Road Show


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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The Hot Spots and Storied Plots of Laurel Hill Cemetery


“The Cemetery Gift Shop Is Open” wasn’t the first thing I expected to see as my mother, brother, and I approached the main office at Laurel Hill Cemetery last Saturday morning. A gift shop at a cemetery? But indeed, we walked into the room and found a small store selling books and postcards of historic Philadelphia, Laurel Hill sweatshirts and coffee mugs, and a variety of skeleton-themed knick-knacks. The people running Laurel Hill these days bring a sense of humor—and an entrepreneurial approach—to their business.

Laurel Hill’s main entrance sits barely five minutes from my parents’ house in Philadelphia’s East Falls section, but we had driven past it for years without ever entering. On occasion, my mother and I would note an announcement of a tour in The Fallser, often intending to go but waylaid by some other task. This time, though, we had made a plan and stuck to it: we’d seen that Laurel Hill would be offering its introductory “Hot Spots and Storied Plots” tour on a Saturday morning when I would be in Philadelphia, we’d planned to go, and we’d actually made it.


After paying the tour fee, we met Nancy, our guide (who wore a shirt printed not with polka-dots, as I initially thought, but skulls), and the other three members of the tour. Dark clouds in the sky and a catch to the wind provided suitably spooky ambiance, but also suggested why the group was so small.

For the next two hours, we followed Nancy on a fascinating walk through the grounds of Laurel Hill, the second oldest “garden cemetery” in the United States. Founded in 1836, Laurel Hill was part of a movement away from churchyard burials. With the rapid growth of Philadelphia in the early 19th century, graveyards in the city had become overcrowded and unpleasant places. When librarian John Jay Smith went to visit the grave of his young daughter in a city cemetery, he was unable to locate it; this traumatic experience led Smith to decide that Philadelphia needed a better place to bury its dead.


Smith joined with other Philadelphians also interested in this venture, and the group scouted out an appropriate location, finally choosing the Laurel Hill site, a former country estate. Sitting five miles up the Schuylkill River from the city center, Laurel Hill seemed so remote that future urban growth could surely never reach it. The land offered easy river access (people and coffins generally traveled to Laurel Hill by steamboat in the 19th century) and verdant land that could be shaped into a bucolic garden overlooking the water. Engaging Scottish architect John Notman, the cemetery founders transformed Laurel Hill into Philadelphia’s premier eternal resting place.


In part, that was accomplished by the same practice that restaurants and stores today use to attract buzz: get the famous people to go there. In Laurel Hill’s case, early on those famous people were mostly Revolutionary War veterans; the cemetery founders convinced families of noted deceased veterans to relocate their loved ones’ remains to the new cemetery, establishing it as the place to be seen when you’re dead.

Laurel Hill grew steadily over the course of the 19th century, its green hills increasingly studded with monuments—most plain, but some quite elaborate. As we were on the basic introductory tour, Nancy focused on pointing out the cemetery’s most famous occupants, ranging from Civil War general George Meade to legendary Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas. (Meade’s used to be Laurel Hill’s most visited gravesite; recently, though, Kalas overtook him in visitors.) We also saw one famous fictional grave: <spoiler alert> the tombstone for Adrian Balboa used in Rocky Balboa, now carefully tended off to the side of the main burial grounds.


With an estimated 75-100,000 people buried within its gates, Laurel Hill’s occupants are so varied that a tour can be designed on almost any theme imaginable, like “Classy Broads and Daring Dames: Ladies of North Laurel Hill” or “Philadelphia Lawyers at Laurel Hill.” And, as I said, the Friends of Laurel Hill today are as entrepreneurial as John Jay Smith and his colleagues were in the 1830s. The cemetery hosts yoga classes and a “graveyard cabaret,” as well as a car and hearse show, a 5K run, and the “Gravedigger’s Ball.”

The Friends seem to have an approach that emphasizes respect for the dead and the historic site in their care, but also has some fun with the quirky history and stories that have accumulated over nearly 200 years. And most of all, they present Laurel Hill not as a forbidding or spooky place, but as a picturesque retreat from the city that now surrounds it. As 19th-century city-dwellers came to Laurel Hill for picnics and carriage rides among the gravestones, visitors today are encouraged to use the cemetery as a place for (respectful) recreation. There’s nothing wrong, in other words, in going to the cemetery and having a good time.


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Up, Up, and Away: Yangshuo, 2005


Like many other things I did during my first trip to China, the hot-air balloon ride wasn’t my idea. I had gone on what was meant to be a two-week tour of Hong Kong and southern China with Elaine (not her real name), an American classmate of mine from Beijing. After several days in Hong Kong, though, we continued on to Yangshuo—and there the tour stopped. Yangshuo, a small town in Guangxi province, had capitalized on its stunning scenery and laid-back lifestyle to turn itself into backpacker heaven for foreigners. The cobblestone streets were lined with cheap but clean hostels; cafes serving pancakes, club sandwiches, and halfway decent pizzas; and bike rental stands that would set you up with a mountain bike for 10RMB ($1.22) a day. Elaine and I decided almost immediately that we didn’t need to go anywhere else; Yangshuo would be our home base for the remainder of the break between semesters.

We quickly established a vacation routine: we’d eat breakfast at one of the cafes, then rent bikes, choose a road out of town, and start riding. Some days we had a destination in mind, while on others we simply rode as far as we could, cycling past picturesque rice paddies and through small towns. Returning to Yangshuo, we’d turn in our bikes and then pick up icy cold cups of bubble tea at a stall where we had become regulars.

We met the hot-air balloon guys at the bubble-tea stall a few days before we had to return to Beijing. They—two Chinese guys in their mid-thirties or so—were wandering Yangshuo trying to sell rides to foreigners. With limited English, their sales pitch consisted of walking up to a target, handing them a brochure, and saying, “balloon ride?”

If I’d been alone, I would have brushed them off without even taking the brochure, the same way I now wave off bus-tour touts in New York every morning as I leave the Port Authority. But Elaine was curious and stopped to talk with the guys as I concentrated on slurping up the starchy bubbles from the bottom of my cup, intent on capturing the optimal proportion of tea and bubbles in every strawful. Only half-listening to their conversation, I wasn’t prepared when Elaine turned to me and excitedly asked, “do you want to do it?”

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Well, no. I hate flying. I hate heights. I hate fire. The combination of all three would seem to rule out ballooning. But Elaine was persistent: she really wanted to go ballooning, but it would be too expensive for her to go alone. If the two of us went, the ride would be $100 per person—still an enormous sum, considering our limited funds and tight budget, but do-able.

I laughed. I refused. I protested. I’d thought Elaine was just making conversation with the guys; I hadn’t expected she would actually want to ride in a hot-air balloon. Maybe they could find another single traveler to go in her balloon and split the cost. We were in the middle of rural China; did she really think this was the place to be adventurous? (I suppose from a different point of view, that was exactly the place to be adventurous.) But Elaine wore me down, countering each of my arguments with “think of how much fun this will be!” and “don’t you want to do something really amazing?” The hot-air balloon guys just stood there, pretty certain, I’m sure, that Elaine would make the sale for them.

Eventually, she did, and the guys told us to meet them at the bubble-tea stand in a few hours; we would ride in late afternoon, to catch the sun just as it started to slide from the sky. But when the appointed hour came and we returned to the stand, the guys had bad news: it had become too windy to go that day. We’d try again the next morning.

The following day, we rose when it was still dark outside, dressed, and stumbled out to wait in front of our hostel. The guys pulled up in a pickup truck a few minutes later, a balloon basket strapped down in the cargo area. Elaine and I climbed in to the cab and we took off for the launch site, the truck speeding past the rice paddies and through the small towns that Elaine and I had seen on our bike rides. The entire way, I sat in the truck half-convinced that we weren’t actually going to do this insane thing; somehow, Elaine would come to her senses and change her mind, or the guys would tell us that the weather once again wasn’t good enough to fly safely. We weren’t actually going to ride in a hot-air balloon. Were we?

Eventually, we did. We arrived at the launch site, where another balloon team waited with a foreign couple who would also be flying. We stood around as the guys filled both balloons, the enormous colorful envelopes slowly transformed from a mass of fabric spread on the ground to lightbulb-shaped orbs gently swaying above us. And finally, I reached the point of no return: I was either going to climb into the basket or not. Taking a deep breath and wondering what the hell I was doing, I clambered in and we took off.

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A balloon ride over Yangshuo is unquestionably magical. The Guangxi countryside spread beneath us in the early morning light, mist playing off the green karst mountains, the height of the balloon giving us a new perspective on the terrain we had cycled daily for the past week. The world at that height was quiet—except for the moments when the balloon operator turned on the gas jet to add air to the balloon, the sight of which sent me cowering at the side of the basket.

I spent the hour-long ride alternating between feeling entranced and terrified. When I could relax and lose myself in the scenery, I was convinced the ride was the best thing I’d ever done. But when the flame shot up mere feet above my head and I considered exactly how insubstantial the balloon seemed in the vast morning sky, my heart leapt into my throat.

We floated, seeming to drift along aimlessly but obviously following a route the pilots had mapped out, the second balloon always a few minutes ahead of us. Eventually, as the hour neared to an end, the pilot started bringing us closer to earth and we finally landed in the field where we’d taken off, the pickup trucks and original salesmen waiting for us to disembark.

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Elaine was entranced; if she could have immediately gone for a second ride, I’m sure she would have. I was experiencing far more mixed emotions: awe, triumph, relief, lingering fear. I couldn’t believe what I’d just done … but also I couldn’t believe what I’d just done. Had I lost my mind? What if something had happened to us? How could I have agreed to something so risky?

In the decade since, that balloon ride has served as shorthand for both the stupidest thing I’ve ever done (well, maybe that’s debatable) and the bravest thing I’ve ever done. When my brother tried to convince me to go on a helicopter tour of Boston last month and I refused (even after he offered to pay for it!), he argued, “I can’t believe you’d go in a hot-air balloon in rural China but won’t fly in a helicopter in the United States.” But when I am not sure I have enough courage to do something, I think to myself, “I flew in a hot-air balloon in Yangshuo. This can’t be nearly as scary as that.”

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China: Through the Looking Glass


When I worked at a hospital during college, I had a co-worker whom I will call Mike. Mike was not Asian, but he had two Chinese characters tattooed on his arm. Whenever someone asked what they meant, Mike responded “mysterious,” which I’m pretty sure he meant in the film noir-ish sense of “handsome, mysterious, and intriguing.”

I started studying Chinese my final year of college, and one day a few months in I looked at my vocabulary list and recognized 奇怪, the two characters I’d seen on Mike’s arm for the past several years. Except … the book defined 奇怪 qiguai not as “mysterious,” but “strange, odd.” Like, “Hey, that dog is driving a car. How qiguai!” I guess this could somehow be turned into “mysterious,” but in the decade-plus since, my sense has always been that qiguai conveys bafflement or the idea that things are not as one would expect. And when applied to a person, I don’t think qiguai is a compliment. (Chinese language specialists, leave a comment if you have thoughts on this.)

Search for “Chinese character tattoos gone wrong” in Google and you’ll find that Mike is far from the only non-Chinese-speaker to have made this error. People want tattoos that signify their appreciation of things exotic and, uh, mysterious, but if they don’t actually know the source material, true meanings can be lost in translation.

I found myself thinking of Mike’s tattoo several times on Monday as I walked through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s costume institute exhibit, “China: Through the Looking Glass,” on its final day. Actually, I was never really able to walk; hundreds of other last-minute visitors and I shuffled around the cramped galleries, packed together so closely that someone stopping to take a photo could cause a minor pileup. I had known to expect crowds: “Through the Looking Glass” is the Met’s highest-attended costume institute show ever, breaking the record set by 2011’s Alexander McQueen exhibit, and proved so popular that the museum extended its run from the original end date of August 16 to Labor Day. (Thus giving me more time to procrastinate. I, of course, meant to see the show as soon as it opened in May; predictably, I wound up walking through the doors just five hours before it closed.)

IMG_3346“Through the Looking Glass” examined how ideas of China have been taken on and translated by Western fashion designers, from 18th-century Chinoiserie through a high-fashion Mao suit featuring shorts and a lipstick-red patent-leather belt. Crucially, the exhibit’s organizers emphasized that they were not questioning or critiquing how “correct” these Western ideas of China are; their intent, it seems, was to demonstrate the fact that Westerners have long been fascinated by China and found in the country and its culture a source of inspiration.

This is a tricky line to walk because it gets into questions of cultural understanding and appropriation, with the ghost of Edward Said looming over it all. Said, author of Orientalism, argued that Western depictions of “the East” (stretching from North Africa east to Japan, though Said’s focus was on the Middle East) were embedded in imperialism and inherently patronizing and feminizing. Complex societies and cultures were reduced to simplistic tropes that portrayed the East as inscrutable, dangerous, and alluring—but backward and in need of a firm Euro-American hand taking control.

In other words, in an Orientalist perspective the entirety of Chinese culture, history, and society boiled down to: dragons, opium, foot-binding, concubines, the color red, the imperial system, and Confucianism. More or less.

Orientalism is generally understood as a bad thing. What the “Through the Looking Glass” exhibit designers attempted to do was reclaim Orientalism, demonstrating that Western designers might only have a superficial understanding of China, but that limited insight has been enough to inspire beautiful clothing. Or, as the introductory text explained:

this exhibition attempts to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity. … it presents a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East.

So, Western designers might work in outdated and essentializing stereotypes, but … that’s because they really like those stereotypes?

I’ll let the cultural theorists hash that one out.

What did I think of the exhibit itself, once I stopped puzzling through the introductory text?

As I wrote on my notepad halfway through, “this is so f%@!ing predictable.”

Because here’s the problem when you’re putting stereotypes on display: everyone has seen them before. They’re stereotypes. So prominent features of the exhibit were: qipaos (and variations on them), dragons, Mao, the colors red and yellow, “Lotus Flower/Dragon Lady” actress Anna May Wong, opium (the Yves Saint Laurent fragrance, that is), and blue-and-white china.


Almost all of the dresses were beautiful, and I frequently wished that I’d come at a less crowded time that would have allowed me the leisure to examine them more carefully. I also wished for more time to stand still and watch the film clips playing at various points along the exhibit route. Curated by prominent director Wong Kar-wai, the clips added another layer of translation and exchange; most of the ones I caught were from movies made in the 1980s or later by Chinese directors (two exceptions being Cina (Zhongguo) and The Last Emperor, both directed by Italians). Those movies look back at a past that their directors didn’t necessarily experience and may regard with their own set of stereotypes and romanticization. So a Western designer searching for pre-1949 Shanghai in Lust, Caution or watching In the Heat of the Sun to learn what the Cultural Revolution was like is even further removed from the real thing.

But what is “the real thing”? I suppose that’s the question “China: Through the Looking Glass” wanted me—and the other 815,991 visitors to the exhibit—to ask. How important is it for a designer to really understand another culture before he or she incorporates it into their work? Can we only work within the parameters of our own societies, histories, cultures? Is cultural appropriation always wrong?


The exhibition designers, I think, tried to argue that the answer to that last question is “no.” I disagree. But more than anything else, seeing so many examples of the Western vision of China together in one place brought home to me how tired that vision is. We really need to move beyond qipaos, Mao, dragons, and calligraphy.

Speaking of calligraphy: my former co-worker Mike, and all those other people with smile-inducing Chinese tattoos, shouldn’t feel foolish. Such mistakes can happen to anyone. One of the simpler designs on display was a beautiful 1951 Dior cocktail dress, its cream-colored silk folds covered in fluid Chinese cursive. On reading the placard, however, I learned that the text printed on the dress was a famous 10th-century letter … describing the author’s sudden abdominal distress.


Update, September 23, 2015: This post has been translated into Italian at Cinaforum. Many thanks to Alessandra Cappelletti for suggesting and facilitating this collaboration.

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Nightscape at Longwood Gardens


I’ve written here before about how much I love suburban Philadelphia’s Longwood Gardens: the park is beautiful, it’s elegant, it’s timeless. My grandparents took my mother and her sisters there, just as my mother took my brother and me there when we were little, and while some elements changed in little ways over the decades, we all saw essentially the same features: the Flower Garden Walk, the Main Fountain Garden, the Chimes Tower, the Conservatory. The Italian Water Garden in my grandfather’s slides looks pretty much exactly like the Italian Water Garden in my iPhone photos. Longwood is wonderful, but it’s very … staid.

When my mother, brother, and I visited last Saturday, though, we saw that some things have changed, and Longwood is starting to let its hair down after dark.

The three of us arrived in late afternoon and immediately started walking the same route we’ve followed for the past three decades (or longer, in Mom’s case). Down the Flower Garden Walk and past the Large Lake to the Italian Water Garden …


then up to the Peirce-du Pont House. But when we left the house, we realized that there was a path leading away from it that we’d never seen before. Consulting the park map, we saw that a new Meadow Garden had opened, so we headed that way and found scenery straight out of a van Gogh painting:


We walked part of the Meadow Garden trail, but it was surprisingly hot for so late in the day and so we decided against covering the full three miles. Some other time.

Emerging from the Meadow Garden and meeting back up with our regular route, we made a quick stop by the Topiary Garden before heading up to the Conservatory, where we saw the full extent of what Longwood’s two-year “Fountain Revitalization Project” means:


The Main Fountain Garden—the centerpiece of Pierre du Pont’s legacy at Longwood—has been largely plowed under. An exhibit showed how the original fountains will be restored and the plumbing rebuilt between now and 2017. It will be beautiful, but it’s a long process and in the meantime, one of the garden’s signature attractions is unavailable.

So it makes sense that Longwood has thought up a new offering for visitors this summer: “a light and sound experience” called Nightscape.

IMG_3237Nightscape didn’t begin until 8:30, so we ate dinner in the cafeteria and got drinks from the new beer garden (although I didn’t really like the special “Longwood Summer Zest” on tap and wound up giving it to my brother to finish) while waiting for the sun to set. Once it was fully dark out, the three of us ventured over to the Conservatory to view the first three Nightscape features.

Nightscape involves light shows projected onto different garden exhibits while techno music fills the air. As Philly wrote, the experience “is trippy as hell.” It’s also really mesmerizing: at the first stop in the Conservatory, we stood and watched a giant ball change color over … and over … and over.


Finally snapping out of it, we joined a huge line waiting to get into the Palm House for the next installation. This was the most like being in a club: neon lights strobed off the palm fronds while ominous electronica played over the sound system. (The first 35 seconds of this YouTube video convey the experience much better than my photos did.)

The final Nightscape setting in the Conservatory was in the cactus-filled Silver Garden, which has never been my favorite—other gardens are much more colorful and interesting. But the rock and cacti served as the ideal canvas for the Nightscape lights, which created a moving, changing, crazy quilt of images blanketing the otherwise pitch-black room. It was otherworldly.


Moving outside, we retraced our steps to the Topiary Garden, where the manicured bushes were turned into Mayan-inspired Rubik’s cubes. Each layer of the topiaries had a different image projected onto it; they rotated and gave the impression that if the layers would just align, the patterns would come together. But they never did—though again, we found ourselves standing for a very long time just watching the patterns rotate.


Some of the sections along the Flower Garden Walk had small Nightscape features, but the next really significant thing to see—and by far the largest Nightscape installation—was down at the Large Lake, where a movie of sorts was projected onto a massive wall of trees. Unfortunately, this was also the one Nightscape scene that really fell flat. While the other scenes had been abstract, this one told the story of a garden going through the four seasons of the year—but I didn’t realize that until doing some reading online later. We arrived at the lake during the winter section, so for a long time we just watched subtle white lights drift across the trees (meant to convey falling snow). Ready to move on after a few minutes of this, we started walking around the lake and suddenly realized that the music had picked up and the lights come alive—it was, I figured out later, the summer section of the show. That was pretty amazing: the lights formed fish leaping from the surface of the lake and water splashing behind them, with dragonflies swooping overhead (poorly captured in this series of photos I took, though click the photo for a larger version and it becomes somewhat clearer).


When the summer section of the four seasons show really got going, it was incredible. But the rest of the sequence was too slow and subtle—and at the time, we didn’t even realize that we were watching the four seasons.

It seems that Nightscape has been a huge success for Longwood Gardens—tickets regularly sell out—and since the Main Fountain Garden will still be under construction next summer, I assume there will be a Nightscape 2016. I’d like to see even more of the gardens brought into the experience; there was a little too much downtime between the installations, and parts of the route were so dark we stumbled around a bit. The three Conservatory sites were definitely a highlight, and I liked the Topiary Garden as well. (The beer garden isn’t bad, either, even if I didn’t love the featured drink.)

Viewing Nightscape was really seeing Longwood Gardens in a whole new light (no pun intended); it was at times an intense and even disorienting experience. But I’m really glad that after playing it safe and staid for so many decades, they’re experimenting and trying new things, even if some parts could be improved. It was definitely not my grandfather’s Longwood Gardens—and that’s a good thing.

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LA Review of Books: There Be Dragons

I have said here previously how much I enjoyed Dragon Day, the final volume in Lisa Brackmann’s Ellie McEnroe crime thriller trilogy. This week at the LA Review of Books China Blog, I review the book in more detail:

Dragon Day sees Ellie attempting to stay in the good graces of her biggest — and scariest — client, art-collecting billionaire Sidney Cao, who requests that she investigate a foreign “consultant” whom Sidney suspects is exerting an unhealthy influence over his spoiled 20-something son. Ellie wants nothing more than to complete this assignment with speed and diplomacy, but her hopes are quickly dashed when a young migrant woman turns up dead with Ellie’s business card in her pocket. Maneuvering between the Chinese authorities and the menacing members of the Cao family, Ellie soon finds herself in way over her head as she searches for the woman’s killer.

Read the entire post here.

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Getting Things Done: Knitting Box Edition


Last Saturday, I looked in my knitting box and realized two things: (1) the same three projects had been sitting in it for at least six months, and (2) all three were thisclose to being finished. If I just sat down and did the simple work that each needed (but which I’d been putting off for various reasons), I could clear out my project box and fill it with something new. I vowed that this would be the week that all three projects moved into the “finished” section of my Ravelry page, and I got to work.


First up: a pair of “Cozy Little Toes” baby socks that I’d decided to knit sometime in the spring because I had a small amount of Trekking sock yarn left over from a project five years ago and wanted to use it up. This was the project that really should not have been hanging out in my knitting box for months on end; literally the only thing I had to do was graft the toe together on one of the socks. That’s it. Eighteen stitches grafted—under 10 minutes of work—two ends woven in, and the socks were done. Now they can sit in my “I’m sure someone I know will have a baby soon and hand-knit socks are always a good gift” box.


Next: a pair of adult socks (Susan B. Anderson’s pattern) that I started knitting on a snow day back in late January when our office was closed. Casting on a pair of socks seemed like such a “snow day” thing to do: I remember sitting in my living room with a cup of coffee, knitting and watching the snow fall heavily outside my bay window. It was quaint; I probably Instagrammed it. I decided that the socks would be a birthday gift for my friend Laura, which meant I had about seven weeks to finish them. No sweat: previous experience has taught me that I can knit a sock in under a week. But I very quickly discovered that these socks were cursed.

Not long after finishing the cuff and starting the leg of Sock #1, I realized that everything seemed kind of … loose. Like eighties slouch-sock loose—not really Laura’s style. But maybe it was just my imagination? I kept knitting. (MISTAKE) But by the time I got to the heel, I could no longer deny that something was wrong. Maybe the needles felt kind of thick? I got out my needle gauge and discovered that I’d been using size 2s instead of size 1s, which meant the whole thing was too big and too loose. Sock #1 got ripped apart, set aside while I cooled down, and finally restarted on the correct needles. I finished it when visiting my aunt and uncle in Florida at the beginning of March, meaning I still had just about a week before Laura’s birthday to knit the second sock.

Except … Sock #2 didn’t go much better. I had the right needles, but this time I somehow forgot everything I knew about sock construction and wound up with half the number of stitches I needed for the foot. I can’t explain it. Well, actually, I can (sorry, this is technical): when I got to the point of starting the gusset decreases, I should have checked the pattern to verify that I was doing the correct number of decreases in the right places. But I was watching something on Netflix, and I’ve made at least a dozen pairs of socks before, and I know how to do gusset decreases, so why bother exiting full screen view just to look up the pattern? (MISTAKE) So I knit on, decreasing four times every round instead of two (why I did THAT, I really can’t explain), and soon noticed that the sock progressed from an adult-sized leg and heel to a toddler-sized foot. RRRRRIP.

The socks were not done in time for Laura’s birthday.

But they could have been done not long after, except that I was frustrated, and busy with work, and by then I’d missed her birthday anyway, so why not make them her Christmas present instead? I picked Sock #2 up again early in the summer and told myself I should get it done before I left for my trip to China, so I’d come back to a clean slate. And in the week before I left, I quickly and happily knit away—knitting so quickly and so happily that I knit the foot of Sock #2 an inch longer than that of Sock #1. I’ve never measured Laura’s feet, but I’m pretty sure they’re more or less the same size. Too frustrated to deal with fixing my mistake in the midst of getting ready to leave for China, I threw the f%@*ing sock in my knitting box, and there it stayed until this week. On Tuesday morning, I got up early and calmly undid the extra inch in the foot, worked the toe decreases, and grafted the toe closed before I left for work—finally shutting the book on this project, seven months later than planned.

(Laura, if you’re reading this: now you know why every time I see you I say I’ll have your birthday present “next time”!)


Last: a gray “mistake rib” scarf for myself, begun on January 2 with Madelinetosh yarn that I bought at Loop in Philadelphia that very day. I was so excited about this scarf that I cast it on the same day I bought the yarn. Sounds like I should have gotten it done pretty quickly, right? Because I was so excited? But no. Almost nine months later and the scarf was still on the needles. And really, I worked on it a lot. Any night after dinner when I wasn’t cursing at Laura’s socks, I was watching Netflix and mindlessly knitting the scarf. This scarf has gone with me on every trip I’ve taken in 2015; it should have its own frequent-flyer account. But even though I knit and knit and knit some more, the scarf never seemed to get any longer. Or the yarn never ran out. One of the two. It was clearly a magic scarf that was never going to end, and I was destined to spend the rest of my life in a black hole of knitting.

Except that last Saturday, I looked in the scarf’s project bag and realized that the end was, indeed, in sight. Somehow, I had just a handful of yarn left; the rest of it had all been turned into five feet of tiny, boring, repetitive mistake rib. (Which clearly got its name from the fact that committing to this interminable pattern is a huge mistake.) I worked on it as much as I could during the week and got closer to finishing. This morning, I poured myself a second cup of coffee, turned on an episode of Property Brothers, and completed the last couple of rows as the Brothers transformed a Victorian wreck into a Better Homes and Gardens-worthy masterpiece.

So my knitting box is totally empty for the first time in 2015 and now it’s time to pick a new project. My guess is that it will be something I can finish fast.

Haha. “Fast.” Right.

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LA Review of Books: “Expat Identities”

Following up on my recent LA Review of Books China Blog interview with Shannon Young, I have a new post at the site reviewing How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia, which Young edited:

Many of the anthology’s contributors speak of being changed for the better by their time abroad, but Dragonfruit also includes essays on the difficulties involved in living overseas. Authors write of their struggles to communicate in foreign languages; to feel comfortable in settings where they don’t physically fit in; to navigate romantic relationships with partners who come from other cultures. And while moving to another country can feel like leaving behind “real life” at home, real-life problems — cancer, infertility, marriage troubles — don’t respect national boundaries.

Read the whole thing here.

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LA Review of Books: Q&A with Shannon Young, Author of “Year of Fire Dragons”

I have a new post up at the LA Review of Books China Blog, in which I interview Hong Kong-based author Shannon Young:

Young Year of Fire Dragons coverYoung, however, didn’t originally plan to spend her life writing; she wanted to be an editor. But after graduating from college in 2009, she found many of her plans upended. Publishing jobs were nearly impossible to find in the midst of the economic downturn, her student loans were looming, and she had fallen in love with Ben, a Hong Kong native whom Young had met while on a semester abroad in London. Asia offered the chance for both economic security and personal happiness, so Young packed up and moved to Hong Kong — only to see Ben suddenly transferred to London a month after her arrival. In a new memoir, Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong, Young recounts the ups and downs of her first twelve months in Hong Kong as she grappled with a life totally different from the one she had planned.

Read our Q&A here.

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