How Long Do You Intend to Stay? Via New Haven-Dieppe and John Berger

By John Shannon

In 1939 Henry Miller published a humorous autobiographical sketch in the forgotten pacifist journal Phoenix (Vol. 2, No 1) called “Via Dieppe-New Haven,” chronicling his failed 1935 attempt to ferry himself over the Channel to visit England. Having little cash on hand, he was sent straight back.

In 1973, knowing nothing about that illustrious attempted journey, I was living without much cash on hand in Southern England, also writing. I regularly ferried the exact reverse of Miller’s trip, from nearby New Haven to Dieppe, in order to stay in France a day or two, allay the Foreign Office’s suspicion, and then renew my two-month tourist visa with a big innocent smile. That’s the first irony.

I’ve always resisted writing anything like autobiography, because who the hell am I? But during that special year, the accidental influences, the social changes going on, and sheer dumb luck dropped me among people, issues, and books worth talking about.

In case you’re getting impatient, the books in question are by the great British art critic, essayist and novelist John Berger, who will turn 90 in November of this year. By my count Berger has written 35 books of essays, 11 novels, five screenplays, and several plays and collections of poetry. At least three of these are modern classics, picking apart the Swiss watch of the world to show where the springs are hidden. These are A Fortunate Man (1967), Ways of Seeing (1972), and A Seventh Man (1975), books that radically changed my life. Oh, yes, radically. But wait a bit. First, more ironies.

“He was in his mid thirties: at that time of life when, instead of being spontaneously oneself, as in one’s twenties, it is necessary, in order to remain honest, to confront oneself and judge from a second position.”

— John Berger, A Fortunate Man

From 1968 to 1970, I taught school in Africa for the Peace Corps, and on school holiday I fell in love (well, sort of) with a beautiful young blonde I met in what was then white-ruled Rhodesia. Later, on my way home through England, we met again as she was starting med school at Sussex University near Brighton.

Let’s call her Jennifer. Jennifer and I corresponded warmly on and off for years while I saved up enough money at meaningless writing jobs back home to escape Nixon’s America for good. We agreed that I would come to live with her. I saved, I scrimped, I borrowed — and bought a cheap one-way charter flight. But the day I showed up in Brighton I discovered what she’d neglected to tell me: she’d fallen madly in love with a charismatic German student named — let’s call him Rainer. That may not be an irony, but it was a shock. I had sold off and dismantled my life in America.

Rainer had been a student of Jürgen Habermas, the last of the great Frankfurt School critical theorists and post-structural Marxists. Rainer was also one of the leaders of the 1968 student uprisings in Frankfurt, a magnetic character, and a superb writer in both English and German (he ended up with Der Spiegel.) Within a day of my arrival Rainer and I were close friends and collaborating on translating Bertold Brecht’s allegorical Me-ti stories, humorous episodes that disguise Brecht’s practical non-dogmatic Marxism. (They weren’t in fact fully translated into English until 2016.)

Rainer and I recruited another student, call him Mike, and the three of us found a derelict nineteenth-century farmworker house (“tied cottage” is the British term) a half-mile outside a tiny village north of Brighton named Ringmer. The farmer was happy to let us fix it up. We painted, plastered, hammered, and furnished it from the dump (“the tip”) and various rummage sales (“jumblies”). And then Rainer, who had his eye on another woman, decided not to let Jennifer move in with us. Now that qualifies as irony. For me, anyway.

Mike was from a political family, too. His oldest sister was deeply involved in anti-racist politics in Birmingham and a leader in the Militant stream within the Labour Party. She became an MP and eventually entered Tony Blair’s cabinet, but she split with him over Iraq, bless her. Her whole combative family spent many weekends around our bright red kitchen table in Ringmer, arguing politics. Her younger sister was even more radical. This is all foreshadowing, if you stick it out with me.

Left-wing politics were as prevalent in England in the early 1970s as drizzly grey skies. You couldn’t step out of any tube in London without a dozen radical newspapers being thrust at you. I’d grown up in San Pedro alongside the children of Communist longshoremen, so none of that put me off. But by then an elite college (Pomona) had wrung most of the political thought out of me.

What the hell, I thought. I sat down at my upstairs desk — a door on bricks — and dove back into politics. In addition to working on a novel and journalism, I read Marx’s Capital and took careful notes. (Calling it Das Kapital in America is just the Cold War way of making it seem strange and alien, believe me. It’s Capital in England, Le Capital in France.) Then I read more Marx, a bit of the Frankfurt School, plus Gramsci and the post-structural Marxists. We all argued day in, day out, and my inner political ice shelf began breaking up during thaws and then refreezing in new shapes.

“Vulnerability may have its own private causes, but it often reveals concisely what is wounding and damaging on a much larger scale.”

— John Berger, A Fortunate Man

The nub: As I started to situate myself within a new notion that social class can actually influence the way we see and think (it promotes a particular ideology, to be precise), a part of me rebelled. Way too crude, I thought. That famous Communist Manifesto doesn’t speak to me. “You have nothing to lose but your chains.” Hell, I’m not a proletarian waving a red banner. Brothers and sisters in manual labor, hell. (Though a few years later, back in America, I would choose to work in an industrial factory for two years. It’s okay, you can smirk.)

My inner American ice shelf was still largely intact in mid-1973 when I visited a friend in Brighton for a drink (probably Brendan Behan’s brother Brian, but that’s another story). He was preoccupied in his sitting room with a BBC TV show called Ways of Seeing. We didn’t have a telly out in Ringmer so I missed all of Monty Python, too! My eye caught on an almost lisping guy in a pointy disco collar who was talking about the hidden ideologies in advertising images that we don’t notice because we’re so overwhelmed by similar images.

“Who the hell is that?” I asked.

“John Berger, arsehole. Our only real radical thinker— except me, of course.”

You’ll soon know a lot more about John Berger, if the loving four-part documentary film by Tilda Swinton and others titled The Seasons in Quincy ever finds American distribution. It was a hit at the last Berlin Film Festival, but that means little in the States. PBS has never shown John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. It is, as far as I know, the only BBC show about art that was turned back at Ellis Island.

I immediately bought as many of John Berger’s books as I could find in Brighton. Berger has won a Booker Prize for a novel called G (1972) that I find quite odd but also fun and readable, despite the fact that “odd” has never been my thing in novels. But mostly he’s a stunning aphoristic essayist about art and our world. And he’s gone on writing his essays even after retreating four decades ago to the life of a peasant farmer in the middle of nowhere in France — in Quincy, pronounced “Keen-sy.” He has documented this life, too, in his novelesque trilogy Into Their Labors (1991), probably better known by the title of the first book, Pig Earth (1979). Yeah, geniuses get to go off into caves and do stuff like that.

Here’s my take on Berger’s most powerful books, in the order that they came at me:

1. Ways of Seeing. This is the one that crashed through my ice shelf for real. The most important thing it taught me is that critical theory and social analysis is not that crude Stalinist nonsense about tractors and heroes of labor. It’s a painstaking and scrupulous analysis of the assumptions that lie under the surface of our lives, and of the art that arises from it. For me this idea took off in essays 2 and 3, which concern artistic depictions of women and men. Berger talks about how men are usually shown in Western art in terms of what they can do to you or for you. Women, on the other hand, are forced to pose in terms of what can be done to them: “She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought as the success of her life.”

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Go ahead, Berger challenges, look at any famous painting of a nude woman — say, Goya’s The Naked Maja (1797-1800) — and imagine a man’s face on it: “Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image but to the assumptions of a likely viewer.”

I guess this insight has become almost a commonplace in feminist studies now, but 40-some years ago, it staggered me.

The next essay (No. 5), about how European oil painting reduced the world to things and materiality, was less affecting, but still convincing: “Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. […] What distinguishes oil painting from any other form of painting is its special ability to render the tangibility, the texture, the luster, the solidity of what it depicts. It defines the real as that which you can put your hands on.”

Finally, after another photo prelude, there’s the written version of the piece that caught my eye on the telly. Essay 7 is about advertising images. “No era before ours,” writes Berger, “has constructed such a dense assault of imagery on its citizens. “ Ads rarely tell you the advantages of a specific product (there probably aren’t any). They’re meant to make you envy the glamorous world you’re looking at, where handsome models are never unhappy and possess a VIP pass to everything. These images make us nebulously dissatisfied with who we are and subtly suggest that buying whatever commodity is shown will change it all. Buy and be!

(The TV version of Ways of Seeing is on YouTube, if you want to watch in small bites. You’ll get to see that embarrassing disco shirt.)

2. A Fortunate Man. Not the first Berger I read, but maybe the most powerful. It starts out as the tale of a compassionate country doctor in an isolated community in Gloucestershire near Wales. In the book he’s called Dr. John Sassall. I hear now that many medical schools in England make the it required reading.

Berger looks at specific examples from the doctor’s practice, some quite astonishing, but gently and gradually the focus shifts to unraveling the cultural and economic deprivations that have been visited upon the villagers he treats: “They have no examples to follow in which words clarify experience. […] The culturally deprived have far fewer ways of recognizing themselves. […] Their chief means of self-expression is consequently through action: this is one of the reasons why the English have so many ‘do-it-yourself’ hobbies.” The men speak to one-another endlessly about “a motor-car engine, a football match.” Some critics of Berger consider this attitude condescending, but I grew up in the American suburbs, with men wandering from open garage to garage on weekends, beer can in hand, discussing their “projects,” and I find it acutely perceptive.

Dr. Sassall is a “fortunate man” because he’s the village’s healer, their shaman, their personal witness, and, more importantly, because he’s been able to examine his own life and its pains as most of them cannot: “The privilege of being subtle is the distinction between the fortunate and the unfortunate.” Indeed, Berger’s analysis accounts for the anti-intellectualism of the working poor, which so many of us find so frustrating: “[A]ll theory seems to most of the local inhabitants to be the privilege and prerogative of distant policy-makers. The intellectual — and this is why they are so suspicious of him — seems to be part of the apparatus of the State.”

By the end, Berger’s book has taken a turn — one almost unnoticed, because he writes so artfully — toward an insightful deconstruction of Western Civilization.

In assessing Sassall, Berger says, “I do not claim to know what a human life is worth — the question cannot be answered by word but only by action, by the creation of a more human society. All that I do know is that our present society wastes and, by the slow draining process of enforced hypocrisy, empties most of the lives which it does not destroy.”

Dr. Sassall’s real name was Dr. John Eskell, and, alas, the human needs of the residents of St. Briavels, as well as his own inner needs, finally consumed him. At age 62 he killed himself by gun and was reportedly denied a cemetery plot in the village where he served as healer and witness for years.

3. A Seventh Man. Before the recent flood of Syrian war refugees to Europe, every “seventh man” doing manual labor in Germany or England, and every fourth in France, was a guest-worker, almost invariably from the shores of the Mediterranean. To put it crudely — Turks to Germany and North Africans to France.

The word “man” is basically accurate. Most left their wives and children at home, in their impoverished villages, waiting for their men to return with a tiny bit of saved capital. Sometimes enough to build a house or start a small business. At its most poignant, this is as little as the money needed to buy a home bathroom scale and set it up in the village square as “Your weight for a penny.”

A large portion of this book is theoretical, about how the Third World has been systematically “underdeveloped.” (It was the Cubans who decided that was a verb.) Most of Berger’s statistics and theory about globalization are dated now. But what remains moving is the impressionistic access he proposes to the thoughts and feelings of the bewildered migrants themselves, faced with an opaque world that sees them as inferior beings. Or doesn’t see them at all.

“Migrant workers, already living in the metropolis, have the habit of visiting the main railway station,” he writes. It’s a kind of magic connection with home, a place of activity where they are accepted, though only as spectators. They come “[t]o talk in groups there, to watch the trains come in, to receive first-hand news from their home, to anticipate the day when they will begin the return journey.” Berger takes us to the station’s exit, where a worker finds others “talking in his own language. The words of it are like foliage re-appearing on a tree after winter.”

A village butcher becomes a worker in a giant abattoir, slaughtering cattle so rapidly he nearly hallucinates: “[T]he flow of heads to be washed and hoofs to be shifted never ceased, he began to have the impression that the machines were multiplying the animals: that they took one and turned it into a hundred.” After work he wanders the city, a bit stunned: “[H]e became more and more conscious that there were no animals to be seen.” From the nature of the village to the artifice of the city — in a single leap.

Another worker tacks up photos of women around the bunk in his crowded rooming house, “a votive fresco of twenty women, nude and shameless. The prayer is that his own virility be one day recognized.” And everything he is and knows.

The book’s argument is this: “To see the experience of another, one must do more than dismantle and reassemble the world with him at its center. One must interrogate his situation to learn about that part of his experience which derives from the historical moment. What is being done to him, even with his own complicity, under the cover of normalcy?”

These three books of John Berger examine the ideologies hidden in the ways we perceive the world, in the ways we value or can’t value human lives, and what our system does to those from the third world without us even thinking about it. John Berger made me think about that for the rest of my life.


John Shannon is the author of the Jack Liffey mystery novels that are based on Los Angeles ethnic and social history, and several other novels. His website is:


Shifting Towards Clinton: A Voter’s Evolution

By Da Chen

During my recent visit to China, I was astounded by the media’s obsession with Donald Trump, the orange-haired, China-bashing, abrasive Westerner. But rather than hating him, the general feeling was more like the tolerant affection one might have toward a spoiled child — or toward someone who might benefit China because of his greed for profit and disdain for human sensitivity.

The Asian media was no less excited about Hillary Clinton, whose Chinese name is Xi Lai Li, literarily meaning: Hope arrives with beauty. Books on Hillary Clinton, however, are few in China due to her political unpopularity with the government. In America, they are much more abundant. Among that long list, I discovered online this elegant volume called The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton, written by Sonya Huber.

The blurb for this book claims that “Sonya Huber’s short and accessible book takes a ‘balanced’ look on Hillary,” and I find the tone of the book delightful. It provides us with a highly personal and intimate look into the woman called Hillary Clinton.

The author, Huber, is a college English professor and a labor activist who switched her party from Unaffiliated to Democrat, for the sole purpose of voting for Bernie Sanders. She originally rejected a publishing proposal to write a guide book on Hillary Clinton, repulsed by how much Bill Clinton had slashed welfare two decades earlier, while claiming to be a Democrat. But her curiosity was piqued.

Although she voted for Sanders in the Connecticut Democrat primary, she was chafed by the increasing centrality of “Bernie Bros” to Sanders’s campaign and the nagging perception of mansplaining by the candidate himself. In contrast, “Clinton became an anchor point, a concrete representation for women about the struggles of women in the United States and she became appealing because of the very dynamics of the conversation about her.”

The hate Trump supporters have for Hillary, for instance, are what Huber calls “a mix of retrograde sexism and anti-establishment resistance.” It was this stench of sexism that motivated her into writing this book.

Huber dissects Clinton’s political commitments, while chronicling her own political evolution. Clinton is Coca-Cola to the Bush family’s Pepsi, she writes, accusing Bill Clinton of creating the New Democrats, a group that undermined welfare and brought about mass incarceration in the name of a War on Drugs.

Huber is also critical of Clinton’s early history in Arkansas, when she served on Wal-Mart’s board, where Sam Walton called Hillary “a very strong willed young woman.” But Huber notes that in a state notorious for its weak labor movement, Clinton did nothing to help.

On Hillarycare, an issue dear to the author’s heart, Huber wrote that, it was not the profit interests that derailed Clinton’s healthcare reform; rather it was the fact that as a woman and First Lady, she was seen as overstepping her role, and her power thus interpreted as “evil”; her gender toppled her legislation. Of course that “failure” nonetheless served as the template that President Obama used to draft the Affordable Care Act.

As time passes, Huber notices her attitude toward Hillary changing. She concludes by saying:

I find myself surprised by how much I am drawn to Hillary as a leader: she’s not a show-boat who plays politics for the sake of racking up points. She seems much less interested in exacting revenge than her husband was. She works hard, she’s intelligent, pragmatic, and experienced. She has been through decades of continuous public scrutiny and crashing humiliation, and yet manages to get up and smile in a way that seems genuine […]. Hillary isn’t just any woman; she is a woman who has taken good positions as well as bad with regard to women’s lives. Those positions are what her supporters are excited about.

By the closing pages, I found myself moved by the passion in her words. Although it is a long way off in China, maybe it’s time we Americans had our first female president.


Author bio: Da Chen, a graduate of Columbia Law School, is a New York Times bestselling author from China, who lives in Temecula.


The Union Libel: On the Argument Against Collective Bargaining in Higher Ed

By Emmett Rensin

The National Labor Relations Board has reversed itself for the second time in this century: graduate student instructors at private universities once again have the right to unionize. With the ranks and working hours of non-tenured faculty far exceeding what they were twelve years ago, and interest among graduate students in unionizing far higher too, the decision represents a significant and hard-won victory for what remains of the American labor movement.

The administrators of elite private universities have responded to the decision with all the enthusiasm of their assembly-line-owning ancestors. In the past several days, many have begun issuing open letters to their students, discouraging them from taking advantage of their newfound right to collective bargaining. They are very concerned, you see. The private university is a special place, and formalizing the relationship between administrators and the non-tenured faculty who now perform roughly half of the undergraduate education in this country might spoil the rarified air.

What is remarkable — as the political theorist and CUNY professor Corey Robin has pointed out — is how similar all these letters are, how each, despite its excessive personalization and focus on the individual needs of the university, manage to raise the same three or four specters every time: “You’re students, not employees.” “You’re privileged educational elites, not poor laborers.” “A union will come between you and the faculty that wants to love you (but can’t, if you let a union get in the way).”

It is this last item that I am particularly interested in, this notion that a special, intimate relationship exists between graduate students and tenured faculty that could not possibly survive a collective bargaining process. A particularly shameless example of this line comes from Robert Zimmer, the President of the University of Chicago — the university where I was once an undergraduate. In light of the NLRB’s decision, he informed a university-wide listhost on Wednesday, it is “more important than ever to reflect on the fundamental nature of education at UChicago, and the potential impact that graduate student unionization in particular could have on the University’s distinctive approach to research and education.”

“Central to the success of graduate students is the intellectual relationship between students and faculty, particularly between students and their advisors,” Zimmer wrote. It wasn’t the fundamental unwillingness of managers throughout human history to embrace unionization efforts, but rather “the special and individual nature of students’ educational experiences” that had him worried. “A graduate student labor union could impede such opportunities. […] It could also compromise the ability of faculty to mentor and support students on an individualized basis.” A labor union “will come between students and faculty to make crucial decisions on behalf of students” by focusing “on the collective interests of members while they are in the union,” something that “could make it more difficult for students to reach their individual educational goals.” Decisions made based on the “collective interests” of a labor force? My god.

One wonders how deeply Zimmer must pity those poor public universities — Berkeley, Michigan, UW-Madison, obscure places, really — where unionization has long been a fact of life. When a newly-minted Chicago PhD secures an increasingly rare tenure-track position at an institution like Berkeley, does their advisor shake their hand, smile broadly, then whisper, “Just so you know, the union there will make it impossible for you to care for your advisees as I have cared for you”? The University of Iowa, where I am presently a unionized graduate student instructor, has seen twenty years of successive union contracts secure vastly superior working conditions. My advisor has not yet referred to me as “employee” in a distant way, sad memories of happier days scarcely hidden behind cold eyes — but perhaps I am the exception.

One also wonders how this all comports with The University of Chicago’s incessantly reiterated commitment to open inquiry and debate, a life of the mind unencumbered by emotional concerns (i.e., “special relationships” between human beings, one assumes). This is, after all, the institution which has just informed incoming undergraduates that it does not support “so called ‘trigger warnings’” or “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces,’” because such warnings and spaces undermine the university’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.” Is it possible that in the bustle of all that freedom, these high-minded academics failed to take a cursory glance at academic research into the question of graduate student unions? “Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty-Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay” is a subtle title, I know, but the conclusions of that study are not:

Unionization does not have the presumed negative effect on student outcomes, and in some cases has a positive effect. Union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay, and unionized and nonunionized students report similar perceptions of academic freedom. These findings suggest that potential harm to faculty-student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees.

I have not been a student at Chicago for some time now. I have never been a student at Yale, or Columbia, or any of the other top-tier academies so concerned by the chilling effect of union bureaucracy on the warm relationships between faculty and their adjunct servants. Perhaps they really cannot afford higher salaries or more generous benefits — they can’t even afford JSTOR subscriptions.

Yet surely access to academic databases is not beyond the reach of a man like Robert Zimmer, a man who saw his total compensation double over the course of five years, reaching $3.4 million dollars in 2014, and placing him atop the Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual ranking of the highest-paid private university presidents. Perhaps the “special relationship” truly imperiled here is the one between administrators and their universities. Being forced to negotiate fair contracts with the adjunct and graduate student instructors — who perform the bulk of daily labor, servicing undergraduate customers in exchange for their exorbitant, federally-subsidized tuitions — might cut into the cash pot elite universities ordinarily reserve for the hiring of new administrators and the subsidizing of profitable athletic programs. (The athletes themselves cannot unionize either, of course. They are not even paid.)

But then, as President Zimmer informs his charges in Chicago, none of this is necessary. “Recent experiences” — not research, mind you, experiences — “demonstrate that efforts to enhance the graduate student experience are highly successful when graduate students, faculty, deans, and the provost’s office work together directly. Dialogue among students and faculty has led to increased stipends […] increased remuneration for teaching […] expansion of health insurance coverage” and “child care grants,” among other benefits. In other words, there is no need to force our benevolence: you’ve already got it. But never forget, those gains are contingent on our benevolence. Under true negotiating conditions? “It is unclear whether a graduate student labor union would have achieved any of these outcomes.”

Indeed — who knows what outcomes collective bargaining might achieve in the neo-gothic halls of Chicago, in Harvard Yard, or in Morningside Heights? Surely nothing so generous as the benefits that administrators like Zimmer have already granted by the magnanimity of their own spirits, by the kindness of every manager who has ever said We’re only against this union because we have your best interests at heart.

“We hope all members of our community will take the time to look more deeply into the challenges and potential negative consequences of a union,” Zimmer writes. After all, it’d be a shame if anything happened to that pretty special relationship of yours.


Nuts! The Bursting of the Chinese Walnut Bubble

By Austin Dean

Walk down the street in Beijing and you’ll encounter a certain type of character: buzz cut, paunchy stomach, probably tattooed, likely taking drags from a cigarette as he barks into a cell phone. He’s probably also sporting a bracelet or necklace (or both) made of walnut shells strung together. This guy might be a gangster; more likely he’s plain old Chinese nouveau riche.

The walnut jewelry links him back to beliefs and practices from imperial China, though he might not realize the extent of this cultural inheritance. He probably selected these accessories simply to demonstrate that he can afford them. This guy and his peers have made walnut-shell jewelry and other products hot commodities—creating the Great Chinese Walnut Bubble. Like so many other bubbles before it, the bubble has now popped.

The price of walnuts in China exploded between 2008 and 2013, driven by demand not for the edible meat, but the outer shell. Big, symmetrical, colorful shells became prized items. As one farmer remarked at the height of the craze, a pair or shells could be more “more expensive than gold, in terms of weight.”

There’s a lot you can do with walnut shells besides crush them to get at the meat inside. Some people twirl two of them across the palm of their hand, often while walking; others wear walnut bracelets or necklaces that have been carved with intricate designs of Daoist figures or natural scenes. As one walnut carver explained, his designs focus on “longevity, safety, reunion, faithful love, health, and wealth.” But some prefer to forego any carvings and leave the shells as is because “no craftsman can create anything as beautiful as these natural patterns.” With so much money at stake, the aesthetics of walnut design is a serious topic.

There are numerous ways to get involved in the market. You can buy the end products, you can get into the wholesale business or, most speculative or all, you can buy the rights to future walnut shells while they’re still hanging from the tree and covered in green skin. You could end up with prize shells or with duds—the nut business is a risky one.

As with any bubble, there were historic, cultural, and economic reasons behind the sky-rocketing walnut prices.

Chinese emperors and officials rotated pairs of them in their hands to promote circulation. Walnuts became a gift traded among the Chinese elite, part status symbol and part health remedy. As one walnut farmer remarked, “Mainly the walnuts are good for the body, that’s why people play with them.” In fact, the very act of twirling the walnut shells will, over time, give them a red, glossy polish, making them even more valuable, or so the thinking goes.

And let’s not forget our friend from Beijing with his walnut jewelry. He represents the segment of the population for whom this cultural inheritance became cool, As one article from the height of the bubble observed, buying, wearing, and speculating in walnut shells was “especially popular among the newly wealthy and gangsters profiting from Beijing’s grey economy.” The walnut craze also had a gendered aspect; though it’s impossible to cite statistics, it seemed to be primarily a male pastime.

At the level of individual decision-making, the walnut bubble reflected a shortage of assets to invest in. The Chinese stock market is a mess, rates on bank deposits are abysmal, and average citizens are only allowed to move a certain amount of money out of the country each year. As a result, a lot of investment goes into housing. But if you already have an apartment (or three) and you want to put your money to work in some way, then walnuts (as well as tea, garlic, and jade) might start to look quite appealing. If you think wearing walnut-shell necklaces looks cool and prices are likely to rise, then, well, all the better.

But the good days are likely over for walnut speculators. As a number of Chinese media outlets have recently reported, the walnut market is not the same as it once was. Walnut shells themselves are quite fragile—easily scratched, broken, or damaged—and so is the walnut market.

One of the traditional homes of walnut carving is in Zhoushancun, near Suzhou, on the east coast of China. It has been epicenter of change in the walnut market during the past few years. As prices rose, people flooded into the business: stay-at-home moms and former fruit vendors learned how to carve walnuts; teenagers entered the trade; famous walnut carvers swamped with orders farmed out production; walnut bracelets and necklaces designed using computer programs emerged.

In 2014, the Chinese walnut crop was 35% higher than normal. Supply went up. Quality, or perceived quality, went down—and so did prices and sales volume.

At the height of the walnut craze, growers and vendors didn’t even have to bring their goods to market. The market came to them, with waves of cars from urban areas descending on the countryside. That’s no longer the case.

At the retail level, a store that grossed 2-3 million yuan in monthly sales in 2012 or 2013 is now doing a small fraction of that. One shop owner told a television reporter that she now has to call up former customers to see if they’re interested in the most recent arrivals. In 2013, she wouldn’t have had to chase customers for their business.

With sales down, the retailer is naturally pickier about what types of walnut shells she displays. On her rounds to various walnut carvers, she rejects a number of samples as too poorly designed. This change filters down through the walnut industry. One walnut carver (a former fruit vendor) noted that she’s trying to renegotiate her rent payments on her small carving studio and store. Carvers, in turn, are more demanding about the types of walnut shells they procure for wholesale merchants—not just any pair will do.

The nut business, clearly, isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

KB - Non-Summit 1

That’s Korean Entertainment: the Freakishly Fluent Foreigners of Non-Summit

By Colin Marshall

“Whatever you do,” fellow foreigners here in Korea occasionally tell me, “don’t go on television.” Easy enough advice to follow, you’d think, though many Koreans, upon meeting a Korean-speaking non-Korean, almost automatically insist that they should go right before the cameras. Flattery in the absence of anything else to say aside, the response reflects a real viewer demand. Recent years have seen a flowering of shows about foreigners in Korea, and not just EBS’ documentation of the home and work lives of the various Canadians, Jamaicans, Vietnamese, and Russians who wind up married with children here. You can easily channel-surf your way to other shows, hit shows, that have made their foreigners into stars.

If you often fly on airlines that serve South Korea, you’ve probably noticed among their canned television a program with the curious title of Non-Summit, originally from the cable network JTBC. Pitched as a comedic G20 meeting, most of the show takes place around a U-shaped table. On its sides sit eleven or so men in their twenties and thirties, all of various non-Korean nationalities — English, Canadian, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, American, Belgian, French, and Australian on the 2014 debut. At its head sit three slightly older Korean men who preside each week over a discussion of current events in Korea as well as in the countries of the “representatives”, the more emotionally charged — whether in the nationalistic sense or in the realm of mild scandal — the better.

The episodes’ overarching issues range widely: fashion trends, the War on Terror, pre-marital cohabitation, the generation gap, sad pop songs. All these discussions, apart from the readings-out of each country’s news item under discussion, happen entirely in Korean. This by itself, even two years into the show’s run, constitutes a real element of novelty, since most of the foreigners who appeared on Korean television before had a patchy to nonexistent command of the language. Even Non-Summit‘s closest precedent, KBS’ all-foreign-women Global Talk Show, never seemed overly concerned with its panelists’ language ability. (Its Korean title 미녀들의 수다, or “Beautiful Women’s Chat,” sheds some light on its priorities.)

KB - Non-Summit 2

But Korea, as I’ve written here before, lags behind the rest of northeast Asia in foreigner integration, especially of the linguistic variety (the only kind of integration a foreigner, especially a Westerner, can really achieve here). A popular television show that features a group of them every week does its part to alleviate that condition, though that very popularity would seem to indicate that Korea, unlike Japan and China, hasn’t quite made it out of the stage where a foreigner can attain celebrity status by competently speaking the language. Dave Spector, known across Japan as “Dave-san,” put down stakes there in 1983; Mark Rowswell became the Chinese public’s beloved “Dashan” when he appeared on a 1988 New Year’s broadcast watched by 550 million people.

Non-Summit has come closest to creating a similar breakout personality in Tyler Rasch, the representative of America during its first two seasons. By background and inclination a quick and thorough language-learner, he seems, just like the mild-mannered Rowswell, to draw resentment from other foreigners as he does admiration from the locals, who invariably describe him as a better Korean speaker than they themselves. “It used to be that people in Korea would praise my Korean abilities. But now that so many foreigners fluent in Korean are appearing on TV, the mood has changed,” writes the film critic and longtime Seoul resident Darcy Paquet. “People may not say it out loud, but I know it’s true: in their heads, everyone is comparing me to Tyler.”

Clearly the smartest guy in the room — and one who certainly didn’t force the editors to cut creatively around his speaking deficiencies — during his time in the American seat, Rasch vacated it in June, leaving viewers to wonder who would hold up the show’s high level of discourse. But it makes me and his other foreigner fans consider a different question: what do you do after Non-Summit? Many non-Koreans here complain of having “hit a wall,” but most of them came to teach English and, having never learned Korean to a high level, can’t find a way out of the industry they never really meant to get into in the first place. Work in Korean media, no matter how acclaimed, may present a similar dead end; scratch the surface of half the foreign-language broadcasters here, and you’ll find something like desperation for a job back “home.”

At least they have endorsement deals. I’ve seen Rasch pop up in language-product ads on the internet, and just about equally famous Ghanian Non-Summit colleague Sam Okyere in ads on the subway. Okyere, who’s also moved on from the show, must also have wielded serious influence behind the scenes, since the producers seemed to allow only him to have a normal-looking hairstyle. Everyone else’s hair juts out and swoops around in all manner of ridiculous angles, the better to complement their flashy suits (often with chasm-like collar gaps) and glowing makeup — the dire aesthetic fate, perhaps, that inspires all those warnings about not submitting to the Korean televisual machine.

Or maybe they refer to the layers and layers of extra text and graphics applied, as in so many Korean television programs, to enliven the proceedings, underscoring slights and embarrassments, intensifying emotions, and hammering on the occasional mispronunciation. They also have a good deal of fun with the icons and traditional costumes of each representative’s country of origin, one of those practices that gets so many foreigners — mostly Westerners, and then mostly Americans — firing off accusations of insensitivity, condescension, racism, and what have you from the moment they arrive. But the show has also made an effort, against expectations, of introducing representatives from nations it could have overlooked, like Egypt, India, Mexico, and Iran.

KB - Non-Summit 3

It once had a Turk at the table — naturally, given the Turkish-South Korean special bond — but that didn’t work out so well. Over the first twenty or so episodes, Enes Kaya made his name as the show’s conservative loudmouth, referencing at every opportunity his devotion to family, respect for tradition, abstention from alcohol, and so on. An American viewer, witness to the constant disgracing of their own fire-and-brimstone preachers, homophobic politicians, and aggressively wholesome sportsmen, would have known exactly what to respect. But Korean viewers (the society’s dim view of its own sexual morality as revealed in novels and films notwithstanding) still haven’t fully recovered from the shock of revelation at the texts Kaya, already married to a Korean woman, exchanged with his girl (or one of his girls) on the side.

That degree of scrutiny provides another good reason not to go on Korean television, as does the fear of becoming what the expat-in-Asia parlance calls a “performing monkey.” Non-Summit doesn’t exactly downplay its freak-show angle: the Korean title, 비정상 회담, translates as “Abnormal Summit,” and the concept’s basic humor comes out of holding up anyone so patently eccentric as a Korean-speaking foreigner as a “representative” of anything. But I suspect that the success of these shows has less to do with the fascination of watching any particular foreigner than watching other Koreans interact with foreigners. (Non-Summit also brings on a steady supply of pop stars, actors, and other famous Koreans for its representatives to chat with.)

That fascination extends beyond the television screen. As one Korean friend (who happens to run an online Korean-teaching empire) put it, “If you’re a foreigner riding the subway with a Korean, every other Korean onboard is watching to see how that Korean is interacting with you.” Whatever the language of that interaction, the “audience” wants to observe how one of their own engages with, to use the academically fashionable term, the Other. And though you could probably live out your life in Seoul without once having to appeared on television, as for avoiding the subway… well, you’ll sooner learn to speak Korean like Tyler Rasch.

Related Korea Blog posts:

Multicultural Love and Its Discontents

Among the Korea Vloggers

Why Is Korean So Hard?

You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.


Academics, Journalists—Everyone Is Miserable! Hug!

By Noah Berlatsky

Writers are jealous critters. You don’t put your name out there unless you think your name deserves to be out there. Aren’t all my thoughts more insightful, more golden, and more worthwhile than all the other thoughts thunk by all those lesser thinkers?  (Support my Patreon! Buy my book!) Alas, some of those lesser thinkers are inevitably better known than I am (I’m looking at you, George Will) and the result is resentment, anguish, and the remorseless gnashing of egos.

Thus it has ever been, thus it continues to be, as illustrated recently in the latest round of “Who’s better — elitist stuffed shirt academics or frivolous ignorant journalists?” I (somewhat inadvertently) kicked this discussion off in a piece at the Chronicle in which I argued that you don’t necessarily need to have a lot of background knowledge to write about pop culture. Thus, even though I am a Wonder Woman expert, I try not to get overly cranky when people with large pop culture platforms don’t know as much about Wonder Woman as I do.

Pop culture academics Amanda Ann Klein and Kristen Warner responded, with a certain bitterness of spirit, that expertise is too important, and that watching people who don’t know anything about your subject spout nonsense over a prominent byline is depressing and insulting. This, in turn, drew a response from Maria Bustillos here at LARB. She averred, also with a certain bitterness, that academics suck anyway and the Internet has freed us from them, so go sulk behind the paywalls, you doctorate-touting losers.

Again, this isn’t exactly a new contretemps. As Thomas Aquinas said, “Watching the town criers discuss the proof of God is like being beaten about the head with a large plague-ridden pig carcass.” To which Joseph Pulitzer responded, “Does Thomas Aquinas’s name sell papers? I didn’t fucking think so.”

Or maybe they didn’t say those things; I’m too lazy to look it up.  In any case, the point is, the mutual enmity between academics and journalists isn’t of recent vintage. Journalists envy academics their relative stability and prestige, and so call them elitist and irrelevant. Academics envy journalists their audience and relative freedom from institutional hurdles, and so call them ignorant and irrelevant. The two warring sides are locked forever in a war of whirling words, which journalists duly scurry to monetize in the latest blog post and academics slog to analyze in dusty unread tomes for the pleasure of their tenure committees.

I enjoy a good internet slugfest as much as the next clickbait surfer, so I don’t want to discourage anyone from airing their dyspepsia in the great tradition of Aquinas and Pulitzer. But it’s maybe worth remembering, as jealousy boils within you, that, whether you’re an academic or a journalist, the grass that looks greener over yonder is probably composed mostly of the same shit you’re standing in.

Aaron Bady, quoted in Bustillos’s essay, writes that, “Scholars who spend their lives writing for JSTOR and other pay-walled gardens get tenure as the reward for making their work inaccessible to everyone else.” But, as I’m sure Bady knows, the academics don’t get any of the revenue from those pay-walls. Moreover, many academics these days don’t get tenure at all, but are instead shuttled into badly paid adjuncting gigs. “Donate your work for free now in exchange for a lousy job later!” You can understand why academics don’t feel like they’re getting an especially great deal.

And as for the utopia of free information exchange that Bustillos touts in the bulk of her essay — well. There’s certainly a lot of hype about what Bustillos calls the “rich, heady cross-cultural ferment” of the Internet, but I’m here to tell you that being fermented isn’t always quite as awesome as all that. As a professional information exchanger, I can tell you that I am writing this on Saturday evening, as a break from a work-for-hire gig, because, to make a living as a writer, you basically have to work all the time, including evenings and weekends.

If you want to be a writer, Virginia Woolf said, you need a room of your own. Whether you’re an academic or a journalist, writing well demands time and security to think, to study, to reflect. The reason journalists don’t look at academic articles isn’t (just) because the journalists are lazy or careless; it’s because grinding out the fourth Beyoncé thinkpiece today for next to no pay doesn’t give you the time or resources to do a whole lot of research. The reason academics often don’t reach out to popular venues isn’t (just) because they’re snobs. It’s because they generally don’t have control over the product of their own labor, and can’t make their work accessible even if they want to.

The internet, for all its virtues, has made it extremely difficult for writers to get a decent income. At the same time, the hollowing out of the middle class has turned a once relatively stable academic career path into a precarious and humiliating scramble. If turf wars between the academy and journalists are particularly fraught, it’s not because academics are getting snobbier, nor because pop culture writers are becoming more ignorant. It’s because everybody’s options are more and more limited, and everybody is desperate. That’s a topic both academics and journalists could write about, perhaps — if they could get someone to pay them for it.


Thinking and Writing about Inner Asia: A Q&A with Rian Thum

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

I recently caught up by email with New Orleans-based historian Rian Thum to ask him a variety of questions about topics he knows and cares a lot about, ranging from trends in publishing on Inner Asia to the curious ways that even seemingly arcane issues relating to the past can get intensely politicized in today’s China.  Thum’s name should be familiar to regular readers of this publication, since both an excerpt from and an effusive Nile Green review of his prize-winning first book, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, ran in LARB.

What trends have you noticed in the kinds of books on Inner Asia that have been coming to you as Journal of Asian Studies Book Review Editor for that part of the continent?   And since this is an interview for something called the “China Blog,” perhaps focus most on the works that deal with places that are now at least partly encompassed in the PRC, though if there has been a massive surge in English language studies of the Central and Inner Asian states that were once part of the Soviet Union that would be interesting to know!

I’ll have to go region by region here, because there’s relatively little recent work that straddles the various Inner Asian cultures. There are exceptions, for example a new edited volume that looks at ethnic conflict in both Tibet and Xinjiang and a very important new book that examines reincarnation as a political phenomenon linking Tibet, China, and the Mongols, but most new work focuses on a single culture.

Of all the Inner Asian regions, Tibet has always received the most attention, which means that there are enough books on Tibet to really identify consistent trends. Lately scholars have taken an interest in Tibetan biography, analyzing both the genre in its particular Tibetan forms and its potential to open windows on the experiences of Tibetans of the last millennium or so. This is an exciting turn, because it injects very personal and human elements into the abstract institutions and ideologies that have featured so prominently in the study of Tibet.

For the Mongolic-speaking traditions, the last couple of years have seen some important books on religion, both Buddhism and shamanism, Mongol and Buryat. This is, I think, a reflection of the kinds of sources that are available, but also of an attention to the ways Mongolic-speakers frame their own experiences. However, there’s also a pair of books out that examine violence in Mongolia, reflecting a nascent tendency to mine Inner Asian materials for insights into universal social phenomena.

As for Xinjiang, what’s most striking is that we’re finally seeing more than one or two books per year. This is the culmination of a long process of developing linguistically competent scholars with experience living in Xinjiang, a slow process that only began with the reopening of the region in the late 1980s.

I’m also happy to see an ethnography of the Ewenki reindeer herders, a group that has not received much attention. Manchu books tend to work from the Qing imperial perspective, and so usually find their way to the China section of the book reviews, rather than Inner Asia.

Zeroing in on Xinjiang, the region that has been the main focus of your own work, what strikes you most about the style, range, and topical or chronological emphases of the works about it that have been coming across your desk?

Diversity, and that’s something new. When people started writing about Xinjiang again in the 1990s, a focus on ethnic identity or resistance to the Chinese state was de rigueur. But as the field has developed, authors have begun to explore a wider range of questions. 2016 is turning out to be the biggest year for Xinjiang books in a century, and coverage is all over the map. We have books on the contemporary experience of Han Chinese colonists in Xinjiang, on the development of the “Uyghur” idea across the Sino-Russian border, and on Republican-era politics in Xinjiang through the eyes of its Chinese rulers. Another forthcoming book re-imagines indigenous officials in the 18th and 19th centuries as capitalist entrepreneurs. These are all academic works, but they are also remarkably readable, which places them in a growing movement in the humanities away from tortuous prose and specialist jargon.

Largely for logistical reasons, the JAS, mostly reviews English language scholarly works, though it is certainly open to looking at works in other languages.  What are the most important languages other than English these days for scholarship on Inner Asia, and does it differ between, say, Tibet and Xinjiang?

You can get a sense of the history of Inner Asia scholarship from those kinds of linguistic divisions. Japan’s long tradition of research on Xinjiang, for example, and Soviet interest in the Central and Inner Asian cultures that fell under Russian rule are both reflected in publications in those languages. Tibet, on the other hand, tends to see more work in western European languages. There are of course important publications in Uyghur, Tibetan, and Chinese, but the Chinese state, through its academic system and through its censorship regime, presents some pretty daunting obstacles to effective humanistic scholarship. Inner Asian and Chinese authors who manage to overcome those obstacles often end up publishing in English.

Okay, a couple of final questions beyond books.  First, is there uniformity in how people define “Central Asia” or “Inner Asia,” as it’s sometimes called, as in the “China and Inner Asian Council” of the Association for Asian Studies?  If not, how do you think about this region, in terms of its contours and shape?

These area divisions are always messy and always disputed, but there’s a clear center of gravity in defining both Central and Inner Asia. The Turko-Persian areas of the former Soviet Union tend to get called Central Asia, with Afghanistan sometimes lumped in. Inner Asia is a term that, to my mind, accommodates a China-centered view of the Asian interior: the steppe region to China’s north (most recently dominated by Manchus and Mongols), “Xinjiang” or “Eastern Turkestan,” and Tibet all have histories that are intimately entangled with China. The major point of overlap is Xinjiang. Culturally it looks more like former-Soviet Central Asia, but historically it has important connections to China.
Finally, turning to something associated with both Chinese and Inner Asian history, have you been surprised to by how passionate some Beijing authors have been in their denunciations of the “New Qing History,” treating it as something with major political implications, rather than the topic of purely scholarly interest that it might seem to be to the non-initiated?

Working, as I do, in a field in which historians have been banned from China for their writing, I can’t say I was very surprised. The party has taken upon itself the task of justifying the borders of the Inner Asian Qing Empire, borders which the PRC has inherited, in the language of Chinese nationalism. To a certain extent, the insights of “New Qing history” were spurred by taking seriously the Qing rulers’ explanations of how and why they maintained such a massive empire. PRC nationalist historians have great difficulty weaving this material into their narratives of China – of a primordial and continuous China, one that “unifies” rather than conquers and divides rather than contracts – without leaving some frayed edges. Those frayed edges are particularly visible in Inner Asia.


Profsplaining, or, The Internet IS a Classroom, Whinypants!

By Maria Bustillos

“The Internet is not a classroom,” pop-culture scholars Amanda Ann Klein and Kristen Warner write in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. For those of us who spend our days in a positive orgy of learning things there, this statement is, well… false, to begin with.

The gist of Klein and Warner’s argument is that online, and in magazines, pop-culture critics do not sufficiently credit the work of “experts,” by whom they mean pop-culture scholars like themselves. “That write-up you’re planning on antiheroes, reality-television history, or the networks’ exploitation of black audiences? It has a scholarly antecedent just waiting to expand your knowledge of the subject.” Whether a critic and his readers have the faintest desire for their knowledge to be “expanded” is immaterial; evidently, critics should hie themselves along to JSTOR before setting paw to keyboard, just in case some academic may have gotten there first.

Furious subtweeting predictably followed, with one popular critic silkily observing of “pop culture academics” that “[t]hey usually can’t write & are extremely stubborn about edits,” and Klein firing back on Twitter: “Just do your research before you publish, whinypants” [since deleted].

It’s surprising to find that there is still some vestige of the old gatekeeper mentality among our academics. The once-common tendency of academics to talk down to the rest of us plebs is clearly on the wane, though. And a very good thing, too. Marshall McLuhan’s promises of the early nineteen-sixties are come to pass, and we enjoy a fantastically rich, heady cross-cultural ferment across the sciences as well as the humanities, owing in part to the magic of the Internet and in part to the slow but steady opening up of academic minds. The Internet is itself the “Gutenberg Galaxy”—the “mosaic configuration or galaxy for insight” that McLuhan so uncannily predicted; students, readers, hobbyists, stans and scholars, all sorts of interested parties are free, now, to roll their own blend of ideas and observations. All are free to participate. We take this for granted, but in fact the sheer wealth of it is exhilarating.

It’s plumb loco to be drawing up battle lines between popular and academic criticism right now, when so many academics and ex-academics are writing top-notch popular criticism (e.g., just off the top of my head, Ian Bogost, Aaron Bady, Lili Loofbourow, Freddie deBoer, Jacqui Shine and Clay Shirky). I asked Evan Kindley — a visiting assistant professor of English at Claremont McKenna College, editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and gifted popular critic — what he thought about this Chron piece, and he replied, “Where I depart from Warner and Klein is their apparent assumption that journalists have an obligation to consult academics, as opposed to the claim that consulting academics is a good idea. […] Journalism and scholarship are just totally different animals; the two can be mated with interesting results, but they’re not doing each other any harm if they keep to their own ecosystems.”

Are the two ecosystems really so far apart? Perhaps these academics’ anxiety owes more to the fact that the gate opened all by itself. Over the last century, academic and popular culture have grown closer and closer together, as evidenced, indeed, by the very existence of pop-culture scholarship. There was a time when the undergraduate study of English ended at Milton; when the serious study of English required serious “expertise.” Not anymore, whinypants!

Let’s be clear: popular critics aren’t here to “teach.” But it’s also possible the best professors aren’t here to “teach” either, but instead to participate in a broader discourse. Sadly, there is a real cost to that for public intellectuals today. “If scholars want to be part of [popular] conversations, they can be,” Aaron Bady wrote to me in an email. He continued:

Many of them — us — are. But for a lot of us, the price we paid for it was not getting academic jobs! Scholars who spend their lives writing for JSTOR and other pay-walled gardens get tenure as the reward for making their work inaccessible to everyone else — because, literally, publishing in inaccessible peer-reviewed journals “counts,” while publishing for the public doesn’t — and that’s fine; that’s a choice. But it seems strange to complain that they don’t get to have their cake and eat it too. Those barriers are real, and they go both ways.

We can only lament that the academy doesn’t appear to recognize the groundbreaking and vital importance of this perspective. If the humanities are in decline, that may partly be due to the brand of fusty, square condescension to the public put on display by Klein and Warner. Charged with this on Twitter, Klein protested that professors engage with the broader culture through their contact with students. But it’s quite clear that that contact goes in one direction only:

The first time students see Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film, Breathless, they often assume his jump cuts are sloppy editing mistakes, rather than a conscious strategy on the part of the director to subvert the polished style of the 1950s French “Cinema of Quality.” In the classroom that is called a “teachable moment.” Mistakes and misunderstandings offer professors platforms for engaging students in productive but also corrective discussions.

The future is not in the “corrective,” but in the inclusive.

Early works on popular culture written by public intellectuals, like Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” (1957) and Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), have aged poorly for this very reason. Valuable as they were at the time for helping to bring the real concerns of American popular culture to the forefront, they were written from a self-congratulatory perch high above the common herd. In order to participate in a meaningful critique of popular culture you cannot hold yourself above it. That is why the Internet is, in fact, a classroom.


Into a Memory

By Robert Kingett

When I was little, I did not wander as a cloud. I floated on one.

I have to admit, when the assignment was given to me, a blind college student, to write about a poem I did not think I would find one that would capture my interest or my memory. For days, my ears would burn the table of contents of my textbook as my fingers struck down page numbers in a hopeless search to find something that I could connect with, for something that I could write about and have it be genuine. I was lost and my hopes for finding a poem that would even hold my interest long enough to allow me to write about it seemed to be an impossible reach. I was a bibliophile at heart, but I did not like writing about poetry. I enjoyed reading it, but writing about it was a different kind of circle of hell. On my fifth haphazard hunt through the table of contents, my ears caught something that I had not noticed, and I was instantly drawn because it sounded familiar: “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth. I reflected on its familiarity, sensing that it would be significant to my life in some way. I wanted to explore the kind of emotional journey that this poem would take me through, and so I did. After listening to the first line, I was instantly transported to a memory that I did not even know I had.

It is late at night, and I am six. I remember feeling the Braille calendar poised in my lap, my finger tracing the soft indentations of the moons among the days. A sound erupts from the living room and I look up, my ears picking up every shift of the air just a few rooms from me. Shouting soon breaks out as if I am in a pep rally. It grows louder and more obscene with each passing word. My mother has made her appearance on stage yet again, and I start to sob. I am guessing that Grandma and Grandpa are out in the fray as well, but I do not want to be in here all alone. The shouting reaches a volume that I do not even know exists, and my fright and anger mesh into one emotion as the stupidity of the situation finally reaches me.

As my mother and her husband continue screaming at each other, mixing in sounds of smacking and hitting, Grandma comes into the room. I know it is her because I can smell the peach scented perfume. It is as if the smell alone is a blanket, about to wrap me up. My bedroom door softly clicks shut, and tender shoes thud over to me. She takes my small hand in hers.

“Are you ready for bed?” she asks me. I smile and nod while  trying to hide my anger at my mother. “Well, I’m sorry. I do not have a story for you tonight. All I have is this book of poems your grandfather gave to me.” I groan at the mention of poetry. Even at that young age, I much rather prefer it when she read me something GOOD such as Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys. I do not want to stay here any longer; however, I like it when Grandma reads to me.

Outside of my bubble of safety, my mother starts to cry as grandpa yells at her about how stupid she is acting. I hear pages slowly open. Grandma leans over to read and instantly I am taken to the place of golden daffodils, leaving the screaming behind me.

I wandered lonely as a cloud,

that floats on high o’er vales and hills,

when all at once I saw a crowd,

a host, of golden daffodils.

I am soon floating on that cloud looking at dancing yellow flowers. As Grandma continues to read the poem to me, I feel a sense of peace. I am flying, and the newly developed sounds of clashing in the kitchen are merely a faint whisper. I am swept away by Grandma’s reading. We are both wandering as clouds, but neither of us is lonely. I listen with eagerness as Wordsworth’s words allows me to ignore the smashing sounds in the next room.

When she finishes the poem, she tucks me in and kisses me goodnight. She tells me she loves me and then leaves the room. I drift on my own cloud of safety, finally able to feel calm and happy enough to go to sleep. I am comfortable and soon floating on my own cloud, across vales and hills far from the treachery of the world. I am safe.

That was when I was six. That memory of Grandma sprang to mind when I first listened to the poem. I reread the poem after that, repeatedly, making it my ‘comfort poem.’ While I was reading the poem at that young age, I had a literal visual interpretation of it that seemed logical and obvious to me: the speaker was looking down at golden flowers swaying in the wind. I believed it so strongly that I vividly imagined this, picturing the golden tendrils swaying gently in the breeze, and some shadow sitting up high on a pink cloud looking down at this dancing show. For a long time, that is how I interpreted the poem. I do not know where my interpretation changed, but it did.

I presume that it changed just after my grandmother died and I had no way of escaping the abuse and domestic violence I had to endure. I would always wish that Grandma would come softly into my room, click my door shut and take me with her on a cloud high above the bad things in my life. With the passing of years, I never saw or heard the poem again.

Now, when I heard the poem again, I was instantly six again, feeling a sense of love. I replayed the poem, wearing out the skip back button on my CD player in order to keep hold of the memory that this poem helped to bring back from the dead. I loved this rare opportunity to smell Grandma’s peach scented perfume again. I loved the chance to hear her powerful delicately articulate voice read me a poem to take away all the bad things in my life. Listening to the poem now, I soon realized that I had a different interpretation. Perhaps this interpretation came from her death when I was seven. I believe that the loss of my grandmother, physically and mentally, has helped me to make this interpretation once I reclaimed her in my memory after so long of an absence. This poem helped me regain a memory that I did not even know existed within me.

The speaker talks about how he is happy to watch “golden daffodils” dance. My grandmother was always like that, happy to see, create, and experience pure happiness. This poem, I believe, is what my grandmother sees and saw. Because of this realization about my grandmother, I no longer have the same image when I listen to the poem. I picture someone looking down on people, but not just any people, I picture someone looking down on me, and a few other people, some wealthy, some poor, some old, some young, some black, some white, some Asian, and some of everything. All of us are dancing with an airy display for our spectator, twirling and giggling as we choreograph a perfect rhythm. I no longer picture the shadow on top of the cloud as having no face or figure. It now has a form and a shape to it. It is someone I know. I picture the wrinkly old woman looking down at us softly smiling. She is comfortable on the pink cloud, basking in her glory and her peace. I am sure, if we were closer, we would smell the peach scented perfume. I picture the old woman slowly bringing her wrinkled hands together, clapping and shedding silent tears as she watches the spectacle. I would like to think that she would be smiling at this point, glad to finally have the opportunity to watch the best show in the world – the show of a host of golden daffodils tossing our heads up in a sprightly dance.


The Promised (Disney)land

By Alec Ash

Wang Zhigang flew three hours just to see Mickey Mouse. In swimming shorts and a colourful umbrella-hat sold by peddlers outside the entrance to keep the sun off, he queued in 97 degrees heat for hours to get on the best rides. All because he made a promise to his son while Shanghai Disneyland was still under construction, that they would go when it opened. Wang Zhigang is a good father.

With his eight-year-old son, Xinbiao, he flew from Bazhong in Sichuan (just another anonymous Chinese city of three million) to Pudong international airport by the Pacific ocean. He took a plastic bag into the theme park. In it were two pots of instant noodles, a cylinder of chips, three bottles of water and a pack of what I can only describe as miscellanious meat jerky in shrink wrap. In his line of work as a travel agent, he explained, he has been to many of China’s tourist destinations, from the Sichuanese nature reserve Jiuzhaigou to mountainous Zhangjiajie in Hunan. “China has famous mountain and water scenery,” he told me – a stock phrase – then seemed to doubt his own pitch. “But it’s just mountains and water. Disneyland is more experimental.”

I asked what he meant. “It’s the meeting point of Chinese and Western culture.”

We were on a Pirates of the Caribbean themed ship at Treasure Cove. Over the lake rose the spires of Enchanted Storybook Castle. Other attractions included Tron Lightcycle Power Run, Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue, Alice in Wonderland Maze and Marvel Universe. I saw the Western culture, I said. Where was the Chinese?

“Well,” he eventually responded. “It’s in China.”

Families like the Wangs are why Disney chose the mainland as the location for its newest resort park in ten years (Hong Kong already has one). The $5.5 billion site has been under construction for five years, a joint venture between Disney and the Shanghai development group Shendi, and since it opened on June 16 an influx from all over the nation has proved it a smart investment. Zhigang paid 499RMB ($75) for his peak period entrance ticket – a significant sum, which is why he was stinting on the Mickey burgers by bringing his own food in. Then again, disposable income and a rising middle class is part of the magic.

There are Chinese characteristics to the park, but they feel token. A pagoda-roofed restaurant, the ‘Wandering Moon Teahouse’, serves Shanghai-style braised pork and ‘eight treasure’ steamed rice with duck inside a lotus leaf. At ‘Garden of the Twelve Friends’, the animals of the Chinese zodiac are reconfigured as Disney characters – Pluto for dog, Kaa for snake, Abu for monkey, Tigger for … you get the gist. Yet domestic tourists aren’t there for that; they’re pulled by the soft power of Disney and the rest of the world, which Chinese society embraces all the while that its leaders assert China’s uniqueness.

For a thirty year old, I had a wonderful time in Disneyland. Mickey and his friends were stoically cheery inside furry costumes in the blistering heat. The Tron ride was amazing. We picnicked in a grassy park in Fantasyland that everyone else seemed to assume was off-limits. The light show on the enchanted castle at nightfall was everything my inner preteen hoped for. Even a three-hour queue for a ride called ‘Soaring Over the Horizon’, where our feet dangled over smellovision vistas from the Taj Mahal to the Australian outback, somehow seemed an essential part of the experience.

When the four-minute ride finished with fireworks over the Shanghai skyline, and our toes touched the ground once more, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed. Then I turned to my right, where eleven-year-old Li Jiayi from Shandong province was in conniptions. Shanghai was the furthest from home she had ventured, and she was biting her fingers in shrill excitement at the thrill of it all.

Xiasiwole!” she said. Shocked to death. “The world is so big!”