Tag Archives: customs

Apocalyptic inspiration

I have a story in Flame Tree Press’s new anthology, Endless Apocalypse, coming out this March so they asked us authors to tell them what inspired our stories. My story is a reprint of “Away They Go or Hurricane Season” which was first published in Acappella Zoo. Take a look!

It’ll be a beautifully-made book and I’m excited to read the other stories in it—if you’re interested, you can pre-order it here.

Since I’m currently reading Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires, weather has definitely been on my mind. It’s a fascinating read and interesting to see how much of the Midwest’s weather in the 19th century was thoroughly impacted by farmers (to their detriment!) Here in Taipei, there was incessant gloom and rain for a week (and two earthquakes) but today was so hot that I wore shorts and took a wander through the botanical garden. Rhododendrons are in bloom and suddenly everyone is selling strawberries. And tomorrow is the big lantern festival in Pingxi where waves of sky lanterns will be released—I’m sure it will be beautiful but hope it’s not too environmentally unfriendly!

Outside vs. Inside

This is not the post I thought I was going to write—that will come later, although the two are somewhat related.

In China, parents and grandparents sit outside on sunny days. Children run around, playing on the wide sidewalks, their hands grubby and sometimes, with a stray noodle on their heads. I see more babies than I see in America. During the middle of the afternoon, people play cards or chinese chess on short tables or a ledge and a crowd of strangers—men, women, construction workers, elderly folks—will stop to watch. People sleep outside on the benches, not because they are homeless but because it’s time for their afternoon nap. They sing by the canal and by West Lake, I can occasionally hear the sound of the flute from across the water. People look at me and although I wonder why [is there something that tips them off to my foreigner status?], I look back. I chat with my fruit seller about the weather, about where her fruit comes from [always within the country or Taiwan.] I don’t mind talking with strangers on the train; I probably ask too many questions of them and understand too little but it doesn’t hold me back.

But here in New York, I find my behavior changing, back to how I’d been before. Lives are not lived outdoors in the same way; there is more privacy and with it, a possessiveness of privacy. While taking a walk in a suburban neighborhood near my parents’, a man asks if I’d like a bicycle and I immediately say, No, thank you. I turn my eyes away from other people on the sidewalk, only occasionally voicing a soft hello. There are fewer people here and yet, it is as if everyone is trying to preserve their personal bubble of noncommunication. In the city, a man talks to me and it is never to engage in a conversation; there is always an ulterior motive and I think, no wonder we are so suspicious here. When I speak to other people, other women, there’s a hesitation on their part as though they are wondering what I’m after but I think there’s also a desire for conversation that is just tamped down by those suspicions, those pressures they feel put on them when a conversation is not just a conversation. I am going to try harder, I think, because I do want those little conversations that allow a glimpse into someone else’s life. I am going to be more proactive. Compliment me and I will ask you about your life. Mention the weather and I will tell you about the time the government made grape-sized hail fall from the sky. 

To the desert, part II: In Kashgar

In Kashgar, they were tearing up the sidewalks but we stayed at a hostel with an open courtyard and traditional Uyghur carvings. A dirty white puppy and kitten who ran on the rugs that covered the patio-like area where we’d sit, legs folded under the short tables. The man who slept under my bunk snored and slept in his black briefs; you could feel every motion. The pillows were buckwheat which I couldn’t stand but P. said he got the best sleep he’s had here in China. On the first day, weak with hunger and travel diarrhea (one has to be honest while traveling), we somehow thought we could walk to the livestock market. Instead, what we found were dirty 1¥ public bathrooms, a ferris wheel with streaked windows that gave us an amazing view of the city, a small open food market with chinese 快餐 (buffet style) as well as rice pilaf and lamb, a stream that separated an older part of town (with sheep!) from a bazaar that sold clothes and cake in a cup and watermelons and brooms and donkey rides. A few kids clung onto the back of an electric back; one shouted “Hello!” as they drove past and waved at us a live duckling clutched in his fist, its webbed feet sticking out underneath. 

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There was Mattock Street and demolition/construction everywhere so that kids wandered around dirt piles where adobe houses used to be. On Mattock Street, there were shops of meat hooks and iron files, sharp pointed ice picks and small pocket knives. On the street where our hostel was, located within the “old town”, were dentists with paintings above their doorways showing the teeth through a side profile of faces and a man who carved wooden instruments, beautiful stringed instruments whose name I cannot remember with carved birds on top. And he played for us, a long tune and then another before we had to leave. Copper shops as well with metal-working happening on the sidewalks. There were sheep carcasses and every day, you’d see the meat pie shops across the square from each other making their fresh meat pies of lamb and fat and a little onion, only 2rmb a piece. 

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We found babies and samsas (those lamb meat pies) wrapped in rugs, as well as the seats of motorbikes. Also, metal detectors everywhere but no one to actually watch those who set them off (they did not go off, broken maybe? No one cared.) The women here wore headscarves of various colors, tied in various ways. It is hard to tell if there is a correct way or even if they are all Uyghur; there are women who cover their entire faces in a brown veil and women who cover everything but for their makeup-darkened eyes. One night, P. got a free dessert of a sweet soaked apricot placed in sugary liquid because he’s from America. One day, we went to Afaq Khoja Mausoleum with its pointed-top coffins within and without. Within the mausoleum, they were covered with cloths. A lot of black and gold. On the outside, the mausoleum was being renovated, green tiles in neat rows at the base and scaffolding everywhere.


One of those days, a trip to Karakul Lake with our Uyghur driver, Islamjah and a Chinese tourist our hostel had found for us who asked us to call him 头灯 (headlamp) because of his bald head. I borrowed a puffy orange jacket from the hostel; they were amazed that I hadn’t come with any heavier clothing than a button-down shirt and jeans but I’d thought I was going to the desert! Little did I know how cold it got at night and how often it rains (oxymoron?) and of course, tempestuous weather near the mountains. On the way there, we talked about Uyghur marriage customs (300-500k in money to the bride, multiple wives allowed if you can support them) and the likelihood of Chinese-Uyghur marriages (mostly rich Han girls to Uyghur men because Uyghur men 很帅![very handsome]) Also, the wild marijuana of Xinjiang. Along the path, an accident where a truck carrying rocks had crashed into the side (driving too fast for the weight, brakes not strong enough.) We waited for it to clear for a few hours; we’d leave the car for a few short cold-blasted moments—it was snowing and so much colder than the city. Around us, mist-shrouded, snow-covered mountains. This was after the checkpoint where guards had checked our passports and let us through. The lake, when we arrived, was smaller than expected, sheep and yaks grazing alongside and across the road, tombs overshadowed by mountains. Kyrgyz men on motorcycles with scarves around their mouths came and tried to sell us “garnet” necklaces and bracelets from Afghanistan. I felt a headache coming on from the cold and altitude and tied my scarf around my head which got the attention of our driver who offered me 800k and free rides everywhere for marriage and American citizenship, ha. The bride-price does seem a bit high, do they actually pay that much? A bright blue sky with clouds. We didn’t have much time at the lake due to the accident but on the way back, there were red-streaked mountains and laghman and Uyghur songs in the car. Also, less conversation as we picked up a Uyghur hitchhiker who didn’t speak any Mandarin at all. 250rmb each for the day.

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Back in Kashgar, a pair of children smelled my hands then made faces and laughed. We did not hold a common language. By the mosque, a fried chicken fast food joint that was circular in shape and where we pretended to film a George Clooney film. From the windows, you could see the lone camel and ram in the square, bored and ready for photo-taking. We got lost in dusty alleyways and one dusk, children came and found us to take photos of them: all together, one by one, with a friend or two or three. One photo with three boys and a younger baby whose toy they threw to the ground so that he’d take the photo with them but you could see his longing, the way he turned his head and looked in its direction. Two girls chased after us as we walked away and when they realized it was too dark for photo-taking, turned to me and asked for first food then money. Another thing about the children here, particularly the girls: how they wear these bright dresses to school, like space princesses and their utter confidence. Gold headdresses and tiaras and uyghur caps.

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One day, two women woodworkers waved at us from a window in a newly constructed home then unbarred the door and let us in to explore. 3 levels and then the roof, one of the highest of the buildings around the area. And inside, a foyer that reached to the skylights of the roof, carved pillars surrounding every room. At night, too, stumbling into another building in the process of construction. They plugged in a rice cooker and the wire caught fire for a few minutes before they shut off all the electricity, bare-chested, laughing. The fumes were strong even with huge fans so while P. took photos, I went outside and watched the sunset, the man on his motorbike in the alleyway, his face lit by the light from his smartphone.

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What we did not see: Shipton’s arch, one of the tallest arches in the world. But there was a 25 hour sleeper train waiting to take us to Turpan.

To the desert, part I: Xi’an & Urumqi

In Xi’an, the dust that blows in through the window leaves a black film on the counter. The view is one of an office building being stripped. Down the street are food carts in the morning selling various breads and 煎饼(jian bing- a type of egg crepe), 凉皮(liang pi- cold skin noodles). A and I eat 拉面(la mian- hand-pulled noodles) and 羊肉泡沫(yang rou pao mo- a specific type of lamb stew) along with 凉菜(liang cai- cold dishes). For the 羊肉泡沫, we break the bread into little pieces in the bowl. It breaks cleanly, the crumbs don’t spill out the way white bread does. And what we get in return in soup with bread, with slices of lamb on top. Ridiculously delicious. Cucumbers in a spicy sesame oil, tofu in strips, spinach blanched and spicy. A night on 回民街 for snacks, peanut cakes, buckets and buckets of jujubes on show. Lamb 串 everywhere and the sign for biang biang noodles. We saw imperfect pearls on the street, complete with shell. Lamb dumplings and liang pi with a sesame paste poured over it and chili oil and parsley and vinegar. During the day, Big Wild Goose Pagoda with the other tourists but it’s a beautiful park. M.G. says that it used to be surrounded by desert and I cannot imagine this since it is surrounded by city; I can’t find the desert here. Another night, biking on the city walls during sunset, the sun disappearing into the haze but the lanterns sway red and bright against the gray. The bumpiness of the stones made my arms itch but the walls were empty and the riding fast (although A. and Em. on a tandem bicycle somehow managed to beat us all.) At night, there are giant portable telescopes set up on carts and pointed towards the moon, by the drum tower. At night, the swallows swoop and cry around the tower which is more brightly lit than any I’ve seen before. My last day, the terracotta warriors, starting with Pit 3, with two German study abroad students. Those occasionally headless warriors, sometimes hand-less.There is a meticulousness that goes into putting together broken pieces. There is a meticulousness to building these statues that all have differing characteristics. I am thinking about this work and how it can be satisfying, having a finished product that can look you in the face.
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After Xi’an, Urumqi where all the roads are being widened and it is not unusual to spend two hours by bus to get somewhere in the city. But during the flight, there were breathtaking mountains seen from the air. First, snow-capped then this amazingly bright green. And after, mountains streaked with coral, like a sunrise and shading down to brown. In Urumqi, the smell of grilling lamb kebabs everywhere. They speak Uyghur there, musical and emphatic. I listen to El. play the dutar and think: This is not China. It is but it feels like a wholly different country. Most of the ladies wear headscarves and there are disks of naan sold on the streets (do not step on them, do not throw them away.) There are so many rules here in Xinjiang and it’s hard to know which ones are important. And every time El. introduces me, she tells them I am American and I hear about how it is to be a white female here amongst the Uyghurs.

Urumqi is the site of several setbacks—museums that close early, library stacks that are a mess due to renovation, buses that do not exist, locked doors to lecture halls before the proposed start time, nauseau for a full day before a flight. But there are also the samsas of mutton and fat, richly caramelized ice cream heaped in a towering mound, Uyghur dancing at People’s Park, laghman with toppings of tomatoes, lamb, peppers, and onions, Turkish supermarkets with so many different types of chocolate (Albeni, Dido), 二道桥with its storefronts of raisins and knives and carpets and watermelon sold by the slice. Kvass, a fermented honey drink, with sticks of meat and vegetables cooked in oil then swiped with a spicy sauce. Baklava and talk about the role of women in Uyghur society. Yogurt thick as whipped cream sold in tubs and scooped into plastic bags. A convenience store with a million glittering chandeliers. The ornateness of the interior decoration of the fancier Uyghur restaurants. A slice of pie given to each of us by women sitting at an adjacent table who noticed us ogling their various cakes. A car publicly shamed for having a fake license. A russian dish of french fries and lamb (sausage?) Wontons of young alfafa. A friendly man and his wife who allowed me to tag along as we all searched for the way to a park with a view of the city. A man fixed the zipper of my broken bag for 4rmb and on the way to pick it up, El. and I stop to watch a man slaughter a lamb. He held its head and slit its throat as the animal kicked its bound legs; he wiped the bloody knife on its fur as its blood drained into a tub. It is not a short death. But we go home and that night, like most nights, we eat lamb because this is what there is, this is what is normal and expected.

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Scenes from the Hospital, the Cafe, and the Restaurant

Scene 1: The Hospital
The hospital is located on Wen Er and Gu Cui Lu, just past the post office and the bakery you always go to for garlic bread and milk tea. You bike there around 11am, to avoid the morning rush but before the lunch break. There are lines, yes, but they are not as long as you were led to believe. You check in, pay your 3¥ fee, walk up to the 3rd floor and by the time you find your waiting room, realize your number has already been called. Inside the office, you tell the doctor that one ear needs to be flushed out. As a sidenote, you mention that the other ear hurts. In the space of five minutes tops, you are told that your one ear is inflamed (along with a lot of words you don’t understand) and prescribed both ear drops and oral antibiotics. Then another line to pay for your doctor’s visit and the prescriptions and then downstairs to pick up the medicine. And out into the gray drizzle of the city.

Scene 2: The Cafe, Part I.
Your advisor called you the night before, asked if you wanted to meet up with him and his grad students the next morning, 9am. This is your second time meeting your professor and you’re late, because you biked, because it’s raining, because you couldn’t find the cafe hidden near the library through a maze of hallways. The room is cold but you take off your jacket, you smile as your professor introduces you the way you introduce yourself, the way your housemate told you wasn’t correct because it’s not very poetic:
双木林,舒服的舒,仪式的仪. With him are seven graduate students, most Ph.D. Candidates, all Chinese because the two Malaysian and one Korean grad student have gone home or are sick. You stumble over your introduction of your research because oh, it is always hard to explain what your status is and this whole creative writing business intertwined with folktales, with magical realism, with place. These are modern Chinese literature majors, after all. But they give you their phone numbers and emails and say, we’ll be happy to help you out anytime and you feel thankful although you’re not sure what kind of help you need and want to say, let’s just be friends? How do these things work anyway? Then your advisor starts to grill them on their theses, giving advice and although you can’t understand everything, you can tell he’s engaged, he’s interested and you think how lucky you are to have him as your advisor as he talks about the relationship of new media to literature, guides one girl’s thesis on a particular writer back under the umbrella of literature rather than the writer’s personal philosophy, and talks about Mo Yan’s work. He turns to you and asks if you can understand. You say “About 60%” but of course, it’s hard to gauge. Later, he hands you a bag with Yang Yang (that ubiquitous sheep cartoon) on it which contains one of his published books and an umbrella because it is, again, raining.

Scene 3: The Cafe, Part II.
The apartment is too cold during the day due to the lack of heating so you decide to head out to a nearby cafe. You ask your housemate, let’s call her P.F., if she’d like to join you and she says she’ll meet up with you after she goes to the bank. The cafe, 35mm is huge and clean and beautiful, with couches and lighting that isn’t too dim (a common problem with cafes here in China.) But the coffees start around 35¥ so you order a 22¥ cheesecake slice which is mediocre with a terrible crust. You take notes on the West Lake folktales you’ve been reading. P.F. comes in and you urge her to get a coffee, your treat. Once she hears that, she says no. She doesn’t want coffee after all but she’ll treat you next time. This makes no sense to you and when she leaves, without drinking anything other than the hot water provided, you feel defeated. This is a wall you always seem to run into, this problem of treating and being treated, how it seems as if it always has to be a fight. Is this because you’re a foreigner? It feels like a form of politeness from the other side but not a gesture of friendship. You can’t tell what anything means but it makes you feel as if you can never cross over that barrier of politeness—you can never reach the casualness of friendship where treating is not a big deal, where you, as the foreigner, are allowed to treat other people. You go home and you think about how it is almost Christmas and here you are, with people that you can’t quite seem to reach. And you think about the people half a world away who love you, who send you playlists of Christmas songs, and want to know how your ears are doing, and you finally realize just how hard it is going to be.

Scene 4: The Restaurant
But it is both hard and it isn’t. You, in a moment of selfishness, mention to your other housemate, M, that you’re feeling a bit down. You are terrible at keeping your feelings and thoughts hidden. He arranges a dinner on Christmas Eve because he says that he hasn’t seen his friends for a while. The restaurant is located in a hotel, decked out with cream wallpaper and cloth tablecloths. You give your housemates Santa hats which, P.F. points out, the servers are also wearing. There is crispy skinned chicken, shrimp dumplings, tofu skin in a spicy broth, sizzling beef with onions and an egg, a pile of shrimp with the heads on, donuts, and hot pumpkin juice. Afterwards, you go to an apartment/office building nearby where one apartment has been converted to a shop for drinking tea and playing board games. They have most of the board games you’ve played in the U.S. from Settlers to Dixit to Seven Wonders but the friends you’re with are not as familiar with board games. So you drink barley tea and play a game involving turtles then another one involving the year things were invented which is much more difficult than you’d think since you’re not exactly a history buff. And home by 10:30pm because others have to work on Christmas day and your friend N. is at a house party, debating whether or not to throw up on a Frenchman’s shoes, and your eyes are tired but everything is okay and you will make a chocolate chip sour cream coffee cake tomorrow or maybe the day after or the day after that.

Merry Christmas, everyone!