Weekly Wanderings: In Like a Lion Edition

• I’m spending the first few days of March visiting my family in Philadelphia, which means I got to experience a wild winter storm on Friday. Forecasts predicted high winds and lots of rain, with a bit of snow at the tail end. Instead, heavy, wet flakes began coming down around 11am and continued until 9:00 at night, often falling sideways due to the incessant wind gusts. Roads throughout Philadelphia were blocked by trees felled by the wind, more than 300,000 people (including my brother) lost power, and my mother and I listened to a discordant symphony of emergency-vehicle sirens and car horns that lasted all afternoon and into the evening, as drivers sat in gridlock on the street outside my parents’ house. My father drove up to Philadelphia from Washington, D.C., a trip of under 150 miles; it took him a record-breaking 13 hours (long story). March weather on the East Coast is always crazy and unpredictable, but this storm felt completely surreal … especially since nearly all evidence of the snowfall then melted within 24 hours, with temperatures rising into the 40s yesterday. As the saying goes, March “comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb,” and this year the lion decided to surprise everyone with an extra-loud roar.

• My mother and I spent yesterday afternoon at the Philadelphia Flower Show, where this year’s theme is “The Wonders of Water.” I think my favorite Flower Show of all time was 2015’s (“Celebrate the Movies”), and in the years since I’ve (very unfairly, I know) compared every show to that one and consistently found them somehow lacking (though, needless to say, the scenes created far surpass anything I could ever hope to do). That happened again this time. I always think the best Flower Show displays are the ones that interpret the theme in creative ways, but this year most designers took the theme literally and demonstrated “The Wonders of Water” by simply … including water features in their landscapes. Many of them were very pretty, of course—in my book there’s no such thing as an ugly flower—even if they weren’t as surprising or clever as some past exhibits. On the whole I’d say the show is greater than the sum of its parts, as very few of the individual displays really stood out to me but the exhibition overall was impressive.

• There are now links up for all China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know book events taking place in March. Jeff Wasserstrom and I will speak in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, and New York—and in three of those four cities we’re doing two events, so if you can’t make one you’ll still have a second chance to catch us.

• If you’re a graduate student or PhD and considering careers outside the tenure track, you might be interested in the fifth annual online Beyond the Professoriate conference, which will take place May 5 and 12. I’ll speak as part of a May 12 panel about nonprofit careers for PhDs. Registration is now open, and there are discounted early-bird ticket prices available until April 14.

Weekly Wanderings: Xi’s in it for the Long Haul Edition

• Since the third edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know touches on current events, Jeff Wasserstrom and I knew that there was a chance something we discussed might require updating even before the book’s official publication date. My money was on Jiang Zemin going to meet Marx, but instead I woke up this morning to find that in the book’s fourth edition Jeff and I will have to tweak our analysis of Chinese leadership politics and succession, specifically the part where we speculate about what might happen when Xi Jinping’s two terms as China’s president end in 2023. We offer a couple of possible scenarios, including the one that has come true: the CCP announced today that it is ending the two-term limit on the presidency, clearing the way for Xi to stay in power indefinitely.

My take: I, and many other China-watchers, absolutely expected Xi to find a way to remain in charge, especially after he failed to appoint a successor at last October’s 19th Party Congress. Some thought Xi would hold on to power Putin-style, by designating a weak placeholder who would assume the presidency for one term while Xi called the shots from behind the scenes, biding his time until he could return to office. I always thought that eliminating the two-term limit was a possibility, but I am surprised that it happened so quickly after the start of Xi’s second term; I thought he would play coy about the succession question a while longer.

I’m sure there will be many more in-depth analyses of this move in the days to come, so for now I’ll leave you with a short roundup of reactions from Chinese internet users compiled by What’s on Weibo—including a suggestion that Xi Jinping is becoming King Winnie the Pooh. (For an explanation of the Xi Jinping-Winnie the Pooh connection, see my earlier post on the topic.)

• This week’s writing about reading: at Goodreads, I reviewed A Distant Heart by Sonali Dev and Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan.

• I was a huge ER fan back in high school and was really excited when it finally became available to stream on Hulu last month. Even as I started watching, though, I braced myself for disappointment: I’ve re-watched and re-read plenty of things that I once enjoyed, only to find that they don’t stand the test of time. ER, however—at least seasons one through five or six—is still a pretty great show, as Todd VanDerWerff writes at Vox. Yes, there are some misguided plot lines and a fair amount of melodrama, but for the most part the show feels remarkably non-dated, even 24 years after its debut. Now, having worked in an ER during college, I notice how shabby and real the ER set feels (down to the water-stained ceiling tiles) compared to the pristine facilities depicted in medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy, and how accurately the show captures the unpredictable rhythms of an emergency department—a day can start off slow and turn chaotic with the arrival of only two or three patients. I also appreciate that nurses get the respect they’re due, rather than being unnamed background extras, since they’re the ones who handle the majority of patient care in an ER.

I was, however, a little taken aback to read that “around 5,000 Hulu subscribers finished the entire series in its first month on the service—which works out to around eight hours of ER per day.” That is … a lot of ER. I watched through the first episodes of season eight and then needed a break, so I’m taking some time off from County General right now to reacquaint myself with The O.C. (talk about melodrama …).

• If you’re a writer, I recommend reading this essay on “The Joy and Intimacy of the Personal Writing Outlet,” by Zan Romanoff at LitHub. For a while, it seemed like every writer I knew was turning away from blogging and starting his (or more commonly, her) own TinyLetter newsletter, and I probably subscribe to about 50 of them at this point. I stuck with blogging because I didn’t really see an advantage to making my erratic postings less public; it seemed like too much work to build and grow a base of TinyLetter subscribers. But I also stuck with blogging, which as Romanoff points out, doesn’t necessarily make financial sense: “Writers have had to insist vocally and persistently on the professional and economic value of what we do. But that also hasn’t stopped us from simultaneously making space to do it for free, for ourselves.”

My response to this is one that some of Romanoff’s interviewees express to her: here, I can write about whatever I want, whenever I want, and I don’t have to deal with gatekeepers (publication editors or academic peer reviewers). I can explore topics that are hobbies for me, whether that means analyzing ER or reviewing books about India and Russia. It is, I suppose, possible that an editor might let me do the latter, but not at all likely that I’m ever going to find work as a television critic. In Romanoff’s words,

These personal outlets allow us to write without having to claim professional expertise, or submit to professional editing; they encourage us to make for the fun of making, to think as an exercise in which we [are] allowed to explore widely, and conclude without a graceful kicker.

This blog, in other words, is a place where I can have fun and talk about things I find interesting but can’t claim to be an expert in, all without worrying about deadlines. That’s the best explanation I can give for why I continue to come back to it, even after long absences. I know not everything here is of interest to everyone, but thanks for reading—I really appreciate it.

Image via What’s on Weibo.

Weekly Wanderings: Ringing in the Year of the Dog Edition

新年快乐!狗年大吉!(Happy New Year! Happy Year of the Dog!) Most of my Western New Year’s resolutions have already fallen by the wayside, but the Lunar New Year on Friday gave me the chance to start fresh all over again. My #1 resolution—a recurring one, I suppose—is to write here more, and to write more regularly. Will this happen? We shall see … but I’ll do my best.

• One of several reasons for my long absence from this space was that all my writing energies in the second half of 2017 went toward collaborating with Jeff Wasserstrom on a revised draft of the manuscript for China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (third edition), followed in short order by copy edits, page proofs, index proofs, lining up blurbs and endorsements, organizing our book tour (please, come meet me in person!), and other stuff that I’ve already forgotten. We’re now just under a month away from the official publication date, which means that I’m full-on alternately excited and nervous about seeing the finished product. I’m excited, of course, because … it’s a book! With my name on the cover! I’m nervous because … ack, people are going to read this book and what if they think it’s terrible?!? I’m also 100 percent convinced that despite the multiple rounds of copy edits and reviews, we all missed some incredibly obvious mistake or typo—which will inevitably be the first thing I see the second I open the book. It’s lurking in there. I’m sure of it.

• Something I decided I want to do better in 2018 is keep track of the books I read, so I’m entering everything at Goodreads and in many cases writing short reviews as well. So far, my favorite novel of the year is Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine*, by Gail Honeyman, which is a wonderfully quirky book with a completely original story (hard to find these days). Here’s my review.

• Speaking of quirky, last week I watched all eight episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon Prime and … wow. Amy Sherman-Palladino (creator of Gilmore Girls, one of my longtime favorite shows) has out-quirked herself with this one. I enjoyed the show, for the most part, but I can easily imagine plenty of other people hating it, and I might have too if I’d been in even a slightly different mood. (In any mood, I definitely hate the title, which feels like a placeholder that never got replaced by a better one.) Great soundtrack, though, and I’ll certainly tune in for season 2 when it comes along.

• Whenever I told people I was moving to the Midwest back in the summer of 2016, they inevitably laughed and said something along the lines of “Hope you like winter!” As it turned out, I had a very gentle introduction to Michigan winters last year—we got some snow and it was certainly cold, but on the whole it felt much like the Philadelphia-New York winters I was accustomed to.

This year, however, has been a different story, and I think I can now say that I’ve experienced a real Michigan winter. (And it’s not over yet!) There have been brutally cold days and a series of snowstorms, but more than anything else it has been gray. Relentlessly, unendingly gray. The gray, I’ve discovered, is what brings on cabin fever, making me short-tempered and whiny. I can deal with cold, I can endure snow, but only when they’re accompanied by blue skies and sunlight. Happily, Ann Arbor is enjoying both of those today, so even though it’s in the mid-thirties temperature-wise, I’m going to bundle up and take a walk.

Happy Year of the Dog!

* Amazon Affiliate link. Make your purchase via this link and I receive a small commission. Thank you for your support!

Image made by Wikimedia user Fanghong and used under a Creative Commons license.

Raise a Glass of Pumpkin Beer to La Rentrée in October

Over the past few days, I’ve been working hard to gain control of my ever-exploding inbox, which is in even worse shape than usual because somewhere around mid-September I fell behind on the dozens (seriously) of email newsletters I subscribe to. I love reading all these newsletters, which regularly lead me to interesting links that I wouldn’t have found on my own, but if I don’t stay on top of them, my inbox situation can get overwhelming in just a day or two. So for several evenings in a row, I’ve spent a few hours just reading, clicking, and deleting. I’m now down to 26 messages in my inbox and no longer feel a sense of panic every time I open Gmail.

The latest edition of freelance journalist Rosie Spinks’s newsletter included a link to her musings on the French tradition of la rentrée, a post-August-vacation reorganization and restart. It’s a time, she argues, for new beginnings and new resolutions. As Spinks writes,

Thinking about it, it seems that autumn is a much more fitting reset point on the calendar than January, when it [is] simply too cold to be optimistic about anything and we are all exhausted from the forced indulgence that is Christmas. In September, with a (hopefully) restful August behind us, we can enter the last quarter of the year with a vigour and resolve to do things a little differently, be it our goals, habits, or even our wardrobe.

I agree one hundred percent, though my personal version of la rentrée comes a bit later. Early fall is my favorite time of the year. (One of the many reasons Southern California and I weren’t destined for a long-term relationship.) The brisk, sunny days at the end of September and beginning of October invigorate me and fill me with the urge to clean, organize, plan, and accomplish. I relish leaving my bedroom window cracked open at night, just enough to feel a nip in the air as I fall asleep and hear the honks of Canadian geese as I wake up. I become uncharacteristically outdoorsy, favoring long walks over my usual yoga classes for exercise. I can finally pull out my hand-knits and start wearing them again. We’ve maybe taken the pumpkin spice thing a little too far, but this is the season of my favorite fruits and vegetables: hearty squashes, crunchy apples, earthy beets.

The first hints of fall colors were visible as I walked alongside the Huron River in Ann Arbor’s Gallup Park yesterday afternoon.

It’s probably not a coincidence that I feel this urge to organize and reset things just as my birthday approaches in mid-October. It’s a natural desire, I think, to imagine that if we just get “caught up,” we can start a new year of our lives with a clean slate. Of course, there’s no actual “caught up;” emails keep arriving, life keeps happening, and to-do lists are never really finished. Still, it’s an attractive idea, and the confluence of perfect weather and an approaching birthday means that year after year, the arrival of fall prompts me to take a hard look at things and figure out where I stand.

So now that I have a name for it, I’m embracing la rentrée in October. Because if you ask me, it’s the most wonderful time of the year to start fresh.

Weekly Wanderings: Random Things I’ve Read Edition

A bunch of things I’ve read and want to share, with a bit of commentary here and there …

▪ Wait inside the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and you’ll notice the same announcement playing every ten minutes or so: a reminder (first in English, then in Japanese and Chinese) that Detroit is in the Eastern time zone. The announcement, I suppose, is necessary because geographically Michigan might seem like a time zone toss-up, a border state that could just as easily pledge allegiance to the Central time zone as the Eastern one.

And in fact, as I learned from this blog post by Detroit writer Amy Elliott Bragg, Michigan was once on Central time, before switching to Eastern time after an extended campaign by a group known as the More Daylight Club. It’s a really interesting read that drives home how constructed allegedly “natural” things like time zones really are. I love Michigan’s late-evening summer sunsets (now starting to happen noticeably earlier as we limp into August) and thank the More Daylight Club for its efforts.

▪ Last week I read a blog post by historian Megan Kate Nelson that discussed how lessons from The Great British Bake Off could be applied to the writing process. I linked to the essay on Twitter, adding a comment that I had never seen the show but the blog post had made me curious to watch it. I discovered that many of my Twitter friends are GBBO fans as a chorus of tweets urged me to tune in.

So I started watching and have just finished the first of the three seasons available on Netflix. GBBO is indeed a lot of fun—I’m not much of a baker and am amazed at the skills that contestants bring to the competition. But surprisingly, I’ve also found the show a bit stressful to watch at times because everyone is so nice. Though the bakers are competing with each other, you’d never know it: they chat and joke during moments of downtime, and no one is secretly swapping out a competitor’s baking soda for baking powder or committing some other dastardly deed in the drive to get ahead. They’re all just normal, average people who genuinely love to bake and do it exceptionally well, so I dread the moment at the end of each episode when one of them will have their dreams crushed and be told to go home.

This Lithub essay by Wake Forest professor Susan Harlan about the solitary pleasure of reading in public really spoke to me:

When I lived in New York, I would go out by myself and read. It was one of my favorite things to do, to camp out in a café or a bar for hours. Now I live in a small city in the South, where I moved for a job at a university seven years ago, and if I go out by myself to read, people talk to me. They won’t leave me alone. This is true when I travel, too—when I drive around North Carolina and Tennessee and Georgia and Virginia. What are you doing here all alone? they say. Shame that you’re all by yourself, they say, insisting that you talk to them, join them, come sit with them.

But it’s not a shame. They don’t understand.

I am genuinely confounded by the number of people who look at me sitting by myself reading a book and see this as an invitation to strike up a conversation. But, like Harlan, it happens to me all the time.

▪ Geographically speaking, my relationship to Michigan is much the same as mine to Pennsylvania was growing up: it’s a rather large state and I’m all the way down in the southeast corner. And there’s so much to do just in this little part of the Mitten that I really haven’t thought about other places in the state I’d like to go. Lansing-area author Erin Bartels is helping me out with ideas via a series of blog posts covering a road trip she and her young son took to “the U.P.,” or Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I’ve been lingering over her photos and stories from Sault Ste. Marie, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and most especially the Keweenaw Peninsula, the very northernmost tip of the state. (How big is Michigan? When I checked the drive time from Ann Arbor to Keweenaw, it was nearly nine hours. Eep.) I don’t anticipate having time for a similarly epic road trip in the near future, but the U.P. is certainly going on my travel wish list.

▪ I am not a fan of bananas. In recent years, I’ve forced myself to start eating them because they’re cheap, filling, and available absolutely everywhere when you’re on the road—from airports and hotels to 7-11s and food carts. How do bananas get everywhere, you ask? Read this New York Times article on “The Secret Life of the City Banana” and you’ll learn about the immense effort that goes into getting the fruit from ship’s cargo hold to bodega counter. It’s a lot more complicated than I ever imagined (and the article also covers a short history of the banana in New York, which is interesting as well).

Image via Wikimedia Commons and used under the Creative Commons license.

Finding My Way in Seoul

That Old Familiar Feeling

I am not, I admit, all that good with maps—the old-fashioned, non-digital kind, that is. I’m generally okay with directions and excellent at using landmarks to re-trace a route I’ve already traveled, but maps and I have never clicked. Before the blessed arrival of smartphones, I spent enormous amounts of time getting lost in new places, squinting at maps and trying to navigate by process of deduction. (“Okay, if that bank is on the corner to my left and that school is on the street behind me, then I need to turn the map upside down and walk … straight?” Inevitably, I’m wrong.) In recent years, though, I’ve nearly forgotten about this cartographic mental block of mine: I grab my phone, type in my destination, and follow the little blue dot, secure in the comfort that Google will get me where I need to go.

My visit to Seoul last month, however, reminded me about all of my map inadequacies. This is for the simple reason that Google Maps doesn’t really work there: citing reasons of national security, the South Korean government doesn’t allow foreign companies access to the kind of granular, street-level data necessary to generate walking or driving directions. There are local alternatives, but only if you read Korean (which I don’t). Google Maps was fine when it came to telling me which subway lines I should take to reach a destination, but anytime I needed to walk someplace, I was on my own—just me and my map.

It often didn’t go that well. Seoul, especially some of the older neighborhoods I was in, is a city of winding streets and limited romanized signage, with an address system that even locals find confusing, despite an overhaul earlier this decade intended to clarify and standardize things. Heading out with a carefully copied address and a map usually didn’t get me where I wanted to go, at least on the first try. I also found that asking people on the street for assistance—including, in two instances, police officers, usually my go-to for help with navigation—consistently resulted in vague or even outright wrong directions. I took small comfort in the knowledge that most other people were just as lost as I was.

Hot and Noisy

The first time I got hopelessly lost in Seoul started only seconds after stepping off the escalator at the Jongno 3-ga subway station, in the city’s vibrant Insadong neighborhood, on the Friday night of my arrival. Despite feeling dirty, hungry, and exhausted after the 13-hour flight from Detroit, I was sure I could locate my hotel if I just worked methodically. I had the address and a map; what else did I need?

My hotel was, in fact, only a 5-minute walk from the station, but it took me more than half an hour to find it, tucked away down an alley lined with convenience stores and cafes. As I combed the streets of Insadong in search of it, I was torn between a near-desperate desire to reach my hotel room, with its promise of a shower and sleep, and the impulse to park my suitcase and pull up a chair at one of the many small restaurants that filled the area immediately surrounding the subway station. Many of them weren’t real restaurants, with walls and a roof, but rather tents sheltering a food cart surrounded by folding tables and plastic stools. Nearly every table was occupied, groups of diners clustered around half-empty plates of food and half-full mugs of beer. Chattering, laughing, toasting each other, their voices mingled in a cacophony that drifted on the humid evening air. Elsewhere on the street, vendors with carts sold snack items designed to be consumed while strolling, and I peeked inside tents on the sidewalk that proved to contain fortune tellers sitting behind tables strewn with what looked like tarot cards. 

This night market, I realized, was the truest embodiment I’d ever encountered of the Chinese expression renao 热闹, “hot and noisy.” Renao means a good time; renao means people are enjoying each others’ company, any previous frictions between them smoothed over by generous amounts of food and drink.

Most night markets in urban China aren’t renao anymore. As part of its “civilized city” campaigns, the government has moved in and tamed these unruly spaces, turning them into tourist attractions that locals no longer frequent. Visiting them is a duty, an item to be checked off the list of things to do in a given city, even though the fried street snacks and curious creatures impaled on sticks and grilled on demand don’t have the same flavor as they used to.

After I finally located my hotel, I dropped my bags and headed back out to the streets of Insadong, hungry for both food and the renao spirit in the air. I drifted along the sidewalk examining the snack options on display at each small cart; the open-air restaurants, I realized, catered to groups, not solo diners who couldn’t speak a word of Korean. Carried away by seeing many other pedestrians snacking on tteokbokki, I bought a dish, too, momentarily forgetting that I don’t really like these sticks of gummy rice cake served in a soupy, spicy tomato sauce. My regret over the hasty purchase was short-lived, however; a bit farther down the street I made up for it with three taiyaki, or fish-shaped waffles filled with red bean paste. (The glorious thing about night markets is that if you don’t like something, you just move on to the next street food stall and try what they’re offering. Nothing ever costs more than a couple of dollars.) Suddenly hit with a wave of exhaustion, I finished my taiyaki and left the night market, the renao atmosphere receding behind me as I walked back to my hotel—navigating, successfully, by landmarks this time.

The Day of 25,000 Steps

I spent my first three days in Seoul at our AAS-in-ASIA conference at Korea University, then woke up on the morning of the fourth day and did some post-conference follow-up work. Shortly before noon, I finished the last of my tasks and declared myself officially on vacation for the next day and a half.

A total stranger to Korea, I had spent some time before my arrival looking at various “What to do in Seoul” guides online and wound up taking most of my inspiration from this one at Tripzilla. But the first thing I planned to do hadn’t appeared in any of the guides: I wanted a bowl of patbingsu.

Patbingsu is the Korean version of red bean shaved ice, the dessert I went to so much trouble to get in Taiwan last summer. Some googling had informed me that a well-regarded shaved-ice restaurant, Sulbing, had a branch in Insadong that—according to my map!—wasn’t far from my hotel. I set out for Sulbing, thinking how good a cold bowl of patbingsu would taste on a hot summer afternoon.

Needless to say, I got lost. Really lost. (This was one of the occasions when asking a policeman for directions only got me more lost, because wow, was he wrong.) Except … when I finally found Sulbing, I realized that I had originally walked in the right direction, before second-guessing myself when the map and the streets in front of me didn’t seem to match up. I generally assume that when it comes to directions my instincts are wrong, but in this case I should have followed them.

Inside the cool oasis of Sulbing, a bright and airy room on the second floor of a building overlooking Insadong’s touristy pedestrian street, I ordered a basic patbingsu at the counter then picked a table next to the window so I could observe the goings-on below. I had seen relatively few obvious foreigners in Seoul outside the conference, but Insadong’s main drag was full of them, ducking in and out of souvenir shops and purchasing cold juices from street vendors. Looking around the other tables inside Sulbing, where I was the only foreigner, I realized that most of the shaved-ice desserts served were being split among two or more people, though the bowls didn’t look all that large to my American eyes. Consuming one solo, though, suddenly seemed like an indulgence.

When my patbingsu arrived I dug in, though I knew from the start that this wasn’t going to be the perfect patbingsu of my dreams. The mound of shaved ice was coated with crumbles of nutty soy bean powder, which formed into chewy nuggets in my mouth—not unpleasant, but different. Instead of intact red beans cooked into a syrupy sauce, the patbingsu was topped with an immobile lump of red bean paste, which I had to work apart with my spoon to ensure it would be evenly distributed as I ate. And the tiny pitcher on the side contained a thin, runny version of condensed milk, not the thick type I’m accustomed to seeing on shaved-ice desserts. It was all, in the end, fine. But not extraordinary. I decided that tomorrow was another day, another opportunity to find a quality patbingsu.

I left Sulbing and walked up the wide street of Samil-daero to my next destination (reached without difficulty, thank goodness), Bukchon Hanok Village. Bukchon Village is a mostly residential area filled with hanok houses, built in a traditional Korea style. While the local tourism organization encourages visitors to walk around the neighborhood and even provides a map with a suggested route, there are also multiple signs asking that outsiders be quiet and not knock on doors. I would imagine that having to put up with hordes of tourists is a significant trade-off for the chance to live in a quaint traditional home.

Bukchon Village was indeed quaint, its winding and hilly streets lined with low-built houses of stone, timber, and stucco. Many of the hanok homes appeared to be privately owned, while others had been turned into guesthouses, cafes, and art galleries—a mixture that brought to mind Shanghai’s French Concession (as did the enormous Kiehl’s cosmetics store near the start of the walking route). I noticed with surprise that many of the other tourists had traded in their street clothes for traditional Korean outfits rented from local shops, the women struggling to maneuver their colorful bell-shaped hanbok skirts as they walked along the streets. I mentally filed this away to investigate later: a local custom or something with more meaning?

Sweaty and tired from climbing up and down Bukchon Village’s largely shade-free streets, I made my way to the subway station and rode south toward my next planned destination, Seoullo 7017, which I had learned about via local author Colin Marshall’s blog. Opened only a few weeks prior to my visit, Seoullo 7017 is a “skygarden” and pedestrian path built on a decommissioned freeway overpass, a Korean version of New York’s High Line.

But when I arrived at the Seoul Station subway stop, which sits next to one Seoullo 7017 access point, my attention was diverted by the train station in front of me. Not the shiny glass-fronted station/shopping mall currently in use (though I did duck in there for a few minutes of air-conditioned relief), but the old brick-and-stone one next to it, which I immediately recognized as having been constructed during the years of Japanese rule (1910-1945) for its resemblance to buildings in Taipei and Manchuria. Seeing that the station was now an art museum with free admission, I decided that Seoullo 7017 could wait.

The modern art exhibit on view inside the station was totally incomprehensible to me—aside from the quote from Back to the Future Part III in one installation—but I was really there for the architecture and history. Many details from the building’s previous life had been restored or preserved: heavy drapes framed the windows, wainscoting still featured intricate “double happiness” carvings, and above the main doorway a round clock displayed the time—less important when you’re touring an art exhibition than catching a train.

Once finished with the station, I resumed my original course and headed up to Seoullo 7017. The walkway of the former overpass wasn’t crowded, but there were a good number of people checking out Seoul’s newest public park. A major reason cited for its construction was the dearth of green spaces in Seoul, and cement planters scattered along the pedestrian path were filled with plants and flowers—living things that softened the brutalist architecture of the overpass.

Although Seoullo 7017 actually doesn’t rise very far above the city streets, the slight elevation offered me a different perspective on Seoul. The city felt more expansive and open than it had on the ground below, and I could see that the seemingly chaotic traffic actually moved according to an intricate choreography, guided by dozens of lines and arrows painted on the pavement. I spent a few minutes just standing by the railing, watching the activity below and gaining a new appreciation for a city that had largely felt chaotic and cramped during the few days I had been there.

I had entered Seoullo 7017 more or less in the middle of the one-kilometer-long park, and decided to walk in the direction of Namdaemun Market, the largest market in Korea. Namdaemun was a quick re-immersion into chaotic and cramped Seoul, its streets crammed with shoppers and tourists. I quickly grew less interested in seeing the market than in getting out of it, and I let the tide of people carry me toward one of the exits. There, I found a line of shoppers waiting in front of a mobile food cart, where a man was frying puffy round discs of hotteok as fast as he could. These filled pancakes had appeared on all the lists of “Korean street foods you must try” I had consulted, and I decided that the long line of customers meant that this guy was known for serving good hotteok. I pulled a 1,000 won (about $.90) note out of my wallet and joined the queue.

Several minutes later, I was gingerly holding an oily hot hotteok tucked inside a Dixie cup that the cart’s cashier/assistant had sliced down the side to form a protective sleeve. The laminated cardboard of the cup still wasn’t quite enough to keep my fingertips from protesting, but I managed to hold on as I pushed my way back through Namdaemun Market toward Seoullo 7017. Nabbing a bench as soon as I reached the skygarden (which meets the surface street at Namdaemun), I finally bit into the now-cooled pancake. I’d read that hotteok were usually filled with brown sugar and honey, but this one was savory, stuffed with shredded carrots, sliced scallions, and soft rice vermicelli mixed with soy sauce. Though it was approaching 6:00pm and I expected to eat dinner soon, I wolfed down the whole thing, telling myself that I needed something to tide me over until I reached the restaurant I had chosen for the evening’s meal.

That turned out to be a good move, because finding that restaurant was my biggest challenge in Seoul.

I’d picked Sigol Bapsang because I’d read on several blogs about its all-banchan meal. Banchan are little dishes of cold appetizers served with every meal in Korea; there’s always kimchi, plus a few other offerings, usually vegetarian, like glazed potatoes or green beans with chili paste. Whenever I’m in a Korean restaurant, I inevitably remark that I like banchan so much that I could just eat them and be happy. Sigol Bapsang sounded like my idea of heaven: for 8,000 won (about $7), I’d get a set meal consisting of rice, tofu soup, and (according to information online) 20 banchan dishes.

But first I had to find the damn place.

I followed the vague directions I’d found online, supplemented by my map. Itaewon subway station. Exit 2. Walk straight, through the heart of Seoul’s expat neighborhood, where the streets were filled with dodgy-looking spas and pizza places advertising Brooklyn Brewery beer. Look for a street named Hannam-dong and turn left; the restaurant should be just in from the corner. I walked and walked, past where I expected Hannam-dong to be, then way past where I expected it to be. Realizing I was reaching the next subway station, I turned around and retraced my steps. Pulling up the address card and map I had saved on my phone, I approached a parking lot security guard and asked him if he knew where Sigol Bapsang was; he grimaced at the phone screen and told me to walk “two or three more blocks” back toward the subway station. (In fact, it turned out that Sigol Bapsang is maybe 100 feet from the parking lot where he works.)  I walked all the way back to the subway station, then a little farther, just in case, and started to think that pizza and a Brooklyn beer might not be a bad dinner instead. Hot, tired, getting hungry (thank goodness I’d eaten that hotteok), I decided to give it one last shot, but I needed help. I entered a Nike store and hoped that I’d find a kind-hearted English-speaking salesperson inside.

I actually found two kind-hearted English-speaking salesmen, who pulled out their own phones to figure out where this mysterious restaurant was and then drew me a detailed map with helpful landmarks (Audi dealer, Gambian Embassy). Setting out from the store with fresh resolve, I used their map to triangulate my way to a tiny street that I had already passed several times and was most definitely not labeled Hannam-dong on the street sign—and there, I finally found Sigol Bapsang, home of the all-banchan meal.

After all the effort it took to get there, I wish I could say that my dinner at Sigol Bapsang was fantastic, a delicious spread of dishes better than I what I could find anywhere else. But it wasn’t and they weren’t. The banchan were good, don’t get me wrong, and some were close to great. I didn’t, however, get the twenty dishes that food bloggers had indicated used to be the standard; rather than raise prices, it seems, Sigol Bapsang instead reduced the banchan spread to twelve. None of them was so fantastic that I was tempted to ask for a refill after I’d methodically consumed all the banchan, emptying each white plastic bowl and then adding it to a tidy stack in the middle of the table. It was all very … okay.

Somewhat deflated, I rode the subway back to Insadong and walked through the night market—not as vibrant on a Tuesday evening as it had been the previous Friday, but bustling nonetheless. Reaching my hotel room, I tapped open the Fitbit app on my phone, curious to see how many steps I’d walked that day. I gaped as the number 25,494 popped up. I knew I’d covered a lot of ground—and gotten spectacularly lost twice—but it was still far and away the highest single-day step count I’d logged since acquiring the Fitbit in February.

No wonder my feet hurt.

Life Happens. Coffee Helps.

Navigation-wise, Wednesday went much better than Tuesday—mostly because all the places I wanted to go were more or less on top of subway stations, so I never had to walk far to find anything. (I still logged more than 22,000 steps that day, though.)

After breakfast at my hotel, I set off for Gyeongbokgung, the main palace of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Arriving just a few minutes after it opened, I felt like I had the grounds practically to myself at first, only a few other small groups of tourists scattered among the palace’s succession of courtyards (if you’ve been to Beijing’s Forbidden City, Gyeongbokgung is smaller and less ornate, but built in a similar style). Though high-rise buildings stand just a few hundred yards from the palace’s main entrance at the south of the complex, facing north you see green mountains rising in the distance, making the palace feel like it’s the last thing standing between city and countryside. 

Gyeongbokgung’s grounds began to fill with other visitors as time passed, and as I had the previous day in Bukchon Village, I noticed that most of the young women had donned colorful hanbok dresses, with a few of the young men accompanying them much less confidently wearing their own traditional outfits. I wondered again if this was a local custom—people who really wanted to immerse themselves in history wore the costume of imperial times while touring? Was it done for the photo ops? I still don’t entirely know the answer, although some googling after the trip informed me that palace admission fees are waived for anyone wearing hanbok (Gyeongbokgung was free that day anyway, though maybe other visitors didn’t know that in advance—I certainly didn’t), and the official Korea Tourism Organization website encourages hanbok rental both as an experience of living history and because the dresses make for better photos at tourist sites.

From the palace, I walked to the National Folk Museum of Korea next door, where the grounds contained an assortment of different dwellings that showed how people lived in the days of yore. (Curiously, one house also featured an incongruous piece of pop art—a fiberglass radish top nearly as tall as the house emerging from the ground in front of the door.) I walked down the “Street to the Past,” which promised to help visitors “Experience Mom and Pop’s Childhood” with life-size dioramas of shopfronts and school classrooms. Inside the museum itself, I quickly made my way through the three galleries—English-language signage was infrequent, and I was getting hungry for lunch—that portrayed Korea’s social and cultural history from prehistoric through modern times.

A short subway ride later and I was in Gwangjang Market. Like Namdaemun Market, Gwangjang is a sprawling spiderweb of shops selling everything from hanbok to plastic shower shoes. But Gwangjang is also, more than Namdaemun, recommended as a place to eat, most of its food stalls specializing in one or two local dishes (although there’s a lot of repetition among the stalls; I mostly picked the busiest ones, on the admittedly fallacious assumption that they must offer the best version of their particular specialty). I decided from the outset that my goal was to try as many different things as I could, which meant that I couldn’t actually finish any of them; this is one time that being a solo traveler doesn’t really work, and I’m pretty sure I insulted at least two of the three women running food stalls where I ate by leaving food on my plate. Major cultural faux pas.

I started with the market’s famous mayak gimbap, or “narcotic rice rolls,” so named because they’re supposed to be as addictive as a drug. Constructed like sushi—a seaweed wrapper rolled around a column of sticky rice and vegetables—the mayak gimbap were served with a dipping sauce that started out neutral but ended with quite a kick. In search of something to soothe my smarting taste buds, I moved on to a bindaetteok, or fried mung bean pancake accompanied by a dish of onions and vinegar for dipping. Lightly greasy and definitely unhealthy, the bindaetteok was my favorite Gwangjang Market snack. After walking around the non-food section of the market for a bit to give my stomach some time to digest, I returned for one final round, this time opting to try the kimchi-and-tofu-stuffed dumplings that sat in piles atop nearly every counter. These turned out to be the one thing I ate in Korea that I not only didn’t love but really didn’t even like: the dumpling skins were too thick, the filling dry and crumbly, the whole experience an unpleasantly chewy one. I forced down two dumplings and decided that I’d had my fill—literally—of Gwangjang Market.

My next stop was for dessert—a re-do of the previous day’s attempt to find the perfect patbingsu. This time I ventured down to Gangnam (the trendy neighborhood immortalized in “Gangnam Style”), where a restaurant atop the Hyundai Department Store was said to serve up the city’s best patbingsu.

The first thing that struck me when I stepped off the escalator and approached Meal Top was that nearly every table at the Tuscan-styled cafe was surrounded by women. I hadn’t realized until that moment how … masculine many spaces in Seoul felt, even though there were certainly plenty of women in the city. But stepping into a restaurant completely filled with women suddenly made me conscious of how different the vibe inside Meal Top felt compared with everywhere else I’d gone.

When my patbingsu arrived, I braced myself for disappointment, knowing it was unlikely I’d find perfection in only my second attempt. But just like last year in Taiwan, the second shaved-ice dessert of my trip was indeed perfection—soft snowdrifts of ice infused with milk, subtly sweet red beans, two precise cubes of glutinous rice cake sitting on top, to be carefully parceled out as I savored the dessert. It was all I could do not to order a second bowl.

I exited the department store and started walking the streets of Gangnam, but within minutes knew that my heart wasn’t in it; I don’t really care about shopping and hadn’t done the research to know what other attractions were in the area. Spotting a small coffee shop named “Good Night and Good Luck” (motto: “Life Happens. Coffee Helps.”), I went inside and ordered an iced latte, then spent an hour sipping it and reading Seoul Sub→Urban* by Charles Usher, a book of short essays about the city I’d picked up at the AAS conference and had been reading whenever I’d had a few minutes to spare over the previous days.

The coffee did indeed help, and I left the cafe with a renewed sense of purpose. My goal: to get a foot massage. (See: 25,494 steps the previous day.) But while I found at least a dozen plastic-surgery clinics in the streets immediately surrounding Good Night and Good Luck, the neighborhood appeared entirely devoid of massage parlors—or at least any with English-language signs. After half an hour of searching, I admitted defeat and trudged toward the subway for my next, and final, Seoul stop.

Jamsil Baseball Stadium is a character-less concrete cylinder, the type of sports venue built in the United States during the 1960s and 70s and then replaced with “ballparks” in the 1990s and 2000s. On the plaza outside the stadium, vendors set up tables laden with dried seafood and to-go boxes of fried chicken. Though game time was more than 90 minutes away when I arrived, there were already long lines at the ticket windows. I joined one, nervous for the first time about how I’d conduct a transaction without being able to speak or read the language. I used my time in line to examine the ticket prices and color-coded stadium map posted above the window and typed “17,000” into the calculator on my phone—the price of a field-level seat in the area around home base (about $15). When I reached the blacked-out window, though, the disembodied female voice that came through a small opening greeted me in perfect English and immediately demanded to know which team I rooted for.

“Ummm … I’d like a 17,000 won ticket on the third-base side of the red section,” I replied, holding up my phone with the numbers displayed on the calculator screen, not sure what else to say. I suddenly couldn’t remember which teams were playing that night.

“But which team do you like? Doosan or SK?” the invisible woman insisted. “Doosan is on the first-base side. SK is on third.”

“Then … SK,” I said, because I like to sit along the third-base line and have no allegiance to either team. I passed some money through the opening in the window and a body-less hand pushed my ticket back, the voice ringing out once again. “Enjoy the game!”

I found my seat—only a few rows up from the field, for $15!—and relaxed in the sun as a steady trickle of ticket-holders made their way into the stadium. Yet when the first pitch was thrown an hour later there were still far more empty seats than occupied ones, especially on the SK side, since Doosan was the home team. Again, I was surprised to see how many women were at the game, alone and in groups, many of them wearing Doosan jerseys and banging inflatable spirit sticks.

I bought a watery Cass beer and a box of chicken nuggets (in retrospect, the food choices outside the stadium were better than those inside) and watched the game. I had spent so much of the previous five days feeling jet-lagged and confused and incoherent and lost in Seoul; it was reassuring to be in a place where I knew what was going on, which plays were good and which ones were not. Some of the little details were different—every time a batter hit a foul ball into the stands, a team of linesmen blew on whistles to alert people to watch for flying objects—but baseball is, for me, a universal language.

Coda

Early the next morning, I left my hotel and headed to the airport—but got lost once more, in search of an elusive subway entrance that reportedly had an elevator. I finally gave up and wrestled my suitcase onto a narrow escalator, feeling hot, tired, and lost as I descended into the station. For me, that’s just how it goes in Seoul.

Further Reading (In Addition to Links Above)

Everything I know about seeing baseball in Seoul I learned from this Time Out article.

The Los Angeles Review of Books has a Korea Blog, chiefly authored by Colin Marshall, whom I got to meet briefly during my time in Seoul. Marshall also published an article at The Guardian earlier this month on Seoul’s “lack of soul” and ongoing identity crisis.

I should have read this before I went to Korea, but after I returned borrowed journalist Michael Breen’s recently published The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation* from the library and, a few chapters in so far, have found it a good introduction to a country about which I know shamefully little (for some reason, my graduate education focused much more on North Korea than South).

The Seoul subway is, indeed, clean and efficient and cheap. I didn’t try the vending-machine coffee, though.

After seeing this NPR video by Elise Hu, I desperately wanted to get my pores vacuumed but ran out of time. I bought a ten-pack of snail-mucus sheet masks for my face instead (and they are, as far as I can tell, pretty great for my skin).

* Amazon affiliate link. I earn a small commission if you purchase from Amazon via this link.

Weekly Wanderings: Censored Bear Edition

▪ It’s not often that my longtime love of Winnie the Pooh has much to do with my career as a China watcher, but the two finally converged a couple of weeks ago, thanks to the PRC government’s decision to censor online images of one Silly Old Bear because he allegedly resembles President Xi Jinping (or vice versa). This led to a front-page Financial Times article and lot of blustery headlines elsewhere, like “Why China Censors Banned Winnie the Pooh” (BBC) and “Winnie the Pooh Is the Latest Victim of Censorship in China” (Vox).

As Luna Lin and Emily Rauhala explain in a refreshingly measured article at the Washington Post, Pooh did not actually fall subject to a complete ban on the Chinese internet, in the way that some other topics (such as 1989’s June Fourth Massacre or Liu Xiaobo’s death) have been. Yes, images like the one above directly comparing Xi Jinping to Pooh were blocked, as were some mentions of the bear’s name. But the cyber ministry didn’t put into place its most aggressive censorship mechanisms, despite the frequent mentions of Pooh being “banned” and “deleted” from the Chinese internet in foreign reporting about the story.

There are two (seemingly contradictory) lessons we can draw from this episode. The first is that—as so often happens, and especially in writing about China—absurdity sells, whether it is, strictly speaking, true or not. The idea of the mighty PRC government fearing adorable pictures of a hunny-loving cartoon bear is simply too good a story to pass up. It also fits into the mental picture that many foreigners have of the Chinese state: humorless, monolithic, repressive.

(Another example of this, with much less grounding in reality than the Pooh story: a 2011 New York Times article that stated phone calls were being terminated when the word “protest” was uttered. Adam Minter has a good blog post debunking the claim.)

But at the same time, the Chinese state is often humorless, monolithic, and repressive, and it has become even more so under Xi Jinping. And that is where most of these articles don’t go far enough in explaining that censoring Winnie the Pooh might sound quirky and funny, but it’s just one example of a greatly tightened internet environment (see this Bloomberg story for more). Although the censorship of Pooh seems to have been applied with a fairly light touch and for a brief period of time, it’s emblematic of a far bigger crackdown on freedom of expression in China that deserves more international attention—and not only when adorable cartoon characters are the target.

1983: I, too, looked a lot like Pooh.

▪ A new venture announced this week, in which I will play a small role: the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel, coming to computer screens this fall thanks to a generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. The China Channel will be a stepped-up version of the existing LARB China Blog (which I used to co-edit with Jeff Wasserstrom) with more frequent posts and a broader range of material. I’m an “advising editor,” so won’t be handling day-to-day management of the site but will help identify potential contributors and work with the other editors to develop projects. And if things go well, I’ll be writing for the channel somewhat regularly too. Anyway, stay tuned.

▪ If you’re a writer or other creative type, I hope you’ve subscribed to Manjula Martin’s “Three Cents” TinyLetter, in which she discusses the financial side of the freelance life. In the latest issue, Martin links to a must-read blog post by Alana Massey, “Don’t ‘Wonder’ About Your Paycheck, Ask for It.”

One of the few things I don’t enjoy about writing is that it’s so damn difficult to get paid for your work. A lot of publications don’t compensate writers at all (and I have mixed feelings about that; if it’s a small, labor-of-love niche website I will agree to write for free, but if it’s a household-name-type publication, they need to ante up), but even when you have a contract and delivered the work on time and filled out all their forms, it can still take months and months to get a check. I’ve rarely gotten paid on the first go-round—it often seems like they don’t even start the process to issue a check until I follow up (like, “Oh, okay, she definitely wants this money. Yeah, yeah, we should pay her.”).

I’m not shy about asking for money that’s due to me, but it took time for me to train myself to make those follow-up emails direct and pleasant but not apologetic. As Massey explains in her blog post, it’s easy to fall into weak phrasing that makes it seem like your request is an imposition (“I wondered if you could tell me the status of my invoice payment” and “Do you have an idea of when…”). Women, especially, are conditioned to be pleasant and non-aggressive, which then translates into timid phrasing when an awkward subject like money is on the table. But as Massey learned, and I did too, a no-nonsense email devoid of the word “wondering” gets results. And while editors and accounts payable people might not even think much of the difference in phrasing, sending a direct but not apologetic email asking Where the hell is my money?!? (more professionally than that, of course) makes me feel better about standing up for myself.

▪ This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of when I moved into my house, the decoration and furnishing of which is … still a work in progress. As much as I love watching HGTV and relaxing with the hand-me-down copies of Better Homes & Gardens my mother saves for me, I don’t really enjoy the actual process of making an Instagram-ready home into a reality. I need the Property Brothers to show up and do the work for me.

But yesterday evening, I finally committed to—and realized!—a concept for my front porch: reading and relaxation. The porch is one of my favorite things about the house, and last summer I said that my top priority was to get furniture for it so I could sit outside. I looked around a little bit, but almost immediately found myself paralyzed by indecision. Did I want a table and chairs so I could eat meals outside? Or should I go for a more casual vibe? Adirondack chairs? A rocking chair? A chaise lounge? For months, I’ve been (non-creepily, I swear) checking out my neighbors’ porches for inspiration, while mine continued to feature only a dusty blue nylon quad chair that I think my father won at a golf outing.

This week I decided that I was done with the uncomfortable quad chair; it was time to make a move. Last night after work I went to Home Depot and Lowe’s and considered every outdoor seating option they offered. At Lowe’s, I finally settled on a chaise lounge: if the porch were bigger I’d want a table and chairs, too, but if I only have space for one thing, it’s going to be a place where I can read, write, and take naps on warm summer afternoons.

Conclusion from last night’s test run: excellent choice.

▪ A footnote to the Pooh censorship story: there’s now a Dissident Pooh Twitter account, which is my second-favorite China satire feed (Relevant Organs will always come first—they wouldn’t have it any other way).

Weekly Wanderings: Heavy and Light Edition

This has been a very weird week for me: although I’ve been surrounded by a bright and cheery Michigan summer filled with fun things to do, I’ve also been preoccupied with the many dark and dispiriting news stories surrounding the death of Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died on Thursday while still serving an 11-year prison sentence. Below, I’ll talk about some of the lighter things first and then briefly discuss Liu Xiaobo at the end, with apologies for the jarring shift in tone.

▪ Since I moved here at the end of July last year and spent August getting settled, I didn’t really notice how many things there are to do in Ann Arbor over the summer. On a very practical level, I think downtown merchants need events that will attract visitors when the university is out of session and there aren’t any football fans to fill the restaurants and shops. But it also seems like this is what towns in the Midwest do during the summer—hold lots of festivals and street fairs and outdoor performances, storing up cheerful memories to hold tight when winter arrives. I’m going to miss A2’s biggest summer event, the Art Fairs, which will take place next weekend when I’m visiting family and friends in Philadelphia. But I haven’t been lacking for summer entertainment; just this past week has included the following:

▫ I’m filling gaps in my classic movie knowledge with an ongoing Hitchcock festival at the historic Michigan Theater; Strangers on a Train has a bizarre premise but amazing climactic fight scene (“This is better than Spiderman!” whooped the guy sitting across the aisle from me), while Rear Window kept me on the edge of my seat, in absolute confusion and suspense about how the mystery would be resolved. Today’s feature is To Catch a Thief, which I have seen before—but not in a restored movie palace with an organ concert before the screening.

▫ On Friday evening I had a few errands to run downtown, where I found some of the main streets blocked off for the Rolling Sculpture classic car show. Although I had planned on dispensing with my errands and then heading home for dinner and a book on my front porch, I decided that I might as well take advantage of an unexpected (and free!) entertainment opportunity. So I spent a couple of hours strolling the streets of Ann Arbor while taking in the 300 cars on display. I don’t “know cars”—I overheard a lot of people in deep discussions about vehicle specifications and horsepower and so forth—but I really enjoy looking at the design of old cars and seeing how things changed over the years. And many of the cars on display featured placards telling stories about road trips the owners have taken or how the vehicle has been passed down through generations of a single family. Rolling sculpture, yes, but also rolling history.

▫ Finally, this weekend also included the summer used book sale at the Ann Arbor District Library. Not that I really needed more books to read, but … it’s a sale! And the proceeds support the library! IT’S FOR A GOOD CAUSE. As a member of the Friends of the AADL, I got to enter the sale an hour before the doors officially opened, and I was glad I did—not only did I have first crack at the books, but I also got to leave just as a wave of people flowed into the library’s multi-purpose room when the sale opened to the general public. Note for the future: ALWAYS take advantage of the Friends pre-sale. (As for what I bought, I picked up a bunch of novels and a couple of memoirs—the kind of stuff I like to pop in my bag to read on a plane and can then re-donate when I’m finished. Total cost: $4.)

▪ Speaking of books: if you’re in the Philadelphia area on Thursday night (July 20), stop by the Narberth Bookshop at 6:30 to see me moderate an event featuring author Kaitlin Solimine in conversation with historian Jay Carter. Kaitlin is touring in support of her debut novel, Empire of Glass [Amazon affiliate link], which was just named to the longlist of the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. We still have to confer about event logistics, but I expect that Kaitlin and Jay will cover China, history, and writing in their discussion—three things I’m always interested in talking about.

▪ One thing I forgot to mention last week is that while I’m not doing a whole lot of writing for it, I am editing a new blog for the Association for Asian Studies. #AsiaNow is still coming together—we’re not yet posting as frequently as I hope to in the future—but the idea is to offer a range of material, from announcements about AAS activities to interviews with members about their research to commentary and analysis of things happening in Asia.

▪ I’m not going to put together a full reading round-up of tributes to Liu Xiaobo—you can pick through my Twitter feed for links to many of them—but here are a few pieces of writing that are worth checking out, even (or especially) if you’re not a “China person”:

▫ If you’re really not a China person and want an overview of Liu’s life and work beyond what you’ll find on Wikipedia, read this excerpt from Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-first Century [Amazon affiliate link], by John Delury and Orville Schell, which is posted at ChinaFile.

  At China Heritage, Sinologist Geremie R. Barmé published a searing and deeply personal requiem shortly after Liu’s terminal illness was announced last month:

Tears blind me as I write. Xiaobo: diagnosed who knows when, treated now with cynical and calculating precision, the kind of precision that keeps the high-speed trains of the People’s Republic running on time. A cynicism synchronised so that this dastardly year in which Xi Jinping will duly, daresay humbly, accept a second five-year term as party-state Chairman of Everything can unfold without a political hitch. A diagnosis that, perhaps, will allow a little more time to a man who has been robbed of so much time over this quarter of a century. How did his wife, Liu Xia, put it? Her words break my heart and assault the decency of every thinking person in the world: ‘Can’t operate, can’t do radiotherapy, can’t do chemo.’

▫ Obituaries rarely have much literary styling, so Tania Branigan’s for Liu at The Guardian is notable for its eloquent narration of a complicated life.

▫ In a thoughtful and historically informed essay at the New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson places Liu Xiaobo’s case in a broader context:

This is why Liu matters: his life and death stand for the fundamental conundrum of Chinese reformers over the past century—not how to boost GDP or recover lost territories, but how to create a more humane and just political system.

▫ Perhaps the most dispiriting element of Liu Xiaobo’s final weeks was the near-complete absence of public statements from global leaders (save Angela Merkel and Tsai Ing-wen) calling for the PRC government to release Liu and allow him to seek medical treatment abroad. That used to be a common pretext for dispensing with troublesome dissidents, but in recent years the Chinese government has shown less willingness to play that game, and foreign governments have shown less interest in pressing for change on human-rights issues. Chris Buckley explores this topic further at the New York Times, and Anthony Kuhn covers it in a report at NPR.

Weekly Wanderings: Roadblocks, Detours, and Roundabouts Edition

▪ How many times this spring did I tell myself, “Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll get up and start writing again. Tomorrow for sure”? Pretty much every day. But as the near-silence around these parts indicates, I never followed through. The #1 reason for this is that for the past several months I’ve found it nearly impossible to set a schedule and keep to it; every time I turned around there was a roadblock sending me off onto a detour from what I intended to be my normal routine. Some of those detours were fun and took me to different places (since January, in order: Philadelphia, D.C., Philadelphia, Toronto, Philadelphia, Florida, Philadelphia, central Michigan, central Pennsylvania, Seoul), while others (two colds within a month) just sent me to bed, whimpering, with my laptop and Netflix.

So I haven’t been idle this year. I’ve traveled a lot, read a lot, cooked a lot, and caught up with or met a lot of people. But I haven’t written a lot; whenever I had a few days at home, I would spend them planning to write, making lists of the articles and essays that I would work on … as soon as I had more time to focus on them. Call it a roundabout of productive procrastination: I felt like I was getting myself organized and therefore accomplishing something, but in reality I was just going around and around without actually producing anything.

Now that I finally have a long stretch of time at home, I’ve exited that roundabout and found my way back onto the road of a morning writing routine. And I’m trying—hard!—to be more conscientious about not overcrowding my travel schedule for the fall. I love getting out and going to new places, but I don’t love the disruption that occurs when I do too much of that.

▪ On to less metaphorical roadblocks and detours. I had never heard this before moving to Michigan, but a popular local joke is that “There are two seasons in the Midwest: winter and roadwork.” I can now affirm that this is 100% true. The winter this year actually wasn’t that bad, but the roadwork … the roadwork is testing my patience. Ann Arbor is blooming with orange traffic cones and detour signs, and a major project at the intersection just south of my housing development (they’re turning a four-way stop into a roundabout and have totally closed the road) means that for the next two months every trip I make will involve a 10-minute detour as I head north, then turn west so I can go south again.

On a bad day, when I haven’t properly timed things and am running late because I forgot to allow for the detour, or when I join a line of other drivers all desperately waiting to make a left turn that was always difficult and is now nigh-on impossible during rush hour, I curse and complain. Wasn’t there a better, less disruptive, way to do this? But on a good day, when the weather is pleasant and the traffic is light, I think about the upsides of the detours.

I’m being far more conscious about how much I drive: now that the grocery store is 15 minutes away rather than 5, I really give thought to whether or not I should just pop out to pick up a few things, or if I could wait and bundle several errands together. I’m also learning more about the area around me, as detours and traffic congestion lead me to take roads that had never been necessary before. I live at the very northeastern edge of the city of Ann Arbor, and it’s amazing how quickly suburban subdivisions give way to fields when you head north from my house. There’s a Christmas tree farm, a fresh produce stand, and a petting zoo—all within 10 minutes of my front door. (Also a lot of … groundhogs, I think? … that seem to have a death wish, but so far I’ve managed to avoid my first roadkill experience.) I won’t be disappointed when the roadwork is over and I don’t have to build extra time into every venture outside my neighborhood, but there’s something to be said for driving along a dirt road with the windows down and the radio turned up on a sunny summer day.

  Back in 2014, the editor of the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report invited me to join the blog’s roster of contributors. You could probably say that was my big break—although I only wrote four articles for China Real Time, having the WSJ name in my clips file gave my writing career a big boost. (And the last article I published there, on limitations to archival access in China, has had a long life—it’s even cited in a new book coming out this fall.)

I put my freelance journalism career on the shelf when I moved to New York in November 2014, but I always intended to get back to writing for CRT at some point. Unfortunately, when I pitched an article a few months ago the editor told me that their budget for freelancers had been eliminated, and this week came the sad news that China Real Time has shut down altogether. I’m disappointed to see it go—not only on a personal level (the editors there were great to work with), but because CRT was one of the best and broadest China blogs around, featuring a mix of hard news analysis and fun, quirky stories. A lot of the top ones are mentioned in the farewell post linked to above, but one of my recent favorites was Eva Dou’s test of a “smart” rice cooker.

RIP, China Real Time, and thanks to everyone who made it great.

▪ The three things I have managed to write this spring, all book reviews: of Ian Johnson’s The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao (at the Financial Times and behind a paywall); of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (at Goodreads); and of Blair Braverman’s Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North (at Goodreads).

▪ And the one single thing I have knit since the start of 2017: a pair of socks for a friend’s newborn baby. I didn’t know the yarn would stripe when I bought it but was delighted when I realized it. I might need a (slightly bigger) pair for myself.

Hopefully more knitting, like more writing, is in store for the second half of the year.

#HongKong20 Reading Round-Up

In the United States, the past five days have been all about the Fourth of July holiday—an extra-long weekend this year that led many people (including me) to step away from the news for at least part of the time. But in Hong Kong, journalists were putting in overtime to cover the July 1 events marking twenty years since 1997’s handover, when control of Hong Kong shifted from Great Britain to the People’s Republic of China. It was a fraught anniversary. Despite Beijing’s attempts at celebratory glitz, including President Xi Jinping’s first visit to Hong Kong since he took office in 2012, local opposition to Chinese rule in Hong Kong has been on the rise in recent years, and many activists marked the occasion not with laudatory cheers but with chants of protest.

There was a tremendous amount of coverage in the weeks preceding and days following the anniversary. The list below is by no means exhaustive, but I’ve assembled it to impose some amount of organization on all the things I’ve read, watched, and listened to in the past month. I’ve mostly left out the tick-tock coverage of Xi Jinping’s visit, the anniversary celebrations, and the protests in favor of analyses that offer a broader perspective on the situation.

The Big Picture

▪ The first thing to understand is how Hong Kong fits into the political organization of the PRC, what “One Country, Two Systems” means, and why it has proven problematic. This Bloomberg Q&A lays out the basics.

▪ This is a few months old now, but Howard French’s long article for the Guardian, which asks “Is It Too Late to Save Hong Kong from Beijing’s Authoritarian Grasp?” remains the best place to start if you’re looking for an overview of the issues at hand.

▪ Shorter and more up-to-date than French’s article (things in Hong Kong change fast!), “A City Apart: Hong Kong Marks 20 Years of Chinese Rule” by Nash Jenkins at TIME also lays out the history of PRC rule in Hong Kong and the lines of dissent that have emerged.

▪ And if you’d prefer a video summary of the current problems in Hong Kong, see “After the Rain: What Is Happening to Hong Kong’s Democracy?” at the Guardian.

▪ Former New York Times Hong Kong bureau chief Keith Bradsher analyzes how Hong Kong has fared over the past twenty years, writing that “the city is increasingly held up not as a model of China’s future but as a cautionary tale—for Beijing and its allies, of the perils of democracy, and for the opposition, of the perils of authoritarianism.” (That article also features gorgeous photos by Lam Yik Fei.)

▪ Writing at the time of the handover in 1997, The Economist asked, “What if Hong Kong takes over China?” This article details why that has not come to pass.

▪ The biggest Hong Kong-Beijing showdown to date has been the Umbrella Movement of 2014, carried out by the city’s student activists. Head over to Netflix and watch the useful documentary Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower for a look at how Hong Kong’s youth are leading the fight against the “Mainland-ization” of their home.

▪ There’s another short documentary about the Umbrella Movement at the Guardian’s website, this one featuring a protest figure known as “Chalk Girl” and looking at what has happened in Hong Kong since the end of the Umbrella Movement.

▪ On a lighter note: the Xinhua news agency has produced a terribly awkward animated music video to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the handover. Sixth Tone has a one-minute version with English subtitles, while the longer Chinese-only video is at the Xinhua site.

Identity Politics

▪ Quite a lot of the articles and analysis in the run-up to the handover anniversary examined the nature of a distinct Hong Kong identity and how the PRC government is attempting to fight it. A selection of examples:

▫ Carrie Gracie, BBC, “Beijing’s Struggle to Win Hong Kong’s Young Hearts”

▫ Benjamin Haas, the Guardian, “How China Changed Hong Kong: Views from the City”

▫ Austin Ramzy and Alan Wong, New York Times, “Young People Have Their Say About the Future of Hong Kong”

▫ Ben Bland, FT, “China Tensions Give Hong Kong an Identity Crisis”

▪ While many commentators talk about the “Mainland-ization” of Hong Kong, John Lyons and Chester Yung of the Wall Street Journal turn the story around and look at communities of immigrants from the PRC who have embraced the “Hong Kong-ization” of their lives.

▪ In a recent episode of the Little Red Podcast, “Hong Kong: The New Tibet?,” hosts Graeme Smith and Louisa Lim discuss the localist movement in Hong Kong with guest Kevin Carrico of Macquarie University. See also this LA Review of Books China Blog post that Lim wrote as a companion piece to the episode.

▪ In a 2016 article for Foreign Affairs, historian Gina Anne Tam examines the identity politics of language in Hong Kong, where Mandarin is edging out Cantonese—but not without encountering a lot of local resistance.

▪ At TIME, Liam Fitzpatrick photographs members of Hong Kong’s “settler society”—the British, South Asians, Eurasians, and others who have made the city their home (often for several generations) and maintain its distinctive feel as a nexus of world cultures. (Additionally, if you’re a fan of outstanding photos of Hong Kong, follow Liam on Instagram.)

Commentary and Analysis

▪ At NPR, Ilaria Maria Sala and Jeff Wasserstrom have published an interesting essay on the political significance of appearances and disappearances in Hong Kong.

▪ At Quartz, Sala has also written about the disappearance of archives related to 1967 riots in Hong Kong. At the time, the violent protests were supported by the Chinese Communist Party, but now Beijing would prefer not to draw attention to its role in the actions.

▪ There’s a wide-ranging ChinaFile Conversation in which experts are asked to weigh in on the question, “What Does Xi Jinping Intend for Hong Kong?”

▪ Pro-democracy activists Martin Lee and Joshua Wong co-authored a Washington Post op-ed explaining “Why We Fight for Hong Kong’s Freedoms.”

▪ “The threatened Armageddon with tanks on the streets never arrived but we continue to fight against death by a thousand cuts,” writes journalist Yuen Chan in an essay calling for Hong Kongers to tell their own stories rather than allow Beijing to control the narrative.

▪ Nick Frisch writes at the New Yorker on the slow, subtle process of “convergence rather than conversion” between the PRC and Hong Kong since 1997.

▪ Two short essays on art and politics in Hong Kong: at Dissent magazine’s website, Louisa Lim discusses censorship and limitations on artistic expression, while at Even magazine, Denise Y. Ho explains the controversy over Beijing’s decision to “give” a Palace Museum to Hong Kong as a twentieth anniversary present.

▪ Hong Kong artist David Clarke has a new exhibition imagining a hypothetical day of independence for the city on “June 31, 1997.”

▪ NPR’s Rob Schmitz explains why it’s incredibly important that last week a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong “no longer has any realistic meaning.”

▪ “For Beijing, winning the hearts and minds of a mere 7 million Chinese in Hong Kong is proving a decidedly uphill battle,” writes Priscilla Roberts at the China Policy Institute: Analysis site.

▪ In Vancouver, Ian Young of the South China Morning Post interviewed Hong Kongers who moved to Canada before the handover about their (mostly negative) views of how their hometown has changed under Chinese rule.

▪ AFP correspondent Joanna Chiu looks at why Mainland Chinese are no longer as impressed by Hong Kong as they once were (though plenty still want to buy apartments there!).

▪ At The Cipher Brief, Richard Bush of Brookings explains some of the political and economic issues at hand in Hong Kong today.

▪ “Hong Kong’s descent seems as inevitable as it is inexorable” writes economist Friedrich Wu in this short National Bureau of Asian Research overview of the territory’s economic problems.

▪ Anthropology graduate student Jeffrey Twu examines the physical border between Mainland China and Hong Kong and why it remains an important line of demarcation, both legally and in people’s minds.

Further Reading

If you’re looking for book-length stories and analyses of Hong Kong …

▪ Susan Blumberg-Kason has compiled “The Non-Definitive Handover Book List” at her blog.

▪ I haven’t read the entire anthology yet, but PEN Hong Kong just released Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a Borrowed Place. You can read a couple of excerpts online at Quartz: “Hometown” by Kris Cheng and part of “My Journey as a Student Activist” by Joshua Wong.

▪ And I’ve only read one of these so far, but Penguin China has published a series of seven very short books on Hong Kong (it looks like most of them aren’t available in the U.S. yet, but I think they were all released in Asia on July 1). The Hong Kong Free Press interviewed four of the authors: Christopher DeWolf and Xu Xi, and Ben Bland and Antony Dapiran.