Dispatches from Shanghai: Feb. 1

Less than a month ago, I was sitting in the office of my workplace, Shanghai-based online news organization Sixth Tone. One of the news editors mentioned a new mysterious pneumonia-like virus in Wuhan that had appeared in the Chinese media. There were roughly 50 confirmed cases and no evidence of human-to-human transmission.

Well, suffice to say things have changed since then as medical workers and scientists have gained better understandings of the novel coronavirus and how to identify it. It is transmitted between people, and the incubation period is about 14 days. It covers a range of symptoms, the main ones being fever, cough, difficulty breathing. (In rare cases, death, seemingly with those who have chronic or preexisting conditions).

Leading up to the Lunar New Year holiday, things were hectic in the office. Sixth Tone has been busy writing rolling updates on how China has been combatting the spread — be it by cancelling the debut of holiday movies to keep people from congregating, offering full ticket refunds in advance of the travel season to keep people at home, and keeping mask vendors from ratcheting up prices amid increased demand. Right before the holiday, we even had to scramble to update a long-planned pet cafe article to include space/commentary on the wild animal trade believed to be a major factor in the emergence of the coronavirus and ask interviewees to respond to this. We had to publish it several days before the intended due date in case the situation changed even more and the poor writer’s work became unusable.

I left the country for a weeklong trip on Jan. 23 to the Philippines with Katie, a good friend of mine. Things had been getting so intense in China in terms of keeping people at home/out of crowded places that I had briefly considered canceling the trip to avoid the transit. I’m glad I didn’t. We got to spend quality time together, go scuba diving, snorkeling, canyoning, beaching, and we generally relaxed around the dive resort where we were staying. Every time we went scuba diving and snorkeling together, we saw sea turtles! And we both felt at ease, watching stunning sunsets and sipping smoothies.

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It was a welcome reprieve, but now I’m back in Shanghai, and I’m part of the group of plucky expats and locals who are making the best of the situation. Of course people are worried, but we are not panicked. We keep washing our hands, wearing masks when out (more to come on why masks matter, even if just symbolically), and generally trying to mainly be social online and not in-person. A friend of mine orchestrated what she called a “Plague Week Book Club” which would have people via conference call chatting about that month’s book. The Shanghai Writer’s Workshop is putting together an anthology of virus-related creative works, and a friend of mine and his wife, in the throes of their self-quarantine boredom, re-enacted all nine Star Wars movies with blankets and sticks. Some people are still going for walks (masked) in the empty streets of Shanghai. Some are using the solitude to finish projects.

All of this is to say that though this may seem like a scary time to be alive, life keeps going nonetheless. I may be working from home for the next couple of weeks; I might be delaying activities in the city; I may occasionally freak out when I get the sniffles (the disembodied voice of my sister in my ears from when I once called her back in college thinking my roommate had swine flu: “Got a fever? No? Then it’s not the flu.” to keep me rational), but by and large I’m optimistic (and also fortunate to be living in a first-tier city with excellent medical resources).

It’s now the Year of the Rat. It’s a precarious start to the year to be sure, but here we are! I will try to keep you updated on my daily life as the situation progresses and (hopefully) abates soon. Fridge is stocked. Cooking will commence. And hey, if you know any good multi-meal recipes (aka, one trip to grocery store, week’s worth of meals) I’m all ears!

For now, be healthy, be happy, be calm!

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.

Pilgrimage by Page

So you’ve probably noticed that it’s been a while.

Well, more than a while. It’s been over a year since I’ve written here, which is to say that it’s been quite the year, much of which spent trying to keep up with myself. Last time you checked, I was plodding away on my graduate thesis, which I wrote in Chinese (pauses to let ego expand a bit); contemplating where to work and how after graduation; and generally finding nooks and crannies in Hangzhou.

Okay, so I hit a bit of a snag with graduation, which delayed my thesis defense until the fall, had some family stuff to deal with, and a lil’ surgery because at that point why not. But damn it, I made it! Diploma in hand, I am a new Hannah. (That’s a lie: I’m the same idiot, this time with credentials). Since I work for online magazine Sixth Tone now though in towering Shanghai, I was able to write an article about that experience, which for nerds like me is the same as being an Avenger.

I never thought I would live in a big city, back when I was a senior in college. I really thought I would find nothing more than ennui in a place brimming with concrete or that I would despair at the shortage of scenic brooding spots that more nature-filled places offer.

I’m in one of the world’s biggest cities now though, finding not ennui but brie, and a new breed of brooding spot in the form of metro rides in this massive amalgamation of buildings and art deco decor, its wide range of expats meandering the streets, possibly wondering, too, how they even got there. It took me less time than I expected to adjust to city life, though Shanghai life is another beast. As a friend told me: You cannot live anywhere else in China after living in Shanghai. You will get Shanghai spoiled. I’ve been in the city for a year now, and I can confirm that, when the upscale brewery doesn’t carry my preferred imported beer or when I can’t find more than one type of cheese in the international grocery store and find a complaint winding up on the tip of my tongue, I am indeed spoiled, spoiled, spoiled.

(I love it).

Currently, though, I’m on vacation, sitting in my childhood bedroom after going on a multi-day hike with my mom on the Superior Hiking Trail. To feel the reverent silence of the trees is to understand why most pilgrimages happen on foot, as footfalls shake loose thoughts and connect you deeper to the world around you. You can finally catch up to yourself.

These past years, my writing has gone to other places, and so I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from this blog, but as I reconnect with my family and friends after time running amok amid those cornrows of buildings, I’m reminded that while some pilgrimages happen on foot, some happen on page.

And so I will try to update more regularly and welcome comments or questions for what you’d want to hear more about.

For now, another step.

 

 

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!

-Hannah

 

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:

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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!

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

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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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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.