kept seeing billboards for places that I wished I had time to stop and check out: a Wizard of Oz museum. The Oz Winery. The Brown versus Board of Education National Historic Site. Yak ‘n Yarn. More wineries. But with my eye on the clock, I kept the speedometer needle at 70 and told myself I’d have to come back and explore Kansas some other time.

A few miles before Manhattan, though, I saw a sign for something that wouldn’t put me too far behind schedule: a scenic overlook. I pulled into the small parking lot and got out of the car, relieved to stretch my legs after two hours on the road. Walking to the designated overlook spot, I surveyed the land below me. Based on nothing more than The Wizard of Oz, I had assumed Kansas would be flat and colorless, but I was in the Flint Hills region, where the land gently rose and dipped, covered by tallgrass prairie in varying shades of green and brown. I took a few photos, then stood at the overlook for another minute, imagining a time when people traveled the hills by covered wagon rather than Hyundai Accent, when the 120 miles between Kansas City and Manhattan would have taken days rather than hours. It was difficult to fathom.

I walked back to my rental car, settled into the driver’s seat, and drove on.

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Road Show

airplane

On Monday, October 5, the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (the organization where I work) will be staging its 9th annual CHINA Town Hall, a national day of programming that will take place in nearly 80 venues across the United States and beyond this year. I’ll be traveling to Manhattan, KS to speak at Kansas State University on the topic of “Social Media with Chinese Characteristics.” For a full guide to CHINA Town Hall, and to find a venue near you, see the NCUSCR website.

Later that same week I’ll be in Salt Lake City, wearing my “occasional academic” hat at the Western Conference of the Association for Asian Studies and participating in a panel on children and youth in the People’s Republic of China. If you’re at either event, please say hi.

Image via Pixaby and used under a creative commons license.

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LA Review of Books: The Spy Game’s Afoot

Brookes Spy Games coverWhile I really enjoy television shows that tell spy stories (Alias, Chuck, The Americans), I very rarely read spy novels. They tend, I’ve found, to be long and tedious: covert action that can be carried out fairly quickly and clearly on screen often takes many pages to describe in print. But I’ve thoroughly enjoyed two spy novels penned by former BBC Beijing correspondent Adam Brookes, who knows how to keep the pages turning. Start with Night Heron (2014), then move on to the recently released Spy Games, which is the subject of my LA Review of Books China Blog post this week:

Spy Games, the second volume in what I believe will be a trilogy, finds Mangan in Ethiopia, trying his best to lie low and stay out of trouble. But when he’s approached by a Chinese man who calls himself “Rocky” and slips him classified documents, the temptation is irresistible, and Mangan dives back into the intelligence world. While in Night Heron Mangan unwillingly got drawn into the action, Spy Games sees him making the choice to get more deeply involved. Guided by his handler, soldier-turned-agent Trish Patterson, and her boss, Valentina Hopko, Mangan follows Rocky down the rabbit hole.

Read the rest of the post here.

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