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…
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.
The date has been set. The time has come. After all of the preparation and all of the hours at work, I’m ready.
I’m actually going to start writing my thesis.
Well, at least I will on Tuesday. First, I’m going to go to Shanghai for a “Battle of the Bards” poetry competition and a translation master class, and then I’m going to figure out how to publish a booklet of poetry for the HZ Writer’s Association, and then I’m going to veg all day because it’ll be my birthday on Monday…and then I’ll start. So, I’ll get there eventually, right?
“Eventually” has taken a long time up until now, though. Just last year, I was doing my thesis proposal, quickly realizing that since I hadn’t been able to read all of the materials in time, I was in no shape to spit out a paper. Since I’m on a 3-year scholarship, though, I didn’t have to just yet, and so for the past YEAR I have been re-collecting and actually reading the materials in greater detail.
And then, right when I was at the brink of insanity (actually laughing out loud at how some scholars can take a simple idea and make it pedantic beyond comprehension…seriously, I’m reading a science fiction book IN CHINESE and can understand it better than some English scholarly articles and their muscle-flexing thesaurus skills) I thought “enough of this” and made a comprehensive outline, slapping my sources into categories and said “I’m coming for you.”
On Tuesday, that is.
You want to know what my thesis is about? No you don’t. It’s complex. It involves translating E. E. Cummings’ visual poetry. I’ve read about oracle bone Chinese script. I’ve discovered that celebrated poet Ezra Pound sometimes signed letters as “Ez’ Po”. I’ve discovered some genuinely hilarious scholars low-key sassing each other in their “he said this but I disagree” sections, and I found a scholar who called Cummings’ letter-writing skills “linguistic jabberwocky.”
All you really need to know is that I’ve got my thesis cornered now, and am ready to batten down the hatches for the next round. What is that, you (maybe didn’t) ask?
“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.
I’ve been told many times that fall is not the best time to experience Dongbei. You either go in the summer when it’s most comfortable and fun, or you go in the dead of winter when the snow-scapes are at their best. But I chose to go in the fall because I wanted to try and find red leaves, and because my summer was a time for Tibet.
As I mentioned in my previous post, Dalian was not quite red yet. I’d come perhaps a week or two too early to really see red. True, I still managed to find some scant fall foliage, but it was hardly what I’d been expecting.
Changchun (in Jilin province) on the other hand, was an entirely different matter.
“You’re too late,” a rough-voiced taxi driver outside of Changchun said. I was on my way to a place tantalizingly called ‘The Red Leaves Valley.’ “You should have come during National Holiday two weeks ago. The leaves were red then.”
I thought he was exaggerating, and so went ahead to the valley, thinking I could still catch some pretty leaves.
Boy, was I wrong.
It’s a funny thing with Dongbei: it’s bigger than I thought. One part can still have many green leaves, while another be practically barren. I thought about this as I walked through the ironically-named (at that time) “Red Leaves Valley,” thinking that there was nothing more forlorn than walking through a forest of bare branches. Positive spin: it very much put me in the Halloween mood I’d been seeking in my ghost stories.
“It’s not so bad,” I tried to say to the taxi driver.
He shook his head. “You’re too late,” he repeated. “You shouldn’t have come here.”
“Does that mean you’ll lower the price?”
He didn’t say anything.
Not to be deterred, I headed out to a local park the next day, not too far from my couchsurfing host’s home. The sky was a crisp blue (the kind that’s rare in the north once the heaters are turned on). I wandered inside and saw several clumps of trees with some orange still intact.
“There now,” I thought. “Maybe I’m not too late after all.”
I snapped photos of them from beneath, where the sun shone through them like fire. (Because sometimes leaves are like people: unimpressive from one angle, brilliant when given a chance to shine). As I walked through the park, I saw cat-tails by the pond in light browns, and single trees shining in light yellows. I took picture after picture, feeling pleased with myself for my life choices and inwardly cackling at the taxi driver (who did later lower the price when I whined about it, but then cussed me out later insisting that as a foreigner, “I obviously was rich.” Jerk.)
When looking through the photos later, I was struck by something.
“These trees look an awful lot more green than I remember…”
That’s when I realized something: I had been looking at them through my tinted sunglasses the whole time.
So, maybe people are right and fall is not the best time to go to Dongbei because the leaves are pretty unpredictable. But, sometimes you can get lucky, sunglasses notwithstanding.
“It’s so great to be in Dongbei,” I said to my taxi driver. “I’m a northerner in the United States, too.”
“Oh, this isn’t the north,” he said, steering me through the winding roads in the seaside city Dalian. “It’s more like the south of the north. Once you get to Harbin or Changchun, THAT’S the real north.”
At first I didn’t believe him, thinking he just wanted to act all macho (since he was from Changchun originally), but after experiencing Dalian for several days, I’d have to agree with his sentiment. Yes, Dalian gets really freaking cold in the winter, but at heart, it sings a song of summer.
What can I say? I loved it anyway.
I loved that, even though by northern standards October ought to be getting chilly and grim, I and my exuberant Irish couchsurfing host could walk along the seaside with salt stinging our skin. I loved that, while I was reading ghost stories on the train to get in an October mood, the sun shone bright and the trees swayed green. I loved that people complained of it getting cold when all anyone really needed was a light windbreaker, but ate hot pot anyway to stay warm. I loved that after going out drinking, we could all walk out to the seashore like it was still summer, despite these very windbreakers and sweaters. I loved that people would say “yeah, winter is coming,” but still see public service announcements asking people not to barbecue outside on the streets.
Dalian experiences winter with a wink. Though it does get cold (and it will get cold soon!) there’s an exuberance about it that dances until the moment when the curtain actually goes all the way to the stage floor.
And I’d like to go back, when the curtain’s all the way up, in the summer with the sea.
Dongbei. 东北。In Chinese this means “The Northeast,” but it carries with it a whole host of connotations. It’s the place where the people are hardened from tough winters, where “bottoms up” really means you will finish whatever’s in your glass, and where the thick curled Chinese accent emerges. People from Dongbei I’m told rarely leave Dongbei and miss it whenever they do.
“Hangzhou’s too hot,” a taxi driver told me on the way from a train station.
“Yeah, but you went there in the summer,” I said. “Try the fall or the spring.”
He shook his head. “Too hot. Dongbei is better.”
Dongbei food is heavy, with meat and potatoes. Dumplings are everywhere.
I couldn’t wait.
Since this is my last big trip in China, I’m trying to give it the theme of “Hannah’s Believe it or Not” by seeking out unusual things. There is red seaweed, UFO sightings, chocolate dumplings, hotels built like castles. But more than that, there’s me, the person reading ghost stories on the train heading north, who leans into the window as heavy fog (and yes, I’m sure it was fog) shrouds the buildings and trees in dark gloom, who writes ghost stories as the lights go out.
Dongbei is where the wind howls. And in the North, I howl back.