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.

你好,旗袍 (Hello, Qipao!)

In the grand tradition of freebies, I agreed to volunteer for Hangzhou’s International Qipao Exhibition in exchange for a free custom-made qipao dress. I’ve done a lot of events and things for Hangzhou’s tourism bureau (some of which include: helping to choose the slogan “Living poetry,” being in a couple G20 promotional videos, and even editing the city brochure.) This time, I went in with absolutely no idea of what I was supposed to do.

I mentioned the etiquette class I took in another post (link here), remembering that we learned not only how to walk, but also the proper ways to pose. They were described as “pains.” Headache: hand on head. Toothache: hand near chin. Backache: hand on waist.

qipao pains
Or any combination thereof


‘Ah, so we’re going to be models,’ I thought.

Well…sort of.

The day began at 6:30 am at the umbrella museum by the Grand Canal, where hordes of high-schoolers were waiting to do our hair and make-up. I asked, and it turns out that they had been studying cosmetology for the past 2 years, and so were brought in to help us get ready. I’m pleased to say that I’ve reached the level of adulthood where I can handle eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick, but was grateful to have someone do it for me nonetheless. When it came to hair however…

“Yeah, it’s naturally curly, so it might be different,” I said.

“This is NATURAL????” the high-schooler said. “Holy shit!”

I watched her freak out as her teacher came over to calmly tell her to just put it up in some way. When it was all done, she nudged me with her cell phone for a couple pictures.

But lest we forget…the qipao!

qipao classic

I was part of the Zhejiang University group, and we had been told that we could not choose our designs (which was fair, considering they were FREE). So we just went to the area to grab the ones with our names on it. I mean literally. My name is on the tag. I am my own brand. My qipao’s design was an artistic rendition of Hangzhou’s Baochu Pagoda (which incidentally is my favorite spot), which had been especially designed for this qipao exhibition. It was smooth. It was silk. It was as fancy as I’d hoped it would be.

But what, pray tell, was I supposed to DO in it?

As it turned out, just be in group shots, do interviews with TV stations, and generally be a pretty extra in a film advertising the qipao exhibition. The director apparently wanted 1,000 foreign women to sign up so he could get a shot of qipao-laden crowds. We didn’t quite have 1,000, but we did get enough to fill both sides of the bridge for a shot welcoming others to the Grand Canal.

qipao bridge

I was approached by a reporter near the beginning, and I’ll admit that I was a little dazzled by all of the qipao. She asked me how qipao reflected the cultural landscape of Hangzhou, and I just dumbly pointed to my own qipao and said, “Look! It’s Hangzhou. It’s literally on my dress. My qipao literally IS the landscape of Hangzhou!” I do kind of hope she uses that in her report.

We posed on the bridge, and then went to West Lake for more video shots. By this point, many of the other girls were eying my low-heeled sensible shoes with envy. We had to walk along a crooked bridge (which apparently were made crooked in ancient times to slow down ghosts, since ghosts can’t make sharp turns. The more you know!) I was part of the group that held up the sign, which was all well and fine until we had to walk along the bridge. We fumbled over the inclines, slowed down the line, and were generally cussing along in a very unladylike way.

Film it again? Naw.

In terms of duties, that was about it. We had to pose for group shots for a video I hope I can see at some point. The other girls crowded around me to ask what happened next, assuming that since I was the translator from the lesson, I knew what was going on. (Also, years of being a teacher have taught me how to say absolutely nothing with absolute authority.) In the end, we just took a bunch of pictures by the lake.

And, of course, we remembered to pose with the “pains.”

True, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and freebies usually come with strings attached, but this time, I got a fancy dress out of it. Freebies have never done me wrong! (knock on wood…)

Huang Yazhou and the Hangzhou Writers Association

So, I’ve already written about the little poetry group that could in Hangzhou (now complete with a fancy name: The Hangzhou Writer’s Association, with our own website here!). Usually we just do open mics/slams (and occasional nature walks). This month, we did something a little different: we got the chance to welcome local poet Huang Yazhou for a seminar on his poetry.

How do you possibly make such connections, you might ask? Well, one of our friends who regularly attends open mics, Helen, is his good friend/student, and basically told us she could make it happen.

In the weeks leading up to the seminar, we got our hands on copies of his bilingual collections of poetry. Helen asked us to take pictures with them, and so on the night of the seminar, she had a nifty power-point with our pictures as background. She made a lot happen: free copies of his books, gifts, free drinks, and even some press to come and cover the event. (And all I can say is daaaaaamn Helen!)

The evening itself was centered around Huang Yazhou’s poetry. To be honest, though I’ve attended seminars before, I’d never planned one. Helen suggested an open mic reading of his poems followed by some time for Q&A. So shall it be written, so shall it be done.

Turns out that Huang Yazhou is super nice and has a good sense of humor! I asked him about a line in his preface that said, “Poetry is a dance for the young.” His response? A quote from writer Borges “If one is still writing poetry at 70, then he is a true poet,” and his observation: “I’m not quite 70 yet, so I don’t think I can truly call myself a poet. Almost, though!” Other questions included what Huang Yazhou would say to his younger self, to which he said, “I wish I could be like all of you, who come here to enjoy poetry not because it’s your job, but because you really do love it. That, to me, is a wonderful thing.”

I guess I sometimes do take it for granted to be in a collection of people who like poetry not because it’s expected of them, but because they actually factually just like poetry. It’s not as common as you’d think, and when we can get together to welcome a new voice, it’s indeed a wonderful thing.

Of course, the event itself took a lot of planning and effort (and that’s outside of all that Helen did). People approached me to ask when the next one would be, and not gonna lie, a tired “beer me now” voice in my head thought “Not for a long time!” But in the end it’s worth it. We’ll do it again, and hopefully we’ll do other wonderful things in our group. And as long as we keep truckin’ all the way until we’re 70, then maybe we’ll be true poets, too.

Walk Like a Lady

I remember seeing my junior year college roommate once slide on a towering pair of stillettos.

“How can you walk in those?” I said. “Won’t you break your ankle?”

“Nah,” she said. “I took classes when I was younger. These are as comfortable as tennis shoes.”

At the time, I could only take her word for it, positive that no amount of classes could ever make me love spiky death-traps. Little did I know, I would have to take a walking class of my own someday.

Several months back, I signed up to volunteer for Hangzhou’s International Qipao Exhibition, an event meant to celebrate and show off the culture and history of the Qipao (旗袍, sometimes translated as cheongsam).

This type of dress (image courtesy of Google)

Not gonna lie, the big draw to volunteer at this exhibition is that all volunteers get a FREE CUSTOM-MADE QIPAO.

Um, yes.

When would you wear a Qipao? Whenever you feel like looking and feeling fabulous, basically. Or, whenever you managed NOT to eat an entire cake and therefore want to show off your curves.

To volunteer at the exhibition, we ladies have to do more than nab out dress and run for the hills. Though, from our scant training time thus far, it seems like most of what we’ll have to do is walk and pose. Or at least that’s the impression I got from our qipao etiquette class last week.

Chinese etiquette class? My first thought was that scene in Mulan when she has to pour the tea. Were we going to have to flutter around pouring tea at precise angles, complimenting our guests in flattering but unobtrusive ways? Would I accidentally sic a cricket on them and bring dishonor on my family?

No to the tea-pouring, maybe to the cricket.

First off, we had to learn about the qipao itself. I was acting as Chinese-English interpreter that day, and quickly learned that there are a lot of Chinese adjectives that all basically say “Qipao’s are really beautiful and refined.” I did my best to convey the magnificence of the qipao, though to be honest at a certain point, was grateful to move on to the actual lesson. My inner thesaurus was quickly getting exhausted.

Me smiling to hide the internal screaming.

The women in charge, dressed in qipao themselves, stood ramrod straight and walked as if doing a dance. They told us that posture was very important: shoulders back, chest high, chin down, eyes level, with a slight smile to tell viewers “No, I’m not thinking very hard about every body part right now.” To sit, we would have to smooth out the back of our dresses and could only sit on the front third of the chair.

“Backs straight, shoulders back! Smile!” they reminded us. Lucky for me, years of orchestra have prepared me for seated posture. I was not so prepared for the poses, though.

“We pose as if in pain,” the woman said. I translated it, to much amusement from my foreign classmates. She nodded, affirming that I was right. “Think of it: my tooth aches,” she rested her hand on her chin in a cute pose, “my head hurts,” she put the back of her hand on her forehead, “my back hurts,” she placed a hand near her back. “Isn’t it lovely?”

Well, it didn’t sound lovely, but as I watched her pose with ease, I had to admit that the pains paid off.

The hardest part of our lesson, however, was definitely the walking. You’d think that walking would be fairly straightforward, but since qipao are tight dresses, we had to get used to taking delicate, small steps. We also had to carry ourselves with good posture, and of course…

“Smile!” she said. “And don’t look at your feet!”

We had to take each step as if walking in a straight line, and had to try and make our knees swish together. Some girls didn’t have their high heels yet. I had my cheater high heels: the kitten heels that were about as close as I was willing to get.

“Great!” she said, though I felt like a galumphing elephant next to her. “Now we’re going to try it with umbrellas!”

We each got an umbrella,  and found out that there was a specific way to hold the umbrella, that whenever we wanted to turn around, we had to first pose, lower the umbrella until our faces peeked out, and then twirl them four times before going back. The maneuver took several tries before we were deemed acceptable. But then, it was time for the fans.

Fierce AF

Like the umbrellas, the fans also required special maneuvers to walk/turn around. We had to hold them two fists away from our chests, and then turn them upside down before turning around to walk back. I can’t speak to how it looked, but I definitely had to translate the fan placement enough times that I’ll definitely get that part.

Me, trying to smile while not dropping my fan.

I never realized that so much went into this. I guess I assumed that for this event, we would mostly be posing in pretty places around Hangzhou while exhibition-goers filled their SIM cards with photos, or just giving directions or handing out pamphlets or something. For all I know now, we’ll be doing some kind of runway extravaganza!

If that’s the case, I’ll have to look up a lot more synonyms for “Walk like a lady,” because my own vocabulary is lacking.

Into the Hills

I wasn’t wearing the right shoes: that much was clear. They were tall leather black boots, the soles worn thin from many walks (strides and struts even) around the city I call home. I should have worn my comfy hiking boots, or even tennis shoes, but then again, I hadn’t left the door planning on entering Hangzhou’s Longjing (Dragonwell) hills either. I’d planned to take care of some paperwork for school at another campus, and then return to my own campus library ti read about ancient Chinese characters, the solitary soundtrack of tapping laptops as my companion.

But as soon as I’d dealt with the paperwork and hopped on my new ebike, Mustang, the breeze felt so inviting, the trees misting green with such care that I decided to take a long detour. Mustang had a full charge. I was on no one’s schedule but my own. It was time for a trip into Hangzhou’s wilder side.

HZ nature 2

I began by cruising past Zhejiang University’s Yuquan campus, onto Yugu Road, where in a matter of minutes, I was surrounded by greenery. Being a Wednesday afternoon, there weren’t as many tourists meandering under the flower blossoms. I could pause whenever I felt like it, admire the flower, and then keep going. I followed the route I used to take for a girl I tutored, only this time, I revved Mustang up the hill on Longjing Road and around the curved path until the city faded as a distant memory. Farmers in straw hats bent over Longjing tea fields, harvesting Hangzhou’s famed tea leaves. Brides and grooms plodded along for their wedding photos. Bikers tottered past, and I climbed up the hill past them all.

HZ nature

I pulled over at a stone, moss-covered path that disappeared into the trees. The uneven stones jagged and prodded my boots, but I kept going, trying to gauge how old the stones must be, why perhaps they had been built in the first place. Small rivulets of water rippled in the sun, trickling down to the road not several yards from where I stood.

Up the hill and over, I saw teahouses, pavilions, and scatterings of strangers gathered to play cards and eat sunflower seeds. I saw pools of goldfish, flowers budding and yawning open, and more bushes of longjing leaves. I never rushed. I never dawdled, either. I let my ill-prepared feet guide me along until I was back on Mustang, and cruising down the hill back to my own Xixi Campus, into the library marked “Quiet” my bottle of peach tea in hand.

Back at the Shanghai International Literary Festival I attended last month, Irish short story author Claire Keegan said “Our emotions are in our feet. Where they take us, and where they refuse to go; that’s where our passion is.” I find this to be true. Sometimes our feet take us to fantastical places, sometimes they simply keep us from bad ones. In my case, my feet took me far and away into my own home. That’s the beauty of Hangzhou: it takes very little effort to find nature, to let our feet carry us into beauty. In one hour, I entered another world, and still made it back in my leather boots to read my Chinese book, as if nothing out of the ordinary happened.

But my feet will remember, and come another fine spring day, they might take me on another journey. That’s the beauty of familiar places: there’s passion to be found in every corner.

A World of Verse

Flash back to April. It’s Shakespeare’s birthday/deathday, and Katie and I are in a coffee shop, nervously moving tables around until the clock strikes 7:30 pm. Chinese, expat, all sorts of people filter in, and sit at the tables with drinks and random pads of paper. We welcome them, and our Great Experiment begins: our very own Hangzhou poetry slam.

I’ve participated in poetry slams before, but will admit that it had been a while (though I can still remember pacing backstage as I ran through a young poem I’d only recently written). I’d done it in Decorah, Iowa, a very warm community that welcomed anyone to try and never faulted anyone that did. That was what the spirit of poetry events ought to be in my mind, and Katie agreed, having been in poetry events herself in the US. Sadly, the school-run poetry events that I’d attended at Zhejiang University were very stilted, complete with professors offering critique after each one, though it was advertised as a mere poetry reading. “It needs…more,” they would say, and everyone would ‘mmmm’ though I’d read an English poem that no one understood. I thought of that moment in Amadeus when the critique was “too many notes.” This felt so wrong for poetry. I never saw people laugh or smile or go “mmhmm” or “yeah!” during the poems, and as they were read, they felt like static pages dropped from a book. Katie and I agreed: we could do better. (Besides, if you want something to exist in the world, you have to create it yourself.)

Pass over a couple bumpy poetry nights, some successful because of the enthusiastic participants, others less-so because we hadn’t quite tapped into the literary community just yet and had sparse turnouts. We substituted slams for writing activities, and then…

Fast forward to now. November 19, the day before my 27 birthday (a number that always seemed faraway until I actually reached it.) The room is packed, and as we announce the sign-up sheet for both the slam and the open mic portion, people come forward with enthusiasm. Some of the writers clutch their notebooks to their chests and apologize before even beginning, and by the end, they’re loud and clear in the slam as we say “tell me more! Keep going!” with our applause. First-timers say “I’ll be back!” as we hand out the prizes (this time, English books instead of random keychains), and even when the event ends, poets linger to share more. “Have you read this poem?” “I liked this line that you said! Tell me more!” “Can we hang out more?” There’s a hunger for the written word, a need perhaps cultivated by the surrounding blare of Chinese characters on the streets. In class or attending lectures, I feel as though there is simply too much to say, but no way to get it out because I simply lack the vocabulary. And yet here we are, making verses, sharing words, and arriving at those big numbers in our lives without a second thought and with a hunger for even more.

I’m not sure what the future will hold for these events, but I do hope that the welcoming spirit that found me in Decorah and took me by the hand into the world of spoken poetry continues to live on in Hangzhou.


Where the Lightning Trees End

I resisted it for over four years: the silent death of churning wheels cascading over sidewalks. I said I would just as soon ride a bike and take it slow. I said I detested those machines and how they owned the roads, sidewalks, and exhales between cars. But when I saw my friend post an ad for his secondhand electric bike and when I saw the price, I resisted no longer. I gave in to all that my friends said, that those wheels would radically change how I viewed Hangzhou, and would in turn radically change my life.

I took to the roads on my clanky ebike, on a nighttime mission to find lightning trees.

On the whole, I’m pretty resistant to new technology. I remember how long I waited to actually ride a bicycle, how I hesitated before getting a slider cell phone in college, how I debated over getting a smart phone my second year in China, and how I didn’t want to use Alipay, the online payment system that is quickly making cash obsolete in China. I wanted to keep the hum of technology at a low volume, to feel the sensation of money disappearing from my fingers. I wanted to be able to disappear and be unreachable for long stretches of time. I wanted slow, silent days to accompany my thoughts.

Well, life in a city is different. Just trying to get to those lightning trees takes about 45 minutes of biking through congested downtown traffic. Buses are even slower, and when buses get trapped in turn-lanes, it’s hard not to watch those ebikes weaving in and out traffic with envy.

So I listened to my friend explain his old bike to me — how to charge it, how to lock it, how he had added extra power to it and had obtained all of the legal license plates and registration. And I plotted where I would take it for a test ride on my own.


When the time came, I flicked on the headlights. My roommate helped me put on a reflector armband, and I checked the brakes, letting myself glide to a gradual halt when I saw other pedestrians. Then, I left our apartment complex to enter a Hangzhou that I already knew quite well.

I turned back the handle — oh god! Walkers! Glide, honk, brake, glide, my feet skimming the surface of the asphalt. Up ahead, a stoplight. Oh god. Glide, brake, plant feet. The night was not so much an evening jaunt as it was a blur of headlights, stoplights, illuminated cell phone lights, and dark shapes passing along sidewalks as I glided, braked, stopped, glided along the bike lane. A red light, my heart pounding as I rehearsed how I would get started again. Along Beishan Road along West Lake, turning into bright-light cityscape as I entered the Nanshan Road area.

I already knew the route, and was used to it taking perhaps 40 minutes. In about 20, however, I was already close. Not only that, but roads that I knew felt somehow less congested. I could honk at pedestrians walking in the bike lane. I could glide past silently, too, if there was enough space and I wanted to hear the patter of passing feet.

Then, I turned the corner onto Nanshan Road and Hangzhou was like I’d never seen before. I saw where the lightning trees ended.


As sudden as rain, the canopy of well-lit trees draped over the sidewalk, strings of white Christmas lights wrapped around the boughs. The streaks of white against black were like negative images of trees, as if by cracking across the sky they became exclamation points in Hangzhou. I scooted forward, enjoying the silence of the motor, and the smoothness of asphalt. I followed the tunnel of lightning trees, underneath the signs that had been made for the G2o saying “Welcome to Hangzhou!” and processed my way toward the other side of the area, where one tree branch flickered, as if being erased and drawn over and over again. Light rain flecked my jacket, but none of it mattered. I had a full battery. I could go beyond the lightning trees and into the dark street beyond it. I could get lost and find my way back, and I could do it on creeping wheels.

I only went along the tunnel and then back, relishing the feel of the “Welcome to Hangzhou” sign as I passed it again.

Indeed, where the lightning trees end, it was as though I was entering a new Hangzhou, where distance was only a concept, and I could connect scattered scenes together and re-map a home I have come to know so well.

It’s never too late to rediscover home.