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”

Ingredients:
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

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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.

30 Days of Poetry

Some of you following this blog may have been wondering about my brief hiatus. Well, those who have followed me longer know that sometimes I just kind of disappear like this, but this time, it’s not because of faulty internet connections, or from being extremely productive (if it ever is).

This time, it’s because I’m participating in a 30-day poetry challenge!

As I’ve mentioned before, we in Hangzhou have started our own poetry society, (check out our website here) and over the past year, it’s grown by leaps and bounds. From more active members, to a greater desire to write poetry, we’ve been able to build a creative community to enjoy.

For summer fun (and to beef up content cough cough) one of our newest members suggested we do a 30-day challenge.

Well, we’re about halfway through already, and I can tell you that it’s harder than I thought. In the beginning, ideas were exploding all over the place and it would take me about 10 minutes to write a draft of something. Cut to several weeks later, and I’m staring at my notebook, wondering if I could get away with writing another nonsensical haiku to meet the deadline. True, we have no way of making sure that people aren’t just recycling already-written work, but there’s no point of doing the challenge if you’re just going to cheat.

So anyway, this has been occupying my brainspace for a while (along with reading articles/books for my thesis, translating a knock-off Transformers script for work, and watching an ungodly amount of Game of Thrones). I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote about one of the magical forces that’s keeping me going: coffee.

“Coffee”

Sweet poison of mine
who breathes life with every kiss
and death once away

strangle my insides
set fire to my mind and fly
phoenix-winged as dawn —

strike fast the heavens
curl up like the smoke-tails
that rise from my tongue,

my “Hallelujah”
your inferno and rebirth —
my teeth, but your bite.

Look Up

All across the United States, people looked through comically-shaped paper glasses to the skies, where the heavens were on display. My Facebook feed exploded with friends who had traveled all the way to Portland, Oregon to join the eclipse-watching party, as well as those who stayed closer to home and saw what they could. (And also pictures of overcast skies and comments like “So glad I could see the eclipse.”)

Here in Hangzhou, the skies have been a brilliant blue, with fluffy white clouds rarely seen this side of the Pearl Delta. Rainstorms have come and go, and in the evenings after the sun finally goes down (along with the temperature), the streets take on an orange-ish glow from the street lamps. There’s not much sky to be seen from the ground view, and much of the heavens get overtaken by the lights and buildings surrounding me like cornrows. Now that it’s extra hot outside, I stay in more.

Yet, I never fail to look up anyway.

Most of the time, I can only see a handful of stars, if even that. Sometimes I see silvered clouds and the moon dancing along them like a gypsy. On the rare occasion I see a full constellation, I usually message a friend and tell them to look outside before it goes away.

To some, this probably sounds sad. That’s just the way it is in urban China, and it makes us city-dwellers appreciate the skies all the more, and all-out rejoice when there are blue skies. And whenever I go back to the US, I’m always floored by the brilliant skies and colors that abound.

So now in the hazy summer days of Hangzhou, I instead look up from the reading nook in my bedroom. From this vantage point, I’m looking up through the Tibetan prayer flags I’ve put in the window, and into the sky beyond. Some nights, I see nothing but the faint press of stars behind haze. Others, a silent lightning storm stuck in the clouds, its white cracks splitting the sky in half.

Most of the time, I see a moment that hasn’t gotten devoured by other lights and other deadlines, and that in itself is worth looking up into.

Breathless in Hangzhou

Unlike in Tibet, you notice it almost right away: the thick squeeze of air all around you, the sauna-like soup of atmosphere condensing into your lungs. You exert yourself but a little bit, and you’re drenched in sweat, panting from the exertion. But this time, it’s not because of high altitude, it’s because of heat.

I’ve already been back in Hangzhou for over a week, and though it’s a wildly different place from Lhasa, I find myself still breathless. The quickened pace along the streets to get groceries and settle back into researching my thesis, the sense of sluggishness when I actually try to accomplish these things. Heat makes me turn into molasses.

Lhasa already feels as far away as the sun. My coffee packets that expanded to their breaking points due to altitude in Tibet have now shrunk back to normal size. My heart beats, sated, at a slower pace.

And yet, I breathe short breaths on opposite sides of China. It’s as though my lungs still remember Tibet, and that the thick heat of Hangzhou functions as a foil for my time on the road.

And late at night, as I lay in bed before my giant fan, I now watch prayer flags flutter in my window, neatly silhouetted by street lights outside. Yes, Lhasa is far away now, but in my room, I’m surrounded by it on all sides, and as I’m breathless once more, it feels closer than ever.

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.

To Kiss the Clouds

I was warned that I might not actually see Mount Everest, because it’s the rainy season in Tibet, and nature is fickle. But seeing it or not, I was still determined to make the journey there. I wanted to feel what it was like to stand on the rooftop of the world, and was not that hung up on snapping the perfect photo.

At this point in the trip, I was the only traveler, the other two in my group not having signed up to see Everest. We left Shigatse and wove into the barren wasteland that is the Himalayas. At times, I got glimpses of snow-capped mountains, and at others, cloud-drenched rock. WeChat Image_20170723175107We entered what I like to call “The Road of Insanity” because it’s a very rough, relentless dirt road that lasts for several hours. Dust billowed in the sky, at times twirling into dust devils or cloaking the other cars altogether. Desert sand lumped into moguls. Blunt rock jabbed out of the earth. Still, we climbed.

I got my first glimpse of Mount Everest after we had snaked our ways up a sloping mountain, and after we’d passed striated, almost lava-like cliffs that I was told were the tectonic plates pressing together. We stopped at the top, and embedded in clouds, I saw the base of the world’s tallest mountain. WeChat Image_20170723175245I thought the elevation would go down from there, but after we went down the mountain slope, we entered the valley of giants, in which we were surrounded by snow caps and my ears popped every three seconds from their sheer height. The rock turned grey, barren. And in the midst of this massive display of stone, Everest Base Camp appeared as a collection of large black tents.

We took a bus to an outlook for Mount Everest, with workers toting oxygen bottles in every other seat. The mountain’s peak poked through the top and within its white cloak, it lay in wait.

But I hadn’t come to Mount Everest to just look at it and call it a day. If I had, I would be quite disappointed and deemed the trip ruined because of clouds.

It’s a queer thing climbing in the clouds, though, which I experienced the next morning hiking the distance we’d covered by bus the previous night. You don’t realize you’re inside of a cloud because no matter the altitude, you always think the clouds are higher. But out here, we met the clouds face to face, and as I walked the slow, breathless walk to the outlook, I could feel the clouds on my lips like mist.

I couldn’t see Mount Everest that morning, but I could feel it all around me. It was in the stones I walked upon (and yes it counts: I hiked on Mount Everest), it was in the air I breathed, and most of all, it was in the clouds I kissed as I went to greet it face to face.