The Great American (in China) Novel

By Robert Foyle Hunwick

Fiction by foreigners in China has lost its sheen considerably since the days of André Malraux’s Shanghai classic La Condition Humaine (Man’s Fate), which won the Prix Goncourt in 1933 despite being, frankly, turgid. (It also later emerged that Malraux had concocted many things relating to his claims and his research.)

Modern spy novels, such as Adam Brookes’ Night Heron, still make for great reading, but a surfeit of homegrown Chinese writing and, perhaps, fear of “cultural appropriation” has diminished an appetite for serious fiction-writing by foreigners, with some notable exceptions: Susan Barker’s The Incarnations and Jack Livings’ short–story collection The Dog.

Over in China, the “expat novel” is considered a punchline among old hands; last year’s publication of one particularly hopeless memoir prompted a friend, and fellow LARB contributor, to sarcastically wonder if, somewhere in Beijing “a nondescript borderline-alcoholic English teacher might be polishing off the manuscript of the China equivalent to The Sun Also Rises.”

While I can’t speak to author Quincy Carroll’s current drinking habits — for all I know, he might be a perfectly reasonable dipsomaniac — his debut Up the Mountains, Down the Countryside is probably as close to that novel as we’re likely to get, or want. (Carroll is an MFA graduate who’s worked for an NGO teaching in Hunan; the title is an elegiac reference to the dispatch of Red Guards to provincial farming communities during the Cultural Revolution.)

In this assured, if occasionally florid debut, the author deftly skewers two symbolic opposites who wind up teaching together at a no-mark suburban school in the equally dreary Hunan city of Ningyuan.

Thomas, the elder, is a 60-year-old Minnesotan deadbeat whose charmless cynicism might be his only (vaguely) redeeming quality; enthusiastic Sinophile Daniel, meanwhile, is a bright-eyed youth with stretched earlobe piercings and bright-red hair, whose fondness for strumming the guitar, while crooning folk songs to his adoring students, marks him out as an irritant of an altogether different calibre.

While idle Thomas, “arrogant, lewd and racist,” regards the didactic enterprise with little more than a rapacious, occasionally salacious eye, Daniel prepares lesson plans from scratch, tries to institute a library (it gets taken over by a divorced faculty member as a crash pad), and hikes the outer hills of Ningyuan like it’s the Lake District, viewing even the most mundane details of rural Chinese existence with the keen-eyed interest of the amateur anthropologist.

If that sounds familiar to some readers, it’s fair to say that Daniel’s sections — the plot is divided into chapters alternating between viewpoints –occasionally evoke a fictionalized version of Peter Hessler’s Peace Corps memoir River Town (2001), albeit with erotic dimensions missing from that famous work: one of the novel’s less-imaginative chapters involves a boozy boys’ night out in Changsha and Daniel’s eager encounter with a prostitute.

Clearly, the novel’s two male leads are set for some form of explosive collision, the catalyst for which proves to be Bella, a naïve and overfamiliar student whose urgent wish to ingratiate herself, and enjoy the full “Western” experience by studying abroad, is almost as wearying as Thomas’ studied surliness. While Daniel is likeable, even charming by comparison, Carroll takes care to salt the conflict with some yin to his yang. He’s prone to mildly absurd gestures, such as handcrafting an Aeolian harp out of reclaimed wood, and his excessive idealism is punctuated by a needy self-regard (“his students appeared to love him, and Daniel had no idea why, over the course of a year, the two of them had not become better friends”).

The denouement to this near–allegorical clash of the totems comes over a Spring Festival meal at Bella’s family home, which includes a divisive and revolting braised dog’s paw — the ensuing fallout is contrived yet satisfying: At just over 200 pages, Up the Mountains doesn’t outstay its welcome.

If the idea of two teachers feuding in Asia sounds as hackneyed as a tell–all Shanghai sex memoir, consider that, in another era, this could just have easily centered on the rivalry between a noble missionary and a foreign mercenary in war-torn Qing times. The supporting Chinese cast, moreover, is certainly more deeply drawn than Thomas and Daniel, who sometimes feel like vehicles for Carroll’s deeper point.

Via email, Carrol explained he “felt like there wasn’t a lot of honest fiction out there about foreigners in China,” and the book was a reaction to his own self-doubts about those who seemed “either complete failures or totally lost in life.”

Examining the inclination for Westerners to gravitate toward (or occasionally repel) each other overseas, Carroll deconstructs the belief that waiguoren, foreigners, are imbued with some mutual heritage — a fallacy not unlike Beijing’s presumption that “all Chinese” (all Han, at least) are obligated toward an ancient, mystic kinship that transcends nationality or upbringing. Meanwhile, back on Earth, here’s to the renewed quest for the Great American (in China) Novel.

Robert Foyle Hunwick is a media consultant and editor at large for BeijingCream.com. Up to the Mountains, Down to the Countryside (Inkshares, 224 pp, $15.95 rrp) is available at Barnes & Noble, independent bookshops, and Amazon.


It’s Time to Get Over QWERTY — A Q&A with Tom Mullaney on Alphabets, Chinese Characters, and Computing

Jeffrey Wasserstrom inverviews Tom Mullaney

Last month, I was one of two speakers at a lunchtime event on China held at Microsoft’s main campus outside of Seattle. The audience seemed to like my talk on censorship and other issues just fine, but another presenter, Tom Mullaney, set the room buzzing with what he had to say about Chinese characters and typewriters, telegraph codes and computing.

Afterwards, I asked him to do this Q&A with me to share some of his ideas with a wider audience. Mullaney is a professor of history at Stanford University who wrote a widely praised first book on ethnic minorities in China. For the past decade, he has been conducting pioneering research on Chinese interactions with information technologies that depend on characters instead of alphabets. His research will be showcased in two books that will be published by MIT Press. The first will focus on the Chinese typewriter, a topic he has published on in venues ranging from leading academic journals such as Technology and Culture to blogs including the China Beat. The following book will be about computing, a topic that obviously had special interest for the Microsoft crowd.

An exhibition on Chinese typewriters he curated is running now at Stanford, and he has organized a conference on global computing that will take place on his campus this weekend.


JEFF WASSERSTROM: When we spoke at Microsoft, you stressed that many things about China’s current place in the IT world fly in the face of past conventional wisdom about characters and alphabets. What exactly did you have in mind?

TOM MULLANEY: When it comes to technologies of communication and the Chinese language, we live in a time that hardly anyone could have anticipated at the dawn of the 20th century. Not only are Chinese characters still with us — they are one of the fastest, most widespread, and successful languages of the digital age. More than ever before, Chinese is a world script, and China is an IT giant. This would shock the many people who, for the past two centuries, assumed that such an outcome was conceivable only if China got rid of character-based writing and went the route of wholesale alphabetization — which it did not. This outcome was not supposed to have been possible — and yet here we are. What did we miss?

You argued at Microsoft that once we get to computers, any notion that using Chinese characters rather than letters is a disadvantage gets exploded. Would you elaborate on this — and, for those who haven’t followed these issues, say a little about the long history of claims that using characters inevitably impedes adopting new technologies ?

This is a really important question, and one that comes up a lot when I give lectures and do consultations at tech companies like Google and Microsoft. In the Q&A to my Google Tech talk back in 2011 — “A Chinese Typewriter in Silicon Valley” — we spent a good two hours on this, in fact. This is also a major inspiration for the computing and conference this weekend at Stanford (Shift CTRL: New Perspectives on Computing and New Media).

Ever since the mass manufacture of typewriters began in the U.S. in the 19th century, engineers and entrepreneurs imagined a day when this new technology would conquer the Chinese language and open up a vast new market to Remington, Underwood, Olivetti, and more — just the way it had other languages and markets in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere.

It never did (for reasons I explain in my new book coming out soon from MIT Press), and yet the fantasy didn’t die. It was renewed in the age of computing and, by the 1990s, seemed to many to have come true: computers throughout China began to look “just like ours,” even including the familiar QWERTY keyboard, which today is ubiquitous in the Chinese-speaking world.

In the Western world, people began to assume that the Latin alphabet had finally “conquered” Chinese — just like they assumed it always would. But nothing could be further from the truth.

What actually did happen?

If anything, Chinese conquered the alphabet, not the other way around.

Let’s look closely at the QWERTY keyboard in China. When we do, we find that it’s not at all how one might expect. In the Western world — or really in the “Alphabetic World” — we use the computer keyboard in a dumb, what-you-type-is-what-you-get kind of way. In all but rare instances, we assume a one-to-one correspondence between the symbols on the keys we strike and the symbols that we want to appear on the screen. Press the button marked ‘Q’ and ‘Q’ appears. It’s just that simple.

And that’s not what happens with Chinese?

No. Chinese “input” uses the QWERTY keyboard in an entirely different manner. In China, the QWERTY keyboard is “smart,” in the sense that it makes full use of modern-day computer power to augment and accelerate the input process. First of all, the letters of the Latin alphabet are not used in the same limited way that we use them in the alphabetic world. In China, “Q” (the button) doesn’t necessarily equal “Q” (the letter). Instead, to press the buttons marked Q, W, E, R, T, Y (or otherwise) is, strictly speaking, a way to give instructions to a piece of software known as an “Input Method Editor” (IME), which runs quietly in the background on your computer, intercepts all your keystrokes, and uses them as guidelines to try and figure out which Chinese characters the user wants. Using the most popular IME around today — Sougou Pinyin — the moment I strike the letter Q, the system is off and running, trying to figure out what I want. With the first clue, the IME immediately starts showing me options or “candidates” in a pop-up menu that follows me along on screen — in this case, Chinese characters, names, or phrases whose phonetic value begins with Q, such as Qingdao or Qigong.

The moment I hit the second button — let’s say U — the IME immediately changes up its recommendations, now giving me only characters that have pronunciations starting with “Qu.” There is no set, standard way to manage this process, moreover. There are many IMEs on the market, and each IME has many customizable settings. Some IMEs don’t use phonetics at all, in fact, but instead use Latin letters to indicate certain shapes or structural properties of the Chinese characters you want. And on top of all of this, there are countless abbreviations and shortcuts you can use to speed up the process (e.g., typing “Beijing” will get you the capital of China, but so will “bjing,” “beij,” or simply “bj”). And then, of course, there is “predictive text,” which as I have shown elsewhere, was developed and popularized in China decades before it was in the West.

This is a history that really no one had looked at before, though I do see my research as in dialog with stimulating work that others have been doing on related subjects, such as China specialist Chris Reed and Japanese historian Raja Adal, in their cases on the history of Chinese publishing and of Japanese typewriters, respectively. It’s been quite exciting to introduce work on the Chinese typewriter to technologists, China scholars, and students alike. You mentioned the museum exhibit I curated and opened at Stanford — well, surprisingly, this is the first exhibit in history to be dedicated to modern Chinese information technology! That’s pretty amazing to think about, particularly when considering what an IT powerhouse China has become.

Is China then in a better position than most other countries when it comes to moving forward technologically in our information age? Or are there things that could lead to the advantages that characters can provide being squandered?

I think China is in a better position, yes. Chinese “Input” is arguably the future of IT — not only in China, but globally. As I put it just now, “input” takes far greater advantage of the QWERTY keyboard than conventional “typing” does in the alphabetic world, with our century-old what-you-type-is-what-you-get mentality. The QWERTY keyboard in China is a “smart keyboard”: a device used to oversee a rapid two-part process of finding and choosing characters from a database, using ever-faster and more sophisticated techniques. This “finding and choosing” aspect of modern Chinese IT is one of the most exciting and surprising discoveries I made in my research, in fact. Namely, modern-day Chinese computing owes a tremendous debt to the work of Chinese library scientists and others back in the 1920s through 1940s — figures like Du Dingyou, Chen Lifu, and others who never knew that the computer would be invented, of course, but who obsessed over the question of how to design faster and faster ways of organizing Chinese library card catalogs, phone books, and filing systems! Little could they have known that, decades later, major companies like IBM, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Sougou, and others would dust off their methods and turn them into the engine of China’s rise as an IT giant!

By contrast, the Latin alphabetic world has spent more than two centuries congratulating itself for “Our Glorious Alphabet,” and yet at the same time has done far less to explore and push the Latin alphabet to its fullest potential. In fact, Silicon Valley is having a really hard time now convincing average computer users in the West that the keyboard is in fact an obstacle — that it’s somehow broken and that average users need to start exploring more of the clever English-language input devices now available on the market — like the absolutely brilliant ShapeWriter system invented by my friend Shumin Zhai.

What do you see happening in the future where all this is concerned?

I keep wondering how the Valley expects Western computer users to react when they realize there’s so much more to the story than the myth our IT culture came of age believing: that the alphabet was the very pinnacle of human ingenuity, and that writing systems like Chinese paled by comparison. We are like children who grew up receiving trophies every day of our lives, being told by society that we are far more advanced than the neighbor kids — what kind of effect does that have after 200-plus years?

Sure, it might be possible for the Valley to convince “early adopters” of this need to experiment — technology enthusiasts who are always looking for the next thing, and scour Maker Fair and tech summits to try and find it — but for workaday computer users like you and me, Silicon Valley is now facing a major cultural problem — not with China, but actually with the “alphabetics” of the world. We are dismissing and resisting all kinds of technological possibilities that exist now for English, French, Russian, and other alphabetic languages, simply because we unconsciously subscribe to the powerful idea, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

“Input” is a slightly tricky thing for people to understand in the alphabetic world, and so let’s close with a metaphor from electronic music: MIDI, or the Musical Instrument Digital Interface. With the advent of computer music in the 1960s, it became possible for musicians to play instruments that looked and felt like guitars, keyboard, flutes, and so forth but that — thanks to digital computing — produced the sound of drum kits, cellos, bagpipes, and more. Just as one can play a cello with a MIDI piano, a drum kit with a MIDI woodwind, or a piano with a MIDI guitar, everyday computer users in China today use QWERTY and the Latin alphabet to “play” Chinese.


Following the Money with Ma Yinchu

By Austin Dean

Who pays for what? This is an eternal source of disagreement in public administration.

It’s the question behind recent debates in New York about how much money the state should allocate to the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Since the 1970s, the state of New York has paid the operating funds of CUNY’s “11 senior colleges, or four-year institutions, and at its six graduate and professional colleges,” just as it does for the State University of New York (SUNY). New York City has been the main funder of the CUNY’s seven community colleges. In January, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a state budget that would cut $485 million to the CUNY system. It was, he argued, time for the city to pay more. At the end of March, and after much opposition, Cuomo dropped his proposals to cut state funding to CUNY’s budget.

Cuomo’s decision would have been of interest to Chinese students studying in the United States a century ago. Many of these students were obsessed with the details of local and municipal finance in the United States — with good reason.

The finances of the late Qing dynasty and early Republican periods were constantly in flux. Which taxes belonged to the national government? To local governments? What should be taxed and how much? How should the system of budgeting work? Could waste and corruption be eliminated?

One person particularly preoccupied with the question of municipal finance in the United States was Ma Yinchu, later famous as the intellectual father of the one-child policy in the People’s Republic of China. Ma studied economics at Yale before getting his PhD from Columbia. Appropriately enough, he wrote his dissertation in 1914 on the public finances of New York City.

The topic had a practical purpose. As Ma wrote in the preface of the dissertation, “the finances of the Empire City of New York and those of the Empire and Republic of China have many points of resemblance.” Corruption was rampant; waste was all too common; debt levels skyrocketed.  He thought the “scientific methods” the city had recently adopted for budgeting and auditing could “afford a valuable lesson for China’s benefit.” In fact, he hoped the dissertation would be translated into Chinese.

Interestingly, in light of the current debate about funding for CUNY, Ma repeatedly returned to an example from higher education to show how things should not be done. Here is the text of the 1905 New York City appropriation for higher education:

For salaries of professors, tutors, and other in the Normal College and in the Training Department of the Normal College, for scientific apparatus, books, and all necessary supplies thereof; for repairing and altering the college building, and for the support, maintenance and general expenses of the same — $220,000.

Ma thought this type of lump-sum appropriation was egregious. With a scale “so comprehensive” and “indefinite,” the funds might be spent on anything. Take the term “supplies.” If the school spent $30,000 on educational supplies, no one would complain. But what if it spent the same amount on office supplies? Surely most people would think there was significant skullduggery at work. A general appropriation such as New York had been giving its higher-education institutions would be impossible to audit. Ma thought this old system of doing things mirrored the one in China.

Much better, Ma wrote, was the new system of budgeting in New York City that segregated expenses according to functionality. Instead of a lump-sum appropriation, the budget designated funds to be used for specific purposes: general salaries, equipment purchases, office supplies, etc. With this system in place, it was much easier to track and audit the use of funds.

But making the budget was only one step: it had to be funded by taxes. Ma devoted another part of his dissertation to this eternally complex topic.

Ma was particularly interested in the property tax. As he wrote approvingly of the system in the United States, the taxation of real estate “must be delegated to the county, city or town exclusively” because they are the “source from which the land value springs.” His own country had no such system.

The property tax remains one of the more controversial duties in contemporary China. The transaction of buying and selling property is taxed, but there is no recurring annual tax levied on individual owners of real estate. It regularly gets discussed and has been tried out in small pilot programs, but a nation-wide introduction always seems to be a few years away.

Ma also had a lot to say about debt. This was natural, as both China and New York City owed large amounts of money, albeit for different reasons. China had massive indemnities to pay off from the Boxer Rebellion. After the fall of the Qing dynasty, the new government under Yuan Shikai accumulated more debt by relying on loans from foreign creditors.

In New York City, Ma thought the debt burden arose from the “unsound financial practice of borrowing on long term for the acquisition and construction of improvements which shall entail no expense on the present taxpayer.” New Yorkers wanted a free lunch. He could see no reason why the city was in the habit “of selling 50-year bonds to pay for ten-year street paving, which last often for not more than five years!” It made no sense.

Ma Yinchu was an opinionated and prolific writer. His collected works span more than ten thick volumes; the dissertation on New York City finances was his first major undertaking. It’s hard to say which side of the recent debate about the CUNY system Ma would have taken. On the one hand, he was in favor of city expenses being covered by taxes under the control of the municipality. On the other, his own education benefited from funds allocated by the Qing government; sometimes a higher level of government has to provide funds for important purposes. Regardless of who supplied the funds, though, there’s no doubt that Ma would certainly want the money well accounted for.

KB - English 4

Korea’s English Fever, or English Cancer?

By Colin Marshall 

A young Korean lady walks down the street, textbooks in her arms and earbuds in her ears. Suddenly, a plaid-shirted, down-vested white guy walks up to her: “Hi, excuse me, I need directions to Gangnam Station?” Sweat streams down the girl’s face. A Korean fellow in a suit picks up a newspaper and takes his seat on an airplane. Suddenly, the middle-America-looking lady seated next to him reaches over and points at the page he’s opened: “Hey, I was reading that article, and…” Sweat sprays in all directions from the top of his head. In a school library, in a cafe, other Koreans mind their own business on their computers, and still more Westerners suddenly approach: “Hello? Excuse me? You speak English, right?” “Hi, I’m so sorry to interrupt…” Further torrents of sweat pour forth.

I chuckled at this series of television commercials for an English-assistance smartphone app called Speakingmax the first time they came on, but it’s fair to say they’d grown less funny by the twentieth. The repetition of these ads (and their strange jingle-adaptation of Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell”, of all songs) bothers me less than their underlying assumptions, more clearly visible with each viewing. Why on Earth do all these Westerners assume they can approach a stranger in a foreign country — a country with its own language — and simply begin yammering in English? And why do these Koreans feel so obligated to respond in English, and so unable to respond in English, as to induce such a violent endocrine reaction?

Each of these Speakingmax commercials carefully sets up a they-asked-for-it scenario, going to far as to spell out on the screen what flame they’d inadvertently held out to the foreign moth: he could see her English textbooks, she saw him reading an English-language newspaper, she saw him studying for some high-profile English exam like the TOEIC or TOEFL, he saw English-language news on her laptop screen. So sure, the Westerners all had some reason to believe that these particular Koreans could speak at least a little English, but not to at least try to open the conversation in Korean — much less to launch into it in full-speed English — strikes me as inexcusable. And given all the foreign actors’ bland accents, it also offers evidence that the “ugly American” stereotype (no matter how much more boorish other countries’ tourists have become) remains alive and well.

These spots also vividly dramatize the extent to which fear and even shame figure in to the culture of English in South Korea. Ads play on these emotions not just on the airwaves but also down in the subway: the text of poster below, just up and to the left of the terrorized-looking cartoon lady, offers English practice sessions for 1000 won each (a low enough price that it must involve outsourcing to a call center in the Philippines, the destination of choice for Koreans looking to study English abroad on a budget). I saw another one more recently that addressed itself to “you who studied English for ten years but cannot speak English for ten seconds,” tapping into the nation’s painfully wide gap between the huge amounts of time and money put into English education and the fluency so rarely achieved.

KB - English 2

Most young Korean adults really have had to study English for that long, and so it dismays them when they travel to an English-speaking country — or, in Speakingmax’s Korea, suffer a linguistic attack by a wayward American on their own soil — and find themselves understanding so little and able to say even less. But to me it makes perfect sense, as it would to any American who had to grind through French or Spanish requirements in high school: English is a foreign language, and you can’t actually learn a foreign language in a classroom, especially without any special inclination toward that language. I myself had to start Spanish classes from age nine and continue them until college, during which time I learned, and expected to learn, almost nothing of use in actual Spanish-language conversation. But when I discovered an interest in Spanish-speaking countries later, in my twenties, I taught (or re-taught) myself the basics I needed in hardly any time at all.

So why does every South Korean student have to spend so much of their time studying not just a foreign language, but specifically English, and why hasn’t it had the ostensibly desired results? “The whole time I’ve been here, Korea has continued to spend the most money on English education in the entire world,” says Michael Elliott, who runs the video and podcast enterprise English in Korean, which he started after years working as a translator. “The impetus for me to start venturing into education was when I was translating two articles: one was that Korea spends the most money on English education, and the next was that businesspeople who did business in Asia rated the ease of communication in all these different nations, and Korea was dead last. It was obvious that something wasn’t going well here.”

“I didn’t start studying Korean until I was an adult,” says Elliott. “I think expression, building a vocabulary in your own language, is much more important, and then you understand that there are these modes of expression, that this vocabulary exists, and then you use that. When you speak English with somebody who’s older in America, and they use a lot of idiomatic expressions, they use proverbs — it’s beautiful. First you have to know that that mode of expression exists, and then later you’ll have the desire to replicate that in a foreign language. But if you never even get that deep into your own language, everything is so rudimentary. A lot of Korean kids start learning English to the detriment of their Korean, and that’s topsy-turvy.”

The starting age of English classes in Korea, whether at public schools or private institutes, has fallen lower and lower with time. The currently fashion holds that if you don’t get your child studying English while still a toddler, they’ll never make it in this world. And not just studying English, but developing what passes for a native English speaker’s accent and manner. Speakingmax’s commercials may have made me laugh before they got me worrying, but those aired by English Egg, a producer of childhood English-study materials, chilled me from the first. “Mommy, look at me,” shouts a little girl, holding up her sketchbook, “I can paint a tree!” The mother smiles benevolently. Then daughter rises and scampers forth, arms waving: “I love bread and milk!” (The writers can hardly have chosen those characteristically Western foods by chance.) I turn in disbelief from this spectacle to Korean friends and ask, “This… this is weird, right?”

KB - English 1

But as students themselves, their own immediate goals had less to do with becoming bread-eating, milk-drinking, English-speaking quasi-Westerners than with scoring highly on the standardized English tests they perceived as deciding so much of their future. None looms quite so large as the English section of the College Scholastic Ability Test (대학수학능력시험), known as the Suneung, an exam that acts in most ways the Korean equivalent of the SAT, descended from old Confucian standardized-test culture, carries much more weight and thus does much more affect the shape of society. (To see that in grim action, watch the documentary Reach for the SKY.)

As the only subject that generates enough of a standard deviation in scores to sort students into the strict hierarchy of Korean universities, English has become the wall in front of a respectable Suneung result, and thus in front of a respectable university, and thus a respectable career, and ultimately a respectable life. Still, “if you learn English properly,” says Elliott, “the test comes naturally, but if you learn test English, you’re left with nothing.” Yet many Korean students gladly make that tradeoff, living as they do in a society where “English is perceived as tool, or a path, to making more money.”

“That’s why a lot of Koreans are perplexed when they see us studying Korean. I went to Thailand once: things were cheap, the people were friendly, the food there is really good. I came back here and wanted to try my hand at Thai. I asked Korean friends and they’d just say, ‘Oh, there’s not going to be any institutes that teach that.’ I asked why, and they said, ‘Well, because it’s a poor country.’” North Korea analyst Brian Reynolds Myers, who teaches in the department of international studies at Dongseo University, describes this phenomenon as “something that frustrates me,” since “we’re trying to make the students realize just how important China and India and Russia and Brazil are going to be to their own futures.”

“I’m constantly telling them to learn Indonesian, which I think is the ‘golden tip.’ Indonesian is a very easy language to learn: they don’t have a particularly developed past tense and they don’t make a big fuss about plurals and so on, which is right up the Koreans’ alley, you would think. And yet they all are learning English and Chinese in the hope that that’s going to distinguish them on the job market.” They do it because “they look at the outside world in terms of an economic hierarchy. If I have a student from the United States who gets up and talks about his hometown, they’re all ears. And yet when a Russian stands up and talks, or an Egyptian, or a Kyrgyz, I can tell that the attention level drops markedly, which is unfortunate and short-sighted.”

If I had my way, I’d remove English from the Suneung forever, replacing it with some other equally arbitrary and arduous task (memorizing the digits of pi, say) and leaving the study of foreign languages to the few students with genuine affinities for the cultures that produced them — whether Russia, Egypt, Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, Thailand, or indeed England or America — and thus the only ones who can really excel at it. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jasper Kim put it in his diagnosis of Korea’s “English fever,” perhaps the country “should focus on less (not more) English education for most of its students — continuing ‘extreme English’ only for those who will need it on a regular basis for their future global career trajectory. This would free up not just capital, but millions of South Korean young minds to learn the skill-sets that most interest and fit their individual talents.”

KB - English 3

On the whole and for a variety of reasons, I like Korea more than Japan. But whenever I cross the East Sea — or the Sea of Japan, or call it what you will — I feel a wave of relief upon entering a country where everyone speaks to you in the language of the country where you are. Japan has certainly enjoyed its flirtation with English: the country nearly converted to it wholesale as an official language at one point in its history, and longtime expats over there tell me that, 25 years ago, a Westerner couldn’t go out to a Tokyo bar without running into a tipsy salaryman aggressively eager for practice. But it appears that Japanese society has finally settled on just speaking Japanese, complemented by what David Sedaris, a frequent visitor to Japan and casual student of the Japanese language, tends to call “seventeen words of English.”

It’s not as if Japan expects foreigners to have perfect Japanese — far from it, and in fact the oft-satirized attitudes there suggest that many native speakers consider us, against all evidence, innately unable to learn it to a high level. But still, approach a Japanese person in Japan, and they’ll expect you, and I would say rightly expect you, to at least start off speaking in Japanese. Even if you do speak in English, they’ll like as not offer you Japanese in reply. Korea affords no such linguistic security: I still tense up, slightly, when I speak Korean even to just the barista at a coffee shop, not knowing whether to expect a response in Korean, in unbidden English (against which I’ll feign incomprehension and stonewall as long as it takes), or, worst of all, in a confusing mishmash of both, the Korean sentences mined with scattered, unrecognizable “English” terms.

Still, Korean English education as we know it has chugged along despite discomfiting side effects: for the Koreans, the impossibly widespread psychological burden of mastering a completely alien tongue, and for the Westerners, a community-discoloring preponderance of English teachers, many of whom arrive with scant interest or investment in Korea, much less in the Korean language — or, according to the not-entirely-false stereotype, in anything more than a few years of easy paychecks. (Half the time I introduce myself to a Korean, they ask not what I do, but whether I teach English.) One might argue that English’s standing as “the international language” justifies all this, but I don’t quite buy it, partly because of its inherent unsuitability to quick acquisition and unambiguous intercultural communication, but more so because I’d rather struggle with a foreign language myself than hear my native one get stripped of its nuance across the world.

That aside, the expectation that all Koreans should speak English, and that no non-Koreans speak Korean, does more than its part to discourage the study of an already difficult language. Ironically, foreigners might well have an easier time of it if Korea subjected us to a Japanese-style (or stiffer still, Chinese-style) expectation of, over time, at least a certain level of conversational proficiency. It would certainly better suit the kind of strong country South Korea has become, strong enough to attract outsiders willing to learn its language rather than fall all over itself to learn a language of the outsiders. In an article on Korea’s thus far unfilfilled aspiration for a Nobel Prize in Literature, the New Yorker‘s Mythli G. Rao quoted a Korean “literature enthusiast” as saying that “I think the Nobel committee needs to learn Korean first.” Some readers laughed at that, but I can’t say I totally disagree.

Japan’s English education industry has never really recovered from the 2007 collapse of Nova, the country’s largest private English education company, which fell under the weight of financial losses, lawsuits, strikes, and even deaths. Korea’s English education industry has recently shown its own signs of strain, from sketchy dealings in Seoul’s struggling “English villages” to the suicide of the CEO of the even more troubled Wall Street English, one of the country’s most visible chains of private English schools. Whether this will lead to a break in South Korea’s English fever remains to be seen, but for now I propose re-naming the malady so as to reflect its more malignant, invasive, and wasting nature — a deeper and more complicated disorder, in other words, that nobody can just sweat out.

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

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 5.32.49 PM

Bringing Empress Wu Back to Life (on the Page)—A Q&A with Weina Dai Randel

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Last year, Weina Dai Randel was virtually unknown. Now she’s causing a stir in literary scenes from the U.S. to China, thanks to the strong reviews venues such as Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal have given to her pair of books about Empress Wu: The Moon in the Palace (published in March) and The Empress of Bright Moon (just out this month). There are two unusual things about her series on China’s most famous and infamous pre-modern female ruler.  First, it’s not a traditional trilogy, but rather a duology. And, second, the two works in it were released just a month—rather than a year or two—apart.  There are already deals to translate both into four languages.  Weina, who I met through a writer’s group and sharing a publisher, was born and raised in Wenzhou, a coastal city in Zhejiang province. After working as a journalist and online magazine editor in Shanghai, she moved to Texas at the age of twenty-four. That was fifteen years ago. Now, married and a mother of two, Weina lives with her family in suburban Dallas, where I caught up with her via email to respond to the following series of questions.

SUSAN BLUMBERG-KASON: Can you tell us the philosophy behind writing two books in a series instead of three or more as well as releasing your books just one month apart?

WEINA DAI RANDEL: As far as I know, there is no philosophy behind this! The truth is rather plain: My agent initially negotiated with the editor at Sourcebooks for a trilogy of Empress Wu, but the editor was not sure how American readers would respond to a bulk of novels about a Chinese Empress who was relatively unknown in the U.S. But the editor was also fascinated with the rich life in the second book, so she decided to have two books instead. And she also decided to release them a month apart so readers wouldn’t have to wait too long for the sequel. That’s why there was a duology and why The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon were published a month apart.

You’ve stated in interviews that you wrote your books in response to novels set in China or those that feature Chinese characters in which women are portrayed in depressing terms. You specifically mention Maxine Hong Kingston, an author you were reading in graduate school in Texas. Besides the Empress Wu, which other Chinese women came to mind when you thought of strong females throughout Chinese history?

I can think of the famous Xi Shi, one of the Four Beauties in ancient China, who might also be the first female spy; the infamous Lu Hou of the Han Dynasty; and also the gifted poet Li Qingzhao, whose poetry I really like. But I can tell you, few of the strong women in the Chinese history were described in a positive light and even fewer had a happy ending.

In The Moon in the Palace, you mention that it took ten years to write this novel. Along the way, you’ve had a couple of children. Do you have any tips for juggling research, writing, and parenthood?

When I was taking care of my little ones, I found it very helpful to have a routine and set a structure for the day. For example, dinnertime was always at 5:30pm, then bath time at 6:30pm, then bedtime at 7:30pm. I usually wrote when my kids were taking a nap or sleeping, so I was very firm about putting them down at the precise hour for nap and bedtime. Once they awoke, I did my housework, took them to grocery shopping, parks, and play dates.

I also think it’s important to simplify your life and find serenity in your mind. Being a mother means you’ll have a busy schedule, but having a busy head filled with clogged schedules and activities can be detrimental for a writer. I narrowed my daily priorities to a few things, and I also eliminated social events as they conflicted with my writing hours. I think, like writing, parenting needs consistency and persistence – if you stick to a certain routine everyday, you’ll fall into the rhythm, and the people around you will fall into the rhythm with you.

You didn’t move to the US until you were twenty-four. It’s quite amazing that just fifteen years later you have published two novels in a language that’s not your mother tongue. I know you get asked this question a lot, but how did you decide to write your novels in English and not in Chinese?

The real reason that I decided to write in English is I couldn’t get published in China. I finished my first novel in Chinese when I was twenty-one and pitched it to an editor in Shanghai. He invited me over to the office, talked to me about how competitive it was to publish a novel, and rejected my manuscript. Later, some short stories I wrote were also rejected. Discouraged, I decided there was no future for me in writing Chinese. So I devoted to learning English, which I was also fascinated with.

When I came to the U.S., I spent every morning studying English, making notes, and always had an English-Chinese dictionary in my hands. My education at graduate school really helped me command the language.

After being away from China for a decade, you finally returned at the end of last year, husband and two children in tow. In the acknowledgements in The Moon in the Palace, you write that you can finally go home now that your books are published. Was there a reason you couldn’t go back before then?

So funny you asked that! Yes, there was a reason, and you might think I’m very stubborn! Twelve years ago when I had the idea of writing about Empress Wu, I told my friends in China about my ambition, and they were so surprised. “In English?” they asked me over the phone, and even though they were seven thousand miles away, I could tell the disbelief in their voices. My parents were not so subtle. My mom, a traditional Chinese woman, told me flatly to forget about writing and start having kids (I had not had kids yet).

You see, I was a person of pride, and it was hard to digest those discouraging comments and especially hard to hear that I was no good at anything other than producing babies. And the pressure continued to mount each time I talked to them. First, they would ask me, “When are you coming back to China?” After that, question would follow, “So are you still writing?” They meant well, I knew that, but I also knew they did not believe that I, a Chinese who was born and raised in China, could write a novel in English. So I silently made it a bet: I would return to China when my books were published; otherwise, I would not go back.

For twelve years, I resisted the urge to visit them and declined my kids’ requests to meet my family. When my novels were finally set to publish, I returned to visit my friends and family.

KB - Factory Complex 1

“Factory Complex”: How (But Not Why) Working Women Have it So Bad in Korea

By Colin Marshall 

Last week I spent a few nights downtown at the venerable Seoul Cinema (established 1964, which more than qualifies it as one of the city’s grand old institutions) for special screenings from this year’s Wildflower Film Awards (들꽃영화상), an independent and low-budget production-oriented celebration organized by my friend Darcy Paquet, an American film critic based in Korea since the 1990s. The mix of six movies shown over three nights kept things varied, including comedy as well as drama, stories about younger as well as older generations, and a couple of documentaries in there with the fiction films, one of them especially striking in its visual adventurousness: Im Heung-soon’s Factory Complex (위로공단).

Darcy writes in a column about documentaries as a window into Korean culture that the film, which won the Silver Lion at the 56th Venice Biennale, “is two things at once, a history of women workers in Korea and the different issues they have faced throughout the decades, and also an abstract and beautifully realized work of art. [Im] has a background in painting and video installations, and his documentaries contain a unique blend of social insight and art.” The images he crafts to illustrate the hardships endured over the decades by female employees in electronics factories, garment-making sweatshops (shown here in Korea as well as, during an especially grim middle section, Cambodia), call centers, grocery stores, airplanes, and elsewhere will haunt even those viewers not normally inclined to watch documentaries about labor conditions in Asia.

The film’s interviews with past and present low-level members of such industries constitute a parade of indignities suffered by the rank and file of Korean working women: the electronics assemblers having their heads shaved during treatment for cancers contracted at the Samsung plant; the grocery-store cashier showing us the pieces of cardboard on which she and her co-workers had to eat their lunches after their store’s (unnamed but easily guessable) Christian-run parent company converts the break room into a prayer room; the stewardess, fearing the ever-present threat of a negative customer evaluation, smiling and nodding at the passenger seated across motioning for her to open her legs a little wider.

One pleasant-looking middle-aged lady employed at a call center, after describing the technical possibility of taking breaks but the practical impossibility of doing so given the pay structure’s strong incentive to take as many calls as possible, breaks into tears as she contemplates the contrast between how hard she works and how poor she remains: she can barely provide for her kids, and if she gets sick herself, she implies, she might just have no choice but to lay down and die. Why, she asks aloud, do I have do live like this? An excellent question, and one whose answer it would interest me to see explored.

KB - Factory Complex 2

Yet Factory Complex, for all its power in depicting the remarkably arduous labor that went into the quickly industrialized South Korea’s economic “Miracle on the Han River” and the even more remarkable endurance of the women who did and continue to do so much of  it, doesn’t seem share that interest. This strange causal incuriosity (strange to me, anyway, a foreigner yet to do an honest day’s work) manifests in other Korean documentaries as well, even in the other documentary included in the Wildflower screenings: Park Bae-il’s Miryang Arirang (밀양 아리랑), about the titular farming town’s struggle to stop the construction of electrical towers.

That film, which includes plenty of visceral footage of young policemen struggling to subdue the foulmouthed grandmothers of Miryang, barely grazes the question of why the towers builders are so hell bent on putting them up there in the first place, and why they persist if — as we hear argued by interviewees — they’ve been rendered unnecessary by other power transmission infrastructure and will cause health problems in the nearby population. A case of bureaucratic inertia? A mindless continuation of Korea’s build-at-all-costs development policies? Or do those in charge of electrical tower construction maybe — just maybe — have a legitimate reason to do battle with these elderly farmers? We see a great deal of pain, resentment, and regret, but we never really find out the ultimate cause of it all.

Some mainstream Korean feature films also work from the same worldview. Take, for example, Yoon Je-kyoon’s 2014 hit Ode to My Father (국제시장), often described as a Korean Forrest Gump for its retelling of the country’s modern history through the life of one representative protagonist. In his review, Korea observer Matt VanVolkenburg looks back to Yoon’s previous spectacle Tidal Wave (or Haeundae/해운대), whose central disaster “provided an excellent metaphor for the way in which Korean films of the 2000s have dealt with Korean history, portraying people as blamelessly going about their lives when suddenly history crashes into them and sweeps them off their feet. Some of these films have blamed outsiders, and have rarely attempted to explain why the events portrayed occurred.”

Deok-su, the Gump figure in Ode to My Father, begins the film as a child at the Hungnam evacuation of December 1950, when the U.S. Navy transported thousands of refugees from what would become North Korea to the safety of Busan, on the southeast tip of what would become South Korea. After he makes a promise to his father, who vanishes in the chaos, “to take care of his family (and makes sacrifices in the hope of meeting his father again), the moments in modern Korean history he takes part in occur when he follows others. He (obviously!) follows his parents when they attempt to flee Hungnam, while it’s his friend Dal-gu who suggests going to Germany and Vietnam,” where they labor as coal miners and contract soldiers. And “the ‘decision’ to have a child and get married was essentially thrust upon him by his soon-to-be wife, so much of his life is shaped by others’ decisions.”

KB - Factory Complex 3

This fits in with one prevalent narrative of Korean history, that of a “shrimp among whales” who, unable to influence events around it in any meaningful way, can only try its best to endure and survive. Why, the septuagenarian Deok-su cries to his never-returned father while reflecting on his life at the end of the movie, did it have to be so hard? Again, I’d actually like to hear a detailed answer to that question, or at least an attempt at one, but all the tissue-clenching Koreans around me in the packed theater seemed satisfied with the flood of emotions the film offered instead. The Wildflower screening of Factory Complex happened a little too early in the evening to attract much of a crowd, but I imagine Korean viewers have reacted similarly to Im’s ode to generations of mothers.

Me, I kept thinking of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 bestseller on the difficulties the fiftysomething author encountered when she tried to live on a series of minimum-wage jobs in various parts of the country. I read the book a few times back when it first came out, in part because of the Ehrenreich’s enjoyable style (I still laugh, now and again, at her observation of “an older white man in work clothes whose bumper sticker says, ‘Don’t steal, the government hates competition’ — as if the income tax were the only thing keeping him from living at the Embassy Suites”) and in part because I couldn’t quite come to terms with its argument, if indeed it had any argument more cogent than that we should all (a) be glad we’re not housecleaners and (b) stop voting for welfare reform.

I eventually came to see Nickel and Dimed‘s project less as diagnosing and pointing toward a solution to the problems of America’s working poor than of using tales of working-class discomfort and degradation to sneer at the villains floating around in Ehrenreich’s own political cosmology (one that’s served her well throughout her career of left-wing journalism). In a similar way, Korean movies like Factory Complex, Miryang Arirang, and Ode to My Father refrain from constructing coherent explanations, true or not, about what exactly brought about the conditions they lament, preferring to gesture toward vaguely assumed malevolence, or at least neglect, on the part of stronger entities, be they companies, governments, or social structures.

One explanation I’ve heard traces this tendency back to Korea’s tradition of “activist filmmaking,” practiced with a goal of social or economic change in mind to be effected by making the maximum emotional impact on audiences — simply one kind of power used against another. Actual protests in Korea, such as those agitating for better worker treatment we see in Factory Complex, employ much the same strategy. This still works well enough in Korea, but less so outside it; back when the country first made its serious appearances on the international stage, from politics to sports, this tradition of emotional display sometimes made its representatives look insane. But Factory Complex, while full of surreal images, and highly effective ones at that, comes off as eminently sane. I just seems to me that — call this the Westerner’s logical bias if you must — we can’t fix the problems of the women soldering the circuits, sewing the clothes, taking the calls, and bagging the groceries, in Korea or Cambodia or America or anywhere else, without a clear idea of what caused them in the first place.

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

KB - Conan O'Brien 5

When Conan Came to Korea

By Colin Marshall 

I first moved to Los Angeles not long after Conan O’Brien did, or more precisely, after he and his team resigned from the stewardship of The Tonight Show which had relocated them from New York just the year before. But it didn’t take him long to get back on television, and news of his exploits in Los Angeles swept through my Koreatown circles when his new venture, a cable show simply called Conan, aired a bit where he and Korean-American actor Steven Yeun hang out nakedly — and, for O’Brien’s part, with characteristically comedic anxiety and discomfort — in a neighborhood Korean spa. (Well, not exactly a Koreatown spa, but Wi Spa, big complex over in Westlake popular with non-Koreans. Close enough.)

And so, now that I’ve moved from Los Angeles to Korea, it only makes sense that O’Brien would follow to shoot a whole series of special segments on life in the Land of the Morning Calm. (Which does have its precedents: Conan has made a thing of location shows in places like Cuba and Armenia, and Anthony Bourdain brought his show here last year.) “A while back, I got a letter from a fan who lives in South Korea,” he says by way of introduction, showing her letter (written an exam form) and the boxful of Korean snack foods she also sent along. He decided to take this young lady up on her invitation to her homeland, “and that’s when I found out that even though my show does not air in Korea, thanks to the internet, I have some fans there,” hundreds of whom, instigator “Sunny” Lee included, turned up to greet him upon his arrival at Incheon International Airport.

The Noryangjin (in O’Brien’s no doubt deliberately clunky pronunciation, “no-ree-on-gone”) fish market, a PC game cafe, the set of a television drama, a tae kwon do demonstration, a traditional restaurant, the Bonkwangsa (“bo-gwong-sow”) Buddhist temple, the Joint Security Area at the Demilitarized Zone on the North Korea border, a K-pop video: the journey passes through many of the spots even a casual Korea-watcher might expect, Conan makes some more Korean fans, Korea gains some more of that ever-desired positive exposure in the West (and for that reason the shows’s producers must have found the country reasonably cooperative), and we all get entertained along the way.

KB - Conan O'Brien 3

Even though many longer-term Western residents of Korea (as opposed to those deliriously thrilled Korean fans, whom I can’t imagine taking exception to anything here) have their complaints about the aspects of the culture to which O’Brien’s travels pay either insufficient or excessive attention, it seems like everybody benefits. The only part that strikes me as a missed opportunity strikes me as a missed opportunity in nearly all narratives of Western, and especially American, humorists abroad: the too often unresisted temptation to play the part of the bumbling metropolitan provincial, drawing buckets and buckets of material from the wells of ignorance, incomprehension, and ineptitude.

Actually, O’Brien does better on that count than many. No sooner does he arrive than he sits down for a Korean language lesson — which he quickly steers into an exploration of his Irish Catholic guilt and stern-schoolmistress fetish, but still, it’s more than Dave Barry did when he went to Japan. Dave Barry Does Japan, the book that trip produced in 1992, remains in my mind as the locus classicus of a certain kind of fish-out-of-water dissimulation practiced by the high-profile Americans who visit east Asia — most often Japan, though China has also long provided a venue for this as Korea has just begun to — and, in the name of big laffs, affect enough IQ loss to throw themselves into a state of perpetual disorientation.

For Barry in Japan, at peak performance of his middle-aged-dope-from-Florida act, this manifests most punishingly in a running gag about his supposed inability to pronounce or even remember the words “domo arigato.” The problem, for me, has less to do with the weakness of the joke than with its implausibility; you don’t get a career like Barry’s without considerable observational and verbal horsepower, even if, like him, you harness it to write about boogers. By the same token, I don’t quite buy the air of hapless distractibility put on by O’Brien, surely one of the most focused and competent men ever to sit behind a late-night talk show desk.

KB - Conan O'Brien 1

Yet here and there O’Brien lets slip that he understands much more about what’s going on around him in Korea than it seems, even as he bungles, dozens of times in a row, his Korean-language lines while shooting a soap-opera cameo. It makes for an amusing reversal when in from Los Angeles flies Steven Yeun, ostensibly in his motherland to serve as O’Brien’s Virgil but immediately proven unequal to the task by their first meal together. “I mean, I’ve seen it,” he sputters in the face of the host’s mounting frustration at the inability of his “cultural ambassador” to identify the dishes in front of them. “So, it looks like… rice,” he trails off, speaking more directly to the Korean-American experience than has many an acclaimed novel on the subject.

There, O’Brien tries to eat his soup with a spoon by holding that spoon with his chopsticks — and succeeds, updating for the sushi-schooled 21st-century West a situation that, thirty years ago, would have had him throwing up his hands and struggling to spear bits of unknown and unwanted food on their tips. In away, it almost feels like a waste for such a tall, rangy, pale character, topped by what one of his writers described to me as his signature “coxcomb of hair” (in an episode of my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture, which I later took on a Korea trip of its own), to do all this today, so far past the expiration date of the Westerner in Asia’s old bull-in-a-china-shop routine to which his physique so suits him. But his comic persona of straight-faced (and even strait-laced) yet knowing freakishness, forged in the flames of 1980s irreverence and 90s irony, could only rise to such prominence in our time.

As much progress as South Korea has made toward its longed-for if vaguely defined “global” status, visible foreigners — especially those as visible as O’Brien — still stand out on the streets of Seoul. In the eyes of the locals, all of us enjoy some degree of honorary weirdo status here, which, in many cases, lets us escape whatever weirdo status we suffered back in our birthplaces. I wonder how many in O’Brien’s internet-watching Korean fan base realize that he comes off as not quite of this Earth even back in America, and I wonder how much that fan base can grow given the society’s distaste for irony, as I wrote about in a previous post on Alain de Botton, another Westerner with surprising name recognition over here. But O’Brien did go to Harvard, and as I also touched on in that post, that counts for something in Korea. Maybe everything.

(photo source: Team Coco)

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



By Bernadette Murphy

The desk of Alex, a salesman at Harley-Davidson of Glendale, features a picture of Fonzie sitting on a Triumph motorcycle with a girl wearing a skirt sitting on the back, holding on to him fetchingly. The photo surfaced from the auction catalog when the actual motorcycle was found in someone’s garage after years of neglect.

“I always wanted to be Fonzie,” Alex says of the TV character whose last official appearance dates back nearly thirty years. We’re hanging out and chatting while my motorcycle is being serviced. Alex is almost ten years younger than me and must have gotten in on the tail end of the Happy Days era.

“I always wanted to date Fonzie,” I reply, plunking myself into the proper gender-specific role. As a girl who grew up in the ’70s, I can’t rightly wish for more than that. Yet I can’t explain to Alex that my yearning was deeper, more visceral. I wanted to consume Fonzie—just like the Holy Communion I took each week at Mass—and by ingesting him, to engender in myself the qualities I so admired.

I haven’t thought about my Fonzie obsession in decades. As a teenager, the names Fonzie, the Fonz, Arthur Fonzarelli, and Henry Winkler could all rocket me to a fourth dimension. I was a tomboy, a girl who competed and was ranked nationally in skateboarding, a young lady more comfortable in a pair of Van’s slip-ons and corduroy OP shorts than kitten heels and skirts, someone who liked to hang with the guys at empty, abandoned swimming pools to skateboard rather than go to the mall with girlfriends to shop.

I bought fan magazines featuring Henry Winkler, went to every movie he made, read his biographies, toyed with acting because that would put me in the same mental territory as this man/character/dream figure. Though Fonzie was my favorite, Winkler didn’t have to be Arthur Fonzarelli to make me swoon; any contact with him would do it. If we were to sit down and talk, I believed, we’d pick up a conversation that had already been in progress.

Perhaps I was searching for male approval. My father was preoccupied caring for my severely mentally ill mother, watching out for my youngest brother who was fast becoming a juvenile delinquent, and trying to tend the five basically motherless kids in our family, while striving to keep food in the kitchen cabinets and making sure we went to Mass on Sundays. I’m sure, in some way, my father would have given me that approval if I’d known how to ask. But I didn’t.

When couldn’t get the approval I was looking for at home, I sought it with my skateboard and the grudging respect I earned from the boys — male approval was male approval, after all. But soon even that power faded and I looked where young girls turn next for that anointing: my own sexual power. Only, in adolescence, I didn’t know really that’s what it was I was reaching for.

My conversation with Alex moves on to other motorcycle-related subjects, but something is amiss. I’ve just lied to him and, more important, to myself.

“Actually, I take that back,” I clarify, knowing the truth doesn’t matter to Alex but it does to me. “I wanted to be Fonzie, too.”

After that, I decide to look deeper into my Fonzie obsession. Certainly, the Fonz was an important role model, demonstrating what it meant to be immune from peer pressure and true to one’s self. That made perfect sense at an age when my identity was forming. But now I am in midlife with established demographic markers—professor, author, homeowner, mother of three—when coolness seems radically beside the point. Yet the more I think about my long-forgotten Fonzie fascination, the more I find the qualities he embodied as important as ever. I am grappling once again with issues of identity.

I have just separated from my husband of 25 years and am living on my own for the first time. I now make my home in a one-room apartment perched above a garage, just like Fonzie. When riding my motorcycle, I wear motorcycle boots and a black leather jacket, just like Fonzie — though to be fair, I wear spring dresses and lace blouses when not on the bike. I’m learning to make my way through life as a solo person, no longer tied by traditional family bonds, a loner, just like Fonzie. Only I am the parent of three nearly grown children, 49, and female. Still, I feel myself channeling some of the energy, the chutzpah, the boldness, the generosity of spirit I found in the character. In short, I find myself needing to emulate Fonzie in order to survive.

My phone rings one evening while cooking dinner.

“Hello,” a gentle male voice speaks. “This is Henry Winkler.”

I almost drop the phone. “You just made my night,” I say.

Weeks ago, I’d told a writing colleague that I’d love to chat with him. Winkler now coauthors with my colleague the Hank Zipzer series of children’s books that tell the everyday adventures of a bright young boy with learning challenges. I never thought he’d actually call. He graciously agrees to schedule a phone interview. I try not to gush.

I competed on skateboards until age 16 when I attracted my first boyfriend, a “bad boy” in his own way. Over time, I gave up my skateboard and 501 Levi’s for high-heeled Candies sandals, Calvin Klein must-lie-prone-on-the-bed-to-zip-them jeans, makeup, and giggles. I learned to toss my hair and came to understand that boys didn’t want girls to hang with them at empty swimming pools if they could make out with them in cars. I discovered the socially acceptable role for girls like me: to become pretty like the rest.

My foray into that world wasn’t a comfortable fit. That first boyfriend pressured me into having sex when I was just as happy to cuddle. Fear of abandonment was enough to earn my acquiescence. That coupling at age 16 resulted in a teen pregnancy and a child relinquished for adoption. Returning to my high school after a stint in the Teen Mother Program brought with it whispered cruelties, ugly notes on my locker, a sense of being ostracized, and a cloud of shame surrounding my sexuality that would shadow me for the next thirty years.

“All I know is what the Fonz was to me, and what I added on, over the years, to the fabric of the Fonz,” says Winkler when we talk. “When I first started him, even in the audition, he was — the first word that comes to my mind but it’s not the best word — cooler than I am, he was more definite than I am, he was more sure about the air he moved when he walked through the world than I am — or even was. He was my alter ego. He was fun to play because he was who I wanted to be, also.”

As a result of my high school experiences, I learned my lesson fast and hard. Girls were meant to be not only pretty but also tame, and to follow the socially conscribed rules. Take one step outside of that realm and you will be slammed.

I finished my education, commuting from my father’s house to the local state college, and was married upon graduation to the most Richie Cunningham-type man I could find — no more bad boys for me! In short order I became a mother of three and settled in, adopting Winnie-the-Pooh jumpers paired with sensible mom shoes. Long gone were both extremes: the tomboy in torn Levi’s scrambling over a chain-link fence to gain access to a skateboarding venue, as well as the girl surprised by her budding sexuality, outfitted in too-tight jeans, unsure of what the sensual realm entailed other than trouble.

“He was who he was,” Winkler reflects. “And that was the strength that pushed everybody back, that made them want to follow him, and backed people down when they wanted to fight. He never actually threw a punch,” Winkler pauses. “It was the intimidation of authenticity — and that is more powerful than anything. He was so confident that he was able to be vulnerable.”

My life choices were exactly what my father would have wanted. Traditional Irish Catholic to the core, he prized the virtue of motherhood and was most pleased when I fulfilled that role. At the same time, he disapproved of my writing. When my first book was published, he was so angered by what I’d written about my mother’s mental illness that he didn’t speak to me for two years. I tried through my writing to get him to see the “real” me, asking him to acknowledge if not approve of who I was. He preferred the construct he’d created: the good wife and mother to his grandchildren, the docile and obedient woman. That was the only woman he could condone. The same was basically true with my husband. He loved the homemaker image of me, the Play Dough-making mother, and didn’t seem to care to meet the full person I was.

Aren’t these the lessons the larger culture instills in us, simply reinforced in my case by my family members?

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when the tomboy in me began to rustle, calling, bursting through the constraints I’d placed on her. I started backpacking, then climbing mountains, open-water kayaking, getting tattooed, running marathons, coming out as who I really was and had abandoned decades earlier. People who’d known me for years looked askance. Midlife crisis, they concluded.

But that wasn’t it. I was a reclaiming the person I’d always been, the girl who’d shaped herself into a mold that didn’t fit out of fear of yet another cultural and familial banishment.

It all started when, at age 48, I learned to ride a motorcycle. The minute I got the machine to skim smoothly over the blacktop, I was hooked. As I began to master the motorcycle, a complete version of myself coalesced. Weaving through orange cones on the training range, I sensed the two parts of me work in tandem for perhaps the first time. I felt as weightless and graceful as a dancer, executing moves of precision and elegance, as feminine as possible, while also aware of the brawn and boldness required to get that macho machine to do what I wanted it to. The male and female energies in me complimented rather than competed with each other.

There are few narratives in our culture that support this kind of tomboy, motorcycle riding, adventure-seeking life I was creating. I think back to Thelma & Louise, now approaching its 25th anniversary, the only road adventure film I can name in which women are the primary characters. In the film world, I struggle to name any female road story that does not end badly for the woman. Rape and death are the most common outcomes.  There have been a few books featuring female adventurers — the tales of Dervla Murphy come to mind — but these are the exceptions to the rule.  Where am I to find role models?

I ask Winkler about his experience with the motorcycle. I’d heard he was terrified of it.

“Not terrified,” he explains. “I almost never rode the motorcycle. I think I rode it for, like, 12 feet. But I was intimidated. I did not think that I could ride it with the internal confidence of not spilling it. I did not think I could figure out the hand, and the hand, and foot, and the hand, and the gear, and the speed, and the brake.”

I am ashamed of the hint of smugness I feel, hearing this. No wonder getting my motorcycle endorsement at the DMV felt so great. I had mastered a skill Winkler had shied away from.

So what was the draw of the motorcycle for Fonzie? The outlaw persona, the macho element, the beauty of the mechanics?

Winkler laughs. “All of it! He rode a motorcycle, loved it, loved just sitting on it.”

I knew the feeling. Not overnight, but fast enough to draw strange looks in my suburban world, leather boots and a jacket appeared, followed by a matte-black Harley that would make Bat Girl proud. The approval I’d craved from my father, my husband, and men in general was now bubbling up from within me. For the first time in my life, I didn’t simply want to be The Fonz. I had, on some psychic level, become him.

It’s a process Winkler knew well. As he puts it, he had long wanted to stop being “such a bowl a jelly at my core.” When his kids were growing up, he says, they were like muffins you’re baking. “You stick the toothpick in and you know they’re not done yet. Well, I wasn’t done until my late 40s, my early 50s. I think I mourned the sadness of how long it took me, all that time wasted, all the power you give away to other people.”

“Hearing that makes me feel so much better,” I tell him.

“You know why?” he pauses for dramatic effect. “’Cause we’re all the same. To varying degrees, we are all the same.”

I ask Winkler if playing Fonzie helped him get “done” any sooner? I’m hoping that my motorcycling experience is helping me get done, too. That maybe I’m on the verge.

“Fonz did not help me to authenticate. He showed me what was possible to be. I’m not talking about motorcycles, snapping fingers, that stuff, just walking your avenue through the world.” Playing the Fonzie character while still knowing he wasn’t as authentic to his core as he’d like to be was a frustrating experience he says. “Because I was still living with the worry while I was playing with the confidence.”

“But isn’t that how we learn to do anything in life?”

He agrees. “Then I’m luckier than anything in that I was able to play the character. People look for the metaphor of the character in order to get there. I was given it.”

For me, perhaps the motorcycle is the metaphor. It isn’t an act and the clothes aren’t a costume, but simply protective gear, not unlike the padded shorts I wore as a skateboarder. And because I know that truth to the depth of my being, and have never again since high school actively sought to appear sexual in my manner of dress, I can wear my black riding gear with no self-consciousness.

At least, that’s what I thought.

I was dressed in my leathers one day at the Harley dealership, looking at helmets and chatting with the guys working there. Quentin, the head of bike sales, introduced me to one of his burly, tattooed biker friend.

“You ride?” the friend asked, a bit surprised, probably wondering if I just sat on the back of some guy’s bike.

I nodded.

“She also runs marathons,” Quentin added, as if that explained the motorcycle thing.

The friend did what no one had done to me in decades — the slow up-and-down with his eyes, nodding approvingly. I could feel every inch of my thighs encased in leather as if lit up in neon.

“I can tell,” he said. “With legs like that, you could cut diamonds.”

I wanted to crawl under the nearest rock. I was so embarrassed I fumbled my words and then dropped my helmet — a huge no-no. I scrambled to leave as quickly as possible. Riding my bike home, I bawled under that helmet, so shamed by that moment of male ogling attention after years of actively avoiding it with mom-type jumpers and loose-fitting clothing.

I was able to identify the source of the shame and within a day or two to let it go. The sexual vibe given by the leathers, I decided, was a vibe others were adding, an identity I did not have to be categorized by. The safety equipment I wear is not meant to be your sexual fantasy, though out pop culture has framed it that way. If there was a female Fonzie, I reflected, she would totally blow off this guy’s hyper-sexualized read of my manner of dress.

And so I did, and in doing so, reclaimed a sense of my own sexuality and attractiveness. A few weeks later I allowed my 17-year-old daughter to pick out jeans for me a full size smaller than I usually wore. Soon, I was able to embody a bit of the teen girl I’d left behind all those years ago, the one who was a hybrid between the tomboy and the sex-kitten, but who could own both parts of herself.

When my son, away at college, called to ask me about the separation between his father and me, his question surprised me. “Mom,” he said, “did the motorcycle have anything to do with it?”

“No, of course not,” I replied, which was the truth. But not the whole truth. By embracing the part of me that had lain dormant all those years via the motorcycle, I had found myself again — a self my father did not want to meet, a self that hadn’t fit with my husband for at least a decade. My husband and I had grown so far apart, especially after I’d reclaimed my inner tomboy, that there was nothing left to connect us. And all the activities I’d undertaken — marathons, mountain climbing, etc.?

Henry Winkler puts his finger right on it. “Can I ask you a question?” he says. “Did all that activity fuel the separation?”

“Absolutely. It taught me what I needed to know: that if I could rally enough strength, enough courage, to do these things, I might have the courage to do what I desperately wanted and needed to do: to leave.”

In talking with Winkler about Fonzie’s authenticity, his voice becomes excited. “You know what it does?” he asks of claiming one’s self. “It frees you up and give you back so much of your life.  When you talk yourself down, and cut the negative off your bone with a bowie knife, that’s powerful. And then if you replace with a positive you walk taller, straighter, farther.”

So playing Fonzie helped Winkler get “done” by his late 40s, early 50s? That gives me hope.

“No, no, no!,” he practically shouts. “To be on the road to being done. I still have a molten chocolate center that is still gooey!”

Winkler sounds exhausted as our conversation winds down. “Wow!” he says. “I swear to you that I’ve had these thoughts in isolated boxes in the attic. I’ve never put them all together. Now I realize I don’t have the fucking slightest clue if I’m on the track but it seems right to me. What I’m saying seems right.”

After we hang up I realize that what I’m doing — I also don’t have the fucking slightest clue — but it seems right to me. I am working to embrace authenticity and all that comes with it, including the aura of loneliness that surrounded Fonzie. He may have been able to snap his fingers and have girls flock to him, he may have been friends with all the guys in town, but he was still a loner and an air of existential aloneness clung to him. Which, perhaps, is the price one pays for authenticity.

I’m grateful to Winkler for taking the time to talk with me and help me sort out my obsession. I can’t help wishing we could chat like that on a regular basis. Still, one sentence he used describing Fonzie stays with me long after. “Everyone seemed to believe that, if I knew him, he would have been my friend; he would have taken care of me.”

I guess that’s how I think of Winkler, and perhaps in a just-getting-started way, how I now think about myself. At the very least, I am learning to befriend myself, to approve of myself, to care for myself while continuing to care for those I love. I think, in maybe a tiny way, I am learning to be strong enough to risk being real.


Excerpt from Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life by Bernadette Murphy. Counterpoint Press, May 2016.

 Lead photo by johnlivezy.com.

KB - Michael Hurt style 1

Capturing Seoul’s Street Style: Michael Hurt’s Fashion Photography

By Colin Marshall 

Last month we featured the work of Seoul-based Korean-black American street photographer Michael Hurt here on the Korea Blog. But while those shots all capture something essential about the life of the city, most of them depict the Seoul of at least a decade ago — the equivalent, surely, of something like 25 years of change in Los Angeles. Since then, Hurt himself has also changed, going from pure street shots to a kind of hybrid of street and fashion photography, all part of a discipline of “visual sociology” that he continues to develop through his academic work. Since these two chapters of his career have produced such different images of Korea, I thought it best to give each its own post. When he posted the brand new series of shots of the subject above, I knew the time had come to put in work on this one.

“This is a young lady I met on the last night of Seoul Fashion Week,” Hurt says. “To me, this kind of picture is the quintessence of Korean life and what one could call street fashion. One reason I connect very strongly with the real lies in the fact that, when it comes to representations of Korean reality outside of Korea, there is this strong Korean desire to dress up that reality to the point that it becomes nothing more than a superficial tourism commercial. People ask me whether these images are good or bad for people outside of Korea to see or whether I’m trying to advocate something such as smoking or sexiness or some other ridiculous thing.”

And what does he say in response? “The image I am recording, especially ones such as this one of the young lady smoking, are the most truly and socially real documentary photos that one could take. And in this post-1950s, reality television-reared, ‘I Want My MTV’ generation and its Photoshop- and YouTube-enhanced media environment, nobody wants carefully censored, government-curated, 1984 -esque tourism-bureau representations of reality. If those old fogies in suits could make Korea look cool with pictures of Korean traditional dress, dance, and flowers and other shit, Korea would’ve looked cool decades ago. And that’s why I love this fucking photo.”

KB - Michael Hurt style 2

Hurt explains more about his priorities in the essay “On the Inestimably Great Importance of Shooting Seoul ‘Street Fashion’ Slow and Proper”: “I came into this game as a photographer and academic doing street photography as social documentary, and then moved in the direction of documenting what women were wearing as a way of looking at changing gender role norms, the performance of gender in the Butlerian sense, and then at items of clothing specifically. So when I do what are essentially ‘environmental portraits’ that happen to take up sartorial concerns, I worry first about the background and then how that background is having a conversation with the subject. I worry about context first, the subject’s personality second, and the clothing last. And in the big picture, I am trying to capture something about Korean society beyond just the rags hanging on the subject’s body.”

In the shot above, we see “sartorial culture and trends and mediums bouncing across the decades and across the Pacific, not to mention between the high-fashion runway and the street. This is suku-jan, a Korean pronunciation of the Japanese word for Yokosuka, Japan” — a city bombed in retaliation for Pearl Harbor — “and jumper. It’s the hot ticket right now across the world’s collective street, and now that Korea is connected to the rest of the world and no longer dependent on local broadcast media to filter everything, it’s a good sign of just how far Korea has come with being connected in a global conversation, one in which Korean high-fashion runway designers are participating.”

Here we have “the very picture of fast-changing gender norms in Korea, and a more open public culture of personal identity expression. What this picture is is a living, breathing, and vibrant repudiation of the old societal line that women are women and men are men, in terms of gender roles, and never shall the boundary be blurred.” The shot hints at a “multiplicity of friendship modes, sexual identities, gender performance and identities. It’s also a great and natural middle finger in the face of the oppressive heteronormativity of South Korean culture, and in that way is extremely refreshing. It’s one reason the folks at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza during Seoul Fashion Week, cool in terms of both the sartorial and social senses, are a pleasure to be around and help me cope with life in this culture.”

KB - Michael Hurt style 6

Hurt may find the heteronormativity of Korean society oppressive despite being heterosexual himself, but he also finds that, when it comes to capturing images of the boldest women’s style like the one just above, “my heterosexual male gaze enable me more than it cripples me. I’m not that concerned about the ‘fashion’ here, but the brashness of her outfit.” And that outfit “works in a very Korean way. It is veritably screaming SEX, SEX, SEX, but without doing it in the way an American sartorial message might, which would be to simply blare it out in a very literal way; the Korean way of dealing with sex is by stating its presence while also denying that’s what is being done. It maintains plausible social deniability.”

That means that “there’s not going to be any one, particular thing that gets a relatively mainstream, publicly reserved young lady like this in any pinpointable trouble,” especially one who understands that everything in her outfit “goes together in a Korean-edgy way, that it’s all cute and innocuous, even though it has a Hollywood-hooker aesthetic. No one is gonna say, ‘your socks are a bit Lolita‘ or ‘those heels are too high’ or ‘that bag makes you look cheap,’ because people aren’t working with these cultural messages that would actually get you in trouble in the FAR MORE SARTORIALLY CONSERVATIVE UNITED STATES. So I instinctively posed her in such a way that all the elements could come together and make the viewer GET what she’s doing without needing it spelled out too much.”

KB - Michael Hurt style 4

And as for the image projected by this Seoulite out and about, Hurt describes it as “simply cool, and it has that confident attitude so much more typical of young Koreans these days. She is also doing what many young women do: picking and choosing freely from available style options, which is why you see such a mix of seemingly dissonant elements, such and and girly, frilly pink dresses (which this young lady was wearing) and dark, emo-esque makeup, mixed in together UNIRONICALLY” — irony being, as I’ve written before, a resource in sometimes blessedly short supply around here — and in this frame in particular, “hipster glasses with a hip-hop-influenced, swagged-out, fuzzy pink hat.”

KB - Michael Hurt style 5

Hurt appreciated two things about the sensibility on display in this photo: “her youthful, beaming innocence and her jacket, which was on-trend and went with another huge fashion item, the white tennis skirt. Two birds, one stone.” And if those items strike you as oddly Western to have become so popular in Korea, I can assure you that you’re not alone. While walking the streets of Seoul, I every so often stop and think to myself, “Almost all of these thousands of people around me” — women, men, adults, children, the elderly — “are dressed just like Westerners.”

The thought sends my mind reeling, then casting around for an explanation, or at least some imagined image of what a modern Seoul in something other than Western dress would look like. But to Hurt’s mind, the very concept of “’Western’ style has no real meaning anymore, to the extent that even the Korean word for that, yangbok (양복), has come to simply mean a formal suit, as opposed to one half of a binary choice between Western versus Korean formal attire, hanbok (한복).” Interestingly, one does notice an increasing presence of hanbok-clad young women on the streets of Seoul today, though the sneakers they almost invariably wear beneath undercuts the effect somewhat.

“Certain aspects of Western fashion have become such universals that they’ve also lost meaning in an West-East binary. Take a pair of ten-centimeter stiletto heels, not uncommon on the streets of Seoul. Is that ‘Western?’ And especially since so many women wear six- to eight-centimeter heels all the time, even with hanbok, the distinction has become pointless. In the same way, I think few people in Korea see the automobile as ‘Western’ either, although it is indeed a Western invention — like the TV, the radio, or the telephone.”

KB - Michael Hurt style 7

In his recent essay and photo series “Spring Sogaeting with Cherry Blossoms”, Hurt probes further the question what street fashion photography can tell us about Korean culture. “And to take this line of thinking even further, what is even particularly Korean about Korean street fashion, if it’s not all particularly Korean material, patterns, or even brands?” When world-famous street style photographer Scott Schuman, better known as The Sartorialist, came to Korea, he captured not Korean style but “an increasingly global, non-culturally specific culture of dressing well, one that is enabled by global media outlets, the ubiquity of the Internet, and the homogenization of taste. What Schuman’s much fetéd visit to Korea actually meant to many Koreans concerned with his visit was how it marked a certain kind of recognition from the White West, that Korea — the Korean fashion field, actually — had achieved the much-coveted status of the truly Global that has been both a societal and state goal.”

Touching on such historical topics as Chinese suzerainty, the retaliation of and for Pearl Harbor, shifts in the dominant language of power, the divide between black and white U.S. servicemen, “neo-colonial Kool-Aid,” anti-communism, the 1988 Olympics, and the emergence of a “global fetish,” Hurt’s piece makes an attempt at explaining why “identifying the KOREA in Korean street fashion photography is increasingly problematic.” Where, he asks, “is the local in an entity whose popularity mostly comes from its globality? Where is the specific, the Koreanness, within an aesthetic system whose very logic and language is expressed in universal terms?” All this culminates in a series of photos, taken under the cherry blossoms now coming into view all across the country, of the kind of female self-presentation he describes, in its deliberate “social innocuousness, demureness, and sheer, unabashed femininity,” as “oh, so Korean.”

Still, some of the most fascinating aesthetic developments happening now go on not deep within cultural traditions, but along cultural borderlands. Before seeing that idea expressed in Hurt’s street style photography, I hadn’t thought to look for it in women’s clothes. I do follow a fair few publications to do with men’s style, an area in which Korea has only just begun to build up momentum. Many young Korean men still look dressed, directly or indirectly, by their girlfriends, and most of those who’ve attained a respectable age go in for drab, utilitarian looks — though strangely often with the accent of brightly colored athletic shoes. (I’ll probably have to keep going Japan for my menswear magazines for the foreseeable future.)

As ever in modern Korea, in stylistic as well as other respects, the women lead the way. (Quite a leap forward for a sex who, as recently as the turn of the 20th century, could barely leave the house.) If you want to see the future of this country, look to them, and not just to what they’ve put on today. “It’s not just about the clothing and who’s wearing it,” Hurt writes. “Because fashion isn’t just about clothing; fashion is part of a larger conversation, it is a cultural text, it is about social norms and value, social structures, all in the big picture, defined as what we call culture. If you can’t see all that in a street fashion picture taken in Korea, something major is missing.” For more, have a look at his pages on Instagram and Flickr, as well as his site Deconstructing Korea, which also has a section on his students’ work in fashion sociology.

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


Getting Up to Speed on the Cultural Revolution, Part 2 — Some Works of Fiction

By Jeff Wasserstrom

In our last post, we pointed readers toward a memoir, a narrative history, a collection of essays on visual propaganda, and a website, which all addressed the “Cultural Revolution Decade” (1966-1976).

For this second installment on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the start of that decade, I will highlight the value of two collections of stories set mainly or exclusively during the Cultural Revolution Decade, as well as (perhaps more surprisingly) a children’s book and a foray into speculative fiction, each of which has some scenes set during the same tumultuous period.

The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

Chen Ruoxi, the author of this collection of short tales, was born in Taiwan and now lives there, but in these fictions she draws on the period that she spent living on the mainland during the 1960s and early 1970s. Ably translated by Nancy Ing and Howard Goldblatt, the English edition was first published in 1978 with an Introduction by Perry Link. Indiana University Press brought out a revised and updated edition in 2004, inspired to do so by the book’s enduring popularity as a classroom reading. I first encountered it as a student. Stories from the collection — especially “‘Chairman Mao is a Rotten Egg,’” which focuses on the way that even the chatter of small children could create political problems late in the Mao years — have stuck with me ever since.

Apologies Forthcoming: Stories Not about Mao

Xujun Eberlein, a past contributor to LARB, grew up in China but is now based in the US. This set of evocative and well turned sketches of ordinary life during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath was originally written in English. Her present project, which she describes in a recent interview with Chris Buckley of the New York Times, focuses on her experiences in Sichuan during the Cultural Revolution. This work of nonfiction deals in part with her sister’s tragic death by drowning after jumping into a river to commemorate the anniversary of Mao’s famous swim in the Yangzi.

The Three Body Problem

In this first part of an acclaimed and popular trilogy (a work written by Liu Cixin and skillfully translated into English by Ken Liu that won the Hugo Award), most of the action takes place after the Cultural Revolution, but crucial scenes take place during it. All I can say without spoiling the suspense is that a scientist’s disgust with what she sees going on around her in the time of the Red Guards leads her to react differently than she would have otherwise to a signal from a distant planet.

Bronze and Sunflower

Cao Wenxuan is a recent winner of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award for children’s fiction. Here is what Helen Wang, a past contributor to LARB who translated Bronze and Sunflower from Chinese into English, has to say about this celebrated children’s book, which has been translated into many languages:

The friendship between country-boy Bronze and city-girl Sunflower comes about when she moves with her artist-father to the cadre school across the river from Bronze’s village. The villagers and cadres visit each other, but the interaction is fairly superficial. The villagers don’t really know what a May 7th cadre school is, and don’t really care. They’re intrigued by things like fish-farming, and appreciate being able to borrow equipment, but can’t understand why the city people have left behind city comforts to come and work long hours in the fields and burn the midnight oil with political meetings. When Sunflower’s father dies, the cadre school can’t look after her, and Bronze’s family, the poorest in the village, takes her in. She stays with them long after the cadre school has closed and the cadres have returned to the city. Life in the countryside is hard and matter-of-fact. Natural disasters are catastrophic. When crops fail, there is simply no food. The relief boat (bringing grain) never arrives. Schooling and medical treatment are expensive. Hard work, integrity and love pull the family through. But, when a new mayor takes office in Sunflower’s old city and discovers that Sunflower was left behind in the village, he is determined to rectify the situation, honor her parents, bring her back to the city and personally see that she gets a good education and a decent future. However, the situation is blurred, there were no formal adoption papers, and Sunflower’s parents have to be persuaded to let her go.