Monday, January 27, 2014

The Chinese New Year Dilemma

With the advent of the Chinese New Year – China’s most important cultural holiday – controversial issues like pollution, environmental responsibility and the role of traditions are once again brought to light.

It’s no secret that smog levels in Beijing have been continuously reaching unprecedented levels, engulfing the city in toxic chemicals for days at a time. On the measurement scale, air quality levels in the past year have frequently fluctuated between levels going beyond the upper limits of the index and “hazardous” levels. Just last Wednesday, pollution soared to 26 times the safe level recommended by the World Health Organization.

The issue of air pollution is one of the focuses of the Xi administration. The government has worked to address this issue during the past year, offering economic incentives for cutting emissions and instituting fines and penalties for exceeding caps. Additionally, Chinese officials ordered highway closures to both minimize carbon dioxide emissions and prevent traffic accidents, as visibility in Beijing dropped to a mere 500 meters.


Beijing in November 2013

(Photo: Reuters)

Aside from the obvious respiratory and health problems caused by air pollution, there are also numerous negative economic effects associated with the closure of major highways and factories, prohibition of the use of government and private vehicles, and the cancellation of certain outdoor activities, all of which disturb the regular rhythm of the city. Pollution also serves as a major deterrent for tourism.

With the Lunar New Year coming up on January 31st, Chinese officials are extra cautious about air pollution levels. Deriving from ancient mythologies, fireworks and firecrackers continue to be treasured by Chinese citizens as deeply traditional aspects of the holiday, with celebrants setting off the explosives at midnight on the first and fifth days of the lunar calendar to bring good fortune. Unfortunately, they also bring smoke, dust, sulphur-coal compounds and toxic chemicals, which consistently produce spikes in air pollution levels. Last year, PM 2.5 levels jumped by over 500% following the midnight celebrations.

All of this has led Chinese officials to consider banning fireworks on Chinese New Year in relevance to smog concerns, as part of the Beijing mayor’s “all-out effort” against air pollution. Xinhua News reported that the ban will be implemented if pollution reaches the severe “red” or “orange” levels. As such, overall firework cartons are reduced by 10%.

For the good of the environment, perhaps we’ll have to resort to videos of fireworks, as some watch videos of merrily crackling logs in a fireplace?

(New Year’s in Hong Kong)

However, people have been frequently dismissive of past bans, lighting up firecrackers in spite of official recommendations. The long-held custom is not easily or lightly abandoned, as demonstrated in an online poll by China Youth Daily, which reports that only 983 of their 2,529 respondents will refrain from lighting firecrackers – a mere 38%. While modern Chinese governments frequently choose “progress” over traditions, this is a sentiment that does not seem reflective of many Chinese citizens.

As a compromise between cultural preservation and environmental responsibility, Beijing will provide “environmentally friendly fireworks”, which contain no sulfur and produce less smoke. However, the higher price tag may deter people from opting for the greener option. As the holiday approaches, Chinese residents will be facing a choice between setting off the fireworks or not, though it seems many have already made up their mind.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Evolution of Chinese Characters

An ancient woman with snow-white braided hair sits hunched in front of a crackling fire, skillfully and carefully etching lines with a sharp object into a large ox bone. These strokes slowly form vaguely familiar figures: a square with a mark in the middle for “sun”, a shape with three points shooting upwards for “mountain”, what looks like a running stream for “water”. Later, this diviner will heat up these inscribed bones until they crack so that she can interpret the resulting patterns: an answer from the gods.


Oracle bone, Shang dynasty

Fast-forward 400 years: a craftsman deliberately carves intricate figures composed of individual lines and disconnected strokes into a bronze wine vessel, characters that bear significant resemblance to the ones from centuries ago, but are nevertheless slightly different.

Another 400 years later, the Qin emperor declares the unification of the writing system, whose individual characters are again modified versions of those from 400 years ago. However, like an ever-growing family tree, one can still detect a strong resemblance between these characters and their previous counterparts.

Five hundred years pass. In the Han Dynasty, this likeness is still present. During this time in history, an official script is established that eventually leads directly to the beginnings of a regular written language, which becomes the basis of modern day traditional Chinese characters.


A basic sketch of the evolution of Chinese characters

This is the basic evolutionary path of Chinese characters. Many people believe that Chinese characters derive from pictographic origins; that is, each character is designed based on what it represents. However, this is only true for a very small percentage of characters. In fact, most characters are pictophonetic and arise from a “radical”, which provides the basic meaning and phonetic expression of the character.

For this reason, my mom always claims that Chinese characters are quite easy to learn. If one does not recognize a Chinese character, he only needs to be able to discern the radical in order to have a good chance of guessing not only the gist, but also the general pronunciation of the character!

Today, there are writing styles beyond the basic standard script. For example, cursive writing is commonly used in Chinese calligraphy, and is respected and well-known for its artistic, flowing strokes. Additionally, there is freehand cursive, which is less abstract than cursive writing, and thus more legible to the general public. Furthermore, large seal and small seal scripts are forms of writing often used for personal stamps and stationary. Lastly, there has recently been a surge in popularity of simplified Chinese, especially in mainland China. This type of script was adopted more than 50 years ago as a governmental attempt to increase accessibility of knowledge to the masses and to eradicate illiteracy.

Because Chinese script is the oldest script in East Asia, its influence can be seen in many Asian writing systems, such as Japanese and Korean, both of which consisted entirely of Chinese characters before adapting Chinese script to create their own writing systems. Indeed, the Chinese writing system is deeply entrenched in the history of East Asia, and continues to play a crucial part in the development of Chinese society.

A Morning Swim in North Korea

I swim because I love the sense of freedom I feel in the water. This sensation of unboundedness, of unrestrained fluidity, is even more pronounced when at the water’s edge lies a fenced-in land of captivity. The Yalu River separates the hermit kingdom of North Korea from China, and it was in the Yalu that I swam, just upstream of the crane-sprouting Chinese city of Dandong, on a clear October morning.


Yalu River swimmers with North Korea on far shore

(Photo: Victor Robert Lee)

As I spat into my goggles a few steps from the water, to my surprise, nine men and one woman walked down the embankment in their swimsuits, put on fins and high-tech hand paddles, and started to slide into the river. A few smiled at this stranger in trunks, and one of them, short and muscular, with a clutter of teeth and circular fire-cupping imprints across his back, signaled for me to get in the water next to him. He later told me his name was Yi Hong Fung.

Most of the swimmers gradually dispersed in the direction of the far shore, about 500 meters away. But Yi and I swam together, alternating between freestyle and breaststroke, occasionally testing each other’s speed. I felt light and fast, and probably could have quickly outdistanced him despite his paddles and fins (much of my youth was spent in competitive swimming), but this was not a race. And I didn’t know if the swimmers were going to pass the river’s midpoint, the official boundary, or veer back toward the Chinese shore.

Answer: We stroked all the way to the far bank and landed a bit downstream because of the current. Yi stood in the North Korean mud and warmed up in the sunlight. I needed the sun, too. You can imagine the water was cold, yes, but it was bearable because of our exertion, and to my surprise, it seemed clean—no litter, suds, turds or taste of diesel. We stood next to a four-meter-high fence of ragged netting held up by poles that looked like scavenged tree branches—North Korea’s protection against invading swimmers and escaping citizens.


North Korean shore of Yalu River at Dandong

(Photo: Victor Robert Lee)

The riverbank was a gradual rise of swamp grass; twenty meters from where we’d landed there was a small white shack—a North Korean guard station. There were no visible gun-toting Democratic People’s Republic of Korea soldiers here, as there had been the day before at the upstream trickle of a Yalu branch at Tiger Mountain. There, Chinese minders and the DPRK personnel threatened gunfire at anyone trying to take a picture of the soldiers. Here, no one. Silence.

Yi and I had been the first of the group to reach the far shore; others smiled at me as they arrived. Their skin glowed with the orange color of the early sun. I punched Yi’s shoulder and said, “hun hao” (very good), to praise his strength. He made a similar gesture to acknowledge mine.

After we plodded through the mud for a while, I motioned to Yi for us to swim back to our starting point, now upriver. “Bu shi.” This meant no, and with a sweep of his hand he indicated that the current would be too strong, we’d have to aim for a downstream point. It was all part of his regular circuit, I supposed.

Here we are: Yi and I, planted in the shallows of arguably the least free country in the world, a fenced pen holding in millions through a combination of despotism, punishing violence, and enforced mind-control ideology.

Yi was free, free to do this whenever he wanted, although I guess he didn’t recognize the mockery he made, with every swim, of the hermit tyrant ruling the far shore. But Yi lives in China. The West would say he is not really free either, that he is a citizen of a country controlled by an illegitimate, information-suppressing party; a self-engendered corrupt network of pseudo-communists.

But on this morning, with Yi’s toothy smiles and exuberance, the simple freedom of swimming seemed the only concern of both of us.

As we swam back to the Chinese shore, Yi turned his head now and then to make sure I hadn’t been swept too far by the current. We sprinted the last 100 meters, perhaps racing, perhaps just trying to beat the current to our mark on the other side— a stretch of riverside stone steps where clothes were being washed by a group of women.

Yi and I shook hands on the steps. He seemed as energized as I was, with a robustness bordering on joy. “Xie xie,” I thanked him. He replied the same.

I walked about a kilometer up-river to where I’d left my clothes. I strolled slowly, to give myself more time to think about freedom.


Train crossing Yalu River to North Korea at Dandong

(Photo: Victor Robert Lee)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Folk Singer Turned First Lady: What It Means for China’s First Lady to Be on The Glamorous “Best-Dressed” List

When Xi Jinping assumed the role of President of China in March of 2013, it was amidst a cloud of uncertainty. The Chinese Communist Party was only just recovering from a public scandal involving a high-ranking member of the party, and there were a great deal of questions regarding how Xi planned to implement his goal of curbing corruption within the Party. On Xi’s first trip abroad however, accompanied by his wife, Peng Liyuan, foreign journalists were suddenly struck with another question: What is China’s First Lady wearing?


Peng travels long-haul in style

Dressed in a long, dark, double-breasted trench coat, light blue scarf, black heels, and black leather handbag, her hair perfectly coiffed and in a bun, Peng stepped off the plane and into the limelight. The American press called her the next Michelle Obama, and her sartorial choices whipped fashionistas into a frenzy as they tried to guess the clothing label. The discovery that she’d chosen a domestic Chinese brand, Exception de Mixmind, as opposed to one of the major European fashion houses was hailed as a turning point for Chinese fashion. Vanity Fair included her in their Best-Dressed List of 2013, and domestic sales for Mixmind soared.


First Ladies Angélica Rivera de Peña (Mexico) and Peng Liyuan (China) navigate the stairs in high-heel pumps at a state dinner in Mexico City

From a Western perspective, the concept of a fashionable First Lady is nothing new, with notable examples being Jackie O., Carla Bruni, and, of course, Michelle Obama. But in China, where the First Lady has tended to stay out of the limelight, Peng’s position as a media darling has enormous potential for a government that was somewhat lacking in terms of charismatic international public figures. While no stranger to the role of the public figure – Peng previously garnered popularity within China as a folk singer – her position as the President’s wife has subjected her to a completely different level of exposure.


Peng, performing in Beijing in 2012

(Photo: Imaginechina, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images via NYT)

Peng’s coming out as China’s first publicly glamorous first lady comes at an interesting juncture in Chinese politics, especially given her husband’s position. Xi has been vocal in denouncing perceived excesses within the Party, and has vowed to crack down on these as a way of reducing corruption and streamlining the bureaucracy by launching a frugality campaign.

In this context, her choice of a homegrown label serves very much to bolster her husband’s position, and sets her apart from the wives of other politicians. In a time fraught with tension brought about by the rapidly increasing gap between rich and poor, as well as a flurry of political scandals involving bribery and corruption, brands like Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior are as much symbols of luxury and status as they are of corruption and excess.


Rivaling Kate Middleton and Michelle Obama

By imbuing the image that has become popularized in the West of what constitutes a “First Lady”, Peng makes herself more amenable to a global audience, which is especially crucial given her current status as a media darling, and her role as the President’s wife and as a face in contemporary Chinese politics. In redefining the roles of fashion within the Communist Party, and particularly in Peng’s choice to wear local Chinese brands, the question of style goes beyond the realm of individualized taste, and takes on a political dimension.

In adapting Western styles to Chinese brands within the current context, it may be possible for figures like Peng to redefine China’s image much like its fashion: as an accepted and legitimate part of the international community that still exists as its own distinctive entity.

Why My Asian Parents Love “The Godfather”

I remember summer from thirteen years ago, days where I spent endless hours playing in the green grass outside my apartment: getting dirt on the bottom of the sundresses my Chinese grandmother had painstakingly made, scuffing my shoes, stepping in mud, and hiding behind bushes. My best friend was the girl who lived directly above me, who wore her long hair in pigtails and chased me around the building; we’d climb over fences, hide from our parents, and sneak food from the kitchen to eat on our adventures. We were best friends, close enough to be family. While we were discovering this lesson hiding behind thorny bushes and smashing red berries, my parents were learning the same from one of the greatest movies of American cinema: The Godfather.

For nearly every year after their first viewing, they tried to get me to watch the movie with them. When Harry Potter became popular, they watched the films with me and swore that The Godfather was a thousand times better, deeper, and more exciting than a boy wizard could ever be. When I became interested in the silly teen romance novels that silly young teenagers often read, they told me to watch The Godfather and report back to them about love, and how the bonds between families, nations, and ethnicities were infinitely stronger than the temporary lust of adolescents who barely knew how to drive.

I didn’t listen to them, because I was convinced that their fascination was old-fashioned and boring, and that my generation’s storytellers have perfected filmmaking and novel-writing, which was still rough and being polished thirty, forty years ago. I procrastinated in watching the movie, pushing it off for years upon years until the winter break of my sophomore year in college, when I was suddenly struck by a sudden desire to watch the movies that I’d shirked from for a long decade.


(Photo: expatlingo)

They were worth the wait. For three hours I sat before the television, my eyes glued to the screen, afraid to blink for fear of missing some subtlety in the actors’ motions that would have ruined the rest of the plot. My mom sat by my side, pointing out the motivations behind the Godfather’s actions that I didn’t understand. For example, when Sonny Corleone publicly disagreed with his father before others, he was warned to “never tell anyone outside the family what you’re thinking”.

It’s a common theme for Asian parents that their children, the newer generation, don’t understand the bonds of families and the strength of nationalism. For the most part, this is true. As I watched the members of the Corleone family willingly sacrifice themselves and put their lives on the line to defend their family’s honor, I respected them for making the sacrifice that I know I personally could never choose.

I now understood. The movie was perfect for them: a Chinese couple who had recently immigrated to the United States in search of the American dream, but faced the challenge of overcoming a language barrier, discrimination, and struggling to synthesize the closed and conservative Chinese culture with the open and liberal American mindset. They found their answer contained in the plastic tapes of Francis Coppola’s The Godfather, where the opening scene beckoned them in, and the charm of Michael Corleone kept them watching.

They understood why the Families depended on Don Corleone. He had made the sacrifices necessary and dirtied his hands so his children could live happy lives, just like how my parents gave up a comfortable life in China – their social circle, their homeland – to raise two Chinese-American children in the nation of dreams. This was the ultimate love, beyond any pretty words from fluffy novels. And this was the first time I understood this.

My parents watched the interactions between the characters evolve from loyalty, love, and care to cold, merciless business transactions, and felt themselves moved in ways they’d never expected – especially by an American film. And I, through an Italian family, came to understand my own Chinese roots.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Tragic Love Story in the Garish Lights of Shanghai

“If one day I’d disappeared, would you look for me?”

“Yes, I would.”

“Would you look for me as madly as Mardar did?”

“Yes, I would.”

“Would you keep looking forever?”


“Until death?”


“You’re lying.”

This is the conversation at the beginning of Suzhou River (苏州河), between Meimei, a girl in cheap make-up and gaudy dresses, working at a dive bar, and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, a poor, unnamed videographer. He tells her the story of Mardar, a courier who buzzes on a motorcycle along Suzhou River, who was once in jail for some years because he kidnapped a young girl.

The story takes place in the gritty suburb of Shanghai in 1990s China. Abandoned warehouses and factories and chaotic slums huddle along the banks of Suzhou River, which transports tons of trash along with steamers and their cargo and avaricious owners to the fast-growing metropolis.

On the riverbank lived a teenage girl named Moudan, who had two pigtails and who liked to wear a red jacket. Her father got rich through smuggling, and he’d usually hire Mardar to take his daughter out whenever he brought a new mistress back home. Over time, Moudan grew attached to the man who ferried her back and forth on a shabby bike. They fell in love with each other and were happy for a while.


This is happiness: Mardar (Jia Hongsheng) and Moudan (Zhou Xun)

One day, Mardar picked Moudan up at her house, as usual; however, he brought her to a deserted warehouse and locked her in. She realized that her lover had schemed with crooks to extort ransom from her wealthy father. Forced to kidnap Moudan after they noticed his growing affection for the girl, Mardar wanted to send her back home, but she seized an opportunity to run away and jumped into the Suzhou River. Her body was never found, and Mardar was arrested. Upon his release from jail, he began looking for his old love, convinced she’d survived the waters.

When he met Meimei at the tawdry bar, he was convinced that she was actually Moudan. She thought him a lunatic, as he kept gibbering about his story; gradually, she was moved by his persistence and took him into her bed. Soon, Mardar found the real Moudan, and left the heartbroken Meimei with the videographer. At the end of the film, Mardar and Moudan, after drinking much alcohol, were found drowned in Suzhou River, their deaths never known as an accident or a suicide.

The director of the film, Lou Ye, one of the “Sixth Generation” Chinese filmmakers, chose the actress Zhou Xun to play the dual roles of Moudan and Meimei in Suzhou River. Her excellent performance won her the Best Actress Award in the 2000 Paris Film Festival, and though well-received abroad, Suzhou River was not publicly screened in China due to Lou being under a filmmaking ban by the Chinese government at the time.


A shot of Suzhou River from the film

In this tragic love story, Lou leads our sight away from the garish image of bustling, thriving Shanghai, and instead to the margins of society: crooks, prostitutes, smugglers, and laborers. The two main characters in the film, Mardar and Moudan, form a jarring contrast with other profit-seeking people in the scenes. Perhaps the discrepancy created by these two figures is what Lou pursues: true love has become rare in the society depicted in Suzhou River.

People don’t waste time looking for love; instead, they care more about money. Only Mardar and Moudan will stick to their lovers, and as a counterpart is the relationship between Meimei and the videographer. In the end, Meimei left her shabby apartment and a note for the videographer: “Come and look for me.” He, of course, didn’t follow, and confessed, “Compare to looking for Meimei, I would rather close my eyes and wait for the coming of my next lover…”

In many aspects, Mardar and Moudan are ordinary people, struggling for a better life along Suzhou River like everyone else. Mardar, who’d committed crime, could barely be called a “good” person: poor, anonymous, and abandoned, Mardar and Moudan are losers according to the materialistic standards of society. However, what made them stand out is the devotion of their relationship, a romance twinkling from the smelly, dark depths of Suzhou River.

Throughout the film, Lou created the microcosm of a cold and dystopic society more or less representative of 90s China. In such a world, love between Mardar and Moudan is instead rendered unrealistic and absurd, growing into a traumatic experience with only one ending. True love is vulnerable in such a world where the two lovers cannot be understood; only at the bottom of Suzhou River is their love able to gain its eternity.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

All the President’s Women: The Public and Private Lives of Politicians

Political sex scandals are always irresistibly intriguing for exposing the profound darkness and secrecy hidden behind politely smiling professional faces. ABC has been successfully monetizing such fascination with Scandal, inspired by D.C. insider Judy Smith, who represented Monica Lewinsky during the Clinton-era scandal: its Season 3 premier had over 10 million viewers. Therefore, when French President François Hollande and his – not two, as everyone knew, but three – women, appeared on the scene, he also had vastly more than 10 million people watching.

A sex scandal is the last thing Hollande needs since he became the most unpopular French president on record in October 2013, with only a 26% approval rating. He’d lived unmarried with his partner Ségolène Royal, a fellow ambitious Socialist politician, for over 30 years. In June 2005, after Royal’s defeat in the French presidential election, the couple announced their separation. A few months later, a French website exposed details of Hollande’s long affair with journalist Valérie Trierweiler, who confirmed the relationship. In 2012, when Hollande won that year’s presidential election and moved into the Élysée Palace (the official residence of the French President), Trierweiler came along as the “First Girlfriend” and accompanied him to official events.

On January 10, 2014, the tabloid Closer exposed another scandal: the middle-aged French leader photographed riding a scooter with his bodyguard to meet with his gorgeous and supposed paramour, film actress and producer Julie Gayet. The dramatic twist is that Trierweiler was hospitalized several hours after she heard the shocking allegation. When Hollande visited her in the hospital, he neither confirmed nor denied the reports of his affair: his belief was that his personal life should not be scrutinized or judged.

Front cover of Closer magazine

“The secret love of the president”, Closer

The nebulous correlation between personal moral standards and political acumen got me thinking. Mao Zedong had three wives, with rumors of many other women on the side; yet, his accomplishments and contributions to China are not overshadowed at all – his personal life seemed negligible. Even if Mao abandoned his second wife He Zizhen (who accompanied him during the most arduous period of civil war, including the Long March) immediately after victory and married the elegant actress Jiang Qing, his marital status was never a focus of public discussion as Hollande’s is in France.

Compared to China’s strict censorship, which made Mao’s personal life beyond reproach, the French way of elevating such infidelities to an element of romantic style is more transparent. The national spirit to protect a politician’s privacy – think of Mitterrand and his second family – becomes the current politician’s excuse to hide every dirty, little secret, even when the leader of the country is supposed to be trustworthy and responsible.


Royal, Gayet, and Trierweiler

The way of crisis management and the consequences of such sex scandals hugely depend on the cultural background and values of the state. China has never had a “bachelor” leader due to influential and long-standing family values: the family is the fundamental unit of national stability and harmony. France, though, has a longer history of cohabitation and reputation of extramarital/sexual freedom. Despite being an unwed man with four children and a girlfriend acquired under nontraditional circumstances, Hollande was nevertheless elected; as well, his approval rating rose after the news of affair, especially among women. But really, the French has more on their plate than their President’s personal life – like the sluggish economy.

Former President Clinton’s statement, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”, infuriated many simply because this sworn testimony was perjurious. For me, I believe that when one is telling the truth or what one truly believes in, how the general public understands him or her is no longer his or her fault.

“Ms. Left” Searching for “Mr. Right”

Last week, my friend Candice called me with excitement I could hear right through the phone: she announced a good “peach blossom” (桃花, tao hua) she’d receive in the coming months. I was surprised by her change in attitude: luck in love, in feng shui , is known as “peach blossom luck”, but astrology?! Who would pay for that? Yet, “peach blossom luck” is one of the most desired sign for any woman, especially for those in their mid-to-late 20s, due to their fear of becoming a “Ms. Left”.


A career fair? No – it’s a large-scale blind date! The goal is “No girl left behind!”

In the last couple of decades, the word “Ms. Left” (剩女, sheng nu) has increased in its popularity in Chinese lexicon to describe a growing social group: women who’ve reached the age of 25 and are still single. A Chinese woman’s ideal marriage age, to be considered “normal” and “responsible” by society, is around her mid-20s; therefore, the use of “Ms. Left” is slightly mocking and implies that these “leftover girls” failed to find their “Mr. Rights”. In the past, there was no such word as “Ms. Left”; for thousands of years in a conservative China, young people married under their parents’ or families’ orders, which rarely let daughters be “left behind” without a purpose.

The emergence of “Ms. Left” in popular language would not be possible without China’s fast economic development and cultural opening-up in the 1970s. The new generation, born in the 80s and 90s, was lucky and enjoyed the advantages, compared to their parents. In contrast to 30 years ago when only a limited number of women completed college degrees, today, female Masters and PhDs are ordinary and abundant in China. This is one reason why women today are closer to being “Ms. Lefts”: they’re in school for longer, and once they’ve graduated, in a society where education and economic status are paramount, these women may not want to marry “down”.

Take my friend Candice as an example. After graduating from a prestigious university in China at the age of 22, she came to the U.S. for graduate school. When she completed her Masters education, she was 24 – oops, only a year away from age 25! If she’s still single by then, congratulations, Candice has earned herself, along with her Bachelors and Masters, the title of “Ms. Left”. There are many women in China in the same situation; no wonder, the number of “Ms. Lefts” is increasing dramatically.

Though not favored by young women, the label of “Ms. Left” cheers up other people: the “dating and marriage” business in China is booming. Pressure posed on women by the media’s abuse of “Ms. Lefts” contributes to modern Chinese women’s search of marriageable men before “it’s too late” (a.k.a., before they’re placed in the category of a “Ms. Left”). The other part to this is the young men: they’ve realized that the clock tick-tocks for them as well, and the competition drives the demand on the male side too. (Though, they might be more concerned about running out of other choices besides the “Ms. Lefts” if they don’t hurry.)

Suddenly, reality dating shows are viral on major television channels. One of the most successful shows, “If You are the One” (非诚勿扰, Fei cheng wu rao), imported and tailored to the Chinese market, has earned the highest program ratings since 2010 and represents a cultural trend. (It’s now a classic case study at Harvard Business School!) Admittedly, the program is rather fun to watch, with 24 pretty women standing behind lighted podiums waiting for the male candidates (5 per show) to show up, engage in banter, and swoop them off their feet. The problem is: these TV programs are entertainment, rather than solving one’s real-world relationship urgency. But, not to worry, if you aren’t the star of a popular reality show, there are myriad professional matching websites and dating agents who will fight for your business.


A scene from the Chinese dating show “If You are the One” (非诚勿扰). Ladies, let’s get it started!

Although it’s unclear whether society’s hyperventilating about “Ms. Left” drove Candice to pay a generous amount of cash to a well-known astrologist to analyze her romantic prospects, she became a lot happier and more relaxed after knowing a peach blossom luck blooms in her future.

“Ms. Left” is a unique feature in modern China: in the Western world, many single women in their 30s and 40s are label-free. Instead of judging how Eastern culture imposes pressure on women, the more realistic problem relates to how women view themselves. Surely, 20-somethings have youth on their side, but it doesn’t mean that women in their 30s, 40s, or beyond are “decrepit”: on the contrary, they’re stunning with the sophistication, wisdom, and confidence that younger women do not have. No matter how society changes, it’s the woman’s self-perception that matters.

As women become more confident, I believe that one day “Mr. & Ms. Left” will no longer be a derogatory term, but just another happy couple living next door to “Mr. & Ms. Right”.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Hanbok as Haute Couture

When I was a little kid, one of my favorite outfits was my hanbok, or traditional Korean clothing. I was enamored with its vibrant colors, asymmetrical bow, and flowing skirt, so on more than a few occasions, I wore it to school and to dinner parties, undeterred by the stares people often gave me.


The author wearing hanbok as a toddler

Their confusion stemmed not only from the contrast between traditional Korean clothing and the typical American outfit of T-shirts and jeans but also from their unfamiliarity with hanboks. Many times, I got asked if I was wearing a cheongsam or a kimono.

We’ve all seen cheongsams or kimonos reinvented and popularized (and sadly, in some cases, exploited) within the fashion world, but there has been relatively little seen of the hanbok. In recent years, however, the hanbok has been entering the runway, presumably due to the growing cultural and economic influence that South Korea has on the international community. This once old-fashioned outfit has been re-defined, transitioning from a relic of the past into a chic item suitable for any catwalk or boutique.

Below are some examples of haute couture hanboks:


Fashion shows featuring modern hanboks, like this one in 2009, occur regularly in Korea.


Although hanbok dresses are what have grown popular in the fashion scene, hanboks worn by men have also undergone reinvention, as seen in the Hanbok Fashion Show in Seoul in October 2011.


Lee Young-hee, a famous hanbok designer, has gained both domestic and international recognition for her unique approaches to traditional Korean dress, holding haute couture fashion shows like this one in Paris in July 2010.


You can see elements of Western and Korean clothing styles combined in these elegant hanbok dresses worn by actress Han Hyo-joo for the September 2012 edition of Vogue Korea.


The hanbok has also appeared in collections by non-Korean fashion designers.

Carolina Herrera based her Spring ready-to-wear 2011 collection on the
hanbok and displayed these stunning beauties during New York Fashion Week.


During his time at Dior, John Galliano designed a hanbok-inspired dress for the Christian Dior Spring/Summer 2011 collection.


Miuccia Prada (above) and Giorgio Armani (below)


Renowned designers Miuccia Prada and Giorgio Armani are avid fans of Lee Young-hee’s work and have visited her shop in Korea.


In 2011, Swarovski Elements partnered with Korean designers to incorporate Swarovski crystals into their hanbok designs.


Sandra Oh (of Grey’s Anatomy) wore hanboks made by LA-based designer Kim MeHee (whose hanboks have also been worn by Jessica Alba and Nicky Hilton) for the Spring 2008 cover of NUVO Magazine.

If I were to wear any of the dresses pictured above, I know I’d get stares for all the right reasons: for wearing a hanbok every bit as glamorous and stylish as the little black dress.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Two Weeks in Kinmen, Taiwan

The summer before college, I traveled to Taiwan to teach English to children in rural areas. While this was partly (okay, mostly) an excuse to return to the amazing country of Taiwan after nearly 6 years, I was also excited to learn that I would be teaching on Kinmen (金門, literally “golden gate”), a small island situated between Taiwan and southern China.

There is no way I can name everything I loved about my experience on Kinmen: the celebrity-esque airstairs we descended after landing amidst heavy tropical winds; our tiny, blessedly air-conditioned sleeping quarters where we hid from the suffocating humid heat that evaded every corner of the island; the famous Taiwanese oyster omelet dish (蚵仔煎) concocted with freshly caught oysters – even the dreaded squat toilets, the occasional frog chilling in the bathrooms, the hairy spiders as big as my hand, and the broken drying machine that forced us to air-dry our laundry and thus wear smelly teaching uniforms.


Rainy, windy, and so wickedly humid my camera fogged up!

However, what was most memorable to me was the quiet history that lurked behind every piece of rubble, every blade of grass, and every drop of summer typhoon rain that landed on Kinmen. In my eyes, Kinmen was like a bubbling cauldron of time, history, and culture. Although initially a relatively tranquil area, Kinmen was transformed into a military base by Chiang Kai-Shek in 1949 during the Chinese civil war.

Even after the war, it was used largely for military purposes. In fact, my dad was stationed on Kinmen during his military service. Even today, one can see uniformed men roaming the streets, hauntingly silent military brothel-turned-museums, coastal artillery guns on full display, and abandoned houses riddled with gaping bullet holes.

And the streets! Peering down a single dusty, rustic street, I would see the typical Taiwanese convenience stores; modest, family-owned pawn shops filled with miscellanea; a desolate Shiseido boutique, and a classy, renovated Italian restaurant – lined up all in a row, like a strangely mismatched, yet charmingly fitting, Kinmen outfit.


A typical Kinmen street

On these streets, I watched a funeral procession march, belting out festive music and clad in white mourning clothes. To these streets, I snuck out with some friends past curfew to hop over our dorm’s brick wall and satisfy our midnight snack cravings at the 24/7 Family Mart. Through these streets, I biked in the daylight and in the darkness, daringly removing both hands from the handle bars and feeling the cool sea breeze ripple through my hair. From these streets, we drove our rickety, coughing van to the ocean’s rocky shore and gazed into the foggy horizon in amazement as the cityscape of Xiamen, China, loomed right before our eyes.

To me, Kinmen is a timeless and special place, riddled with intricate history and cultural mishmash. Although I only spent two weeks there, I hold dear all those precious memories and experiences, from the comfortably expected to the mind-blowing moments of culture shock. There is no doubt about it – one day, I will return.

All photos courtesy of the author.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Meme: Lucas Rides the NYC Subway

Who is Lucas, and why is his face plastered everywhere on ads in the New York City subway?

Valleywag wonders if Lucas, an Asian male who looks to be in his 20s/30s, should be representative of the 21st-century Everyman. Their conclusion, though, is No. Is it because Lucas is Asian?





Lucas buys a round.

Lucas does yoga.

Lucas rides the subway.

Lucas loves NYC.

Lucas likes to dance.

Lucas pays rent.

Lucas likes magic.

Lucas uses Venmo.

Sleuthing on LinkedIn, we’ve found that Lucas is “real”: he works at Venmo, a payment technology startup in New York City. (Here’s his LinkedIn.) And we found that “Lucas is a native New Yorker who loves his flip flops, NPR and milk (except skim, because it is really just white water). He is an aspiring climber and burger addict” from Venmo’s website. In the meantime, the netizens in New York City, at least those who have jobs requiring riding the subway, have taken note of him.

Again, on Valleywag, some folks show that they have some serious anger issues:


But, I think Venmo’s real objective is to make Lucas into an internet meme, which may actually be working. By the way, Lucas is cute, don’t you think?


Let’s flip it around and ask: what would happen on the internet if Lucas, instead of being an attractive Asian man, is a pretty Asian woman?

Images via Venmo

Going on a Guide Tour? Think Again!

The Asian Tourists – that trope of visor-wearing, peace-sign-picture-taking, bus riding, leisuring group – are no more charming in Asia than they are anywhere else. Like pigeons, they’re generally passive and nice, until put into a setting where they have to fight for food – or perhaps souvenirs and middle-of-the-road picture spots. Led for seven days through the Kansai region in Japan on a guided tour, I learned about the industry that produces this particular type of irksome consumer, and why I will never go on a guided tour again.

In my trip with SuperValueTours, a professional and well-liked company, I saw the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Kobe. We traveled by bullet train and bus, spending a substantial fraction of our daytimes in air-conditioned transit to and from tourist locations. As grandiose and historic were the sites of the Daibutsu Buddha statue, Kiyomizu temple, and Nijo Castle, we walked the path of drained, insipid uniformity.

It was the same in each location: our tour guide would lead us to an establish tori gate, sake brewery, or bamboo forest occupied with a host of tourists and middle-school students. We shuffle through the funneled walkway to observe, take pictures, and receive information through a guide or earpiece. At the end of the tour, we were given a small amount of time to “explore and relax” on our own, which meant looking at different souvenir stands selling identical post cards and plastic memorabilia.



The most shameless episode of my trip took place touring the Golden Pavilion, a temple in Kyoto covered in gold leaf. It was a spectacle to behold, as was the clamor of tourists trying to get a decent picture. On the side of the walkway, a stone pot was surrounded by vague idols and covered with coins. People gathered close to the fence, digging in their purses and pockets to throw money into the bowl. In my earpiece, the tour guide said, “Somebody once put that bowl there. A person started throwing coins, and other people followed. There is no meaning to it.”

For a business that is based on the “consumption of others,” the interchange of culture occurred on mostly superficial levels. There were few opportunities to speak with the people outside of an empowered-guest/disempowered-host dynamic, and our tour guide, though genuinely kind, was primarily concerned with repeating the facts of historic sites than providing her perspective as a Japanese citizen.

The tourist industry markets the commodity of a history already-written and dead. It provides luxury hotels, choice meals, mass produced souvenirs, and the ability to keep an absolute distance from the authenticity of a place. It might not mean anything to you or anyone else, but as long as you throw your money their way, they’ll gladly take it.

While I found the tourist industry problematic, I nonetheless enjoyed my time in Japan. The cherry blossom trees, clean streets, stylish young people, and ramen were all fantastic to be a part of. The bustling urban landscape is one of the most unique in the world. I would simply recommend travelers to take time to plan their own trip, with space to explore and get lost, rather than buying one already commodified and prepackaged.

Friday, January 17, 2014

You are What You Eat: Of Steamed Buns, Pizza, and Politicians

Food seems to be a popular political tool for politicians across the globe. Of course, the type of food is the crucial factor here: if one wants to convey that he stands with the people, as politicians are oft to do, he will choose a common food. When ordinary people see the public figure eating ordinary food, it makes the figure more relatable and representative. Apparently, this applies to Chinese politics as much as Western politics.

While New York Mayor Bill de Blasio undergoes scrutiny for his selection of utensils, the Chinese media and online forums exploded with admiration and praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to a Beijing restaurant last month. During this surprise visit, Mr. Xi reportedly stood in line and paid for his own buns, reiterating his political platform as a “leader of the people”. In the Qingfeng Steamed Dumpling Shop, Mr. Xi ordered pork and onion buns, green vegetables, and pig intestines for roughly $3.40. Criticisms for the visit arose as well, though they were overwhelmed by the tide of positive response to this rare demonstration of populism.


President Xi enjoying an everyman’s lunch

While American politicians commonly frequent popular local establishments in campaign events, this type of PR strategy is few and far between in China. With a long history of institutionalized separation between the masses and those in power, modern Chinese perceptions of their inaccessible political leaders often fringe on the superhuman. For locals, President Xi’s visit instantly canonized his order, with the dishes and the Beijing eatery becoming popular subjects for tourism.

Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio had markedly different reactions from his recent restaurant visit. The new mayor of New York City was seen eating pizza at the popular Staten Island eatery, Goodfella’s Pizza. Instead of starting a new pizza craze, the mayor’s lunch visit sparked an online and media controversy.

Common criticisms cite Mayor de Blasio’s use of a fork to eat his pizza as unrepresentative of the New York style. After the visit, Mayor de Blasio’s food selections aren’t the focus of the subsequent tourism – his cutlery is. The restaurant owner proceeded to put the fork on display, with plans to auction off the utensil at a charity fundraiser.


Jon Stewart is on top of “Forkgate” with Mayor de Blasio

(Photo: Comedy Central)

It could be said that Mayor de Blasio’s gaffe derives in his “wrong” eating technique, one that was distinctively un-New York and not reflective of “the people,” while Mr. Xi adhered to common eating practices. Yet, a review of photos from the event revealed that Mr. Xi used chopsticks instead of his hands, which is the more common practice for Chinese people. Granted, politeness is a valid excuse for preferring one method to another, yet Mr. Xi encountered no criticisms of any kind over his choice of utensils.

For Mr. Xi, his lunch of steamed buns elevated the dish and the restaurant to a “presidential” level, while Mayor de Blasio was condemned for failing to adhere to the “ordinary” level. The differences in the reactions to Mr. Xi and Mayor de Blasio’s restaurant outings demonstrate fundamental differences in the sociopolitical conditions between China and the United States. Perhaps this shift in popular appeal marks a parallel shift in Chinese political norms. Mr. Xi’s bid to represent the Chinese people, or laobaixing, could be the beginning of a China that puts more weight on the opinions of her citizens, though this remains to be seen.

Main image by Tutou Jueren via China Digital Times

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Red Guard and the Landlady

From cultural revolution to rent collection…

It’s always a pleasant surprise when my landlady drops by unannounced at eight in the morning. I’m familiar with the early bird rap tap on my door by now, and the first thing I do before opening the door is put on the kettle. Sometimes she’s there to collect the rent. Sometimes it’s to check the heating came on, or to write down the electricity meter digits, or to switch off the water supply to the roof so it doesn’t freeze in the pipes during winter, twiddling with hidden knobs under the kitchen sink.

This time, rap tap tap, it was just to have a chat. She had ambushed my downstairs neighbor while he was still in bed, to collect rent he hadn’t yet prepared, having just got back from a trip. He said to give him an hour or so to shower and wait for the bank to open. So she came up one floor to pass the time at mine, and have a natter. Sixty-four-year-old Beijing landladies tend to assume that everyone begins their day as early as they do.

I live in a dazayuan, or “miscellaneous courtyard”, in the hutongs, inside one of a myriad of doors tucked away behind the street entrance. Mine is on the third and top floor of a compact new building inside, which was knocked up in the summer of 2012, just before I moved in. I’ve written about my landlady before (Tales from the Hutong) and I like her. She’s friendly, trustworthy, and hasn’t hiked up the rent yet. In that respect, given some horror stories from Cuju bar just down the hutong, I’m lucky. She’s also relatively willing to talk about her life – and I’m by nature nosy.

I was still in my pajamas when she knocked (thick winter cottons, fortunately) and threw on a ratty dressing gown for decency’s sake. She stubbed out her cigarette in the narrow stairwell that connects up to the roof, and kicked off her sneakers before coming in. It wouldn’t do to get ash or dirt on her property.

The first thing which happens when my landlady visits, as I am well used to, is a short survey of what I’ve done with the place. A new shelf, a painting on the wall, different fish in the tank – any change is commented on with either “hao” (good) or “bu hao” (not good). No further explanation is offered, and her criteria for judgment are ever a mystery. This time she asked what the contraption behind the sofa was. I said it was a movie projector, and pointed at the blank wall opposite it. After a nerve-racking pause, she said “hao“.

Looking to fill the silence, which she was more comfortable in than I was, I showed her some photos of my family back in Oxford. As usual, we talked about my romantic prospects – she’s keen to see me settle down with a nice Chinese girl, and reminded me with a hand on my shoulder that it’s good to marry early, “or else when you’re old who will you have to give your money to?” I changed the topic and asked after her newest grandson, Chen Jiaming, who will be one next week and to whom I gave an English name (Jamie).

We talked about young Chinese today, something I’m always interested in hearing older generations on. “They haven’t eaten bitterness,” she replied, a familiar refrain. “They just think about eating, drinking, smoking, clothes.” The kids these days – if they weren’t kenlaozu (the “bite the old tribe”, living off their parents) they were yueguangzu, spending all their monthly wages. And then she started talking about her own youth.


A Red Guard, China, circa 1967

Auntie Wang (as she likes me to call her) was born in the spring of 1949, and grew up together with the People’s Republic of China. Her family is from Jiangtai in northeast Beijing, an area which is now home to the fashionable 798 art district and the expensive Lido hotel. Back then, it was mostly farmland, and she helped her parents to plant and harvest wheat each year.

Her memories of those years were of hard times. Her family was very poor, she said, and could not afford enough wool for new clothes. She was pulled out of school during the famine of the Great Leap Forward (Auntie Wang is illiterate, as I had discovered to my embarrassment when we were first looking at our contract), and said she had very little to eat. When I ask further, she simply said, “Let’s not talk about it” (bie tile). As a teen, she joined the Red Guards and cut short her hair, which then reached her waist. She never grew it out again.

I asked Auntie what she did as a Red Guard. She waved vaguely in the direction of the hutongs to the south. “We struggled against landlords.” They would hang heavy wooden signs over the landlords’ necks, denoting them as capitalists, and make them take the “airplane” (feiji) position. That means body bent forwards from the waist at a right angle, arms back stiff and straight behind you, each hand clasping the other. Then… da si tamen. Beat them to death.

It was said in the same tone, with no special weight. If she saw the shock in my eyes, she didn’t let on. Auntie had all but directly admitted participating in murder, but to her it was just another part of the story of her life, told to pass the time while we waited. I didn’t say anything.

So she just went on. She remembered Zhou Enlai’s death, in January 1976, and how everyone cried. She remembered Mao Zedong’s death, nine months later, and how that was not so sad – the people, she said, remembered how poor they had been in those years, how his rule impacted their lives. The Cultural Revolution ended, and in 1978, at the age of 29, she married. She met her husband through a friend’s introduction – he was 35. The space I was living in was his, and when he died four years ago, she inherited it from him.

Now she was old, and forgetting things. The changes of the last decades were fast. Her two comments on China today were how expensive health care is, and that there are too many cars. In the evenings, she said, she couldn’t remember what she did that day. But the more distant past was still clear.

I saw an opening to make the obvious point. “The changes really are big,” I said. “Before, you were struggling against landlords. And now you’re a landlady…”

“No, I’m not,” Auntie said, simply. “I’m not a landlady, I just collect your rent.”

The thought was alien to her, rejected simply and with ease. She was a landlady, of course. I had seen her name on the property deed. But whenever I would hand her a fat envelope of rent cash, I had also felt her unease. I had figured it was because of prejudices against the landlord class ingrained during the Mao years. I had not thought through all that might have entailed.

We chatted some more, and then my neighbour knocked on the door, back from the bank. Auntie Wang put on her sneakers and went downstairs, telling me she would drop in again sometime with the rest of her family, to show me little Jamie. I said I would be sure to be up early, in case.


China is, of course, full of stories like this. Everyone over middle age has one. I find it difficult to connect the broader horrors of the Cultural Revolution as we read about it to those people, whether they were victims or perpetrators – and the line between the two, I suspect, is not so clear. I’m also fascinated by the collective amnesia that allows society to put such recent crime behind it and go on.

But the individual acts and their repercussions are still there in living memory. Just the other month, an eighty-year-old woman told me and a friend that she was sent to Sichuan for hard labor for ten years, along with her three sons, all because her husband was from a “bad family background”, with Qing dynasty officials in his bloodline. The author Yu Hua describes, in China in Ten Words, how as a schoolboy he and his vigilante classmates ambushed a young peasant who was illicitly selling food coupons, pushed him to the ground and hit him over the head with bricks until he was bloody.

I have so many questions for my landlady I didn’t ask, from somewhere between shyness and politeness. To face up to a past like that, whether out of trauma or shame or both, surely is unimaginably hard – let alone to a generation who has no understanding of those times, such as your children’s (and you certainly wouldn’t share it with a foreigner). Does her daughter know what she did? Will Jamie?

My distance from it all means there’s little comment I can give. I don’t feel I have the right to judge Auntie Wang, or rather that any sense of disapproval is muted, as if a dull banging behind heavy insulation. I still like her. What I do feel is ever deeper respect for Liu Boqin, a former Red Guard from Shandong province who apologized to his victims in a Chinese magazine last summer. He named nine people in particular, some of whom he has tracked down to apologize to in person. He’s in his early sixties, so like Auntie, he was in his teens during those years. Here’s what he wrote:

“I want to apologize to all victims and their families to obtain psychological relief. An open letter is simple and clear. [...] I was naive, easily bamboozled, and never distinguished good from bad. [...] As I grow older, I have a more profound understanding of the sins of the Cultural Revolution. I cannot forget what I’ve done wrong.”


Another, more recent apology from the Cultural Revolution, from someone higher up, here (in NYT, so behind the wall). For a personal perspective of what those early years were like I can’t recommend highly enough Red Guard: The Political Biography of Dai Hsiao-Ai (hat tip to Rana Mitter) as a blow-by-blow account – so to speak – from someone in the thick of it, rather than the broad brush strokes of history books.

This story originally appeared on the Anthill.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Invisible Culture War: Media Importation in China

Basically every BBC Sherlock fan knows that Season 2 is back. Fortunately, the Chinese audience were the first outside the U.K. to see the drama on Youku (the Chinese version of Youtube) only a few hours after its Wednesday night premiere.

Sherlock, a modern interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s influential detective short stories, fascinates millions of Chinese fans with its unique narrative complexity, incredibly charming yet obnoxious characters, and elaborate camerawork and animation.


Benedict Cumberbatch as the fluffy-haired detective and Martin Freeman as the “What! How?” straight man

Having recognized the tremendous market potential for Sherlock Holmes, Youku Tudou purchased the license for more than a billion yuan (about US$165 million) in order to combat rampant internet piracy with their own high-quality and timely foreign media online broadcasts.

“The BBC will directly provide us with official Chinese language subtitles… which is a first for a British drama released over Youku Tudou,” Zhu Xiangyang, Youku Tudou’s Chief Content Executive, explained. “After a review process where the site’s internal team confirms there are no problems with the video or the subtitles, the episode can immediately be released, and the whole process takes about four hours only.”

Of course, there’s more to the story. From 2010 to 2013, the total amount of American dramas shown on Youku surged, maintaining the increasing rate of viewership at an exponential level. As the largest and most comprehensive Chinese online database of Western media, Youku Tudou monopolized licenses of 25 English-language dramas – viewership during the premiere of 2 Broke Girls’ Season 3 reached 4 million, while the number of people who tuned in for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was 5 million.

For Chinese online video platforms, foreign dramas equal cash cows. After the State Administration of Radio Film and Television’s effective practice of wiping out online piracy, video websites seized the unprecedented opportunity of huge residual demand and built consumer loyalty by synchronizing more popular American and British dramas.


Gossip Girls in China

Though the price of each episode has risen (from roughly $20,000 to $120,000 yuan) due to fierce competition between different websites, it’s still a drop compared to advertising revenue. Apart from the huge audience, English-language TV dramas also effectively “catch” the eyeballs of the particular consumer segment most desired by advertisers: a typical viewer is a white-collar or an undergraduate student, who is generally well-educated and occupies a relatively higher position on the social ladder. The cultural scheme of targeting the right consumer group proved successful – in 2010, the estimated total revenue generated by the media importation was 1 billion, with future prospects was even more promising.

Nevertheless, though the online market is welcoming, Chinese government has “globalphobic” policies regarding other mediums. Due to the strict content restrictions on television, currently no Chinese TV channels broadcast American television dramas or shows.

On one hand, the general public might not respond well to the unfamiliar lives of people living on another continent – after all, China itself is a gigantic country with a lot happening domestically. On the other hand, an attempt to import Desperate Housewives on CCTV-8 proved a hilarious failure due to weird Chinese dubbing and the scrubbing of all sexual or violent scenes – the plot didn’t make any sense after editing. As well, other Asian countries, such as Korea, have their respective cultural protectionist policies in place to avoid western cultural domination.

The gauntlet’s thrown and trodden upon: the invisible culture war’s already begun.

Main image via NPR

My Bizarre First Night in Shanghai

“Your flight will leave in the morning. The desk opens back up at 6 a.m. Come back tomorrow,” said the attendant at the check-in counter. He looked back down at his computer, clearly not wanting to talk to me anymore. Someone missing his or her flight to elsewhere must have been a common occurrence for this employee, because he didn’t seem the least bit apologetic or concerned.

Defeated, I found a place to sit down in Pudong International Airport. I was going to Fuzhou for a few weeks before I started my summer study abroad program in Shanghai, but my flight from New York to Shanghai had been delayed, so I missed my 10:05 p.m. flight to Fuzhou. After an older man came to bring me my luggage, it finally hit me: I was alone in a foreign country with only my bags to keep me company.


Shanghai PVG – everything looks calmer at night

I felt miserable about my situation. I could make outgoing calls with my phone, but by the time I’d gone through immigration and customs, cleared things up with my airline, and changed my tickets for the next morning, it was roughly midnight, and no one was picking up my calls. I had no electrical adapter, so I couldn’t charge it, and it was running low on battery power. On top of everything else, I was exhausted from my long flight and couldn’t believe that my first night ever in China would be spent in an airport.

Frustrated and anxious, I pulled out my laptop in hopes of getting on the airport wi-fi, but since I didn’t have a Chinese phone number to receive the passcode, I had no access. At that point, I had no idea what to do with myself. Most of the people in my vicinity, also in transit and waiting their early-morning flights, had already started sleeping on the seats. Unable to do anything, I stared helplessly at my laptop screen.

It was then that a man (I’ll call him Airport Guy) sitting close by turned to me. “Do you have internet access? How did you get it?” he asked, in Chinese.

He was an older, average-looking Chinese man, maybe in his mid-to-late thirties, slightly balding and wearing glasses. In my flawed Mandarin, I told Airport Guy why I couldn’t get internet access. I expected him to go back to whatever he was doing, but his curiosity must’ve been piqued because he proceeded to ask me personal questions. When he found that I wasn’t Chinese but Korean-American, he became excited: he loved speaking English, and he started to tell me about his life in a mixture of Chinese and English. Airport Guy worked for a company that did business in Ghana, so he often traveled back and forth between the two countries. He was on his way back from Africa, but his flight to Xi’an was in the morning.

“Do you want to see my pictures of Ghana?” he eagerly asked. I was unbelievably tired and just wanted to be left alone, but to be polite, I agreed, expecting him to show me a few pictures. Little did I know, he presented his entire photo collection of his travels in Ghana and explain each one in detail to me.

After suffering through the slideshow, I got up and told him that I needed to go find a place to exchange my American cash for Chinese currency. That didn’t deter Airport Guy, though.


When Anna Met Airport Guy

“I’ll help you!” he exclaimed as he jumped up from his seat. Despite my insistence that I was fine, he put all of my things with his bags on a cart and guided me to the currency exchange machines. I was exasperated with this eccentric man, but he was friendly to me, so I didn’t have the heart to be rude and tell him to go away.

Then, the night took a strange turn. When I was done, he bought me food and water, even though I told him it was unnecessary. Continuing to carry my bags, he moved us to a location a bit farther away from the others: I eventually thanked him and started eating my first meal in China, a few tea eggs and a bottle of water.

“You look tired. Do you want to go to a hotel? We could get a room,” Airport Guy asked, while I was drinking.

At this question, I almost choked on my water, but I managed to muster out a “No”.

“Well, then you can sleep on my lap or my shoulder if you want to rest,” he replied, gesturing to his body.

In response, I quickly made up an excuse that I was too nervous to sleep: I wanted to be alert and awake when the ticketing counter opened up. In actuality, I would’ve loved to sleep a few hours, but with this creepy stranger who had my bags hostage beside me, I didn’t dare fall asleep.

Airport Guy began to pull out things from his luggage: he started playing some of the traditional Chinese musical instruments he had, right there in the middle of the airport, much to my shock. Undeterred by the glares aimed at him from the nearby people he woke up with his flute, he smiled as he played a song on each instrument, explaining the intricacies of each one.


Ok for a concert if you know what you’re getting into; not ok at an airport

“Is this guy for real?” I thought to myself, in complete disbelief at how weird he was.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get more uncomfortable, Airport Guy proceeded to gift me the very instruments he’d played. I begged him not to do so – my luggage was too heavy, but he refused to take them back. I convinced him to give me two, instead of his whole collection; however, Airport Guy still wasn’t satisfied, so he gave me a wooden wall decoration from Ghana and key chains from an airport in Dubai. I didn’t want to accept his gifts, but he wouldn’t put them away. Unprepared for his generosity, I had absolutely nothing to present in return except for food: he got a bag of Quadratini, a can of tuna, sour cream & onion Pringles, and peach gummy rings, all he gleefully accepted.

“Oh, tonight has been like the song ‘Wonderful Tonight’ by Eric Clapton. It’s been such a beautiful night,” Airport Guy beamed to me. Unfamiliar with this song at the time, I gave no response, but I still couldn’t help but feel that this man was in some way delusional: the night had not been wonderful or beautiful in any way.

Later, when Airport Guy and I finally parted ways for our respective flights, he insisted on taking a picture with me with such enthusiasm that a couple of people gathered around and stared at me, trying to figure out if I was someone important or famous. With my blood-shot eyes and dark eye circles behind my glasses, my wrinkled clothes, and greasy, unkempt hair under a baseball cap, I couldn’t have looked less like a celebrity, so their fascination quickly turned into bemusement at the man who was so passionately taking pictures with me.


In excellent disguise? Korean actress Jun Ji-Hyun mobbed at an airport

As soon as I got on my flight to Fuzhou and left Pudong International Airport, I passed out on the plane, finally free of Airport Guy. Though I was thankful to him for his kindness, I had been very uncomfortable (and creeped out) the entire night. Fortunately, later on in the summer, I got to experience far better nights in Shanghai, but I will always remember Airport Guy and the bizarre first night in China I spent with him.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

How I Met My Mother

Before traveling to Taiwan last year, I knew only a few things about my birth mother Susie (her American name). She was born in 1950 and grew up in Tainan in the southwest of Taiwan. In the 1970s, she immigrated to Las Vegas, and she worked briefly as a card dealer at a casino. While visiting Taipei in 1980, she met an engineer on a British ship; he would become my birth father. She gave birth to me in Las Vegas on April 9, 1981, and a few weeks later, she put me up for adoption.


Susie’s passport photo in 1975, when she was 25

In September 2012, my start-up 1000memories was acquired by, setting off a chain of events that would lead me to Taiwan to look for Susie. Suddenly, family history was my full-time job, and I felt inspired to learn more about my birth mother. I petitioned the Family Court of Clark County, Nevada, to open my adoption records. The Court granted my request, revealing Susie’s last name.

Susie’s last name led me to her younger brother and sister in Las Vegas, whom I found by cold calling numbers in an online telephone directory. A DNA test verified our relationship. Susie’s siblings had lost touch with her in the 1980s, and they guessed that she had moved back to Taiwan. Her brother gave me a passport photo of her when she was 25 years old, as well as an immigration document with her name written in Chinese, her birth date, and Taiwanese identification number.

When I left Las Vegas, boarding the first of three flights for Taiwan, I had many questions. Was Susie still alive, and if so, was she in Taiwan? What did she do? Did she have a family? Why had she lost touch with her siblings? How would she and I feel if we met? What would happen afterward? I imagined many different stories and scenarios -  but not what was about to happen.

I arrived in Taipei at night on Wednesday, October 23. Within 24 hours, I hit a dead end. An official at the local government office in Taipei told me that Susie had left for the United States on March 25, 1981, two weeks before I was born. The Taiwanese government had no record of her ever returning.

I spent the next few days exploring Taipei, taking long runs to help recover from jet lag, and contemplating my next move. I called Susie’s siblings, but they didn’t know more than what they had already told me. I reached out to a few private investigators in Taiwan. They suggested I go on Taiwanese TV to tell my story (apparently, many Taiwanese-Americans have been reunited with lost family members this way). Disappointed, I wondered if it would be more fruitful for me to shift my search from Susie to my birth father Thomas Llewellyn Hughes—who, I suspect, remains in Asia if he’s still alive at 83.

Then, on Sunday, I had a breakthrough. Susie’s oldest brother David called me. David also lives in Las Vegas, but we had not met because of an ongoing dispute between siblings. Despite barriers in communication (I do not speak Mandarin, and David has an accent and unique diction in English), I explained that I was in Taiwan looking for Susie. Within a couple hours, he emailed me an address in Hualien, a rural county on Taiwan’s remote eastern coast.


I asked for help from the Westin Taipei’s concierge, a young woman named Alice. Without offerings details, I gave Alice the address, and told her I was looking for a woman named Susie born on May 3, 1950. Alice googled the address, called the number she found, and spoke for a few minutes in Mandarin with the person who answered. After hanging up, she turned to me and said:

They say there is a woman there named Susie. She is approximately the same age as the woman you are looking for, but they cannot confirm her birth date because they do not know what her birth date is. Are you sure this is the right place? I do not think this is the place you are looking for. It is called Farmers Hospital. It is for the homeless.

The next morning, Alice and I met at Taipei Main Station at 7 a.m. Alice, who had graduated from the University of San Francisco a few years earlier, offered to accompany me as a translator on her day off. On the four-hour train ride, Alice and I talked about life in San Francisco, and she taught me how to count from 1 to 10 in Mandarin.

Mostly, I wondered if the Susie I would meet that day would be my birth mother — and, if so, what it would be like to meet her. We traveled down the mountainous eastern coast of Taiwan, between the sea and the green mountains, past the municipal capital Hualian, past the Taroko Gorge where most passengers got off, past the rivers and rice fields of southern Hualien County, until eventually we arrived in the sleepy farming village of Yuli. I felt a little bit like Marlow in an idyllic version of Heart of Darkness: nervous and excited in a foreign land.

We took a 15-minute taxi from the train station to the hospital outside of town. I left my suitcase with the security guard out front.


The women’s building at Farmers Hospital in Yuli

When we entered the women’s building of the hospital, Susie was standing in the middle of the TV room. There were perhaps 10 other women, whom the nurse quickly ushered out. All of them, including Susie, were wearing orange sweat suits. I noticed that Susie was short and chubby, and her black and white hair, cut short like a man’s, stuck up wildly in the back -  like mine does when I have bedhead.

“Hi,” I said. She smiled but didn’t say anything. The nurse explained through Alice that Susie is nearly deaf, and she can only hear if you shout Mandarin into her left ear.

We sat down on the green plastic couch, and we tried to have a conversation. Shouting into a 63-year-old stranger’s left ear felt awkward, so Alice and I “spoke” to Susie by writing Chinese characters on white sheets of paper. Susie read them and then responded with short, simple answers.


Susie and I on the green plastic couch

I asked Susie how she was doing, and how long she had lived in the hospital. I asked her questions about her family, her children, and her past. Her memory was hazy, and she could only remember the vaguest of details. She didn’t know how long she had been there. Her father worked in the Air Force. She went to high school in Tainan. She had lived in Denver and Las Vegas a long time ago. She had two sons and also a daughter. She could not remember her daughter’s name.

Convinced by our physical resemblance and similarities in our stories, the nurse began to tell Susie that I was her son. Susie shook her head and waved her hand in disbelief. The nurse kept repeating in Susie’s left ear and pointing at me, “This is your son!” Susie could not and did not believe it.

I wrote down on a sheet of paper in big capital letters, “FRANK HUGHES.” A few months earlier, I had learned from my original birth certificate that Frank Hughes was my original name. I showed the paper to Susie and pointed at the words.


One of the sheets of paper that Alice and I wrote on

“My son,” said Susie matter of factly. “Sì Jiǔ.”

Alice reminded me that Si Jiǔ means “four nine” in Mandarin. I realized that Susie called me Si Jiǔ to remember my birth date  - April 9.

“I am Frank Hughes. I am Sì Jiǔ. I was born on April 9, 1981, in Las Vegas.”

Susie grinned widely, almost as if I had embarrassed her. She shook her head and waved her hand, and then she turned to the nurse and said: “My son would not visit from the United States. Plus, he is too handsome to be my son.”

The next day, I returned to the hospital to visit Susie and meet her social worker Sui-Ching. Mei, the warm-hearted, 60-year-old proprietor of my B&B, replaced Alice as my translator.

The social worker showed us Susie’s medical records. “Schizophrenia” jumped out in English — no translation required.

According to Sui-Ching, Susie was in good physical health but suffered from mental illness. Her symptoms had improved over the years, and her hallucinations had become less severe and less frequent. Unlike some of her roommates, she could feed herself and dress herself.

“How long has she been here?” I asked.

Sui-Ching explained that Susie was picked up off the street and admitted to a sister hospital in Taipei as an “unknown person” more than 16 years ago, sometime during the 1980s or 1990s. In 1997, the hospital in Taipei burned down, and Susie was transferred to Yuli. Unfortunately, nothing else about her was known because all medical records were destroyed in the fire, and her attending physician had passed away.

I spent the rest of the week in Yuli, visiting Susie once a day. I tried to think of activities that would make our communication deficiencies less apparent. Susie made it easy. She smiled a lot, and she seemed genuinely pleased that a friendly stranger had come to visit from the United States.


FaceTime with Mei, Sui-Ching, Susie, David, and me

We took walks around the peaceful grounds of the hospital. One day, her social worker and I took Susie to get her hearing checked at a clinic in Yuli. I wanted to buy her hearing aids, but Susie refused because they made the world too noisy. Another day, we used the internet connection at my B&B to make a FaceTime call to her older brother David. They hadn’t seen each other for 35 years. Susie didn’t recognize him at first, but after about 15 minutes, she understood who he was. She could not hear him, so she decided to write on a sheet of paper in Chinese, “I am happy,” and she showed it to him.


My first Polaroid

Each day, I showed her pictures on my MacBook Air of my evolution from baby, to boy, to adolescent, to adult, to the present day. I started with the first picture of me ever, a blurry Polaroid that Susie had taken herself when I was only a couple weeks old. I thought that through pictures, she might realize that I was her son. She never did.

At the end of the week, many questions remained unanswered. What triggered Susie’s schizophrenia and when? Did mental illness influence her decision to put me up for adoption? Why does the government have no record of her return to Taiwan? What happened to her in Taipei, and how did she end up on the street? Who and where are my half-brother and half-sister? Will I ever meet them or Thomas?

I wasn’t going to leave Yuli with these answers, but I did want to leave something behind for Susie. I wrote a short note, and Mei help me translate:

Your son Frank Hughes is very grateful to you for giving birth to him and for putting him up for adoption. He is now 32 years old and has had a very good life — loving family, great education, fulfilling career. He is happy and proud to be your son.

I also made copies of two photographs — the Polaroid of me as a baby, and a picture of us together from the visit. Sui-Ching laminated the letter and the photographs together so that Susie could keep them safe.

Maybe one day Susie will see the note and photos and realize who I am.

The author thanks Lauren Ladoceour, Beth Huneycutt, Ashley Huneycutt, Felicia Curcuru, and Rudy Adler for reading drafts of this memoir.


This article was originally published on Medium .