Expat Sat: “Shanghai Calling,” the Movie

Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writerhead. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing, publishing, and thriving to expat writers around the globe.


All my Shanghai/China/expat pals, look out! “Shanghai Calling” is a’coming to theaters near you. Check out the trailer! (Look/sound/feel familiar?) I love this!

Writerhead Wednesday: Magnetic North and the Shanghai International Literary Festival

Usually on Wednesdays, this: Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.

Today…


Every year at this time in Shanghai, the world’s best literary festival takes place: The Shanghai International Literary Festival (SILF). Even though I’ve been living back in the United States for over a year now, SILF is my literary magnetic north. Not only do many of my favorite authors flock there (this year, Edward P. Jones!!!), but throughout the glorious three-week festival, you’re pretty much guaranteed at least a handful of compelling conversations about China, India, our world, East/West, etc. (And to top it off…it’s a helluva good party.)

Since I can’t be there this year (watch out, 2013!), I’m going to appease myself by attending as many local author readings as I can (tonight, Margot Livesey), slipping into writerhead as often as possible, and trying like hell to ignore the compass needle that keeps flinging around wildly.

So…where’s your literary magnetic north?

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Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Expat Sat: China Is The Big, Bad Monster

Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writerhead. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing, publishing, and thriving to expat writers around the globe.


Yesterday I was reading the “Amazon Will Kill You” blog post by Joe Konrath at the same time I was reading the “Amazon, Innovation, and the Rewards of the Free Market” post by The Authors Guild. (If you haven’t read these two pieces, I encourage you to do so. But in essence, JK says that publishing has already changed, that we—readers & writers—are responsible for that change, that Amazon is not the devil it’s made out to be, and that those who don’t embrace the change will be left behind. The Authors Guild says pretty much the opposite.)

This conversation reminds of the “China debate” folks often rope me into. Because I lived there for a good while, they expect/want me to be leading the “China is the big, bad monster” parade…the monster that stole our jobs. But while I am often hollering about China’s flaws and challenges (especially when it comes to freedom of speech and human rights), I love China. And here’s what I believe:

  • The U.S. gave China our manufacturing jobs, and now it sucks because we’re feeling the repercussions of that act. We didn’t think ahead. We just saw $$$$$$.
  • Because we gave our manufacturing jobs to China (and for a whole lot of other reasons), the world economy has changed. In big ways. Forever. Some are embracing it; some are resisting.
  • Those who embrace will soar; those who resist will stay stuck in the mud.
  • We can’t go backward.
  • Get out of the mud. Innovate.

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Image: chrisroll / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Expat Sat: The Crazy, Busy Noggin

Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writerhead. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing, publishing, and thriving to expat writers around the globe.


Geesh, I’ve got so much bubbling through this noggin of mine that I can’t focus on one thing. So…instead of torturing myself a minute longer about it, I’m going to stop trying and instead give you a list. (Don’t ever underestimate the power of a list.) Here goes:

1. I started a new job this week. A part-time writing/editing gig at a nearby private school. A cool opportunity that is allowing me to defrag my life and (hopefully) write more while having a delightful coterie of smart, worldly colleagues.

2. I’ve got this crazy-ass eye thing going on–corneal infiltrates–(there are two of you right now!) and it’s making me value my eyesight in a way I never really have before. Eat your damn carrots! (I know, I know…carrots don’t have a thing to do with corneal infiltrates but it’s more fun to say, “Eat your damn carrots!” than to say, “Make sure your contact lenses are fit properly.”)

3. Twitter’s new censorship policy. Good? Not good? Good enough? Terrible? Pros? Cons?

4. Someone needs to create a digital photo database that can be searched more creatively and organically…so that when I search via the term “crazy-busy noggin,” relevant photos show up, not just “There were no images found that match your search term.”

5. Letters. The Rumpus just started a cool thing. You can subscribe to receive a letter (yes! in the mail!) from an author. How cool is this?!

6. Do you write letters, expats? Do you?

7. The lone wolf that has made his way into California…the first in 88 years! (Go, wolf, go!) He’s now an expat in his own land. (A familiar experience…)

See what I mean? Crazy-busy noggin.

How’s your noggin today?

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Image: africa / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Ann Mah

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author answers three questions about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.


So excited to feature Ann Mah, author of the novel Kitchen Chinese, on Writerhead. After all, her debut novel features all my favorites: China, expats, hot-pot, cultural confusion. Feels like home…

Now, readers, please proceed quietly. As you’ll see, writerhead doesn’t come easily to Ann…so if she’s in it, we do not want to disturb her.

Let’s go…

The Scoop About Kitchen Chinese

After a career-ending catastrophe, Isabelle Lee leaves the magazine world of New York for the magazine world of Beijing, one that’s considerably more limited, given her rudimentary knowledge of Chinese. Despite being Chinese-American, Isabelle only knows the kind of Chinese that is spoken in the kitchen.

Fortunately, this includes the language of food, and soon Isabelle immerses herself in Peking duck and Mongolian hot pot, when she’s not engulfed in pea-soup pollution and culture shock. There’s also the challenge of reacquainting herself with her older sister, Claire, now a high-powered lawyer living the expat lifestyle. But, as she learns more about Claire, Isabelle begins to suspect she’s not the only one who’s run away to China.

After many moments of cultural confusion, Isabelle can’t help but wonder if moving to Beijing was a mistake. Or is this frenetic, vibrant city of the future the perfect place to figure out who she really is?

The Buzzzzzzzzzzz

“The vibrant depiction of Beijing, lush descriptions of sumptuous Chinese meals, and Isabelle’s struggle with how others perceive her distinguish Mah’s first novel.” ~ Booklist

“Ann Mah’s sizzling portrait of life in Beijing serves up more than just scrumptious banquets, identity crises and fraught, intercultural romances. It’s a story of how people find and nourish ourselves in unexpected ways and places, so delicious that I took breaks from reading only to dash to the phone and order Chinese.” ~ Rachel DeWoskin, author of Foreign Babes in Beijing

“Ann Mah’s richly detailed Kitchen Chinese is humorous enough to make you laugh out loud, and so delicious you are sure to begin craving Peking duck and dim sum. A true tale of reinventing oneself in a new and foreign world.” ~ Patricia Wells, author of Vegetable Harvest and We’ll Always Have Paris…And Provence

First Sentence

“My first meal in Beijing is roasted duck, or kaoya as it’s called in Chinese.”

_________

And now, Ann’s writerhead

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

I have to admit that I don’t achieve writerhead as often as I would like. Like exercise, I don’t love writing, but I love having written. On rare occasions, however, I have pictured a scene so vividly that I had to sketch it before it disappeared. I write down a tumble of words, a bare outline, the words of dialogue that are reverberating in my mind, and then I go back and fill in the rest. This usually occurs somewhere near the end of the day, when I’m panicking that I haven’t gotten enough done, and my husband is due home from work in the next twenty minutes.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

Honestly, writerhead happens so rarely for me, I’m not sure how I would react. Instead of writerhead, I’m usually squeezing out words one by one, using the Pomodoro technique (set a timer for 25 minutes and focus on one task for the entire time—no internet!). That being said, I do believe there are two types of people in the world: those who call you in the middle of a sentence, and those who call at the end of a paragraph.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

For me, writerhead is like finding a baby panda in a bamboo forest. It is that rare—but when it happens, it’s enchanting.

_________

Ann Mah is a food and travel writer and author of the novel, Kitchen Chinese (HarperCollins, 2010). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, the International Herald Tribune, Fodor’s travel guides, Washingtonian magazine, the South China Morning Post, and other publications.

She’s been interested in food since the age of five, when she climbed on the counter to watch her father chop garlic. After graduating from UCLA, she moved to New York to pursue her other love—books—eventually becoming an assistant editor at Viking Penguin. In 2003, she moved to Beijing, China, where she worked as a staff writer and dining editor for That’s Beijing, an English-language entertainment magazine. She’s lived in Paris since 2008, where she’s currently writing a nonfiction book about French regional cuisine.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ann and her work, skip on over to her web site. She’s just launched a monthly newsletter so be sure to sign up for all the scoop from Paris. You can also say hello on Twitter (@AnnMahNet) or Facebook.

 

Expat Sat: Travel Is…

Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writerhead. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing, publishing, and thriving to expat writers around the globe.


Here’s one of my favorite quotes about travel:

“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.”          ~ Lillian Smith

What’s yours?

 

Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Susan Conley

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author answers three questions about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.


As soon as I caught wind of Susan Conley and her recently published memoir The Foremost Good Fortune, I was curious about her writerhead. After all, she’s a New Englander who was an expat in China with a unique story to tell.

So lean close, my friends, and lend your ear. You’re going to want to hear this…

The Scoop About The Foremost Good Fortune

Susan Conley, her husband, and their two young sons say good-bye to their friends, family, and house in Maine for a two-year stint in a high-rise apartment in Beijing, prepared to embrace the inevitable onslaught of new experiences that such a move entails. But Susan can’t predict just how much their lives will change.

While her husband is consumed with his job, Susan works on finishing her novel and confronting the challenges of day-to-day life in an utterly foreign country: determining the proper way to buy apples at a Chinese megamarket; bribing her little boys to ride the school bus; fielding invitations to mysterious “sweater parties” and tracking down the faux-purse empire of the infamous Bag Lady; and getting stuck in an elevator, unable to call for help in Mandarin.

Despite the distractions, there are many occasions for joy. From road trips to the Great Wall and bartering for a “starter Buddha” at the raucous flea market to lighting fireworks in the streets for the Chinese New Year and feasting on the world’s best dumplings in back-alley restaurants, they gradually turn their unfamiliar environs into a true home.

Then Susan learns she has cancer. After undergoing treatment in Boston, she returns to Beijing, again as a foreigner—but this time, it’s her own body in which she feels a stranger. Set against the eternally fascinating backdrop of modern China and full of insight into the trickiest questions of motherhood—How do you talk to children about death? When is it okay to lie?—this wry and poignant memoir is a celebration of family and a candid exploration of mortality and belonging.

The Buzzzzzzzzzzz

“You hear about riveting prose, and this is it. The story is nailed down, noisily, in metal. The Foremost Good Fortune is just about as honest a book as you’ll ever read. The trip Conley went on was to a far more complex place that she envisioned. This is a beautiful book about China and cancer and how to be an authentic, courageous human being.” ~ The Washington Post, Carolyn See

“Conley also touched a nerve that resonated with most women: She wasn’t the perfect mother and she readily admitted to needing her own space. She used the metaphor of having a place inside her head where she retreated to when things with her boys got too manic to deal with. The theme continues to resonate through the metaphor of Mandarin and then cancer as a sea in which she is swimming alone.” ~ China Daily, Rebecca Lo

“This is a beautiful story of womanhood, motherhood, travel and loss, written by an author of rare and radiant grace.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

First Sentence

“It’s late on a cold April night in Portland, Maine, and I lie on the couch staring hard at a glossy pullout map of Beijing.”

_________

And now, Susan’s writerhead

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

Writerhead begins while I’m in a deep sleep, and if things are zinging that day, I’m able to keep one foot in that dreamland the whole time I’m at my writing desk. It’s a morning operation for me—I surface from a REM cycle, catch the thread of a plot line or a character quirk that’s asking for attention, nurse that in bed (maybe even scratch the idea out on a notepad) until my little people wake up. Feed the boys breakfast—walk them to school. All the while nurturing the writer head and gently resisting intrepid outside forces: no internet, no telephone, no plumber.

If I can make it to my desk with the dreaminess intact (it has something to do with energy reserves—email sucks all the vigor out of me if I do it first thing and I have nothing left in my creative bank—and something to do with hope. I am more joyful as a writer if I haven’t spent lost minutes trolling New York Times.com before nine am) I am good to go for five hours. Once I’m there I am mostly a work horse. I like long stretches of time and I don’t break except to sprint to the kitchen for a hummus bagel sandwich and then back at it.

I once taught a workshop to room of burgeoning memoir writers that was about using fiction techniques in our non-fiction. The subtitle of the workshop could have been “ass in chair” because the biggest problem most of the students in the room were having was making the time to write. I had a mantra that whole workshop: if the ass is not in the chair than the writing will not occur. But I don’t always sit at my desk. My shoulders get tired and my neck hurts, and I move to a mattress I dragged up the attic stairs by myself last fall and wrangled into the corner of my tiny study. I dressed it up as a day bed, with bright cotton pillows and Indian blankets and I often move there when I feel the dark forces circling again: the internet, the telephone, the plumber. I lie back on the pillows and whether I’m writing long-hand in my notebooks (early drafts of everything I write) or plucking away at the keyboard, this mattress sometimes allows me to hold on another hour or so of writerhead.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

All can be lost so easily—even the best laid plans of a writing day. So I maintain a kind of fierceness to guard my time and the headspace of writerhead. It can evaporate so quickly. It all looks harmless—a husband who wants to talk through our boys’ guitar lesson schedules is standing in my attic office door. Ten minutes later he has the details he needs to go retrieve our musicians and I’ve lost the voice of my narrator for the rest of the day.

I have strategies to combat this. I don’t make eye contact with my husband when he pokes his head in, and I pretend I haven’t heard him when he coughs. I never answer the front door (whatever they need to tell me or leave me I know they will come back the next day and try again) or the phone.

My husband has told me that when I’m writing, really writing and not just moving around paragraphs in an attempt to spark something, the level of focus in my office is high. Scarily high, he reported last week, because of the kitchen faucet I left on downstairs for three hours after I grabbed a glass of water. I tell him I am unaware of the focus or the faucet because I am too busy writing. I think this new word, writerhead, might do some of the work of explaining where my brain goes. I won’t need to make frown faces at my kids when they ask me what’s for dinner while I’m still on my writer’s clock. I will just say the word writerhead to them and it will soon have its own kind of currency.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

Writerhead is a small wooden dory. The work is in getting to the dock, putting on my life jacket and climbing into the boat without upsetting the things in there: the oars, the water slushing in the bilge, the bow line and stern line. Once I’m in the boat, I get right to work rowing. There can be choppy seas and the oars can get heavy and awkward. But I try to keep the boat moving—every day a little further up the coast and then back home.

_________

Susan Conley lived in Beijing for more than two years, and returned to Portland, Maine, with her husband and two sons in December 2009. She is cofounder and executive director of the Telling Room, a writers’ workshop and literary hub for the region. She was an associate editor at Ploughshares and has led creative writing seminars at Emerson College in Boston. Her work has been published in The New York Times Magazine as well as The Paris Review, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, and other literary magazines. She is currently working on a novel and settling back into life in the States.

If you’d like to learn more about Susan, hop on over to her web site (http://www.susanconley.com). You can also say hello on Twitter (@Susan_Conley) or Facebook.

_________

Q4U Readers / Writers / Moms / Dads / Expats / Travelers / Sinophiles: What draws you in here? The small wooden dory? The image of Susan dragging that mattress up to her writing room? Susan’s comment that interruptions “all look harmless”? Talk to me.

 

Expat Sat: Writing Prompt #8: You & Her…Here & There…This & That

Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writerhead. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing, publishing, and thriving to expat writers around the globe.


This is #8 of 10 in a series of writing prompts for expat writers. So listen up, my nomadic pals. Then grab your keyboards and start writing.

__________

Folks are often hesitant to do the old “comparison/contrast” when it comes to writing about their host country or their fellow expats. They’re afraid of offending people, stereotyping, etc. I get ya, but sometimes there’s nothing better than a little “us and them” to reveal truths, highlight key cultural differences, and maybe even make your reader laugh out loud. Believe me, you can poke a little fun at yourself, your culture, your fellow expats & their cultures, and yes, even your host country’s culture…all without being offensive. (And besides, not all comparison/contrast essays are funny. Many are quite serious. That part is up to you.)

Writing Assignment: You’ve got a couple of options:

1. Choose something aesthetic that you like: literature, food, movies, music, dance, art, clubbing, photography, architecture, etc. Then pick one example from your home country and one from your host country (for example, if you choose food, you could compare Chinese hot pot to good, old-fashioned American beef stew). Once you’ve narrowed your topic:

a. Explain why one thing is better than the other. For example, if you’re a fan of Chinese hot pot, explain why it’s better than stew back home in the United States. (In my mind, ANYTHING is better than stew.)

b. Reveal a little something-something about both by doing a side-by-side comparison. For example, hot pot and stew are both delicious but each reflects certain aspects of its culture. (Both are comforting, cold-weather dishes but stew-eaters are lazier than hot-pot aficionados. Stew-eaters like their dish to arrive ready to eat whereas hot-pot aficionados like to participate in the cooking.)

2. Compare and/or contrast two groups of people: taxi drivers in your host country and taxi drivers back home; store clerks in your host country and store clerks back home; bosses in your host country and bosses back home; mothers in your host country and mothers back home (yep, been done by Amy Chua, I know) ; etc.

a. Explain why one is better than the other. For example, why taxi drivers in the U.S. are way better than taxi drivers in your host country.

b. Reveal a little something-something about both by doing a side-by-side comparison. For example, taxi drivers in both countries USUALLY get you where you want to go, but both have their quirks.

Tip #1: Figure out what your purpose is. Are you explaining your two subjects…saying both are good (or bad), just different? Or are you evaluating your two subjects…saying that one is better (or worse) than the other?

Tip #2: Before you start writing, make lists. (Always a good time to make a list!) List the characteristics of both subjects that you will compare. (For example, make a list of hot pot characteristics and beef stew characteristics. Then also characteristics of people who eat each of these dishes.)

Tip #3: Keep your audience in mind. Imagine someone reading your piece in the next edition of “Best Travel Essays.” Make sure you give that reader all the info she needs. (Perhaps this poor reader has never had the privilege of eating Chinese hot pot!)

Un-Goal: This is not a rant. Your goal is not to mock or make fun. There’s a fine line between funny and making fun. (More on this in a future post.)

 

Now…get thee to writerhead!

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Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Expat Sat: Writing Prompt #4: Family

Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writerhead. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing, publishing, and thriving to expat writers around the globe.


This is #4 of 10 in a series of writing prompts for expat writers. So listen up, my nomadic pals. Then grab your keyboards and start writing.

__________

Today…family talk. Not the spouse you handpicked from the apple bin or the kiddos you either created or adopted into your über-awesome immediate family. But your extended family–moms, dads, grandparents, sisters, brothers, cousins, etc. All those lovely, loving, sometimes-comforting, sometimes-irritating family members who make you laugh, push your buttons, drive you batty, keep you real, and know that you’d do anything to keep that 9th-grade photo from making its way onto the Internet.

And why are we talking family today?

Because living in a country far from all those family members is often both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you don’t have to deal with family crap. A curse because–crazy as it may seem–you sometimes miss dealing with family crap.

Writing assignment: Make some sense of your feelings about being far from family. Write it down. Get real. Get it on the page. Who drives you the nuttiest? Who do you miss the most? The least? Who picks you up at the airport when you travel to your home country? Who sends you care packages? Who do you miss that you didn’t expect to miss? Why? Why? Why? And how do you manage all these loverly emotions while hunkered down in your host country?

#1 Rule: Be honest and don’t pussyfoot around.

Tip: If you have trouble getting started, write this assignment as a letter. To one of those wonderfully kooky family members. Or to a best friend to whom you can say anything. Or even to yourself. Or me. Whatever works.

 

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Image: posterize / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Expat Sat: Writing Prompt #2: Stuff, Stuff, Stuff

Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writing. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing, publishing, and thriving to expat writers around the globe.


This is #2 of 10 in a series of writing prompts for expat writers. So grab your keyboards, my friends, and start writing.

__________

In 2006, as I prepared to upend my life and move from the U.S. to China, I (like many of you) rented a storage space and shoved nearly everything I own into it:

  • 40+ boxes of books
  • every single draft of my novel Thirsty
  • kitchen crap
  • Gagual (the panda bear I’ve loved since I was two)
  • my fishing gear
  • a load of elk horns
  • etc.

I arrived in China with a mattress, 2 suitcases of clothes, my laptop, a Swiss Army knife (thank goodness cause our “furnished apt” in Shanghai didn’t include any kitchen stuff & we sure needed that knife during our first few jet-lagged days in China), and few other bits and pieces.

And honestly, that’s all I needed.

Here’s your writing challenge for the week. In the video below, check out what filmmaker David Hoffman has to say about his connection to stuff. Read this terrific essay —“Selling My Mother’s Dresses”— in the NYTimes by Abby Sher. Then think about your own connection to stuff…and start writing. A few questions to get you started.

  • What did you take with you to your host country? Why?
  • What did you leave behind that you miss?
  • What was the “surprise” object you brought from your home country? The thing that proved to be more valuable than you anticipated? (for me, the Swiss Army knife)
  • What new object have you acquired in your host country that you couldn’t live without?