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.

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Literary Shanghai

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There are four main things I seek out in Shanghai: good Western food, flights, friends and books.

Of course there are books in Hangzhou and even English language bookstores, but what Shanghai has that Hangzhou doesn’t (yet!) is a strong, prolific international literary community.

(But we’re working on that!)

I’d submitted a translation of a contemporary Chinese poem by Zhou Jingzhi to the Shanghai Literary Review and hadn’t expected much since it was my first translation attempt. But they accepted it, and in the following months, I worked with an editor to make it even better. I’d actually never worked with a proper editor before and was lucky that we had a good rapport. He made sensible suggestions and the end product indeed felt better than the one I’d submitted.

I came to the launch party excited if anything to meet the person behind the emails and other writers. As soon as I walked in and introduced myself, the head editor came over with a huge smile and said “It’s Hannah! We’re so happy you’re here! Welcome, Hannah!” And the translation editor came over to welcome me too, and in the course of the evening I met editors, painters, poets, and more.

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The editorial staff gave me and other contributors a bouquet of flowers, a keychain, and a free copy of the magazine.

Later we ate the cake they had ordered (though were also loathe to cut because of its impressive design).

I really do hope that the magazine takes off and does well. The editors were trying to create a more international magazine that could even find a place with lit magazines in New York.

Whatever happens in the future, I will at least revel in the glow of an evening schmoozing with my kind of people: the kind who find meaning in dust motes and with enough words to fly.

And now, as I disappear into the west, I carry that glow, along with a bouquet of flowers and a book of good words.

 

Forget the Thesis, Let’s Do the Time Warp!

I think it was fair to say that when I checked the thermostat and discovered that my hometown Lakeville in Minnesota was colder than Antarctica, I felt formally welcomed into a totally different world. (And despite friends’ claims that “Well, Antarctica is in the middle of summer and WELL it has been sunny for a couple of months straight…” it does not change the fact that MN is COLDER THAN FREAKING ANTARCTICA…and the surface of Mars, incidentally).

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You cannot deny the facts, sir!

Ice is everywhere, and though our local weatherman Paul Douglas said such cold is “like being dipped in battery acid” I did feel a distinct glee in every exclamation-point breath I took in the arctic land. It’s bracing. It hurts your face. It’s that elusive slice of home.

But wait…you might be thinking. Aren’t you in China?

Yeah.

In fact, I’m just in Minnesota for the holidays since for once, my schedule is open enough to take Christmas off. It was a decision that made me happy when I bought the plane tickets to make the journey, and then filled with downright manic joy the closer the date came to leave. But in between that time I bought the plane ticket and now, breathing in the ice cube air around me and marveling at our Christmas tree and shimmying to holiday tunes, stuff did happen. China stuff. Stuff not related to Christmas in the slightest.

Thesis stuff.

See, the thing I learned about getting a masters is that you go in thinking “All right, I’m going to LEARN!” and by the end you’re hunched over your computer trying to wrangle footnotes and cite things you might not have alluded to exactly, but sort of have an affinity for and why not have longer footnotes? And then, you have to do it all in Chinese.

Had I mentioned that before? Yes. I’m writing my thesis in Mandarin Chinese. That’s part of the deal with having a China Government Scholarship, though I’ve talked to plenty of international students who give up and write it in English anyway. (But I’m just too damn stubborn to do anything of the sort.)

I mean, I haven’t even written the thesis yet of course. These past couple of months were all about the thesis PROPOSAL, which sounds deceptively simple, and in fact took me a solid month of endless writing to complete a single draft. First, I wrote it myself. Then I brought it to my Chinese tutor, Flora, who was very kind, but also ripped it to shreds to fix grammar and awkward word choice. THEN I brought it to a doctorate classmate of mine who checked for logic/layout/content, and THEN I brought it before my professors to discuss and tell me how I ought to do it instead. On top of that, no one in the department really tells you what you have to do and when, and also neglects to mention what’s supposed to be in the damn proposal, so half of my time was spent bothering that poor doctorate student who probably thought “Are all foreigners this clueless?”

The actual proposal was a bit nerve-wracking because I had to regurgitate the painstakingly-wrought proposal and tell professors in a logical, composed and adult way what I planned to do. Naturally, I panicked and spouted a bunch of machine-gun-speed Chinese that mercifully ended and segued into their critique.

“Aw, don’t worry about it,” a Malaysian student told me before. “They don’t even read the proposals, and if yours is long, they’ll just trust what you’re saying.”

“Ehn, they let us foreign students get away with anything because they’re impressed enough that we speak Chinese,” an Italian student told me.

Both, in the end, were wrong. My professors had both read the proposal and had pointed critiques to make. To be honest, I was grateful, since it meant that I wouldn’t be coddled for mediocrity and would instead be pushed to be better.

So. All that happened. If it sounds time consuming, that’s because it is. As a result, I don’t properly remember the past month or so, though when I look at the facts of what I did, I realize that, empirically, other things did happen, whether or not I recall. It’s an instance of the Time Warp where the days blur and both feel eternally long, but also as if they’re shooting past, where time scrunches like an accordion, and it’s like those long flights I’m accustomed to, when you’re handed food when hungry and told “It’s night now. Try to sleep.”

Stuff happened: Poetry slams, my birthday, a photo shoot for professional head-shots, a music gig, tutoring two children, and oh so much more.

For now though, I’m just going to do the Time Warp and enjoy the fact that it’s now nearing the end of December, that I’m drinking my father’s drink “The Buddy Manhattan” which includes a pickle narwhal (inspired by the movie “Elf”), and that every time I step outside I can think both “Wow!” and “Ai ya!” when the battery-acid air decides to stop on by.

Merry Christmas.