I’ve got a story out about cactus called “Cacti Prickle” in the newest issue of Bennington Review! Inspired by a particular object I saw at a bakery in Seoul, it’s a short piece about the places we go and how we change. Bennington Review publishes tons of amazing poetry, nonfiction, and fiction so check it out! http://www.benningtonreview.org/current-issue-7
Where I am in Wyoming, shade is in short supply. Red boxelder bugs fly against the windows, trying to get in, and small garter snakes sun themselves near the barn. An abrupt transition for me, from backpacking the evergreen-covered Cascade Mountains in Washington with Signal Fire to these arid hills of Wyoming. From carrying 30+ lbs of tent/food/sleeping bag/etc. and sleeping on the ground to the luxurious surroundings of a remote house on a cattle ranch where the nearest town is over 18 miles away. But the backcountry has prepared me for less time on the internet, no cell phone reception, no interaction with anyone other than those who live with me. Reading and hiking or running take up most of the day. I’ve only just started getting back into my writing, but I love the story I’m working on. Natural distractions abound: the cows mooing in the hills, a bobcat walking over a bridge, tubing on the creek, antelope and white-tailed deer leaping across the pasture, hail banging down on the roof, hawks on the wing.
Backpacking with Signal Fire was amazing though—the people, the conversations, the difference in flora and fauna we saw between the North and Middle Cascades. Deep play, learning how to tell between a cedar and a hemlock, how ponderosa pines smell of vanilla, eating huckleberries and elderberries, drinking mugwort tea to help your dreams, eating foraged chanterelles, hearing about everyone’s art practices that ranged from performance and interdisciplinary work to botanical illustration to poetry and sculpture. Learning to make a bear hang, to cook over a tiny propane tank, to dig holes in a forest floor that was mostly made up of moss grown over fallen tree trunks. Reading about the interconnectedness of nature and trophic cascades: salmon with bears and eagles and forests and whales, wolves with deer and elk and aspens. One day, a 12-mile hike to a beautiful turquoise lake and back, several creek crossings along the way that required footlogs and good balance. Mushrooms of all different shapes and colors everywhere. The grouse, the marmots, the trout, the hawks. Time ran both quickly and slowly—quickly when we were trying to get everything done before dark (the tent setup, bear hang, dinner), slowly when it rained or while hiking. I already miss the inspiring artists I was with, and feel so grateful for the guidance and knowledge from Tarp and Blanca—a week felt too short.
Two weeks away from NYC and what a gift it’s been already. So thankful for those at Signal Fire and Jentel, as well as WJ, one of my oldest childhood friends, for hosting, backpacking equipment, and conversation that ranged in topics both large and small.
For anyone in the northern Wyoming area, all the residents will be participating in a free and open to the public event at SAGE Community Arts in Sheridan, Wyoming on October 1st. Come by and hear/see what we’ve been up to!
My second day in the Rockaways dawned clear, with bright blue skies scattered with clouds. Taking a bus to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, we found tree swallows in the dozens swooping around in the wind. The views were across marsh and water, and we learned the odd creaking song made by the red-winged blackbird. Below, my list of the birds I saw here:
There were a few tourists from out of the country, which I found interesting, but it was a gorgeous day to be out. At the visitors center, a woman imitated a bird call for help from a staff member on identifying it. As she sang, his eyes caught mine, a slight grin on his face. He, of course, could not identify the bird she was imitating. What poor voices we humans have. Later, lunch at The Restaurant, a local diner, and a gorgeous sunset across from JFK, where a few locals were fishing. The texture of the beaches there, with skeins of dried saltmarsh cordgrass lining the sand; they’ll sink just a little beneath your feet.
The next day, it began to rain again but I still made my way down to the beach where a number of surfers were battling the swells. In even larger numbers were sanderlings–I love the motion of them, the push and pull of their movements with the waves. Their marks like the sketch of labryinths in the sand. There, there were also a few piping plovers whose tan feathers blended in with the beach, and a few American oystercatchers with their high-pitched calls and thin, bright orange beaks.
I’m calling the photo above “The American Dream.” 😉
It was an amazing, relaxing retreat at beach64 that I sorely needed. I’m rethinking the story I’m working on, the focus of the narrator and the nature of what she’s battling; the role of the birds will probably play an even larger role, as well as the mythic underpinnings of the story. Reading I’ve been inspired by lately are Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and Jon Young’s What the Robin Knows, as well as Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread. I only wish I could’ve stayed longer!
First off, I wanted to let everyone know that my story, A Flock, A Siege, A Murmuration won a Pushcart Prize! I’m really honored to have been nominated by Bennington Review and excited that the Pushcart Prize committee chose it to receive a prize! You can read it online here or buy a print copy of either the Bennington Review issue or the Pushcart Prize anthology coming out this autumn.
A lot of changes these past few months—writing up presentations on pigeon racing and finishing up classes in Taipei, snorkeling and rock climbing (Taipei rock gyms are HARD but the people are crazy nice), traveling and researching in China on a series of islands, visiting relatives, and catching up with L—but now I’m back in New York and finally settling back in. It has been less than a month but my life in Asia already feels somewhat dreamlike, especially since I never have to speak Mandarin here. But I miss my sweet potato guy and my pigeon-keeping neighbors and the mountains and plants and birds there.
I’ve just started writing again, though, and it brings the places I’ve been back to life for me. I’m really excited about what I’m currently working on even though I’m not quite sure where it will go. It’ll have crabs and windmills and the green sea in it for sure though.
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 😉
Just a whole bunch of photos from my vacation in Vietnam…
First, of course, there’s the Citadel. Right across the river from where I was staying, where the last emperors lived. Reminded me of the Forbidden City (and was modeled after it) but there are areas of ruins, destroyed during the war.
I rented a bicycle one day in Hue and biked out of the city to this abandoned water park, Ho Thuy Tien. Quite eerie, especially alone. I started on the far end of the park where it was only myself and a few cows. Standing inside the dragon, I could watch other tourists approaching, including one Vietnamese family. There’s a “guard” at the front gate but there’s also a back route.
I did like the countryside best, where you can ride on a bike past paddies with egrets and water buffalo, a temple jutting up here and there. Someone told me that the dead in Vietnam get better houses than the living—the shrines and temples are incredible. This one is a simple family shrine, I think.
Ho Chi Minh:
More flowers being sold for the new year. I did spend some time with some flower sellers, cousins of a host, who had brought the flowers up from the Mekong. They had plenty of flowers a few days before Tet but expected to sell them all.
My favorite dessert, found on the backpacker street (Bui Vien). Silky tofu with ginger syrup, tapioca pearls, and sweetened condensed milk. Doesn’t look like much but it’s delicious and cheap at 7000 VND.
I ate at a lot of sidewalk vendors including this one. Grilled chicken with broken rice. The stools are tiny! I like the banh mi carts with their windows piled high with baguettes but I have to say that I prefer grilled fillings, rather than the cold cuts.
I took a couple of public buses to the more authentic Cu Chi tunnel area, Ben Duoc. Not hard to do at all and at the Cu Chi bus station, vendors like this guy would come onto the bus and sell snacks, sandwiches, and drinks. I have no idea what he’s selling though. Below, just a hidden entrance to the tunnels…I had to take off my backpack so I could squeeze in!
Mekong Delta (Can Tho):
Although Can Tho is the largest city in the Mekong delta, because I spent part of my time in the countryside, it felt quite easy to escape it. Really easy to bike around on paths surrounded by banana trees and cross over the various creeks on thin bridges. Some were pristine but I saw one that was covered with garbage, yet a woman was still washing her clothes in it. The mosquitos are vicious. The bananas are tiny and plump with thin skins and incredibly sweet—one of my hosts picked some from a tree outside. Makeshift docks everywhere. Lovely to explore but so hot during the afternoon that all you can do is nap. And because of Tet, no floating markets. I’m sure it was quieter than usual with a lot of stores shuttered but there were definitely still vendors around and some restaurants open. And plenty of people enjoying the flower street and night markets.
Burning trash. Unfortunately, this was fairly common around many of the places I went to in Vietnam and would actually make it rather difficult to breathe. On the Hai Van pass between Hue and Hoi An, I’d asked the tour guide whether the air was misty due to actual mist or pollution. His response had been that central Vietnam doesn’t really have factories so it was mist but I’m not so sure. There are tons of motorcycles and random fires burning (completely untended!) which would maybe contribute to some obvious air pollution.
It was a lot of traveling but I’m glad to be back, even if I’m greeted here by an earthquake (I woke up and felt my bed shaking) and perpetual rain. Hoping the rain lets up soon since the gloom makes me very unproductive!
Firstly, my story Wonderland is in the last issue of Day One! It was inspired by a trip to an abandoned amusement park on the outskirts of Beijing that I went to one fateful Thanksgiving several years ago. You can read it here.
Right before the new year began, right after taking my midterms, I took a quick jaunt down to Taroko Gorge on the eastern side of Taiwan with ijl. I’d actually been before, about 5 years ago. Beautiful, of course, with its marble gorges and that clear blue water, but I’d forgotten how short the hikes were and how they peter out. This time the Baiyang trail was closed but the Shakadang trail was fully open–we dipped our hands in the water and watched tadpoles swim in a shallow pool on top of one of the giant boulders. We used our easycards to board the 302 bus which was much less crowded than the Taroko Gorge shuttle and cheaper too. We stayed near the national park itself, in Xincheng, which doesn’t have too much going for it, but we did end up stopping by the beach just to see the Pacific Ocean from this side.
We watched the fireworks from Taipei 101 from my roof. It didn’t last long so it was nice not to have to brave the crowds for a view. In the alley below, one of the small shop owners shot up some fireworks, their whistles screeching into the air, the colors blooming directly overhead.
I didn’t read enough in 2017 but there were some gems. I just recommended Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing to my Chinese teacher actually! Here’s my list:
1. A Thread of Sky- Deanna Fei
2. Sweetbitter- Stephanie Danzer
3. The Girls- Emma Cline
4. When Watched- Leopoldine Core
5. A Chemical Wedding- Christian Rosencreutz (Small Beer Press & John Crowley’s version)
6. The Vegetarian- Han Kang
7. Do Not Say We Have Nothing- Madeleine Thien
8. Soft Split- Szilvia Molnar
9. Four Books- Yan Lianke
10. Lincoln in the Bardo- George Saunders
11. Notes from a Small Island- Bill Bryson (NF)
12. In A Sunburned Country- Bill Bryson (NF)
13. The Wangs Vs. The World- Jade Chang
14. The Blue Sword- Robin McKinley (re-read)
15. The Paper Menagerie- Ken Liu
16. Monkey Business, issue 4
17. Upright Beasts- Lincoln Michel
18. The Refugees- Viet Thanh Nguyen
19. Isadora- Amelia Gray
20. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia- Mohsin Hamid
21. The Great Passage- Shion Miura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
22. Goodbye, Vitamin- Rachel Khong
23. In the Country- Mia Alvar
24. POC Take Over Fantastic Stories of the Imagination- edited by Nisi Shawl
25. Journey to the Centre of the Earth- Jules Verne
26. Butterflies in November- Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
27. The Leavers- Lisa Ko
28. Dreaming in Chinese- Debra Fallow (NF)
29. Alternative Remedies for Loss- Joanna Cantor
30. Fast Food Fiction Delivery- edited by Noelle Q. de Jesus & Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta
31. Chemistry- Weike Wang
32. Pachinko- Min Jin Lee
33. Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century- Richard McGregor (NF)
34. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate- Peter Wohlleben (NF)
A few last images to remember Seoul by:
Currently in Taipei now where it started out hot and humid but has been raining practically nonstop for a week. But it’s so different here from Seoul and China; I’m still getting used to it all.
In Shanghai, even the small stands that make breakfast on the street take mobile payment. What a change from the last time I was there, in early 2016; I feel old-fashioned paying with cash for my 1.5 rmb 油条 breakfast. There are tons of orange and yellow bicycles (two different companies) parked helter-skelter because there’s no need for docking stations—if you’ve got a phone and a data plan, you’re good to go. I’ve got a phone but no data so I walk, but it’s nice to see so many people cycling even if the bicycles take up most of the sidewalk.
One day during my short visit, early in the morning, I saw regular folks lined up to enter a huge mansion across the street from where L lives. Must be something cool going on, I thought. We looked it up: A restoration of a 1900s garden villa by Prada that used to be owned by an entrepreneur of textiles named Rong Zhai. We went early in the morning on a weekend—the wait time quoted was about 1.5 to 2 hours but we waited about 50 minutes before we could get in. The Art Deco stained glass were incredible—I loved the ships. It was interesting to note the difference between old and new though. The layout of the building was fascinating, with stairs everywhere, even on the same landing. Also, apparently Prada’s next season involves a lot of knee-high sports socks with dress shoes so get ready!
Another day, I went to a talk at NYU Shanghai by the historian Valerie Deacon who was researching British and American air crew and their evasion training during WWII in case they were shot down over Germany-controlled France. The British were told to remember the correct side of the street to walk/bike/drive on; the Americans were told not to chew bubble gum. It’s funny to think that would be the giveaway for an American! Also, the training manual told them to get a bike if possible even though they’re rare but don’t steal them since that’d draw attention, ha. I’d love to read her research once she’s done but she’s only just starting this new project.
Besides that, it was all walking around old neighborhoods and seeing how they’d changed and eating a lot of great food like Chongqing style grilled fish. One area by Suzhou creek had a new development but plastered on the windows were posters decrying the developer/landlord as scammers. It’s sad that it’s not more uncommon. And my favorite little residential area in the middle of a bunch of demolished areas near Laoximen seems to be gone. I’d made a video of the area before and intended to do something with it—I still hope to. And I took a photo of G taking photos of hardware.
Today is Pepero Day here in South Korea. I have no one to exchange pepero sticks with so I guess I won’t become taller or thinner. (I think you have to exchange them? But I obviously don’t know anything about besides seeing the displays in front of all the convenience stores!) I did go to the Hongdae Free Market today to see what local artists are making. Pretty jewelry and cards and fabrics, mostly. Two portrait artists—one a more detailed anime style, the other more caricature-esque.
The other week I wandered around by Gyeogbokgung and passed by several different fairs/markets on the way to the Seoul Museum of Art. And managed to catch the changing of the guard at one of the smaller palaces, Deoksugung. Oh and I saw this butcher and his humongous side of cow.
Also, can I say that Korean-Chinese food is a whole different animal from Chinese food or Chinese-American food? It’s completely unrecognizable to me! Not bad, just different, like this version of jajangmyeon (noodles in black bean sauce). And I love these little crispy fish pastry snacks. And the freshly fried donuts…
Black squirrels, white-chested with tall tufted ears, bury nuts in the wooded area outside my window. Korean magpies fly by, their magnificent plumage flashing; they seem so large with those long tails and white-edged wings. It’s quiet during the day here—I haven’t met a single other resident. At night, the gurgle of my mini fridge combats the silence but my night is short anyway; the jet lag wakes me up at 3 or 4 am, no matter what time I fall asleep.
The city itself is hilly, with streets that steeply lead up into little hilltop parks complete with exercise machines and badminton courts. Growing up in mostly flat areas, my maps app keeps surprising me by leading me up these steep hills—it’ll seem like a short walk but with that topography, a short walk can get tiring! Fruit trees are everywhere, especially where I am in Yeonhui-dong, known for upper-class residents and former presidents (including a military dictator). Lots of cafes around and Chinese restaurants although the prices are higher than I’m used to. Seoul seems greener than New York City, with older, larger trees shading some of blocks and flowers blooming from front doors. One building I passed had rows upon rows of plants and a lovely view since it was built on the hillside. I’d also forgotten about the huge residential communities in Asia, how one can get lost amidst thirty-floor apartment buildings tangled with greenery and winding paths. At least my artist residency complex is smaller, built on a little hill but wooded enough to invite all sorts of birds and those squirrels. We have the friendliest dog here, all fluffy pointed ears and stumpy legs. His name sounds something like Talim, but I’m not sure.
I’d also forgotten how difficult it can be to eat here, as an illiterate foreigner eating alone. Many restaurants that have their own burners or grills (korean bbq, pork and potato stew in the huge pots, etc) require at least two people. And fried chicken is also sold mostly as a whole chicken so maybe I’ll try it for take-out sometime and save the leftovers. It’s been an adventure figuring things out—a lot of cold or room-temperature food (kimbap/spicy buckwheat noodles) or hot soups. I find myself craving more salt and fat though so maybe the food is too healthy for my American lifestyle…Groceries, from what I can tell, seem to be more expensive than in the States with my thirty eggs costing 5,000 won (~$5) and bags of rice at $5/kilo and up in the supermarkets. I did find a discount imported snacks store in Hongdae, the university area by Hongik University, though—the snacks are ones that are close to expiration so they’re cheaper than usual. Like Tim Tams!
I’ve done a little bit of exploring and walking around, usually after spending the morning and afternoon working. I also had an eye consultation at one of the big eye clinics (BGN) in Gangnam (where there’s a Shake Shack!) which was very fancy and professional with a range of tests testing cornea thickness, pupil size, astigmatism, and so on for laser eye surgery. Afterwards, I’d walked over the bridge from Gangnam to Itaewon and gotten this lovely view, which I’ll leave you with.