No Pictures on the Scorecard

My race results

My first official 5K results

“No pictures on the scorecard” is one of my father’s favorite expressions. It comes from golf and (as I understand it) basically means that people only see end results, without knowing how you arrived at them. He usually invokes the phrase when someone tries to dismiss an accomplishment as easier than it sounds. (Because a hole in one is a hole in one, regardless of how short that hole was—no pictures on the scorecard.) But it goes the other way, too: maybe a terrible result masks the fact that you’re playing with pain, and that playing at all is an accomplishment of sorts.

Despite my wide-ranging knowledge of golf expressions, I am not athletic. I dreaded gym class in my elementary and high school years, hoping that it would be a “fun” day (dodgeball, wiffle ball, or Richard Simmons Sweatin to the Oldies aerobics) and not a “why didn’t I fake illness?” day (field hockey, basketball, or running). And running was the worst. In elementary school, running meant multiple laps around the athletic field, trying to linger as long as possible on the side lined with trees that provided shade, delaying the inevitable moment when I’d be back on the dry, sun-drenched stretch. The athletic girls in my class would blow past the other stragglers and me, completing their laps and relaxing on the grass (in the shade!) while Ms. Porter clapped her hands and implored all of us still running to “hustle up, girls!” My single goal on running days was not to finish last.

So when I signed up for a “run/walk” 5K this weekend, I was a little worried it might be a replay of gym class. But I had reasons to do this. I’m trying to get more exercise, as I have a lot of grad-school weight to lose. The 5K was organized by my high school, Merion Mercy Academy, and its goal was to raise money for a Mercy-supported girls’ school in Sudan. And I had three of my closest friends doing the 5K with me; the four of us registered as “Team 2000.” The “run/walk” aspect of the race was also reassuring; I knew I couldn’t run it, but wasn’t worried about my ability to walk 3.2 miles at a reasonable pace.

Team 2000: Jackie, Maureen, Moira, and me

Team 2000: Jackie, Maureen, Moira, and me

So on Saturday morning, I showed up at Merion and collected my race bib and “MMA SuDash” t-shirt, then met up with my three teammates: Maureen (a really serious runner), Jackie (also a runner, and even more impressive because she runs while pushing a jogging stroller and almost-two-year-old), and Moira (who was walking with me). We strolled down to the starting line on the school’s lower campus, amassed in a big crowd loosely separated into runners at the front and walkers in the back, and waited for the air horn to sound. We were off.

At the starting line

At the starting line

The registration for the race promised a “fun, flat” course, and I had an idea in my mind of where we’d be heading. I turned out to be completely wrong, and the course was anything but flat. We wound through Merion’s campus and then crossed the street to enter the neighborhood behind the school. One hill after another, and they were steep. As Moira and I started up the first hill in the neighborhood, two cyclists came up behind us and called out, “first runner! First runner!” We moved to the side and watched a teenage boy run past us. We were barely into the off-campus course, and he was already on his second lap. It’s like gym class all over again.

But we kept going, which was reasonably easy for two reasons: (1) the two of us walking together meant we each had someone to talk with and motivate us, and (2) Merion had stationed race marshals along the course—current students, parents, and teachers—and they were all friendly and encouraging. “Thank you, alumnae!” one father hollered as Moira and I passed his station. “Keep it up, ladies!” called Ms. Clarke, the gym teacher, exactly the same as she did when we were in class 15 years ago.

Thankfully, Ms. Clarke wasn’t assigning us grades this time. Moira and I completed the first lap in the neighborhood; as we reached the point to do another one, the race marshal asked if we wanted to walk the entire 5K or turn back to campus, which would leave us a with a one-mile “fun walk” under our belts. Knowing the hills that were awaiting us on the second lap, I almost said we should go back to school, but squashed that instinct. Moira agreed: we had signed up for the 5K and were going to do the whole thing.

And actually, the second lap felt easier (though my RunKeeper times tell me I’m wrong about that, as we definitely slowed down a bit). But the second lap also felt a lot emptier—the runners, including Maureen and Jackie, had all passed us on their own second lap and were already back on campus. As Moira and I walked down the last section of the neighborhood loop, I looked behind us and realized that I couldn’t see anyone. We were the last two out on the course.

IMG_2460We left the neighborhood, crossed the street, and walked through campus. As we approached the finish line, we saw the timekeepers packing up their stuff. OMG, we finished dead last. But we finished, and that’s what mattered. No pictures on the scorecard.

And, incredibly, Team 2000 even won something! Maureen won our age division, and the four of us won the best all-female team category. (How many all-female teams were there? Shhh. No pictures on the scorecard.) We were evidently not the only ones surprised that our team won. “Now, I don’t remember you ladies being the most athletic group,” smiled Mrs. Killeen, the director of admissions. We all admitted that was true.

I looked up the race results when I got home, and I’ll admit, it stung a little bit to see my name at the very bottom of the page (officially, I came in 104 out of 105 runners and Moira was one second behind me—but we really crossed the finish line at the same time). And I’d set a goal for myself of finishing in 45 minutes, which I did not meet (those damn hills). But I did finish, and I didn’t take the easier option of stopping after one mile when it was presented to me, a fact of which I am somewhat proud. I had fun and got to catch up with friends I have not seen often enough over the past 15 years. I supported a good cause that I believe in. And I gave myself a time to beat—because I’m pretty sure I can do better. Even if I don’t: no pictures on the scorecard.

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4/30, New York: Women’s Rights Activism in China Today

On April 30, I’ll be the guest speaker at an after-work gathering of China Hands NYC, talking about the topic of women’s rights activism in China today. The jumping-off point for my talk will be, obviously, the five feminists who were detained in China just before International Women’s Day last month and finally released earlier this week. But I’ll also look back at the history of feminism in China over the past century or so and discuss how this recent incident fits into a broader story.

If you’d like to come (there’s a $10 charge, but that gets you beer, drinks, and snacks, PLUS me), RSVP using this link. Security procedures in New York are strict—if you’re not on the list, you won’t get in.

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Two Upcoming Events in SoCal

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I will be back in California for a week at the end of this month—first to San Francisco for work, then to Irvine for … well, a working vacation? I originally intended my three days in Southern California to be pure vacation—visiting friends, going to the beach, eating my annual In-N-Out burger. But then I volunteered to participate in UC Irvine’s inaugural “Comparing China: Hopes and Fears of a Rising Power” workshop on Monday, April 27. And then I said that I would be available to talk with current graduate students about going into careers outside academia, and that turned into a panel on “After the Doctorate: Paths Outside Academe,” which will take place on April 28. So if you’re in the Orange County area and are interested in either China or alt-ac careers (or both!), please add these events to your calendar. Mine is certainly not an impartial opinion, but I think they’ll both be really good.

As for my vacation, I’ll still have a third day in SoCal to spend at the beach. And there’s an In-N-Out Burger conveniently located just across the street from UCI.

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Snapshots from Chicago

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Chicago is a city I’d like to get to know better, but circumstances have only brought me there twice. The first time was last summer, when my mother and I rode the train across the country; we had a one-day stopover in Chicago. The second time was this past weekend, when the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies was held in the city.

Of course, being there for a conference meant that I didn’t have much time to explore. I mostly saw my hotel, the conference meeting rooms, and the Whole Foods across the street where large numbers of conference-goers ran to grab a quick lunch.

But I booked a late flight back on Sunday (which became a later flight back due to delays) to give myself a little bit of Chicago time after AAS ended. Sunday morning had been clear and sunny, but as I walked down to Millennium Park it started to hail. And then, true to the city’s nickname, it got windy—so windy I was blown a few steps sideways as I crossed the street! So I saw “the Bean” (technically named Cloud Gate) in the rain and hail. It was actually kind of pretty, but I wasn’t inclined to linger.

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Heading to the south end of the park, I made a very quick visit to the Art Institute of Chicago. I saw the featured exhibit (“Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840”) and the museum’s most famous pieces of art, like American Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. But the Art Institute is massive and my time was limited, so I couldn’t wander around as much as I would have liked.

Leaving the museum, the rain/hail had stopped, though it was still overcast, and I was ready for a quick lunch. No question of what to eat—I had to have a Chicago hot dog before I left. Google Maps told me that there was an America’s Dog outlet just to the west of the park.

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I then walked down the street and bought some caramel popcorn at Garrett’s to bring back to New York for my office to share (though there were moments when I was tempted to keep the entire bag for myself!).

I walked north along State Street to head back to my hotel. I stopped to take a few photos of the Chicago Theatre, with the nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I recognized it from somewhere. Hours later, I remembered: the opening credits from Perfect Strangers, a (probably terrible) sitcom I watched as a kid.

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All of a sudden, the sun came out and the sky was blue again, so I had perfect weather as I crossed the river one last time.

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I collected my bags at the hotel, got on the L, and headed out to O’Hare. Eight hours later (!) I walked in my front door having, once again, just gotten the briefest taste of Chicago.

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The Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting, Past and Present

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The 1971 AAS program (left) and 2015’s (right)

I spent last weekend in Chicago attending the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS, shorthand for both the association and the annual meeting). On the night before I left for the conference, my boss handed me something she had found in her office—the program for the 1971 AAS. Promising to treat it gently, I borrowed the program so I could take a closer look and see how things have changed at AAS over the past 44 years.

First of all, as you can see in the picture above, the 1971 program is much smaller than 2015’s. In 1971, the conference had 53 panel sessions; this year there were 322. That growth isn’t necessarily a good thing: today, there are too many sessions. As I was preparing my schedule for the weekend, I found multiple instances where two or three panels that I wanted to attend were being held in the same time slot. I could have “panel hopped,” or moved from one to the other hoping to catch the papers that looked most interesting. But I don’t like coming in late or leaving early (I’m guaranteed to be the person who knocks a chair over trying to make an inconspicuous exit), so I just decided which panel looked like it should be my top choice and went to that one. While 53 panels might be too few, 322 is too many, and I wouldn’t mind seeing that number drop by a third.

Those 53 panels were also much more spread out, time-wise, though the actual length of the conference hasn’t really changed (Sunday night through Wednesday afternoon then; Thursday night through Sunday afternoon now). In 1971, the first session of the day began at 9:30 (now it’s 8:30) and there was one panel session before lunch, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening (only on the first day; the other two nights featured special events). Now the panels go back-to-back-to-back, with only a 15-minute break in between most of the time. Of course, you don’t have to go to a panel in every session block—in fact, I can’t imagine having the stamina to do that—but the general atmosphere at AAS is one of harried people running from one place to the next. The 1971 conference gave participants much more time to socialize and talk on their own, rather than spend their days dashing around.

What about the content and makeup of panels then and now? In terms of topics, many of the 1971 panels were focused on politics, social structure, and development, especially in South and Southeast Asia. That didn’t surprise me: the 1960s and ‘70s saw a lot of scholarly interest in social structure and economics, as academics tried to figure out how Asian countries were built, in a way, and how they would move forward, many of them newly independent from colonial powers. In terms of East Asian history, what struck me was that several of the panel titles could have appeared just as easily in the 2015 program as in 1971’s: “Western Intrusion and Conceptual Change in Mid-Nineteenth Century China” (that might be phrased differently now, but the general topic is still a big one); “The Ch’ing [Qing] Conquest, 1621–1683”; “China and Southeast Asia: The Changing Patterns of Interaction”; “Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang.”

One of the things that struck me most, perhaps not surprisingly, is that women play a much larger role in AAS meetings today than they did in 1971. Although, actually, the president of the association in 1971 was a women (Cora DuBois, professor of anthropology at Harvard), as is the president this year (Mrinalini Sinha of the University of Michigan). But the vast majority of panelists back then were men, and only one panel at the entire meeting focused specifically on women’s studies (“Women’s Roles in Southeast Asia”). This year, according to the “Panel Listings by Discipline” summary in the AAS program, there were 19 women’s studies panels. (So in 44 years, that field has grown from 1.9% of the conference program to 5.9%.) However, there are disciplinary categories now that wouldn’t have existed if a similar summary had been compiled in the 1971 program: gender and sexuality (43 panels), information technology (9 panels), and urban studies (27 panels), for example.

While it’s difficult to ascertain this from a quick scan of the participant index alone, I’d venture to say that there’s a much higher percentage of people either from Asia or of Asian descent at the meetings today, too. The field of Asian studies has clearly broadened, both in area of scholarly inquiry and inclusion of different groups.

I really enjoy going to AAS every year because the conference offers me the opportunity to see friends and colleagues from around the world; in many cases, that’s the only time all year our paths will cross. I’d like the meeting to feel less hectic, but I guess that’s the price of success—the field has grown and the conference has swelled in response. There’s something appealing about the small size and leisurely pace that I see in the 1971 program, though, and I sort of wish I had a time machine that enabled me to go back and attend that meeting. In the absence of that, looking through the program will have to be enough.

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Bookshelf: 13 Men

13-Men-CoverI made a brief mention in my latest LA Review of Books China Blog post of a new short book by Indian journalist Sonia Faleiro, 13 Men, and wanted to discuss that publication in a bit more depth. 13 Men is the most recent e-book from publishing collective Deca (it’s also available as a Kindle single) and narrates the story of a gang rape that allegedly took place in West Bengal in January 2014. Faleiro, whose previous writing includes Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars, traveled to the small village of Subalpur, where the crime allegedly took place, and interviewed everyone she could find with a connection to it in an attempt to untangle the various stories being told—including at least two different versions from the woman at the center of it all, known only as Baby.

Baby was twenty years old and had recently returned to the village after several years of working in Delhi, “the first person from Subalpur, man or woman, to venture outside West Bengal.” Her time in the city had changed Baby: she had money and a cell phone, for one thing, and had grown disinclined to follow the village rules. “She wore shorts!” one scandalized neighbor woman exclaimed. Shortly after coming back to Subalpur, Baby had also taken up with Khaleque Sheikh, a married Muslim man nearly twice her age who worked with her on a local construction site. In the villagers’ eyes, neither Khaleque’s marital status nor his age automatically made his relationship with Baby unpalatable; Faleiro notes that “The villagers actually had liberated ideas about sex.” But Baby and the villagers of Subalpur came from an indigenous tribe, the Santhals, and Khaleque was not only an outsider, he was also a Muslim—making him an inappropriate partner twice over. Baby’s neighbors urged her to break off things with Khaleque, but she refused. To the people of Subalpur, this was further evidence that Baby had lost touch with her community and needed to be brought back into the fold.

The way the villagers chose to deliver this message, Baby alleges, was through sexual assault. She and Khaleque were taken prisoner by the villagers one evening, and a tribal council planned for the next day. Before that took place, Baby says, thirteen leading men of the village spent the night raping her.

That’s not the story that hit international media a few days later. Baby’s initial police statement, given a day after the crime allegedly took place, declared that the tribal council itself had ordered the sexual assault as punishment for her “crime” of having a relationship with Khaleque. Later, in court, she revised that statement to clarify that the gang rape occurred before the council sat. Some, Faleiro explains, are not convinced that Baby was ever raped at all, but instead allege that her accusations came at the behest of quarry owners who wished to seize Santhal land and needed the village headmen out of the way.

The alleged crime against Baby, though, came at a time of increased international concern about violence against women in India. As a response to being in the spotlight, Baby’s case was fast-tracked: just seven months after the attack allegedly occurred, the thirteen men came to trial. Based entirely on the testimony of Baby and others for the prosecution—the trial had come about so quickly that forensic evidence hadn’t yet been processed by an overworked laboratory—the judge convicted the thirteen men of gang rape and sentenced them to twenty years in jail.

Was justice served? As Faleiro points out in this interview with The Takeaway, Baby’s case can be taken as an example of the system working as it should: her complaint was received seriously, investigated, and proceeded swiftly (perhaps even too swiftly) through the judicial system. That those things will happen when a woman brings forward a case of sexual assault is not a guarantee—not in India, not in the United States, not anywhere else in the world. But the murkiness surrounding the central question—was Baby raped at all?—remains, and Faleiro has carefully left the story open-ended, permitting the reader to decide for him- or herself.

Read an excerpt from 13 Men at The Caravan.

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LA Review of Books China Blog: “Inconvenient Truths”

I have a new post up at the LA Review of Books China Blog, about two documentaries that were recently censored in China and India:

It’s not every week that China-and-India-watchers have parallel stories to chew over, but that’s what’s been happening for the last few days. In both countries, a documentary film about an important social issue has provoked government censorship. Neither film reveals anything that most people didn’t already know, to some degree. So why are the Chinese and Indian governments going so far to limit access to these movies?

Read on here for my answer to that question.

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Winter in Beijing

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China had just celebrated Chunjie, or the Spring Festival—otherwise known as Chinese New Year—when I arrived in Beijing in mid-February 2005, but spring felt very far away. Since Beijing and Philadelphia are at practically the same latitude, I hadn’t expected the winter weather to be anything I couldn’t handle. I’d packed a ski jacket, gloves, and thick wool socks and figured those would be sufficient protection against the cold.

But Beijing was colder than anywhere I’d ever been before. The cement buildings of my school seemed to absorb the frigid air and hold it close; electronic heater/air conditioner units in my dorm room and classrooms produced a constant stream of hot, dry heat that made my skin flake and crack but never warmed my core. Wind whipped down the city’s broad, empty avenues, freezing my cheeks and bringing tears to my eyes as I trudged along. On a trip to Tiananmen Square during my first weekend in China, I seriously wondered if I could die of exposure in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities. That night, several of my classmates and I went to the nearby Carrefour and bought long underwear (Playboy brand, size XL—which barely fit me) and colorful fleece-lined knitted hats with earflaps. I looked ridiculous, but I no longer worried I would lose my ears to frostbite while walking to the subway.

Still, there was something quiet and beautiful about those mid-winter days in Beijing. I saw the neighborhood around my school as a subdued watercolor: bare brown tree branches stark against the white and pale pink of the apartment buildings; black streets bearing a trace of gray snow; the occasional cyclist slowly pedaling by on a creaky bike. Everything seemed muted, as if the city had gone into hibernation and would re-emerge once spring truly arrived.

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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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