Tag Archives: Hangzhou

Autumn Nostalgia

New York City is not silent but it feels so without the rising and falling cadence of the cicadas. The air is not filled with smog on certain days and there are no mountains to see, just skyscrapers in Manhattan or rows of duplexes in Queens or maybe the brownstones in Brooklyn. On a cool day, I wonder if I bicycled during the autumn two years ago but then remember how hot and humid it was in Hangzhou when I arrived, sweat dripping down my back and chest as I biked around the city. Did I bike during the winter then? When the woven mats were strewn on the snow-covered sidewalks? It’s hard to believe it has been a year since I’ve left and it both feels too long and too short like my mind and time cannot reach an agreement.

It feels odd to miss the cicadas, so loud and so annoying when I was there. But less odd to miss the beauty of West Lake and the ease of bicycling, the mountains so close to where I lived. Less odd to miss the street food and think about grilled eggplant covered in chili oil, garlic, and small bits of ground pork and the pan-fried dumplings made every morning by a lady with a tiny dingy storefront on Lianhua Jie . To remember the night we stayed up, walking home from the nightclub during the wee hours of the morning and coming upon a small gathering of food carts where we sat and chatted until the sun rose at 6am. And how two Mid-Autumn Festivals ago, I sent a fire lantern up into the sky with classmates in Harbin, on the banks of the Songhua Jiang, and had Pizza Hut for dinner.

I know I’m late but中秋节快乐!
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White Snake, Green Snake in Fairy Tale Review

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. P1110468

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.P1110448 P1110458

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.

This is not a goodbye

In 36 hours, I will be back in New York, after almost 14 months living in China. I can’t really explain adequately this entire Fulbright experience so I won’t.

But here are some of the things I will miss about Hangzhou: The smell of the air during fall, all sweet from the trees and flowers. My local fruit sellers who always explained to me where each fruit was from and what the differences were when I asked; they have already moved on and their shop is empty with blank white shelves now. The two brothels I’d pass on 丰潭路that also seem to have closed; no more bored prostitutes watching tv but I will remember how cold they looked during the winter with jackets on but long legs bared. My favorite northeastern style dumplings place where I’d order a sichuan dish of double-cooked pork, full of garlic greens and thick cut pork belly, for 13rmb and the man with the lazy eye would take my money while the older lady would ask me if I was a translator since I always seemed to come with foreigners. Bicycle rides to places off my Hangzhou map, into the suburbs with tiny alleyways of restaurants and stalls. The canal by my complex which releases mosquitoes all summer and reflects the red light of the psychology hospital’s sign at night. The mountain path, up and down stone steps for kilometers and kilometers, nowhere to buy water along the way and very few other hikers, from Lao He Shan, past Lingyin and Beigaofeng, and south and south and south to those mountains I have not yet been to. M, in those early days, when we would sit on the couch together and he would show me movies and answer my questions and we’d talk about the strangeness of relationships in China. The pepper-filled rou jia mo from my local Qinghai hand-pulled noodles place, cumin seeds all over and the bun grilled in oil so that it crunches in your mouth. The Grandma’s’ tea-smoked chicken and those razor clam noodles that have no razor clams, just glass noodles and egg and beansprouts and scallions. Having my own bay windows and bathroom in the best apartment I’ve ever had, complete with views of the mountains and the neighboring building’s trellis of vines. Late night stalls on the street corners for noodles or rice stir-fried with an egg and greens for 7rmb or some grilled meat or veggies on sticks. The fuzhuangcheng (clothing city) that I just discovered today. All the delicious egg tarts, crisp and buttery and flaky. My roommates, Sunnie and P.F. and M, who will all be moving to different apartments and maybe even moving to a different city.

I’ll still be updating this blog especially since I haven’t quite caught up with previous travels and stories yet and I’ll be continuing on with my project. But I’ve packed my bags (1 checked bag, 1 carry-on, 1 backpack) and somehow managed to squeeze everything into smaller bags than I came with. My room is the neatest it’s been in ages. I’ve walked around West Lake and seen the Baochu Tower one last time (there’s construction going on, I wonder what these mountain paths will look like this time next year. Things change so quickly here) and through a bamboo forest. I’ve taken my last bus, paying for it in coins rather than my bus card. This is it. I’ll see you sometime in the future, Hangzhou. China, I’ll definitely be coming back. P1090941

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

Of birds and monks and what we tell of ourselves

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. P1080853I 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 made with dried vegetables on the inside (sweet, spicy, or salty), there is only my lone bicycle, locked to the fence.P1080864

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.

*

P1080883D 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.

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!

On mountains & hiking

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! P1060133 P1060141 P1060151 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. P1050326 P1050341 P1050372 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) 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.)P1050384 P1050399 P1050435 P1050473 P1050508 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.
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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. P1060095 P1060099 P1060102 P1060084