New Opportunities, New Adventures

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I’m writing this on board a Northeast Regional train speeding (as much as American trains can speed) from Washington, D.C. to New York on Tuesday morning. Whenever the Amtrak wifi slows or I need a moment to collect my thoughts, I glance out the window next to my seat and watch the scenery for a minute. Over the past 19 months, I’ve spent a lot of time looking out of windows: of trains, buses, airplanes, taxis. I don’t know exactly how many miles I’ve traveled while working for the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, but with a bit of thought I can list all the places I’ve visited, from multiple “local” trips to D.C. and New Haven to destinations farther afield like Chicago, Kansas, Seattle, San Francisco, and various places in China. This trip, however, is different: it’s my last one.

June 30 (tomorrow, to you readers, since I’m writing this in advance) will be my final day at the National Committee. At the end of July I’m moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and as of August 1, I’ll join the staff of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), working on new social media and digital media initiatives for the organization.

I am really excited to move into this new role at AAS. (Obviously. I mean, would I take a job in another state if I weren’t really excited about it?) I’ve been going to the AAS annual meeting since my second year of grad school, and it’s always one of the highlights of my spring. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to develop more communications channels and work to strengthen the association’s relationship with its members; this is a fantastic opportunity to join an established organization and cultivate something new.

But I certainly felt more than a twinge of … loss, regret, sadness? There’s not one specific word to describe it … last month when I decided to accept the job offer from AAS and leave the National Committee. This was my first “real” job—health insurance! a retirement account! paid vacation days!—and it’s taken me places I never dreamed of, from countless government offices in the United States and China to the balcony above the New York Stock Exchange’s trading floor during the opening bell.

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I have worked with an impressive and generous group of colleagues, all of whom share my passion for education and increasing mutual understanding between the United States and China. I’ve gotten to know the 80 wonderful members of the Committee’s Public Intellectuals Program, the project I spent the most time on, and I sat next to my boss as we sifted through 49 years of documents and prepared to send our historical files to the Rockefeller Archive Center last spring. (PSA: the National Committee’s collection should be open to researchers later this year or in early 2017.) I got to be part of the Committee’s 50th anniversary celebration in D.C. on Monday night, where I realized—not for the first time, but with renewed appreciation—how strongly past staff members and program participants remain connected with the organization.

So it’s a little bit hard to leave. But it’s right. I have the opportunity to move in a new direction with my work—and just as importantly, with my writing. My position at AAS is 80% time, giving more structure to my workweek and providing me with more time to focus on my own writing projects. (Of course, it’s on me to use those hours productively and not spend them enjoying all of Netflix’s offerings.) I get to broaden my focus from just China to all of Asia and meet scholars who research places and topics I’ve never heard of before but would like to learn about. And although New York is a big, vibrant city, I’m looking forward scaling down a bit as I explore Ann Arbor and its surroundings.

It’s a change, but an exciting one. Onward to the Wolverine State.

Posted in Work/Life | Tagged | 1 Comment

Three Weeks in China: The Dining Highlights

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Almost as soon as I have a trip to China planned, I start plotting out my food agenda—old favorites I want to revisit and new places/things I want to try. Since this was a work trip, I spent a lot of meals sitting around banquet tables, eating dishes that were generally delicious but not necessarily what I would order if I were on my own.

Despite the high number of mandatory group dining sessions, I still got to squeeze in plenty of my personal China favorites.

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I love Peking duck and appreciated a pleasant meal at longtime Beijing stalwart Quanjude. But honestly, their Peking duck is about the same as what a good Chinese restaurant in the States offers. Far more exciting to me was a delicious dinner at Aimo Town, a Yunnan restaurant nestled inside a hutong in Beijing. It’s really difficult to find Yunnan food in the U.S.—unless you happen to be in the San Gabriel Valley—so while I’m in China I’ll take any chance I have to feast on mint salad, pan-fried cheese squares, sour-spicy shredded chicken with lime, and roasted eggplant with pork. Our table also wound up ordering a second round of pineapple rice, because … it’s rice served in a pineapple. Why not get two?

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This might not look like much, but it’s my favorite bowl of wonton soup in Shanghai, at Wufang Noodles around the corner from the Shanghai Municipal Archives. I’ve eaten more meals at Wufang than I can count—all costing between 10 and 18RMB ($1.53-2.75)—and while most of them are just decent, the wontons are really good. I prefer the cold wontons, served on a plate with various sauces drizzled on top, but they had run out already on the day I visited, so I had to settle for a bowl of the wonton soup. Still delicious. I think the secret touch is adding ginger to the pork and vegetable mixture tucked inside the wonton wrapper.

IMG_4827Baker & Spice is the place to go in Shanghai for reliable, albeit mass-produced, bakery treats. Their carrot cake gets most of the attention, and while it is good, I prefer the lemon-zucchini-poppyseed cake. I’m sure I could find a recipe to make my own, but I’d rather just eat it once a year in Shanghai.

IMG_4868One of the fun things to do in Asia is visit local convenience stores and check out the snacks they have for sale. I’ve long loved mala huasheng 麻辣花生, or peanuts mixed with spicy Sichuan peppercorns, and I ate plenty of packets of those during my China trip. I also discovered dried lotus root dusted with wasabi, which quickly became a new favorite of mine (it’s available at Family Mart). One thing I did not love, however, was the “dried lemon snack” I bought on a whim. Turns out eating dried lemon snack is like chewing on sour shoe leather. Fortunately, that learning experience only cost me 3RMB ($.46).

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In Shenyang, we ate lunch one day at another old favorite of mine, Lao Bian Dumplings. In Beijing, there’s a Lao Bian branch around the corner from the school where I studied in 2005, and during those six months I ate there at least once a week, and often even more frequently. I love nearly all Chinese food, but dumplings are my hands-down favorite, and Lao Bian’s are reliably good. The only style I didn’t really enjoy was the fish-filled dumplings, which came folded into the shape of a goldfish. They were adorable, but I just don’t consider fish an appropriate dumpling filling—there’s something too delicate about it in contrast to the sturdy dumpling wrapper and strong vinegar sauce.

Breakfasts in Taipei included plate after plate of my favorite fruit, white guavas. I’ve only seen them in Taiwan, and I’m just nuts for them. White guavas kind of resemble an apple in taste and texture, but they’re less sweet. I wish the ShopRite near me carried them, because I’d love to make them a regular part of my diet.

IMG_5403Probably my favorite meal of all three weeks came toward the end, at A-tsai’s Place (阿才的店) in Taipei. Once a popular meeting spot for political dissidents, A-tsai’s serves hearty homestyle food, loaded with garlic and cilantro. The restaurant isn’t slick or stylish—customers sit on low stools, the walls are covered with a jumble of memorabilia, and the haphazard use of extension cords made me a bit nervous—but the food was amazing. Other diners at my table praised the roasted duck, hacked into pieces that we picked through looking for the choicest bits; I, on the other hand, could have eaten an entire serving of the garlicky yuxiang qiezi 鱼香茄子, or “fish-flavored eggplant,” by myself.

Despite the back injury that sidelined me for most of the Taipei portion of the trip, I was determined to have a shaved-ice dessert before I left the island. You can get shaved ice elsewhere, but I’ve found that the best are in Taiwan: a bed of soft ice crystals supporting nearly any topping combo you can dream up, from fruit and panna cotta to peanuts and beans in condensed milk. I did some research online and decided to try Ice Monster, where I arrived to find a long line of people who were all at least 15 years younger than I am. I always feel conspicuous in Asia, and crashing a high-school hangout only intensified that. I ordered a red bean and peanut ice dessert and waited for my table.

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And it was … fine. But it wasn’t great. The ice wasn’t as soft as I’d like, and they’d dumped brown-sugar syrup on it, making the whole dessert too sweet. The puff of red bean “sensation” (creamy whipped ice? I don’t know how else to describe it) on top wasn’t something I’d ever seen before, and just sent the entire dessert over the edge. I couldn’t believe I was walking away from an unfinished bowl of shaved ice, but I did.

So the next day—my last in Taipei—I tried again. I went back to the internet and found this post from the “Hungry Girl’s Guide to Taipei” blog, where she recommended the classic shaved-ice desserts at Tai Yi Milk King, located a short bus ride from my hotel. After a massage and some mediocre dim sum for dinner, I ventured down to Tai Yi and joined the line stretching down the sidewalk. It moved quickly (more quickly than Ice Monster’s), and before I knew it I was at the counter ordering a red bean and mochi ball shaved ice. (Which, incidentally, cost exactly one-third of my dessert at Ice Monster—NT$60 to NT$180, or $1.85 vs. $5.55.) Seconds after I’d handed over a few coins, I was holding a tray with my dessert on it and heading into the back room to find a seat among the crowds. Unlike Ice Monster, Tai Yi attracted people of all ages, from parents with kids to teenagers giggling over their desserts to an older couple quietly chatting as they shared a bowl of mangos and ice.

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I picked up my spoon and dug in to pure heaven: perfectly soft snowy ice, chewy nuggets of mochi, red beans mixing perfectly with the condensed milk poured over them. It was exactly what I wanted—a simple, back-to-the-basics shaved-ice dessert.

It took an act of will not to order a second. But sometimes you just have to let perfection stand on its own.

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Taipei: I Want a Do-Over

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I was so excited to go to Taiwan.

I’ve only been there once before—for two wonderful weeks back in 2014, right after I finished my dissertation—and was thrilled that my Asia trip this year would conclude in Taipei. I added on a couple of vacation days after the work portion of the trip was schedule to end and started making a list of everything I wanted to do in the city. For weeks before my departure, I told everyone I spoke with how excited I was to return to Taiwan.

I was so excited that when the group had a tight window to transfer not just planes but terminals in Shanghai, I led the race through Pudong Airport, walking as fast as I could while weighed down by a backpack, handbag, and large rolling suitcase.

That was probably how I hurt my back.

I didn’t realize it at first. We made our flight (as it turned out, the plane was delayed anyway) and flew to Taipei. I felt fine the whole way. But later that night, I sat down at the desk in my hotel room to send my parents an email letting them know I’d arrived safely. That done, I went to stand up so I could go to bed … and immediately sat down again, knocked off my feet by the intense spasm that rippled across the muscles of my lower back.

View from my hotel room. I spent a lot of time looking at this intersection.

View from my hotel room. I spent a lot of time looking at this intersection.

That was not what I had planned for Taiwan.

The spasms were still there in the morning, stopping me in my tracks at unexpected moments. The rest of the time I moved at a cautious shuffle, never knowing what subtle shift would tell my muscles to seize up and send a electrical frisson to the pain sensors in my brain. Still, I blindly convinced myself that I just needed to move around and “loosen up”; soon enough, the spasms and pain would go away on their own. Right? I dressed in my work clothes and headed off to the day’s meetings with the rest of the group.

That didn’t go so well.

By the end of the day, having shuffled my way through four meetings and a banquet with a double-digit number of courses (it was delicious, but I spent a lot of the meal checking the menu next to my plate to see how many courses stood between me and my bed), I finally admitted that I was in bad shape. One group member who has had significant back problems of his own advised me on how to treat mine: rest, gentle stretches and exercises, and a patch of traditional Chinese medicine, which he gave me from his stash. And plenty of ibuprofen, unless I wanted to go in search of something stronger. (I didn’t.) I hobbled back to the hotel and (gently) fell into bed.

The view from my hotel room, which I had practically memorized by the end of the trip.

Same intersection. More traffic!

I spent most of the next two days growing increasingly bored in my hotel room as I alternated among sleeping; walking slow laps the length of the room; and lying on the floor doing all the back-focused yoga poses I could remember, while marathoning the “Ask a Clean Person” podcast. Plus Googling “herniated disc” to assure myself that this wasn’t that. Fortunately, the spasms were subsiding, both in quantity and intensity, and I brushed off my boss’s suggestions that I see a doctor; I was pretty sure that I would be fine.

But Taiwan … I was missing Taiwan! As comfortable as my room at the Howard Plaza Hotel was, I had not planned to spend all my Taiwan time cooped up in it. I thought ahead to the two precious vacation days I had added to my trip and started mentally deleting items from my to-do list. Clearly, I wasn’t going to hike up Elephant Mountain. Soaking in the hot springs at Beitou would probably feel great, but I couldn’t handle the metro trip out there. Maybe I could still see a baseball game, although the matches that weekend were being held out in Taoyuan, which required either a short ride on the high-speed rail or a long one by taxi; I kept that possibility on the list for a while longer, but eventually had to admit defeat. I was not going to do anything I had planned in Taiwan.

Tai Yi Milk King, the shaved-ice dessert place I finally got to visit on my last evening in Taipei.

Tai Yi Milk King, the shaved-ice dessert place I finally got to visit on my last evening in Taipei.

So, new plan: the centerpiece of my two vacation days—really, the only major non-work thing I did in Taiwan—was a long, extravagant massage on the afternoon before my flight back to New York. (“Extravagant,” of course, is relative; NT$1650 felt like a fortune to me, but then I did the math and realized I had purchased two hours of luxury for US$50.) I described to the masseuse the problem I had with my back, and she gently but thoroughly went to work on it, kneading away the knots and leaving me finally able to walk at half my normal pace, rather than one-quarter. It wasn’t a cure-all—I still had the occasional spasm if I moved the wrong way—but afterward I felt like I was really going to be okay and could handle the flights back. (And I did, in large part thanks to my boss: she called a contact at the airline and explained the situation, which secured me bulkhead aisle seats on both flights.) I went out for dinner and a Taiwanese shaved-ice dessert—finally, something that was actually on my Taipei to-do list!—and enjoyed the brief chance I had to see more of the city than the view from my hotel room.

So Taiwan was kind of a bust. But in the grand scheme of how trips could go wrong, this was fairly low on the scale—I didn’t actually wind up in the hospital or anything—and a good reminder to be flexible and try to make the most of whatever possible while on the road. A bad day while traveling is better than a good day at home, or something like that.

Hello, Kitty. Remember to practice proper back safety techniques while hauling that suitcase.

Hello, Kitty. Remember to practice proper back safety techniques while hauling that suitcase.

Still … I’d really like a do-over. I feel fine now, and I have a whole Taiwan to-do list that I didn’t get to tackle.

Previously: Beijing, Shanghai, Liaoning. Next: What I Ate in Asia.

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Liaoning: Dancing Cabbage, North Korea, and Plenty of History

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Seriously: dancing cabbage. And other dancing produce.

After a BeijingShanghai-Beijing sequence during the first ten days of my China trip, I was off to a new (to me, that is) province: Liaoning (pronounced Lee-OW-ning).* Liaoning is up in China’s industrial northeast, part of the region known as Dongbei described in Michael Meyer’s In Manchuria [affiliate link]. Once the country’s center of heavy industry, Liaoning has suffered since state-owned enterprise reforms began in the 1990s; the province recently made headlines for posting a negative growth rate in the first quarter of this year. Jobs for low-skilled workers are tough to come by, and the real-estate market is so sluggish that cities are offering cash incentives to home buyers. Based on what I’d read in the media, I was expecting a gray, wintry, depressed rustbelt (never mind that it was June).

Shenyang: Not at all what I expected.

Shenyang: Not at all what I expected.

Instead, I landed in Shenyang and found a green and shiny modern city, filled with high-rises and construction cranes. At first glance, things looked much more promising than I had anticipated.

But on closer inspection, many of those high-rises seemed to be mostly empty, judging from the lack of lighted windows at night. And many of those cranes stood still, waiting for an infusion of money that would get the building projects moving again. When I went with several other members of the group to see the Shenyang Acrobats perform one night, the beautiful new Poly Theater was only about half-full—a shame, since the quirky Cirque-du-Soleil-style show was a lot of fun. Weird (I still don’t know why the first act features a quartet of dancing produce), but tremendous fun.

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We visited the Shenyang Allied POW Camp, where high-ranking Allied prisoners of war were held by the Japanese during World War II. The museum at the camp is fairly new, and very well done. Several rooms are devoted to reproductions of cartoons drawn by prisoners detailing conditions at the camp and the interactions the inmates had with the Japanese officers in charge, which made the whole complex feel more personal and real. It isn’t always easy to imagine what life was like in a given time or place, but the cartoons in the museum helped me envision some of the struggles the POWs faced, and understand the small moments of humor they relied on to get through the ordeal. I bought a book about the camp that contains reprints of many of the cartoons so I could examine them more closely at my leisure (which hasn’t happened yet).

Bunks inside the Shenyang Allied POW Camp.

Bunks inside the Shenyang Allied POW Camp.

The final major tourist site we saw in Shenyang (again, I’m skipping over the business meetings that filled most of my time in China) was the Imperial Palace, built in the early 17th century as the Qing Dynasty seat of power, before the Qing overthrew the Ming in 1644 and took up residence at the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Shenyang palace has some architectural similarities to the Forbidden City, but also contains many uniquely Manchu elements (and some Tibetan) as well. It’s also far less crowded than the Forbidden City, even with the daily visitor limit that has made visits there more bearable, so you can actually get close enough to see star attractions like the throne room.

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From Shenyang, we drove down to Dandong, a border city directly across the Yalu River from Sinuiju, North Korea. As in, I could actually see North Korea from my hotel room …

The buildings in the foreground are China; the land in the background is North Korea.

The buildings in the foreground are China; the land in the background is North Korea.

… and the nearly total darkness of the North Korean coastline at night, when less than a handful of lights are visible across the river.

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If you accept the gimmick of Dandong (“I can see North Korea from my hotel room”) but keep your expectations low (I didn’t learn much about North Korea looking at it from my hotel room), it’s an okay place to spend one day. Probably not more than that. There is a lively night market with vendors selling all sorts of grilled/fried things on sticks; I wished I hadn’t just finished a generous banquet dinner and had room to sample some of the offerings.

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One of the main tourist attractions is the Broken Bridge, bombed by Americans during the Korean War. The bridge extends about two-thirds of the way across the river before it ends at a viewing platform; the remaining pillars are still in place to remind visitors what was destroyed.

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My group also took a boat ride on the Yalu River, giving us the closest view of North Korea we could get without actually traveling there.

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But really, Dandong is all about the thrill of proximity. Can you catch a glimpse of someone over on the other shore? If you wave, will he wave back? What’s going on over there?

View of Broken Bridge from the water.

View of Broken Bridge from the water.

Don’t expect any answers.

Our final stop in Liaoning was the port city of Dalian, where now-disgraced official Bo Xilai first made his name (well, beyond being born into a well-placed political family). Bo’s legacy is a tough needle to thread in Dalian: he’s credited with many of the urban-planning initiatives that have made the city a pleasant place to live and visit, but since he’s been convicted of corruption and abuse of power, favorable mentions of his name have to be done at a murmur.

The Dalian Modern Museum, once a temple to Bo’s vision for the city, has been transformed into a fairly standard Chinese urban history museum that narrates major events in Dalian’s past between 1840 (the First Opium War) and 1949 (the Communist victory). One room of it that I found especially interesting recreated a street in Dalian during the 1920s-30s, featuring a variety of shops, “calendar girl” posters on the walls, and a few statues like this one, of a modern girl (smoking a cigarette!) riding in a bicycle rickshaw.

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Anyone who has visited the Shanghai History Museum in the base of the Pearl Tower will notice the similarities between the two exhibits. I found it interesting to see interwar Dalian presented as a cosmopolitan metropolis in the way that Shanghai generally is—especially since the city was a Japanese colony during the years in question.

The area’s time as a colony, first of Russia and then Japan, has left a rich architectural legacy in Dalian and the adjacent city of Lüshun (Port Arthur). One of the most impressive buildings is the Lüshun Museum, built by the Japanese.

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I didn’t find the exhibits all that fascinating (Chinese museums all seem to hold more or less the same artifacts: bronzes, porcelains, jades, chopsticks), but the interior, which retains the original Japanese decorations and fixtures, looks like what I think a museum should look like. Even if it didn’t have any dioramas.

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Lüshun is also the place to go for great views of the water. Standing on top of Baiyu Hill looking down at the bay reminded me of being in Hong Kong. It’s really pretty spectacular.

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For me, Liaoning emphasized the importance of being both a critical reader and visitor. If I’d only read about the province’s economy, I would have held on to the rustbelt image in my mind; if I’d gone there without doing any research ahead of time, I would have probably thought that things are better than the numbers indicate. As is so often the case in China, there’s a lot more to the story than I could possibly learn in six days.

So I guess I’ll just have to go back.

* I just stopped to tally, for the first time, exactly how many Chinese provinces I’ve been to. I’ve now visited 14 of the 28 provinces/autonomous regions, three of the four provincial-level municipalities (need to cross Tianjin off that list), and one of two Special Administrative Regions (Hong Kong, but not yet Macau). Not too shabby; I think I’ve seen much more of China in 11 years than I have of the United States in 33.

Next: Taipei

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A Short Interlude in Swampy Shanghai

The skyscrapers of Pudong lit up in technicolor at night.

The skyscrapers of Pudong lit up in technicolor at night.

After five days of enjoying the beautiful Beijing spring, I headed out to the airport one evening and boarded a flight to Shanghai. As I stood on the tarmac waiting to ascend the plane’s steps, I looked around and thought to myself how absolutely perfect the weather was.

PERFECT. Absolutely perfect.

PERFECT. Absolutely perfect.

Two hours later, I de-planed into the Shanghai Swamp. Even after years of living in the city, I had conveniently forgotten just how hot, humid, and oppressive late spring in Shanghai can be. I checked into the Astor House, as usual, and quickly found that the hotel had not yet turned on its central air conditioning system. I’m not saying that I’m the one who convinced them to do so, but … well, I voiced a strong request.

My first day in Shanghai was intensely sunny and hot, and as I walked along the Bund in the morning I felt sympathy for the many young couples having their wedding photos taken there that day. They must have been broiling under all those layers of fabric.

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“Think cool thoughts … cool, happy thoughts …”

The following two days were foggy, humid, and rainy. As I walked on the southern end of the Bund one morning, I noticed that the old mixed-use buildings on Jinling Road (shops below, apartments above), under whose distinctive arcades I had often passed, appeared to be prepped and ready for a date with the wrecking ball. I had heard that this was in the works, but it still jolted me to realize that the shops and apartments are now vacant, and that the next time I come through Shanghai this once-familiar area will likely look very different.

Jinling Road—likely the last time I’ll see these buildings intact.

Jinling Road—likely the last time I’ll see these buildings intact.

The French Concession, however, looked mostly as I remembered it. I love how the neighborhood’s signature London plane trees grow toward each other to form a tunnel of green in the spring and summer months. It almost made the weather feel cooler.

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The illusion of cool.

My primary reason for being in Shanghai is something that I will be writing about elsewhere, so stay tuned for that.

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The old buildings on the Bund never fail to impress me, even in the rain.

Three days is never enough time in the city that I consider my second home … except when it turns itself into the Shanghai Swamp. In that case, three days is more than enough time—especially when more good weather awaited me back in Beijing.

Tomorrow: Liaoning Province

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Beijing: Brilliant and Beautiful

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Rainbow in Beijing

I’ve just returned from a three-week work trip to Mainland China and Taiwan, which involved visits to six cities and twenty-two days of hotel breakfast buffets. (I was rather surprised when I woke up in New Jersey this morning and my only choices were oatmeal with peanut butter or toast with peanut butter—and that I’d have to prepare either one myself.) Since I was in Asia for work, I won’t say much about what I was doing or who I met with (not a secret, but not my stuff to talk about, either); instead, I thought I’d share some pictures and general observations from each place.

I began in Beijing, and made a second stop there a week later after a brief Shanghai interlude that I’ll post about tomorrow. I have been pretty down on Beijing in recent years. The air pollution, the traffic, the out-of-control subway system expansion (and I can’t seem to get anywhere without at least two transfers), the surly taxi drivers, the infuriatingly slow internet … Beijing often brings on feelings of frustration and sensory overload in me. I loved living there in 2005; in the past few years, though, visits to the capital have been endurance tests.

I’m very happy to say that this trip brought back many of my positive feelings about the city. For a start—and this goes a very, very long way—the air quality was good on almost every day I was there. I’m so much happier when it doesn’t hurt to breathe.

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Clean air makes Mao smile, too.

The first group I escorted consisted mostly of people who were first-time visitors to China, so in addition to our serious work stuff, I also took them to a few can’t-miss sights. I had been somewhat dreading the Forbidden City, remembering the unrelenting throngs of tourists there on previous visits, but a new-to-me daily limit on the number of tickets sold keeps the crowds to a minimum and makes the palace feel much more manageable.

The Forbidden City: practically empty!

The Forbidden City: practically empty!

We went to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, which feels new to me every time. I had forgotten how green this area is; the wall seems somehow incorporated into the landscape, rather than imposing on it.

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I had also forgotten how incredibly steep the wall is! My legs remembered the next day, though.

Mutianyu is an excellent section of the wall to visit because you can travel back down to the visitor’s center via luge. It is more fun than you can imagine, and I almost wanted to go back up to the wall just to luge down again.

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I’m sure it’s perfectly safe, Mom.

My friend Jeremiah Jenne guided the group through Yonghegong, or Beijing’s Lama Temple. I was very glad that Jeremiah was available to do the tour, as I knew approximately 10 percent of the information he gave about the temple. I would have been a much less helpful guide if I’d tried to do the tour for the group by myself.

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“Look, it’s a … red building.”

At Yuanmingyuan, or the Old Summer Palace, we enjoyed more excellent weather and checked out the remains of European-style buildings looted and destroyed by British and French troops during the Second Opium War, in 1860. I had been to Yuanmingyuan once before, in December; I can now say with authority that May is a far superior time to visit the park.

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Incredible blue sky. #nofilter

As the group walked through the Old Summer Palace, I noticed clusters of cartoonish statues placed at intervals along the guide paths. All of the statues depicted people dressed in old-style costumes, and each cluster consisted of four figures: mother, father, son, daughter. A subtle way of encouraging two-child families now that the One-Child Policy has been ended? If so, that’s pretty interesting. I’d be curious to know how long the statues have been in place; the paint on them didn’t look like it had seen much wear from the elements, so they appear to be relatively new.

Yuanmingyuan statues

A suggestion of what Chinese families should look like? (Probably.)

The night before my final departure from Beijing, I went to one place in the city I had never been before, although now I know I’ve passed it many times: Yugong Yishan, a club that on that particular evening was jam-packed with long-haired, black-attired Chinese fans of heavy-metal music. Plus me, and a few other foreigners. We were all there to see the final performance of Spring & Autumn, a heavy-metal band fronted by Beijing legend Kaiser Kuo, who is moving back to the United States after twenty years in China. I will confess that my group left before the crowd-surfing began, but it was still a memorable way to wrap up a very pleasant visit that reignited my appreciation of Beijing.

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The acoustic set—more my style than pure heavy metal. Kaiser is on the far right.

Tomorrow: Shanghai

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Bookshelf: All the Single Ladies

Traister coverBy the time I finished reading the introduction to journalist Rebecca Traister’s new tour de force, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, I had highlighted so much that I started to wonder if highlighting was a meaningless activity. Every paragraph offered something I wanted to remember and return to—a funny line, a surprising statistic, a bold argument. I grew impatient with reading the electronic review copy I’d received on my iPad, wishing I had a physical book so I could flip back and forth more easily. I finished the book, read something else for a few days, and then picked up All the Single Ladies again and started over; my second time through yielded even more highlights. When I sat down to type up my notes in preparation for writing this review, I wound up with four pages of them—and that’s the short, summarized, only-makes-sense-to-me version.

In other words, there is a lot of material in this book. So much that I could easily see it becoming too much, but Traister is a skilled writer and handles everything—data, history, personal anecdotes, policy prescriptions—with a surety and succinctness that I envy. All the Single Ladies isn’t a quick read, but it’s never a slog; it simply demands that its readers pay attention.

It would be difficult not to pay attention, though, to a book this interesting and bold. Traister’s primary argument is that the growing numbers of single women in the United States today are fundamentally reshaping our society, our politics, and our understanding of adulthood. And while this may seem like a decidedly contemporary phenomenon, Traister looks into American history and finds that single women have often played leading roles in other social movements: abolition, labor rights, and, of course, voting rights.

Those previous cohorts of activist single women were small and unquestionably living contrary to societal norms. They’re interesting to read about, and All the Single Ladies is definitely better off for its chapter about them, but that chapter feels like it’s mostly a set-up for what follows: a full-bore charge into examining the experiences of single adult women of all stripes living in the United States today.

Traister begins with one incontrovertible fact about single American women today: there are a lot of them (including me). Starting in the 1990s, the median age for first marriage spiked from its century-old historical norm between 20 and 22 years to the current 27 (and it’s often much higher in urban areas). Marriage traditionally marked the beginning of adulthood—the point at which a woman was no longer a child—but now, more and more American women are living significant portions of their adult years as single women. Some, of course, are in relationships but not married, and many move in and out of relationships over the years; “single” here generally refers to legal marital status. But large numbers of adult American women are spending a decade-plus of their lives single in every sense of the term.

Many of those women will eventually marry—demographers estimate, Traister notes, that 80 percent of Americans will marry at some point in their lives. And many women in their later twenties and early thirties might feel pressure (from family, friends, or perceived societal expectations) to hurry up and get married sooner rather than later. But they don’t have to. They may not want to. More than ever before, they will not become social outcasts—Miss Havishams or Hester Prynnes—if they never do, although, Traister acknowledges, being single can be “a source of frustration and economic hardship for many.” Unlike generations preceding ours, we have choices, which Traister writes is a tremendous change in American society:

… the vast increase in the number of single women is to be celebrated not because singleness is in and of itself a better or more desirable state than coupledom. The revolution is in the expansion of options, the lifting of the imperative that for centuries hustled nearly all (non-enslaved) women, regardless of their individual desires, ambitions, circumstances, or the quality of available matches, down a single highway toward early heterosexual marriage and motherhood.

So what are American women doing with their single years? Well, many of them are getting educated and getting jobs, becoming world travelers, developing their own hobbies, and, in short, becoming autonomous people who know themselves. They’re also developing strong, often intense, friendships with other single women, which at times can take the place of romantic relationships in terms of offering companionship, security, and advice. Female friendships, Traister argues, are more important than many of us realize:

Among the largely unacknowledged truths of female life is that women’s primary, foundational, formative relationships are as likely to be with each other as they are with the men we’ve been told since childhood are supposed to be the people who complete us.

Having good friendships, Traister thinks, can lead to a woman making better romantic choices in the long run: if those friendships offer her security and satisfaction, she’s less likely to jump at the opportunity to spend time with a potential romantic partner about whom she just has lukewarm feelings. I don’t entirely agree with this formulation, as I can think of plenty of people (and I won’t exclude myself from this group) who have great friends but have nevertheless found themselves in doomed romantic relationships. I do think that good friends can help steer us away from relationships with poor prospects—maybe not overtly (as friends are often hesitant to say “I just don’t like you with him/her” outright), but in serving as a sounding board when a woman wants to talk through her feelings or doubts about a partner. In other words: sometimes you don’t admit, even to yourself, how bad a situation is until you talk about it out loud and see the expression on a trusted friend’s face.

Independence, self-confidence, strong friendships, the freedom to choose your own adventure: Traister views these as the positive aspects of singledom as an adult. She doesn’t shy away from the negatives, however, which can include economic insecurity, loneliness and social exclusion (for women who live in communities where there’s more pressure to marry), and being entirely responsible for making things happen in your life. (That last one is why cities are often especially attractive to single women: you can basically outsource all the domestic responsibilities—cleaning, grocery shopping, laundry—that a partner would help with.) Being single can be hard. Being single and poor is even harder.

The women whom Traister interviews for All the Single Ladies are a diverse bunch, as she deliberately sought to include “geographic, religious, economic, and racial experiences” (although there is a slight geographical bias toward informants based in New York, where Traister lives). Our image of single women often defaults to white—just think of pop culture, where the most famous examples are Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw. But Traister pays equal attention to women of color, both fictional (characters in Living Single and Waiting to Exhale) and her real-life informants. Traister points out that the post-World War II year saw African American women reverse their long trend of marrying earlier and in higher numbers than their white counterparts, as government policies that pushed white families into suburban domesticity excluded black families. For black women, marriage made less and less economic sense, Traister argues: “There simply weren’t the same incentives to marrying early or at all; there were fewer places to safely put down roots and fewer resources with which to nourish them.” Yet that dis-incentivized behavior was also pathologized, most notoriously in the Department of Labor’s 1965 Moynihan Report, which argued that the high rate of single motherhood in the African American community—not government programs that excluded blacks—was the cause of economic hardship.

It might seem a little odd that Traister—a married mother of two who lives in Brooklyn—is so enthusiastic about singledom. In the hands of a lesser author, the message of All the Single Ladies could become patronizing: “I made it through being single and you can too! Don’t give up!” But Traister doesn’t present singlehood as a state that needs to be endured while searching for The One. As she explains,

… unmarried life is not a practice round or a staging ground or a suspension of real life. There is nothing automatically adolescent about moving through the world largely on one’s own—working, earning, spending, loving, screwing up, and having sex outside traditional marriage.

Unmarried life is just … life.

There’s more to All the Single Ladies. So much more. As I write a book review, I highlight the points and quotes in my notes that I’ve used in the review, keeping track of what I’ve said and what I still want to cover. Usually I wind up with about 75 percent of the notes highlighted, with the remaining 25 percent discarded along the way because those items didn’t fit or didn’t seem as important as they had before. This time? I’ve highlighted less than 50 percent of the points in my notes, and I’m tempted to go back and add many more paragraphs to this already long review so I can discuss some topics that haven’t made it in. But I still won’t do Traister’s impressive work justice. So instead, I’ll conclude with something I very rarely say this directly in reviews: read this book. At least twice. As soon as possible. And make sure you have plenty of highlighters handy.

Help this single lady support herself by purchasing your copy of All the Single Ladies via this Amazon Associates link. Thanks! ~Maura

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The Diplomat — “The Currency Question: Andrew Jackson and Chairman Mao”

Later this year, Jeff Wasserstrom and I are going to collaborate on a third edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know*, so we’ve started making notes on parts of the book that will need updating. With this week’s announcement that Andrew Jackson will no longer be the face of the $20, we’ll have to revise a few paragraphs in which we compare him to Chairman Mao—saying, essentially, that both are figures with decidedly mixed historical legacies yet have retained symbolic positions of some importance in their respective countries (Mao much more than Jackson, obviously). Jeff and I traded some emails about how the forthcoming currency redesign changes our take on things, and have turned those thoughts into a short commentary at The Diplomat:

The decision to remove Andrew Jackson’s face from the front of the $20 bill reflects a willingness to acknowledge that the United States does not have one singular shared historical narrative—and to question, as Chinese leaders are loathe to do, the way important and traumatic parts of the past have been treated. Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, whose portrait will replace Jackson’s on the front of the $20 bill, obviously experienced the mid-19th century quite differently than Jackson and his fellow white male Southerners. And although the $5 and $10 bills will continue to feature Great White Men of American History (including the newly beloved Alexander Hamilton) on their faces, the reverse sides of both will become more diverse, with the addition of suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as well as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, opera singer Marian Anderson, and civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.

Read the whole thing here.

*Amazon Associates link; I get credit if you buy.

Posted in China, Writing | Tagged , | 1 Comment

La La Land

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I swear, I didn’t fly all the way to Los Angeles just to get my photo taken with the Property Brothers.

It was a bonus.

I did go to LA for a couple of meetings, which I deliberately scheduled around the LA Times Festival of Books. I wasn’t completely thrilled that this meant cross-country trips on two consecutive weekends, but it seemed to make sense: I’d gone to the festival once or twice while a grad student in Southern California, and I knew that it would be a good time.

IMG_4569And it was, mostly, although Saturday was uncharacteristically rainy—not ideal, given that the festival is largely outdoors. (They say “rain or shine” on the festival materials, but Mother Nature doesn’t usually call their bluff.) I was kind of slogging through the beginning of the day; my flight had arrived very late Friday night, my hotel’s fire alarm went off three times on Saturday morning (“weather,” the clerk at the front desk explained; apparently the humidity was messing with the sensitive system), and there wasn’t enough coffee in the world to perk me up. If not for the blare of the fire alarm, I might have been tempted to stay in my hotel room and watch HGTV, but instead I decided to head down to the University of Southern California campus and see two of the channel’s stars in person.

The morning’s intermittent drizzle turned into an all-out downpour just as the Property Brothers took the stage, and I had arrived too late to secure a spot underneath the tent. Dozens of other overflow audience members and I stood on the sidewalk around the stage, trying our best to keep umbrellas upright while we snapped photos of the Scott brothers. Fortunately, the worst of the rain lasted only about ten minutes.

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After listening to the Property Brothers talk about their television shows (“slow-motion home renovations in tight jeans”), new book (Dream Home*), and the questions they hear most often (“Will you marry me?” and “Granite or quartz countertops?”), I joined the long, long line of people waiting to get their books signed.

Well, it was really a long line of women. I never went to any New Kids on the Block concerts as a kid, but I think the vibe in the Property Brothers line was only slightly calmer than at one of those. The group of fangirl friends behind me spent much time fixing their hair and makeup and selecting the perfect words to say to the brothers when their turn at the signing table finally arrived. As we approached the front of the line, a security guard briefed us on the rules for interacting with Jonathan and Drew: “No touching, no hugging, no kissing, no marriage proposals.”

Not that there would have been an opportunity for any of that. When my turn finally came, one publicist took my book and slid it across the table to the brothers for their signatures, while another assistant took my cell phone and indicated where I should stand for the photo. Twenty seconds later, I was standing on the other side of the tent with book and phone in my hands again, only the faintest memory of being whirled through clinging to my jet-lagged brain. I emailed the picture to my mother and her sister (also huge Property Brothers fans) and decided it was time for lunch.

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Other festival events were less star-studded but no less fun—and, in fact, far more informative and thought-provoking. (As much as I enjoy watching Property Brothers, I won’t pretend that the show is notable for its depth.) Two highlights: a panel about history, which starred Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard, one of my favorite fearless female academics; and a talk by travel writer Pico Iyer, whose topics of conversation ranged from the Dalai Lama and V.S. Naipul to his love for In-N-Out burgers. One of the things I really enjoy about Iyer’s writing—and the talks he gives—is that he’s incredibly thoughtful and learned, yet also unabashed about his enjoyment of things that might get derided as lowbrow. Tacky tourist traps, in other words, are not only worth visiting, but it’s also okay to admit that you enjoy them. (For a different take, see anything Paul Theroux has ever written.)

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I do generally love tacky tourist traps, but a few hours in Hollywood on Monday afternoon tested that fondness. I walk through Times Square every day on my way to and from work; strolling down Hollywood Boulevard was strikingly close to that experience, just with better weather. Hawkers tried to sell me CDs, touts tried to convince me I needed to take a bus tour of the area, and costumed superheroes hoped I would take a picture with them and leave a tip. Other tourists swarmed around me, frequently stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to snap pictures. And, I soon realized, there really isn’t that much to do in Hollywood if you’re not willing to spend money on tours or a ticket into Madame Tussauds. Nothing piqued my interest enough to convince me to open my wallet, though.

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So I obediently checked out the Walk of Fame, took a picture of the Hollywood sign in the distance, and examined the hand- and footprints at TCL [Grauman’s/Mann’s] Chinese Theater. (There, I suddenly found myself in the midst of a large tour group consisting of elderly Chinese rushing to follow a guide as he headed for one specific set of handprints, which they eagerly began photographing. Lurking around the edge of the group and eavesdropping on the guide’s speech, I realized that the celebrity who had attracted such interest was Arnold Schwarzenegger.) I continued walking down Hollywood Boulevard, which grew less crowded as I moved in the direction of Hollywood & Vine, and I alternated between looking at the names on the stars below my feet (mostly unfamiliar; who are all those people?) and the Art Deco buildings lining the street. Upon reaching the Metro station to get the subway back to my hotel, I’d decided that Hollywood underwhelmed me, at least on this trip. Maybe I’ll give it another shot some other time.

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I’m usually an eager traveler and generally, I know, only say positive things about my trips. And my long weekend in LA definitely had its good points: I met the Property Brothers, of course; the meetings I’d gone out there for all went well; I ate three delicious dinners (bibimbap at Beverly Soon Tofu Restaurant, pork katsu at Wako Donkasu, and a burger and fries at In-N-Out); I spent a lot of time walking around outside and enjoying California. But, I have to admit, I also spent a lot of the weekend feeling run-down and out of sorts, wishing either that I had stayed at home or that I had planned for a longer trip. Three days for a journey that involves cross-country travel, I think, just isn’t enough; it really does leave me feeling like I’m in la la land.

* Use this link to purchase your copy of Dream Home and I’ll receive credit through the Amazon Associates program. Thanks! ~Maura

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#AAS2016 and Seattle

 

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I’ve recently returned from the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), which was held in Seattle this year. AAS is my favorite academic conference—it tends to have really strong panels and offers many opportunities to see my friends in the profession—and I enjoy it even more when I can combine it with a visit to a new city. For location, I’m not sure another AAS will ever top the 2011 meeting in Honolulu, but Seattle was really excellent.

A large part of what made the Seattle meeting so great is how un-stereotypically Seattle the weather was. I prepared for cool, rainy days; instead, I got sunshine, blue skies, and warmth. I spent most of the weekend inside the cavernous convention center, of course, but after the conference concluded on Sunday I got to enjoy a long afternoon wandering around and relaxing in the sun next to the water.

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Also a high point: the food. The conference hotel was only a ten-minute walk to Pike Place Market, saving all of us from the usual conference fare of prepackaged sandwiches and dinners in chain restaurants. I wanted to sample everything at the market, but that would have taken a week. With only a few days, I had to limit myself: crumpets for breakfast at The Crumpet Shop (two thumbs up), a cinnamon roll from Cinnamon Works (soft, yeasty, delicious—I wish I could make them so well), a salmon Caesar salad for lunch at the Sound View Café (fantastic fish), and, naturally, a latte at the original Starbucks (tasted the same as every other Starbucks latte I’ve drunk over the years, but how could I skip a landmark?).

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Two other meals of note, not at Pike Place Market: papaya salad that I dream about eating again at Stateside Vietnamese, and a ridiculously good cheeseburger at Quinn’s Pub (thanks to Graham Webster at Yale for recommending that one). And, of course, Seattle is known for its craft beers, which I sampled at Fremont Brewing (great beer, wonderful setting) and Cloudburst Brewing (less atmospheric, but the beer was good).

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The biggest thing I got out of AAS this year, though, was a jolt of academic energy. I desperately needed it. I’ve been struggling with a book project that for a variety of reasons hasn’t come together as easily as I’d hoped, and although I decided nearly a year ago how I want to handle publication of some of the material in my dissertation, I haven’t taken a single step toward making that happen. But listening to panel presentations and talking with colleagues about their projects really reinvigorated me; it reminded me that I truly do enjoy research and writing, and spurred me on to get back to it. I don’t know how long I can ride this wave of AAS encouragement, but I certainly hope it’s long enough to wrap up the book manuscript.

Speaking of books … I actually didn’t walk away from the book exhibit toting as many volumes as I have in previous years. A large part of the reason for my restraint is that I’m trying not to buy as many books these days (they really do pile up as the dollars dwindle), plus I can generally get review copies from publishers for the non-academic titles. But the Penguin Random House booth, with its $3 paperbacks, is always hard to resist:

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I also came away from this year’s conference with a new musical interest, courtesy of Abby Washburn and Wu Fei, who performed on Friday night. Abby is a banjo player, while Fei a classically trained guzheng (Chinese zither) player; together, they perform an East-meets-West blend of bluegrass and traditional Chinese tunes. Here’s one of their songs, “Banjo Guzheng Pickin’ Girl”:

I’ve previously listened to recordings of music that Abby and Fei played together, but it wasn’t until hearing them live that I really “got” what they do. Their performance was incredible—and one of the factors that elevated this year’s AAS above others I’ve attended.

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Next year in Toronto!

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