2019 Top 9 (And Another Top 3)

Happy New Year! As is my regular practice, I’m kicking off 2020 with a renewed resolve to write more, in both volume and frequency. Will I? We shall see. I’ve set a relatively modest goal of writing for 30 minutes every non-holiday weekday and so far I’m four for four on meeting that, so if I put words on a page tomorrow we’ll officially have a streak going. Fingers crossed.

If you’re on Instagram, the past week has been full of people posting their 2019 “Top 9”—a three-by-three grid of their most-liked pictures from the year. The idea, of course, is that those nine images somehow sum up, or at least capture the essence of, one’s life over 365 days. Since I’m no more immune than anyone else to the lure of a social media trend, I also downloaded the required app and directed it to create my own 2019 Top 9. Voila:

To a certain extent: sure, yes, this is a pretty good overview of my year. But like all social media, it’s incomplete, only a partial reveal of what happened in my life during 2019. Interestingly, it doesn’t capture what I consider the most significant things I’ve shared on Instagram, indicating that what’s important to me isn’t necessarily what my followers find likable. Still, these nine images do help me think about what I did in 2019 and what I’d like to do more/better/differently in 2020.

Starting with the top left corner and working clockwise so we finish in the middle square:

I cut my hair. Actually, this probably seemed more dramatic to others than it felt to me: since high school I’ve been letting my hair grow long-ish, cutting it short, trying a bob, growing it out, etc. But the last time I had a really short cut was in 2011, so I guess it did look like I had made a stunning change when I emerged from the salon in February with a short asymmetrical style. I like it, at least for now; find me in two years and maybe I’ll be back to a bob. The nice thing about hair is that no changes are really permanent.

I reviewed books for the Wall Street Journal. I did not get a whole lot of writing done in 2019, especially since during the second half of the year I spent a large portion of my daily writing time reading what others were saying about the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. But I did publish four book reviews with the WSJ and hope to continue doing so in the future. Here are links to each of my pieces:

“The Chinese Cyber-Padlock,” review of The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet, by James Griffiths (March).
“A Chinatown Safe House,” review of The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, by Julia Flynn Siler (June).
“A Glimpse of a Far Land,” review of The Chinese Lady: Afong Moy in Early America, by Nancy E. Davis (July).
“Money, Power and China,” review of Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, by Jung Chang (December).

Speaking at the Rutgers University “Tiananmen at 30” symposium, April 2019

I did a lot of public speaking. I didn’t anticipate this at the beginning of the year, but what can I say—people want to learn about both China and careers. In addition to the “Tiananmen at 30” symposium at Rutgers University pictured, I also gave talks on China’s past and present at Central Michigan University, the University of California, Irvine, Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and Saint Joseph’s University, and I spoke at both Central Michigan and the University of Michigan about non-academic career paths for humanities PhDs. I already have a few events scheduled for 2020, too—those are all listed on my “Wanderings” page, though I don’t have details for everything just yet.

I finally saw Ghostbusters on the big screen. I can’t say this was an absolute highlight of 2019, but I did enjoy it; Ghostbusters is one of my top-five movies of all time. And there’s a story behind the t-shirt I’m wearing in the picture: way back when the movie was first released in 1984, my father bought me a similar shirt with the Ghostbusters logo on it … and was then disappointed that the ghost scared me so much I wouldn’t wear the shirt. (In my defense, I was two years old.) I’m happy to report that thirty-five years later, I ain’t afraid of no ghost.

I went to Denver and found it … meh. The Association for Asian Studies had its annual conference in Denver last March, so I spent eight days in this new-to-me city (five working, three vacation). People who know me and are familiar with Denver assured me I’d love it—lots of craft beer, mountain views, what has to be the largest per-capita number of Subarus in the country … sounds like my kind of place. But I started off the trip with bad altitude-induced headaches and never really felt like I adjusted to the elevation, which I think in turn affected my experience. I did my best to get out and walk around, thinking that would help me warm up to Denver, but the city and I just didn’t click. Maybe I need to try again, or maybe Denver just isn’t my kind of place.

Bangkok, Thailand, July 2019

I went to Bangkok and loved it. On the other hand, I didn’t expect much from Bangkok (where we held the AAS-in-Asia conference last July) and wound up wishing I could stay longer (despite developing a whopper of a sinus infection at the trip’s end). Throughout the years I lived in Asia, I never had any strong desire to visit Thailand; it seemed the destination of choice for either hipster backpackers or corporate expats, neither group one I belonged to. Admittedly, I was only there for a week, and I spent most of that time in hotel conference rooms, but whenever I could get out and walk around Bangkok I loved it—the slow pedestrian traffic alongside streets buzzing with mosquito-like motorcycles, the ferries constantly criss-crossing the Chao Phraya River, the food vendors whipping up quick meals at stands lining the sidewalks (which are now under threat from city planners). At the end of a trip my train of thought is generally, I’m glad I got to see a new place; now, where to next? But until visiting Thailand, it had been a long time since I sat in an airport wondering, How soon can I get back?

I acquired a lot of books, most of which I didn’t read (yet). This photo is of my haul at the American Historical Association’s conference in Chicago last January, but I could have probably produced a similar one in every month following. I just … like books. I actually buy comparatively few of them these days—my reading needs are more than fulfilled by review copies sent by publishers, Kindle Unlimited, and the Ann Arbor District Library—and I read a lot but my stacks of unread volumes, both digital and physical, never seem to get any smaller. I used to think that I simply needed some uninterrupted time to “catch up” on reading; now I’m reluctantly beginning to accept that I’m never, ever going to catch up.

I … did a crossword puzzle (?). This picture was the one in my Top 9 that surprised me the most, and in fact I barely even remember posting it. I like crossword puzzles. Sometimes I find it helpful to work on one first thing in the morning as a kind of wake-up for my brain. At some point in 2019 I seem to have decided that it was worth documenting this practice. Apparently, my Instagram followers found it very likable.

“I am unable to quit,
as I am currently too legit”

I drank endless cups of coffee, tea, and hot water out of this, my new favorite mug. The mug appeared in our office kitchen at some point—a free giveaway from one of our vendors—and one day I just happened to grab it off the shelf, never realizing that it would immediately become my new favorite mug. This mug is perfect. Not only for its stilted, geeky rendition of M.C. Hammer’s famous line, but its size, volume, weight, shape, feel in my hand … everything about it is just right. And there might be no clearer sign that I’m quickly approaching forty than the fact that I can explain so specifically that I have a favorite mug and why it’s my favorite.

But when I think back on 2019 in a few years—or even a few months—will those nine things be what stand out most clearly in my memory? Probably not. (I mean, the coffee mug is pretty great, but …) So here are my own personal not-pictured 2019 Top 3 memories that I think will endure:

Painting in Progress, July 2019

I painted a wall. This one might seem banal to some readers, but it was a very big deal for me. When I bought my house three years ago, the one thing that I truly disliked was the weird tan-brown paint color that the previous owner had chosen for several of the rooms. Everything I saw on HGTV and read in Better Homes and Gardens assured me that painting is easy! It’s cheap! It’s the easiest, cheapest way to transform a room in only a few hours! But I had never painted anything before, and the fear of trying something new meant that I kept taking tiny steps toward picking up a brush and then delaying the actual moment for, admittedly, weak reasons. Last summer I finally told myself that I was being absolutely ridiculous, watched a dozen YouTube videos, collected the paint and supplies I’d bought an entire year prior, and painted the feature wall in my bedroom. And it looks … not terrible … so next in line for a transformation is the master bath. I’m slowly getting more confident in this whole homeowner thing.

At the Electric Bolt 5k in Ann Arbor, July 2019

I learned that it’s okay to walk a 5k, so I did 25 of them. I’m working on a whole separate post about this, but the short version of the story is that I wanted to get outside and exercise more, and 5k races have turned out to be my favorite way of accomplishing that goal. Participating in them has also been a wonderful way to better acquaint myself with Michigan; over the past year I’ve driven all over the central and southeastern parts of the state, visiting small towns and gaining a better understanding of what lies beyond Ann Arbor and Detroit.

Governor’s Palace, Williamsburg, VA, October 2019

I went on vacation with my parents in Williamsburg, Virginia. This was the first time in a very long time that I took a dedicated vacation, rather than tacking on a few personal days at the end of a business trip. My parents and I were all first-time visitors to Williamsburg and we made the most of it: walking through the historic sites downtown, watching the Fife & Drum Corps perform, a driving tour of Yorktown, afternoon tea for my birthday at the Williamsburg Inn, the best pulled chicken I’ve ever had at Old City Barbecue. Much as I appreciate getting to travel for work, having a true vacation was better—and, to end on a sentimental note, so was hanging out with my parents during it. (Hi, Mom, I know you’re reading this.) More of that in 2020, please.

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