Notes From Shanghai

jinganI haven’t written as much as I expected to write About China, because I’ve been experiencing a reverse Dunning-Kruger on this trip. I’m realizing more and more the immensity of what I don’t yet understand about China, and so whenever I start to write travel commentary, I couch it with all these qualifiers, and I sometimes despair of making enough sense of China to write anything that friends at home could enjoy and understand.

But, Shanghai.

in China, simple things often turn out unexpectedly complicated for me. Like measure words, that toothpaste that turned out to be tea flavored, not mint,  the time I ordered an entire chicken, er and liang, and all the other times I’ve been pretty sure that Mandarin is just screwing with me.

But, exploring Shanghai, with the tree-lined avenues of fashionable shops, and the bikes down small alleys, and massive chrome buildings, and the speed of a real city, with endless cafes of wonderful coffee, is exactly like I imagined.

This Is Our Destiny

translationI had a hard time getting Marcus’ latest book here in Yangzhou. Hahaha! Can you believe that’s a sentence I just wrote? Such subversive poems are banned in Middle Kingdom, I guess.  What I really want to do is take this back to when Marcus was working at Parking Services, and tell him this will be our destiny. But of course that’s not a thing, you can’t go back in time and tell someone working their awful job and hating every minute, you’re going to make it. You’re really going to do it. Someday I will be reading your book, and it’s going to be beautiful. 

The introduction to his work begins: What are we to do with anger? What are we to do with love? What are we to do with one another, given all that happens and has happened between us? And, seriously, what are we to do with it all? And isn’t that basically what good poetry forces us to question?

This is an amazing collection, and you should read it. Maybe not alone in China, since a foreign woman crying over her Kindle attracts a certain amount of attention.


In A Different Time

yangzhou nightAnother late summer evening in Yangzhou, and Ian and I have landed at Ronnie’s bar again. I could write an epic on the expat bar in Yangzhou, how I’ve come in with different friends or met up with different friends, sat at the bar for a private talk or sat out back for a chat with everyone who turns up. Some nights are sipping beers and talking about literature and writing, some nights are shots, love and existence. It’s been a great summer with these guys.

On this particular day, I’ve spent the afternoon in Starbucks working on my latest freelance project, naming dwarves and elves for a new game. I could also write an epic on how much I want to turn my fun and awesome freelance work into a legitimate adult job, but I’ll skip it. I’m excited to do the work, and excited to tell my Yangzhou friends that I can’t hang out today because I am making a dwarven genealogy.

I tend to only really notice good things and good times in retrospect, but writing dwarven backstories in a Chinese coffeeshop is a recognizable highlight. That’s a real thing I did, you guys.

Anyway, a couple of beers later, Ian admits he named his childhood cat out of The Silmarillion.

“So, there’s a lasting significance in the names of dwarves and elves, huh?” I ask. “Good to know.”

“Do you read fantasy?” he asks, possibly to distract me from giggling and calling him a secret nerd.

“I liked Tolkien, but I could have done with a few more women in it. Actually, I feel that way about most fantasy novels.”

“It was a different time,” he says.

“Yeah, women hadn’t been invented yet.”

Snark aside, it was another perfect day in Yangzhou.

More Similar Than You Know

Shortly before I started dating my now-husband, I was seeing a writer in Los Angeles. He’s a really great guy, handsome, funny, talented…  Uh. Yeah.  This is relevant! I’m going somewhere with this!

The other day, one of my students told me I look exactly like a certain actress. I wasn’t too interested, because the Chinese can be pretty bad with laowei faces, usually when I’m compared to another person, it just means we are both brunettes. I’m routinely mistaken for Sydney, the other white woman teaching in Yangzhou, even though I’m more than 10 years older than she is, but sometimes she wears glasses, so… I guess? This is also relevant. Stay with me.

Anyway, my students discussed my Hollywood twin in Chinese, and all agreed that I look EXACTLY like her, and that I just had to see her photo. One of the kids looked it up on her phone, and then passed me the phone to show me the photo of the actress my Los Angeles boyfriend is now dating.


Seeing Measure Words in Bamboo

wenchanggeThe other day, I went to eat with a coworker at the secret upstairs noodle shop. Some expat friends are friends of convenience, the other English speakers in a foreign country, and after so many rounds of Hello, I am an American and Yes, I can use chopsticks, it’s always good to have an honest, fullspeed chat with other waiguoren on this crazy adventure. But I got so insanely lucky meeting the other Lone Wolves, I legitimately like James, Rob, Ben and Ian so much.  I could write an entire essay on meeting the right people at the right time, but the simple version is that I’d be friends with you guys at home! Anyway, Ben and I went up to the secret noodle shop, and had a really wonderful conversation involving Mary Beard and women in games, Roman customs and internet security. This Yangzhou summer is a really amazing adventure.

Then I tried to order us tea, but got bowls of hot water, and coworker Ben tried to pour vinegar sauce from the teapot into it. Chinese life is a work in progress.

 *   *   *

After an unsuccessful hike to find a garden on my day off, I went up to Dongguan to recharge myself with air conditioning and wifi, and I bumped into people I knew! It was very exciting, since I know about 10 people in Yangzhou, and I think 7 of them were teaching that day.

We ended up sitting in the upstairs of iCaffe, looking out through carved wooden shutters and swapping China stories. In air conditioning. Did I mention the air conditioning? Mostly we traded stories of China adventures, and the weird addiction we all share for Chinese life. I’ve met some long-term expats here in Yangzhou, and a few guys who’ve left, had a proper job at home for a few years, and then the siren song of China brings them back.There’s an ease and simplicity of an English teaching job,  where all of your basic needs, like an apartment, utilities, and so forth are handed to you, but any of your personal needs (English books, cheese, Twitter, coffee) are rare treasures. By the way, if someone ever says “What’s the grossest thing you’ve even seen in China?” and your stories of cocoon barbecue don’t get much of a reaction, don’t ask him what his grossest experience was. (Meg, why do you do these things?!?!?)

Then I said goodbye and walked up to 个园, Ge Garden. The character 个 is a measure word, so I sort of translated this in my head to a garden, even though that’s not really how that works. I discovered today that the name 个 has nothing to do with counting, actually, the garden is full of bamboo and someone thought that this bamboo looked like the character 个. Which is rubbish because there is already a character for bamboo, 竹, which already looks like bamboo. Because that’s how pictograms work. I have not been so pissed off at Mandarin since I discovered the character for circle looks like 圈.

But the garden. Ge garden looks like dream China. I made it in the late afternoon, and just watched the sunlight slanting over the bamboo forests. I went up the rockeries and looked in the orchid house, but then I sat in a pavilion, surrounded by the bamboo, and it was so peaceful.  You don’t get a lot of peace in China, it’s much more constant fireworks, screeching ebikes, those electric megaphones and endless carhorns, but this pavilion felt like ancient, imaginary China. It was a perfect place to write in a journal and feel the incredible peace of being exactly where I am supposed to be.

Book Review: Tapped


Tapped by AJ Maguire tells the story of a family of veteran space smugglers, who pick up three passengers with even more to hide.

This story has a lot of the themes and characters we all loved in Firefly. Space drama has been done before, and done well, so let’s talk about what makes Tapped great. And by that I mean, let’s talk about Jo and Seach, ok? Space veterans with a scrappy, beloved ship is one of my favorite scifi premises, and this is a particularly good version.

First, Jo is the captain, not the medic / sidekick / psychic finder of the plot / princess. Even though scifi novels are full of the badass lady warrior, we don’t get a lot of badass lady warriors who also really love their kid. Seach and Jo have a realistic romance, where they work together, and they like and respect each other, and eventually, they also want to get naked together. I’ve been thinking about using a star system for book reviews, but I can’t because sometimes I’d find things like this acerbic and maternal space veteran, and would have to give Jo 73 stars out of 5.

To be honest, I didn’t go into this with really high hopes. After covering the Writers of the Future scifi anthology, I’ve been inundated with scifi eARCs and requests to review, but recently most of those have ended with me awkwardly telling the author or the PR rep that I couldn’t make it through the novel and wouldn’t be posting about it. I only accepted this one because I’ve worked with this rep before, but I am really, really glad I found Tapped.

I received an eARC of this book to review. All opinions are my own, of course.

Essential Chinese: Fruit Infusions

essential chinese fruit infusionMy room doesn’t have a refrigerator or a watercooler, which is pretty rough in such a hot summer.  My school has both, so I fill my water bottle there with drinking water and slices of orange or lemon, and stick it in the fridge to become cold. (It’s totally fine to carry a 4-inch pocket knife into a school here, just bring your own napkins as well.) I bought a second water bottle, so there’s always one in my hand and one in the fridge. Otherwise the bodega guys take one look at the red-faced and sweaty foreigner, and triple the price of water.

Today I bought a lemon from a small shop, and the shopkeeper really didn’t want to sell it to me, telling me it isn’t tasty and isn’t a snack, and offering to sell me an orange instead. My Chinese skills are at a weird state where I could understand the gist of his warnings, but couldn’t tell him I wanted to chop it up and put it in my water bottle for flavor. When I tried to describe it, and said water bottle, he pointed to the cooler so I could buy one.

This poor guy really did his best to explain that lemons aren’t for biting into, and he’s probably going to go home tonight and tell his wife about the foreign lady who would not be dissuaded from her weird eating habits.



One of The Lesser Known Pokemon

meowthIn China, I feel so brilliant and successful when I do daily things like catch the bus to the mall. I planned to settle down with an ludicrously expensive frappuccino, and do my math homework in the Living Mall’s Starbucks. This is one of the wonderful things about expat life — making my way to the coffeeshop feels like such an accomplishment! Ordering my drink feels like such an accomplishment!

Well, the Starbucks was packed, in that particular Chinese way that’s less of a line out the door, and more of complete chaos.  Also, in Yangzhou a Starbucks is a place to take rambunctious children, and while my babysquee has been intensifying with my thirties, it’s not really conductive to studying. So I went next door to Meowth Coffee, figuring they would have wifi, A/C and an available table, which would possibly evolve into an even stronger Pokemon later.

I ordered a vanilla latte at the counter, and the cashier handed me my change, and a small purple stuffed bear. That’s… not at all what I think I said. I have some trouble with vanilla and cilantro (香菜 and 香草, pronounced almost exactly alike) but so far no one has served me vanilla soup or cilantro ice cream.  But this is it, more than two years speaking Chinese every day, and I think I’ve just asked for a vanilla latte but really I’ve accidentally purchased a purple teddy bear. I stare with confusion for a little while, because, come on, ordering the food I like is definitely my strongest area of Chinese. Also I got the correct change for a vanilla latte. So there’s that.

purple bear

Anyway, turns out that Meowth uses cute stuffed animals instead of table numbers as markers for semi-table service. So I just wanted you all to know that I am so awesome I can do my homework without accidentally buying any teddy bears. Expat life is wonderful.



Book Review: Whispers From The East

Amie Ali’s Whispers from the East tells the story of a traditional marriage and two modern marriages in this family saga. I was interested in joining this book tour because I recently read and enjoyed two modern Muslim romances, Veil of Roses, about an Iranian girl in an American ESL class, and Girls of Riyadh, about, uh, four girls of Riyadh. (If you don’t have several hours of mandatory reading time in your office hours, and only have time for one of these two, go with Girls of Riyadh.)

Whispers From The East manages to be both a fairly quick read and a family saga covering a few generations.  My favorite part was about the son of a traditional Muslim family falling in love with, and secretly moving in with an American girl. She converts to Islam so they can get married, and he adopts her child, which doesn’t exactly thrill his traditional parents. I thought that conflict was quite believable here, and readers can see both Christine’s willingness to wear a headscarf and memorize some Arabic phrases, if it’s so very important to the man she loves, and her husband’s growing annoyance that she views his faith as going through the motions.

Their relationship struggles a great deal, and just when I was starting to be afraid that this novel was a morality tale about American harlots, the other brother falls in love with another American convert. Their relationship is both dutiful and romantic. Family sagas, you guys. I could just read about other people’s family’s having dinner and making comments to each other all day.

I don’t want to reveal the novel’s ending, but every arc gets resolved in a believable way, even if not every story ends positively.

I received a copy of this novel to review. Opinions are my own, because even free books can’t restrain my snark about bad books. You can see the previous review of Whispers From The East over on Svetlana’s Book Reviews, and the next one will be at Indie Writers Review.


Persephone in Yangzhou

pomegranateFall is here in Yangzhou, with the end of the desperate humidity and a change in the air that signals sweaters and breezes. My initial working contract will be up in a few weeks. My school has offered me a one-year or six-month extension, with a significantly higher salary for longer commitment periods. (They didn’t go for the one-month extension that would be ideal for me, unfortunately.)

Fall is also pomegranate season in Yangzhou, so I’m surrounded by pomegrante seeds in all directions, as I think about staying on or going home.

Click and Wait

Hello friends, and welcome to another exciting adventure in Meg Complains About Online Classes. If you’ve missed my previous updates, mostly I think that textbooks are inefficient, prereqs are inefficient, threats are inefficient, and discussion boards are everything that sucks about internet commenting. Education doesn’t have to suck, you guys. At least exams are awesome.

I’ve continued to do really well on my exams and continued to find the discussions a drag, so I was excited to take stats, because I figured math would be solving problems and not miserable discussion board assignments. (By the way, I got a B in my last session. I’m trying to see it as managing a B while moving to China and starting a new job and having spotty wifi and not as a way I’ve screwed up in the classes I’m taking in order to improve my candidacy for the masters program I want. But my view depends on the day.)  My math class requires a math lab account, for an additional $100, where students can log in and do homework and take quizzes. I’m slightly resentful of the $100 fee, since I’ve done homework and taken quizzes in the college’s Blackboard system already, so I’m not entirely sure what I got for the extra $100. Fortunately, students get infinite tries on homework questions, which is pretty great, especially when my wifi hiccups and I get logged out of the system or I lose connection entirely.

Unfortunately, there is also a discussion component. We’re given a problem and we have to solve it in the discussion board. This confuses me, isn’t the whole thing about math that the answers aren’t really up for discussion or debate? It’s not like we can read the same equation through a different critical lens to interpret the narrative in new ways.

The amount of work seems quite reasonable, although it ends up taking a very long time. See, there are so many steps of clicking and waiting that I spend most of my time clicking and waiting and then getting a popup and then clicking ok on it and waiting again. I haven’t watched TV since I’ve been in China, except for a couple background episodes while I was writing my last paper, but I’m pretty sure the click, wait, click, wait, click, will require some background viewing. What shows go well the repetitive frustration? I also spend a certain amount of my homework time rereading the question because the answer is so obvious I must be missing something important. Probably just for the beginning of the semester, but it’s also possible that I underestimated my stats skills and this class will be a repeat of my college statistics course. That’s cool, I haven’t complained about my classes in a while.

‘American Housewife’ in Yangzhou

I reviewed American Housewife over on (The) Absolute, but the short version is that I pretty much think this book was written for me, with such terribly accurate descriptions of southerners, Manhattanites, contented wives and discontented writers in these short stories.

Descriptions of Southern manners and Manhattan evenings are both pitch-perfect, which is probably what makes the murder, kidnapping and revenge all seem perfectly realistic.

My favorite tells the story of a has-been writer and a Playboy bunny on a dumpster diving reality show, and my least favorite about a housewarming gift basket that leads to murder. But even my least favorite short was still perfectly relatable, because in other stories the narrators snarked about the e-epistolary format.

via The Dark and Hilarious Stories of Helen Ellis’ “American Housewife” on (The) Absolute.


A few months ago, there was a challenge going around on social media, in which women who were frequently told they’re naturally beautiful and shouldn’t wear so much makeup quit wearing makeup completely. Predictably, the reaction they got wasn’t praise for natural beauty, it was questions about being tired or ill. It’s almost like we’re all conditioned to expect flaw-hiding natural-looking makeup on all women!

Anyway, I thought of this because when I first arrived in Yangzhou, it was too hot to wear makeup. Actually, it was too hot to wear clothes, or to leave the house during sunlit hours, but apparently those things are nonnegotiable parts of adult life. The thought of something unnecessary like concealer touching my skin was unappealing (also, sweating off pools of concealer was unappealing), so I’d slap on some lipgloss and put my hair in a knot on top of my head. I mean, I’d put on pants, too. But definitely no eye makeup.

The weather has recently turned from constant misery to North Carolina summer, and I’ve started putting on a little concealer under my eyes. No one has commented on it or told me I no longer look exhausted, but I’m pretty sure it’s working because ever since I started wearing concealer, the girls in my office started mentioning how cute my lipgloss is or how nice my hair looks.

Essential Chinese: Get Online

shang wangMost people in the bars and coffeeshops of Yangzhou have been able to understand combinations of internet, password, and various question-words and point me to the wifi password. (Special thanks to the lady at Sir Coffee who understood my extra-awful Wang lu zai nar?, and didn’t laugh at me. You are my favorite. I realized what I’d said as soon as I said it. Ugh. ) But my goal with my Chinese is to be able to handle my daily life interactions, especially conversations I have repeatedly, with proper Mandarin sentences and not my awkward laowei hua. The proper way to ask about the internet is shang wang.

Shang means up. The line is on the bottom, not the top, and the tone is falling, not rising, just to screw with Westerners who want to apply logic to memorizing characters. You can see this character in the word Shanghai. It’s used more poetically as parts of other words, we up-work when we go into the office, and down-work at the end of the day. This is a three-stroke character, easy to recognize, but one of the perculiarities of Yangzhou accent is pronouncing the sh sound as s, so it can be hard for me to pick it out of an unfamiliar sentence (See previous re: screwing with foreigners).

Wang means internet. It’s one of the first characters I could recognize, partly because it’s two Xs in a net, and partly because finding internet bars was a large part of my first year in Yantai.

Internet me up, basically. I wanted to confirm that shang wang means connect to the internet, so I typed shang wang into my dictionary app. and, yeah, 上网, connect to the internet,  was the second option for that pin yin. Number one was 伤亡, deaths and casualties. Tones are rubbish, you guys.