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).


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.


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.

Anthony Bourdain traveling through Chinese food

I know I haven’t posted in a while, and an update is coming! But here are some thoughts I had about Anthony Bourdain and his ventures in China.

Hannah Travels China/汉娜的中国之旅

Given how much Anthony Bourdain traveled in the world, it comes as no surprise that he made it to China. Though his death is still shocking, I’d just like to take a moment to talk about his brief encounters with China and Chinese food.

“The one thing I know for sure about China is, I will never know China. It’s too big, too old, too diverse, too deep. There’s simply not enough time.” (Bourdain’s words from On Parts Unknown). Of course he’s right: China is huge, both culturally and geographically.  There are 1.3 billion people living in China, and just about as much geographical area  as the United States (depending on how you divide borders). There’s an immense impenetrability often associated with it, and because of this, fear. But Bourdain wasn’t afraid to explore China or to really grapple with its intricacies, much like his ventures in other parts of…

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Through the Dragon Gate: The Ebook!

Amid the grumblings in front of my computer as I chip away at my thesis, and the latest poetry events in Hangzhou, and the slow realization that January is already over its halfway mark, I have put together a treat: a kindle collection of some of my favorite writings from my China trips! (Link here).

What’s inside? Essays on places I’ve been and people I’ve talked to, and of course, YOU the reader! (Okay, I promise I’ll dial back the cheesiness).

This blog started way back in 2012, and a lot of crazy stuff has gone into it: hitchhiking, jeep-riding in the desert, volunteering at a beach hostel. And now it’s time to celebrate having made it to all provinces!

Thank you for following me and for coming along on my trips. Hope to see you in China someday!



Howling at the Moon

Katie and I put together an anthology for our poetry group in Hangzhou! Here’s more information about it, plus a link to our ebook version, should you be interested in checking it out.

Hangzhou Writers Association Intl

written by Katie Sill

WeChat Image_20171128195107

On December 15, the Hangzhou Writer’s Association Intl (that’s us, by the way) launched its first ever poetry anthology! Here’s a little background information, in case you were wondering:

In August, the HZWA Intl editorial team issued a poem-a-day challenge to the members. To participate, members were required to write a new poem a day for 30 days straight. Anyone who completed the challenge would receive a congratulatory prize. Only eight of our writers were able to complete the challenge successfully: Elena Claydon, Hasina Rajaonarivelo, Kyle W. Porter, Brine “Taz” Mukombachoto, Unica Suanque, Hannah Lund, Tich Sagonda, and Jude Ajaegbu. Click the links to see the writers’ work online! We (the editors) then asked them to choose their five favorite poems from the challenge to include in an anthology. Thus “Howling at the Moon” was born!

This was…

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Tich Interviews: Hannah Lund

Our poetry group is going to do a new interviewing series. We’re starting off with…me! Here are some of my thoughts about China, poetry, and writing.

Hangzhou Writers Association Intl

This is the first of a series of interviews. This month, the interview focuses on one of the founders of the HZWA Intl.: Hannah Lund!

Interviewer: Tich Sagonda

1787400306Can you give us a brief self introduction?

Of course! I’m a graduate student in Comparative Literature and World Literature at Zhejiang University. If you’re not sure what that means, you wouldn’t be alone. I’ve been in China on and off for five years now, first as a university teacher, now as a student. I’ve been obsessed with China for a long time. I mean, all of my journals in middle school and on were China-themed, which is pretty wild. I went back home one year and found one, only to see that I could actually read the characters on the cover. Luckily it said “Imagination” and not “Fried rice” or something like that. I also do a ton of travel, and…

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Begin at the End

“You know, I don’t think it’s actually the end of the Great Wall,” my couchsurfing host in Changchun said when I told her my next stop during my trip. “It’s the beginning. “Longtou” means “dragon head,” which would be the beginning, right? It’s not the tail.”

I had to pause to take it all in.

I had planned for my last stop on this final backpacking trip to be at Shanhaiguan’s Laolongtou (老龙头) Great Wall portion. It seemed metaphorically correct: to end at the end of the Great Wall, where it met the sea, and where I would at last have accomplished visiting all of China’s Provinces. It seemed backwards in a way, for me to have traveled all these five years to only end up at the beginning, like a lost child who ran toward an exit, only to crash into the entrance instead.

But then, since I find meaning in dust motes and can poeticize anything, I thought “isn’t it fitting, to have an end be yet another beginning?”

I walked along the stone crenelations days later, having reached this end of the Great Wall. I once looked out at the other end, which faced a vast and harsh desert that was part of the Silk Road. I had tried to put myself in the boots of those sentinels who watched that gaping desert, watching the sand swirl into the sky. Since the time I went to Jiayuguan and the time I stood here at Shanhaiguan, I’d seen a lot in between. But now, I was at the end, listening to the waves roll along the shore and crash against the stone wall jutting into the sea. It was as different a scene as I could possibly find from the other side of the Wall all those years ago. And yet, looking out into the vast expanse of seawater, I took in the horizon like a blank page.

Yes, I had reached the end of something grand, and every inch of it along the way had been exhilarating. Yes, things would be different after this, as I would no longer be scheduling in as many China backpacking trips as I once had before. Yes, I would walk in a different direction now, with new boots and a smile.

But no, I don’t think things at are an end. Why, I’ve only begun.

My China Travel Hacks: Part 4

In three other installments of this series, I talked about how to travel cheap when considering transportation, lodging, sight-seeing, and food. This time, I’m going to share a bunch of miscellaneous stuff I’ve picked up from the road that would benefit any solo traveler trying to stretch those RMB notes as long as possible.

**NOTE: If you have anything you’d like to add, comment and let me know! I’m always happy to learn more hacks. After all, I still have 4 provinces to explore!

  • Save plastic baggies and wash them. (I learned this one from my mom, actually).
  • Bring laundry detergent. Laundry service is not free in Chinese hostels. Be prepared to sink-wash things.
  • BARGAIN BARGAIN BARGAIN. It’s expected of you to bargain. In a market? Cut the price in half and start there. In a tourist area? Be fierce. I have many tactics, but one that seems to work best is what I call my “Great Wall” Technique: choose a price you want to pay, and then don’t budge. If the vendor gets within 5-10RMB of your price, start saying “Aww, it’s just a couple RMB cheaper! Aren’t we friends?” Offer to buy more than one for a discount. Consider it, walk away, and see if the vendor has a change of heart when he/she sees you disappear. Think a driver is ripping you off? Bargain! Make sure he/she uses a meter if in a taxi. (Note: this does not work for high-end places…but really, if you’re reading this post, you’re probably not planning on going there anyway.)
  • Bring your own thermos. Clean hot water is available everywhere (but not clean cold water, alas. That you have to buy.)
  • Be kind. I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but I can’t count how many times I’ve had cabbies or even hostel workers knock off a few RMB because they just thought I was nice. (Though this should not be your sole motivation for being nice).
  • Don’t forget things. You’ll end up having to buy them on the road. My friend Maeva and I used to do a check every time we left the door: phone, wallet, passport, camera (now kind of lumps in with phone). Chargers are big culprits, too.
  • Take napkins and toilet paper from anywhere you can get them. Chinese bathrooms do not offer toilet paper, and so you have to supply it yourself. KFC’s, McDonalds, and most fast food places are great for swiping napkins.
  • ALWAYS take free hotel water bottles (no free cold water in China), but make sure they’re free first.
  • ALWAYS accept free samples and other freebies. No joke, I once had a lunch made entirely out of grocery store samples.
  • Bring gifts from your hometown (postcards are big ones) to share with people you like on the road. Never underestimate the power of kind gestures, especially when the travel/expat community in China is comparatively small to other countries. Locals, too, are extraordinarily sweet, but only if you’re sweet, too.
  • If money is VERY tight, then don’t use the bowls and cups that come prepackaged on restaurant tables or the packets of napkins. They cost about 2-3 RMB. There are almost always bowls/utensils on the drying rack, which is free.
  • If in possession of a SIM card, or if armed with capable Chinese, download apps like 滴滴打车 (di di da che) for cheaper taxi rides. (At the time of writing this, Uber was bought out by the latter company, so…that’s a pity.)
  • Bring your own instant noodles/snacks for long train rides because food on trains will be pricey. Same goes for food/water on top of mountains and in scenic sites. (As for the mountains, this is largely because coolies have to carry heavy loads of supplies all the way up the mountain, so as much as I hate the extra prices, in that case it makes sense).
  • In most big cities (definitely in Hangzhou) there are free public bikes. If you get a public bike card from any metro station, you’ll pay a refundable 200 RMB deposit, and then can take out a bike all day. Be sure to switch out your bike every hour at bike stations to avoid charges. ( 1 RMB after the first hour, and then it creeps up little by little. BUT if you think “Aw, that’s not so much” and decide to just keep it overnight, DON’T. A friend of mine did exactly this and had a massive, emptied-her-transit-card fee the following morning. 2-3 hour fees aren’t so bad, though).
  • Check our tourist centers for free maps. I’m not sure about other places, but Hangzhou has a lot of free ENGLISH maps for tourists.
  • Walk. If you’re in a tourist area and things aren’t so far apart, just walk it. Be warned, though, many directions you get from passersby might not have accurate distances. Sometimes “Oh, it’ll take about half an hour by foot” will actually mean 2 hours of walking. Download Chinese map apps: 百度地图 (bai du di tu) and 高德地图 (gao de di tu) since Google products are blocked in China (unless you have a VPN). That, or ask your hostel for good walking routes.
  • Bring 2 books with you to participate in FREE hostel book swaps. (Only if you’re doing a longer trip, though).
  • Be chatty. I don’t mean “talk incessantly” or “talk even if you hate people” but striking up conversations with hostel people or random people on the street often lead to the most interesting and unexpected parts of any travel experience. Use good judgment, but also be open.
  • Turn your phone on airplane mode. (This one I learned from my former roommate, and yes, it’s not terribly related to cost, but is worth a mention). Many travelers don’t want to be distracted by text messages or social media while on the road, but also want to use their phones as cameras so can’t just turn them off. Easy: put your phone on airplane mode, so that Wifi, 4G, and your phone number are all temporarily disabled at your command.

Did I miss anything? Feel free to comment if you have anything to add!

My China Travel Hacks: Part 2

The Impossible Situation: Lodging

Last post I talked about how to trim the fat for transportation when traveling in China. However, there are other expenses other than the road that can add up, such as lodging.

Why it’s impossible

No matter what you tell yourself, after a long day of traveling, you do actually need a bed to crash into.

When I calculated travel costs, lodging came up as the second-highest spending culprit (right after Transportation, which I already covered). I anticipated the cost and made arrangements to volunteer in a village for a while (among other reasons, too). That being said, this one is unavoidable.

Why it’s not impossible

Let’s go through some of the options here. You can and should use the extensive hostel network in China (check out this website), as it’s a great place to meet travelers and get travel advice. I have done trips before where I’ve done as little as configure transportation, book a hostel, and arrive. Most hostels have information about places to go, and are great places to get travel buddies.

They are not as cheap as you can get in China, though.

Aside from doing home-stays or walking about and comparing hotel prices, you can almost always go to the nice hotel in the middle of town and ask for a room without windows or a computer. It’s usually not advertised, and few customers opt for it, but most nice hotels have them, and if you are with a travel partner, can be as cheap as 50 RMB/person, which is about what you might pay for a hostel bed.

There are other options, such as AirBnB and Couchsurfing. I have not tried AirBnB myself, but have done couchsurfing and have had (mostly) good experiences. (And as a single female traveler, I’m just saying that it’s very doable, so long as you use good judgment by reading references). If you are going to do CS, be sure that you bring gifts for your hosts and are willing to be chatty. Although it’s free to stay with the hosts, you should never treat it like a hotel (though this is more a polite gesture and is not a hard rule). If you are not feeling social or talkative, consider just paying for a hotel room.

You can also consider volunteering, if you are in no hurry and also want to give back to the community. There is a WWOOFing (Worldwide Workers on Organic Farms) China program, which I did while in Shanxi. I will say this: it is not the same as WWOOFing outside of China, in that I ended up not working on an organic farm at all (surprise!), but teaching English classes for kids (but mostly lying around a house full of weird baby pictures). I also found a volunteering opportunity through Couchsurfing, which gave me the chance to work in a hostel in Sanya, a beach town in Southern China, for several weeks. As you might expect, knowing Chinese helps, though if you don’t know Chinese, don’t let that stop you!

But what if you’re truly truly I-might-sleep-in-the-curb-broke?

The absolute bare-bottom tactic you can do is to just bring your own tent and supplies when you travel and be prepared to camp out on the road. There are campsites in China, though not all places welcome tents. I did meet a traveler who got lost and just slept on a bench for the night — do me a favor, dear reader, and find yourself anywhere other than a random bench! I think tents are good, though of course, having one means having to buy one along with the supplies before heading out. Think of it as a long-term investment.

The two biggest spending culprits have been tackled, but there are so many other ways to whittle down expenses in China. Stay tuned for Scenic Spots and Food. And, if you read this and have other suggestions, please comment and let me know! I’m always happy to learn more.

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.