Tag Archives: language

Hiking season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview for Fairy Tale Review

The new prose editor of Fairy Tale Review asked me to answer a few question so here’s a short interview I did for their website where I talk a little about language and an excerpt from White Snake, Green Snake which was published in the Emerald issue. Thanks, Fairy Tale Review!
In terms of other arts news, I’ve been working on a few new stories and experimenting a little bit with micro fiction. Micro fiction is like a puzzle–how does one fit a full story into 100 words? It’s pretty fun, though. I should also be editing some of my older work since I have an editor now (thanks, The Center for Fiction!) but you know, those pesky holidays sometimes get in the way. I recently went to see Pocatello at Playwrights Horizons which I thought was really well-written and funny and sad; I’d had no expectations going in but it was pretty great (plus I saw the MacArthur genius playwright going into the theater!) Oh and hey, I’ll be at The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Fete and Annual Awards Dinner, masquerading as a fancy person who goes to things like that. Being a fellow=awesome.

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

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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.

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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?

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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