Looking Back, Moving Forward

Happy New Year! January 1, of course, is a day traditionally spent thinking about the year that has just ended and making plans for the one that lies ahead, and I have been doing exactly that. I feel like 2018 was several years crammed into one: both in my own life and in the world around me, everything seemed to be moving in double time. I’m not sure if this is a resolution or a plea, but I dearly hope that in 2019 we all manage to slow down.

Here are five of my 2018 highlights and a few tentative goals for 2019:

● Without a doubt, the biggest thing that happened in my professional life this past year was co-writing the third edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know with Jeff Wasserstrom and then going on tour to promote it. Although I think I will always prefer to write (and rewrite, and delete) my thoughts rather than voice them extemporaneously, I did 19 public events/podcast recordings in 2018—most of them linked to the book—and have gotten at least slightly more comfortable with talking off the cuff and dealing with unexpected audience questions. Thank you to everyone who took the time to attend these events—I hope you found them informative and engaging.

China in the 21st Century has been reviewed (favorably!) at Global Asia and Education About Asia. An audiobook version, narrated by Joe Barrett, was also just released last week.

If you’d like to hear me talk about the book, check out this episode of the New Books in East Asian Studies podcast. Jeff and I were also interviewed by Jan Berris of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations about our career paths and how we work beyond typical academic structures. And, since the 21st century continues to march on, we’re doing very occasional updates on specific China topics and recommending additional resources here. Jeff and I are both very active on Twitter (@jwassers and @mauracunningham), so following each of us there is the best way to keep up with our individual China-watching.

● Another professional highlight for me in 2018 was interviewing self-exiled Chinese novelist Ma Jian at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival in November. This was an exciting opportunity, but took an unexpected turn when the festival venue canceled Ma’s event several days in advance, then reversed its decision and allowed the show to go on. While I write a lot about censorship and self-censorship in China, I never expected to be personally involved in an occurrence of it! Everything turned out fine, Ma and I had a great talk, and I’m very grateful to HKILF for inviting me to moderate his event (as well as one by feminist author Leta Hong Fincher), but the whole episode was a sobering education in how freedoms in Hong Kong are becoming more restricted—both directly by Beijing and indirectly due to fear of direct involvement by Beijing.

I was also interviewed about Ma Jian’s work for this profile of him that appeared in the New York Times several weeks ago.

● Aside from the book, 2018 was a bit of a mixed bag for me writing-wise. I published my first book review with the Wall Street Journal (on City of Devils, by Paul French) and co-wrote a commentary with Jeff for the Los Angeles Times about politics and censorship on the Chinese internet. I also have a couple of longer journal articles and two short interviews that will appear early in 2019.

All of that is great. But, I didn’t write very much in this space over the past year—though I started and put down a number of posts that maybe I’ll complete one day—and also didn’t finish the book about Zhang Leping that I’ve been working on for several years now. That needs to be the center of my writing attention in the months ahead.

● I read at least 69 books in 2018; I think the actual number is a little bit higher because I’m pretty sure I forgot to log a few titles at Goodreads. But I can’t begin to remember which books are missing, which is actually a reflection of a reading habit that I’m trying to change: binging on “easy” books (mysteries, thrillers, romances, “women’s fiction” aka chick lit) that I often quickly forget rather than digging into denser stuff (but I keep acquiring the denser stuff, so there’s now an entire bookcase in my house full of unread nonfiction). I want to achieve a more balanced reading diet in 2019, so I’m making a conscious effort to alternate fiction/nonfiction and easy/difficult books, not just reach for whatever happens to catch my eye on a particular day.

A few of the books I enjoyed and thought about the most this year (all of these are Amazon affiliate links): Educated, by Tara Westover; Heartland, by Sarah Smarsh; The Proposal, by Jasmine Guillory; No Ones Tells You This, by Glynnis MacNicol; The Wife Between Us, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen; and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. I just realized that all of these titles are written by women—which is pure coincidence, but I also read far more female authors than male, so not really a surprise.

● Since most of my professional life is both sedentary and solitary, I have been making more of an effort to get moving and spend time with other people. In 2018, I continued being a semi-dedicated member of the Ita Yoga Studio community in northeast Ann Arbor, attending a total of 124 classes (yes, I keep track), and I’ve already renewed my membership for all of 2019.

I also picked up tennis again, about twenty years after last putting down a racket. This was something of an impulse decision: I was idly flipping through a course catalogue from Ann Arbor Rec & Ed one evening in June when I saw that they offer an extensive tennis program for adults at very reasonable prices. Remembering that I once really enjoyed tennis, I signed up for a beginner’s clinic, bought a cheap racket at Target, and have been playing regularly ever since. I’d rank my skill level as “sporadically above-average, usually not” but I’m also a lot less competitive than I was when I played tennis as a teenager and don’t spend as much time comparing myself to other players and wishing I had more natural talent. Now I enjoy just getting out and whacking the ball around for an hour or two once a week. (I’m less thrilled with the aches in my knees that usually appear the next morning.) Most of my fitness-related impulse decisions don’t turn out very well—we won’t discuss that time I decided to take a spin class—but this one is a happy exception.

There are, of course, so many things that I hoped to do in 2018 but didn’t: repaint several rooms in my house, go to a Tigers game, see Hamilton on stage, travel somewhere new on vacation, achieve (and maintain!) Inbox Zero, finish writing the Zhang Leping book, organize all my photographs, and so forth. All of those goals are getting carried over to 2019 (though I should probably just give up on the Inbox Zero dream). But in reflecting on the past year, I’m happy with what I did accomplish, and even happier with the things that don’t neatly fit into a new year’s post like this one: the time I spent with my family, the hours of phone calls with friends whom I don’t see as often as I’d like, the Sunday afternoons I whiled away in the kitchen preparing food for the week so I wouldn’t fall back on ordering takeout at 9pm, the occasions when I told myself that saying “no” to an invitation was a smarter decision than saying “yes” to everything. More than anything else, those are the parts of 2018 that I hope to carry with me into the year ahead.

Happy New Year to one and all.

Image: I just glanced over and realized that this array on my desk summarizes what I hope for in 2019: progress on the Zhang Leping book, light and warmth, time on the beach, and a “We Can Do It” attitude.

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