Stupid Foreigner


“Vote! For the love of god, vote!” my Facebook feed screamed, hours after the First Presidential Debate between Trump and Clinton.

Funny thing about being an expat: I already have. Absentees were sent ballots weeks ago, meaning that from now until the election, we can select our candidates and mail it in. (Funny side note: for all absentees, an “envelope” is included, by which I mean origami instructions for a not-quite rectangular glob, THANKS AMERICA). Still, it hasn’t stopped me from tuning into debates and facepalming my way into a red forehead.

It’s a different experience being in China during a very divisive election season, not only because expats and Chinese alike always ask for an analysis and bullet-pointed list of why the world is and why why why, but also because after debates like this, I have to wait that 12-hour gap to really see the articles and thoughts churn out. On one side of the world, my friends were having drinking games for how many times Trump said “China.” As for me, I drank coffee in China, trying to wash out the aftertaste of Trump shouting “WRONG WRONG WRONG” as I packed up my bag and headed to class.

In a way, it makes the issues seem very far away. In another, very very close at hand.

Way over here in a stuffy classroom on the fifth floor, I listened as my aesthetics professor told us, “Some women just look like moms,” and said, “Islam is a very terrible religion because of all the prayers. Too many! What kind of idiot needs to pray that much?” and “What is beauty? Well, many women are beautiful…you know, the younger ones” and then the one that sticks out to me most from the previous week, after I told him who my advisor was: “Well, be careful not to end up in his bed.” (Which he then repeated in English just to make sure I understood the crass joke).

He’s an older man with a crass sense of humor, who tells it straight, as many students say with fawning adoration. He has a mole in the middle of his forehead, and eyebrows that stick out like tips of prairie grass. He also has a penchant for rambling for a long period of time, usually after 1) telling students that they need to talk more, and 2) telling presenters to talk less to keep track of time. Like any philosophy professor, he asks big (albeit cliche) questions like “What IS aesthetics? What IS beauty?” and while I tried to pay attention today, in my mind he was upstaged by the soft breeze that ruffled my hair as I thought to myself “my god, beauty can be so simple.”

Today, during one of his rants, he asked me “Do you know [Chinese name of Western person I can’t recognize]?” I responded “I’m not sure, because I don’t recognize the Chinese name.” He said “How can you not know them? They’re famous!” He said it again, and I shook my head. His response: “You don’t know anything. You don’t read enough books, and are another witless millennial.” (Later when I looked up the mysterious person, I found it to be “Jane Goodall”).

Let’s pay attention to that one word: witless (or, the more commonly-used cousin: stupid).

I hear that word being thrown around a lot, especially in election season. While sometimes it’s said jokingly between friends or families, and sometimes it’s said in direct response to something admittedly silly that someone has done, more and more it’s become the response when one is not willing to consider another person’s situation. You like Trump? You’re stupid. You trust Clinton? Dumb. You cut in front of me in the checkout line? Idiotic. Or, in my case: You did not know this one thing? You’re useless!

“Stupid” is such a lazy argument. It cheapens our interactions in the world, and prevents us from actually taking the time to understand others. It especially draws lines between people, which I think we can all agree, has not been helpful when it comes to unifying broken people.

I think we owe it to our jumbled, multi-faceted, contradictory world, to give every person we meet the benefit of our imaginations. Let us think about the potential secret lives others have, rather than pin a probable one on them. Maybe they won’t seem so stupid in the end. Maybe that slack-jawed foreigner in the class just didn’t understand one key vocabulary word (not that I’m bitter or anything).

The world will be all the richer for our efforts, because it will not be the grand-sweeping political promises that bash us around every election season with the empty “I’m for the common man” promise coming from gilded lips, but a more personal story born on the words we choose to shape our communities around.

I’ll keep tuning into the debates, though I’ve already voted, and will keep flailing my way through classes I don’t understand. It’s stupid, perhaps.

But then again, you won’t know until you ask.




Eight Laps Under the Harvest Moon

I saw a flash of it as I cruised down the street, a bulbous shock of orange, slung over the twinkling blue-grey tower in the Hangzhou skyline. Cratered, dimpled, yet fine all the same, the Harvest Moon was enough to stop me mid-pedal.

I live in moon country, a civilization wrought with traditions related to the moon, or admiring the moon. The Mid-Autumn festival had just passed, in which, among other food-related things, people gather to look at the moon and think about their homes.

I wasn’t thinking about my home, at least not that night when I saw the Harvest Moon’s gleam. I was on my way to the campus track to run eight laps (a way to justify a recent acquisition of a brownie cake). Eight, I thought. A fine number. Like a sideways infinity sign, running circles, over and over until the circles ran out. Perhaps it’s a subconscious way of mimicking that moon in the sky — forever caught in cycles and swirls, time repeating and yet changing all the same.

Last year, when I first began this graduate program, I felt like a woman caught between two worlds. I thought about my home a lot last Mid-Autumn festival, and in the year that followed, bumbled my way through mis-translations, different classroom rules, and the rapid-fire Chinese that, at times, felt like gibberish in a blender. Like the moon, time just kept going, days rising and then falling, then cycling back once more. And I now keep running those sideways infinity signs until the sun comes up and I’m off again.

No, I wasn’t thinking about home this time. I was thinking about that moon though, and all the other moons I’d experienced, and how with each moon, something is different. What can I say? I decided to dance the moon. It ducked behind gauzy-black clouds, until all that remained was gilded cumulus. It peeked out, a single sliver, then swished its cape and disappeared. I had six laps, four laps, two, one, circling its silver beams as it leaped out from between cloudbursts.

For once, I do not think about home when I see the Harvest Moon, perhaps because home is wherever you make yourself dance. So I danced, while running my sideways infinity, and I hope I keep dancing, all through this year.

Happy Fall to all those under the moon.

G20 Promotional Videos

I’ve mentioned that, leading up to the G20 summit in Hangzhou, there was a veritable deluge of promotional material. I got to reap the benefits (as I wrote about in this post), but I feel it’s my civic duty to show, if not Hangzhou’s best side, then its most entertaining.

Without further ado, here are arguably two of the best (and by ‘best’ I mean ‘hilariously bad’ promotional videos for the summit.


“G20: Hangzhou to the Rescue!”

(Link to video: here)

This is a very special kind of video, because it not only follows the Hollywood trend of making relatively dull or concise stories into long, drawn-out epic battles, but also manages to do it in a way that almost completely evades plot. It begins, of course, with a tsunami wave meant to represent the recent economic slump. All of the world leaders are feeling hopeless, when out of the chaos…it’s China! China rides in on a Batman-esque motorcycle, while the other leaders stand in formation.

Obviously, China is personified as a Shanghai noir crime-fighter. In case you ever get confused, though, he’s wearing the Chinese flag on his shoulder. The video pans into the meeting room, and the Chinese delegate starts giving his rousing speech, which goes something like: “Monopolize. Pass on. None of the above! The golden rule is cooperation for a win-win situation!” (Eat your heart out, Henry V).

The rest of the video is the Chinese man leaping across landmarks in Hangzhou, and making martial arts poses while the other leaders…convene.

It makes you have to wonder: What exactly was the goal of this video? It’s as if the creators both wanted to make the country seem badass, but also didn’t spend the extra time to think of a better plot. I mean, these big meeting are important, sure. But it’s the kind of situation in which the climactic moment for the crusading hero is…sitting in a chair for a long meeting.

Not exactly the stuff of legends. Still, aren’t we glad this thing exists?


“Come Hangzhou”

(Link to video: here and here)

Now, this style has been used before for Chinese propaganda aimed at non-Chinese (such as with the “13-5” video you can watch here), and for whatever reason, the creators still feel that this jingo animation style is a keeper. So, they used the same format. Yes, you read that right: this promotional video for Hangzhou is a copy of China’s own promotional video about its 5-year plans. That just takes balls to copy your own low-quality video.

Perhaps this video could have been passable, but as you’ll quickly discover, the song will make you want to throw yourself out of a window.

First of all, there’s the fact that the singers are trying to speak in rhythm, as if it’s a kind of rap. It’s bad enough that they’re trying to rap in English, but the worst part is that the beats don’t really work together. (Like “the West…Lake” and “Aliba…ba”). The rhymes are off, the rhythm is a total mess, and you think to yourself: Why, dear god, am I still watching this?

That’s when the video decides to give you more.

“Hangzhou! Come Hangzhou, the G20 City. Say G20, come to Hangzhou, ‘cuz Hangzhou’s got it all…”

I mean, to their credit, it’s very much to the point: COME TO HANGZHOU. The only problem is that half the time, they don’t even say “Come to Hangzhou”and instead say “Come Hangzhou” which is just wrong.

Are you convinced? Will you COME HANGZHOU? Or will the city have to just keep pumping out more videos?

For my own entertainment, I’m hoping for the latter.


I survived the G20

Unlike many people in Hangzhou, I decided not to travel during the G20. It’s true: a lot was closed. And yet, despite all of the doomsday rumors spreading before the summit, I survived.

Here’s the ongoing log I kept while the world had its eyes on Hangzhou.

September 2
Log one:
The streets are so quiet, I can hear crickets chirping. A man on Baochu Lu claps his hands while walking, and the sound echoes for a while. Welcome to Hangzhou.

Log two:
I have made the journey to West Lake. If barricades keep going up, it may be my last in the days to come. The lake is peaceful, with fish jumping and birds fluttering on the branches. Who knew?


September 3
Log three:
Upon discovering wai mai options dwindling, I have stocked up on provisions for the days ahead. I do not know what meals may come. Should I resort to drastic measures, I may be discovered groveling outside the Family Mart upon the summit’s conclusion.

Log four:
I sit on steps by the Marriott Hotel, eating ice cream. Suddenly, movement. Tianmushan gets blocked and as I move to the road…I see Obama’s limo (not pictured)! Welcome to HZ, Mr. President!

September 4
Log five:
I and others that have lingered here reap the benefits of fine weather. And yet on all our faces is a sense of confusion as though we are lost tumbleweed. Much like the passing clouds overhead, however, the feeling does not last.


Log six:
Outside the leaders meet. Inside, I and a fellow international student make a very global dish: Japanese curry with Malaysian coconut powder, Chinese veggies and Italian noodles. This is my kind of international meeting.

Log seven:
Despite rumors, Tianmushan Rd is not totally blocked and so I make the journey to West Lake. I am turned away at security for not having the special permit. Tonight, like everyone else, I shall watch what happens in this city on tv.


Log eight:
Inside, I watch international media film the evening gala. From outside, I can hear the boom and thunder of fireworks. Very lively!

September 5
Log nine:
People outside of HZ are asking me what it’s like from the inside. Many questions begin with “Is it true that…” Sometimes the line between truth and fiction is so thin, I barely even want to draw it.

Log ten:
The summit comes to a close. I and a friend skirt West Lake and find lights at Wulin Men in the quiet night, traipsing the canal alongside uncoiled ripples. Safe travels to my friends, and see you back in the ‘Zhou.

September 6 
FINAL LOG: Pictures of a Crowded Train Station, a new artistic series, has been filling my feed. Supermarkets have their own barricades: delivery trucks restocking shelves. Restaurants begin reopening, and watered-down menus for the slow trickle of customers are put away for the thicker ones. Cars return, as does the chug of traffic. “My god, how dull it must have been to stay in HZ!” Please. I rather enjoyed being a specter in this spectator sport of G20.

Nothing gold ever stays. Sighhh goodbye, quiet city.


Zhejiang’s Ancient Villages: Why Me?

In my previous post, I included a link for a video that I got to film with a Zhejiang TV station around the province. The end product captures the range and human stories in each village, but many people have been asking me: How did this come about? What exactly was it for?

As many know, the G20 came to Hangzhou, and the city did a lot to prepare for it. On top of security measures, Hangzhou has also been striving to improve its tourism industry, as well as promote its local heritage and prestige in the line of Chinese history. I was in a promotional video for Hangzhou in June (which my friend wrote about in her blog here). I also won an essay contest (link here for full essay), and ended up in a short video called “48 Hours” in which the host led expats to different travel locations.

Shot of me answering a question I may or may not have understood on “48 Hours.”

The thing about Hangzhou is that the expat community is relatively small, and so when photographers see a Chinese-speaking blonde, they remember her.So it was that the same company that did “48 Hours” approached me for another project.

We met up for coffee one day, me being a bit wary to accept what he said would be a week of filming. I was in the midst of a writing project, and hadn’t been totally floored by “48 Hours,” since the video hosts spoke rapid-fire Chinese and expected me to act like a ditz. The one before that had me doing generic “wow” faces as I walked through a silk shop with my friend.

This project, however, proved to be different.

As we met for coffee, the director, Gao Feng, explained how they were in charge of four videos to promote different aspects of Zhejiang culture. One was food, one tea, and…I don’t remember the other one (I’m the worst). Mine was “Ancient Villages.” For each one, an expat would lead viewers through their own experiences with the theme. I immediately imagined something like the G20 silk museum video I had done and shuddered.

“We want this to be very real and personal,” Gao Feng said. “I want to know what you are like, what interests you, what you think about when you see pictures of these places.I mean, if we wanted someone to just look pretty, we could hire a model. But that’s not real.”

He gave me a packet of the places they had in mind, and after chatting and getting to know me for a while, I went back to look over the choices. There was Ningjing, a village home to the She ethinic minority; Qingyang, a village with over 50 generations of people surnamed Mao; Digang, a village along the Yunhe Grand Canal, with an active and ancient tea house; and then the abandoned village in Gouqi Island. I scribbled down some first impressions and then contacted him. I was on board.

In total, we had a small film crew: 8 people. We were piled into a small van and drove all around Zhejiang to catch these villages. Gao Feng wasn’t kidding: it was a tight schedule. We had a day in each village, and each day was jam-packed to get as much material as possible. We woke up early, one day at 3 am so as to catch the elderly who met at the aforementioned tea house. Usually, we took a break in the middle of the day because it was just too hot to do anything. One of the workers would be on hand just to dab sweat off of my made-up face. The photographers had it hardest, I think, because they had to carry all of the equipment with them, up small paths, down stairs, and even into the sea when they wanted footage of me playing and enjoying myself (my pleasure!) All the while, I jotted down impressions and notes in my phone (since carrying a notebook wasn’t convenient). Hearing mountain songs from She minority villagers as they snuck in selfies with me. Making a sticky-rice treat and then being surprised when the whole village showed up to bag some up and enjoy it. Walking through an ancient home with Mr. Mao, who then gave me a wooden pendent he’d carved himself. Racing against rain to get a panoramic shot of me hiking in a field. Leaning over a table drinking coffee while others drank tea. Learning some Tai Chi. Standing alone (or pretending that I was) in an abandoned village.

Essentially, they wanted me to be curious about stuff and then write about it, which is what I do anyway, really. I chatted with locals, got to play my violin in the park, and then shared a meal with a family.

Of course, there was editing afterward, and then I had to go in with my voice-over. (I’d written a version in English that they translated into Chinese, edited much shorter, and then asked me to translate back into English…in a very panic-inducing 15 minutes before recording…I’m only *slightly* bitter about that point).

The thing that really stuck with me about the trip though, was how it felt like a combination of everything in all my four years of China that I liked best. Sharing meals with people, chatting with interesting locals, playing music in the park, traveling. And then there was the fact that Gao Feng really wanted to inspire me, and so would always pop up sometimes to tell me more about something or to suggest another thought avenue.

Does this mean I’m going into acting? No, I don’t think so. Though the video makes it look relaxing and such, it really is hard work! I do hope I can collaborate with them more in the future, though.

Who knows? There may be more videos to come.


Hangzhou in My Eyes

In the midst of many projects and promotion for Hangzhou, I wrote an essay on the city, which was the first-prize winner and published in the local newspaper. (Claps for Hannah! He he). Though China often drives me up a wall, I do love Hangzhou. It has nature, it has a big city feel to it, but mostly it captures all of this at once in a place I currently call home.

Here’s the link for the article: