Incheon airport

Why I Left Los Angeles for Seoul

By Colin Marshall

Three weeks ago, I moved from Los Angeles’ Koreatown to Korea itself. The relocation happened not suddenly but after years of planning, and as the date of the one-way flight came within a few months’ time, I found myself more and more frequently pressed to answer the same question: why? Why did I want to move across the Pacific Ocean to a country the size of Indiana, a country many Americans know only for a poorly understood war back in the 1950s (and then mainly through the 1970s television dramedy ostensibly set in it), an impoverished and feistily militaristic northern neighbor, and, more recently, squadrons of pop singers often sonically and visually indistinguishable from one another?

But I’ve hardly gone to Korea without precedent. Nowadays, most of those Americans who couldn’t describe Korea in even the broadest strokes themselves know a few other people who’ve been, whether as members of the U.S. military stationed here or, more often among Californians, college graduates who do a year or two of English teaching here to pay off student loans. The soldiers and English teachers still do more than their part to color the Westerner presence in Korea, but I didn’t want to join their ranks; I had to come on my own terms, outside of the established roles and acknowledged types.

Seoul Welcomes You

This sort of venture has more of an association with Japan, inspirer of so many English-language expatriate memoirs and observational writings since the Second World War. I’ve enjoyed those books, and even taken their tradition as something of a research interest, but the Westerner-in-Japan narrative has, by now, assumed a pretty standard form. The Westerner-in-Korea narrative, however — essayed by Isabella Bird Bishop and the astronomer Percival Lowell in the late 19th century as well as Simon Winchester, Michael Stephens, and Clive Leatherdale in the late 20th, though none of them made a permanent home in the country — has yet to really take shape. The desire to experience that narrative for myself counted as one reason to leave America.


The desire to live in the first world counted as another. That sentiment came to mind in Los Angeles whenever I found myself aggressively panhandled, chasing the wild goose of a usable public restroom, or waiting fifteen minutes on a platform for the next train — assuming I had the good fortune to be going somewhere a train could take me in the first place. While I wouldn’t say (as Joe Biden memorably did about the facilities at LaGuardia Airport) that my homeland has fallen into the third world, who could disagree that it now sets the unfortunate standard for something like a new second world, a plane for great powers in clear decline? Their signal qualities: inadequate infrastructure; a bitter, futile obsession with the law; and the sad inability to see beyond their glory days.

Some Koreans, too, have begun to look longingly into the rear view mirror this past decade, but mainly those in the older generations who voted in the current president. The daughter of the strongman who industrialized the country with the “Miracle on the Han River” in the 1960s and 70s, she promises a “Second Miracle” just as straight-facedly as certain American politicians promise to return the United States to the ever more mythologized 1950s. I draw great refreshment from the fact that no Korean could possibly want to return to that decade, much of which Korea spent as a war-ravaged shambles.

In the 21st century, America and Korea have, to some extent, switched roles: the former now looks a bit shambolic compared to the latter, and the latter, on the whole, still regards the future (despite much hand-wringing over the slowdown in the staggeringly rapid economic growth of past decades) as a good thing. I haven’t met an American who considers the future a good thing in years. A British friend here, a notable writer of books on Korea, felt just the same about his homeland when he left it in the early 1980s: “But I found that in Korea,” he said, “I had a spring in my step.”

night street

That’s not to say that the darker aspects of Korean life — the all-pervading culture of hierarchy, the shockingly high suicide rate, the major disaster every twenty years or so — can’t also take the spring out of your step. But both the dark and the light (and especially the inevitable, complicated mixture thereof) get acknowledged by the most interesting elements Korean culture, which manifest not just in its books but its films, its music, its food, its media, its business, and its daily life: the subjects, in other worlds, I’ll take as the focus of the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog.

“Every man has two countries,” goes a saying attributed to no less an American mind than Thomas Jefferson, “his own and France.” France’s global cultural primacy may have waned since the early nineteenth century, but every man’s need for two countries — and in our unprecedentedly connected age, I’d say at least two — remains. It’s from that dual-countried perspective that I’ll write to you here three times a week. America, and especially Los Angeles (the most Korean city, incidentally, outside Korea itself), fascinates me more than ever, though it also frustrates me more than ever. Korea, and especially Seoul, also fascinates me more than ever, and I look forward to the frustrations it, too, will surely bring.


Documenting Public Space in China

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Americans tend to expect privacy in their public spaces. My enjoyment of a park is, in some ways, contingent on not being bothered by anyone else’s loud music, conversations, or sports activities. Riders in Amtrak’s quiet cars are infamous for shaming those who violate the rules of the rails (just ask New Jersey governor Chris Christie). And I’m instantly on guard whenever a fellow passenger on the Bolt Bus or an airplane attempts to strike up a conversation (though I’ll admit that some of those encounters have turned out surprisingly well). Even when surrounded by others, we Americans expect to be left alone.

Public spaces in China simply don’t work the same way, as documentary filmmaker J.P. Sniadecki demonstrates in two of his feature films, People’s Park (2012) and The Iron Ministry (2015). The former is a real-time exploration of activities in Chengdu’s central People’s Park; the latter splices together footage from three years of Sniadecki’s train rides in China. Both films demonstrate that people in China use public spaces in a fundamentally different way than Americans do: the park is a massive outdoor living room, the train a rolling restaurant/bar/hotel/community center. Privacy? Solitude? Personal space? There’s no such thing.

A Harvard-trained anthropologist who is affiliated with the university’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Sniadecki does not produce your standard talking-heads-style documentaries. In People’s Park, Sniadecki and fellow filmmaker Libbie Cohn created a “digital homage” to the renowned Song-dynasty scroll painting Along the River during the Qingming Festival; the film explores the park in one uninterrupted 78-minute take, meant to mimic in 21st-century fashion the experience of walking and viewing the 17-foot scroll. To achieve this effect, they first had to get to know the park, its people, and its rhythms; the two spent many days walking around and talking with the retirees who frequent the space. Once they had formulated a list of things to feature and noted the times at which those activities usually occurred, Sniadecki and Cohn constructed an itinerary that would get them to all the places they wanted to cover at the moment when the most action was happening. They carried out the filming itself by taking turns sitting in a wheelchair, armed with a small video camera and a set of microphones, while the other pushed the chair at a snail’s pace along the park’s paths.

The results of all this prep work — and 23 separate attempts at capturing the single take without mishap — are stunning. People’s Park leads the viewer on a slow tour of the lush green space, moving through different zones of activity as conversations ebb and flow around the camera. There are no subtitles or captions; the content of the discussions is not important. At points, Sniadecki and Cohn stop to linger in a particular spot, showcasing the ballroom dancers, singers, and artists who use the park as their performance venue. The highlight of these interludes is the closing dance sequence, which is unexpected and enormously fun.

Although Sniadecki and Cohn cite Along the River during the Qingming Festival as their inspiration, People’s Park reminds me just as much of an earlier China documentary, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 Zhongguo (Cina), which also features long, slow takes of people’s everyday lives and their interactions in public spaces. Similarly, The Iron Ministry brought to mind another, more recent, feature documentary, Fan Lixin’s Last Train Home (2009). Fan’s wonderful film has a more noticeable structure and narrative than Sniadecki’s, but the two share an interest in the common experiences of millions of travelers on the Chinese railway network. The Iron Ministry offers peeks at nearly every class and type of train running in China today, from hard-seat on the rusting old “iron roosters” of the 1980s to the quiet hum of the high-speed rail (I’ve written here before about the contrast between the different types of service.)

As in People’s Park, Sniadecki emphasizes the sensory environment of the train — especially its sounds — but The Iron Ministry is less experimental than the earlier film. It’s also more interactive than People’s Park; Sniadecki can be heard asking people questions, and small bits of conversation are translated in subtitles. Passengers discuss Tibet and modernization, China’s policy toward minorities, the challenges of finding a wife when you don’t own a home, and the changes one cutesy young woman hopes to make in her life by moving to Hangzhou.

People’s Park and The Iron Ministry are both challenging and heavily theorized films, the documentary equivalent of an academic monograph. For anyone who has lived in or studied China, they will surely resonate; both contained more than a few moments that brought back memories for me. Audience members without a China connection or interest in documentary filmmaking might find these works less accessible, but my hope is that viewers don’t let themselves be intimidated, as both films are well worth the investment of time and focus. Sniadecki’s immersive, sensory-intensive approach comes as close as I can imagine is possible to replicating the experience of walking through a Chinese park or riding in a hard-seat train carriage. For an American who prefers a comfortable buffer of personal space at all times, these activities can bring on an episode of sensory overload. But taking a deep breath and pushing through it is usually worthwhile; you never know when you’ll stumble upon a mass dance performance that completely revises your understanding of what a park is used for. And after a few good conversations on a Chinese train, you’ll never choose the quiet car again.


More or Less Insane

By Joanna Chen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In Praise of Chinese Gossip Rags

By Austin Dean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Sum of Our Fears

By Stephen Dau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

By Jon Wiener

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Umrbella 1 yr on HK

Hong Kong Revisited

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

By Nina Khrushcheva

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

By Austin Dean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Noodling Narratives of Our Lives

By Liz Carter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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