Eviction Notice, Shanghai

The first time I met my friend, we were in Minnesota and she told me about her beautiful home in downtown Shanghai. It was in a historical district, was not far from the Bund, and was in a pre-revolution architectural style now hard to find in much of China. She told me that she had finished paying for it, and that if I wanted, we could open a coffee shop in that home or start an English school, or do anything we wanted with it.

When I met up with her in Shanghai, I stayed in her apartment, but we went to visit that home. An artist was staying there for months, stepping out of our ways as we creaked through wooden staircases, ducked under low ceilings, and made our ways into old rooms. It was the kind of house that would be the setting for a novel. It was the kind of place you imagine a member of the Shanghai literati ducking into late at night after a soiree. You could hear the walls chuckle with hushed voices as the ghosts of its past welcomed you in.

But it was a house that would no longer be her house within the year.

To read her article (written in Chinese) click here. Long story short, however, the Shanghai government wants her house as part of a sightseeing historical district. My friend resisted, saying that it was her house, and therefore not a scenic spot, but as the houses in the neighborhood became sights, she felt the pressure closing in. Signs and notices stuck to her door day after day. Demolition careened blocks away from her own front door.

Progress was inevitable.

In fact, her community is full of history, and I can understand why historians would want to preserve it in some way. Literary greats such as Lu Xun, Mao Dun, and other pre-revolutionary writers had homes not far from hers. When I saw them, they were still untouched, tucked away in their alcoves with simple plaques posted on the outside to indicate that someone famous had once lived there. Something that would take effort to find, and would only be found by those truly eager to find it.

I try to imagine what might happen to her home now, or what sort of signage might go up. “Here stands an old house?” “Here is a piece of Shanghai?” Perhaps the local government will add figurines of people like my friend, depicting their lives mere weeks before.

All I know is that this story probably sounds familiar to those hearing about it, because it happens everywhere in the world. And, like many braver than me, my friend is still fighting it. I have no powerful connections, I have nothing in my arsenal that can help her. I only have this post, which she hoped I could write. If only to know that behind historical spots, is actual history, is actual people.

And somewhere in Shanghai, a woman refuses to fade.

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Year of Poetry

As Facebook so often likes to remind me, “on this day X years ago…” I was doing stuff. (And wow, next year, I will have graduated from high school ten years ago! Facebook is going to have a field day). On April 23, it was to remind me that, one year ago, I’d posted about the very first poetry slam my current roommate Katie and I put together.

Not that I needed Facebook to remind me of the milestone.

On our first poetry night, we’d chosen the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth/deathday, and had poetry lovers assemble at Underline Cafe. For the anniversary, we went to a park along West Lake. A small group of about six people (including myself) tried to find a patch of grass on which to recite spring poetry. I carried an unwieldy box of poetry books (in the hopes of dispensing them like manna), and a friend of mine had two bottles of cooking oil in her backpack. (“It is from my friend’s hometown, which has the best cooking oil,” she said, as if this was reason enough.)

 

In the end, we found a little pavilion. It overlooked both West Lake and the grass we weren’t sitting in. There was a slight mound in the middle, and an inscription on a small plaque outside the pavilion. We settled down on the concrete benches and chatted about spring. Only when a Chinese friend, Helen, arrived later, did we find out what this place actually was.

“Of all places!” she said, shaking her head. “You had the whole park, and you sit in a tomb?!”

Another Chinese friend, Jennifer, got up to check the inscription. “It’s okay!” she said. “He was a poet, so it’s like we’re keeping him company…right?”

We all nodded, mostly because we didn’t want to keep looking for another place.

I read some Wendel Berry poems, a Thai friend named Dew read her favorites from Instagram, and a Jamaican friend Lori read a poem her mother had written that very morning about a flower bouquet.

Around this tomb for the ancient poet, we faded to a hush as the line “life does not understand life” from a Huang Yazhou poem settled in our bones. It seemed too fitting for our day in the park: where a cavalcade of life walked along the lake, where spring erupted in new life, and where we stood around a memorial for the dead.

Life does not understand life, but even in the time that passes along it, people and words find each other as if on a collision course. Friends come and go, and new life emerges in the spaces where others have left. In the life of this year, I have gained a niece, while people around me have lost loved ones. Faces have left Hangzhou, and new faces have arrived in their stead. Life does not understand life, but it keeps going and tumbling along our spinning globe like clouds dancing in the rain.  And I’m glad not to understand life sometimes, because it’s twisted, like our own Earth on its axis.

It’s fitting in a way that our poetry anniversary falls on both Shakespeare’s birthday and deathday. As if both are intrinsically entwined, and that even as Shakespeare celebrated each passing year, he did not know how it would all end, either. Life does not understand life. Death does not understand death.

And that, of all places, is where poetry comes alive.

Until next year~

My Monkey Moment (AKA “Goodbye Sanity”)

In the Monkey King stories in Chinese folklore, Monkey decides he wants to be immortal. His first stop: heaven, where he eats a bunch of the immortal peaches. Unfortunately, Monkey has only lengthened his lifespan, but will still die eventually. Monkey then shoots for the sure-fire solution: he goes into the underworld, finds his name and death date in the records, and crosses them out. Since he’s nowhere in the paperwork, he can’t die.

I really love that detail in the Monkey King stories. It’s not because of a magic elixir that Monkey achieves immortality: it’s the fact that he messed up the bureaucratic procedures in the afterlife.

And if this sounds like pure fantasy, let me tell you about my own Monkey moment. No, I haven’t gone on a bender destroying a bunch of paperwork…not yet, anyway.

It all began with the arduous task of…filling out a form.

Laugh if you will, but in China nothing that involves stamps will be completed in a reasonable amount time. Factor in my added challenge: tracking down not one, but FIVE signatures (not including my own).

The first task: pinning down my advisor, who is both very busy and also the perfect example of an absent-minded professor: at once brilliant, but also with a mind like an unfettered kite. (No joke: in one of his classes, he got to talking about a rabbit he saw on a train for half an hour).

The first week: A holiday. He does not come to campus unless there’s class, and without class…okay, next week. I accept an easy defeat.

The second week: I show up to his classroom, only to find that no one is there. I text a reliable doctorate student. “Oh yeah, he’s at a conference,” she says.

ALRIGHTY THEN.

I check my email to see when the form’s deadline is, and not finding a deadline, email the person in charge of collecting the form (we’ll call her T) to tell her that I’d get it the following week.

“Oh, it was actually due two weeks ago, so…hurry up,” T says.

*Cue arm flailing*

I text the doctorate student again, trying to be casual. “Sooo…will my advisor be around later this week for other classes?” She tells me that he’ll be there for sure next week, though has an undergraduate class the following night at another campus.

Bingo.

The next morning, I contact my advisor to ask if I can come to his classroom that evening. “Sure, but I’ll be on your campus this afternoon, too,” he says.

ALRIGHTY THEN.

I show up, apologizing for bothering him, and then start to explain what the form is. He nods and writes an “Agree” before signing his name. I tell him the day’s date (once on another form, he wrote the wrong date for two weeks before the date I’d written in the first part). Then, I left and went to the Humanities Department office. It’s 1:15, and they were still on lunch break (a 2-hour affair much like the Rapture: once the time comes for break, no one is to be found, save for the heathens trying to do some last-minute stuff.) While I waited about 15 minutes to try again, I went downstairs to play with a tiny puppy and poke some flowers. By the time I returned, they’re back.

“Hello, sorry to bother you, but I’m applying to — ” The woman cut me short, grabbing my form, reading it, and then signing off. She handed it to the person across the desk, who signed it, too. I left, feeling optimistic about getting it all done in a day.

Alas, I should have stayed with the puppy. As soon as I made it to the final level — the International College — I found out that T was out for the day.

Hurry up, my ass.

The next day, I arrived and handed her the form with pride. “You don’t have the stamp,” she said. I, thinking she said “You wrote an essay in your part,” laughed and told her that yes, I care very much about my education. “No,” she said. “You need a stamp from your department. I can’t accept this.” Need the stamp. Need it to be an official one. Need it to be red.

ALRIGHTY THEN.

The NEXT day, I made it to my department, just as office workers were leaving for a meeting. “Wait! I just need a stamp!” I said. “Go upstairs!” the office worker from the previous day said. “Where upstairs?” I said. “Upstairs! It’s in a big room. Can’t miss it.”

I smiled to hide my internal screaming, thanked him for his SUPER HELPFUL INFORMATION and made my way toward the staircase. I stood slack-jawed at the top.

“You need a stamp, don’t you?” another office worker said. I nodded, also wondering if twitching eyes and general rage translated into stamp-procuring. She pointed me to an unsettlingly empty room with one person in it.

“Hello, I’m –” The office worker cut me off, grabbed my paper, stamped it, and then handed it back. I thanked him as if he singlehandedly cured cancer, and then made my way to the final level — to T — once more.

“Okay,” I said, wading my way through an office with its towering stacks of paperwork, like Grecian columns. “Is this okay?” T looked at the form and nodded. I made a move to leave, but she said that she’s going to figure it out right then and there, if I’ll just wait a couple of minutes.

I agreed (at this point, why not?) And in those couple of minutes, I watched as, at long last, she deleted the ‘7’ in ‘2017’ and replaced it with an ‘8’ for ‘2018,’ my intended graduation year.

“There!” she said. “We’re good now. Wasn’t so hard, was it?”

*Cue internal screaming*

Maybe next time, I can just eat some immortal peaches and be done with it.

Into the Hills

I wasn’t wearing the right shoes: that much was clear. They were tall leather black boots, the soles worn thin from many walks (strides and struts even) around the city I call home. I should have worn my comfy hiking boots, or even tennis shoes, but then again, I hadn’t left the door planning on entering Hangzhou’s Longjing (Dragonwell) hills either. I’d planned to take care of some paperwork for school at another campus, and then return to my own campus library ti read about ancient Chinese characters, the solitary soundtrack of tapping laptops as my companion.

But as soon as I’d dealt with the paperwork and hopped on my new ebike, Mustang, the breeze felt so inviting, the trees misting green with such care that I decided to take a long detour. Mustang had a full charge. I was on no one’s schedule but my own. It was time for a trip into Hangzhou’s wilder side.

HZ nature 2

I began by cruising past Zhejiang University’s Yuquan campus, onto Yugu Road, where in a matter of minutes, I was surrounded by greenery. Being a Wednesday afternoon, there weren’t as many tourists meandering under the flower blossoms. I could pause whenever I felt like it, admire the flower, and then keep going. I followed the route I used to take for a girl I tutored, only this time, I revved Mustang up the hill on Longjing Road and around the curved path until the city faded as a distant memory. Farmers in straw hats bent over Longjing tea fields, harvesting Hangzhou’s famed tea leaves. Brides and grooms plodded along for their wedding photos. Bikers tottered past, and I climbed up the hill past them all.

HZ nature

I pulled over at a stone, moss-covered path that disappeared into the trees. The uneven stones jagged and prodded my boots, but I kept going, trying to gauge how old the stones must be, why perhaps they had been built in the first place. Small rivulets of water rippled in the sun, trickling down to the road not several yards from where I stood.

Up the hill and over, I saw teahouses, pavilions, and scatterings of strangers gathered to play cards and eat sunflower seeds. I saw pools of goldfish, flowers budding and yawning open, and more bushes of longjing leaves. I never rushed. I never dawdled, either. I let my ill-prepared feet guide me along until I was back on Mustang, and cruising down the hill back to my own Xixi Campus, into the library marked “Quiet” my bottle of peach tea in hand.

Back at the Shanghai International Literary Festival I attended last month, Irish short story author Claire Keegan said “Our emotions are in our feet. Where they take us, and where they refuse to go; that’s where our passion is.” I find this to be true. Sometimes our feet take us to fantastical places, sometimes they simply keep us from bad ones. In my case, my feet took me far and away into my own home. That’s the beauty of Hangzhou: it takes very little effort to find nature, to let our feet carry us into beauty. In one hour, I entered another world, and still made it back in my leather boots to read my Chinese book, as if nothing out of the ordinary happened.

But my feet will remember, and come another fine spring day, they might take me on another journey. That’s the beauty of familiar places: there’s passion to be found in every corner.

Meet Me Through the Dragon Gate

For those of you new to this blog, you maybe wondering about the name. Why a dragon gate? Why go through it? And, is this actually a travel blog, with this title functioning as a metaphor for traveling in China, or is it actually a bunch of random things strung together without rhyme or reason?

Maybe it’s a little of both, but the name does in fact come from an interesting Chinese legend.

According to the legend, fish that jumped through the Dragon Gate (a waterfall along the Yellow River between Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces) could transform into a dragon. Traditionally, the story has been used as a metaphor for scholars facing their examinations. The lowly carp, after making a daring leap, would become something bigger — and more powerful for that matter — than they could have imagined.

Imagine their triumphant flight once their fish scales elongated, smoothed into dragon wings, and they could relish the wind. Imagine, for a moment, the doubt during the leap, and the fear as the waterfall’s pounding deluge slapped along their backs as they had no choice but to keep leaping. Imagine the breath right after the waterfall, when they would either fly or fall back into the water.

I started this blog back in 2012. I had just graduated and had no idea what would wait for me after making a giant leap. At the time, I thought I’d only be in China for 9 months. I had never traveled alone before. I had also never taught English before, or done a master’s degree before, and a host of other things. And here we are. Just the other day, as I read from a Chinese book about ancient Chinese characters, I realized that I understood so much of it, and that it all came from the process of being in China. I hadn’t learned it all in a classroom, but from a collection of experiences and lessons picked up along the way.

When does the fish know it’s no longer leaping, but flying?

Maybe that’s something I’ll never know, but the wind rushes along my scales all the same, and for now, it feels great.

Since you’re meeting me through the dragon gate, I’ll bet you can feel it, too.

“Lazy”

So, if you’ve been following this blog, then you’ll have noticed that I haven’t written in a while.

“Oh, I’m soooo lazy!” I said to my roommate, Katie. “I have NOT been productive.” I’m preparing to study for a third year because of my scholarship, whereas my Chinese classmates are sending me GIFs of them banging their heads against walls as they write their thesis papers. Me? I’m still fluffing my resources (which, to be fair, are in Chinese so a lot harder for me to understand).

“Um, you’ve been doing a lot,” Katie said in response.

Well, I GUESS I’ve been up to some things…I went to the Shanghai International Literary Festival last month (and came away with a veritable SACK of English books), I gave a talk at a coffee shop about my travel experiences (in Chinese!), I set up a bilingual China Travel Blog (feel free to check it out here! Still in the works…), did some poetry slams, got some poems published in a Shanghai local poet zine, and of course kept hammering away at Chinese and deciphering Chinese ghost stories (not because it’s my thesis topic, oh no, I just think they’re interesting!)

‘But what about your thesis?’ you might be wondering.

Well, for good reason.

As you might have noticed, none of the things I worked on are called “Thesis.” As I said, I have a year longer than my classmates, but still. Better put it to good use! So, now I get to join in the thunk of scholars banging their heads against books and other hard surfaces in the campus library.

And you know what? Maybe it’s nostalgia for having returned to where I lived for 2 semesters, but there’s something satisfying about sitting in a hard seat with a book to scrutinize. I plan to hit the road, and to hit it hard in due time, but for now there’s something to be said about centering myself in my role as scholar. To poke my book in that quiet library for several hours while sipping peach juice, and to feel like I’ve really learned something, despite all of the head-thunking.