Category Archives: Language

Hiking season

In Taipei, I measure time by particular seasons. It was strawberry season not too long ago, tiny strawberries in cartons that were halfway filled with padding to protect the delicate fruit. Right now, it’s the season for golden-hued pineapples straight out of ads and giant watermelons the length of one’s arm, sometimes sold out of the same open fruit truck (you know the kind I mean, all open sides to display the fruit.) The first pineapple I bought was from one of those trucks, the young guy selling them surrounded by women. One even took photos of him as he removed the outer layers of her pineapple expertly. His pineapple cost me 120 ntd but the taste was incredibly sweet and floral, no sourness at all.

It’s also the season for giant snails with pointed shells on the mountain trails of Xianjiyan, and barn swallows in little nests above storefronts. I saw a nest with six swallows inside recently, their heads all poking out and watching me. The weather is changeable but mostly it’s hot, hovering around 30 degrees Celsius lately. My teacher says the rainy season is starting and when I asked about typhoon season, she said that it was separate from the rainy season and started in summer.

On nicer days, I try to make it to some of the mountains nearby. Once to Pingxi crags where three mountain peaks sit close together but rise alone so you have to climb up then down then all the way up again. The ones ijl and I climbed had bare rock on top, and one rose so steeply it required a ladder attached to the rock. I like the hiking here—there are the typical stone steps but also occasionally more natural dirt paths (sometimes not well-maintained though) and then you get the adventure hiking which involve rope to help steady you (and you definitely need them!) and sometimes actual climbing. Sometimes you see older men hiking in bare feet, as though it were typical. One of the mountains there, we managed to climb twice, not realizing the path we took down looped around and up the mountain again but it was a more adventurous one so it was fun anyway. There are signs there that tell you to beware, accidents have happened and you proceed at your own risk. And along the way, there were birds whose calls sounded like the whistle of a rocket, and a glimpse of a ferret-badger through the brush, as well as the remains of sky lanterns that we picked up. 

Another hike was from Daxi on the east coast. We took the slow train there, paying with our easycards. The day started out hot so it was brutal going up. Spiders hung on webs above us so if you looked up, you’d see spider after spider seemingly floating in the air. Occasionally, you’d catch a glimpse of ocean. The path led to Taoyuan Valley which was completely different. We climbed the ridge there; on one side, a steep dropoff with shrubs that grew close to the ground due to wind unlike the forests we had been hiking in and on the other side, gently sloping meadowland with water buffalo leisurely eating the grass. On the path were “obstacles” that were the opposite of an animal crossing, to prevent the water buffalo from wandering too far into the mountains. But continuing on the path led us to heavy mist on the ridge and because I was getting tired, we took an unofficial path down with just a cardboard sign that read Dali train station written in marker. This path was very steep, just a dirt and rock path in between wild grass almost as tall as I was, and with the wind blowing something fierce. The shortcut may have been shorter but probably tougher.

Recently, I decided to go alone to Jiandaoshi (Scissor Rock) one day after class but this path turned out to be different from many others. There, retired old men hike it every day and chat with you or hike along with you if you’re new. I was put with two Taiwanese girls and we were shepherded up, an older man with his dog giving us advice all the while about the rough sandstone rock that we were scrambling over. On the way down, another old man identified a passionfruit flower, the trail we should take down, and played us an old song on a type of flute he had (he practices on the mountain, just a hobby he picked up). And on the way to the street, past a flower garden, we were given fresh-cut lilies that were going to be discarded anyway, after we admired them. The friendliest hike I’ve been on.

It’s not all hiking, though. I write essays on Taiwanese superstitious behavior, read essays on the sharing economy, and wonder why there are always worms on the broccoli and cauliflower. I randomly hopped aboard a shuttle for a free trip out to a little town called Xinpu known for its Hakka ancestral homes/shrines and sweet potato dye. I marvel at fresh baby corn and the glimmer of their leaves; they are sweeter than canned. I wait for repairmen to fix the cracks in my ceiling, just in case it’s a danger for the next earthquake, and then ask them random questions that help me with my powerpoint presentations. Sometimes your Japanese classmate tries to teach your class Japanese in Chinese. I live on roasted sweet potatoes because the old man who sells them is adorable even if he never seems to be around when I’ve got a craving—they’re so sweet it’s like eating a healthy dessert and only 50 ntd a bag. Sometimes black-crested serpent eagles circle your neighborhood, crying out all afternoon. I’ll post about southern Taiwan later. I’m missing a good friend’s wedding. With this new teacher, I can’t seem to keep anything in my head, words just slip away as soon as I see them. What skill it takes to be a good language teacher; I hadn’t realized quite how important it was until a mediocre teacher came along.

In writing news, the anthology Endless Apocalypse is out where you can read “Away They Go or Hurricane Season” along with other stories both contemporary and classic. I joined twitter (@suyeelin) but who knows how long that will last? Follow me while you can 😉

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Some surprises

I’m happy to share that A Flock, A Siege, A Murmuration not only got a great review on Newpages.com, but also that Bennington Review nominated it for a Pushcart Prize! There was a wealth of great writing in Bennington Review 3 so I’m really honored that they chose mine to nominate.

Also, I have a reprint of Away They Go or Hurricane Season coming out early next year in an anthology called Endless Apocalypse from Flame Tree Publishing! You can check out the other authors who will be included in the anthology here.

In Taipei, the rain hasn’t let up at all. So different from the first sunny days I was here so I feel a bit tricked, my expectations all out of whack. But I’ve gotten used to bicycling in the drizzle and how, some days, the clouds cover my kitchen view of Taipei 101. Classes at National Taiwan University aren’t quite what I expected either since we actually only have one class, 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. It doesn’t seem much at first but because we run through material so quickly with plenty of homework and review each day and I’m trying to remember all the words I used to know and figure out how to write them in traditional characters, it’s actually quite a lot of work. I wasn’t actually prepared for how many everyday characters I use have been simplified! My speaking needs work as well so I’m excited to be meeting a language exchange partner early next week.

The food here skews a bit sweet; I’m currently in love with the fresh pineapple bun with butter from 好好味 where the top is crisp and sweet, the bread is airy, and it comes hot and fresh from the oven so the butter melts as you eat it. So good. Mostly for meals, there’s bian dang 便当 which is like a lunch box where you pick the protein (fried chicken, stewed pork foot or pork belly, pork chop, fish, etc) and they give you some veggie sides and rice. Then there are the late night early morning breakfast shops with their buns and pastries and soy milk.

The school cafeterias are okay, with self-serve buffets which charge by weight, or different types of cuisine that range from dumplings to Korean food to Cantonese food to Japanese food. The night markets are fun but sometimes I mostly end up just eating fried things there. Last night at Raohe Night Market, I had a fried scallion pancake, fried chicken with basil, and sichuan chaoshou (wontons) in chili oil and had tastes of my friends’ food. Granted, I don’t always make the best decisions when I’m hungry.But there are tons of options–okonomiyaki being freshly made, fruit juice, baked seafood, stinky tofu, tiny fried crabs, egg waffles, ice cream wrapped with grated peanuts and cilantro, baby octopus covered with cheese, “coffin bread”, black pepper pork buns, and so much more. So crowded though so I couldn’t just take photos of them all.

Autumn is for hauntings

Autumn is a series of dreams remembered when you wake. The first, a dream within a dream, describing to a friend’s sister the way you traverse the streets, floating, flying several feet above the ground. The city is not yours, more old world, like a combination of Paris and Providence. The friend keeps trying to tug you back down; you don’t know why he insists on staying earthbound.

The second a giant studio/bedroom for you within a building set in a forest. You can watch different animals come and go through the two large windows set on two walls. Along another wall is a door with shutters and a row of thin windows with shutters that all face out into the hallway. A head pops in and says hello—another artist—but he does this with all the windows and you tell him how disconcerting it is. The bed is high up off the ground, tilted because it partly rests on a row of overturned chairs that, when taken away, turn into bicycle parts.

In the third, you are in Italy with your family. You arrive at a restaurant where the mussels are tasteless and the pasta nothing special except for its shape like old fashioned candies, oblong and frilled on the ends. Where are we, you ask, and your older sister says, we’re in Sicily. I thought the food would be better, you say carefully. She says she’s never been to this particular restaurant before. There is something wrong with the car which has an exposed engine. And then you think, oh, we were supposed to go to Italy in March but right now, it is autumn! We shouldn’t be here! Turns out your older sister forgot to make the fall cancellation and so here you guys all are, in Italy, with another Italy trip in the spring.

***

Rainy and gloomy here in New York, a drop of 30 degrees since Wednesday. My view, the building across the street, all wide windows and patio furniture. Thinking about thinking, about capturing a feeling, an atmosphere, on paper. Thinking about how to see that New England autumn foliage again, how it shocks you with its beauty, as though you’d never seen such a thing before. Thinking about the conference I went to last weekend at Brown on media and culture, the people I met, the inspiring way others move and think in the world. Thinking about time and then wondering when the Asian American Writers Workshop will post the video for the Tash Aw and Ruth Ozeki talk because damn, was that a good talk and I want to share it with everyone.

Back to work now.

Country Living at Omi

At Omi, the weather is changeable but the wind often howls outside the windows, high as we are, on a hill overlooking the sculpture park. Young frogs cheep loudly, both during the day and at night, and when the sun sets, it outlines the Catskills in the distance in orange and pink. After dinner, we drink wine and talk by the fire. Once, while it snowed, we drove through winding unlit roads to a bar in a Victorian, neon Budweiser signs in the window. Inside were floral curtains and garlands of fake flowers for Easter, drinks almost half the price of ones in the city. How long has this bar been open, we asked its owner of 37 years. Since the end of Prohibition, she said, and we were the first to sell hot wings around here. On the trip back, three deer bounded across the road, their eyes reflecting our headlights back at us.P1110545

During the day, our home is a converted barn. My room has two twin beds turned into a king, a large wooden table as a desk. In the bathroom, the water smells of sulfur, most strongly when you shower. My room is warmer than the rest of the suite. Upstairs, the rooms have loft spaces to sleep in. During the summer, when this place is for artists, they sleep two or three to a room but in the spring, the writers have more space and less company. Ants wander freely through the kitchen in the main house and once, a hawk soared overhead, barely out of reach. I take runs in a 3.5 mile loop, passing pig pens and cows, beautiful young horses and an occasional groundhog, its small pointed face wary as it watches me from a hole by the pumphouse. In the barn is a silo where we lose ping pong balls in its dark depths and also, studios, some completely empty but for birdshit, and some full with pottery equipment, bicycles, strange machinery. IMG_20140421_134146 P1110595

The sculpture park is set on swampland and there are patches of skunk cabbage everywhere. I sometimes write in the Visitors Center cafe but mostly in my room or the main house. I’ve been here for over two weeks now and have written two pieces: one a longer story set in Harbin, the other a piece of flash fiction adhering closely to the Searching for the Sun folktale. There’s so much here that I’d like to read, not only the books in the library with books by previous residents including Kiran Desai, Gary Shteyngart, and others, but also the books written by the other residents who are here with me. On the weekends so far, we’ve gotten guests from publishing houses, first Jill from Archipelago Books and this weekend, Chad and Kaija from Open Letter and the blog, Three Percent. Both these presses deal mostly with translated work since we have a fair number of translators in residence here and it’s been fascinating hearing about the process of translation and its place in publishing.

This weekend, we did a poetry reading at the Chatham bookstore, many of the works read in different languages. It was a fun gathering and included a young boy who recited a Latin “rage-vent poem” which was amazing. I read my poem, If/then, which I thought was somewhat suitable since it’s about Chinese although I wish I’d had something to read in Chinese since so many people were speaking other languages and it was just fascinating to hear.

The time has been going very quickly, despite what seem like fairly long unstructured days. I’m hoping to get several more first drafts of stories done before I go. It’s a good thing I have ~2 more weeks!

On the things you witness and the things you hear

In Chongqing, the first time, there was rain. It poured in Ciqikou where I waited on line for one bag of 麻花, those crisp braided wafer-type snacks after the girl in front of me had bought about 20, of all different flavors, her tones so different in the chongqing dialect, so flat but yet recognizable. At the end of one path there, you could look out onto a wharf and see fishermen fishing with huge nets, a field of corn beside you. It poured on the campus of the arts university (all undulating pathways and swathes of untamed greenery) and you could see frogs, smaller than the length of your pinky, hopping across the sidewalk. They are building a lightrail out there and you could see the pillars rising up, unconnected to one another. The sidewalks look new but there are cracks and depressions everywhere so that when it rains, it pools in them and creates small, deep ponds at the entrances to side streets. There was a student art exhibition going on, an end of the semester event, where you could just wander into the rooms and look at what they’d been spending all year preparing for. At the BiShan hot springs it also rained but there were pools and pools of hot water to distract you although none that were as hot as the ones in Taiwan. But they had a fish spa where small fish nibbled on the dead skin of your feet and it felt like tiny electric shocks and when a larger fish got close, you’d wave your feet around because you could feel it and what it felt like was strange. To let an animal eat at you. P1090858

It did not rain on the day I rode a bicycle up steep mountain paths, the first one a mistake that led to red mud-splattered tires but also fishermen and an art building’s construction site. The second path led to a view of Mao from above, motorcycles passing me by as I rode up and up, a stone rattling in the front wheel. It did not rain the night we took a cruise boat on the Yangtze, drinking warm cans of beer and eating the 麻花then dinner at Tiki Bar up in Hongyedong, out in the open air, across from an unfinished bridge that would connect to the cave opening next door. P1090871-copy

In CQ, we saw a man hit a woman whom we thought might be his wife, on the subway, several times, after pushing her so that the back of her head bounced off the glass. He was much bigger than her and she did not fight back. When I told this to my roommates in Hangzhou, they were not surprised, they didn’t seem to take it seriously. “That’s not uncommon.” M said. But what I wanted to convey was the magnitude of it, that it had to be uncommon to see a man hit a woman so hard that her face began to swell, that the friend that was on the subway with the man and his wife and his casual behavior (smiling, looking away) was not normal but strange. I have not, despite taking martial arts in college, ever seen someone hit someone else with that much force behind it. He was stopped, by the friend and by P. and turned away to another subway car, but it is hard to stop thinking about it. When is it appropriate to step in. What is the right sort of action to take that would diffuse such a situation. How often this happens. The woman had put her face in her hands; a girl handed her a tissue. Words were barely spoken. And she left at the same stop we did, the last stop, but she did not seem to want to go home and the man was nowhere in sight. We left her then; as observers, there was nothing we could do.P1090886

*

Back in Hangzhou, M complained to me about his new supervisor. A woman. He said, “I don’t like working under a woman.” “What if she were more qualified?” I asked. He thought and said, “I still don’t like it.” I hadn’t expected this; I’d thought he was more open-minded than that. Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me.

*

At an art happening at China Academy of Arts, we watched a painter paint ink onto a stretch of gossamer-like white fabric, influenced by the sounds of the guqin, of the cars honking on the street, of the Jew’s harp. Later, I did a reading of a story about Hangzhou, about belonging, about national pride, and about White Snake and Green Snake from the classic Hangzhou folktale. We ate early season lychee and drank chai and talked about art and I thought, why doesn’t this happen more often?

*

In my ancestral hometown, ~45 minute cab ride from the city of Fuzhou, there’s a view of the Min River that leads to the ocean and palm trees and mountains. It is so unreal to think of the place where your family comes from to be so different from the place where you have always pictured your family. Where I grew up, only the ocean is nearby and it is still a drive away, not just across the street, and there are neither palm trees or mountains and I think, how could you leave all this? But they were explorers and travelers and people who thought about bettering their station in life. So that now, 15 years after I last saw the town, no longer is there farmland spread along the side of the road, but all 2+ storey residences. Many of them are empty, including my grandmother’s house, hemmed in by other houses, and rented out to a Sichuan family who weren’t there when I visited. The smell of the wood is unmistakeable; I don’t know what type it is but it places me directly in the past, just like it did when I smelled it in Suzhou and immediately thought of long empty quiet days in my grandmother’s house. It used to be that 4000 people lived in the village but now, only about ~500. My “uncle” says that the area isn’t as safe as it used to be because so few live there, a lot of old folks with houses elsewhere, like him in the city (and overseas when he visits his sons 6 months of the year.) This is the ghost town my family comes from and I cannot go to the graves of my grandfathers because the grass has grown too fast since grave-sweeping day and there is no path up the mountain. P1100224 P1100166

But Fuzhou is a place that I cannot recognize from my summer so many years ago. It is, all at once, so much smaller (although we mostly stuck to the train station area) yet so much more interesting. I bought Tieguanyin Oolong tea while a typhoon was raging outside after we’d tried hiking a mountain in it and we haggled for clothes while getting lost on the way to the historic area of 3 lanes, 7 alleys. I bought a cow horn comb for my grandmother. We ate small Fujian-style wontons and roast duck and stir-fried noodles in the alleyway by our hotel. Everywhere I heard the dialect I grew up speaking and it was so amazingly comforting in a way that Mandarin is not, that even English is not, because this is the language I associate with home, with family chatting late into the night after I had gone to bed as a child, along with the sound of mahjong tiles being “washed” during family gatherings. I speak it less fluently than I used to because my Mandarin has superseded it but this is my native tongue, this is the language that feels most melodic to my ear. Funny how language can make familiar a place you cannot recognize. P1100325 P1100337