Super excited that my story, The Monkey King Sleeps, about climbers and the monkey king and Yangshuo has just come out in Strange Horizons! I’ve been a fan of theirs for years—they publish amazingly strange stories from speculative fiction superstars—so it’s wonderful to have a story published there (after 9 rejections, no less!) Plus they even did a podcast reading of it! You can read it here. Or listen to it here.
I’ve only recently received my contributor copies of Fairy Tale Review‘s 10th Anniversary Issue (The Emerald Issue)! It’s a Wizard of Oz-themed issue and although my story, White Snake, Green Snake is inspired by the Hangzhou folktale of 白娘子 (The Legend of White Snake) rather than the Wizard of Oz, the editors and I agree that there are some common themes. Anyway, it’s really lovely to be published in a magazine I really admire and it’s my first China story to be published! And hey, the layout is beautiful.
In other life news, it feels like maybe spring is actually coming soon so now is the time to post winter photos of NYC? Yes? Yes. Here is a ghost Manhattan, as viewed from Socrates Sculpture Park, and then a frozen Hudson River from a cold day at the Cloisters & Fort Tryon Park.
I’m definitely looking forward to spring after this snowy winter we’ve been having. So much slush and the way the wind cuts right through your pants. Instead, there will be bike riding! A writing residency in upstate NY! (Did I tell you guys this already? It’s Writers OMI at Ledig House!) Picnics & sunshine! Rock climbing maybe! Too many exclamation points!!! Winter, sorry, but I will not miss you.
In Yangshuo, a tiny town nestled into the surrounding karst mountains, near meandering rivers not far from Guilin, I stayed at a hostel outside of town, down a dirt track road that was unlit at night. I was picked up by the hostel owner, Ahlong, in a contraption that was half-wagon, half-bicycle, past the river market and out to the rice fields, sunflowers growing by the side of the building. I took a bicycle and rode miles out through the countryside, to see a mountain with the shape of a moon cut out of it, to see lotus gardens that you pay 3rmb to walk through, to eat 豆腐花, and pass a river full of bamboo rafts and mountains jutting out everywhere. On the way back, the night was lit only by the headlights of the few cars that passed by and some shining signs of restaurants. I stopped, tired and sweaty, at a small restaurant that sold only Guilin Mi Xian, a type of local rice noodle dish, with pickled vegetables and nuts that you spoon on yourself. The way back to town reminded me of the mountains of Sedona, going from one bright spot to the next, with darkness in between or of driving in Nevada, the dark spaces only broken by the bright lights of casinos. There is a darkness there that doesn’t happen in the areas of New York where I am from.
After rock climbing one day (Yangshuo is, after all, one of Asia’s climbing destinations,) my guide, Jason, took me to a restaurant specializing in clay pot dishes and a local hangout spot for climbers. There, the chef/owner, when he found out I was researching Chinese folktales, told me that if I came for dinner, he’d tell me the story of the local specialty of 啤酒鱼 or beer fish. But that night, instead, there were German climbers who told me about mysterious climbing caves with names like treasure cave and bamboo cave. The next day I rode out to the Yulong River and tried to find the caves but with the heat pounding down and my lack of water and shoddy directions, I was out of luck. An artist with my last name gave me a ride on his scooter through the adjacent town and into Yangshuo, avoiding the crowds at the river market who would get off the boats and buy the knick knacks and clothes at the stalls, back to the clay pot restaurant where I was finally told the story of the beer fish dish. A simple story (an accident of beer dropping into the wok while the fish was cooking) but nice to hear from a local.
From Guilin, I took a 25 hr train ride to Chengdu, hard seat because the sleepers had been sold out long before. It was the only train connecting the two cities and the aisles were filled with bags, with children, with adults sitting on makeshift stools. Across the aisle, a family of five, the children two boys and a girl but the girl was the center of attention, all sass as she haggled with the train crew who sold toy trains and toothbrushes. How about I buy one and you give me two free?, she asked. Later on, the women with seats would take her on their laps, take photos with her, ask her, “Do you want to come live with us?” She had that sort of charm. The man sitting next to me, on the other hand, when I asked what he had been doing in Guilin, told me, in low tones, that he was a 骗子. A scammer.
Funny that he would feel the need to confide and explain, in the face of my confusion. I didn’t quite know what kind of scam he was running but he felt the need to explain, despite the fact that those across from us could probably overhear him and that I only knew half the words he was using. What I got: some sort of internet scam that had fallen through in Guilin. Enticing young men to give girls money on QQ. He asked me if I used the internet often and I said, not really. He nodded, said, good. There’s a lot of bad stuff out there. He’s just looking out for me. But I spent the entirety of the ride cautious, as my ankles swelled a little from sitting too long, as we shuffled from the bathroom and back, as he asked me about the book I was reading (written in English) and yet, seemed to somehow miss the fact that I was a foreigner. There was little sleep and the journey took longer than it should have. I’d tried to get a last minute sleeper by queuing up and placing my name on the list but there was never one open. But in the end, nothing happened. We said goodbye and we left, so many of my questions still unanswered about what exactly he did but still, there was trust there, in the telling and in the accepting.
Sometimes, the air smells like jasmine tea and other times, it smells like sweet olive/osmanthus. My forehead is dry and my ear still itches. At Xixi wetlands, the boys and girls take photos of each other, not the birds, plucking the grasses and flowers in huge handfuls to weave them around their heads like a nest. The older ladies fish for fresh young lily pads, laying them on the wood-planked walkway to dry, their roots stringy and brown. The birds call to each other, one very particular with a rising tone that almost seems to break the human ear like a whistle that gets louder and higher. Egrets walk amongst the clumps of grass rising above the swampy water. A huge bird, I don’t know what kind, wings heavily away. And in a wooden shelter, older men with cameras that rival the size of their faces, that one big eye that clicks and clicks. At least they appreciate the birds. I get lost past the misty village (this is its name) as I walk on wooden planks through a field of tall grass. It leads to small inlets and rivers, over tiny stone bridges. The maps do not show where you are and it is only the sun that tells you east from west as it sinks lower in the sky. There is a long cement bridge, not beautiful, and forbidden to cross but I do anyway; there is no one to see. But on the other side, just a continuation of a path and I think, I should head back, un-lose myself. On the way back, a bobbing bridge of faded colored rectangles and an archery range with no one around. I walk the long way back because the park is closed and you cannot take the shortcut through the wetlands, only walk by the side of the road. Where there were carts selling cold-skin noodles (is this how it is translated?) and baked 饼 made with dried vegetables on the inside (sweet, spicy, or salty), there is only my lone bicycle, locked to the fence.
There are snakes here in these mountains, the West Lake Museum tells me another day, and other animals too. But the snakes are what is most interesting and the model of West Lake and so many of the mountains surrounding it. Mountains upon mountains, range upon range—these are the words that are used and they are not joking. Looking at it, I think: Give up your earlier goals. You can’t climb all the mountains here. You cannot even count them.
D tells me it is fashionable to be a rebel monk these days because look at Jigong. Drunk and singing all the time, eating meat, doing whatever he wanted but hey, what I remember from the 80s tv show, is his power to make noodles out of nothing. Even monks in the folktales get to do what they want (although they are sometimes said to be crazy) like kidnap new brides and use blind boys as servants. A mother and daughter from Fujian tell us, as we’re looking at a magical well and the remaining pillars of Jigong’s hall and talking about Jigong: Alcohol and meat will leave the body, but the spirit of Buddha will remain.D and I go up to the bell tower and when the monk there isn’t paying attention, I ring the bell, for the ghosts that I owe for past sins, any harms I’ve done in former lives. Its voice is deep and I think about all the bells I have not rung. If only I were like T, ringing the bells of the carillon around the world; maybe she has fewer ghosts because of this.
When M comes home drunk, he speaks in English, drawing his words out and I speak to him in Mandarin. He sits on the cold tiles of our hallway and laughs and says how they all drank baijiu, two bottles for three people. He had walked home all the way from Meijiawu. His shoes are a bright white; he washes them every time they get dirty.
The next day, he shows me photos of his year teaching English in Hunan. A place high up in the mountains, with crystal clear streams that held giant salamanders. He said of that year, that things there had meaning. Here, in Hangzhou, he feels numb. But, I say, did you enjoy teaching more then? No, he says, you don’t feel as though what you were doing mattered, especially not to the boys because they were going to stay there, they were spoiled. This is a contradiction, remind me to ask again. But there, too, were tunnels filled with water that they would walk through every day, wearing rainboots; they did not want to walk over the mountains. One girl he taught walked up thousands of steps every day to and from school. She was so tired, he told me. Most of the other kids lived in dorms at the school, one long low building, about 3 floors.
Sometimes, what I want to ask most of people is: tell me your childhood. Tell me what it was like to have grown up here in China during the 80s, 90s, before. In the cities or in the countryside. What it is to believe in ghosts or not. Witch doctors or not. Tell me about roasting corn in secret fire pits in the fields, about your dog that disappeared. Tell me about how you first came to Hangzhou and lived out in Binjiang in an alley lined with brothels for 400 kuai a month. Tell me what ambitions you have. Tell me the things that you care about. Tell me what you believe and what you believe in. I am just trying to understand.
I hiked another mountain today by wandering through the Zhejiang University’s Yuquan campus, away from the main gates until I reached a park and then a small hidden gate near some very run-down looking apartments (apparently, they are temporary dorms, according to the sign.) It’s funny that here in Hangzhou, where there are rows and rows of mountains and tea hills right inside the city, sometimes it can be difficult to find the actual pathways hidden down side streets and alleyways, behind large factories or maze-like residential complexes. It’s part of the fun though (big gates that say MOUNTAIN THIS WAY would just be too gaudy) and I admit that I enjoy the hunt almost as much as the actual climbing. Today’s hike had actually numbered every 100 steps! 700+ steps for the win! Along the way, there were very few people since it was not only a weekday but the sky looked very ominous and gray. Those whom I passed were mostly older, some wearing suits and shiny leather shoes and others wearing sneakers. One man brought three dogs, their stubby legs barely clearing the steps. The diversity of the mountain-climbing crowd this time wasn’t as great as when I was at Huangshan (see what I just did there?), where you’d see ladies in heels, a few children (especially one poor kid whom we saw hiking the western steps up which takes about 6 hours!), men in business suits (why?), as well as people who went all out on their hiking gear with hiking sticks that matched their jackets. It amazes me that people do hike in heels here, not just one inch ones but up to 3-4 inches! Especially since the stone steps that comprise most of hiking here is really hard on the balls of your feet; even with the cushioning of hiking shoes, my feet were in a lot of pain by the time I’d descended down Huangshan (黄山). But major props to the porters who carry everything up the mountains by foot, from vegetables to suitcases to bedding to humans who got tired partway through. Now, some photos.The first day was all heavy mist. The second day, ML and I woke up at 3 and hiked in the dark to the lookout point we’d decided on the night before. We huddled in the dark, the howling wind around us because we were so high up, and watched for the sky to lighten. After sunrise, there were wild monkeys (including a baby!) and the stone of Monkey Gazing at the Sea (猴子观海) and then a descent into the Western Canyon before we decided to head back up when we’d heard the other exit was closed. Then the long descent down (~6 hours.) My only regret was that I felt like I might’ve just wanted some extra time to just relax and take in the gorgeous scenery. It really does look otherworldly. So this month, I’d started reading some folktales having to do with West Lake but decided to take a break and read up on some Beijing folktales. So much of the Beijing folktales have to do with history, less with magic and transformation than some others that I’d seen from the northeastern provinces but it was really eye-opening to read more about Beijing’s history and the stories that are related to specific places such as the Forbidden City (故宫), Beihai park (北海), and the old Summer Palace (圆明园). I made a trip up to Beijing for a week and was really fascinated by the juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern & international, especially in the preserved hutong (胡同) alleyways which mixed this beautiful traditional architecture with modern bars and lots of guitar shops! I’d never been to Beijing before so the general feel of it was very surprising to me; I’d just assumed it was similar to any other modern city but obviously, I was wrong. Anyway, I ended up spending Thanksgiving in Beijing, eating a great Thanksgiving meal with the other Fulbrighters on Wednesday night and then exploring an abandoned half-built amusement park on the outskirts of Beijing called Wonderland. Really creepy but also really cool to see, what with the farms all around and just the deserted feel of it.
Thinking about it, Hangzhou is actually a lot more modern than Beijing (maybe because during the 13th century, large sections of the city were destroyed by fire several times due to overcrowding and wooden buildings and was occupied in 1856 & 1860 by the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom who caused a lot of damage. Thanks, wikipedia!) The other night, I actually wandered into the oldest street in Hangzhou, He Fang Jie 河防街 which was tourist-y but fun and right next to the only mountain in downtown Hangzhou, Wu Shan 吴山.
Hi friends! This is going to be my new blog about my adventures as a Fulbright Fellow in China. I’ll be in northern China, near Russia, in the city of Harbin for a language program starting this week (the 5th!) before heading down south in October to the beautiful city of Hangzhou to research Chinese folktales and myths that are connected to particular places around southern China. I’m interested in stories about ghosts, demons, transformations, mountains, superstitions, talking animals, rice terraces, and of course, anything involving dragons! Later on in the grant, I’ll be writing short stories inspired by these folktales and the landscape of China. If you’ve heard of any Chinese folktales or have reading suggestions, let me know!
Also: This blog is not an official Department of State website. The views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.