The murder of a Chinese student in the UK and “Parachute kids”

Several months ago, a 24-year-old Chinese female student named Xixi Bi was beaten to death by her British boyfriend, Jordan Matthews. The pathologist who did the postmortem examination found 41 injuries on her body. Before her death, Bi was studying for a master’s degree in international business management in the UK.

The court report said that while Bi was dating this boyfriend, she had been repeatedly beaten by him and he had been controlling and manipulative to her.

While mourning Bi’s tragic death, I cannot help but notice that she was merely 15 years old when she was sent to the UK to study. She was one of those “parachute kids,” a term used to describe underaged children who are sent to foreign countries to study without their parents being around.

In recent years, a growing number of Chinese youngsters have traveled far to the United States, the UK, Australia, and many other Western countries to study in college (undergraduate studies) and high schools.  About 1/3 of international students enrolled in the United States are now from China. A decade ago, fewer than 1000 Chinese students studied in secondary schools in the U.S., and now the number has surpassed 30,000.

As someone who traveled overseas to study, I feel for these young people. I was 23 when I left China for graduate studies at Stanford University. Though I had finished 4-year college in China and had even worked for three years after college, it was not an easy journey. I remember those days when I felt defeated because I didn’t understand what my professors were saying in the class. I remember those days when I stayed at the library until 3 or 4am to finish school projects and then biked back to my dorm to get several hours’ sleep. I remember those holidays when I was by myself, and the days when I was sick with no one to comfort me. One evening, I stayed at my dorm room and cried for quite a while because I missed home so much.

These parachute kids are not even 20, some as young as 13 or 14, and I doubt they’ve had any summer jobs or internship in China for them to gain worldly knowledge and experience. They’re alone, lonely, far from home, surrounded by people who speak a different language and value a different culture. How easy it must be for them to feel homesick and lost.

I don’t want to go deep into the analysis of this phenomenon of young Chinese students studying overseas here, though I intend to write more about it in my future posts, to answer questions such as 1) who are these students? Why do they study overseas? How do they deal with cultural clashes? What do they want to achieve in their new country? How do they influence local schools, culture, commerce, etc.? The list is long.

If Bi had her family close by she would most likely have turned to them for help before the tragedy happened. If she was older, more mature when she was first sent to the UK, she would most likely have handled things differently, being less tolerant to her boyfriend’s abusive behaviors, being more confident in seeking support. If she didn’t feel that she had to live up to her parents’ expectation and succeed in a foreign land, she might have chosen to return to China when her relationship with her boyfriend turned bitter. If her university provided more attention and counseling to international students…….

These are all speculations, of course. But I wonder if there isn’t truth in them.

A young, beautiful life has ended way too soon.

 

 

 

 

Slow down…and read a book

Heard about Slow Television in Norway? Basically it features hours and hours of train rides, knitting, fishing, etc. The first broadcast debuted in 2009 and was a 7.5-hour train ride from Bergen to Oslo. The train just went on and on. In the knitting show, a group of people discussed knitting for hours then knitted for 7.5 hours. These slow shows are wildly popular in their home country, and some of them became available on Netflix last year.

I haven’t watched any of these shows yet, but I totally understand why people like them. In today’s fast-paced digital era, aren’t we all overwhelmed with information and our digital lives and we long for “slowing down” and returning to “real life”?

Though I like the concept of slow TV shows, I have to admit that I have no desire to watch one. But I would certainly want to read more books.  Before I became a mother, I used to read 2-3 books a week, but now it’s more like 2-3 a month.

Time is a key factor here, of course, but age may have played a role too. I find myself getting pickier and more impatient nowadays when I choose what to read. In the past several months, I abandoned several books, all with rave reviews, before I was even one third through them, deciding that I had given them a fair chance and enough time had been wasted.

Another change in my reading behavior is that if I love a book, I would reread it, at lease a good potion of it, over and again. Sometimes, I would reread a book two or three times within the same month, savoring my favorite pages as if an addict on drugs. ( It’s like I’m watching a variation of “slow TV.” )

Such books are rare. But in the past several months, I did score twice. John Williams “Stoner” and Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I’ve read Stoners three times, and am about to reread Remarque’s masterpiece as I cannot seem to let it go off my mind.

Here are two brief passages from the above mentioned books. The first one one of the most insightful interpretations of love I have read. The second one…it simply makes you want to cry. Sad yet grateful tears.

“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”

– “Stoner” by John Williams

“We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don’t talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have.

We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death. We sit on the edge of it crouching in danger, the grease drips from our hands, in our hearts we are close to one another, and the hour is like the room: flecked over with the lights and shadows of our feelings cast by a quiet fire. What does he know of me or I of him? Formerly we should not have had a single thought in common — now we sit with a goose between us and feel in unison, are so intimate that we do not even speak.”

– “All Quiet on The Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque

If you don’t find the excerpts impressive, then you’ll have to get these two books and read them from cover to cover. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.

(Featured image: morning exercise in a park in my hometown, Nanchang. The second woman from left on the first row is my mother, who’s a better writer than I am, but has decided not to write.) 

 

 

 

Repetition – The Holy Grail of persuasive selling

I’ve been working on a nonfiction book (not a memoir) for a while. When it comes to submission, nonfiction works differently from fiction. For fiction, agents and publishers typically want to see the full manuscript before they make a decision about it. But for nonfiction, a proposal with a summary, chapter outlines and a sample chapter sometimes can land you a deal.

Usually I read more fiction than nonfiction, but because of this nonfiction project I’m working on, I read more nonfiction these days, if only to be inspired in my new endeavor. After reading several bestsellers, I’ve found a pattern, which is that they’re very repetitive in making a point. They say something on, say, page 11, then on page 13, they remind you of what they’ve said on page 11, and on page 15, the end of the chapter, they say something to the effect of “I hope you remember that on page 11 and page 13 I’ve said something similar.”

To some readers, maybe it’s nice to be reminded again and again, but to me, I just want to skip pages and even put down the book.

After talking to a writer friend I realized that this repetitive style has its roots in rhetoric and is considered the Holy Grail of presentation training and persuasive selling.

When it comes to winning an audience, supposedly, Aristotle, or Dale Carnegie, or Winston Churchill has said, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”

Considering that our attention span, thanks to all the portable devices, is now less than that of a goldfish, considering that the average person spends five hours/day surfing the web and using apps, I guess what I deem as unnecessary repetition is not all that annoying to some people after all.

I have to admit that I even welcomed such “memory reinforcement” from time to time. Life is busy, work, kids, house chores, friends, endless errands…..and all the worries and anxieties caused by President Trump. The last time I had the luxury of finishing a book at one setting (or maybe two settings) was probably before I had become a mother.

So, dear authors, please do remind me in Chapter 2 what you’ve said in Chapter 1.

(Featured image: I took the photo several years ago when I visited the Beijing 798 Art Zone, a landmark of urban art and culture in Beijing. It reminds me of when I was little, slurping the soup noodles my grandma made for me.) 

‘Know’ or ‘Don’t Know’

Here is another blog post I wrote for Ploughshares years ago, which is still a hot topic that writers debate about. I’m currently working on a new novel set in the present-day San Francisco Bay Area, about three women at crossroads in life. There’s a lot I don’t know about these women, yet I feel I’m growing with them and learning about them every day. One of them just made a decision that surprised me. This morning I found myself awake around 5am thinking about it.
——————————————————
Ploughshares magazine I once overheard a discussion between two MFA students. I was at a café in Palo Alto–near Stanford–and they were sitting at a nearby table.
One said the best writing advice he’d gotten was to “write what you know.” He said that having lived through the events and known the people and locations would allow one to write with authority and credibility. He used the examples of writing by Hemingway and V.S. Naipaul to back his claim.
The other disagreed, embracing “write what you don’t know” as the ultimate writing rule, because, he said, “That’s how you can let your imagination fly, let your subconscious and unconscious take charge.” The examples he gave were the more imaginative works of Haruki Murakami and Cormac McCarthy.
I don’t have an MFA, but I assume this kind of debate happens frequently in those classrooms.
I don’t see these two rules as contradictory. The difference between ‘what you know’ or ‘what you don’t know’ shouldn’t be about specific plot, setting or characters; it should be about understanding life and the human condition. In that sense, if you write ‘what you don’t know,’ your writing will likely be false and evasive.


I recently read two books: The Things We Carried by Tim O’Brien and Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Storiesby Steven Millhauser. They could not be more different in theme, style, setting, or characterization–but they are equally powerful and thought-provoking.

The power of The Things We Carried has a lot to do with the author’s first-hand experience and knowledge of the Vietnam War, but has even more to do with his profound grasp of the human heart and emotions: love, longing, fear, grief, terror, sympathy, compassion, etc.
Dangerous Laughter is allegorical, surreal, and labyrinthine–like a strange dream where you cannot see anyone’s face clearly. But the book’s fantastic element is firmly rooted in reality, in Millhauser’s acute observation of history and human civilization.
When Raymond Carver talked about his own writing with the French journalist Claude Grimal, he said, “Yes, there’s a little autobiography and, I hope, a lot of imagination.” I believe his ‘imagination’ doesn’t equate to ‘what you don’t know,’ but to mean to transcend the constraints of the writer’s own life, helped by deep comprehension of human emotions and behaviors.
(Feature image: I saw this flower outside Prison Street Pizza, Lahaina, HI.)

New Year’s Resolution – Establish a writing routine and stick to it

I met a good friend from my Yahoo! days for lunch yesterday. As always, we ate at a ramen restaurant on Castro Street in Mountain View. She’s made big plans for 2017: quitting her job, moving back to Asia with family, buying a house…when asked what my New Year’s big plan was, I said, half-jokingly, that I would like to go to bed before 11:30pm.

I had said the same thing last year, and probably the year before that. But so far this simple resolution is still a mirage. Motherhood is certainly demanding, but I have myself to blame too. After putting my two kids to bed every night, I do have some time for myself. But there’s always a lot to take care of, if not doing housework, paying bills, replying to emails, then it’s something else. Sometimes I like to watch a bit TV while cycling on my stationary bike, usually documentaries, some of my favorites shows including Anthony Boundain’s series and other travel/cooking programs (Last night I watched an episode of CNN’s “The Eighties.”)

Before I know it, it’s midnight. Then 1 am after I get myself ready for bed and read a book for ten or fifteen minutes.

I cannot seem to break this pattern. It would be fine if I could sleep in a bit in the morning, but, of course, I need to rise early to get my kids ready for school (I’ve yet mastered the skills to make them listen). Sometimes my writing suffers due to my sleep deprivation.

Although my 2017 New Year’s resolution is about getting more sleep, it’s ultimately about establishing a writing routine and sticking to it.

I wrote a piece for Ploughshares, a literary magazine, several years ago about such a topic and I’d like to share it here as it’s still very much relevant. My current writing projects include a new novel, a nonfiction book and several short stories, so  discipline is definitely vital for me.


I was awakened at 3:36 a.m. by my daughter’s crying. I went to her room and lay down beside her, as I always do when she wakes up in the middle of the night. Half an hour later she fell sleep, while I was wide awake. I thought about Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which I just finished reading and liked, and about the book that had been percolating in my mind for months yet hadn’t been started because I hadn’t figured out a satisfactory opening. I also thought about my agent’s email concerning the difficulty of translation, my best friend’s upcoming wedding and my aunt’s declining health. When I finally drifted off, dawn was breaking. At 7 a.m. my daughter got up. So did I, from a fragmented and nonsense dream, feeling as though I had a terrible hangover. The whole next day, I felt miserable because I hadn’t written a word.

Such a day has been typical since I became a parent. Some nights, after I put my daughter back to sleep, I went to my study to write, but most of the time I was too tired–or should I say too lazy?–to get up. My story probably sounds familiar to writers with small children. More than once, I heard sighs and complaints from writer friends who, like me, are new parents.

But I mustn’t blabber about interrupted sleep and reduced productivity. This post is about the importance of establishing a writing routine. We always have millions of excuses for not having the time or energy to write–writing undeniably requires physical and mental strength–but, in truth, as soon as we sit at our desk at a familiar time we always feel better. A writing routine is comforting. It makes us more efficient and helps us stick to our task.

I used to have a routine. Wake at 6 a.m., have a cup of green tea, write until 8:30 a.m., shower, dress, have a quick breakfast, then leave for work (the job that paid my bills) at 9 a.m. In the evening, if I didn’t have to work late, I wrote for an hour or two then read before going to bed. I didn’t realize how crucial such a routine was for my writing until my daughter arrived. Suddenly, my well-planned schedule was messed up. I lost my discipline. After all, lying in bed and letting the mind wander take less effort than getting up to write.

Many writers have routines. Hemingway got up at dawn and worked until he had exhausted all he had to say for that day. Toni Morrison is also an early riser, a habit first formed when she had small children, and writes best in early mornings. An insurance agent during the day, Kafka wrote from 11 p.m. until the small hours. When Steinbeck was writing his “To a God Unknown,” he habitually wrote 3,000 words each morning.

Consider Haruki Murakami’s typical working day: “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1,500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation.”

When it comes to discipline, I must mention my friend John Joss. For many years, as a devoted father of three children, he wrote daily from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., before heading to his day job. I asked him if it was hard to do and he replied, “If you take writing seriously, you must do it.” He also admitted that once the routine was formed, he looked forward to rising early to write. The routine helped him avoid writer’s block, of which he said, “Start writing on your project now. Put down the first thought or idea that comes to mind, however seemingly simplistic or inappropriate. Nothing is crueler to a writer than the tyranny of the blank page or screen. Once you have set something down, anything, you have broken the block and can proceed.”

Building a writing routine is easier said than done. If you have a regular job and small children, the challenge is even more daunting. What if you have nothing to say when facing your computer or a blank page at 4 a.m.? Should you go back to sleep or wait for the Muse? You have probably heard Jack London’s advice: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” As encouraged as you may be by those famous writers’ dedication, it makes no sense to impose their schedules on yourself. The best way is to find a routine that suits you best. Try different hours of the day until you find a feasible, though not necessarily most convenient, time. Of course, if you can write any time you have available, you’re fortunate.


P.S. The featured photo is that of my two cats, Leo and Kasper, twin brothers, who love to snuggle and purr, and who are serious about their sleeping.

Letters an American traveler wrote from occupied Peking in 1937-38

By Jules Nadeau

Peking in 1930s
Peking in 1930s

Harold Medill Sarkisian was a 28 years old native of Colorado who could not get rid of the Oriental bugs in his system. In 1937 he decided to leave for total immersion in a ryokan in Kyoto and subsequently in a hutong in Peking. The scholar in progress was keen on acquiring both languages. Boots-on-the-ground. The American lad was concurrently shopping for exquisite silks, rugs and antiques. His letters to his family (and his sweetheart) were informative and entertaining. Good narrative with great style.

Yet this was a most brutal period of history in Japan and China–at the time of the rape of Nanjing. He was exploring the exotic continent for the first time when World War II was brewing. Harold Medill’s typewritten missives had to detour by way of Siberia instead of across the Pacific to avoid censorship and speed up delivery.

Sinologist Jules Nadeau extracted and edited some passages displaying personal views, wit and descriptions. A time capsule based on a true story when the Republic of China was in a dire situation during the Japanese occupation. No matter what, the Colorado traveler admired China and was proud to be photographed in the costume of a Chinese philosopher.

By train from Tianjin to Peking

“My dearest family. So this is China!” wrote Harold Medill Sarkisian at the end of 1937 after a rough and unpleasant voyage aboard a small ship called Choju Maru. Mal de mer, hunger and cold made him feel elated to see glimpses of the Shandong peninsula from a distance. Then custom inspection made him feel even more chilly and tired. “It was so cold that the stint in the air made one forget his sea-sickness. Next a boat-load of coolies, swooping down almost like vultures, seized all bagages visible. It was dark in Tanggu [harbor] where Chinese strived to get us to get at their hotel. I selected at random the Court Hotel [on Elgin avenue, one of the best in the British concession].”

In the rail station of Tianjin, Harold Medill “found rich and poor–the smell of a thousand coolies, the garlic of a thousand meals, no heat, no seats, nothing but to pace endlessly up and down trying to keep warm–then came the train.” He bought a first class ticket (because the third class was filled to the roof) to insure comfort but in vain in compartments filled with a type of nauseating tobacco smoke.

“This is Peking! later continued Harold Medill, I am only sorry you all can not be here to feel what I am feeling. Not far from where I live are four colourful pai lou [the Dongxi gates] through which must pass all traffic. Yesterday the air was filled with the sounds of horns, the commands of the Japanese soldiery, ever eager to show the populace that they are in charge, shouting for room to pass, and what was holding them up? Four lovely, stately camels. The soldiers fumed and cursed. A cow in the same situation gives the impression of stupidity; not the camels. I am certain I saw them all wink to me and wink at each other. They were unmoved by the sight of Japanese bayonets” chuckled Harold Medill who liked to call himself Sarky. Yet the ubiquity of Japanese uniforms was not funny for the local populace.

Sarky in Beijing 1937-1938
Sarky in Beijing 1937-1938

Budget of $100 a month

“Peking seems like it could never grow old because it seems never to have had a beginning. One walks or rides rickshahs thru winding, serpentine streets–long narrow, grey walled affairs reminescent of what I would expect to see were I carried to ancient Babylon—beggars, dirty children worn and haggard women—not even women just females, scattered about beneath the walls selling whatever they have. In some places children pour over the ash heaps sifting what little coal there is and mixing this in water they make coal balls and sell these.”

Initially the American visitor settled down for more than a month in the “nest” of Southern Baptist missionaries. “I am living on my intended $100 a month [the equivalent of US$1,640 now]. This enables me to pay tuition, board, room and incidentals. I do not think it will cost me much more after I move.”

The life he always wanted to live

The second domicile was a fabulous house of no less than fifteen rooms. One of the best houses in Peking. Not able any more to occupy the fushang, the owner wanted to rent it at all costs in order to prevent some sort of military confiscation. “A beautiful mansion all furnished with the obligation to pay only taxes, water and light.” Most of the palace remained shut off because it required too much coal to heat up. Too much red tape also to rent to a local family. “I am living the life I always wanted to live–Chinese style. I have a lovely Victrola and dozens of records–when lonely I sit down and listen to music, Kreisler, Liszt et cetera, but for how long?”

The proprietor was a brilliant teacher and a past advisor to Chiang Kai-shek who had left for the south after becoming impoverished. “His collection of art was worth a fortune and it has gone up in flames. Today his son just presented me with a painting and a few other pieces of art. Moving that to Shanghai would have cost him a lot in taxes. What about me when I leave China?”

“I gave a party the other night and had as guests the head of Standard Oil here, a doctor from the Peking Union Medical College (Rockefeller Hospital), the Reischauer’s, the paymaster of the Marines. To pay back dinners given to which I was invited [specifically at the Peking hotel, still the Grande Dame of the capital]. Now I hope I will be paid back. It cost me a lot of money”, added the Colorado young man.

Harold Medill Sarkisian in Beijing 1937-1938
Harold Medill Sarkisian in Beijing 1937-1938

The College of Chinese Studies

Moral code and good conduct? “Papa [a practicing doctor] has one great fear–he has not to worry about venereal disease now–I am absolutely living a life of complete continence. That might sound funny, but I have no reason to lie to you.” On an other level: “Let me assure you that to date I have learned more than I could possibly have learned in ten years of University.” However he kept asking his family to get him recommendation letters so he could return to Columbia University or better enter Harvard (which he did later where he built a decisive Asian network).

Sarky was eager to cram hundreds of Chinese characters and he enrolled in the one and only College of Chinese Studies (where scores of Western sinophiles transited). One of his professors continually told him how much more he could learn by rather being with a tutor. He formed his own opinion: “Both are fine grafts. The College tries to go as slow as possible so as to keep you longer, the tutor tries to hold on to you as his own particular feed ticket, and so I have to be careful.” This was the beginning of a life-long devotion with the difficult language. Over the years he accumulated a collection of more than 50 Chinese dictionaries dictionaries, plus textbooks and his own flash cards.

“I enclose several photos. Some are of the starving refugees in the Peking region. Others are of the starving Colorado boy in the same sector. See if you can tell them apart. The people with me are the Lin’s when we were in the Imperial palace (“declared to be forbidden to the photographer”).” To Margie, his girl friend back in the States, he pointed out : “My dear. The lady next to me is Mrs. Lin. I have not yet taken with a woman.” But the most interesting pix is the one showing him in the long mandarin gown. With oversize sleeves. In the style of Confucian literati. What the Jesuit fathers used to wear in their genuine effort to adapt to local tradition.

“You are the finest family in the world. Goodbye love! Send mail via Siberia, care of American Express, Peking.” Signed: Sarky.


The long-time barefoot Sinophile Jules Nadeau is a freelance writer living in Montreal who spent 10 years in Greater China. He is the author of 20 Million Chinese Made in Taiwan and also 1997: In the Mouth of the Red Dragon. In 1979, Jules Nadeau was a full-time journalist at La Presse, a French language daily in the province of Québec. 

Happy New Year from my favorite charity, The Mothers’ Bridge of Love (MBL)

It’s been four months since I started to volunteer at the UK-based charity, The Mothers’ Bridge of Love (MBL), where I lead an amazing team of volunteers from all over the world. The team has grown fast, with almost twenty people now. I owe them a big thank you for inspiration and support.

This greeting card is designed by Gloria Chen, an MBL volunteer in China. I love the messages on the card:

Hang on to your truth

Respect the truth of others

Choose to be happy

Be the voice for someone who has no voice

Be quiet strength 

Be the type of kindness that is strength 

Choose healthy foods, activities and people 

Fall seven times, stand up eight

Live honestly, truly and with integrity 

Happy New Year!

(If you’re curious about The Mothers’ Bridge of Love, please visit www.mothersbridge.org)

 

 

Coming of age during the Cultural Revolution

I have four older brothers and my oldest brother, Xiang, and I are eleven years apart in age. He belongs to the “’60s generation” (六十年代后)while I belong to the “’70s generation” (七十年代后). He has a vivid memory of the Cultural Revolution as a child and preteen, while I was still a dodder when Mao died. Sometimes he makes fun of our age difference, saying that he feels that he’s several decades older than I.

I like to hear Xiang talk about his childhood. In my latest novel, Song of the Daisies, I wrote about the kids in the ’60s China.


From “Song of the Daisies

(Narrated by Kai)

My parents lived for three years in a military compound in Anhui Province, my father on a temporary assignment. It was close to the countryside. In winter, on evenings when it snowed, I would take my sister Moli and the other kids in the compound, boys and girls, to catch sparrows; for kids like us, growing up in warm weather, snow was the best thing. It had become a tradition, like eating moon cakes on Mid-Autumn Festival or shooting fireworks and wearing new clothes on the Lunar New Year.

On snowy nights, after dinner, many kids from the same compound would come to our house uninvited, each carrying a flashlight and a broom. They adored me and if I were away they would go home reluctantly. They could certainly catch sparrows without my advice or help but they said that without me it just wasn’t the same.

On our way to the village plaza, forty-five minutes’ walk—where sparrows nested inside the straw stooks or under the eaves—I would tell stories, some as ancient as Pangu opening the sky with an ax and Nvwo creating humans with soil, mixing the mythical characters from different times and legends. Or Monkey King fighting Fire God Zhurong; Houyi, who shot ten suns to cool down an overheated earth, and legendary ruler Dayu curbing the deadly flood.

In earliest human history, I told Moli and the other kids, there were four worlds: the Barren, Beyond the Barren, Beyond the Ocean and the Unknown. And there were five countries: Gold in the West, Wood in the East, Water in the North, Fire in the South and Soil in the Center. I liked telling stories, moving my arms and legs to emulate the actions I was describing, changing the inflections of my voice to fit the characters and occasions. Moli once said that I was as intense as the New Year’s lion dancers.

The walk was long, especially when it was windy and snowing, and when none of us had proper shoes or clothes to stay dry and warm in the snow and mud. But we didn’t mind the cold and discomfort—all of us, girls as well as boys, had read many stories about ancient warriors who drink animals’ blood when thirsty and who wear no clothes year round, except a skirt of grass and tree bark, and we imagined that we were their offspring.

Time passed quickly as I told my stories. My mind strayed occasionally to the snowflakes, dancing gracefully, glittering in our flashlight beams like crystal moths, and I felt happy and jealous—happy that Moli was next to me, looking up at me with love and admiration, jealous because I wasn’t a carefree snowflake. Sometimes I would look up beyond the flashlight beams, for the snow to fall on my face. I would lick the snowflakes and smile.

Before we arrived at the plaza I would order everyone to switch off their flashlights and we would stand still for several minutes, surrounded by darkness and the snow falling on us and on the ground. “So we don’t stir the birds, right?” Moli once asked about this ritual. I nodded but the truth was that I wanted the darkness, I wanted the quiet. And I thought the silence could serve as a preordained memorial to the birds that were about to die.

In my experience sparrows are the most difficult of all birds to scare, especially when they are sleeping. Shine a flashlight into their eyes and instead of flying away they stay still, leaving their fate to you—you can even grab them and they’ll still be in a stupor. Their behavior made the killing easy.

I asked the other kids to pair up, one shining the flashlight, the other using the broom to hit the sparrows hiding inside the straw or under the eaves. As they did the killing I looked away and watched the snow. A small pile of bodies soon accumulated. If I didn’t stop the other kids the massacre would continue until no bird was left alive. But I had set the quota beforehand: four sparrows each, not including myself. Whatever I said was an order and even the greediest kids obeyed, fearing that disobedience would disqualify them from future participation.

We started a fire in a corner where the wind and snow couldn’t reach and after wrapping the sparrows in mud we skewered them with sticks and put them on the fire, chatting while waiting for them to cook. I always remember those moments, when fire turned our faces into golden apples and we talked about our wildest dreams without childish shyness and uncertainty: this girl wanted to be the first Chinese on the moon; that boy wanted to invent a robot that could play ping-pong; yet another boy wanted to become a patrol guard at Tiananmen Square.

They asked me what I wanted to become when I grew up. I said I would follow the Greatest Leader and do whatever he asked me to do. “What if he asked you to die for the country?” one boy asked. I replied that it would be my honor. Moli hugged me around my waist, lifting her small face to watch me with worry, mumbling that she didn’t want me to die ever.  I touched her head and comforted her. No, I would never die, never, never, I said to her.

The boys compared biceps to see whose was biggest and challenged each other to arm wrestling. I always let them beat me though I pretended to try my best—teeth bared, facial muscles tense. There was much laughter and cheering, our budding youth strengthened by the fire, the night, the camaraderie.

When we smelled the meat we took the sparrows from the fire and unwrapped the mud, which fell off with the feathers. There wasn’t much meat on them but sparrows were fattest in winter, their tiny chests bulging. Without salt or other ingredients Moli and the other kids enjoyed their small feast. They always invited me to eat but I said that I didn’t want to eat, and said, as I beat the ashes with a stick meditatively, that I didn’t like sparrow meat. I lied—I could feel my Adam’s apple bob as I swallowed the saliva filling my mouth. Who wouldn’t like sparrow meat, ten times more tender and juicy than chicken? I liked chicken and could eat a whole hen if one was available.

What bothered me was my participation in killing. But I couldn’t persuade myself not to kill the birds, either, because our Greatest Leader had said that they were harmful to agriculture and should be exterminated, along with mosquitoes, flies and rats. Who could argue with our Greatest Leader? So I chose partial compliance, a conditioned appeasement: kill the pests but not with my own hands; not kill too many; never eat them.

 

PPSD – Post-Publication Stress Disorder

I wrote a blog for Ploughshares, a literary magazine, years ago. The other day, someone contacted me about one of the posts I did ( thanks to the omnipotent Internet), which concerns the post-publication process.

Many things have changed since I wrote that post five years ago: DIY (self-publishing) has gained huge popularity, e-books are more prominent, the roles of the author, agent, and editor are changing, social media are now becoming an essential communication channel…

Nowadays, the vanity publishing no longer carries the stigma it did before. No doubt, the Big Six are still what most writers crave, but many talented writers have decided to take the matter to their own hands and have had success.

DIY is not for every writer, but at the same time, it’s not wise to rely on your publisher, if you have one, to do everything for you. You need to be more engaged than ever in promoting and marketing your book.

Below is an excerpt from my Ploughshare post, which sheds a light on the post-publication process for traditionally published writers who are no Amy Tan or Stephen King.

Nowadays, it’s absolutely vital for writers, self-published and also traditionally-published, to engage readers. So while you work hard on your writing, don’t forget to build a platform to open conversations with readers.

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 Fan Wu (for Ploughshares)

We’re all familiar with Anna Karenina’s famous opening: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

It applies to authorship, too. All unpublished writers are alike–wanting to be published; each published writer is unhappy in his or her own way.

Before I was published I envied published writers as if “being published” were a decorative medal indicating elite status (in some way it’s true, I guess). I had many questions for them, though I had no chance to ask: Which literary magazines do you submit to? How long does it take to hear back? What are the odds of acceptance? How did you find your agent and how do you work with him or her? How do you like your editor? What advance did you get for your first book?

Since I met few real writers then, I turned to Writers’ Market. The book helped but not until I had accumulated a list of publications myself did I begin to understand why each published writer is uniquely unhappy.

Writers have many concerns. If you want to be self-published, you have many ways to do it. But if you want to be “traditionally published,” you need an agent, in an era in which few publishers accept direct submissions. Finding an honest, understanding, capable, experienced, devoted, and supportive agent is as hard as finding a “perfect” spouse.

Assuming that you now have a wonderful agent who has sold your first book to a major publisher for a good price (lucky you, but “a good price” rarely means that you can live on it for two years), the next step is to work with your editor to polish the manuscript. The editor has strong opinions about the book but your opinions are stronger–after all, you’ve spent probably thousands of hours on the book and it’s like your own baby. So after months (hopefully not years) of debate, discussion, negociation and sleepless nights, the book is finalized, proofed by a copy editor and ready to print.

As a writer, you’ve done your job, but in reality the job is far from done. How about the book covers and blurbs? Also, your editor will likely send you a standard long questionnaire, which includes questions such as “Are there groups to which your book would have particular appeal?” and “Which organizations or institutions might be interested in either selling or publicising your book?” To non-fiction writers, these questions may be easy to answer; to fiction writers, especially literary fiction writers, they’re beyond puzzling–meanwhile it seems arrogant, or even wrong, to say simply that your potential readership is “everyone who loves a good book.”

Finally, the book hits the bookstores. You pray for good reviews, but you should feel happy if your book is reviewed at all. Print media have been cutting down on book reviews, some cancelling them entirely. Readings and events? Your beloved independent bookstores are shutting down one by one due to competition from the chain book stories and on-line rivals. What about the promised advertisements and 10-city tour from your publisher when you signed the contract? Sorry, they’re no longer applicable. And you can hardly count on your publicist, who is busy with more stellar clients and who lives in New York City, far from Billings, Montana, where you live, whose 100k population isn’t too small a group in your definition.

So despite all your efforts to promote the book yourself (most likely marketing is not your strength), your book doesn’t sell. When you deliver your second book, years later if you are determined and passionate enough, your publisher rejects it. They tell your agent, “It’s not what we expected.” What did they expect? They don’t say. But you know that their rejection has much to do with your first book’s lackluster sales numbers.

 

Thanksgiving messages from Mothers’ Bridge of Love volunteers

Since this July, I’ve been volunteering at the London-based Mothers’ Bridge of Love (MBL), leading its website team. Our team is growing fast, and now we have more than 15 members from Europe, the U.S., and China. It’s wonderful to work with so many talented and passionate people to make a difference. 🙂

This belated post is from Thanksgiving, with messages from some volunteers in our team. Though Thanksgiving is an American holiday, I feel that it’s always important to remind ourselves to care for each other and be grateful for what we have.

Thank you, my dear MBL friends!

Julie: 

I’ve been with MBL for 13 years. It’s precious when we work together and support each other. I will keep all the beautiful memory in my heart forever. I’m so proud to be one of the volunteers for MBL and I’m grateful to everyone I’ve met in my life. I feel happy because knowing YOU is the most beautiful thing! Many thanks to you for supporting MBL charity. Happy Thanksgiving!

Fan:

Happy Thanksgiving! This is my first year to be an official MBLer. It feels wonderful to be in such a warm family where sharing and helping each other are deeply valued. I’m moved by the many stories about adoptive families and adopted children, and every project MBL has done for underprivileged children in China inspires me. Thank you, MBL, and thank you, our hardworking and talented volunteers all over the world! Thank you, all the friends and supporters of MBL. Thinking of you makes me smile.

Patrick:

Some friendships become more beautiful over time. Thank you for the color you add to my life! I wish you a heartfelt Thanksgiving.

Ding Ding: 

I am blessed to be part of MBL. MBL teaches me to bridge gaps and connect hearts. It seems difficult, but is worth an effort and certainly achievable for anyone who holds such a wish. Wish MBLers around the world can bridge more gaps and unite more hearts and souls. Love you all!

Chloe:

Thanks for those people who inspire me and challenge me to grow. We met in our life for a reason, which is that we all learn from each other.

Jieqiong:

A lot of things happened to me this year, some are good some are bad. I am so blessed that every time when I am happy or sad, I have the MBL family to share with. This warm family teaches me love and how to embrace frustrations with hope and peace. Thank you MBL family~! I love you all~!

Thibault:

在川普上任之后,我们都必需努力争取我们的权利、未来和自由,因为这个世界将到处充斥着模糊的仇恨和暴力

Ying:

Thanks to the MBL – the big family, who has brought us together for a good cause, through which I have met many wonderful people and spent my time meaningfully. Here is to a harvest of blessing to the MBL, you are the epitome of loving people and for that we are eternally grateful. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

A big thank you to MBL’s volunteer Gloria in China, who recently joined MBL, for the beautiful poster. If you want to read more about MBL, please visit www.mothersbridge.org