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!

My Wings

A while back, one of the cats ripped a hole in my down jacket. I went to seamstresses, and they all said the same thing: You can’t just sew it closed; you’ll need a patch. And for months I didn’t do anything about it, until last month when I went to the dry-cleaner down the street, asked her about patchwork, and ended up picking through her small pile of patches.

“No no, don’t choose a small one,” she said. “It will be too obvious that it’s covering a mistake. Choose a big one. Make it look like it was intentional all along, perhaps even part of the design.”

I did as she suggested, picking out a wide-winged butterfly:

Jacket wings

As 2017 came to a close, and as I now step into 2018, I think a lot about this butterfly, not just because it’s proof that I finally fixed my jacket, but because it’s something I’ve chased after for a long time: wings. Not too long ago, I wasn’t sure where I was going (and let’s be honest, sometimes I’m still not), when I saw this crooked path, all I could think was “I want to fly,” by which I meant really move in the direction I wanted to go and reach new heights. I wasn’t sure what that even meant at the time. I imagined it being that moment in which everything came together in one glorious gesture, when someone might announce “My god, you’ve arrived.”

As it turns out, that’s not how it works. There have been random asides along the way and definitely bumps in the road. I’ve gotten good advice, I’ve gotten weird advice, but never has anyone (or really will anyone) turn to me and say “My god, you did it.” In fact, more often than not, people are eager to point out defects or compare what you’re doing to someone else who did it, or perhaps did it better.

After all this time, I can say that I have my wings. Have I arrived? My god, have I done it? I still don’t know what that means, and still lean towards “not yet, if ever.” But I have my wings, and you know what? I had to pick them out myself and I had to make them big enough to cover up rips and tears below.

I think for many people (myself included) fulfilling goals is daunting, because we want someone to show us the way. This is what I’ve wanted for a long time, for someone to sort of give me a “How To” on moving forward. In some cases, this is exactly right, and it’s time to find a mentor. But as my experiences have taught me, we often have to stitch the wings ourselves, connect them to our backs, and wait until the next gust of wind to make another glorious leap. And more often than not, they’re leaps in spite of rips and tears underneath.

2017 wasn’t a great year for many, and I can understand why, but for me it was a towering one. This was the year I got involved with the Shanghai Literary Review and learned so much about what it means to publish something I’m proud of (which I’d always thought of as a faraway goal), and the importance of putting my work out there, even if it’s hard. This was the year in which I made it to the remaining Chinese provinces, so that I can say I’ve been to them all. This was the year in which I stopped feeling awkward when I introduced myself as a writer/translator, and this was the year in which Katie and I not only made a website for our poetry group, but also published an anthology of some poems and learned how gratifying it can be for people to value something you’ve worked hard on.

All throughout 2017, I was stitching my own wings. I learned to stop waiting for someone to tell me where to find them, or how to start. I learned that sometimes it’s the power of just trying something, actually leaping, and seeing if you actually take off from the ground. And when I look ahead to 2018, I can only think of making more leaps, and hoping to catch the wind, my momentum, and follow it into the sky. Perhaps this time next year, I will be soaring, perhaps I’ll still be hovering above the ground.

To anyone reading this, I hope we all find our wings. I hope that we let ourselves take risks and make spectacular mistakes, if only because they make for the best art in the end. I hope we can feel the wind in our faces as we fly, even if only for the few moments we dared to leap. I hope that this time next year, we can all look back and see how far we’ve come, not how far we have yet to go.

Happy 2018!

Hannah in the Attic: The Sequel

The last time I wrote in this blog, I mentioned that before starting my thesis, I’d be 1) going to Shanghai for the Battle of the Bards competition, 2) figuring out how to print a Hangzhou poetry anthology, 3) celebrating my birthday, and then you know, 4) starting my thesis. Since then, I’ve been to Shanghai and back (twice) having met new artists and friends and literary connections interested in collaborating with Hangzhou’s writers, I’ve already picked up the printed anthologies and put them in my closet away from the cats and their wandering claws, have celebrated not only my birthday but also Thanksgiving AND have put up Christmas decorations, and have, you know, actually started my thesis.

Things move fast in the world of Hannah.

But this past weekend, I let things move slow as I joined other writers in an Air BnB meant just for art retreats to get away from the bustle, learn about some writing tactics, and then of course write.

The last time I went on a retreat, it was this October with some people I’d met through the Shanghai Literary Review. It was relaxing in its own right, but was more of a working retreat in which we disappeared to write for hours on end, and then resurfaced in the evenings over hotpot to dish about how it went. This retreat was very much focused on writing, and everything we did was to inspire more writing and give us new angles and ways to approach our projects.

But of course, like the last time I went on a retreat, I gravitated once more to the attic, where I would fall asleep to the slanted roof. There’s something about being the shuffling ghost overhead. Perhaps not something good, but something nonetheless.

At this retreat, we did games that seemed silly, like making up a song using random words to describe the day, to more intriguing poetic exercises such as writing a madrigal and setting out to write 30 haikus throughout the weekend. We huddled around candles in the evenings, passing around wine bottles and Irish cream whiskey, as ideas ricocheted off the walls and into our heads. We gave each other Tarot card readings (with cards based off of Native American animals) and when we invited to cook to stay for dinner with us, I gave him his reading in Chinese. (Side note: he was the fox, while his wife was the inverted wolf). I met someone who had just finished translating the script for the staged version of “The Three Body Problem” which I’ve been reading (and when she saw the book on the table, she just moaned “I just can’t escape work!”), and I met some other grad students, as well as a meditation instructor who gave us guided meditations every morning.

And yes, we wrote. For long, quiet stretches, curling toward sources of heat like cats in the winter. I came to the retreat with a specific writing problem I wanted to face, and by the end of the first day, found myself feeling more confident about it and where I was headed.

With December well under way and the end of the year approaching, I guess it’s just about time to think about my resolution for this past year. I kept it simple: “Do better,” because there was no denying that I already knew what I needed to improve.

And you know what? With the retreat still humming in my ears and my pen on the move once more, I really think I did better this year. Lumbering in the attic and all.

30 Days of Poetry and Beyond

Well, Hangzhou’s whirlwind month of poetry has come to a close now. ‘Good while it lasted,’ I couldn’t help but think as I planned for our first poetry slam in a couple months at the end of this poetic venture. Our wechat group had been alive and buzzing with new original works for the past month, but I knew it would come to an end sooner or later. Would it continue? That’s the question Katie and I ask ourselves all the time about this little poetry group that could: will it stay alive after we leave Hangzhou? Or, as with many start-ups in China, will it die the moment the founders leave?

That night, it would come alive in person, whether I soliloquized about it or not. I schlepped the our poetry box and duffel bag full of English books onto the subway, (getting more than a few strange looks, but that’s nothing new) and made my way to Underline Cafe.

When I got there, I was met with several pleasant surprises. First, we had a good turnout, who was there ON TIME (for once). Then, I had some friends who had been meaning to show up actually show up to the event, AND share their own works that they’d never shared in public before. THEN there were people I’d never met who’d done the 30-day poetry challenge who were excited that an group like ours even existed in Hangzhou. THEN I was approached by people asking when submissions would kick off again, when we’d meet up again, and that they’d share more original work next time. A friend of mine from the Shanghai Literary Review came all the way to Hangzhou, and actually won second place in the slam, and by the end of the night, we had more members in our group.

It’s hard to say what will happen in the future. I might be participating in a mental health awareness event by reading an original poem. We might be having a “black history month” event in the near future. Our website might get more traffic. A couple of years from now, who knows? It might grow, it might die. But one thing’s for sure: god, will it live.

Slowly, but Surely: the Thesis Saga

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been participating in a 30-day poetry challenge through the poetry group in Hangzhou. And always, in the back of my mind, is the mammoth thesis paper that I will be completing next spring. So far, I’ve done a fair amount of research, and am zeroing in on my direction/outline.

For a marriage of these two ideas, I present a recipe poem I wrote about what it takes to write a thesis. (All in good fun, naturally).

“How to Write a Thesis”

10-20 Academic articles
3 cups overconfidence
1 computer
4 existential crises
1 bottle whiskey
2 eggs

First, take 10 Academic articles and mix in with 2 cups overconfidence. Pour them into your computer and let sit for several months.

Next, remove what should be a bony, flesh-less lump and stir. Do not add anything, but perhaps remove one article.

Wait one hour, and put said article back in.

Insert 1 existential crisis and stir.

Let sit for another month, before picking up the remaining 10 Academic articles. Add another existential crisis into the concoction, but do not add the Academic articles. Just hold them and insist that you will.

Make an omelette out of the two eggs to avoid looking at the rest. Let one more existential crisis fall into your omelette. Convince yourself that it’s “All part of the process.”

One week before the deadline, throw in all remaining Academic articles in no apparent order, mix in your final existential crisis, all while slamming your bottle of whiskey.

Heyyyyy thiss islooking prettygood

Sprinnkle in tha lasy cuppa ovrecofindence

Print tha betch

You did ittttt

A Song of Summer

I decided to bike out along West Lake because I thought there were free tango lessons in one of my favorite bars, Carbon. But once I got there, it was as though being transported into a different Hangzhou. One that better resembled the one from a year ago, during the G20 International Summit.

Though I don’t know the particulars, some kind of Important Person decided to drive around West Lake, which meant that police had to block it off from regular traffic and stay stationed to make sure no one did anything stupid. At least, that’s what the people puzzling the situation on the sidewalk told me, trying in vain to cross the street to see the lake in this rare calm.

And it is rare, to feel such calm in a big city, or to find a pocket of stillness in a life blaring with all kinds of distractions. I often find myself feeling overwhelmed at the end of a day, not because I’d done a lot per se, but because I’d been immersed in a lot of noise: the Internet bogey, the stream of events happening in Hangzhou. It’s like a quote from a book I read recently (The Circle, by Dave Eggers): “You know when you finish a bag of chips and hate yourself? You know you’ve done nothing good for yourself. That’s the same feeling, and you know it is, after some digital binge. You feel wasted and hollow and diminished.” Harsh words, to be true, but true nonetheless.

And perhaps that’s what made it so marvelous, that summer evening, by a still and eerily quiet road along West Lake. I could hear crickets chirping, and see the street lamps reflected in the dark waters while lotus leaves rose in their majesty to the full, yellowed moon. I could walk along blackened waters with waves ruffling through them, and admire without commentary, which is the most precious thing of all.

I ended up staying in Carbon, although the street blockages meant that no other customers were there, and that I was also hilariously wrong about the tango lessons. I stayed there alone because I could, and I sipped a cool mojito on their rooftop terrace, as if the lake was my own.

And it felt like the perfect song to end a summer, and to transition into a fire-tipped fall.

Circular Motion: Finale

I began this trip in Shanghai for the Shanghai Literary Review launch party, and went on the road with good feelings and a bouquet of flowers. Since then, I’ve left the bouquet of flowers at the base of Mount Everest, and am returning back the way I came to Hangzhou.

Things have gone full circle it would seem, in a trip full of circuits, koras, and circular motion. The spinning prayer wheels, koras around holy places, the mandala that depict the path to immortality, and yes even the Ferris wheel. Here, a circle is a sacred path, and one I was happy to take.

Which is why on my last full day in Lhasa, I decided to make as many circles as possible, starting with the kora around Potala Palace.
WeChat Image_20170724194523
The palace is a very central part of Lhasa, and is completely circumferenced by prayer wheels, save for its front side which faces a public square. I joined in the foot traffic, and spun every prayer wheel as we went around. Some were as large as a room, some big enough to have a railing along the bottom, and most small enough for a deft push to keep it spinning.

Though it sounds easy enough, after a while my arm hurt, and my fingernails caught on the polished wood handle on the bottom, and I felt as though I was actively making callouses. But by the end, I also felt as though I was marching to a new beat than before.
I did this circuit only once, deciding to save a full three circuit trip for Jokhang Temple that evening, when the most people would be walking, and when the believers would prostrate their ways around the temple, bowing all the way to the ground every few steps.

I am a hopeless romantic (in the transcendental sense) and found myself spinning an object in my hand as I walked that holy kora. Those prostrating bent over onto wooden slats on their hands, and it was like wave after wave upon the sand.

In this atmosphere, I decided to take out the white prayer scarf I was greeted with on my first day of the trip. It was a welcoming gesture, and though the scarf was pretty, I also felt it belonged in Tibet. After three circles around the temple, I tied my prayer scarf next to others, and I sat on the warm concrete, watching birds swirl above and listening to passersby muttering their mantras.

Even as I write this, I’m already back in Hangzhou, jumping back into a very different lifestyle — one that probably doesn’t have as much room for romantic wanderings. My phone has gone from the sparse 3G available on the Tibetan Plateau, to a full, nonstop 4G and internet connection. In a series of public transit card switches, I’m back in the groove of Hangzhou, and am unpacking all that I’ve brought back from the road.

But I like to think that the revolutions that were set in motion, the centrifugal force of all these circles will carry their ways into my life and beyond. I like to think that I’ll keep spinning and circling long after this trip and that, like the flowers and the scarf, I won’t need to carry so much with me and can leave it fluttering in the wind, kissing the clouds.

My Kora

In Tibetan culture, believers do what is called a kora, or a circuit, around what is considered a holy site. This can be a temple or even a holy mountain.

In my original plan for this trip, I was going to do a half-kora around the Amnye Machen mountain. But, like that moment in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, many of my plans sank into the swamp when some issues came up, like me getting sick TWICE in a week’s time, and a trekking companion not being able to adjust to the high altitude. (And yes, I had a good facepalm moment when I realized I would probably not use the tent I’d carried for over a week…for now.)

But that’s okay, actually. Because if I had to consider anything “sacred” or precious in all of my travels, I would say it has been the hitchhiking and the people I’ve met along the way. It would have to be that mysterious pulse and momentum that moves me along the road and into new and unforeseen places. Yes, trekking is amazing, but there will be other mountains to climb. A whole lifetime’s worth.

When I had first thought of Qinghai back in 2013, I’d thought of hitchhiking around the famous Qinghai Lake, but ran out of time to visit the province. Now, nearly four years later and just about at the end of my big China travels, it seems only fitting to do just this. Especially given that I don’t plan on hitchhiking anywhere outside of China.

True, Qinghai Lake is not really a holy place, and in fact most people choose to bike around it instead, but I know what stays with me and what doesn’t. This is my not-quite-holy Kora, and it’s my way of getting close to Qinghai, to other people, to the best version of myself.


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~

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.