to be a kid again

If Peter Pan showed up at my window and asked me to join him in Neverland, I would fly away in a heartbeat. I’m only 23, but I can feel that as time ticks away, so do bits and pieces of things I treasured most in my childhood, like my imagination.

When I was little, the rooms of my dream house were connected by tunnels and slides. I built forts out of sofa cushions and blankets and it never felt small. One year the Tooth Fairy left me a purple crystal with my tooth in it, and other years she left me money under my pillow. But now that I’m an “adult” who “knows better,” I won’t expect an allowance under my pillow when my teeth begin to fall out, because that’s Life, as much as I wish it wasn’t.

The other day I noticed a little girl, maybe 2-3 years old, who stood wide-eyed before paper butterflies that hung from the ceiling at a mall entrance, marveling at the slight flapping of their wings from the breeze of the swinging doors. I had walked by this display earlier and thought how cheesy the decorations were, but watching the girl in fascination over the fake flowers and butterflies, I realized how much I miss seeing beauty in the ordinary. For a second I tried to envision what the girl saw–a thousand rainbow butterflies floating above a colorful meadow, sparkling with reflections of the sun. In that moment, I too could see the beauty of the cheap  display at the mall entrance. But a moment later, I walked out the swinging door and yelled at a driver for running a red light.

One of the reasons I love kids so much is that I am fascinated by them. They find beauty in ordinary things; they can make things come alive; they find life in obscure places and aren’t afraid to approach them; they don’t complicate things unnecessarily; they don’t discriminate; and they are fearless. Life can be taken at face value when you’re young and untainted. And when Life gets hard, kids can escape to worlds conjured up in their own minds, whereas adults hide their pain behind beer and pill bottles. It’s a shame we have to grow up.

Before I got into my first relationship, I remember wanting to feel heartache. I thought it was part of growing up, of  being human, and I wanted to experience it. Of course it hurt a lot when it actually happened, and rather than having spent hours upon hours analyzing what went wrong, I wish I could’ve just escaped to Neverland, or to an island where the Wild Things live. Reality would have been much easier to cope with.

After my parents’ divorce, I was glad to be far away from them so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. Unfortunately, like Dementors, Life seeped its way across the ocean to interfere with my usual cheerfulness. During that time I often wished to be a kid again, where living in blissful ignorance innocence veiled any and all miseries.

No one should have to grow up “too fast” but when they do, it’s nearly always a painful process. My family members often tell me how 单纯 (danchun), “simple, naive” I am, a fact that I think is ascribed to my Americanized upbringing. My cousin, on the other hand, grew up in China with divorced parents — still a taboo at the time — and a mother who didn’t act like one. While her parents carried on with their own misery or when her mother was absent, my cousin had to fend for herself. Besides what she dealt with at home, she saw ugliness outside too. She learned about Life and all its hardships at a young age when kids I grew up with in Brookline, Massachusetts were playing tag and painting pictures at daycare. Now at  22 years old, my cousin looks, acts and thinks far beyond her age, and definitely far beyond me. The painful part of all of this besides a lost childhood? She wants to be close to her mother.

Perhaps this is a generalization, but from my observations and conversations with adults and children alike, I’ve concluded this: Chinese kids grow up too fast. By the time they’re teenagers, imagination is drilled out of them. One of my biggest difficulties when teaching is getting my students to be creative. They are not yet adults, and they are playful, but their minds have been molded to fit exam bubbles. And this is just the result of the education system; Life, as it was for my cousin, is the other predator.

I started volunteering at a migrant worker community center on the outskirts of Beijing a couple weeks ago. Just being around the kids there is uplifting and even refreshing. They remind me how even the simplest things, like throwing a hackeysack in the air by yourself, can be fun. And getting dirt on your clothes, hands and face is no big deal (as long as you wash up with soap before sticking anything in your mouth). My responsibilities at the center are lacking, but just spending time with the kids is worth the 1 hour 45 minute commute.

As you can probably tell I’m reminiscent of childhood (but I wouldn’t go so far as to start acting like a baby). I like to believe that some of my imagination is still intact and that the rooms of my future house will be accessible by slides. Also, perhaps as subconscious resistance to growing up completely, I find the most enjoyment in stories/plots with child protagonists. Stories like The Little Prince, Where The Wild Things Are, Harry Potter, and Millions take me back to the best days of my life and remind me how precious it is to be a kid. Yes, they are all written by adults, but by adults whom I admire very much for their ability to tell stories from the point of view of size 2 shoes, a wolf suit, and a crown.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m living at home again, or the fact that babies are everywhere in China, or the fact that Life throws negativities once in a while that has stirred me to think about my childhood so much lately. I also recently read Dave Eggers’ The Wild Things. More likely, though, it is a combination of all these factors. I can’t remember when my first time saying “I wish I were a kid again” was, but it has since become a commonly used phrase in my life. I know it’s never going to happen, but maybe if I wish for it at my next birthday and blow out all the candles, it will come true.

Meanwhile, I’m just “drafting through Fairyland…”

I thought I should mention, as I was writing this post, “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell came on, brilliantly summing up everything I just babbled about and gently bringing me back to earth. The world works in funny ways, even for adults, doesn’t it?

Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star

Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like when you’re older must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game *

Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels thru the town
And they tell him take your time it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There’ll be new dreams maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

– Joni Mitchell

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Family Portraits (and a Petition)

While I was having fun with my new iPhone, I came across the Hubba Hubba app that so accurately captured the finest features of my family. My mom, a.k.a. Goody Two-Shoes, thinks Daddy-O looks like Saddam Hussein, but I think she’s crazy because Daddy-O’s got a heart of gold. “Sweet Mama” (that’s me) doesn’t quite fit my image, but that’s because it takes time to grow into the title and I’m still young! By the way, don’t be fooled by Goody Two-Shoes’ name folks. Once she finds out I posted that photo  online for the world to see, she’s going to pick that feather from her hat and shove it up who-knows-where! No, no, I was just joshin’. She wouldn’t do that. I’m an only child! Anyway, that’s my family in a nutshell!

Another thing now that I have your attention (hopefully), while I’m here downloading useless (but fun) apps on my iphone, tens of thousands of other Chinese people are suffering from exposure to toxic chemicals, losing their hands, and even attempting suicide from the horrible working conditions of Apple, Inc. factories. Like most people I’m sure, I was totally unaware of this fact, and to be honest, the thought to ask where my iPhone and Mac laptop came from didn’t even occur to me.  While the American version of the iPhone might say “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China” on the back, my Chinese version somehow forgot the “Assembled in China” part. Oops. How clever! The Chinese 1% doesn’t want anything Made in China. They want Made in America/Italy/France/Japan/Anywhere-but-China, and Steve Jobs and gang knew just this!

Now, I’m not asking anybody to discard their iPhones and iPads–I’m certainly not. What I’m suggesting, and it’s not a lot for you to do, is to click here and sign the petition to “Apple: to protect workers making iPhones in Chinese factories”. As you may have seen in the news, Foxconn, one of Apple’s main suppliers has already increased their workers’ salaries (probably to the salary it should’ve been in the first place) showing some success in the case. Apple is obviously not the only corporation that exploits its workers. However, with Apple being one of the most powerful industries in the world, it should do more–and quickly–to demand safe working and living conditions and fair wages.

I was taxed up-the-butt for this darned ol’ thing. That extra cash should go straight to the pockets of the overworked factory laborers, not California.

The Petition: https://www.change.org/petitions/apple-ceo-tim-cook-protect-workers-making-iphones-in-chinese-factories


I’m Back!

For the past 2 weeks I have been visiting Grandma He and paternal family in Chongqing to celebrate 春節 (Chūnjié), Spring  Festival/Chinese New Year  (Year of the Dragon!). This was my first Spring Festival, a 15-day celebration (1/15-2/6), in the motherland. In the States, this holiday meant little to me but huge potlucks with our Chinese family friends in Boston, an annual event that sadly diminished as I got older.

Grandma He, the cutest most grandma-ey-ist grandma on earth!

The spirit of Spring Festival is equivalent to the entire holiday season back home which explains why the spirit I was missing around Christmas was far but made up for. Red lanterns hung everywhere, businesses offered special 春節 discounts, train tickets sold out, a week off from work, traffic cleared up (AMAZING), bags packed and most everybody was back home with their families, and I with mine.

Spring Festival has a lot of traditions that I don’t think my family keeps to. But the ones we did maintain this year included eating a Reunion Dinner,  cringing as we watched the annual Spring Festival Evening Broadcast (6 hours of flashy, cheesy music, dance, and comedy) on TV, exchanging red envelopes ($$$!), eating “rice dumplings” filled with black sesame (nom nom), and setting off fireworks (terrifying). I read in the China Daily that at least 70% Chinese people gain weight over this break, and according to my scale, this is accurate.

Right next to our balcony!

We did a whole lot of sitting around this holiday, but that’s part of the tradition: being at home. However, when I wasn’t at home learning how to knit socks with my grandma, stifling her dogs with my love and affection, munching on snacks, playing games on my phone, sniffling because of my cold, and freezing my buttocks off because there’s no indoor heating in the south, I was out and about with my parents, throwing ourselves in the mix of massive crowds. My uncle, a Chinese history professor turned businessman, took us to several awesome places I never knew existed including Dazu Mountain, Longxing Ancient Town, the former Communist Party headquarters in Chongqing, and Baigongguan (Kuomintang’s cruel prison for Communists in the 1940s). We even took a 2 hour train ride to Chengdu, the city with the best food–and pandas–in the world! Don’t you worry, I’ll write more about that trip in another post.

If there were a sudden natural disaster, we would all be doomed. (Photo taken at Ciqikou)

Sakyamuni Entering State of Nirvana at Dazu Mountain

Longxing Ancient Town: Mahjohng Haven

A room in the Communist Party headquarters (photographs were not allowed so don't tell!)

Cave for Interrogation at Baigongguan

Me and Yoshitomo Nara's Little Red Riding Hood at Chongqing's Three Gorges Museum

I’m back in Beijing now, 10 degrees colder outside but infinitely warmer and more comfortable indoors, and fireworks are still exploding (quite an annoyance). I have many, many more photos to show you but I’ll post them in installments to keep you comin’ back for more!! I will, however, leave you with this:

My dad.


“The Classical Music Revolution of China”

I just read an editorial piece in the New York Times about classical music and it’s place among the Occupy Wall Street movement that got me thinking about my own family. “From the Medici family and Ludwig of Bavaria to Andrew Carnegie and David H. Koch, classical music, like other performing arts, has long depended on the 1 percent,” writes Anthony Tommasini. This is not so far off in China either, at least not nowadays.

The arts are an important component to China’s cultural inheritance. Mao himself was a poet and a lover of music — granted, the only music allowed during his regime were “Red Songs” with lyrics from his own poetry, but it was music nonetheless. Classical music was not introduced to China until the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. A professor from the Central Conservatory of Music had written Deng a letter requesting permission to enroll students after a 10-year dry spell during the Cultural Revolution–a timely request as Deng was set on modernizing China, opening doors to western influence, and consequently classical music. Permission granted,  17,285 people lined up for the college entrance examination. Narrowed down to 105 total enrollments, my mom was one of 20 singers from all of China to join the ranks. This was the first wave of a new revolution — what I call the “Classical Music Revolution of China.”

My dad followed my mom’s footsteps shortly after, and post graduation, followed her to the United States where she pursued her career in opera, and had me. Growing up,  classical music and the arts in general, surrounded me. (I am writing this post while my mom’s student is roaring Italian lyrics downstairs.) Our family friends were literally all involved in the arts, and while I dabbled in it, I did not end up a musician–a great mystery and shame to many.

My mom as CioCio Sun in Madame Butterfly.

In the west, my mom could study music with American and European teachers, while in the east, the field was still developing. I remember as a child touring around the States watching her perform in Madame Butterfly, La Boheme and Carmen, among others. She also traveled all over the world, singing operas in various European languages. Her career flourished in the west, where opera was an occasion for dressing up and showing off wealth and culture. In the wake of rising tuitions and increasing economic disparity, this is one of Occupy Wall Street’s arguments; performing arts are elitist.

There is no doubt that classical music has historically been limited to the upper class, but as Tommasini points out in his article, there is today an abundance of free and affordable performing arts events throughout New York City.  Similarly in China, attending a performance at the National Center for the Performing Arts is not a cheap ordeal. But there are events scattered throughout Beijing that are accessible to those who are curious or interested. The school my mom works for (the high school attached to the Central Conservatory of Music), for example, often puts on free performances for the public. Too bad the turnouts remain to be low.

Many of my mom’s students come from the wealthiest of families — sons and daughters of leaders in the coal industry, an army surgeon, TV/movie stars, political figures, and various successful businesspeople. This is a major difference between music students today and music students from my parents’ generation. My parents were extremely poor when they began schooling, as were all families during that time, but again, classical music was just a budding interest then. Now that the west has full-blown influence over Chinese society and culture (much to Hu Jingtao’s dismay), classical music has become a popular career path. However, only those who can afford the education can find a place in that field, unless you are blessed with a voice that penetrates the heart and soul of the judges at your audition.

I completely agree with Occupy Wall Street protestors that “the main issue regarding performing arts institutions is not inaccessibility but insularity,” because as I said, you have to have the funds to pursue this career. I have questioned my parents’ morality for working for government-run and arguably profit-oriented schools, but after having witnessed their frustrations, the dead ends, and watching my mom teach tirelessly, my mind changed. My parents’ passion for music and grounded dedication to their students are reason enough for my admiration (besides being their only child of course). And from personal encounters with these students, they’re not so bad. Sure, some are snobby teenagers with brand name clothing and a private apartment, but where in the world are there not such people? They are like any other child striving to achieve their dreams as musicians–just like hip hop artists, baseball players, doctors and lawyers–who happen to come from the 1% (most who work their butts off to support their child’s dreams).

There are  many things I find wrong with Chinese society (as you may have determined from my previous posts), but one thing I have come to appreciate during my time here is the cultural fervor. Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that many Chinese artists are suppressed, exiled, jailed, because I am lucky to have an outlet to both eastern and western news, but just knowing that they exist excites me because I sense the kindling of a counterrevolution. And knowing that my parents are part of this movement — whether they see it as that or not — makes me very proud to be their daughter.

Life is definitely different now that my parents are classical-music-big-shots as opposed to lower- to middle- class immigrants, but I will never consider our family elitist. We are just a loving bunch of teachers committed to passing on what we know to whoever will listen.


The Christmas Grouch

I woke up a real Christmas grouch.

I know how you feel!

From having to work at 8:30 a.m. to misplacing my itouch and prickling my finger fumbling through my bag in search of it (don’t worry, I found it), to doing a mad-Christmas-gift-dash in the busiest part of the city, to coming home to an empty house, you might understand why I was not feeling the spirit.

Christmas Crowd

Yesterday was more eventful. To start the day off pleasantly, I received a package all the way from Boston from my friend Grace, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more awesome.

!!!!!!!!!!!

I requested that if my friends ever send me anything in the mail, it be themselves. So, thoughtful as Grace is, she sent me a mini-cardboard cutout of herself (to the right of the cookies) on top of the best box of cookies ever, a life-size Santa hat and a children’s book which I’ve already read twice to my students (Grace and I have a tradition of giving each other children’s books as gifts–I think that’s pretty cool). It’s hard to beat those gifts, especially when my students came over later with gift-wrapped fruits and a can of cola. I was so confused.

Rather than calling Christmas Eve “Christmas Eve,” the Chinese refer to it as Silent Night, or literally translated from Chinese, Peace Night (pinganye, 平安夜). The tradition–I now understand–is to give apples (pingguo, 苹果) to wish someone peacefulness. I also got an orange (juzi, 橘子) to symbolize good fortune and a can of Pepsi (kele, 可乐) to symbolize happiness. Clever, but also a waste of plastic–oh negative Nancy, it’s the thought that counts!

As for Christmas Day, my spirits were eventually lifted when my aunt and uncle arrived from Kunming, and we rushed off to catch my cousin perform in a typical Chinese “gala”–the kind of event you see on any Chinese TV channel–which consists of food, drinks and live performances. We ended the night eating hot pot, not exactly Christmasy, but it was shared with family. If I recall correctly, this is the first Christmas since junior year of high school that I’ve spent with my parents because they were always either working or were already in China. Growing up, I mostly celebrated Christmas with family friends, which–while I consider them family too–was always still a bit lonely.

Well, Christmas flew by this year; it came and went. But this is just the beginning of the holiday season! I expect Chinese New Years to be explosively festive (lots of fireworks involved I hear)!

Any-Cindy-Lou-Who, it’s time for bed. Stuffed to the brim, it’s going to be hard to fall asleep tonight…

To end another Christmas, I leave you with a classic. Wham!

Merry Christmas (to those who celebrate)! Happy Holidays!


It’s Thanksgiving! Here’s What I’m Grateful For:

  • a full stomach
  • loving parents, no matter how unbearable they can be at times
  • friends for the rest of my life, who love me for the silly way I am
  • WordPress, because I’ve learned so much, shared so much, and have met so many inspiring people I would never have met otherwise
  • the ability to see, hear, smell, taste and feel
  • my parents, again, for working tirelessly their entire lives so that I may enjoy all that I now have in my life (including the new pair of boots I got today!)
  • mobility–including the privilege of travel which has opened my eyes wider than any book or lecture (and just to take a moment to brag, these are the countries I have visited: Guatemala, Morocco, Portugal, Amsterdam, Spain, Germany, Japan, France, and Italy.)
  • public transportation, though it can be such a hassle
  • my college adviser, June, who I admire so much for her compassion, brilliance and kindness
  • my “almond shaped” eyes and dimples (thanks to mama dearest)
  • being bilingual–my salary is higher because of it
  • a conscience that told me not to accept the job teaching English at a monster corporation (New Oriental, it literally has an office in every corner of China) that robs students of their money and teachers of their sanity.
  • Gmail/gchat because I can keep in touch with my friends across the ocean
  • Time Out Beijing.com because it just informed me that a Hello Kitty themed restaurant is opening up in Beijing (I haven’t had the chance to mention the Hello Kitty store I came across in Chongqing yet). Keeps my life exciting!
  • farmer’s markets (in the US) because their produce is just so fresh and the prices are unbeatable!
  • not just one, but several roofs over my head. I feel like I have a home wherever I go. That’s surely something to be grateful for.

There is infinitely more I am grateful for, but it would be impossible to list them all here.

So, Gobble Gobble to those who celebrate Thanksgiving! And Thank You, to those who make life worth living!


Missing Brooklyn

I had a Cranberry White Chocolate Mocha (my parents insisted) at Starbucks the other day while waiting for my flight at the airport. Normally, I don’t step foot in Starbucks, but the cozy couches and the Christmas decorations lured me in. That was the first moment I felt homesick for America.

I was disappointed they didn't have Peppermint Hot Chocolate.

Around this time of year back home, I would be walking out of my way just to step in piles of dry, crinkly leaves to hear the crunch, crunch, crunch under my boots. My roommate would probably be working on her stewed beef recipe or baking something delicious with Golden Girls or Christmas music playing in the background. Our apartment would be decked out in oranges, yellows and reds in preparation for Thanksgiving. I would be brewing up a Hot Toddie with fresh apple cider from the farmer’s market…

Just writing this is making my Brooklyn-sickness stronger. This is the best time of year to be in the States, and particularly in my former neighborhood, South Park Slope, where everything inside and out just feels so homey. I miss window shopping in the cold and stepping into one of the many cozy coffee shops to warm my hands and stomach with a hot cup of coffee. I miss walking down the block to my favorite neighborhood bar (Bar 718, if you’re ever in South Slope, you should pop over for a visit–you’ll feel at home in no time) for my typical whisky-ginger and a good chat with good people. I miss the smell of apple pie, the excitement for the holidays, the decorations, and even the music. I miss my backyard.

The most beautiful Red Shack in my backyard

One thing to be grateful for this holiday season, however, is that I will be spending it with my parents. I can’t remember the last time I spent Thanksgiving or Christmas with them. My mom moved back to China 6 years ago, my dad 4, but even when they were still living in the States, they always worked then. But life is about compromises, so I guess this year–and maybe the next–I will compromise the Hot Toddies, the decorations (I don’t know where to find a pumpkin around here!), the crunch, crunch, crunching, the apple pies, and the strolls in Brooklyn for time to spend with mom and dad. That’s what the holidays are all about after all–family! This winter won’t be Park Slope homey; it’ll be a different kind of homey, but that’s just as well.

Besides, I can still watch Love Actually.

Photo credit: http://millefiorifavoriti.blogspot.com/2011/11/autumn-in-park-slope-brooklyn.html This blogger captures in photo precisely the stroll I was reminiscing above. Take a look!