Book Review: Love and Other Moods

Love and Other Moods is a novel with a lot to say. The new book by author Crystal Z. Lee takes place in Shanghai, starting with the backdrop of the 2010 Expo and continues on for several years through that decade. This makes for a good introduction to all the various elements that make up Rising China in the 21st century. Ostensibly, the character of Naomi Fita-Fan is the main protagonist. The half-Japanese and half-Taiwanese character, who does feel like a semi-autobiographical placeholder for the author, is a sophisticated businesswoman who comes of age while maneuvering throughout this complex landscape.

However, the city of Shanghai itself is the true star. The book continuously pours over details describing the evolution of the megapolis, full of history and politics and food and culture. The detailed backstory of the human characters generally serves as part of the world-building of this setting. The family backgrounds, the infodumps, even the dating scene these figures find themselves in—it’s all about making Shanghai as real as possible.

Although much of this describes a very upper-class scene, almost a “Sex and the City” in Asia, there is also a dark underside occasionally explored. Mentions of prostitution and drugs appear from time to time, which can be shocking in its contrast. The main hardships that the characters experience range from questions of identity, such as prejudice against Naomi for being Japanese in China and for being Asian in America. There is also tragedy and even violence that permeates through the history of this Communist land, as the main love interest Dante knows well.

Towards the end, the book becomes more of a conventional story. A typical love story in many ways, as the protagonist comes of age and deals with the challenges that arise from growing up. The generational divides that make up family, such how to get along with a family and how to define one’s own, are an endless source of conflict. Through all the heartbreak and even (spoiler alert) children, the relationship between Naomi and her best friend Joss is still just as valued as the romantic side.

Love and Other Moods might be classified as “chick lit,” and female readership does seem to be the intended audience. That said, anyone would enjoy learning so much about modern China by way of this book, and it is a valuable resource in capturing that moment in time…

Crystal Z. Lee takes the reader on a dazzling tour of hyper-cosmopolitan Shanghai. Here, the city is not romanticized in the typical manner, but portrayed the way it really is: exciting, loud, dizzying, sexy, sometimes risqué but always authentic. Love and Other Moods expresses the truthful energy of Rising China over the past decade, which those who’ve been would instantly recognize, and those who haven’t will find fascinating. It’s one of the most international places in the world, where everyone has a story, and some of those stories are told right here in this novel.

Love and Other Moods is published by Balestier Press and is available on Amazon.com.

2020

I don’t know how to feel about the rush of current events.

There is obviously some very good news. It was long dragged out, but seems to be coming to a close, and celebrations are indeed in order. That feeling of relief as a dead weight is assuredly going to go, sooner or later. Incredible times, especially after so much uncertainty.

But it’s still a lot to process. I’ll spare any readers from all my obnoxious political opinions, well-thought as I’d like to think them to be, and just express how this state of affairs still leaves me anxious.

I’m no pundit. I have my perspective, and I like to read and review and share my thoughts, but there’s not really any reason people should listen to me.

That said, I simply cannot escape this terrible sense that tens of millions of my fellow countrymen are undeniably bad people. I had no idea it could get this bad. It’s not worth it anymore debating and talking about fake news and racial bias and social hierarchies and brainwashing etc. It’s a fact and here we are. They are bad people and there so many of them.

What is my country and the world going to do?

Well, turns out in the end, the good guys (or at least the moderate-not-that-evil guys) have won/will win. The fight for so many issues goes on, for healthcare and peace and freedom, no doubt about it, and at the very least there’s still a chance now… perhaps state of the world can actually survive at this rate and progress…

I voted from afar. Funny thing, as a matter of fact, it’s the first time I have voted for the winning team. It seemed an emergency so I had to. But I remain an American abroad, a privileged expat, incredibly lucky to live in the only country on earth to have defeated the pandemic. I do have to wear a mask everywhere, slightly annoying, and there’s danger from the mainland, but above all I am in the greatest social democracy in Asia and I am grateful to be here.

Been weird staying on the island for an entire year. No travel, no airplanes. No visiting relatives, no exploring new cultures. And yet right now I am far luckier than the vast majority of the planet.

To feel hope for the environment of this world, for the climate, for the very air, and to have so much reason to worry at the same time. It’s all come to ahead, and 2020 isn’t even over. It looks like the danger to democracy isn’t going anywhere in the next couple of months, plenty of anxiety is going to continue. At the same time, hope exists. Humans may, believe it or not, make it through this.

Going back to ‘normal’ or not, there is a future. If we can survive the grueling present.

This damn year. Let’s try to make it through this, everyone.

Review: An American Bum in China

https://chajournal.blog/2020/03/07/american-bum

[REVIEW] “A PERPETUAL HARD-LUCK CASE: AN AMERICAN BUM IN CHINA” BY RAY HECHT

{This review is part of Issue 46 (March/April 2020) of Cha.}

Tom Carter, An American Bum in China: Featuring the Bubblingly Brilliant Escapades of Expatriate Matthew Evans, Camphor Press, 2019. 132 pgs.

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“Disparate as they sounded back then, however, I realize now that the arc of his adventures share the same timeless threads that, throughout world history, have driven other immigrants, expatriates, and refugees to the United States, only in reverse. His singular story has all the makings of an un-American folk tale…”

So author Tom Carter tells the story of his friend Matthew Evans, a perpetual hard-luck case who might just be the oddest expatriate you’ve ever heard of (and if you’ve been around a good number of expats, that’s saying a lot). The full title of this tome is An American Bum in China: Featuring the Bumblingly Brilliant Escapades of Expatriate Matthew Evans, and it is a fitting title indeed.

Evans’s tale begins in the small town of Muscatine, Iowa—where Xi Jinping actually visited in 2012. The comparisons of rural America to rural China are vivid and foster much conversation. In a way that makes it only natural that such a person would be driven to Shanghai and elsewhere as he seeks a better life. Spoiler alert, he never does get that better life.

He does try. Sort of. As he drifts from one town to another, somehow surviving while apparently making no money, it’s not always clear how bumblingly brilliant the man’s so-called escapades may be. The lingering question is never fully answered: Is he an idiot savant or just a slightly-luckier-than-average idiot? In this sense, there are several ways to interpret the book.

Either way, Evans most consistent trait is that he takes it all in strides. “Like everything else that had happened to him in life, from leukemia to being deported, Evans took his dismissal stolidly and as a matter of course.” That just about sums it up best.

Within this slim tome, we are quickly taken on this man’s journey around the world. First, he pushes himself to run away from his controlling mother’s shadow, even as she dismissed the “commies” in China. Usually, he does this by way of spending his loving grandmother’s money. Also, he gets diagnosed with cancer.

He arrives in China after some QQ flirtations. His first relationship is never consummated due to his terrible bad luck of hitting on a lesbian, but he keeps trying. He then gets his first kiss and the book is even so personal as to describe how he loses his virginity. Time after time, he bumbles and messes everything up. He gets deported a couple of times, returns, orders up a fake degree most unethically, and so on, and so on.

To be fair, it wouldn’t be particularly remarkable to describe an American who teaches English abroad. That sort of expat memoir has been done many, many times and wouldn’t make for much of an engaging book. Rather, An American Bum is more unique, and full of legitimate surprises. For example, somehow Evans actually briefly becomes a “professor” at not one but two prestigious Chinese universities!

Matthew Evans is certainly interesting, and at the same time, not necessarily likeable. He becomes increasingly hard to empathise with, specifically when it comes to how he obliviously treats his female university students. There’s no question this poor fellow was not equipped with the skills necessary to make it in the world, whether in the States or in China. But he does keep making it worse for himself and most readers will probably not quite root for him.

In the end, whether one approves of his character or not, it certainly can’t be denied that he keeps one’s interest and I suppose that makes this a successful book.

Author Tom Carter began as a photographer, and there is a large visual element to the book featuring illustrator John Dobson’s additions. The black & white artistic depictions round out the story nicely, leaving an impression that resonates with the scenes described. If it was only prose, the book would frankly be too short at only about one hundred pages.

Eventually, the narrative rounds out with a Burmese misadventure involving several illegal uses of a passport, and finally jail time and outright homelessness. At last, Evans is permanently exiled from China. Justifiably so, it must be said. He arrives in Hong Kong as many such people do, and he is unable to even make it in Chungking Mansions. However, it turns out that there were other options at the time. The year is 2014 and he finds himself teargassed during the Umbrella Movement.

It happens to be a very poignant time to tell this particular story right now. In Evans’s own way, he joins the encampments purely out of personal convenience while undeservingly receiving credit for his brave political stance. That’s one way to witness history in the making.

The book is certainly a page-turner. Carter philosophises from time to time, speculating on what it all means. An American Bum can be very introspective, analysing the state of the West and China and modern societies. It does feel bigger than merely describing one random person’s misadventures. It’s a bit difficult to sum up these musings, but there are things here worth thinking about. Where does a man like Matthew Evans belong? In just what kind of culture would he be able to live a life worth living?

The book is over before you know it, leaving the reader with a strange yet authentic taste of life in the margins of expathood. Honestly, the book may not be for everyone and certain people will be offended and turned off by Matthew Evans. Whether one reads with feelings of compassion and empathy, or just can’t look away from the train wreck, one way or another, it will definitely be worth the read for some people.

2007 – 2008: How Burning Man and psychedelics led me to China (Finally!)

Previous: 2005 to 2006 Mid-Aughts

Read all at Webtoons.com

2007 and 2008 were quite the years: a time of friendship and drug experimentation and further travel, and then back to Burning Man… Which leads to the moment you’ve all been waiting for, at last I move to China!

 

Expat Jimmy

Expat Jimmy is the latest by noted China-expat author Travis Lee. This quick read of an eBook is more of an eNovella, or even eNovellete, and the brevity of the piece is in fact one of its greatest strengths.

Expat Jimmy takes place over the course of one day in Wuhan in the summer of 2008. Basically, it’s about the impressions of a young graduate named James as he is introduced to second-tier China. In some ways the narrative is not particularly original—many expat authors (yours truly included) have covered the angle of an ESL westerner intrigued and shocked by the modern East. However, in condensing this rather archetypal story into one day, Lee succeeds at capturing the essence of this sort of story. Wasting no time, his tour of Wuhan in the mid-aughts covers everything a reader could want: all full of wonder, disgust, fear, and hope.

The main character can be passive, as he is led around town by Adam who is certainly a stereotypical ESL teacher with issues. Yet neither James nor Adam are the true stars of the show. It’s the city of Wuhan that steals the limelight, and that is the point.

Then there is the one-page epilogue which maps out Jimmy’s character arc in more long-term fashion for a good sense of closure and leaving the reader wanting more, but overall it’s just about that one normal day…

It does strain credulity a bit that so much fills up one jet-lagged day. But it works, and I wouldn’t want to read it any other way. Even as the day progresses into bouts of drinking (yes, there is Baijiu), with all the harshness of sex and drugs and cynical interpretations of Chinese family dynamics, climaxing even to near-death experiences as Jimmy witnesses one progressively seedier scene after another; even including all this, the overall feeling of the story is enthusiasm. The initial enthusiasm still outweighs all else.

This quote says it best:  “I want you to take it all in. Every sight, every smell, everything. Because this is a once in a lifetime event. You will never again feel t his optimistic, the sense of wonder you’re going to feel at being in China the first time. Nothing compares to it and nothing ever will.”

There is just nothing like the first time moving to a new country.

So read Expat Jimmy, and learn much about Wuhan and explore that elusive concept of the so-called “real China.” Being such a pithy read, there’s no reason not to.

 

Expat Jimmy is available at Amazon.

Author Travis Lee blogs at www.travis-lee.org

America without a president

Once again, I feel that I should share my personal musings on the American political situation. We are now in the, what, middle of the month 2? It both seems that the times have gone by so fast, and after all the crap overload it also felt likes it’s been forever. Anyway this is my general update.

Near as I can tell, the most I can come up with for an optimistic interpretation of current events is that basically America does not have a president at all.

Think about it. No one is in charge.

Even if you live in bigoted right-wing bubble-land, in which it’s been “carnage” and the country needs fascism or whatever to fight the evils of centrist democrats, what exactly has been accomplished so far? The only real action was the oppressive travel ban, a disaster by any measure, and now there’s a new lighter version (which still makes no sense, they can’t even cite any terrorist threat from those six countries since Iraq was taken off the list. There’s no cited threat from refugees of any of those countries!) which my very well may be also overturned by a court .

Apparently, with all the nonstop Russian revelation scandals, the new narrative is it’s all because of… Obama! That boogeyman role just won’t go away. Funny how if you believe in that then you get to blame your own failings on the opposition forever. More on being divorced from reality below.

Even with the GOP controlling both houses, the repealing and replacing of Obamacare is a train wreck of nothing getting done. Why is it so hard after years of criticizing the healthcare plan? The president is supposed to get his way with his party in charge of the legislative, and yet still there is nothing. Hell, the only thing both sides of the aisle seem to agree on is that the new healthcare plan sucks.

And there is the fact that hundreds of administrative positions are still yet to be filled, because there are “too many government jobs.” Apparently this is due to real-president Bannon, who has said he wants to dismantle the permanent administrative state.

So in conclusion, this is not a real government. This is a shell of a government, with a TV president. Anything at all worth supporting exists only in the minds of the cult of the right-wing media bubble, and the entire world outside that audience demographic is looking on in horror as America just phones it in. All for show, and a shit show at that.

This is bad. Very bad. But perhaps, in a way, it’s not that bad. At the very least, we can know that these people are to incompetent to even run their fantasy tyrannical dictatorship.

 

So, of course I have to mention the latest tweets. What can I say? This is undeniable proof that the guy supposedly in charge doesn’t understand how his job works. He doesn’t understand anything about government, he doesn’t understand the separation of powers, which is kind of a big deal. Most bizarrely of all, he doesn’t even think to simply ask his employees if his predecessor illegally wiretapped him. His whole role of commander is to generate controversy on the internet and that’s about it.

Rather than ask his damn employees, this guy–who we know literally spends more time on Twitter than national security meetings–reads something unsubstantiated from the right-wing bubblesphere and proceeds to go on an embarrassing tweet rant. Why would he do that? What is the point of disrespecting the office of president so very deeply?  Is it really that worth it to rally his ever-shrinking base by whining about Obama, if that’s what it is, and therefore accomplish absolutely nothing other than making him impossible to work with?

No doubt law enforcement is not into this. This can’t be good for the FBI, CIA, NSA, and every other organization who reportedly no longer give classified information to their boss because of the valid fear of Russian leaks.

Maybe the true mark of this new era is that it doesn’t really matter anymore who is president. From here on, it’s just going to be idiot celebrities.

Ha, and can you believe that everyone was so impressed with the whole “the time for trivial fights is over” speech?? What a joke that pivot was! I repeat: HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

 

It’s like, I used to believe that when someone becomes president the secret masters of the universe would take him to a back room and explain how the system really works. I assumed that happened to Obama, because honestly he did sell out on many issues. But with this guy, I don’t think those who really run things took him to the back room. I think they ignored him

Therefore, basically I don’t believe he’s a real president.

Sadly, in this new era of wannabe celebrity kings, many ordinary people will fall through the cracks. It’s going to be a difficult transition, and people will have to do a better job of taking care of each other as the welfare state and infrastructure slowly collapses. The environmental damage will possibly be the worst. In those few roles with which the executive branch is still doing anything, there is still tremendous damage to be done. It’s not fun for the immigrants arrested in raids, for example.

But overall, now we’ll get to see how the far society can go on when no one is in charge

And maybe just maybe it will somehow work out, and that’s the only thing there is to be mildly optimistic about.

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Postmodern Cantonland: a review of ‘South China Morning Blues’

http://www.travis-lee.org/2016/07/16/postmodern-cantonland-a-review-of-south-china-morning-blues-by-ray-hecht/

by Travis Lee

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Postmodern Cantonland: a review of ‘South China Morning Blues’, by Ray Hecht

The Gibson-esque Sprawl exists, and it’s here. We’re sitting in a postmodern Cantonland. Culture and identity can’t keep up, and everything gets spread thinner and thinner. Tens of millions of migrant workers enter the area every day, and hundreds of thousands of us aliens from overseas
mix in too. Maybe this is what the future of globalism looks like. It’s prosperous to be sure, but not very romantic.

In the summer of 2008, I received an email. If you’ve ever taught English in China, then you know the email, and its promises. Free apartment, travel money, paid holidays, and my favorite: the opportunity to experience life in a developing, dynamic country.

In South China Morning Blues by Ray Hecht, we hear from twelve people experiencing life in China, the developing, dynamic place for expat reinvention since 1979.

The book opens in Shenzhen with Marco. Marco isn’t just an expat businessman, he is the expat businessman, a failure in the West who has come, has seen and is all set to conquer:

“Jackie”, my workmate (Chinese people and their English names, am I right?), bobs his head up and down. Looking so damn out of place, he wears the same white dress shirt, with the outline of a wife-beater underneath, which he wears every day. Badly in need of a haircut and with long pinky nails, he looks like he couldn’t get a job here serving drinks, and yet I know that he makes a salary four times the national average.

Marco never learns Jackie’s real name, and by the time Jackie steals Marco’s clients and leaves him high and dry, it’s too late; Marco shows up in Guangzhou, heavier and humbled.

There are twelve narrators whose chapters are marked by their Chinese zodiacs. Most of them want to be someone else, someone “successful”, what they want to see in the mirror instead of what they actually see. If I tried to sum up everyone’s stories, I’d never finish this review.

So I’ll touch on a couple:

Sheila and Lu Lu are young Chinese women caught between modern life and tradition. Both bend, and it’s Lu Lu who breaks, marrying a policeman she met while working as a KTV girl. She cheats on him, staying stays in a loveless marriage for the financial support, which comes in handy; her husband arranges everything, and Sheila helps her give birth in Hong Kong, ensuring that her child will have all the benefits of Hong Kong citizenship.

Terry is a Chinese-American writer who works for a local magazine by day, by night putting together “the great expat novel”, Cantonland. He becomes involved with Ting Ting, an artist who has moved to the Pearl River Delta region from Beijing. Not content to merely practice art, Ting Ting treats herself like a work of art, coloring her hair and recoloring it when her natural roots show through. She yearns to be an instrumental part of the next great art scene. Ting Ting is too concerned with appearances; she spends hours coloring her hair for her date with Terry, and he never comments on it.

The party at Lamma Island closes out the book, but while the book ends, everyone’s stories don’t stop.

We do.

We stop hearing about these people as their lives go on: Terry is a step closer to writing his book, Lu Lu has given birth to her baby and Marco?

He sits unnamed on the ferry, a shell of diminished importance.

***

Some people have lamented the lack of a “great” expat novel; they wish to see an expat equivalent to The Sun Also Rises. Another reviewer brought this up concerning Quincy Carroll’s excellent Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside.

Instead of looking back and making comparisons, let’s look forward. Along with Up to the Mountains, books like Harvest Season and South China Morning Blues set the standard for fiction from a transient class of lifelong outsiders.

Available at Amazon and the publisher’s website.

Wall Street Journal: An Expat Has Time to Reflect Now That the Party’s Over

Remember that time I was detained by the Chinese police during a drug raid at a rave? My experience being rounded up by the Chinese police at the big Shenzhen drug raid.

I happened to write a piece about it for the Wall Street Journal’s expat blog. It took a while to get edited and published, but it is finally available and I’d like to share. (Also, don’t forget the last time I published with the WSJ)

Please take the time to read. It was a tumultuous time, some harsh memories, but I’m glad that something positive came out of it for me at least… Well, live and learn.

 

http://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2016/05/24/an-expat-has-time-to-reflect-now-that-the-partys-over/

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Wall Street Journal: That Time He ‘Dropped’ the Vegetarian Bun – An American Expat Shows His Dad Around China

Please check out my first piece for the Wall Street Journal expat blog! A simple story that us abroad may be able to relate to, and I think it turned out well: It’s about that time my dad came to visit me and how that parents-visiting thing goes as an expat…

 

http://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2015/12/03/that-time-he-dropped-the-vegetarian-bun-an-american-expat-shows-his-dad-around-china/

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And that’s my face when a bun is wasted.

South Africa Part I

Being an expat living in a major Chinese city of millions – with thousands of Westerners within the English-speaking foreigner scene – you never know who you will meet and what part of the world they may introduce you to… particularly when it comes to romance!

As I’ve written about extensively, it just never seemed to work out with me and Chinese girls. I haven’t followed up on those old blogs in a while, but know this of my present situation: I have not been lonely over the past year.

In the summer of ’14, I happened to fall for an artsy South African girl. Without getting into too much detail, let’s just say there were some interesting stories along the way. I’m not going to share all those personal stories at this time. Suffice to say it’s been serious, intense, and loving.

I am however happy to share the fact that last holiday (Moon Festival coinciding with National Day) she took me on a tour of her home country. An entire new continent I’ve never been to, a whole other land. I am still in awe of all I had seen.

I must admit, it was a challenge at times. Sad though it may be, at this late stage in my life this was actually the first time I had ever met a girlfriend’s parents! Wow. Really? Well, that’s me.

I was rather nervous. There was, in actuality, the issue of class. White South Africans tend to live in the suburbs, in gated communities, walled off by electric fences. I grew up a step below, and over the past half-decade gotten comfortable living in the lesser developed end of a developed city in developing country.

South Africa in actuality may be one of the most unequal countries in the world, but I’m not saying that my girlfriend’s family are that rich. Just normal middle class. Yet even that is tricky for me to be comfortable with. I liken myself to a starving artist-writer in China mind you, not some trader-businessman.

Really, it wasn’t that bad.

All that said, the country is full of beauty like no other… I can see what people love so much about Africa.

My lovely did an incredible job of planning this trip. (How could I plan? I followed her. And it worked out very well that I did.) Everyday, off to a new place. New sights to see. New wonders to behold.

Off we went.

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Day One

We flew in from Hong Kong. Transferred at Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, to the view from the aircraft of exquisite waterfalls and Mt. Kilimanjaro. My first time entering the Southern Hemisphere. Wish I could have explored Ethiopia more. Next time.

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Though we were tired, I was determined to start exploring right after landing. Being picked up from the Johannesberg airport was almost a disappointment; I’d wanted to learn about trains right off the bat. But it was tiring after the second flight being over ten hours.

The driver took us to the guest house in Melville, the hip part of town. On the drive over I stared out the window and took pictures. The highway only showed what looked like middle-American suburbs. In fact, much of what I would see of the middle-class homes and shopping malls pretty much reminded me of American suburbs.

Melville was awesome. Full of vegetarian restaurants (we ate Mexican food the first night, yum!), used bookstores (I spent way too much money), and most importantly of all a comic book shop. Outer Limits: I got an old Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud I’d been wanting to reread and share for ages.

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They didn’t have the latest One Piece manga volume, but later I did find it at a shop in Pretoria.

And Gaiman’s Sandman: Overture still hadn’t come out yet, always late.

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Day Two

By the second day my ears no longer popped and jetlag not too bad, we hung out some more in Melville and bought vintage clothes at this cool place made out of trucker containers called 27 Blocks. After some errands at the bank, I got a Sim card for my phone. Another highlight was simply going to a grocery store. Again, due to the western context, it was nice to simply be in a supermarket.

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We checked out and took a tuk-tuk driver to downtown Pretoria, at the City Bowl area near the Gautrain station. There, although heavy with all the luggage, we went to yet another bookstore (found a used Warren Ellis graphic novel) to meet up with Eleni –  blogger of Greek Meets Taiwan – who lives in the area. It was tricky to find the time, but small world that it is one might as well take advantage, and had coffee with her boyfriend and talked about education.

A lot of interesting talks showing me how it really is in South Africa…

Running a bit late, we took the Gautrain to Pretoria. This was the moment. My girlfriend’s dad, first time ever in my life to meet him. Although I did talk to him on Skype the week before. It was cool, no big deal at all. Nice man.

The dad and his wife – I would meet the mother later (now that I think about, perhaps divorced parents is one of the things that brings us together) – drove us out for dinner. We stopped by at a hoity-toity golf club where I did not feel comfortable at all. But it was interesting to see their scene. I was treated to an endless array of delicious meals, put on weight, and I’m very grateful he invited me into his home and was so kind.

The house in the suburbs was as suburban as ever. Except as said in South Africa they have electric fences. Stayed in our own guest bedrooms, watched cable TV, and caught up with my online life.

 

Day Three

Already my third day in this land, and then sadly it started to get boring.

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Book Review: Year of the Fire Dragons

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https://thenanfang.com/year-fire-dragons-memoir-documents-expat-life-hong-kong/

 

Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong is a new memoir by Hong Kong-based American writer Shannon Young, who is also editor of the anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?

In Year of the Fire Dragons, Young gets very personal, and begins with the romantic story of meeting a Hong Konger named Ben in London. The long distance relationship continues while she intimately explores the Special Administrative Region.

The book details Young’s time as a NET teacher (Native English Teacher) in her first year in Hong Kong as she figures out how to maneuver the city. With an outsider’s perspective, she gives vivid descriptions of shopping markets, embraces the glamour of Central, learns about tensions with the mainland, discovers cultural differences in teaching, and travels the world.

The prose is often fanciful, with lines such as, “The humidity surrounded me like steam pouring out of a broken dumpling,” and, “As the sun dipped toward the horizon, we fell silent, watching the way it reflected through the quiet ripples marking our passage.”

Young is a talented writer. Her knowledge of food in particular truly gets to the core of Hong Kong culture. However, she can get lost in details at times, with scattered chapters ranging from Cantonese classes to clubbing in Lan Kwai Fong. She repeatedly introduces various friends over drinks and then we never see them again in the course of the book. Of course, it is a memoir and real life often doesn’t translate into novel-style story structure. Still, one of the most intriguing and consistent subplots is about her sister’s expat romance and wedding, which contrasts with Young’s own relationship.

The main bulk of the narrative concerns the challenges of having a long-distance partner, focusing on the tragic irony that her boyfriend Ben is from Hong Kong yet she lives there and he doesn’t. As the book progresses, Young finds it harder and harder to defend the two-year plus relationship to her coworkers and friends. No spoilers how it all turns out, but rest assured Young’s perspective is always optimistic despite tough times.

One of the most interesting parts comes in the midpoint when Young reveals her roots: her father was born in Hong Kong (though not raised there). Quotes from the letters of her Asia-traveling grandparents are included.

From 1955: Actually, Hong Kong is a wonderful place to live—we think. Of course there are many things one could complain about, as there are wherever you go, but we think there are far more things to enjoy and be thankful for.

Truly an amazing find, to see the similarities between expats of that era and those of today!

The book as a whole may not be particularly interesting for old China hands. Experienced expats and English teachers probably won’t learn many new things. But for readers less familiar with Hong Kong and life abroad, this memoir can make the perfect introduction.

Recommended both for Hong Kong newcomers and as a good gift for China-based readers to share with friends back home in order to explain what life is like for expats.

Year of Fire Dragons is published by Blacksmith Books, available in Hong Kong and on Amazon.

 

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Author Shannon Young

My Interview on Speaking of China:

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Please read my interview concerning my eBook Pearl River Drama for the website Speaking of China.

Many thanks to fellow Ohioan-expat Jocelyn Eikenburg for the interviewing me, and for appreciating my meager writings.

 

Interview with Ray Hecht on “Pearl River Drama: Dating in China”

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