Of Whiskey and Pearls

Ten years ago, when I had just turned 20, I don’t think I had any concept of what being 30 meant other than thinking it some kind of deadline. It felt like a threshold you could never un-cross, a kind of dividing line between potential and reality that once breached could never be undone.

And yet, here I am, and the world has not shattered.

I turned 30 this past week and it was not followed by an existential crisis. I turned 30 and I was not suddenly ushered toward the Adult Table where everything at last made sense. I just turned 30 and enjoyed my cake.

“How does it feel?” a coworker of mine asked.

“Disappointingly fine,” I said.

My 20-year-old self probably would have liked to see a little more aplomb, a little more drama, maybe even a little more soul-searching from some grand, vaguely-Victorian overlook. Or maybe that I had become a totally different person (ideally Scarlett Johansson).

But no, I’m disappointingly fine because I’m more me than ever.

This year is pure celebration for a decade well-spent. And for one spent not always in ways that make sense.

There was the classy: I graduated from college. I went to Vienna to perform with the orchestra, even going to the Officer’s Ball white-gloved and all. I learned Chinese and got a master’s degree in comparative literature, all taught in Mandarin. I wrote a graphic novel. I’ve been publishing articles around the internet and have discovered a love for translation. I wrote and performed songs with a band. I co-founded a poetry society in Hangzhou that’s still going strong. I made it to every province in China.

And so, I wore pearls and a classy dress and sipped a fine cocktail on my birthday for this reason.

There was the ridiculous: I made utter blasphemy in the kitchen when I tried to freestyle cook Chinese food. I hitchhiked… a lot.  I somehow visited House on the Rock three times (and deep down know I’ll go again). I marathon-wrote a script for a three-act play in a month (it’s not great) and sent garbled, loopy voice messages to a friend about ice skating costumes after pulling an all-nighter. I crafted a 90-minute lesson around punctuation and instilled a not-insignificant fear of the splice comma into my students, which may have been due to the way I was screaming, “Don’t do it!!”

And so, having learned how to do a Tim Tam Slam (sipping milk through the Australian cookie) I and my friends agreed it only made sense to try it with whiskey, which I did for my birthday for this reason.

There was the intense: I spent far more time than I’d care to admit feeling awkward in my own skin. I moved across the world to a strange place and spent a year trying to make it un-strange, at times feeling the loneliest I had ever been, at times feeling so loved it hurt. I went on a lot of crap dates because I felt it was the thing to do, ultimately realizing that there is such a thing as a not-crap date if you just give it time or don’t pressure yourself into going on crap dates. I did a lot of soul-searching (Victorian vista not included) about my career path and direction in life, only to realize that all you can do is arrive at an answer for now and pick up the search again when the time comes.

And so, I decided to stop worrying about the answer, which is only penciled in anyway, for this reason.

It was a great decade. It was not an easy decade. It was not a smooth decade. But it was great, and I don’t regret a second of it.

And now, looking at the start of another, I know so much more is to come. The classy, the ridiculous, the intense. The hard, the easy. The great. I feel fine about who I am. Disappointingly fine about the whole thing of getting older. Because of all the things I’ve done and all the places I’ve been, above all I’ve made it back to myself. And isn’t that the best place to be?

Cheers to the next great decade!

A Haunted Halloween

As many of you might know, I have been talking on and off about a passion project: creating a bilingual guide to Chinese ghost stories from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (聊斋志异). And this year, just in time for Halloween, my friend Addie and I fulfilled this dream and made it happen with our graphic novel(la) Haunted (or 闹鬼, nao gui for the Chinese version).

But why ghosts? And just generally, whyyyy?

As we talked about at our book launch last month at Madame Mao’s Dowry, sometimes the ‘why’ is just because you like something. And that’s just it for the Chinese ghosts and me. I think the stories are funny! They’re quirky! They’re scary! And I love the fact that while one story might tell you about a ghost that paints the canvases of skin to look human and rips out hearts (hear my retelling of the story here), and then another will tell you that, you know, if you find a drunk fox in your bed, he just might be a fun drinking companion. Some are convoluted and involve many plots; some plots as straightforward as “This weird guy lives in his ear. Crazy!”

I just really wanted others to enjoy the stories and so arranged 13 of them in the form of a journey throughout one day in the ghost world. The overly optimistic travel guide begs you to see more, but also warns you about how dangerous it all is. But isn’t that how it goes? What might excite you might also not be safe. (As I’ve mused before: “bravery” and “stupidity” are both the result of taking a risk — just some are not as successful as others).

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Pu Songling’s original collection goes back to the Qing dynasty and has over 400 tales. Some of them were coded critiques of contemporary society. Some of them, Pu’s petty revenge against figures he didn’t like at the time, which is something I think many writers can relate to.

Probably my favorite story of the bunch is “The Tiger Guest” which is about a man who is a tiger in disguise but spends his time at poetry readings, mauling mediocre artists and enslaving them in the afterlife.

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I’m also a fan of “The Editor” (for obvious reasons) which is the story of a writer possessed by a ghost who… improves his writing. As I’ve written about before, ghost stories are important, and we need to encounter the strange to better understand ourselves and the world around us. But also: fantasy is fun! (Mainly that, to be honest).

In the end, I chose the stories that entertained me the most and offered the most variety. Then Addie did some sketches and we played with how the ghosts might look or move. From there, we culled the list even more to match what Addie also felt inspired to draw. To put them all together, I arranged them in the form of a journey into the ghost world in the course of one day. And then I wrote them in Chinese and had a translator friend of mine edit them to make sure they were bonkers for the right reasons.

It got pretty crazy right before the deadline we’d set for ourselves mainly because neither of us had done a project like this before and as it turns out, graphic design is hard! We hadn’t gone in thinking it would be a graphic novel, but in the end, the colors and art demanded more space and the format really let them shine.

Anyhow, we’re proud of our little book and hope others will read it! If you want to check it out, here is our Etsy page.