Redefine “nerd” – my 8-year-old said it’s cool to be a nerd

One day, my daughter, who’s eight-year old, asked me, “Mama, am I a nerd?”

“No, you’re not,” I replied. “Why did you ask?” She does competitive gymnastics, plays soccer, is the fastest runner in her class, and has many friends.

She explained that one of her classmates had called her a nerd because she likes reading.

Indeed, my daughter is a voracious reader, often reading books as thick as a brick. She has her own collection and she checks out more than a dozen books from our local library every week. When she’s absorbed in reading, she forgets about her surroundings. Sometimes I become impatient with her because I have to call her many times for dinner before she answers.

When did loving reading make you a “nerd”? I can talk about our dwindling reading culture, our increasingly shortened attention span, our addiction to entertainment and social media, and even Trump’s anti-intellectual tendency. But rather, I want to redefine what being a nerd means.

According to the Merriam-Webster, a nerd is “an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person, especially one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” Clearly this definition is outdated, considering how much we depend on technology and all the things it brings along. In Silicon Valley where I live, nerds are everywhere and they are well respected. “Nerd” is the synonym of “devotion,” “innovation,” “industriousness,” and “ingenuity.”

Apple, Tesla, Google, Facebook…they’re all products created by nerds. I was reading a recent Vogue article about fashion designer Rei Kawakubo. She seems a nerd to me.

I like some of the Urban Dictionary’s definitions of “nerd.” Here are a few

  • One whose IQ exceeds his weight
  • People who’re smarter than you.
  • The person you will one day call “Boss”

I’m adding my definition: nerds are the ones who dictate and control, the ones who decide on our fate as a society.

That day, my daughter and I talked about what being a nerd means. Different definitions, different perspectives. She said, after a bit thinking, “Well, I think it’s cool to be a nerd. Isn’t the best thing in the world being passionate about what you love?”

I agreed.

(Featured image: My 5-year-old was mesmerized by a design at The Tech in San Jose, California.)

 

 

 

 

Meet my Mongolian translator, Aanjii

Since its first publication in Australia, my first novel, February Flowers, has been translated into nine languages (I did the Chinese translation myself). Two months ago, I received an email from a Mongolian girl named Altan erdene Sodnomragchaa and she said she was translating the book into Mongolian. She is currently studying Chinese in Taiwan.

Thus my correspondence with Aanjii began. I asked her about the naming culture in Mongolia, and she told me that Mongolians only call strangers by their full names, and they reserve special names for their family and friends. For her, she’s Altka for her family, Aanjii for her friends, Altan for her teachers,  啊薾妲 for her Taiwanese friends, and she has an English name too, Alice. Her Mongolian name means Golden Treasure.

In her letters to me, Aanjii talked about her loving family, her innocent, carefree childhood, where she was allowed to be just a child, and her study in Taiwan. Her family lives in Ulaanbaatar, a modern city where locals have access to movies and books from all over the world.

Ulaanbaatar

She told me that she resonated with Cheng Min, the younger one of the two main heroines in February Flowers, which made her want to introduce the book to the young people in her homeland.

I’ve had only a glimpse of the Mongolian culture through reading and other resources, including watching a BBC program about eagle hunting and training in the Western Altai Mountains in Mongolia. Mongolians seem such people with strength, warmth and a strong spirit.

Unlike February Flowers‘ other translators who have been commissioned by local publishers for their work, Aanjii is going to translate the book first, and then find a publisher in Mongolia. I admire her courage and hope that she’ll get a grant to help her.

Aanjii’s translating “February Flowers” into Mongolian

Aanjii wrote again last week and said that she would love to invite me to Mongolia for a book tour when the Mongolian version of February Flowers is released.

Aanjii, thank you for your hard work, and I so much look forward to seeing you in Mongolia someday. 😀

 

 

 

 

Nostalgia — bittersweet, like your favorite dark chocolates

The SF bay area, where I live, throngs with immigrants and transplants. Once I had dinner with friends, and we realized, with a bit amusement, that the twelve of us were from eleven countries.

So here comes nostalgia for me and many of my friends.

Nostalgia is a blend of memory and imagination. Nostalgia cannot be measured by logic. If it has a taste, it’s bittersweet, like your favorite dark chocolates.

An evening. A little before midnight. You taking a walk, alone, in your hometown which you haven’t visited for many years.

You walk in a mist that has made the city cold and foggy. A bus passes carrying only a few passengers, its wheels splashing through puddles. The air is unusually fresh—a treat, one may say. The thick daytime smoke from the giant chimneys of the chemical factories is temporarily dormant, so are the loud motorcycles and scooters that infest the city like locusts. Without the distraction of noises and crowds you begin to appreciate the low-slung, mustard-brick houses covered by overgrown ivy, wedged between newer condos, the pebble-surfaced alleys without streetlamps, and the thousand-year-old Clouds Pavilion that had been burned down and been rebuilt twenty or more times over the years.

A young night-shift worker in blue uniform is biking towards you, one hand holding an umbrella, the other inside his jacket. When you were a teenager you would ride hands-off, letting the bike snake through narrow, bumpy streets like a drunkard; it was considered cool. After passing you the man rings his bell—a ripple of crystal sounds: maybe a belated hello or merely for fun.

Just like that, your eyes are moist.

Featured image: Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang), one of my favorite Chinese writers. I’ll write about her in a future post.

 

Happy Mother’s Day!

I didn’t know what being a mother means until I became a mother myself. When my daughter was born prematurely and had to be in the NICU for three weeks, my mother called me from China and told me to take care of myself. “You need to be happy, healthy and strong for your newborn and your family,” she said.

Now I’m a mother of two children. Whenever I feel stressed, frustrated or exhausted, I think of my mother. How she raised five children on a remote state-run farm, where she, as a biologist, had to endure family tragedy, physical labor as well as political persecution. How she made clothes and shoes for my brothers and me after a long day of work, and how she brightened our shabby apartment with beautiful songs on her four-string lute (月琴), which she had played since a young age.

Later my mother returned to the city to be a librarian. In the evenings, when my brothers and I were doing homework, she would teach herself English. “If you keep learning, you will never grow old,” she once said to me. After retirement, she took up Chinese water-and-ink painting (水墨画) and, with passion and devotion, transformed herself into an artist. She still paints several hours every day.

My mother has taught me about industriousness, integrity, perseverance, and most importantly, love. The love of who you are. The love of learning. The love of life. Thank you, Mama.

Happy Mother’s Day!

 

Featured image: “Mom and Me,” Maya Cedergren, 8

Chai Jing (柴静) and her “Seeing” (看见)– China’s Conscience

Several years ago I visited China with my agent Toby Eady, and I had a chance to meet one of the most respected Chinese journalists, Chai Jing. After the meeting, I read her book “Seeing” (看见), a collection of investigative journalism reports and was deeply impressed. Several months later, she wowed me again with her self-financed documentary, “Under the Dome,” which tackles China’s severe environmental problems.

Chai Jing’s Kai Jian (Seeing) has sold well more than one million copies in China since its publication in 2012. It’s a charming blend of personal anecdotes, journalistic reports, social and cultural commentaries, and light philosophical meditation.

Until recent years, Chai had been a celebrity anchor at the Chinese Central Television (CCTV), the predominant state broadcaster in China which Chai first joined in 2001, and had hosted popular news-heavy programs such as “Horizon Connection,” “Journalistic Investigation,” “24 Hours,” and “One on One.” She was famous for her dedication to her subject matters, sharp and outspoken interview techniques, and also her unadorned beauty and gentle smiles. In a way, you can say she was China’s Barbara Walters.

“Seeing” is about people, the author declares in the preface. She says, “I didn’t choose purposely landmark events, nor did I have the ambition to depict the history. From the myriad of the journalistic work I have done, I only chose those about the people who had profoundly impressed me with their vitality.”

You meet these people chapter after chapter, each of the 12 chapters a standalone story. During the 2003 SARS outburst, desperate SARS patients were squeezed into the make-shift treatment areas, cared by unprepared but devoted medical staff, some of whom would later die from this pandemic while performing their duties.

In the story entitled “Shuang Cheng City’s Wounds,” five elementary school students from the same class attempted to committed suicide by taking poison within a week, and one died. Chai’s investigation takes her to meet the survivors and their families and friends to find out what is behind the tragedies.

You meet Yao Jiaxin, a talented college student who stabbed a peasant woman to death after a traffic accident. Also a taciturn German young man who lives in a poor village in Guangxi Province for years to be with liu shou er tong, children left behind by their parents because they have to work in the city to earning the living.

In the book, Chai intertwines her own stories with her news reporting. Through her interviews and investigation, through her traveling all over the country, you see how she has progressed from a promising yet naive college graduate to someone deeply humbled by what she’s heard and seen, someone asking provocative and penetrating questions without fear.

While chronicling her growth, Chai touches many corners of the Chinese lives in the past decade. In this sense, the book is also a journal of what China has gone through in this period, its historical baggage, its economic boom and social changes, and the huge price it often has to pay.

Featured image: me at a 荣宝斋 bookstore in Beijing

You’re not a fish, how do you know a fish’s happiness?

Two weeks ago, my kids had their spring break and our family went to Cancun together as the kids love the beach and snorkeling. We visited Chichen Itza, swam in a cenote, toured Isla Mujeres in a golf cart, drove a speedboat and snorkeled, and the kids swam with dolphins. We had a great time. Though we skipped the Sea World when we were in San Diego last summer as a protest against their whale shows, this time, my husband and I let the kids swim with the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery because they “really, really wanted to.”

The ticket girl tried to persuade me to participate in the program too, but I told her that on principle I don’t like intelligent animals such as dolphins being kept in captivity and used for entertainment. She assured me that the program was very educational and meant to teach people about dolphins. Then she smiled and said, “These dolphins are born in the facility and they’re very happy here.”

I refrained from the urge of asking her, “You’re not one of the dolphins, how did you know that they’re happy?” A question inspired by the famous debate between Zhuangzi and Huizi that took place more than two thousand years ago. My kids were jumping up and down, excited, and my husband was busy paying for the vouchers of our lunch buffet at the facility. I didn’t want to appear to be unkind.

And there was always a tiny tiny possibility that she would ask back, “You’re not one of the dolphins either, how do you know that they’re not happy?”

Rhetoric aside and dolphins aside, the debate between Zhuangzi and Huizi contains one big philosophical wisdom on life. Whenever I feel the temptation to judge someone harshly, I make myself remember the debate about a fish’s happiness. When Trump won the elections, I was shocked and baffled. So I read and listened to a lot of stories and arguments of his supporters. I’m still baffled but I feel I have a better understanding of the matter.

After all life is not about confrontation, but about conversations.

As for the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery in Cancun, maybe they’re happy there. But I’m pretty sure that they would be much happier in the open ocean, being with their own kind, blowing bubble rings and riding waves.


The debate between Zhuangzi and Huizi

莊子與惠子遊於濠梁之上。莊子曰:「儵魚出遊從容,是魚樂也。」惠子曰:「子非魚,安知魚之樂?」莊子曰:「子非我,安知我不知魚之樂?」惠子曰:「我非子,固不知子矣;子固非魚也,子之不知魚之樂全矣。」莊子曰:「請循其本。子曰『汝安知魚樂』云者,既已知吾知之而問我,我知之濠上也。」

     Zhuangzi and Huizi were crossing the Hao River by the dam.
Zhuangzi said, “See how free the fishes leap and dart: that is their happiness.”
Huizi replied, “Since you are not a fish, how do you know what makes fishes happy?”
Zhuangzi said, “Since you are not I, how can you possibly know that I do not know what makes fishes happy?”
Huizi argued, “If I, not being you, cannot know what you know, it follows that you, not being a fish, cannot know what they know. The argument is complete!”
Zhuangzi said, “Wait a minute! Let us get back to the original question. What you asked me was ‘How do you know what makes fishes happy?’ From the terms of your question, you evidently know I know what makes fishes happy.
“I know the joy of fishes in the river through my own joy, as I go walking along the same river.”

(Based on translation by Thomas Merton, The Way of Zhuang Tzu, New Directions Books, 1965)

Featured image: Cancun

Stendhal’s tombstone, “He lived, wrote, and loved.”

Lately, I’ve received quite a few monthly newsletters from writers, and most of them offered writing tips. While I’m happy for their accomplishments, regret that I cannot attend their book events at a cool place somewhere far from where I live, and feel disappointed with myself because I’ve been working on the same book on and off for six years and am still not done with it, I’m a bit suspicious about those writing tips. I almost feel those writers (sorry, no offense here) were obliged to offer advice so as to make their newsletters read less like an advertisement, and of course, to engage with their potential readers. (I know I’m probably digging my own grave here as I may send out such a newsletter someday myself.)

Maybe it’s because that I’ve never enrolled in an MFA program and have rarely attended any writing classes (one exception was a week-long Macondo workshop with Sandra Cisneros in San Antonio, where I later returned to lead a workshop myself), and I live in the heart of Silicon Valley where imagination runs wild when it comes to technology, I tend to question that if there’re really rules when it comes to writing, especially fiction writing.

Every writer writes differently. That’s how I think. The only rule is that there’re no rules.

If there’s really ONE rule, then it’s the one perfectly captured by the inscription on the French writer Stendhal’s tombstone, “He lived, wrote, and loved.”

And I shall add that reading is a writer’s best blessing.

Featured image: “February Flowers” in Hungarian (a cover more subdued, and in my opinion, more interesting, than its American counterpart.)

Drive-in Theaters in the States vs movie-going in 80s China

My neighbors recently took their five children to a drive-in in San Jose to watch the movie, “Sing.” I asked them how they liked it and they said it was great. I suggested to my husband that we go there with our kids as I’d  never been to a drive-in theater and always had a romantic idea about it. But my husband was not keen on the idea as he thought it would be hard to watch a movie in such a place. He and I would probably fall asleep in the car (we both could use more sleep, with the kids climbing up to our bed every night and sleeping with their limbs spread out)…not to mention that it was pretty cold at night these days. So in the end, we watched the movie in a small theater in Cupertino. It was fun and the kids loved the pig wearing a sparkly golden hoodie.

When I was little, still living on a state farm called Red Harbor, watching a movie was celebrated like a holiday. To this day, I have a vivid memory of it.

Red Harbor didn’t have a theater, so we watched movies on the Headquarters’ basketball court. Of course, there weren’t any seats there so you had to bring your own.

On the movie day, you could smell something like a war in the air. Though the movie wouldn’t start until seven or eight, by three the basketball court already saw its first batch of visitors—grandmas, grandpas, those who didn’t have to work or go to school. They brought with them wicker chairs, stools, straw mats, bamboo fans, thermos, mugs, tea pots, slippers, food and snacks, and of course, their tottering, whimpering grandchildren, occupying the center space facing the imagined movie screen. Seeing how well equipped they were, you’d think they might as well bring their beds.

These grandmas and grandpas didn’t take space just for themselves; they also marked territory for families and friends who had asked them to. So after they settled, you saw stools, mats, and other objects lying around, marking their borders.

By the time my friends and I got off school and ran to the court at four thirty, half the court had been taken. We hadn’t even gone home! When I said it “had been taken,” it was not that it was full of people, but full of stools, chairs, benches, mats and odd stuff such as pillows, a piece of clothing, even stacked bricks, all with a name attached; on the ground were all kinds of markings and writings in chalk or charcoal.

By six, most people had arrived. The basketball court was as crowded and noisy as a honeycomb full of bees. Some people were quarreling because of a border dispute, each surrounded and cheered on by bored bystanders.

As if to play up the drama, the vendors chanted in their local dialects.

“Twenty cents a bag! My sunflower seeds are crispy and tasty!”

“Plums, apricots, fresh dates! The yellow ones are very yellow, the red ones are very red. Come and try!”

“Honeydew! Golden-skinned honeydew! Don’t pay if it’s not sweet.”

“Tea eggs! Big tea eggs! Very big tea eggs!”

The movie didn’t arrive until eight, a delay that neither surprised nor saddened us. We watched a team of people set up the projector and secure the big canvas screen.

With a silver light tube illuminating the screen and the projector creaking, the movie started.

A breeze came and the screen fluttered.

Babies felt asleep against their mothers’ chests.

Grandmas and grandpas poured tea into their mugs and sipped it.

A dog barked but soon whimpered—someone had thrown a stone at it.

I felt asleep before the movie ended. When I woke up, I was on my father’s back, and we were on our way home.

Dry leaves crunched under our feet, sounding as if coming from the center of the earth.

High in the sky, millions of stars twinkled.

“Did you like the movie?” My father asked me when he saw that I was awake.

“Yes,” I mumbled, before plummeting back into a sweet dream.

(Do you know that more than 90% of drive-in theaters in the U.S. have disappeared?)

Featured image: Freetown Christiania, Copenhagen

Pajamas-wearing in Public in China–a battle between “appropriate” and “comfy”

Wearing pajamas in public has a long-standing tradition in Shanghai, famously penned by many Shanghainese writers such as Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang). It’s part of the cityscape, people of all different ages and genders in pajamas with varied patterns and colors and fabrics eat or shop or bike or chat or get a haircut or dump garage or just relax under a tree. Pajamas can go with just about anything. Leather shoes and colorful socks, a sun-shading umbrella, a Louis Vuitton purse (knock-off or not), or mirrored aviator sunglasses. Sometimes, people wear pajamas outside because they only need to run a quick errand and don’t want to bother to change clothes; sometimes, it’s just more comfortable to wear them if they don’t need to go to work.

In my hometown Nanchang, you see pajamas wearers everywhere, too. Whenever I go back, I love the sight of them. It gives me a warm feeling. The government says that pajamas-wearing in public must go because it affects the city’s image. “The foreigners and tourists would look down on us if we wear pajamas outside,” a district community manager said when interviewed, echoing the government. As an effort to reduce the number of pajamas-wearers, special volunteer teams, so-called Wen Ming Zhao Zhuang Quan Dao Dui (Civilized Attire Persuasion Teams) patrol the streets and communities before and during important events and conferences, discouraging people from wearing pajamas in public.

Such patrolling reminds me of the Top Ten Campus Campaign when I was a college student in China. I wrote about it in “February Flowers.”

“I listened. It was a male voice: ‘…leaders from the Education Ministry. We welcome and look forward to their inspection. To make our university a first-rate university nationally and internationally, it’s critical to build a healthy and positive environment for our students. For a university student, it’s as important to achieve excellence in your major as it is to have the correct attitude towards life and the world. Studying science and arts should be combined with cultivating socialistic ideology…’

……

The inspector from the Education Ministry arrived a week later. By now not only was the lawn closed but a guard post had been set up at the main entrance–visitors had to register when they came in and sign out when they left. Street sweeping had increased from once to twice a day. The day before the inspectors arrived, the cleaners even came to West Five to wash the hallways and stairs with detergent. The Student Association checked the dorms frequently, so we had to keep our rooms tidy at all times. During the day we took down our mosquito nets and folded our blankets into a square, as soldiers do. We also bought a few bottles of air freshener to make the room smell better….A group of uniformed workers from the Security Department patrolled the campus and would stop students who were smoking, or wore makeup, or broke any of the other new rules. They would threaten to report these students to their departments…”

Sounds all too familiar.

Back to the pajamas-donning issue, I wonder if “the foreigners and tourists” really care; they actually might like seeing people in pajamas in the streets because it’s fun and unique.

(Featured image: street view, Nanchang.)

Do you start a book from the beginning or the middle?

My 8-year-old loves books and whenever we visit the library, she borrows a big pile of them, some thick as a brick. She’s quick at deciding what books to read. I asked her how she picks her reading list the other day and she replied, “I start with the middle of the book because that’s where action is. If I like what I’ve read, then I’ll get the book and read from the beginning.”

A lot of novels used to be written this way. First stage: you introduce your main character and his everyday life. Second stage: something happens to the main character and he has to do something about it. Last stage is about him overcoming challenges and achieving some kind of goal or solution.

These days, more and more novels seem to begin “in medias res,” a Latin phrase that means in the middle of the things. Something happens right away in the beginning, then you backtrack to offer explanation and background. I can see TV series and movies’ influence on such a trend, also that of social media consumption–people are so distracted and occupied that they have little patience these days. If something doesn’t grab their attention right away, then they move on to other things that are more appealing to them.

Some writers argue that the second approach is better because it hooks readers and makes them want to read more. There’s truth in it, but I think it’s more important to establish a strong voice in the beginning.

When you correspond with literary agents, if they’re interested in your pitch, they usually ask you to send the synopsis and a sample–often the beginning chapters. Sure, they want to see the promise of action and conflicts in these pages, but what they want to see the most is your ability to make them care about your main character and the story you’re about to unfold.

As a writer, you decide what beginning fits your story the best. There’s no right or wrong.

Different from my daughter, when I choose what books to read, I always start from the beginning pages. There’s so much you can discover about the writer and her style from even just the first page.

Featured image: street view in my hometown, Nanchang.