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).

Haunted4

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.

Haunted5

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.

 

 

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.

Batten Down the Hatches: The Thesis Saga

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?

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?

Actually writing it in Chinese.

We’re gonna need a bigger boat.

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.