I’m already halfway through a trip to Guiyang in Guizhou province and also Nanning in Guangxi province. The visit has already shown me some of the highlights of Guiyang, an emerging big data hub in China. And now I’m gearing up to explore everything from foreign trade to local culture in Nanning.
Since it’s a busy working trip, I’m taking a break from blogging. But don’t worry — I’ll be back next week with some photos offering a behind-the-scenes look at the experience. See you then!
Over the years I’ve lived in China, the experiences I’ve recorded in my journals have served as rich material inspiring my own writing endeavors — including many a post on this blog.
When you live in another country and culture, you’re constantly immersed in an environment that challenges you in each and every moment, often with questions of what might have been…if you had grown there, or even lived there under drastically different circumstances.
Author Travis Lee has frequently drawn from his own life in China — particularly Wuhan — in penning many of his own works, from the book “Expat Jimmy” (featured here on the blog a few years back) to his latest novella “The Boy with Blue Eyes.” It follows the eponymous child as he rambles through the streets of Wuhan, and stumbles into some shadowy characters along the way, all told in unconventional prose that mirrors the uncertain and dubious world swirling around him.
It’s my pleasure to once again feature Travis Lee on the blog through this interview.
Here’s Travis’ bio on Goodreads: “Travis Lee lived in China for two and a half years. He currently lives in the States.” You can learn more about him and follow his work at his website. “The Boy with Blue Eyes” is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.
Tell us what inspired you to write this story.
At Wuhan University, I lived in a small apartment much like the one the boy lives in. I was married, no kids at the time, but one day I thought, what if we had a child, and what if I had no residence permit, and we were scraping by illegally?
The perspective of this child would be the most interesting, and challenging to write. I decided I would try to write it with no dialogue. I wanted people to picture a black & white world, minus the eyes, glowing blue against this background.
The idea was there, but I didn’t start working on it until after I returned to the States.
This story is written in an unconventional style. Could you talk more about why you chose to present the story in this way?
I had several false starts. I’d always get to the point where the boy makes it to the Information Market near Huazhong Normal University, and things would come to a standstill. After the third false start or so, I moved to the other books while ‘The Boy with Blue Eyes’ brewed in the back of my head. I believe real writing occurs subconsciously, and when we sit down to type, we’re receiving dictation from a higher part of our brain.
During this time, I read ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’, ‘Naked Lunch’ and ‘Manhattan Transfer’, and I decided to try the unusual style in the first two books with the sense of city of the third, and see if I could finish it. Plus, ‘The Journey through Nanking’ employs an offbeat style, and that was my first professional publication, so I thought, eh, why not?
I wrote most of the first complete draft in Wuhan. I know people who’ve gone back and they talk about the development like it’s a good thing, but I hardly see the good in knocking down the old city to erect fields of highrises going for 20,000 RMB a square meter and mega-malls with ‘New World’ in the name–that slid easily into ‘The Boy with Blue Eyes’. One of the construction areas they visit is a real place; it’s the ruins of the backstreet serving the first university I worked at.
For a while, I didn’t think I’d ever publish it, so I kept the first complete draft locked away on my hard drive, tinkering with it here and there.
Then the pandemic hit. Shelter-in-place. And once I understood I wouldn’t have to try to impress some literary agent’s hypercritical slush reader, I went through and made the style even weirder, removing coordinating conjunctions, combining paragraphs, stuff like that, all while listening to Japanese music like Harumi Hosono’s ‘Paradise View’ and Muraoka Minoru’s ‘So’.
I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying, The story demanded it.
This book (like “Expat Jimmy”, which also was featured here on the blog) has characters falling into crime. Why did you decide to add some criminal elements to the story?
The story naturally went in that direction. The gang of boys and the blue-eyed man had to be doing something, and serving the corrupt official is where we ended up. Also, the blue-eyed man’s relationship with the official shows that despite his pretentions otherwise, the blue-eyed man is very much outside the guanxi network–he’s an outsider just like the boy.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I hope the style allows you to experience the story rather than simply read it. Too many writing groups and writer’s workshops love to tell you what you can’t do: you can’t use a semicolon, you can’t use the past progressive, you must describe what your main character looks like–ignore all that. Don’t allow some writing group to admonish you into writing their style. It’s your story, not theirs, so experiment, experiment, experiment. Find your voice and stay true to yourself, regardless of what others consider “real” writing.
An enjoyable story, and the realization that no one can dictate your style to you–experiment, experiment, experiment. Writing groups will admonish you to do things their way, they’ll tell you you can’t use a semicolon, you can’t use the past progressive, you must describe what your main character looks like–ignore all that, and stay true to yourself.
Thanks so much to Travis Lee for this interview! You can learn more about him and follow his work at his website. “The Boy with Blue Eyes” is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.
Imagine if a university killed your career, abruptly, like someone pulling out an assault weapon and instantly gunning down all of the success you had built up over years.
That’s what happened to Jun.
Jun was a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Idaho State University with a 3.69 GPA who had already successfully defended his dissertation. But with no warning of risk of dismissal and no formal remediation as required by university policy, he was suddenly dismissed from the program in 2013 for the pretextual reason of “not making satisfactory progress”.
The university’s own records show Jun was treated much worse than other students, who were warned and received formal remediation per policy.
And, as an expert testified, Jun was “a student whose assigned grades and evaluations across semesters was consistent with satisfactory progress”.
What happened to Jun was so egregious — and such an extreme violation of standards in the psychology field — that three psychology experts testified unopposed for him at trial, including Dr. Gerald Koocher, the author of the same ethics textbook the university used to train Jun.
“His dismissal, in this context, was frankly over the top, unreasonable, unwarranted, and extremely detrimental to him.”
– Dr. Koocher, trial testimony
(The university had no expert witnesses testifying at trial.)
“Mr. Yu’s experience exemplifies and exposes the pervasive ways in which implicit bias and racial discrimination against Asians can manifest in education and in the judiciary.”
– Amicus brief from Public Justice Center, Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, Chinese American Progressive Action, Dr. Russell Jeung (co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate), LatinoJustice and Chinese for Affirmative Action
Dr. Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, supports Jun’s case “in furtherance of his mission to fight racism against Asians and Asian Americans in its many forms.”
What happened to Jun reflects systemic racism and bias. More students could be harmed, unless we all stand strong together in solidarity and fight for justice.
Jun’s case could set a precedent to ensure students are treated fairly by universities and that future generations are not robbed of their careers and livelihoods because of institutional bias.
The university doesn’t have to worry about paying attorney’s fees. Meanwhile, we have been under constant pressure to pay monthly legal costs for over 5 and a half years since September 2015.
By forcing us to fight the case over so many years, piling up legal bills, the university is hoping that eventually we will run out of money and then give up.
But Jun and I are determined to fight this injustice to the end. And we need your help.
Your donations can help cover the mounting attorney’s fees we’ve had to shoulder. And more importantly, by donating you are making a contribution to the anti-racism cause.
When we take united action to support one another, we can help defeat the scourge of racism.
Encourage others to support by sharing the fundraiser:
To make it easier, here are messages you can use (along with the video or the infographic):
Share on social media with this message and link (don’t forget hashtag #JusticeforJun):
Co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate Dr. Russell Jeung + 13 orgs support Jun Yu, psych grad student who was systematically discriminated against by ISU. Support the fight against racial discrimination in education by supporting Jun. Donate: https://justiceforjun.com #JusticeforJun
Share via email, forums or listservs with this message:
Jun Yu has been fighting racism in education for over 5 years in US federal court through the discrimination case Jun Yu v. Idaho State University, which is now on appeal in the US 9th Circuit. Jun was systematically discriminated against in his clinical psychology doctoral program. Co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate Dr. Russell Jeung as well as 13 professional and legal/civil rights organizations support Jun in three amicus briefs filed in court.
What happened to Jun reflects systemic racism and bias, and more students could be harmed if we don’t stand up. Help support the fight against racial discrimination in education by supporting Jun.
The university has forced Jun into a long, exhausting and expensive legal battle, and he needs your help to fight this injustice. Please donate now to help support the fight against racism: https://justiceforjun.com
The National Day of Action and Healing on March 26 was launched in the United States to galvanize individuals, businesses and organizations to take steps to tackle anti-Asian racism and hate incidents. As organizers have called for efforts to make streets and businesses safer for Asians, they’re also asking that business leaders work to address the long-standing problem of anti-Asian discrimination in areas such as the workplace.
I’m encouraged that people are also seizing this moment as an opportunity to shine a light on the pervasive problem of anti-Asian bias, which often acts insidiously through systems and institutions and doesn’t usually produce the kind of shocking video footage that commands more attention in the media.
The 2019 study Discrimination in the US: Experiences of Asian Americans published in Health Services Research found 37 percent of Asian adults said they had experienced racial discrimination. That number jumped to 60 percent for the overseas Chinese in a recent survey highlighted by the US-based World Journal in a March 26 article. Such discrimination may not necessarily inflict physical harm, yet can be devastating.
Imagine being prosecuted by the government for alleged espionage you never committed. Racial profiling under the guise of national security has long threatened the livelihoods of scores of Chinese scientists in the US. Most are familiar with Wen Ho Lee, who was later exonerated, but more recently many others have been wrongfully targeted－including Cao Guoqing, Li Shuyu, Sherry Chen and Xi Xiaoxing.
More often, though, anti-Asian workplace discrimination occurs in subtle ways. Consider the news in February 2021 that Google agreed to a settlement with the US Department of Labor, after an investigation exposed problems including “hiring rate differences “that impacted not only female but also Asian job seekers.
Meanwhile, Asian students can have their education and careers harmed at the hands of instructors and faculty, who may disguise racial animus behind pretextual explanations.
It was over a week after the tragic shooting in Atlanta that left eight dead, including six Asian women, and yet Georgia was still on my mind as my husband Jun and I prepared dinner.
“You remember our dream of doing a road trip around the US?” I mentioned to him while chopping veggies. “It’s hard to imagine doing that now.”
I felt a wave of anxiety as I recalled our cross-country drive in the US in the summer of 2016, which involved camping at small state parks scattered across the nation’s heartland, and even a night of sleeping in our car during a rainstorm. The idea of spending the night outside in a flimsy tent in a space where other people could see us — and, especially, my obviously Asian husband — suddenly appeared risky, in light of the rise in anti-Asian hate incidents.
I’d already had this concern long before the incident in Atlanta, having followed the reports from Stop AAPI Hate and news of the most extreme violence, including Asian elders pushed to the ground and even dying from related injuries. Atlanta only heightened my apprehension.
This doesn’t mean I won’t eventually travel back to the US to see family and friends. Eventually, once the pandemic is fully controlled and there aren’t the many other barriers that make travel impossible or impractical, I’ll make plans for a visit. But the idea of embarking on a pleasure trip for two — just my husband and me — doesn’t appeal as much now. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to appreciate the majesty of, say, the Grand Canyon when you’re worried that your spouse might get assaulted because of his race and national origin.
…this need not necessarily be sentiments held only by mainland Chinese but Asians elsewhere, particularly those who are Chinese-looking. A Booking.com survey finds that nearly 70 percent of Asian travelers said friendliness of locals would factor into their decision-making process, with 84 percent saying “personal safety” would influence their choice of destination.
The report also said travelers ranked Asia as their most preferred overseas destination, followed by Europe and then North America.
I wonder, how many people in cross-cultural and interracial relationships here in Asia, like me, have also been rethinking the ways in which they might travel overseas with their Asian families in the West. How many more of us will put on hold those “dream travel” plans over safety concerns, opting for destinations within Asia or closer to home?
The arrival of March inevitably turns my thoughts to this tea, as this month sees the first harvest of the spring longjing. The leaves, plucked off the bushes before the coming of Qingming Festival in April, are considered the most tender of the year, and command the highest prices. I’ve sampled it a handful of times, luxuriating in its delicately sweet fragrance and flavor.
Nearly two years ago, I traveled back to Hangzhou for a video shoot that included a visit to the restaurant Charen Cun, nestled within the city’s longjing tea fields. I walked through the terraces of jade-green bushes along with the owner of the restaurant, who had inherited the fields and tradition of tending and appreciating longjing tea from his own father. Hovering over one of the bushes, he pulled a small bunch of leaves off with a gentle tug and placed them in my hands. They were a light and exuberant green, a shade recalling the uplifting joy of warmer spring days and the return of more sunshine. I tucked into my pocket those leaves, which were the most precious souvenir of my trip, a real physical reminder that I had stepped among the fields of my most favorite tea.
As International Women’s Day is coming up on March 8, stories of women who stand strong, particularly when it comes to the headwinds of societal expectations on romance, have been on my mind. Not that long ago, China Daily published a story highlighting the challenges that Chinese women in their 30s and even late 20s face when they’re single — and the courage it takes for them to live their lives.
In China, where conformity and traditional family values have always been highly prized, her solo lifestyle is still considered unconventional. ….
…after dinner a few days ago with colleagues, most of whom are in their 20s and early 30s, Feng came across a phrase she had never heard before－mu tai solo. This combination of the Chinese words “mu tai” and the English word “solo” refers to people who have never been in a romantic relationship. “Unfortunately, I am one of them.
When I told my colleagues I had been mu tai solo for nearly 40 years, they looked shocked and sympathized with me,” Feng said. “It was very embarrassing. I just made fun of myself, saying that my new year wish is to find my first love and then experience my first heartbreak.
“There has always been a phrase for single women－sheng nyu, or ‘leftover women’. Now, there is this new one, mu tai solo, which is disparaging. It’s not my fault that I’m mu tai solo, because when love happens, it happens. You cannot force it.”
When she told her mother about this experience, her 67-year-old parent sighed and said, “See, this is why you need a boyfriend to help get you out of this situation.”
Feng said: “But I really don’t think so. I don’t need a relationship to prove that I am one of ‘them’. I don’t want to get married under any kind of pressure. Finding what makes you happy is the most important thing.”
While not single, I can relate to the pressure felt when bucking societal expectations (such as the fact that I have no children). Not everyone ends up living in a way that follows convention — but, as Feng points out astutely in the piece, you don’t have to prove yourself that way. You just have to seek your own happiness, and be content in that.
You can read the full story here. And to all the women out there who read this blog (and the people who love them) wishing you a happy International Women’s Day on March 8!
China Daily published a column of mine detailing the story of a guesthouse in Zhejiang province that managed to open and thrive in a tough year. Here’s an excerpt:
“In 2020, the most important thing is not what you’ve already lost, nor what you’ve yet to achieve, but rather what you have now. Let go of the past, and laugh for the rest of your life.”
Yu Jianping, who wrote these words in a post on his WeChat page, might just have been imagining his recent entrepreneurial venture. He and his wife, Huang Li, opened a guesthouse and restaurant in Tonglu county, Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, during the star-crossed year of 2020, but still survived and thrived.
“No need to give us jujube dates－we have plenty of them.”
This message from my in-laws, delivered by my husband Jun after he returned from a quick trip to his hometown in rural Zhejiang province, exploded my annual Chinese New Year tradition of sending all the family members packaged gift boxes of large Xinjiang jujube dates. After years of believing I had hit upon the perfect gift for the holidays, I was now left scrambling for an alternative.
And the options in my usual online supermarket didn’t look promising. As I ticked off the possibilities with my husband－Beijing-style haw cakes or ginseng or chocolates－he vetoed every one, saying the family could probably buy them or already had them. His mom had even tucked into his backpack a heaping plastic bag of assorted chocolates in flavors ranging from toffee to brandy, a reminder of the increasingly global goods available in the village of his childhood, making my search for something unique even more challenging.
After what felt like the 100th time of fruitlessly scrolling through Chinese New Year goods online, a picture of a gift box of goji berries, a specialty of Ningxia Hui autonomous region, suddenly drew my thoughts back to my 2020 reporting trip to the region for a video shoot. I went to Ningxia to explore how it was leveraging some of its most celebrated agricultural products－including those renowned goji berries－to alleviate poverty, mainly through online sales. And I’d made a number of friends along the way, who welcomed me to contact them anytime.
Surely, they must have some Chinese New Year goods, I thought.
P.S.: Image above features me and the friend from Ningxia I mentioned in the article.
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