“Literary critics do fulfil a very important role (as I shall try to show in a moment), but there seems to be a problem with much contemporary criticism, and especially with a certain type of academic literary criticism. One has the feeling that that these critics do not really like literature—they do not enjoy reading. Worse even, if they were actually to enjoy a book, they would suspect it to be frivolous. In their eyes, something that is amusing cannot be important or serious.
This attitude is unconsciously pervading our general view of literature. As a result, we tend to forget that until recently most literary masterpieces were designed as popular entertainment. From Rabelais, Shakespeare and Moliere in the classical age, down to the literary giants of the ninetheenth century—Balzac, Dumas, Hugo, Dickens, Thackeray—the main concern of the great literary creators was not so much to win the approval of the sophisticated connoisseurs (which, after all, is still a relatively easy trick) as to touch the man in the street, to make him laugh, to make him cry, which is a much more difficult task.”

Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness
Other worlds

Other worlds

“So besides selling America, how is your research going?”
Historical hypotheticals are useless but tempting to consider. Would Chiang Kai-shek’s son ever have democratized Taiwan if Mainland China hadn’t liberalized its economy? Did the protestors occupying the Taiwanese legislature owe their right to protest to the very authoritarian regime they hoped to resist? As I walked through the Sunflower Movement’s rain-covered tents on the last day of the occupation, I enjoyed letting these questions bubble up and float away, unanswered. Other, more personal hypotheticals were more difficult to shake, however. Would I have stayed in Taipei if I hadn’t been accepted by the grad school of my then-SO’s dreams? Would I be an English teacher, like many of the people who once laughed and rode bikes through the city’s northern tip with me? Would I be a better person? Happier?
It’s always dangerous returning to a place where you once lived, not unlike reading an old journal or—worse—old email archives. One of the things that’s nice about Mainland China is that you can return to a place you lived for two years and find it unrecognizable with not a stone left unturned in the most literal sense possible. Last year, when I finally returned the street in Shanghai where I’d spent my first fragile months ever living outside the US, I was relieved to find a terrible hot pot restaurant wedged into the storefront where my favorite restaurant had once sat. I had moved on, and so, in its own way, had the landscape. Even the grass field in front of the towers that held my classrooms seemed smaller, somehow. I only noticed this because I have a very distinct memory of making an embarrassing long distance phone call from its center one sunny afternoon and yelling through my shamelessly public tears that my life was “so much better” without the person on the end of the line. The lady doth and did protest too much, and as I couldn’t imagine doing that kind of protesting on a lawn so small I couldn’t pretend I was out of earshot of others, I was relieved to find that I was right; the field was smaller, and more buildings had been built, which gradually shrunk it to its present, not-so-private size.
Taiwan is a different place, though, with a different rhythm that tells a decidedly different story in my narrative of how I got here (wherever “here” is). Tellingly, very little about it has changed in spite of my friends’ claims to the contrary. When I finally trudged my way through the downpour to the intersection where I used to live, I was almost disappointed. Even through the opening of a new subway line (which means that were I to live there now I would definitely not be able to afford my room with hollow floors in a weird boarding house for single women), nothing about the area had really changed. Yes, there were entrances to the subway peeking out of the sidewalk, and yes, there were a few new hip, tea shops, probably for the morning commuters who now rush through what was once a middle of nowhere that most of my friends refused to visit. But I still recognized everything. Here was the building where I once stood transfixed, watching the couple moving in orchestrate a lion dance on the sidewalk to exorcize any lingering demons. There was the terrible fast food restaurant whose mustachioed mascot I had learned to hate during the month I lived only on its 30NT bowls of rice and pork trimmings. And my old apartment—I could see it from the street, which was strange. Had there always been a parking lot there? Maybe not, but just across the way was the dumpling shop where I had once done an interview for a Taiwanese food TV show, hungover and in my pajamas, believing no one I cared about would ever see it since I was leaving the island the next week anyway. 
I was wrong about that, of course. During my first day in New Jersey, I stumbled into my new office, soaked from another, different downpour, only to find my catchphrase cackled back at me by the department administrator, a charming Vietnamese-Chinese-American woman who had a habit of watching Taiwanese travel television online. “They’re like Taiwanese hamburgers!” she crooned in an imitation of my terribly-accented Mandarin. To her face, I winced, and later, to someone else’s face in someone else’s cramped dorm room, I cried.
That the dumpling shop should have outlasted my time in that department—and come to think of it, the administrator’s time as well—seems outrageous by Mainland Chinese standards, and I was halfway down my old street before I finally convinced myself not to be so shocked that all of the shops and restaurants where I had wiled away the hours of that misbegotten gap year still existed. When I arrived at the park where I had once danced to songs played by an aboriginal band much to the horror of the surrounding Taiwanese citizens, I was relieved to find a placard explaining the history of the street to me, its former resident. “Old businesses compete with newer ones,” the placard explained in Chinese, English, and Japanese, “and this is part of what gives this area its vibrancy and charm. Can you spot the stationery store in this photo from the 1920s?” 
I couldn’t , but then again, I didn’t try very hard. The rain was still coming down in a strange, pulsing rhythm; it would pour hard for three minutes, and then mist for five. Again, and again, and again. “Taiwan Touch Your Heart” all the bus stops and airport billboards had proclaimed when I’d lived there, but I’d always been one of those people who felt the island more clearly through my stomach. I ate lunch three different times, marveling at how like my memories everything looked and tasted. Here, in the dumpling shop, the paint is chipping and they’ve begun to experiment with hanging what may be art on one wall but not the other. There, at the jianbing stand, an egg pancake is still 35NT but 40NT if you add cheese (a real indulgence for me when I lived there). Further on, I would find that the street where I had first arrived had changed completely, so much so that I walked past it three times before finally recognizing it by the name of the side street perpendicular to it (the particularly indelible and near inexplicable “Roosevelt”). Now there is a taco shop, a large open cafe, and a collection of bright pink signs by the local neighborhood association protesting the taco shop and open cafe for the “noise and pollution” they bring to a neighborhood that I could have told them was never ever known for being quiet or clean. In 2009, my cab driver dropped me off directly in front of the hostel where I would live for the next 10 days while I searched for an apartment. Thanking him, I immediately walked further down the lane, ignoring his calls from the cab that I had already arrived and was in fact leaving my final destination. As I stood outside a different, similarly-named establishment, I sat on top of my oversized suitcase, brushed away the mosquitos, and cried loud, stupid tears in the hot sun.
I cried, but not before calling the same person I’d called to disavow from a field in the then-suburbs of Shanghai only a few months before. What good, then-me must have thought, is feeling sorry for yourself if no one else knows they should feel sorry for you too? Standing on the street this past week, looking at the exact, unturned stones where I had wept into the first of many expensive international phone calls, I wish I could have tapped that girl on the shoulder. I would have told her to retrace her steps; the place she was looking for was 20 meters back up the street, exactly where the cab had dropped her off. It would be difficult to stop there, though. I might want to tell her to be not irritated but apologetic to the woman who would come, eventually, and let her into the hostel without blaming her for her stupidity. I would want to tell her to get used to crying alone, especially in airports. And I wouldn’t be able to help myself; I would have to tell her to think carefully the morning after she comes home from a perfect night out and decides to apply to grad school because “otherwise she’ll never leave this island.” It turns out, I might say, that there are worse temptations to yield to than being a willing prisoner on a tropical island for the rest of your life. It turns out, I might murmur without meaning to sound menacing, that even the right decisions can leave you plagued by useless questions that do not easily bubble up or float, harmlessly, away.

Historical hypotheticals are useless but tempting to consider. Would Chiang Kai-shek’s son ever have democratized Taiwan if Mainland China hadn’t liberalized its economy? Did the protestors occupying the Taiwanese legislature owe their right to protest to the very authoritarian regime they hoped to resist? As I walked through the Sunflower Movement’s rain-covered tents on the last day of the occupation, I enjoyed letting these questions bubble up and float away, unanswered. Other, more personal hypotheticals were more difficult to shake, however. Would I have stayed in Taipei if I hadn’t been accepted by the grad school of my then-SO’s dreams? Would I be an English teacher, like many of the people who once laughed and rode bikes through the city’s northern tip with me? Would I be a better person? Happier?

It’s always dangerous returning to a place where you once lived, not unlike reading an old journal or—worse—old email archives. One of the things that’s nice about Mainland China is that you can return to a place you lived for two years and find it unrecognizable with not a stone left unturned in the most literal sense possible. Last year, when I finally returned the street in Shanghai where I’d spent my first fragile months ever living outside the US, I was relieved to find a terrible hot pot restaurant wedged into the storefront where my favorite restaurant had once sat. I had moved on, and so, in its own way, had the landscape. Even the grass field in front of the towers that held my classrooms seemed smaller, somehow. I only noticed this because I have a very distinct memory of making an embarrassing long distance phone call from its center one sunny afternoon and yelling through my shamelessly public tears that my life was “so much better” without the person on the end of the line. The lady doth and did protest too much, and as I couldn’t imagine doing that kind of protesting on a lawn so small I couldn’t pretend I was out of earshot of others, I was relieved to find that I was right; the field was smaller, and more buildings had been built, which gradually shrunk it to its present, not-so-private size.

Taiwan is a different place, though, with a different rhythm that tells a decidedly different story in my narrative of how I got here (wherever “here” is). Tellingly, very little about it has changed in spite of my friends’ claims to the contrary. When I finally trudged my way through the downpour to the intersection where I used to live, I was almost disappointed. Even through the opening of a new subway line (which means that were I to live there now I would definitely not be able to afford my room with hollow floors in a weird boarding house for single women), nothing about the area had really changed. Yes, there were entrances to the subway peeking out of the sidewalk, and yes, there were a few new hip, tea shops, probably for the morning commuters who now rush through what was once a middle of nowhere that most of my friends refused to visit. But I still recognized everything. Here was the building where I once stood transfixed, watching the couple moving in orchestrate a lion dance on the sidewalk to exorcize any lingering demons. There was the terrible fast food restaurant whose mustachioed mascot I had learned to hate during the month I lived only on its 30NT bowls of rice and pork trimmings. And my old apartment—I could see it from the street, which was strange. Had there always been a parking lot there? Maybe not, but just across the way was the dumpling shop where I had once done an interview for a Taiwanese food TV show, hungover and in my pajamas, believing no one I cared about would ever see it since I was leaving the island the next week anyway. 

I was wrong about that, of course. During my first day in New Jersey, I stumbled into my new office, soaked from another, different downpour, only to find my catchphrase cackled back at me by the department administrator, a charming Vietnamese-Chinese-American woman who had a habit of watching Taiwanese travel television online. “They’re like Taiwanese hamburgers!” she crooned in an imitation of my terribly-accented Mandarin. To her face, I winced, and later, to someone else’s face in someone else’s cramped dorm room, I cried.

That the dumpling shop should have outlasted my time in that department—and come to think of it, the administrator’s time as well—seems outrageous by Mainland Chinese standards, and I was halfway down my old street before I finally convinced myself not to be so shocked that all of the shops and restaurants where I had wiled away the hours of that misbegotten gap year still existed. When I arrived at the park where I had once danced to songs played by an aboriginal band much to the horror of the surrounding Taiwanese citizens, I was relieved to find a placard explaining the history of the street to me, its former resident. “Old businesses compete with newer ones,” the placard explained in Chinese, English, and Japanese, “and this is part of what gives this area its vibrancy and charm. Can you spot the stationery store in this photo from the 1920s?” 

I couldn’t , but then again, I didn’t try very hard. The rain was still coming down in a strange, pulsing rhythm; it would pour hard for three minutes, and then mist for five. Again, and again, and again. “Taiwan Touch Your Heart” all the bus stops and airport billboards had proclaimed when I’d lived there, but I’d always been one of those people who felt the island more clearly through my stomach. I ate lunch three different times, marveling at how like my memories everything looked and tasted. Here, in the dumpling shop, the paint is chipping and they’ve begun to experiment with hanging what may be art on one wall but not the other. There, at the jianbing stand, an egg pancake is still 35NT but 40NT if you add cheese (a real indulgence for me when I lived there). Further on, I would find that the street where I had first arrived had changed completely, so much so that I walked past it three times before finally recognizing it by the name of the side street perpendicular to it (the particularly indelible and near inexplicable “Roosevelt”). Now there is a taco shop, a large open cafe, and a collection of bright pink signs by the local neighborhood association protesting the taco shop and open cafe for the “noise and pollution” they bring to a neighborhood that I could have told them was never ever known for being quiet or clean. In 2009, my cab driver dropped me off directly in front of the hostel where I would live for the next 10 days while I searched for an apartment. Thanking him, I immediately walked further down the lane, ignoring his calls from the cab that I had already arrived and was in fact leaving my final destination. As I stood outside a different, similarly-named establishment, I sat on top of my oversized suitcase, brushed away the mosquitos, and cried loud, stupid tears in the hot sun.

I cried, but not before calling the same person I’d called to disavow from a field in the then-suburbs of Shanghai only a few months before. What good, then-me must have thought, is feeling sorry for yourself if no one else knows they should feel sorry for you too? Standing on the street this past week, looking at the exact, unturned stones where I had wept into the first of many expensive international phone calls, I wish I could have tapped that girl on the shoulder. I would have told her to retrace her steps; the place she was looking for was 20 meters back up the street, exactly where the cab had dropped her off. It would be difficult to stop there, though. I might want to tell her to be not irritated but apologetic to the woman who would come, eventually, and let her into the hostel without blaming her for her stupidity. I would want to tell her to get used to crying alone, especially in airports. And I wouldn’t be able to help myself; I would have to tell her to think carefully the morning after she comes home from a perfect night out and decides to apply to grad school because “otherwise she’ll never leave this island.” It turns out, I might say, that there are worse temptations to yield to than being a willing prisoner on a tropical island for the rest of your life. It turns out, I might murmur without meaning to sound menacing, that even the right decisions can leave you plagued by useless questions that do not easily bubble up or float, harmlessly, away.

I don’t like this expression “First World problems.” It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poorer country. People in the richer nations need a more robust sense of the lives being lived in the darker nations. Here’s a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.

One event that illustrated the gap between the Africa of conjecture and the real Africa was the BlackBerry outage of a few weeks ago. Who would have thought Research In Motion’s technical issues would cause so much annoyance and inconvenience in a place like Lagos? But of course it did, because people don’t wake up with “poor African” pasted on their foreheads. They live as citizens of the modern world. None of this is to deny the existence of social stratification and elite structures here. There are lifestyles of the rich and famous, sure. But the interesting thing about modern technology is how socially mobile it is—quite literally. Everyone in Lagos has a phone.


Teju Cole (via kateoplis)

I was reminded of the truth of this as I caught the early warning signs of an imminent water shut-off (low pressure water, air spurting through the faucet) and reacted by immediately, almost unconsciously (I am getting good at this!) planting a small basin beneath the trickling faucet while at the same time backing up my computer, while at the same time angrily messaging my building manager on WeChat, an awesome phone chat program created by developers here, water shut-offs and all. Asked which they prefer, the summer’s frequent rolling brown-outs or the winter’s sudden water shut-offs, most Chinese people I know would say the water shut-offs, because honestly who needs to shower so long as you have internet?

(via indiemaiden)

On Fear - 论怕


Lately, I’ve noticed a change in one of my best friends in Henan. She no longer tries to steer the conversation toward English; she no longer knocks on my door at 7:45AM needing me to answer, pertly; she no longer sits on my couch forlornly, on the edge of tears, chased by a dread she can barely name. Instead, she uses whatever language comes more quickly to the two of us, which more often than not means Mandarin; she meets me in the afternoon when she knows I’ll be bright and ready for a fourth (or fifth) cup of coffee; she smiles. She smiles, and when I ask her about the things I know used to dog her, she keeps smiling. These aren’t real problems, she assures me. How could they be? “I am happy,” she tells me, “I am happy, I am blessed, and I am content.”

Changes like this are rare but not impossible. Even I have felt myself slowly opening like the limp magnolia blossoms struggling to breathe in the thick, blue, spring air. Even I have felt the season gradually win me over—in spite of every false start and sudden cold spell, I too believe that spring has come. Here in Beijing, the foreigners I make my home with speak often of seasons beginning and ending, of the way a season can take up whole years of your life. In this season of mine, I feel more tightly wound up with the outside world than ever before: Henan’s winter was mine, and if there’s anything like justice in the world, Henan’s spring will be mine as well.

The reason for my friend’s change pushes its way slowly out of the dull dirt of our conversation and wriggles into the sunlight. A discussion with another, dogmatically Christian friend of where MH370 could have gone catalyzed into a debate after she admitted to believing in second, even third lives. “I know that he was caring for me,” she says, “and that he is worried that if I don’t follow the Bible my soul will be in danger, but the truth is we don’t have to agree.” She tells me about how a teacher of hers has changed her attitude toward life completely, about how she now believes that all of us are one, large soul but that when we are born on earth, we forget. 

"I think that all God wants for us is to remember who we are," she smiles, "Now, when people are cruel to me or bad, I know that it’s just that they’ve forgotten who they are. It does not hurt me because in the next life, when we are all one spirit again, they will remember."

Strictly speaking, this is not Christian doctrine, and I’ve watched with admiration as she’s either kept her new opinions to herself or else convinced others in her community that they’ve convinced her to give them up. We laugh together about how it seems that men—particularly the American men we know—are not interested in hearing about her experience, only in making sure she agrees with theirs. “It’s like they need to win when really I think there’s no reason to discuss it,” she says, “They’ll have their faith, and I’ll have mine. They still haven’t realized that this is okay.”

Even though my ears smart at her progressive, evolutionary construction (“they still haven’t”), I can’t help but think her attitude is the most sensible one. And maybe she’s right to phrase it that way—maybe she’s a season ahead of the rest of us. It’s true that I can’t count the number of times I’ve been trapped in a bar, in a stairwell, in a dorm bedroom, in a shitty Honda Civic, in an expensive Lexus SUV, even in my own apartment, with some man who has made himself into a wall and decided he had to win a discussion that I was happy not to have in the first place. “You live your life in fear,” one declared recently, over a dinner I’d cooked, at a party I’d hosted. He said it as though he meant it as an accusation, but I couldn’t help but laugh. Because of course I live my life in fear. Of course. Anything else would be stupid. 

Of course, I have, at certain times, been afraid that even this conviction of mine was wrong. Not all seasons are shared. How can you explain your own personal winter to a world that only knows springs? There is no way to convince someone who is not afraid—who has no reason to be afraid—that your fear is reasonable. Of course I have doubted my fear. I’ve doubted it the same way I doubted and finally rejected my own anger, which was no longer generative but consumptive. I am only 26 years old, but I know a little about how wrong one can be about the shape of reality, about how quickly people can slide back and forth on the slick scale between sanity and insanity. So many of my hours are spent alone in my apartment or staring meditatively through a window at passing scenery while surrounded by strangers. Of course I have been afraid of my own imagination’s impact on the world. Of course I have been afraid that my conviction that to live wisely is to live in fear is wrong. 

So, my doubt being the way that it was, there should be at least one reading of my life in which I arrive at this point and find myself relieved to be proved right: In fact, the world is a dangerous place. In fact, the people who do not live in fear are the source of that danger themselves, whether they realize it or not. In fact, fear is a real defense mechanism that protects against real harm. In fact all the precautions I’ve ever taken were preparations for this moment. In fact I’ve always been right about everything except for the timing. In fact, this is my season, for better or worse.

Weirdly enough, I do feel a little relieved, but more than that, I feel released. Because what else could happen to me now? I feel inoculated against all the harm I used to fear, safe and calm where before I would have been anxious and frightened. “What are you afraid of,” I smiled at a real estate agent who tried to arrest me last weekend. “My leader,” he answered without hesitation as he body-blocked my attempts to leave my housing complex. I laughed at him as I deleted the photos he wanted to arrest me for, I laughed and I laughed and I knew not to be afraid because there was nothing more he could to do to me that had not already been done. 

As I walked away, I kept laughing, and it wasn’t until I related my story to my changed friend that the sense of maniacal glee mutated into something more like shame. “I shouldn’t have been so mean,” I admitted, “But I just thought it was so absurd.” She stretched her arm over the table and put her hand on mine: “Don’t worry. It’s just that you forgot yourself.” And later: “I am sorry I made you go to my church before. I feel like I may have given you some kind of pressure. I know now it doesn’t matter.” In the restaurant, I feel my face bloom. Between the two of us, we are good at reminding each other who we are; we are good at listening, at hearing each other, at speaking without needing to win. We no longer have to convince each other why we believe what we believe. The seasons are changing. Everything has to change now, everyone. That’s what I wanted when I reached with my other arm across the table so that each of our hands held the other in the shape of two tiny, flesh-colored buds: for her to have her beliefs, for you to have yours, for me to have mine, and for all of us to become people who can remember, without fear, who we are. 

拆二代的车

拆二代的车

“Academic prose is, ideally, impersonal, written by one disinterested mind for other equally disinterested minds. But, because it’s intended for a very small audience of hyper-knowledgable, mutually acquainted specialists, it’s actually among the most personal writing there is. If journalists sound friendly, that’s because they’re writing for strangers. With academics, it’s the reverse.”

Joshua Rothman on why academic writing remains remote and insular: http://nyr.kr/1fFowLp (via newyorker)

(Source: newyorker.com, via newyorker)