Rejection, Writing and Winston Churchill

As someone who’s been writing for 14 years, I know very well that rejections are part of the life of a writer. It doesn’t mean that I take them lightly but I’ve come to realize that they’re the much-dreaded yet much-needed ingredients for me to become a better writer.

When I completed my first novel in 2005, it took me nine months, after 30 plus rejections from agents, to find someone to represent me. I was luckier with my first short story, which Granta accepted on first submission. Two years later, I “almost” had a story published by The New Yorker. I had dreamed big so I was quite disappointed when my agent told me that it was a “no” at the end. However, I received an encouraging email from Deborah Treisman herself, which I still have in my yahoo mailbox.

I’ve since had more success with my short stories, but I have received even more rejections. Once I sent a story to The Paris Review, only to receive, 14 months later, a hand-written note, “We liked it but please send a shorter one.” I sent a shorter story but got no reply this time. Did the story end up in a slush pile? To this day, I still wonder.

Last week, I received a rejection letter from One Story. It says, “Thank you so much for sending us ‘The Night is Younger Than We Are.’ There was a lot to admire in this piece. The characters, especially the narrator and Ling, were rich and fully formed, and your decision to switch between the past and the present lent a tension to the story that kept us turning the pages. This particular piece isn’t quite right for One Story, but we sincerely hope that you will send us more of your writing in the future.”

Given that reputable journals like One Story receive hundreds of submissions a day and have extremely low acceptance rate, I’m deeply grateful for such a thoughtful and encouraging personal note.

What to do after being rejected? There’s only one answer if writing is who you are. Continue to write, to edit, and continue to submit.

Leonard Cohen, one of my favorite songwriters who just passed away, once described his writing process as something “like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful and yet there’s something inevitable about it.”

Yes, there’s something inevitable about it. You must have faith.

And remember what Churchill once said, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”



Old Cultural Revolution Posters And The Stories Behind Them

Jules Nadeau, a freelance writer living in Montreal, shared with me several posters of the Cultural Revolution from his collection. I didn’t grow up with these posters, but have seen them many times in news, books and movies where the Cultural Revolution was concerned.

I asked Jules if if he could write something about these posters, and was extremely grateful that he said yes. Here are his words.

By Jules Nadeau

I spent a fabulous time in the PRC in 1979 as a consultant for a film crew. We were shooting an in-depth three hours documentary on the railroad network and this was the year I acquired my collection of political posters. In retrospect, I find the most interesting artifact is the one showing Chairman Mao Zedong saying in a paternalistic way to his protégé Hua Guofeng: “With you in charge, I’m at ease.” Other drawings eulogize the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune and the Communist Party.

Mao Zedong and Hua Guofeng

However Hua Guofeng (1921-2008), the “designated successor”, was himself about to be excommunicated by the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and that iconic poster was about to be withdrawn from all Xinhua State stores. A Wuhan university student purchased the whole set in 1978 and offered it to me as a token of friendship. It’s only now that I revel in the possession of these red archives.

The National Film Board

The affiches were obtained in Wuhan because this is where our Montreal crew of five was based for an unforgettable six weeks in the antiquated Shengli (Victory) hotel, sort of five-star establishment of the late 70’s. So we spent a lot of time in the European style train station of Hukou. We interviewed numerous employees during their working hours and their leisure time at home. We were also interested in young and old passengers boarding the socialist green wagons. George Dufaux, a reputed film director at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), saw these travelers as genuine representives of the one billion inhabitants of the vast land. Just weeks before the “one couple one child” policy was introduced.

We were only three years away from the passing over of the Great Helmsman and the official invalidation of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Party cadres were still trying to outsmart the visiting medias. They were thus trying to show us the best side of the socialist Motherland. But Georges Dufaux was clever enough to concentrate on railroad people because that gave us the opportunity to interview all kinds of hiking people, in other words common folks who were not selected, “briefed” in advance or instructed to make politically correct declarations.

Surprise, spontaneity and frankness was our hush-hush motto. I acted as consultant for this purpose: discern the genuine speech from the Orwellian “doublespeak”. It was my fourth foray across the bamboo curtain in four years. (With the provison that we did not want to be ideologically attacked as the Italian director Michelagelo Antonioni was vilified following his 1972 film Chung Kuo (Zhongguo.)

No matter what the NFB was well considered by the Chinese authorities partly because of the fame of Norman Bethune. I often underlined to our hosts that the revolutionary doctor practiced for a few years in Montréal before leaving for China. “The father of my former magazine editor in Montréal was a patient of Bethune. In 1975 while visiting Shijiazhuang hospital I shook hand with a venerable veteran who had personally known Bethune”, I repeated. Such statements from the “foreign expert” were music to the ears of our railway blue collars. Ottawa established diplomatic relations with Beijing long time before Washington did.

Cultural Revolution Poster

The Junior Brother of Deng Xiaoping

Personalities? I saluted the brother of Deng Xiaoping. How come? I knew that Deng Ken was the deputy governor of Hubei. The evening of the National day, October 1st, we saw several high cadres parading through the lobby of Victory hotel. One of them bore a striking ressemblance with Deng Xiaoping. “Is this the younger brother of…”, I asked one of the staff. Following the positive answer from a shy waitress, I went straight to him and offered him a blue fleur de lys pin Made in Québec. Deng Ken seemed surprised for a few seconds but he smiled and gave me a polite xiexie nin! Thank you! (My teamates did not believe me when I reported the coup d’éclat!

In 1979 there was a huge Railway Ministry in the PRC with some 2,400,00 staff. Workers plus all their relatives. The “iron rice bowl” for all. In Beijing, I was granted an exclusive interview with Minister Guo Weicheng (a former PLA General of Manchu origin). Quite an honor! In Wuhan, in an effort to get closer to the local cadres, genial Georges Dufaux had a wonderful idea. Instead of offering maple syrup or traditional handicraft to our hosts, he imagined to carry over a miniature locomotive with colorful wagons. The kind of toy that would drive any kid crazy. Needless to say, the responsible leaders were amazed to see the mini-train circle and circle around in the dining room. More clinking glasses! Touché!

Cultural Revolution Poster

Our Online Documentary 

Thanks to Bethune, the interview at the top and the magic electric train, people-to-people rapports were warming up. A senior comrade we learned to trust, the guy who like to chit chat with laowai (foreigners), went as far as inviting our Gang of Five to his home for dinner. “This is unique!” I told my NFB friends. Mr. Zhang and his gentle wife (a physician) prepared some delicious dumplings (jiaozi) in gargantuan quantities. Georges Dufaux, Serge Lafortune, Richard Besse and the interpreter Elizabeth Lowe (Canadian student in Beijing) really savored the meal. That was gold to us: an informal visit in a private home. Unrehearsed and impromptu!

Shopping for dictionaries and art books was a lot of fun. We went for haircuts just for smelling the atmosphere of a post-cultural revolution barber shop. I also guided the crew to the Liberation photography studio. This is where we had our corporate pix taken. In my case, with a proletariat cap and a working class vest, I tried to look like a bona fide member of the popular masses. When I look at this shot nowadays, I think I almost succeeded. Except for my high nose and the thick moustache that betray me… No  Chineseness at that level!

Dufaux was not able to edit the film down to less than three hours. The personal testimonies about the day to day life in China and the canonical statements coexist side by side. “We will show the viewers what the authorities want them to see. Let the spectators judge by themselves” confided the experienced director to me. The three-part documentary called Guidao: On the Way can now be seen online on the web site of the National Film Board. The vintage posters can also be admired on this blog. Quite a different planet… almost 40 years ago! Wuhan now has a grandiose train station. The Victory hotel is a mere paper souvenir. People are also different. And trains move much faster between Wuhan, the ground zero of the Wuchang Uprising of October 10th 1911 Revolution and the post-1949 capital city of Beijing.


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. 

Bridge School Benefit Concert & Cui Jian

Work, work, work…kids, kids, kids…finally my husband and I got to go out a bit with close friends to watch the Bridge School Benefit Concert last Sunday. (Thanks to our fantastic babysitter who was my daughter’s preschool teacher.) This is an all-acoustic, non-profit charity held every October Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View. The lineup list was impressive: Neil Young, Metallica, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, Cage the Elephant, Nils Lofgren, and Roger Waters.

The place was packed, both expected and exciting as all the money would go to the charity. We arrived late and missed Neil Young. Cage the Elephant was new to me and I liked their songs and energy. Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” was always great to hum along, which I first heard when I was at college in China.

Norah Jones, though I like her, seemed a bit boring for this occasion. The location and the crowd with their beer, cigarettes and who-knows-what just weren’t right for her music.

Bridge Stone School Concert
Bridge Stone School Concert








Dave Matthews was wonderful but also predicable. When I first watched his show, I had been in the U.S. for fewer than 3 years, was working at Yahoo!. At that time, the company was the Wall Street’s darling and we, as employees, enjoyed perks, fancy parties and a lot of good food. One of the perks was free tickets to cool events. That was how one day I got to see Dave Matthews from the first row. Honestly, I didn’t know who he was and had to ask my American coworker, who seemed appalled by my ignorance.

As I was watching the show, I thought of Cui Jian, the father of Chinese rock. When I first listened to his music, I was not yet in college, and I was dreaming big and wild. With his guitar and hoarse voice, Cui Jian conquered me and my friends, physically and psychologically, making us stomp on the chairs and cry. He made us realize for the first time that we, the Chinese, could be freed from the burdens that our tumultuous history had inflicted on us. At the top of our lungs, with feigned melancholy, my friends and I sang “Nothing to My Name,” “A Piece of Red Cloth” and “Greenhouse girl.” We thought how true it was that the Party blinded us by covering our eyes with a piece of red cloth, pelting us with propaganda and forced political learning.

I still listen to Cui Jian from time to time, and am still moved by many of his songs, mostly old ones.

At the Sunday concert, when Willie Nelson was singing, four old men in front of me stood up and, with their hands on each other’s shoulders, they sang along and danced along, completely mesmerized. I watched them, and I, too, was happy, because of them, because of my memory.


Littlest’s Adventure – Yet Another Bedtime Story (Part 2)

I’ve received quite a few requests from readers about my story “Littlest’s Adventure – Yet Another Bedtime Story (Part One).” They (and their kids) wanted to know what would happen to The Littlest, the youngest of the four piglets and the only girl.

So here is Part Two. Since Maya, my illustrator, has been so busy with gymnastics, tennis, her pokemon collection, and her many other interests, she hasn’t had much time to illustrate for the book. But she’s promised that she’ll do several more drawings in the next two or three weeks. Let’s see.

bedtime story
Littlest’s Adventure – Yet another bedtime story (Maya Cedergren, 7)







The pig family, Pig Papa, Pig Mama, and their four piglets, live a happy life on a farm at a bend of a river. One day, the Littlest, the youngest of the piglets and the only girl, realizes that they’re going to be sent to a slaughterhouse. Despite her family’s objection, she plans her escape. Will she succeed? Will her family be on her side eventually? Here is a story of defying odds and overcoming obstacles, of love for freedom, and of what it means to be a family. 

Littlest’s Adventure – Yet Another Bedtime Story (Part 2) 


Littlest stood still, alone and lonely. But she’d made up her mind. No matter what, she would get out of here and never return. No, she didn’t have to accept her fate. There was no such a thing called fate. She was her own boss and she would prove that.

That night, while her parents and brothers were sleeping soundly in the shed, Littlest began to cut the chain link with her teeth. She chose the back of the pen, so the farmer’s wife wouldn’t see. Every bite hurt her teeth and the loose wires slashed her skin. But the fence was well built and the iron wires were sturdier than she had thought. Even though she tried her hardest, the hole she made was no bigger than a cantaloupe by the time the sun rose.

When Pig Papa, Pig Mama, and their four sons got up, Littlest was still working on the fence. Seeing her daughter’s bloody face, Pig Mama cried and was about to dress her wounds with the herb medicine she had made.

But Pig Papa stopped her. “This is a lesson she has to learn,” Pig Papa said. “Now she knows she must listen to us.”

“I won’t stop. I’ll continue tonight,” said Littlest defiantly despite her pain and exhaustion.

When the farmer’s wife came to feed the pigs in the morning she discovered the hole. She thought it was done by a raccoon. “Stupid pigs,” she said angrily, without looking at the pigs. “They didn’t even make a noise when they saw a raccoon.” She called her husband and he blocked the hole with a thick wooden board.

It took Littlest three days to recover. The fourth night, as soon as her parents and brothers fell asleep, Littlest started to dig underneath the fence. It was cold and windy. Since it hadn’t rained for days, the soil was hard. Soon, Littlest’s nails were broken. But she didn’t stop. She dug, dug, and dug, dreaming of the days when she could roam in the forest or on the grassland, when she could pick wild flowers and drink from a waterfall.

By daybreak, she had made a hole as big as a basketball. But it still wasn’t big enough for her. After all, she was a pig, not a rabbit. When her parents and brothers got up she was so tired that she fainted. Pig Mama and her brothers carried her to the shed.

Pig Papa, though worrying about his daughter, refused to help. “Being stubborn and ambitious doesn’t help, does it?” he said, more to himself than to anyone else.

He once had dreamed of being free too, and had even contemplated to escape when he wasn’t much older than Littlest. But he never carried out his plan. He was afraid of failure, of being laughed at by his parents and siblings, and of being caught by the farmer and his wife. Now, at his age, he felt he had seen the world. Though he might appear to be optimistic in his wife’s and children’s eyes, he was really a pessimist.

“We’re all in the gutter,” he said to himself, quoting Oscar Wilde, as a fallen leaf hit his face. But since he didn’t like to be sad, he immediately cheered himself up by reciting a Chinese saying, “Those who’re satisfied are the happiest.” Maybe there was indeed a heaven or afterlife, where he and his family could live happily forever, he further comforted himself.

Though Littlest had covered the hole with straws, grass and leaves, the farmer’s wife still saw the hole when she came to feed the pigs. “These stupid pigs,” she said with contempt. “I bet they can still snore inside a wolf’s stomach.” She called her husband and he filled the hole with a big rock.

This time, it took Littlest five days to recover—she had a fever and diarrhea. She had been small to begin with and now she was even smaller, barely half of the size of Little First. With her skinny body and glistening eyes, she looked more like a starving wild beast than a farm animal.

Suspecting that the pigs wanted to escape, the farmer—much smarter than his wife—began to check on the pen every morning and evening. He noticed how bony Littlest was and began to feed her separately, often with sweet corns and the mix of wheat and barley. Sometimes he even put vitamins and minerals into the food to make sure Littlest was healthy.

His effort soon paid off. Littlest, though still the smallest among the piglets, gained fifteen pounds in a week. It brought smiles to the farmer’s face. More meat meant more money. Even a fool knew that.

With the slaughter day approaching, Littlest grew more and more silent and withdrawn. She rarely joined her family in the mud war, which her siblings loved. She didn’t laugh at jokes, she stayed away from games. Her siblings by now had learned to ignore her. She was a joy killer, a mood destroyer, that was what she was. What did she want anyway? She got extra attention from the farmer, she got better food, she got more love from their mother, who often gave Littlest extra hugs at bedtime. Wasn’t that enough?

Behind her back, they called her a “hypocrite.” Wasn’t she? Look how vigorously she ate now! Not long ago, she had pretended that she didn’t care about food.

If Littlest’s brothers envied her for the special treatment she was getting, her parents were now relieved, assured that their daughter had given up her crazy escape plan. She was eating a lot—proof in itself. As for her silence and aloofness, they weren’t concerned. On the contrary, they saw that as something good—obviously, their daughter needed time to reflect on her naivety and stupidity after her two miserable failures.


(To be continued. Do you think Littlest has given up? Or is she going to try something new? The next installment will be posted in a week.)

1 +1=? & Fiction Writing

My 4-year-old asked me, “What’s 1 plus 1?”

“Two,” I said.

He laughed. “No. It’s eleven.” Then he asked again, “How much is 1 plus 1?”

“Eleven,” I replied.

“No, no, no,” he shook his head wildly. “It’s two! Mom, how much is 1 plus 1 again?” He could barely hold back his victorious smile.

“Two or eleven,” I said with a grin.

“No! It’s ten!” He showed me his math by lifting his right foot, then his left one, then counting his toes. Yes, he was right. Ten toes. Not one more, not one less.

“Now, what’s 1 plus 1?” he asked after I agreed that 1 plus 1 could equal ten.

Before I could figure out a smart answer, he shouted. “It’s ten again, but in Chinese! See,” he was eager to demonstrate his genius by drawing on a piece of paper. “Here is one stick, here is the second stick. You put them together. It’s ‘十.’ Mommy is s-i-l-l-y.”

My 8-year-old, who had been organizing her Pokemon cards, chimed in. “1 plus 1 also equals 4. There’re mommy and daddy first, then there’re me and Luca. But for Andrew’s family, 1 plus 1 equals 7.” Andrew is her classmate and his family just had their 5th kid.

What’s your equation of 1+1 as a writer?

A professor from the University of Nebraska has recently announced that there are only six basic fiction plots, a finding based on his computer-generated analysis. But if you’ve ever written a novel or are working on one, you know that possibilities of plots, characterization, and of choices of voice are endless. It can be confusing and overwhelming.

Be original. Your individuality is what makes your story unique. Your memory and your interpretation are the best ingredients for your book. Yes, indeed, everyone has a book in them.

Follow the inner logic of your characters. The more you understand your characters, the more convincing you are with your writing. Be straightforward or take detours or do whatever you desire. In some cases, 1+1 equals 2, in some other cases, the sum is 10 or even “十” in Chinese.

And be creative and enjoy the ride (you have to admit that even if you complain to all your friends about how difficult it is to write, you love to do it anyway).

Who says 1+1 must equal 2?




50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution and those long-gone Red Guards

An image I found on the Internet inspired me to write my new novel, “Song of the Daisies.” The artist who created the image is Tian Taiquan, whose best known themes are “Lost” and “Totem Recollection,” about the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. If you Google him, you’ll see many of his works.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution which lasted from 1966 to 1976. Though I didn’t experience this devastating political movement directly, I’ve been interested in it and its impact on today’s China and Chinese people since high school. I suppose that was why I chose Chinese Literature and Language as my college major, despite that I was smitten with Western literature at that time–I wanted to learn more about the so-called “scar literature” or “wound literature” (Shanghen wen xue 伤痕文学), and “search-for-roots literature”(xungeng wen due 寻根文学).

I belong to a post-Cultural Revolution generation, and none of my four older brothers were old enough to be Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Yet Tian Taiquan’s art touches me in a very personal way and reminds me of my days as a naive and passionate teenager, as someone with many dreams and questions.

Some of Tian’s most controversial art, (his most impressive in my opinion) are those of the Red Guards who died during the 1966-1968 Chongqing Riot, victims of politics, of their times, and of their unbridled yet distorted love and passion.

“Song of the Daisies” is about the historical and psychological impact of a tumultuous past on ordinary people. Yes, we all say the past is the past, let’s move on, yet we all know that the past is in our blood, in our heartbeat, in the air we breathe.

For my generation growing up in the “Reform and Opening Up” China, our most urgent issue is not how to survive in deprivation and despair, but how to escape the shadow that seems to loom perpetually in the near distance.

To understand today’s China, the economic boom, the corruption, the urbanization,  the guanerdai/fuerdai (second generation of government officials and the rich 官二代/富二代) phenomenon, the mingongchao (tidal wave of migrant laborers 民工潮), the rising nationalism, the growing conflicts between the haves and have-nots, and many other social and cultural matters,  you must look back at what China has gone through in the past few decades and further beyond.

The New York Times’s Chris Buckley has written about the cemetery that often appears in Tian Taiquan’s art.

As he puts it, “…the cemetery embodies China’s evasive reckoning with its legacy. Here the tension between official silence and grass-roots remembrance is palpable.”

The Cultural Revolution caused the death of tens of millions, crippled the economy, and almost paralyzed the country. Yet, to this day, not a single official museum records and commemorates this catastrophic decade. In 2005, one Peng Qian created “The Cultural Revolution Museum” in Shantou, Guangdong Province, with money from private donors, to honor the victims of the Cultural Revolution, but the museum is not supported and promoted by the government. Earlier this year, the government shut the museum partially, its exhibitions forced to close.

Last September, China’s CCTV aired a series of programs called “The History That You Cannot forget” to commemorate “the 70th anniversary of Chinese people’s Anti-Japanese War and the World Anti-Fascist War Victory.” This event was widely celebrated with the Victory Day military parade along Changan Street in Beijing, the publication of a list of 300 “Anti-Japanese heroes, and the declaration of Sept 3 being a national holiday. One can only wonder when the Chinese will begin to become more open and transparent about the Cultural Revolution.

I think about the many innocent-looking young people in Tian Taiquan’s art, who seem to be saying, “Don’t stare at me as if I were crazy. I’m just like you. I’m young, a dreamer. I want to be happy, want to be pretty, want to love, but I live in a world where I have no control.”

More than 400 people were buried in Chongqing’s “The Cultural Revolution Cemetery,” today a forgotten ruin. Many were students, the youngest 14 or 15 years old. Most of them died in the violent battles between two rival Red Guard factions, The 815 and The Smackers (反到底/砸派). A character in my book “Song of the Daisies,” who once belonged to The Smackers describes such battles. “Not just tanks. Later, we even seized a military vessel with a gun combat system from the army. We bombarded a lot of neighborhoods and flattened some of them. One evening, we fired more than five thousand rounds.”

In the book, a previous 815 leader, now in his late 40s, says,” I suppose many of the people I knew in Chongqing died a bit like those sparrows my friends and I had killed so casually. They were innocent but they died for a wrong cause.”

The protagonist Moli Yang, who lives in the United States, travels to this Chongqing cemetery to visit her first boyfriend’s tomb. An aspiring poet, he died during the Chongqing Riot.

“Early one morning I arrive at the graveyard where Hao’s grave is supposedly located. Compared to the one I saw in 1968 the graveyard is bigger and better organized, fenced by a grey stone wall and shaped like a boat, yet quieter and more deserted because I’m the only visitor, a forgotten world more inviting to ghosts than humans.

“A narrow road divides the site. Trees, bushes and weeds claim ownership of the ground as much as the moss-covered gravestones, all of different dimensions. Most of the graves contain several bodies, one as many as seventeen. I stop in front of each, reading the headstones: their names and ages, propaganda slogans and eulogies. Visitors, however few, have left carvings and chalk writings on some of the headstones—all have suffered varying degrees of damage, from weather or sabotage. Several headstones are missing, with only the grave mound visible.

“I find Jinyu’s grave quickly. The headstone is tall and the small oak tree that other members of The 815 and I planted at his funeral is a giant now. On the headstone is a poem Yong had written, carved flamboyantly and painted in red, barely legible from heavy weathering. Surrounded by tall grass growing through thick layers of half-rotten leaves that no longer crunch underfoot, the headstone sits dangerously on a base that could collapse in the next storm.

“I place on the base a bouquet of colorful lilies I bought at the flower shop outside my hotel the night before, glad that the flowers are fresh and beautiful. I sit for a while, thinking of Jinyu’s chubby face and his dream of becoming a photographer. I haven’t thought of him for many years. I really didn’t know him well yet I now remember him vividly, as if we had once been close—his smile, our every conversation, even his girlfriend’s face in the photo he had shown me the night he was killed.

“Recalling those days in Chongqing, I walk slowly from one grave to another. Some bear flowers or wreaths but most do not. I keep bumping into tree branches that have grown too low. Several times I almost trip on ivy vines that have invaded the road. It is a warm day yet I feel cold. Constant wind coming from nowhere penetrates my clothes, making me shiver.

“Though I have come here to visit Hao’s grave because I missed his funeral many years ago, I am less eager to see it now, overwhelmed by the quiet and the formidable forest of gravestones. A romantic boy like him must feel lonely in such an abandoned place, I think. I worry about what his grave looks like. Covered by weeds? With a defaced headstone, or with no headstone at all?

“I circle the graveyard twice, not seeing Hao’s name, but I find a headstone with only the bottom half left, bearing the date he died, and the genders of the two buried there—a boy and a girl—and their ages: seventeen and sixteen. The missing part of the headstone must have included the names. One, I suppose, must be Zhang Hao.

“Below it reads, ‘Let’s give our heroes our greatest respect and biggest salute! Let’s carry on their revolutionary spirit and fight our enemies to our last drop of blood!’ A wreath stands against the headstone, a recent placement, maybe as recent as yesterday, because the petals are still fresh, no doubt left by Hao’s or the girl’s families or friends. I put another bundle of lilies next to the wreath. I make a whistle from a blade of grass, holding it between my thumbs. I blow, mimicking the cuckoo’s song as Hao and I loved to do—he had been an excellent bird whistler. The sound is bright and clear. Soon a bird, then two more, reply with the same melody. Eyes closed, I hear Hao’s voice and see us embracing naked in the moonlight.”

I haven’t visited the cemetery myself, and would like to go there someday. I wonder what this cemetery looks like in the moonlight. Will those long-buried but restless souls roam, singularly or in group, pondering the love and loss in their prematurely frozen youth?

My Short Story, Tickets to Disneyland, is just published by The Margins

A new short stories of mine, “Tickets to Disneyland,” was just published by The Margins, a literary journal of the NYC-based Asian American Writers’s Workshop (AAWW). The magazine is dedicated “to inventing the Asian American creative culture of tomorrow.”

My inspiration for “Tickets to Disneyland” comes from my years working at an Internet powerhouse in the Silicon Valley. It was my first job in the U.S. For quite a few years when I was there, I worked long hours, sometimes from 8am till 9 or 10 in the evening. Like me, many of my coworkers were young, single, hardworking and ambitious. “They wore faded jeans and the tee-shirts bearing the company logo, ” as Yong Chen, the protagonist in the story, a janitor, observes.

Here is a passage about how Yong does his cleaning:

“Yong began to clean the conference room ‘Australia’ at the end of the building. He liked how the company named its conference rooms after countries. It was like being on a global tour free of charge—actually, better, since he was paid to be on the tour. ‘China’ was on the second floor near the kitchen, a big space three times the size of his apartment, with a computer, a whiteboard, and a purple-surfaced round table at which he sometimes sat to take a break. Other rooms were called ‘India,’ ‘Germany,’ ‘Brazil,’ and many other countries, all but ‘United States.’ At first, he was puzzled. Later it made perfect sense—why name a conference room the ‘United States’ when the whole company and all of Silicon Valley were in the United States?”

In my years working at the Internet company, I got to know several janitors by name, and one of them, a bright-eyed and cheerful young man from Mexico, liked to chat with me with his broken English. He told me that he had two daughters back home living with their mother, and said that he’d like to bring them to the U.S. someday. When I was writing “Tickets to Disneyland,” I thought about this man and his daughters back in Mexico.

“Disneyland” is a specific physical location, but, to Yong Chen, is also a symbol of family reunion, and of freedom and establishment. When the economy plummets, his hope evaporates, too. Disneyland is just an unachievable illusion to him.

The tense shifts at the end from the past to the present. It’s a deliberate decision. By doing so, I wanted the reader to see the leap from illusion to reality, and to add more psychological depth to the story.

I completed the first draft of the story three or four years ago, but didn’t think it strong enough to be published. Over the years, I rewrote the story several times, including new endings.

Thanks to my editor Anelise and The Margin for giving the story a beautiful home.

To read the complete story, please visit

Tickets to Disneyland






Happy International Translation Day!

Get 10 minutes from your busy life? Want to travel but have no time or money or have no grandparents to watch your kids? Want to give yourself a well-deserved social media detox? Want to show your kids (not just tell them) that books are more fun than smart phones/ipad/TV? Consider reading a book by a foreign writer then. I bet you won’t regret.

Happy International Translation Day! (Yes, it’s celebrated annually on Sept. 30 on the feast of St. Jerome, who translated the Bible.)

For me, I’m going to read Orhan Pamuk’s “Istanbul.” I’ve read his “Snow” and liked it. Turkey is a country I’m very curious about and would really love to visit.

Here are some of my favorite quotes about translation.

“It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language that is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.” – Walter Benjamin

“Translation is the art of failure.” – Umberto Eco

“It’s better to have read a great work of another culture in translation than never to have read it at all.” – Henry Gratton Doyle

“I just enjoy translating. It’s like opening one’s mouth and hearing someone else’s voice emerge.” – Iris Murdoch

“Translate Chinese into English is like put clouds into a box.” – a translator in the UK

“Overly literal translation, far from being faithful, actually distort meaning by obscuring sense.” – Ken Liu. ( Ken Liu, a writer and a translator, has translated Liu Cixin’s “Three-Body Problem” and many other Chinese works. He’s played a key role in introducing Chinese science fiction to the West.)

My favorite quote is from Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory.” In the book, he says, “For the present, final, edition of Speak, Memory, I have not only introduced basic changes and copious additions into the initial English text, but have availed myself of the corrections I made while turning it into Russian. This re-English of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a diabolical task, but some consolation was given me by the thought that such multiple metamorphosis, familiar to butterflies, had not been tried by any human before.”

Here is my own words about translation based on my experience: “Language is not merely a tool, but a mindset. To translate, in a way, is to rewrite.”

Have you picked your book yet?






First American TV shows I watched in China

In a previous post I mentioned the Western books I read as a child. A friend, after reading the post, asked me when I first watched American TV shows. (Here is a confession: I usually don’t watch TV series, but I love “Game of Thrones” and cannot wait for Season 7.)

That happened in the early eighties.

By then, China and the U.S. had established full diplomatic relations, after a strategic exchange referred as Ping-pong Diplomacy and the visit of President Nixon. Translated books from the U.S. and other Western countries poured into China. So, though to a lesser degree, did their TV programs and movies.

On our 14-inch black and white TV (it was made in Shanghai and the brand was “Gold Star”), we, joined by our neighbors, watched NBC’s “Man from Atlantis” and ABC’s “Garrison’s Gorillas.”

“Man from Atlantis” started the trend of wearing labaku(喇叭裤), wide-legged pants, and hamajin (蛤蟆镜), aviator sunglasses among the urban youth, making them the symbols of troublemakers. One of the young men in my mother’s work unit donned such attire and was often subjected to ridicule.

“Garrison’s Gorillas” swept through China like a tornado, a far cry from all the ‘educational’ movies and TV programs the Chinese were used to. It became a sensation.

When “Garrison’s Gorillas” was on, everyone was riveted to the screen and the streets were deserted. All the boys admired the Chief, played by Brendon Boone, and mimicked how he talked. They practiced knife throwing, the Chief’s signature specialty, with home-made daggers. Two of my brothers were the Chief’s loyal fans and did their dagger-throwing practice dutifully after school every day. The TV show had such a powerful impact on young people that the Chinese government later suspended it, fearing that it would corrupt the country.

In the following years, more American TV shows debuted in China, but nothing seemed as popular among children as  “Garrison’s Gorillas.”

Reading Western literature in the 80s China

Several weeks ago I met several local writers, and as we were discussing the books that had made a big impression on us when we were children, I realized that I hadn’t read most of the books they mentioned. When I confessed, one writer said in disbelief, “Really? But these books are famous.”

No, I replied, not in China, not when I grew up. How many Americans have read Chinese classics? If I ask someone growing up in the U.S. if he or she has read or even heard about 《三国演义》 (Romance of the Three Kingdoms),  the chance is that he or she has no clue.

But I did read many western books when I was a child, thanks to my father, who loved to read and had three tall shelves of books, half of them being foreign literature. He was the kind of person who would rather go hungry than not possess a good book.

I grew up on a state-run farm where my parents had lived since 1961. They had been sent there because my mother came from a so-called ‘capitalist family.’

During the Cultural Revolution both my parents endured persecution and punishment. For several years they lived in a cow shed. It was a real one, as my mother later told me, where she and my dad had to spend days removing cow dung before they could move in.

After the Cultural Revolution my parents assumed their previous jobs, my father a teacher, my mother a cotton agricultural scientist.

On the farm it was hot in the summer, the temperature often reaching 40 ͦ Celsius. Insects were abundant. On some nights, when staying indoors was unbearable, people took their bamboo beds outside, splashing water on them to cool them down, and slept there.

I loved those evenings, when the men played cards and chatted over tea and cigarettes, the women talked and laughed while busying themselves with sewing and knitting and the kids played tag and war games till exhaustion conquered them.

On those nights my father would read me Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. Yes, there was a beautiful country far, far away where “water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower and as clear as crystal, where there was a princess who could feel a pea through twenty mattresses and twenty eider-down beds.” Yes, the kids there were just like me, curious and nature-loving.

The day after my father read Little Ida’s Flowers to me I buried some rose pedals in a match box as Little Ida did in the story. As I covered the box with soil I thought how wonderful it would be if I could travel to Denmark to meet Little Ida and make friends with her.

When I was in the third or fourth grade I began to linger in front of my father’s bookshelves, standing on a rickety stool to look for books with attractive titles or cover art. I was particularly attracted to fairy tales from the ancient Rome and Greek, Aesop’s Fables, Great Expectations, The Three Musketeers, The Dancing Girl of Izu, Jane Eyre, Price and Prejudice, Leaves of Grass, Hemingway’s short stories.

Translated books from the West at that time typically contained a section called ‘Editor’s Comments.’ The section would say first why this book was good and must be read, then it would add that due to the author’s capitalistic or other inclinations, which constituted a disfavored background, the book had flaws and biases in its political and world views.

I would sit in a corner absorbing these books, ignoring new words and difficult passages, and sometime entire pages and chapters if they became too complicated or philosophical. The strange people and places in the books fascinated me—the people and places of England, America, France, Greece, Russia, Italy……

This was my early education of Western literature, and also my first contact with the world outside China.