All posts by LARB Blog


More or Less Insane

By Joanna Chen

My cousin and his wife are visiting us. It’s been a long time since Steven and I played hide and seek together, growing up in London. When I moved to Israel as a teenager, the connection between us was severed, or so I thought. The few times I saw him over the years on trips to England, we hardly talked. He was a stranger, grown tall, with a gruff voice and a retiring manner. Neither of us could break through the barrier of years on those brief trips, and I don’t believe we really tried. Then last year I visited England on two occasions, and saw him both times. I laughingly told him I would put up curtains in the guest room if he came to Israel. A few days after returning home, his wife, Sue, sent me an email: We’re coming she said, the flights are booked. I was surprised that they would visit after so many years.

By email we discussed the places they would like to see on their trip: The Old City of Jerusalem; Jaffa; the Dead Sea; a number of churches. We made plans. I hung pretty chintz curtains with pink flowers in the guest room. I put matching sheets on the bed and emptied the closet of towels and linen. I wanted it to be perfect. It had been so long.

The day before their arrival, the tension began building in Israel again. There were sporadic knifings, talk of a third Intifada, rumours of a new blast of hatred. For once, I studiously blocked all this out of my mind. I wanted their visit to be a happy one. I wanted to show them that people can live side by side in peace, despite their differences. I even considered a visit to my friend in Ramallah if things calmed down. But they did not.

On the contrary, the day they arrive in Israel there is another knifing attack in the Old City as they drive to us from the airport. I stop listening to the news as their car draws up outside our house. We hug, we drink tea and eat maple syrup cake together. Sue has a thousand questions to ask about life in Israel. My partner, an historian, answers her patiently while I bustle around with the tea things. The beginning of Muriel Rukeyser’s “Poem” rings in my ears as I place a pot of tea on the kitchen table, for she sums up so perfectly how I feel:

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.

This is what I have been doing for a long time: attempting to keep my life together while everything collapses around me. I want to tell my cousin and his wife to go see everything, but I can’t. I want them safe and it doesn’t feel safe here right now. I explain to them that my life is here but I wonder if it really is. I was sent to live in Israel against my will and I have lived through two Intifadas. I have raised three children here. I have worried about them as buses explode and people are attacked. I have sheltered them while others have watched their homes razed to the ground or buried their sons and daughters. I have tiptoed around the blood and the revenge for so long. I am living on a volcano when I could be living back in England, and who knows how my life might have turned out there. My mother used to laugh when I accused her of ruining my life by bringing me here, telling me that I would never have met my partner or given birth to my beautiful children. This is true, but it is not enough to justify what I am doing here, so many years later.

I cannot explain this to my cousin, so instead I say that that there are good people, Palestinians and Jews, who long for a different life, far removed from the penetrating violence and hatred.

But we avoid politics that first afternoon. We have a lot of catching up to do. I left England suddenly, at16, sent to a boarding school in Israel after the death of my only brother, Andrew, in a traffic accident. The trauma and the abrupt move from everything I had ever known wiped my slate of childhood memories clean. I remember precious little. As we sit around the kitchen table, Steven disappears for a moment and returns with a small stack of photos. He moves the tea things to the side and lays the photos out on the table as if he’s handing out playing cards.

These family photos from my childhood stun me for a moment. I buy time, rearranging them in two neat rows with my fingertips. There are photos of us when we were children, Andrew and Steven and myself in various poses sitting in the back garden of his house in London, bundled up in sweaters and raincoats. I’ve never seen these photos before and they stir something deep within me. There’s my brother, smiling a cheeky grin, standing above my father, who is pointing at something in the distance. There are also photos I have never seen of my brother’s bar mitzvah — Andrew wearing a yarmulke, reading a speech, his head tilted to one side, and one of me at dinner wearing an embroidered waistcoat and matching skirt. Suddenly, I remember that outfit — the material was heavy and stiff and a bit scratchy on my skin. I remember running my fingers over its rough texture. Perhaps Steven holds a key to my memories. He is close to me in age, and he remembers.

On their third day, Steven and Sue go to Jerusalem. It’s raining and I rummage through the closet looking for umbrellas. It’s been a long, hot summer and it takes me a while to find the umbrellas, shoved to the back of the closet. The Google map they consult early that morning suggests that the quickest route to Jerusalem is through the tunnels that divide Israel from the West Bank. The road winds through a Palestinian village on the one side, and an ultra-orthodox Jewish town on the other side. This is a road I take regularly, to avoid the heavy traffic snaking up to Jerusalem on the main highway. But I say, No, it’s not safe for you there. We find an alternative route and they leave, umbrellas in hand.

All day, I worry about my cousin and his wife. While they are in the Old City, there’s another stabbing, and they are told by patrolling policemen to avoid the Muslim areas. Instead, they go to the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Sue is Christian and she lights a candle in the church and prays. I would have lit one too if I had been there. Later, I don’t ask her what she prayed for. I think I know.

We join them early evening in the open-air market of Mahaneh Yehuda for dinner. I am terrified something will happen; I feel protective, responsible. The market is crowded with people on their way home from work, haggling for vegetables and fruit that gleam under bare light bulbs. Nothing happens, we eat dinner and then buy a few spices, crimson sumac and lemony za’atar, from one of the few stalls still open. The night sky deepens and I breathe a sigh of relief as we reach home.

We spend a morning walking the gentle hills near our home. It’s late morning. The ground is dotted with bushes of wild oregano. Carob trees grow on one side of the path and pale fields stretch out further than we can see. A lone gazelle appears on one of the higher slopes, and the dog shoots off, barking and wagging her tail. We visit the nearby church, Bet Jamal, and the nun who welcomes us at the church gate tells Sue that she will be back to visit again.

The next day, we drive down to Masada together. We get a late start, and the sun is already shining fiercely as we begin the ascent, armed with bottles of water and hats. The fortress, constructed by the Judean King Herod, was the last stand of the Jewish revolt during the Roman Empire. Today, it’s a protected site of UNESCO and a symbol of Zionism to Jews. For me, it’s simply a physical challenge. I twisted my ankle a few weeks before, and it throbs unpleasantly as I climb the steep incline. But I’m stubborn and we make it to the top, my partner and cousin pulling me up the last few steps. At the top, hordes of tourists with selfie sticks and iPhones are snapping photos and posing in front of the ruins. It feels like business as usual up here.

I watch the ravens circling the cable car station. I think of the Jewish zealots, here at the top of the mountain all those years ago, looking down at the drop below, willing to kill for their beliefs, willing to hurl themselves off the top rather than fall in the hands of the Romans. I think of Palestinians and Jews today. They are desperate, and the fanatics among them are willing to give their lives here, and to take the lives of others. I think about what’s happening down below in this country I live in and I shiver, despite the immense heat. I blink in the bright sunlight and return to Rukeyser’s words:

As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves.

After that, we climb back into the car and make our way to the Dead Sea, twinkling brightly along the receding coast. My daughter is worried about the sink holes and asks what it must be like when such a hole opens out like a gigantic mouth. It’s like the end of the world, I say, and then stop myself. We’re on vacation today and I turn the music up a notch.

We park the car and make our way down to the Dead Sea, each of us carrying a towel. By now, it’s late afternoon. We step together into the shallow sea, taking care not to slip on the mud, then lie back and let the waters lull us. We float for a while. The memories Steven has shared with me surface in my mind, and I long for more. Later, I sit in a deck chair and listen to the laughter around me as people from all over the world cover themselves with mud, and then lean back into the warm, oily water. It’s a rare sound, this laughter, ringing out over the water. We stay a couple of hours and then leave, as the day cools down and dusk falls.


In Praise of Chinese Gossip Rags

By Austin Dean

I really like reading Chinese gossip magazines. That is something few foreigners in China do, and even fewer admit to. Inspired by Liz Carter’s recent post about reading Chinese online forums and the importance of moving beyond “a diet of the classics,” I’ve decided to come clean.

When in China, I make regular trips to the local newsstand to buy an odd mix of publications: serious newspapers like Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo) and The Economic Observer (Jingji guanchabao) as well as the Chinese equivalent to US magazine. As one guy at a newsstand remarked as he looked at my haul of reading material, “you have strange tastes.”

But it is reading with a purpose. At least, that’s my rationalization.

The chief benefit of reading Chinese gossip magazines is that it gives me a lot to talk about. Conversations with Chinese colleagues and acquaintances in big Chinese cities like Beijing or Shanghai tend to cycle back to the same themes: traffic, pollution, and real estate prices. That’s even more the case when your job is researching, writing, and teaching about Chinese history. When I reveal that information to a new acquaintance in China, the response I’m likely to get is along the lines of “China has 5,000 years of history….” When James Fallows, journalist for The Atlantic, was based in China and heard that phrase, he wondered, “Where is that auto-text key?” It’s an automatic response, and from that point forward, the conversation is unlikely to go in an interesting direction. I find that’s a good time to ask if my interlocutor is watching a current television show or has seen a new movie.

It also opens up an avenue for the unexpected, and it’s a way to build my street cred. These days a lot of foreigners have pretty good Chinese, but when I reveal that I can discuss actress Yao Chen’s divorce (her husband cheated); the seemingly endless shenanigans and feuds of Wang Sicong, son of the richest man in China; and the current crop of reality television shows, it sets me apart. Very few Chinese people expect to have in-depth discussions with foreigners about the parenting techniques of different fathers on the reality television show Dad! Where Are We Going? (For the record, in season three of the show I think boxer Zou Shiming is the best dad).

Of course, I faced an initial problem when I first started reading these magazines — I didn’t know who anyone was. The diet of Chinese gossip rags must be complemented with a committed course of television- and movie-watching. Embracing the “low-brow” is actually a great way to get to a high level of Chinese.

Reading these gossip rags and watching reality television shows also makes it harder to dismiss Chinese entertainment offerings. It is easy — and common — to do this: Chinese television series aren’t as good as Korean dramas, Chinese movies don’t do well overseas, everything always returns to the same topics of the war against Japan and conflict between a mother-in-law and a wife. All that may be true, but millions of people still enjoy it. We should take it seriously (but not too seriously).

At the most cynical level, an acquaintance with Chinese gossip magazines actually makes you quite skeptical of most attempts at “Pekingology” — trying to pin down what leaders in China think and do, and why they do it. Is person X out to get person Y? Do person A and person B get along? Did person C and person D have a feud? What is the exact relationship between person E and person F? Is person G the patron of person H? It doesn’t matter whether you fill in the blanks with the names of movie stars or Chinese Communist Party officials; they make sense either way. The similarities are even more evident with the recent corruption crackdown: the fall of an actor’s reputation and the end of a party official’s career always seem to come back to money and sex.

At a more sinister level, both gossip and Pekingology are liable to analytic pitfalls, chief of which is allowing preconceived notions and opinions to color new information. No, I thought, Yao Chen’s husband could not have cheated on her because I liked the one series he was in and during interviews he seemed like a good guy. But he did. Likewise, it looks like Chinese premier Li Keqiang is being frozen out of power and might even be replaced in 2017. New pieces of information tend to feed into this narrative. Seldom is the opposite question asked: What are the strengths of his position? Gossip and Pekingology suffer from a similar narrative fallacy: connecting disparate facts to form a coherent narrative when perhaps the points are unrelated.

My goal here is not to equate Pekingology with celebrity gossip, but only to point out they are more similar than they seem on the surface.

So, if you’re in China, don’t be afraid to pick up a gossip rag or two. Gossip, counterintuitively, is rather serious business.


The Sum of Our Fears

By Stephen Dau

Abdul and his cousin, Raheem, sit in a bar in the Gare du Nord in Brussels, sipping tea and watching on wall-mounted televisions the ongoing, never-ending, ever-expanding coverage of last week’s shootings in Paris, in which gunmen and suicide bombers killed one hundred and twenty nine innocent people as they dined or watched a rock band or strolled down the street. This morning the police surrounded a building in St. Denis, north of Paris, and a televised gun battle has been raging for hours.

Abdul and Raheem are from Aleppo, in Syria, a city accustomed to gun battles, which has been largely destroyed during the civil war there. They won’t talk much about Syria, but they will say that they made it to Turkey early in the war, and worked there for years as laborers to earn enough money to pay smugglers to get them from Turkey to Greece, then onward, joining a stream of migrants heading to Northern Europe. They were lucky when they arrived in Brussels, and spent only two nights outside in a tent before being registered and admitted to a shelter run by the Red Cross.

Somewhere outside the train station a jackhammer starts up, and they both startle at the sound of it. After Paris, while much of the world stares at screens with some vague, hypothetical fear of gunmen storming wherever they’re “sheltering in place,” Abdul and Raheem are possessed of the much more palpable fear of the xenophobic backlash everyone seems to know is coming.

“Europe doesn’t want us,” says Abdul. “Not now. They say one of (the gunmen) had a Syrian passport, came through Greece. It is a betrayal. I cannot believe it. Someone who made that journey with us, who suffered what we did, and now he has betrayed all of us.” He nods his head toward the television. “America doesn’t want us, and these assholes want to kill us. We are fucked. Truly.”

Raheem says something in Arabic, and Abdul nods and translates.

“The guy who organized this, he is not from Syria,” he says. He points out the front of the train station. “He is from right over there.”

The “over there” he is pointing toward is Molenbeek, a neighborhood only a thousand meters away, across the canal that runs down the western side of Brussel’s city center. Because several of the Paris attackers lived in or spent time there, Molenbeek has suddenly been in the news a lot. The Washington Post called it a “Jihadi Hotspot.” Politico called it “Europe’s Terror Capital.” The New York Times called it “The Islamic State’s rear base.” In a bald-faced moment of open incitement, French journalist Eric Zemmour said, “Instead of sending our planes to Syria, we should bomb Molenbeek.”

But even a short walk around Molenbeek reveals these words, like so many words being used in the news these days, to be hyperbole. While there are rough patches of chipped plaster and unpainted windowsills, much of the neighborhood is quite pleasant, with tree-lined streets and impressive architecture and an abundance of public parks. Molenbeek, it turns out, is simply not that bad. The rate of violent crime in Molenbeek, while high by European standards, is still far below the averages of most major American cities. Pedestrians walking the sidewalks are composed of a wide range of ethnicities, with Africans and Asians and Caucasians in equal measure to the Moroccans and Algerians and Egyptians. There are halal butchers and Stella Artois bars. There are hookah joints and discotheques. There are girls wearing hijabs and girls wearing short skirts, and a few wearing both. What Molenbeek is, it readily becomes apparent, is a neighborhood of immigrants. It is a neighborhood possessed of varying degrees of acceptance and rejection of the local culture, various levels of assimilation. In this way, it is like any immigrant neighborhood in the world, any city’s Chinatown or Little Italy. It’s no wonder they hid out here, plotted here. They probably just felt comfortable.

If, as many of the media outlets seem to be saying, Molenbeek produces terrorists, it produces them only in the same way that South Boston produced Whitey Bulgar, or Little Five Points produced Al Capone. The difference is that rather than criminal enterprises bent on enrichment, this is a gang of jihadis that has subsumed religion in its nihilistic drive to impose sharia law on the world. It’s a religious mafia. But the dynamics are the same: the drive to escape poverty and humiliation; the local intimidation; and, occasionally, the admiration.

“I’m going to clean up Molenbeek,” said Belgium’s interior minister Jan Jambon the day after the Paris massacre, as if “cleaning up” Molenbeek would solve everything. As if Molenbeek was the problem. Molenbeek has become a kind of shorthand for what you do when you can’t do anything else.

This evening, in Molenbeek’s main town square, the Place Communal, about two thousand residents are trying to do something else. They have gathered for a peace vigil in response to the Paris attacks. The neighborhood’s name has been chalked onto the cobblestones, the “O” drawn as a peace sign, and the square is illuminated by hundreds of candles. At one point in the evening, Mohamed Abdeslam, the brother of two of the Paris attackers, steps onto his balcony, which overlooks the square, and places a row of lit candles in support of the rally.

One of the people gathered in the square below is Kareem, the son of immigrants from Morocco, who, like most residents, is not pleased with the neighborhood’s reputation.

“It’s like now we’re dirty, or something,” he says, switching fluidly back and forth between French and English. “Like we must be cleaned. And I say, if you want to clean us with good schools and jobs, go ahead. We need it. But if you want to clean us like garbage from your drains? Don’t be so insulting. Nor so blind.”

As for the militants who carried out the attacks in Paris?

“They are idiots,” says Kareem. “They come from nothing and they have nothing and they just want to be famous. You have the same thing in the United States, non? Idiots who get hold of guns and kill a lot of people.”

There’s something perversely comforting in thinking about it this way, something familiar, imagining Dylan Klebold supplied with money from pilfered oil and looted antiquities, imagining Seung-Hui Cho as the suicidal emissary of a rogue state. But this is what terrorism does: it forces you to search for comforting parallels, dares you not to throw your hands in the air and say, “We’re all fucked.”

“They think they can get famous by killing people in the name of Islam,” says Kareem. “They think they can force us to fight each other.” He looks around at the square, at the people gathered there, at the candles and the displays of solidarity and commiseration and grief.

“Look at all of this,” he says, shaking his head. “I am not sure. But I do not think that they are right.”


An “Epic Recipe Fail”: Thanksgiving Grapegate in The New York Times

By Jon Wiener

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving last year, The New York Times ran a special food section they called “The United States of Thanksgiving.” “We’ve scoured the nation for recipes that evoke each of the 50 states,” they said. “These are our picks.” I’m from Minnesota, and I was sure they would report that the state’s indispensable Thanksgiving dish was wild rice casserole. But instead, for Minnesota they picked “Grape Salad”: grapes in sour cream with brown sugar on top, heated under the broiler. I had never heard of it.

I emailed friends and relatives in Minnesota, and they had never heard of it either. So I wrote to the Public Editor of The New York Times, who’s in charge of investigating complaints of errors and unfairness and “matters of journalistic integrity.” I cc-ed food editor Sam Sifton, who replied promptly: “Actually, Mr. Wiener, that recipe is from David Tanis [who writes the City Kitchen column for the paper]. And he doesn’t call it traditional. He calls it old-fashioned. Happy Thanksgiving! Sam.”

I pointed out to Sam that, while David Tanis had been a famous chef at Chez Panisse, that’s in Berkeley, not Bemidji.

It quickly became clear that I wasn’t the only Minnesotan complaining. The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a piece quoting a string of tweets: “My favorite part of the holiday is pruning my family grape tree for our traditional grape hot dish.” “Traditional Minnesota condiments. Salt, Pepper, and Grapes.” One featured a great non-quote: “‘I can’t wait to have Grandma’s Grape Salad at Thanksgiving!!’-said no one from Minnesota. Ever.”

Tanis himself responded on Facebook that he got the recipe from a friend who was a “Minnesota-born heiress.” Readers weren’t convinced; one said that made for two things Minnesota didn’t have — grape salad, and heiresses.

Soon there was a hashtag: #Grapegate. A thousand people posted comments on The New York Times Facebook page. Many of them wondered why wild rice casserole had been overlooked.

Finally The New York Times Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, published her report on Grapegate. She quoted one reader who wrote, “Dear New York Times, What the hell is ‘grape salad’? Signed, All of Minnesota.” Sullivan concluded that the choice for Minnesota was “bizarrely wrong.” She called it an “epic recipe fail.”

The Public Editor also checked with Food Editor Sam Sifton. He admitted that the recipe was “out of fashion” in Minnesota, but said the dish was “delicious,” and concluded, “I hope a lot of people try it.” He seemed pretty good-natured about the whole fiasco.

The next day the Public Editor published a Grapegate update, quoting Julia Moskin, a reporter with the Times’s Food section. She sounded bitter. “We worked hard […] to generate a mix of 52 recipes that would not be cliched, repetitive, unhealthy, or unappetizing,” she said. “It is frustrating to have the project so thoroughly misunderstood.” It’s not hard to understand her unhappiness — didn’t any one care about the other 51 recipes that had no problems?

We all thought that was the end of Grapegate. But then the Pioneer Press discovered that the historic Lowell Inn in Stillwater had had an item on their menu since 1960 called Grapes Devonshire. It was part of a prix fixe fondue dinner that started with cheese fondue, then a fondue pot with beef, duck, and shrimp, and finally fresh red grapes in sweetened Devonshire cream with mint and brown sugar. (If you didn’t want the Grapes Devonshire, you could get chocolate fondue instead — it came with marshmallows and pound cake.)

The special dinner was on the menu every Friday and Saturday night. It cost $38 per person, and reservations were required. Barb Cook, who had worked at the Lowell Inn for 50 years, told the paper that Grapes Devonshire was “very, very plain. It tastes good,” she said, “but any kind of fruit mixed with sour cream and brown sugar tastes good.”

Also, Grapes Devonshire was a dessert, she pointed out, not a salad. But at least one restaurant in Minnesota served a sort of “grape salad,” so you could say The New York Times had not been totally wrong.

On Thanksgiving Day The New York Times Food section ran another big 50-state recipe piece. For this one, they reported on Google searches for Thanksgiving recipes that were the “most distinct” for each state. Minnesota’s top search result was “wild rice casserole.” An accurate news report about the state’s indispensable Thanksgiving dish: that was something to be grateful for at dinner that night.

Umrbella 1 yr on HK

Hong Kong Revisited

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When I visited Hong Kong earlier this month, I did some of the same things I had done six and a half years earlier during a similar short stopover. In March 2009, as in November 2015, I arrived midway through the local literary festival, which used to be held in the spring and now is held in the fall. Then, too, I took part in several different festival panels, one of which was devoted to trends in media; spent a lot of time at the Fringe club, one of the festival’s main venues; and did an interview with a reporter from RTHK, a local radio station, on a subject I had spoken about at a festival event. This way of repeating history led me to reflect on another visit to Hong Kong in November 2014. The literary festival had been underway then as well, but that was not why I was in town. I had come to see firsthand the Umbrella Movement, whose dramatic rise I had been following closely due both to my longtime professional interest in the history of protests, and the fact that I had found the ideals and symbols of the struggle so inspiring. Whether famous writers were in town seemed irrelevant to me then; what was happening in the streets was bound to be more significant.

My most recent trip began on the exact same day, November 5, and in the same way as the one from the year before. I arrived at the Hong Kong airport late, grabbed a quick dinner, and went sleep to prepare for a full slate of activities the following day. This time my first full day in Hong Kong started with a morning cab ride through the city’s crowded Central District en route to meet up with colleagues at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which is beautifully situated across the harbor on a hillside overlooking Clearwater Bay. I looked out the cab window towards the colorful visuals of the passing street: the typical billboards touting products of every variety.

On the morning of November 6, 2014, by contrast, I had walked rather than driven through downtown Hong Kong, for the freeways were still part of a pedestrians-only “Occupy” zone: dotted with tents, featuring a community garden, a people’s library, and a special study area for student activists determined to keep up with classwork while they fought to expand democracy in Hong Kong. As I walked through the Central District I came arcross one-of-a-kind protest posters. Some of these expressed fervent hopes for Hong Kong’s future; some attacked the local Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, for failing to take seriously his constituent’s interests; some chided Beijing’s leaders for being unwilling to let the city truly go its own way for the promised 50 years following the handover; and some simply expressed solidarity with the Umbrella Movement’s goals in languages ranging from Spanish to Welsh to Esperanto. The sight that captivated me most was the ersatz “Lennon Wall” (a name borrowed from a Prague display area but given local twists), made up of a kaleidoscopic array of pastel colored Post-It notes covered with slogans, wishes, and brief personal testimonies.

I’m not sure what I will remember most vividly about my 2014 trip as time goes on (click here for my more in-depth essay about the trip, “Hong Kong Visions,” published in the main pages of the Los Angeles Review of Books); it might be seeing the Lennon Wall up close instead of just online, or the conversations I had with protesters among the tent-dwellers of the Central District occupy zone, and then later the temporary residents of the related but quite different occupy zone across the harbor in the Mongkok neighborhood of Kowloon.

I do know, by contrast, the one thing I will remember longest about my recent Hong Kong trip: the festival talk I gave on “The Umbrella Movement: One Year On” (click here for my interview following the talk, which summarizes its main points). The intensity of the crowd’s interest was palpable — behind and informing all the questions and comments I received, including ones that challenged rather than supported my assertions, I sensed a genuine desire to think through the topic profoundly, and in a way that mattered.

To give a talk on protests in a room not far from the scene of history-making rallies and demonstrations, to a crowd containing many who had participated in the events and some journalists and scholars whose insightful writings on the protests I had read and learned from, was a unique experience. As someone who has spent much of his career speaking and writing about the Chinese protests wave that preceded the June 4th Massacre of 1989, I have sometimes daydreamed about doing a similar sort of public event in a mainland city. At least for now, that’s something I can still only daydream about doing in Shanghai or Beijing. And while there are many reasons to be deeply worried about Hong Kong’s future, it is important to remember that, at least for now, a public lecture focusing on protest and featuring a large group of citizens thinking together about their city, their politics, and their future, is still possible in that very special city.


The Return of a Political Anecdote: Ten Jokes About Vladimir Putin’s Russia

This is the first of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference.

By Nina Khrushcheva

All oppressed societies express themselves through street humor. In the Soviet Union, jokes about General Secretaries of the Communist Party—Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, etc.—were whispered in the kitchen. In fact, evenings around the table would be dedicated to thrashing the authorities through humor. Satire enabled people to overcome their fear of the controlling government. “If we can make fun of the Kremlin, the Kremlin doesn’t have power over us,” they reasoned. It is a well-known societal phenomenon: when accessible political space shrinks, unofficial social space expands. After the collapse of communism and Russia’s attempts to become democratic, political anecdotes almost disappeared as part of the country’s cultural life. But under President Vladimir Putin, political humor has been back with a vengeance.

  1. Russia’s biggest HR problem is that Vladimir Putin gives management jobs to his most loyal associates, but then expects them to act with intelligence and competence.
  2. While visiting Crimea recently, Putin threatened Ukraine with a shared Russian future.
  3. Putin finished his dinner, wiped his lips with a crisp linen napkin, and ordered, “Burn the rest.”
  4. I lived during Brezhnev, during Gorbachev and during Yeltsin. Putin is the only leader for whom I have been asked to eat less.
  5. The West shouldn’t have worried that Putin would bring back the USSR; at the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit it turned out that he has been rebuilding Genghis Khan’s 12th century empire.
  6. At the business forum in Saint Petersburg Putin called on investors to invest in Russian businesses.

–And how is a Russian business different from a regular business?

–It’s the same reason why Russian roulette and regular roulette are different.

  1. The Kremlin warned that if the West further expands the sanctions, it will further increase Putin’s ratings.
  2. When you are Putin, your Russia is flourishing.
  3. The Russian Society of the Blind announced that they see no alternative to Putin.
  4. The West—although angry, hypocritical, cunning and hateful of Russia—must have a kind soul; otherwise why would all of our political functionaries and apparatchiks keep their children abroad?


Nina Khrushcheva is Professor of International Affairs and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs of Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at New School University in New York.  She is the author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics (Yale UP, 2008) and The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey Into the Gulag of the Russian Mind (Tate, 2014). She will participate in the  panel “Freedom of Expression in Repressive Conditions.”


The Poetry Scene in China: A Q&A with Poet and Translator Eleanor Goodman

By Austin Dean

Eleanor Goodman is an acclaimed translator who recently completed a stint as Artist in Residence at M on The Bund in Shanghai. Before that, she was a Fulbright Scholar in Beijing and a recipient of a Henry Luce Translation Fellowship. Her first book of poetry,
Nine Dragon Island, will be published by Zephyr Press later this year. As her time in Shanghai recently came to a close, I asked her to reflect on the current state of the poetry scene in China. After reading this Q&A on the Chinese poetry today, you might want to look back to the recent post on Ezra Pound and China.

AUSTIN DEAN: What are the differences between the literary scenes in Beijing and Shanghai? Or, are they actually quite similar? 

ELLEN GOODMAN: People ask me this question a lot, including my Chinese friends. I think the difference in the scenes is subtle but real. First and foremost, the Beijing scene is very large. Beijing is an enormous city with more universities than anywhere else in China. Poets tend to congregate around universities for the same reason they do in the US: it’s one of the few places they can make a living (at least in part) via their writing. But of course, there are plenty of poets outside of academia as well, and as Beijing is still a center of art and culture, they tend to migrate there.

The Shanghai scene is smaller. Everyone knows everyone else, even if they mutually disapprove of each other’s writing. The scene in Shanghai also tends to skew younger, in my experience. There are more established poets in Beijing, while Shanghai is dominated by some young but prominent poets born in the 1970s and 1980s. It gives a very different flavor to the parties, at least. 

What was the most surprising or unexpected thing you learned about the literary community in Shanghai during your stay? 

I suppose by now I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but I’m always struck by how completely disconnected the expat literary scene is from the Chinese one. There is virtually no interaction between the two. The English-language events are attended almost exclusively by expats, with exceptions of course, and the Chinese-language events are attended by Chinese audiences. Obviously, language plays a role here, but I think it goes deeper than that. There’s a social element too. In my experience, and that’s certainly limited, the expat/Chinese social scenes are highly segregated as well, so it goes well beyond the literary world. I almost never see other foreigners in my Chinese social and professional circles. I could speculate all day about why that is, but I certainly have no definitive explanations.

On a similar theme to the first question, do you see work from younger and older poets dealing with very different themes or is there actually a lot of overlap? What about differences between male and female writers? 

Poets across the world tend to be occupied with similar things: love, wonder, nature, human experience, language itself. I don’t see a huge difference there. But I do see a rather large difference in how these themes are dealt with. The poets born before, say, 1970 experienced the Cultural Revolution. They had very limited educational opportunities. Many of them are essentially self-taught. Poets born in the late 1970s on tend to be college graduates, many of them from very prestigious institutions. They have read widely — not just poetry, but philosophy, Western theory, history, and so on. They’re savvy, and they view writing as something to study in and of itself, much in the way the West has been totally consumed by the MFA fever. So I see a pretty clear distinction in term of style and approach. I hesitate to go so far as to say that the younger poets are more sophisticated. No one could be more well read and complex than Zang Di, who was born in the 1960s. But member of the younger generation wear their erudition lightly; they take it for granted. That’s not true at all for the older cohort.

To what extent is being a poet a full-time job in China or do you see people doing a lot of other things to support their poetry? If the latter, what kinds of things to they do? Have you met any T.S. Eliot style figures — clerks at the Bank of China by day, poets by night?  

You can certainly make poetry a fulltime gig, but you’ll starve pretty quickly. Aside from the guanfang (official) poets, who are part of the Writer’s Association and are paid by the government to write — and because of that are generally not taken seriously, with the exception of the prominent poet Lan Lan and perhaps a few others — everyone has to have a day job. As I said, many choose academia, although academics here are paid a pittance compared to their Western counterparts. Otherwise, poets are everywhere. I personally have translated poetry by people who make a living as a pilot, philosophy grad student, editor, entrepreneur, real estate mogul, high school teacher, lawyer, Foxconn factory worker, coal miner, doctor, legal translator, and the list goes on and on. They represent a cross-section of society, if you as a reader are willing to seek them out.

What aspects of the lives and works of Chinese poets and writers are under-reported or under-acknowledged in English-language writing on China? In other words, what types of question should we be asking that we aren’t currently thinking about? 

This is a wonderful question because it assumes that there are aspects that are widely reported and acknowledged. I would say the American reading public lacks virtually any exposure to or understanding of the contemporary poetry scene in China. Part of this is the paucity of translations (let alone of quality translations), and part of this is a lack of interest. Compared to Chinese readers, American readers tend to be incredibly narrow in their choices. We don’t like to read literature in translation, we aren’t curious about other literary scenes, and we’d rather just be fed something sweet and simple than work to extract something from a foreign text. This is all a vast over-generalization, but I think it holds true writ large. If you go into a Chinese bookstore, perhaps a quarter of the shelf space will be taken up by translated books, many if not most of them recently translated into Chinese and prominently displayed. If you walk into an American bookstore (does anyone still do that?), you’re unlikely to find anything similar.

That said, if I step off my hobbyhorse for a moment, I wish more people understood that Chinese poetry has progressed past the Tang Dynasty. There’s some incredibly sophisticated, avant-garde, topical writing going on in China right now that bears little resemblance to the distant mountain-and-river scenes of Li Bai and Wang Wei. My goal in translating is to bring some tiny percentage of those rich materials to the English-speaking world.


The Noodling Narratives of Our Lives

By Liz Carter

Several years ago, though I can’t remember when exactly, my Chinese language learning took a turn for the serious. I went from barely reading anything regularly — skimming a few pages of a novel or reading a few news articles, taking breaks to look up unfamiliar characters — to reading voraciously, sometimes for hours at a time. I was learning new characters left and right, and even my conversational Chinese was improving.

I owed it all to people complaining about their lives on the internet.

The complaints I read were mostly on SMTH BBS, a forum run out of China’s prestigious Tsinghua University and one of the oldest such online spaces in the country. There are various corners of the site set aside for discussion about online shopping, the stock market, studying abroad, and — of course — interpersonal drama. People post all day long about their problems, their dreams, and their frustrations, while others chime in to offer advice and comfort, sarcasm and snark. A friend of mine who scours the web for online shopping deals first pitched the site to me as a place where people shared e-commerce tips and tricks. I came for the Taobao sales, but stayed for the good old-fashioned gossip.

The beauty of studying Chinese in such a way is that you’re simultaneously learning about people. The “Family Life” subforum often shines a light on how people deal with their problems, and no stone is too mundane to be left unturned. Take, for instance, one 79-character complaint from earlier this month about a bowl of noodles. The original poster wrote that she was upset her mother-in-law hadn’t cooked a nicer dinner when she and her husband arrived in town.

Even with the picture of the noodles in question attached, this complaint could have fit into a tweet. But it triggered a 1,438-post debate in that thread alone about entitlement, love, self-awareness, and regional traditions. (It’s customary in parts of Shandong province to serve family members dumplings before they leave on a trip and noodles when they return home.) In the end, analysis from all angles often reveals to the original poster a truth found in the best literature: we are all the unreliable narrators of our own lives.

Lurk long enough on forums like these, and you’re bound to learn a little more about humor as well. Much of it is quite similar to quibbling on English-language sites, though no less pleasing: “What does everyone worry about at 35?” one thread asked recently. “We’ll I’m not even 30,” another user replied. “I didn’t ask about your IQ,” the original poster retorted sharply. But some of it is downright educational. Even the slang used tells you more about social realities than most news articles. Posters often lament their status as diqing, “underground youth” who can only afford subterranean rents, or sanwunan, “three-no men” possessed of no house, no car, and no money. The matchmaking board is vicious toward men deemed to have zhinan’ai, or “straight-man cancer” — symptoms include a sense of entitlement, a lack of self-awareness, and incredibly high standards for potential mates. These men lash back at the perceived pickiness of women by saying they have gongzhubing, or “princess-itis.”

And then there is the unexpected literature. Browsing a subforum dedicated to matchmaking earlier this year, I stumbled across what seemed to be a prosaic request for love advice: “Let’s say you have a boyfriend, and you’ve been together for five years,” it began. “You’re well-matched and love each other. This guy is healthy, decent-looking, reliable, and hard working. You’re getting to be that age where you talk about marriage, and both of your parents are on board.”

This forum is rife with such posts. You’re expecting, “Should I marry him, even though I prefer spicy food and he can’t stomach anything hotter than wet toast?” or “Do you think we should get married first and then buy an apartment, or wait until we’ve got the apartment before we tie the knot?” Instead: “One day, your boyfriend suddenly begins to feel funny. You go with him to the hospital to get X-rays done. Under the light of the X-ray, your boyfriend’s flesh suddenly undergoes a dramatic transformation, and in the blink of an eye he becomes a 6-foot-tall giant worm before your eyes.”

Ultimately, the post asks, do you marry your worm-boyfriend? Yes, he’s a worm, but he still loves you — and he’s been offered a well-compensated position at a museum of natural history.

I’m not advocating the abandonment of traditional reading habits, just arguing that a diet of classics alone is not enough. Too often, we assume that the pleasurable and productive are mutually exclusive — but in my own experience, lurking on message boards has been an education in its own right. And perhaps, if I’m being honest, it’s not just about getting a well-rounded education or increased language proficiency. Perhaps, like the boyfriend-turned-worm of the aforementioned debate, I find myself strangely transformed through these encounters with the mundane, the sublime, and above all, the unexpected. And perhaps even more strangely, I like it.

Let 100 Voices Speak cover

Let 100 Voices Speak: A Q&A with Author Liz Carter

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Today’s Q&A introduces LARB readers to the China Blog’s newest contributor, Liz Carter. Carter is author of the recently published book Let 100 Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything, and co-author of The Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon: Classic Netizen Language. Based in Washington, D.C., Carter works as a translator and writer, and also tweets prolifically (@withoutdoing), sharing fun Chinese language tidbits and phrases that aren’t always taught in class. We’re pleased to welcome her to the China Blog team. Look for Carter’s first post next week.

MAURA ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM: First, can you tell China Blog readers how you got interested in China, and a bit about your background as a translator and writer?

LIZ CARTER: It’s a pretty mundane story! I began studying Chinese during my first year of college and really enjoyed it. My interest in China and Chinese just snowballed — the more I studied, the more I wanted to study. After I graduated, I moved to Beijing and found jobs to support myself while I continued to work on my Chinese. Translation, I learned by doing — there’s a lot more to it than just language proficiency, and that’s something I had to learn on the job. As for writing, I started writing for Tea Leaf Nation as a hobby and that snowballed as well. I credit my experience with National Novel Writing Month for training me not to let perfect be the enemy of good, and I’ve learned a lot from my editors at TLN and IB Tauris.

Your book discusses the evolution of social media in China over the past decade or so. What do you consider two or three landmark events that really changed the social media landscape there?

I think the rise and fall of various platforms, as well as the intermittent government crackdowns, have had the greatest effect. The blocking of Twitter, Google, YouTube, and Facebook definitely restricted the social media sphere, while the subsequent rise of China’s own Sina Weibo marked a period of really open discussion, debate and criticism. Finally, the crackdown on social media that began in 2013, which coincided with a rise in mobile internet use and the increasing popularity of WeChat, changed the way people use the internet and restricted the space for free expression.

I’ve noticed over the past two years that Weixin, or WeChat, has become the de facto form of communication in China — lots of people really don’t even email or text anymore, but do everything through WeChat. Why do you think WeChat has taken off the way it did? And is it here to stay?

In this age, I don’t think anything is really here to stay, and that goes double for China’s internet sector. Assuming it doesn’t piss off the Chinese government, though, I think it’s here to stay for a while. I think the app became popular because it can replace a number of apps at once — it offers a Facebook-like status feature, free texting and voice messaging, and even the ability to transfer money. As long as you don’t care whether your communications are being monitored, it’s a great app. That said, it’s not really a replacement for Weibo, because it’s built on private networks, not public discussion.

You discuss in your book the crackdown on Weibo that took place in 2013, which sucked a lot of energy out of this once-vibrant discussion space. What’s the Weibo landscape now? Is it still a place where people virtually congregate and talk about things, or has it gone the way of MySpace and Friendster?

Weibo is fairly depressing these days — a lot of the top trending posts are just gifs from reddit, soft advertisements for boy bands, and celebrity selfies. Occasionally something will surface, but it’s not even a shadow of what it was back in 2011 or 2012. It’s possible that Weibo will resurrect itself, especially if the government scales back censorship, but equally possible that it will just fade away.

And finally, what types of posts can China Blog readers look forward to from you in the future? What are some areas that you plan to write about?

LC: My favorite rabbit holes are online slang, internet literature, pop culture and science fiction. Lately I’ve been researching the history of English-language television fandom in China and watching Nirvana in Fire, a Chinese period drama based on a popular internet novel — I will probably write about both of those in the near future. And I look forward to reading and reviewing interesting books about developments in Chinese fiction and social media — I’m always open to suggestions!


The Holdouts

By Stephen Dau

The refugee camp in the center of Brussels is nearly gone. The police have formed a cordon and are making preparations to clear it by force, should that prove necessary. They have erected a six-foot-tall wire fence around the entire park and are inviting the fifty or so people left inside the fence to leave. Outside the fence, a small crowd has gathered to watch the proceedings. From there, everyone can see how this is going to go. It’s almost over.

Inside the fence is a group of several dozen people who are called different things by different people, the words used saying as much about the categorizers as the categorized. They are homeless people, the at-risk, the sans-abri in French. They are the undocumented, the wrong-documented, the illegal immigrants, the aliens, the étrangers en situation irrégulière, the clandestin. They are the sans-papier. They have come to the park, and stayed in the park, to protest their situation, to demand regularization. Naturalization. Legalization. Amnesty. They have been present in the park from the beginning, and are vowing not to leave. The police are there to make sure they do.

In truth, the situation in the park had become untenable weeks ago. The onset of the Belgian rains had sparked an increase in the number of bronchial infections being treated in the Médecins du Monde facility. Rats had been spotted raiding the kitchen. The sans-papier had taken over a large area in the center of the camp. Prostitutes had begun strolling its fringes. There were at least two reports of rape.

Early last week, the Plateforme Citoyenne, the Facebook-organized group of volunteers which had set up the camp and had been running it since its inception, suddenly declared they were leaving. In a statement, the group said that it no longer wished to act as an “alibi for government inaction.” The statement said that nearby warehouse space had been acquired, into which the Plateforme’s operations were being moved.

The Plateforme had originally been created with a flat organizational structure that encouraged broad citizen participation. But over time it had become increasingly hierarchical, as a core group of volunteers spent vastly more time on the ground in the park and therefore commanded greater sway over the group’s actions. The decision to abandon the camp was made by a tiny clutch of insiders. Their announcement sparked an immediate backlash that threatened to split the group, with many volunteers declaring their intention to stay. It seemed to them as if the Plateforme was trying to become a real NGO, with office space and facilities and a distinct corporate culture, like Google for refugees. They smelled a sellout.

It had been obvious for some time that the city was planning to clear the camp, and may have given the Plateforme an ultimatum. Some even suspected that the warehouse space had been a quid-pro-quo in return for abandoning the park. The Plateforme, for its part, seemed eager to assure everyone that it was not giving up the fight, merely moving to better quarters. All this week a large whiteboard sat outside the administrative tent, reading, in French, Dutch, English and Arabic, “We don’t give up! We move…”

The effort to reduce the camp’s population began almost as soon as the camp itself began. From the start, as many women and children as could be accommodated were taken from the camp and housed in shelters, many run by Caritas, a Catholic relief charity. Additionally, five hundred beds were opened in a nearby office building, this number gradually increasing to about seven hundred and fifty and facilities added: showers, food. Together with the onset of the weather, these efforts gradually reduced the camp’s population from a high of over a thousand to about two hundred and fifty by early last week.

Beyond the health and safety concerns, there were security concerns. Access to the camp in the park was entirely unregulated, allowing anyone and everyone to come and go with ease. But to get into one of the shelters, you needed a paper given out by the Office for Foreigners when you registered there. This ensured that only “legitimate” refugees had access to the shelters.

An interesting notion, legitimate refugees.

Inside the fence, the camp’s population now includes about a dozen people who recently traveled to Europe in the mass migration from Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan, but whose asylum claims have been denied by the Belgian government. They began their journeys as refugees, arrived in Belgium as refugees, but with a single administrative act, a judgement rendered by a bureaucrat, they are now categorized, without recourse, as illegal immigrants. Sans-papiers. They are not permitted to work. They are not entitled to social benefits. From a legal perspective, they are non-entities. They do not exist. They join a substantial class of individuals in Belgium so situated, sometimes for multiple generations.

The refugee crisis has always been highlighted by a long-running tension between humanity and bureaucracy. Bureaucracies thrive on categorization, definition, and certainty, but the camp was begun in a display compassion, tolerance, and creativity. Humanity provided the foundational impulse behind the camp, but needed to invent a bureaucracy to administer it. While it’s probably an oversimplification to say that humanity created the camp and bureaucracy destroyed it, it’s also not too far from the truth.

Two days after the Plateforme announced they were leaving, they began to do so, putting out a call for two hundred volunteers to aid the effort. All day Tuesday lines of yellow-vested volunteers shuttled back and forth between the park and the newly acquired warehouse beside the canal. That night only a hundred and fifty people slept in the park. The next night it was down to about a hundred. Thursday morning a pair of bulldozers showed up and unceremoniously razed the kitchen, which had been painstakingly built over the course of the previous month from recycled palette wood. By noon nothing was left of the kitchen but two dumpsters loaded with debris, donated refrigerators lying on their sides beside them.

This morning a six-foot-high metal fence was erected around the entire park and everyone in it, save an eight foot gap that served as both an exit and an entrance. The park feels intimidating now, surrounded by a fence and a police cordon. It feels like a place you don’t want to go into. It feels like an arena, or a firing range, someplace better observed from a safe distance.

The police have given the holdouts until five o’clock to clear the park, while the police themselves have been given until seven to talk them out. After that they will be ordered to clear the park by force.

You have to feel for the police, especially in Brussels. More so than in other European capitals, they suffer abuse, and occasionally projectiles, hurled at them by innumerable protests and demonstrations. Just a week ago, dairy farmers from all over Europe converged on Brussels, using their tractors to clog the roads, hurling raw eggs at police in riot gear, and using combine harvesters to spray hay all over the ranks of policemen before setting the hay on fire. All this to protest low milk prices. A week later, the police will be pelted with paving stones and fight running street battles with a group of anarchists that infiltrates an anti-austerity rally.

Now, in the park, someone has found a megaphone and begins using it to shout in the faces of the police. A group of fifty holdouts marches over to the fence that separates them from the police cordon and begins singing protest songs. It has become a demonstration. The megaphone goes dead, so they continue chanting without it. Then someone gets it working again and the megaphone squawks to life. The songs begin anew, the chanting, the shouting, everyone trying to get everyone else fired up.

The operation to clear the park is an impressive example of restraint and de-escalation. None of the police officers is armed with anything more lethal than pepper spray, and even this is never used. Two canine units patrol at a distance, careful not to incite anyone by coming too close. At six o’clock the chief of police wanders into the enclosed area and speaks with the holdouts, who now number about fifty. In threes and fours they wander over and pick up their bags and file out through the opening left in the wire fence. For most of them, arrest would mean almost instant deportation. Unlike the dairy farmers, who wield the political power of their union, the sans-papiers are caught between their anger and their legal non-existence.

The chief of police spends more than an hour talking to the last few dozen people in the park. Person by person they begin picking up sacks and duffels and plastic shopping bags and filing out, leaving behind several tents and a plywood shack that last week housed Sans-Papiers Freedom Radio. The moment they’re out of the fence, two massive dump trucks roll in and city maintenance workers begin filling them with detritus.

“The park will be like new come morning,” says one of the police officers in the cordon.

By seven thirty it’s over. A place that a week ago contained hundreds of tents housing more than a thousand migrants, administrative offices, a medical facility, a radio station, storage areas and a working kitchen, are nothing more than trees, newly-planted grass, a packed stone path, a football pitch, and pigeons.

Outside the fence, the sans-papier and the homeless, the last group of holdouts, watches the dismantling of the camp with an air of resignation. The camp had been in the news nearly everyday for the past month. It had provided them with their own platform from which to air their grievances. For as long as the camp existed, they existed. Now, the camp no longer exists.

Someone in the group seems to remember he is holding a megaphone and flicks it on. He raises it to his lips and begins chanting. He is quickly joined by the rest. The sans-papier are here to stay. Someone unfurls a banner and it is held up in front of the group. It says “The sans-papier continue the fight.”

The police chief comes over and tells them they have to move along, now. It’s all over, he says. Time to go. As they begin moving away en masse, the megaphone strikes up a song, and they all join in. It’s another protest number. It echos from the surrounding high rises, follows them as they march down the street, lingers behind them as they head reluctantly away from the park, singing their song into the night.