Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Long Time No See!

Cara Lopez Lee and I met through an online author network and bonded over our love of China, Mexico, and writing. This month she’s celebrating the 2014 edition of They Only Eat Their Husbands: Love, Travel, and the Power of Running Away, (Conundrum Press, Oct 7 2014). 

It’s about Cara’s nine years in Alaska, where she landed in a love triangle with two alcoholics, and the year she ran away to trek around the world alone. During that journey, she made her first visit to China and discovered that a Chinese phrasebook is pretty much useless unless you speak Chinese. In honor of her book’s re-release, I’ve invited her to The Paper Tiger to share her dogged attempts to become multilingual. Enjoy! 

Long Time, No See!

After a year of Mandarin lessons and a year-and-a-half of Cantonese lessons, I can say “Where’s the bathroom?” in both languages, but don’t know what to do if the person answering does anything besides point. In Cantonese, right is “yao” and left is “dzaw”—don’t ask me the tones because Cantonese officially has either six or nine tones, but I hear 16. Problem is, if someone answers, “Down the hall to the left,” I’d hear, “Blah-blah-blah left.” Actually I’d hear “Mut-mut-mut left,” because “mut” means “blah” in Cantonese. After a few left turns, I’d end up where I started, where there’s only one thing I could say to the person who gave me directions: “Ho noi mo gin!” (Long time, no see!)

The above is called “losing face”: either mo min or diu gaa. I prefer mo min, because diu pronounced with the wrong tone means, “fuck,” though I doubt diu gaa translates “fuck-face.” I don’t mind losing face, but I’d rather not get punched in it.

I first visited China in 1999, during my solo trek around the world. On that trip, I learned such Mandarin phrases as “Ni hou!” (Hello!)“Duo shao qian?” (How much is it?), and “Xie xie” (Thank you). As a beginner traveler, I fell into the trap of believing that, when in doubt, I could mime whatever I needed. Untrue, as I discovered when looking for my bus from Lijiang to Dali. Unable to read signs, I ran from bus to bus holding up my ticket and pleading “Dali?…Dali?...Dali?” The drivers stared blankly. Panicked, I felt a weird temptation to try Spanish, the only other language I knew. Good thing an old man read my ticket and led me by the hand to my bus, or I might never have made it home to write my memoir.

Seven years later, I started researching a novel inspired by my Chinese-Mexican ancestry. I wanted to find the village of my great-grandfather, Ma Bing Sum, who was born in China. Until the 1970s, Toisan county was where most Chinese-Americans traced their roots. To prepare, I wanted to learn Cantonese. Toisanese is the local dialect, but I live in Denver, where I thought finding a Cantonese instructor would be easier. No such luck. Everyone insisted Mandarin would be more useful, so I surrendered and found a Mandarin tutor.

Mandarin is hard.

A year later, I only knew a handful of phrases, like, “I’m an American.” Shit, they could tell that by looking at me. So I hired a translator to help me find my ancestral village. Fiona Zhu, or Zhu Zhu, proved invaluable. My favorite great-uncle had told me my great-grandfather’s village was Gong Hao, but Zhu Zhu discovered that Gong Hao was a district containing eleven villages. So we embarked on a hunt.

On my previous trip to China, I often thought people were angry, because Mandarin tones sometimes sound harsh. Cantonese and Toisanese sound more musical. A comedian once said Cantonese speakers sound like they’re falling off a cliff: “mut-mut-mut-aaaaaaah!” Still, Cantonese can sound angry too if you don’t understand. At one point in Gong Hao, shouting people surrounded us.

“Are they angry?” I asked.

Zhu Zhu chuckled. “No. So nice, everybody wants to help find your family!”

Ultimately, someone directed us to a 99-year-old man in the village of Git Non, who we nicknamed Old Mr. Ma. He spoke Toisanese. My translator did not. The interview went something like this:

“My great-grandfather was born in Gong Hao 120 years ago,” I said, “so I’d like to learn what life was like here long ago.” My translator relayed this to his granddaughter in Cantonese, who relayed this to her grandfather in Toisanese, whose answer made the same trip in reverse.

Five minutes later, Zhu Zhu said, “He wants to know your grandpa’s name.”

“Ma Bing Sum, but he left before you were born, so you wouldn’t have known him.”

Chinese people are big on family history, so Mr. Ma refused to give up so easily. I told him Ma Bing Sum was born in Gong Hao around 1888 and moved to America in the early 1900s. Then I showed him a letter my uncle once wrote my great-grandfather. Mr. Ma grew excited, “Ho Ho Ho!” My great-grandfather was from this very village! Mr. Ma had met him during a couple of his visits home. He verified that Ma Bing Sum had lived in El Paso with a Mexican wife. He opened the village’s red book of ancestors to a page naming Ma Bing Sum and his eldest three sons. Across the path from Old Mr. Ma’s house stood the humble home where my great-grandfather was born. Down the street stood the huge house he built with money he made in America.

“Your grandpa was the richest man in town,” Zhu Zhu said. This village was full of my distant cousins. “They say you are family.”

I had tears in my eyes, but I did not lose face.

Two days later we did a full interview. One thing Mr. Ma shared was that long ago in Git Non, teens approaching marriageable age moved out of their parents’ homes and into two communal homes: one for boys, one for girls. Those homes now appear in my novel.

Two years later I returned for Qing Ming, a Chinese version of “Day of the Dead” when people clean and decorate family graves and feed their ancestors. The Ma family served a roast pig, which now makes an undignified appearance in my novel. The next day we celebrated Mr. Ma’s 101st birthday. Everyone chuckled with delight when I said Cantonese phrases Zhu Zhu taught me, like M’Goi (thank you) and ho ho mei, (delicious).

That does it, I thought. I’m learning Cantonese and I’m coming back. Mr. Ma won’t understand me, but his family will. I can also return to Guangzhou and Hong Kong where my uncle grew up, and speak the language he spoke. What’s more, I want my novel to feel realistic, and language is culture. I renewed my search for a Cantonese tutor: “I don’t care if Mandarin is more sensible!” I found Jing Jing, a twenty-something tutor from Guangzhou.

Sometimes Jing Jing’s lessons reveal a generation gap. She worked hard to teach me “Hang gai, Tai hei, Sik fan,” meaning, “Go shopping, see a show, eat”—the Chinese version of “Go to the mall.” She assures me this is “very popular,” though I doubt my great-grandfather said it in the 1910s. Then again, she also taught me the common greeting,“Sik dzaw fan mei ah?” which never goes out of style. It means, “Have you eaten yet?” or literally, “Have you eaten rice?” a reminder that rice is central to Chinese culture. Jing Jing explained that, upon meeting someone, it’s polite to say, “Please give me your advice.” I’m eager to make this request of my Chinese cousins.

There’s something about a foreigner speaking our language that warms the soul. It says this relationship means so much that I wish to build a bridge between us.

The last time I saw Old Mr. Ma he was waving from his doorway on his 101st birthday, saying, “Bye-bye!” a popular farewell in modern China. I had given him sweets, a card, and a red balloon. He was most tickled by that balloon, not because he’s feeble-minded—we had discussed profound concepts, including how he values the family closeness of village life, which is why he never sought his fortune in America—no, he loved the balloon simply because he’s a joyful person.

I hope I get to tell him, “Ho Noi Mo Gin!”—“Long Time No See.” If he’s no longer around, I’ll ask where his grave is so I can leave an offering. Hopefully by then I’ll know how to ask for directions.

About the Author:
Cara Lopez Lee’s stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Connotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, and she’s a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She has traveled throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the U.S. She married her husband at an active volcano in Costa Rica. They live in Denver. You can buy Cara’s memoir, They Only Eat Their Husbands, at Conundrum Press, IndieBound, or Amazon. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Getting from here to there...

I am sometimes not sure why I'm so addicted to traveling in China, because truthfully, it isn't always easy. Maybe because what it always is, is interesting.

A couple of days ago, I traveled with a friend by Da Ba Che -- Big Bus -- from Kunming to Dali. It takes about five hours or so, two hours less than the train. Note to self: What it saves in time, it makes up for in added discomfort and occasional terror.

You get on this thing and are immediately bombarded with a safety video instructing you to wear your seatbelt, not to smoke on the bus, and for reasons which are unclear to me, don't drop luggage on your baby. This repeats every 15 minutes or so. All well and good except half the seats don't have seat belts, or arm rests in some cases. The highways are very narrow, crowded with big trucks, close enough that you could reach out the window and touch one in the next lane.

At one point, we made a sharp turn, and my friend Richard went flying out of his seat, landing in the aisle. Both of us were so shocked by this that we didn't quite know how to react. This was topped a few minutes later when another bus nearly merged into us, our driver had to swerve and then he fell out of his seat. I guess he wasn't paying any attention to the safety video.

When the safety video wasn't playing, we watched strange Chinese comedies about a magical cellphone and another where a schoolteacher pretends to be a playboy's girlfriend for a visit to his parents, who run a martial arts school, for reasons that are unclear to me. Also, music videos. Like, "My Heart Will Go On," which is pretty much unavoidable in China, years after the film. As Celine Dion sang the chorus, a young couple behind us started singing along. Until it was interrupted by the safety video again. Wear your seatbelt. Don't smoke. And don't drop luggage on your baby.

We had one traffic jam, where lanes were closed due to construction. The barriers are bright colored plastic that look like the components of a child's fort, nothing that would actually stop a car. Meanwhile, we're barreling up a series of mountains, into greener and greener country dotted with Bai villages -- traditional whitewashed houses with gray roofs. Round mandala-like paintings under the eaves, like Amish barn signs. On the long walls, murals, some elaborate scenes of traditional subjects, dancers and musicians gathered around a bonfire, dotted with a series of small blazes, white geese taking flight around them. Others have paintings of dinosaurs. One village's murals are entirely different varieties of mushrooms. This part of Yunnan province is famous for its mushrooms, I'm told.

After this ride, I resolved to avoid the Da Ba in the future and take the train instead, even if it's two hours longer. But I expect I'll be going this way again, and soon, I hope. Because when you get there, it looks like this…

Sunday, August 10, 2014

These are the voyages...

(originally posted on Murder Is Everywhere)

I've traveled to places that many people would consider exotic. All over China, including Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. I just went to Russia for the first time this year. But I'm finding that my home town of San Diego is as exotic as anyplace I've ever visited.

Submitted as evidence: Comic-Con International.

Comic-Con started as a small gathering of comic book creators and fans, science fiction and fantasy writers and readers, and, well, Trekkies. Hey, I can say "Trekkie." I was an early adopter. 

"This is our Superbowl," Captain Kirk Shoe Shine explained earnestly to a customer

My sister and I attended one of the early Cons, back when it was held at the El Cortez Hotel, in a seedy part of downtown San Diego (actually, nearly all of downtown San Diego was seedy then, as I recall. How times have changed). I was somewhere in my early teens, my sister three years younger. "I'll pick you up in three hours," my dad told us, on his way to a three-martini lunch.

My sister and I ran around like wild things for those three hours. What I remember the most vividly are two things: We were in the company of strangers who liked the same weird stuff that we did. And it was the first time I saw the original "Star Trek" bloopers.

Now, as Geek culture has become mainstream culture, Comic-Con is an international phenomena, attended by 130,000 people a year, the place where Hollywood reveals teasers for the upcoming next big things. It's grown way too large for the San Diego Convention Center, so it's taken over parts of downtown San Diego as well, including Petco Park for a zombie run:

 -- and entire sections of the Gaslamp and the Embarcadero:

The whole experience is pretty overwhelming. The crowds are huge, lines are long, events are impossible to get into. People argue that Comic-Con has grown too big, that it's no longer as relevant, that smaller, more intimate conventions are taking its place. And I think there's some truth to all of those assertions.

But still. 130K people with a love of comics and science fiction and fantasy and popular arts descend on my city, once a year. A lot of them cosplay--create really elaborate and beautiful costumes to express themselves. It's sort of like Geek Mardi Gras.

And there's just something pretty awesome about that.

Submitted as evidence, the following photos…

There are more and more of these "Christian" protestors every year. But they are greatly outnumbered

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tony Gwynn, and a writer's work

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you've probably noticed that I posted a lot of articles and photos about Tony Gwynn, one of the greatest hitters in baseball, after his untimely passing.

Tony formed a great friendship with Ted Williams, who considered Gwynn the best hitter since, well, Ted Williams

Tony Gwynn was Mr. Padre, the face of a franchise that often -- well, mostly -- has underperformed. On a team with a history of mediocrity, he was excellence personified. He was also Mr. San Diego. For a city that hasn't always had a strong identity, other than, "We're not LA!" he was the perfect hero. Hard-working, loyal -- he stayed in San Diego for his entire career, though he could have made much more money elsewhere, and he could have been a lot more famous, too, if he'd taken the big bucks and gone to a big market like New York or Boston or Los Angeles.

He loved San Diego, and San Diego loved him back.

And get this. He was a genuinely good guy, too. Great family man. Wonderful to fans. Had a laugh, a gleeful cackle, and a smile that lit up the room. If anyone had a negative word to say about Tony Gwynn, I haven't read it yet. Instead, after his death, tributes poured in from all around the country. I'll just link to one, "I was Tony Gwynn's bat boy." It will give you an idea of the rest.

Tony's statue at Petco Park

It was a crazy thing, being in San Diego when Tony Gwynn died. He was too young, too nice, too good a person. I don't know how many sports figures there are these days whose passing would be felt by as many and as deeply, who was so linked to a particular city, a place that doesn't have many heroes. As a lifelong Padres fan (which is another term for "masochist"), I was, like many San Diegans, mourning a man I didn't know, and you know, I generally don't get all that involved in the lives of celebrities that I don't know. 

Of course, I had to go to the memorial. Decked out in my Tony Gwynn retro jersey, wearing my new Tony Gwynn 394 Pale Ale T-shirt (yes, he collaborated on a signature beer with Alesmith Brewing Company. And it's delicious).

It was really a lovely event. There were a lot of emotional moments, but one of them came when former Padres shortstop Damian Jackson talked about how he didn't have a father growing up, how Tony would have been a great father to have. 

Yeah, that kind of guy.

The memorial at Petco Park

One of the things most remarked upon was Tony Gwynn's incredible work ethic. He was a pioneer in using video tapes to study hitting, a practice that is now universally used in baseball. He showed up earlier, practiced longer, than just about anyone. He analyzed hitting constantly, down to the smallest minutia. He rarely struck out. He was all about putting the bat on the ball, hitting that 5.5 hole.

He wasn't a great fielder at first, so he worked his ass off to become one and won five Golden Gloves. 

He worked very, very hard, and this is something that was greatly celebrated here. It fits in with that hazy San Diego civic culture: Work hard, don't be flashy, get the job done. 

Somewhere around the 100th iteration of Tony Gwynn's work ethic, I realized that there was an element of wishful thinking involved. Basically, if you work hard, you too will achieve and be rewarded. While that's not UN-true, it's not the entire picture, either. He had incredible natural gifts. He had a loving and supportive family. 

Plenty of people could work just as hard as Tony Gwynn and not achieve what he achieved. 

Why am I going on about a beloved baseball player on a blog dedicated to fictional mayhem set in foreign countries?

One of the things I kept thinking about was how Tony Gwynn's career resonated with me as a novelist. 

Baseball can be a real grind. It's a long season, and baseball players play a lot of games. It requires stamina, discipline and the sheer, dogged stubbornness to show up and play whether you feel like it or not. 

Writing novels feels a bit like that at times. 

Novels are…long. Writing one takes sustained effort over a long period of time. You research. You struggle through the first draft, and then you rewrite. And revise. And rewrite and revise some more. You deal with editor's notes. You revise and rewrite. You do your line edit. Your copy edit. Your page proofs. You try to craft the thing as best as you can, down to each single sentence. 

And like most things, you get better with practice. You work hard, and it's reflected in the work. 

But so is your individual talent. Your voice. That spark and gift that you can't explain and you can't always will into being. 

Respect your own gifts by working hard and treating people well. And by being loyal to the thing that drives you to create in the first place. 

You don't cheapen your Muse by selling out and becoming a damn Yankee, or a stinkin' Dodger.

Lisa…every other Wednesday…

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A visit to "Chinawood"

Whenever I come to China, I try to go somewhere I’ve never been. On this trip, I decided to visit Hengdian World Studios. I worked on a film studio lot in Los Angeles for many years; how could I resist a visit to the largest filming facility in China, which, as I understood it, is also a tourist attraction a la Universal Studios.

This trip happened kind of quickly and I didn’t have much time to research it or even really think much about where I was going and what I would do. I’d read an article about Hengdian that purported to explain how to get there and what to do, and for whatever reason, I just took it on faith that the information was correct.

So, I took a high-speed train from Shanghai to a place called Yiwu that I knew nothing about. From Yiwu I was supposed to look for Bus K850 and for 1.5 yuan take that to someplace called Jiangdong, where supposedly there were shuttles to Hengdian for 10 kuai. I didn’t know what time the buses ran or stopped running. I was mildly anxious about this, but not enough to do anything about it. I just got off the train in Yiwu and wandered over to the right, where the bus station was.

(this was on the way back, but you get the idea)

The bus: a typical Chinese public bus. I asked the attendant if it went to Jiangdong and if from Jiangdong I could get to Hengdian. She nodded and said “yes,” rather curtly, so I got on the bus. I was naturally the only laowai on the thing.

Which was standing room only. The bus jerked and moved and stopped and went, all of us who were unfortunate enough to be standing hanging on to the plastic strap handles and swaying with every turn and halt. I do not necessarily recommend traveling this way.

Yiwu, as it turns out, is a pretty big city. We passed a row of luxury car dealerships as we headed into town. Lexus and Infiniti. I’d never even heard of Yiwu, but at least a few people there must be making enough money to buy them.

The drive took a long time. We seemed to go out of the city, and then into another one, but when I asked the woman next to me where we were, it was still Yiwu.

Finally we came to Jiangdong, which was the end of the line with a lot of other city buses, still in Yiwu. A smaller white bus was parked there. I figured it was probably the shuttle to Hengdian, and as I stood there, considering, a guy asked me if I was going to Hengdian and said that this was indeed the right bus.

I sat by an open window, thinking, it would be nice to sit for this leg of the journey.

Unfortunately, just as I got comfortable, someone came on the bus and made an announcement in dialect that I couldn’t understand, but the upshot of which was, everybody had to get off this bus and get onto another one.

That bus, naturally, was already full. I grabbed the absolute last seat on it, climbing over someone’s suitcase to claim it, next to a young woman who was sitting sideways in the seat because her luggage was piled around her. More people boarded, filling the aisle. It was a 12 yuan ride, as it turned out. I asked the ticket collector how long it was to Hengdian. “Yige xiaoshi,” she told me. An hour. And “Nide Hanyu ting bucuo.” Your Chinese is not bad. This is a compliment. “Not really,” I told her. “I have a long way to go.” I would demonstrate how far later in the evening.

“Are you going to Hengdian?” my seatmate asked me. I said that I was. “I heard it’s fun,” she said.

What is not fun: sitting with your seatmates’ kneecap pushed into your thigh, a water bottle in the front seat pocket poking into your knee, your backpack and bag perched on your lap, being jammed into your kidneys by the collapsing seat of the person in front of you.

According to the article I read, “Hengdian is so small that you can easily find hotels of all kinds and many restaurants.” Also, supposedly, there are Hengdian Studios electric cars and rickshaws to take you where you need to go. Well, not so much. It’s more like a medium-sized town, and when the bus stopped in its center and we all got out, I realized that I had no idea where my hotel was and no idea how to get there. I didn’t see any of these magical electric cars and/or rickshaws.

What I did see was a “modi,” one of those motorized trike vehicles with a tin covering, where you can ride on a wood bench inside. They are of course extremely underpowered and pretty dangerous. Oh well. The driver looked at the address of my hotel and told me it was “very far” and would therefore cost me 30K to get there. I wasn’t sure that I believed her. “Very far” in small Hengdian? But after a halfhearted attempt to find other options, I gave up. Odds were I probably wasn’t going to die in a crash taking one of these things just this once.

Not only are you riding inside of a giant tin can, you are riding on one that is being hammered on, where every bump in the road is a major jolt, and who knew, she was telling the truth when she told me it was “very far,” or “very far” in terms of Hengdian. We bounced along, down rough roads that appeared to be taking us out of town. This can’t be right, I thought. This is supposed to be a four-start hotel with “excellent” ratings on CTrip, and we are heading out into the countryside. Then, down a road lined with…furniture factories. Yeah. Long, warehouse-like buildings advertising mahogany and rosewood furniture.

Then, suddenly: my hotel. An apparition in marble and gilt in the middle of a row of furniture factories.

The name of it was the Hengdian Honton Boutique Hotel. “Honton” is not a word in my Chinese dictionary, but looking at the actual characters, the name has something to do with “rosewood.”  As close as I can figure out this hotel caters to businessmen coming to make deals on furniture. It does not cater much to foreign tourists, and I quickly reached the limits of my Chinese understanding when trying to communicate with the desk clerk, who spoke very quickly and with a heavy local accent. But eventually I made my way to my very nice room, and then, to dinner.

The restaurant was a series of private banquet rooms, and I sat alone in one at the end of the dinner service and drank a Cheerday Beer. I really needed a Cheerday Beer by that point.

After the adventure of getting to Hengdian, the actual studio visit was almost an anticlimax. Not that it wasn’t interesting. I visited the Qing/Ming Dynasty filming base, the one with the giant full-sized replica of the Forbidden City that Zhang Yimou used in his films HERO and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER. 

After that I wandered around the streets of old Hong Kong.

Filming was mostly done without sound, so tourists clustered around the production sets in close proximity to the filming. 

Other tourist activities included dressing up in costumes for photos and performances in your own movie skits, a blue screen demonstration, horse and archery shows, comedy performances.

When it was time for me to head back to Yiwu, the Hengdian tourist taxis again eluded me, and I ended up in yet another modi back to the part of town where the shuttle buses waited. Hopped on that. 
“Oh, you’re back!” It was the same ticket taker as yesterday. “Did you have fun?”
“Yes. A lot of fun.” And I really did. Because sometimes half the fun really is just managing to get there.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Dog Years...

I'm pretty sure some novels are written in dog years.

I'm wiped out. I feel kind of like that guy up there, except not as perky. But I am similarly exultant.

A couple days ago I sent off the draft of my latest book to my editor. The draft was…a bit…tardy. Okay, I was late. This has never happened to me before. But every once in a while, you run up against the reality that, although writing books for publication is a job, embedded in a for-profit (we hope) business, creating a novel is still an artistic process, and sometimes you just can't create on demand.

This was a funny realization for me to come to, because I've prided myself on delivering on time, turning in a clean draft, being a pro. But one of the interesting things about being a novelist is that every book is different. You learn how to write the book you're writing by writing it. Some of that knowledge transfers from book to book. Other knowledge is unique to the book you're writing. Nothing you've learned before applies to some particular aspect of the problem set you're trying to solve, so you just fight your way through it until you figure it out. You hope.

That's the scary part about being a writer. It's a constant dance on the cliff's edge of failure. While this is not as consequential as failure in jobs where peoples' lives are at stake, or where a wrong policy decision screws up lives a few generations into the future, it feels really important when you're the person whose creative ass is on the line. When you fail at writing, it feels personal. You're mining so many aspects of your personality and experiences to provide material for your work. And there are times when that process is is the last thing you want to be doing.

But then, there is craft. Craft is the great salvation of writers. Craft allows you to take all the messy, painful, complicated stuff, the material you're working with, and shape it into something separate from yourself. Something apart, and with enough distance that you can look at it more clearly, as an artwork, or as a product, however you prefer to frame it. By either label, it's a creative projection of your will, and the only thing getting in the way of shaping it like you want, having the kind of control to create meaning and order that you don't necessarily have in your own life, is you, the author.

You're the creator of your own success or the cause of your own failure. External circumstances can make the process easier or harder—or sometimes, impossible. But there's no one who can get that book out of you but you.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The seeds of an idea...

 Writers will tell you that one of the questions we get asked the most often is some variation of: "Where do you get your ideas?" My inspirations tend to be character, place and an issue or two that I find particularly compelling. Here's a little of what went into the second of my Ellie McEnroe novels, set in today's China. 

Scenic Yangshuo. How could I not be inspired?
Yangshuo hostel. Like I said, scenic

I was sitting in my hotel room in a converted farmhouse in beautiful Yangshuo, China, web-surfing, when I came across the story that would inspire my third novel, Hour Of The Rat. An American suspected of “eco-terrorism” had been arrested in Dali, in southwest China, for having some thirty pounds of marijuana buried in the back yard of the house he was renting. I found this strange and compelling on many levels. You’re a fugitive wanted by the FBI, you flee to China, of all places, and you get involved with massive quantities of pot?

 Dali, a favored hangout of Chinese and foreign hipsters

Dali is also very scenic! 

At the same time, I wanted to deal with environmental issues in China. It’s no exaggeration to say that China’s natural environment is in crisis, devastated by decades of exploitation and neglect, the recent siege of off-the-chart air pollution in Beijing being just one small example. These problems are so severe that they threaten to undermine both the health of Chinese citizens and China’s “economic miracle”—the astounding 30 years of growth that have propelled China from poverty to the second largest economy in the world. Moreover, they are a source of social unrest. From poor farmers demonstrating against polluting factories that have contaminated their cropland to middle and upper class urban professionals who would like to have breathable air in their cities, Chinese people have protested about environmental problems, on the streets and on social media. The government has taken a somewhat more relaxed view of such protests than it has of others that are more overtly political, but that tolerance only goes so far because environmental issues provoke an increasingly large percentage of China’s “mass incidents,” and they have the potential to bring disparate groups of China’s citizens together.
Protesting a chemical factory

It’s easy to dismiss China’s problems as things that don’t have much affect on us in the US, or at least to keep them at a distance because they aren’t connected to us. But there are consequences and connections if you look.

In plotting this book, I needed that American connection, and I thought that a fugitive “eco-terrorist” might do the trick. But what was he protesting?

I decided to use GMOs – genetically modified organisms. These products, pioneered by American companies like Monsanto and DuPont, are created by a process where unrelated genetic material is inserted into a plant or even an animal to create something with desirable properties that you’d never find in nature. Most commonly they’re designed to resist herbicides, such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans, or engineered to produce their own pesticide, such as Bt corn.  More than 90% of the soybeans grown in the US are GM, as is 88% of corn and 90% of sugarbeets. As a result, GMOs are in nearly all the processed food we eat—if it doesn’t say “organic,” odds are it’s GM.

Many of the claims made for GMOs– that they produce higher yields, and that they reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides, for example – have been called into question and even refuted. A recent United Nations study pointed to sustainable agriculture as a better way to feed the hungry, promote economic growth and protect the environment. In the case of pesticides and herbicides, their use has created pesticide-resistant pests and herbicide-resistant “Superweeds” – leading to more pesticides and herbicides and plants designed to resist ever more lethal doses of them.

More to the point for writers of conspiracy-minded thrillers, the largest producer of GMOs, Monsanto, has a public reputation only slightly better than Al Qaeda. The company is routinely accused of bullying farmers, suing them unjustly in the States and driving them to suicide in India, and if you Google “Monsanto” and “revolving door,” you’ll find pages dedicated to proving that Monsanto exercises undue influence over the federal regulatory process due to former employees moving over to government positions.

It’s a fact that past Monsanto employees working for the FDA have made positive decisions involving Monsanto products, which in one case prompted calls by members of Congress for a federal investigation. It’s a fact as well that because these products are considered “substantially equivalent” to their natural counterparts by the FDA, they are allowed on the market with a minimum of review, and there has never been a study of their affect on humans.

Even the State Department pushes GM food, lobbying to promote the products, writing trade laws in their favor and preventing labeling laws in other countries. GMOs are not labeled in the US—and corporate agriculture spent millions of dollars to defeat a proposed labeling law in California in November 2012.

Chinese industry is rushing headlong into developing GMO products, both in collaboration with Western companies and on its own, and the Chinese adoption of these products is seen by some biotech champions as a “tipping point” —as China goes, so does the rest of the world. As it stands, China is the world’s largest grower of GMO cotton, and because it imports such a large percentage of its soybeans from the US, where some 90% of soybeans are GMO, these products have already penetrated the Chinese market. Yet the Chinese government has not yet approved of the mass cultivation of GMO food crops, and there is considerable suspicion on the part of Chinese consumers about GMOs – especially when it comes to that Chinese staple, rice.

Rice is so central to Chinese culture that when you ask someone if they’ve eaten yet, “Chi fanle meiyou?” you’re literally asking if they’ve eaten some form of rice. This is also a common way to say, “how are you?” because food is a really big deal in China.

Leftist nationalists in China are suspicious of GMOs in part because of their perceived “foreignness,” and in the case of rice, you are messing with China’s cultural patrimony. But the development of domestic varieties hasn’t calmed consumers’ fears.

When it comes to environmental and food safety, China may have regulations on the books, but the regulatory system itself is underfunded, and regulations are under-enforced and all too frequently ignored. The scandals in China’s food supply are legion. Hardly a day passes without a story about the use of illegal pesticides, hormones and antibiotics, “sewer oil,” adulterated baby milk powder, glow-in-the-dark pigsrat meat masquerading as muttonchickens fed minerals to increase their weightfake eggs and walnuts,  tofu mixed with detergent, not to mention the recent sixteen thousand dead pigs floating down the Huangpu River and into Shanghai’s drinking water supply. With those kinds of systemic problems, mistrust of new, unfamiliar and potentially under-tested genetically modified staples is more than understandable – it’s sensible.

None of which stopped me from eating fish on a  stick in Dali

Which makes what I found with a bit of Googling not all that surprising, but still pretty alarming.

Since about 2005 and again in 2010, unapproved varieties of GM rice have made their way into the food chain, in China. Greenpeace China found GM rice in Hunan, Hubei, Fujian and Guangdong Provinces, on farmlands and in stores. Farmers were offered the seeds at a discount, and in some cases, for free.

 Guizhou Province countryside. Guizhou also is a setting in HotR

A lot of the farming in Guizhou is still done like this

What’s not clear is where, precisely, this rice came from. According to an investigation by the Chinese journal, Economic Observer, the university that had official approval to produce GM rice denied the rice was theirs, yet it held a thirty percent share in one of the three companies found to be selling the seeds – and of those three companies, one of them didn’t even officially exist—it was not registered with the necessary provincial authorities. The rush to move these seeds illegally into the food chain, the journal speculated, had to do with the university’s “safety” permit from the government to produce them—it expires in 2014. It’s the old, “better to beg forgiveness than to ask for permission” approach.
Guizhou village

Further complicating the picture is that genetic material associated with foreign products was found in some of this rice. It seems to be a case of patent infringement, which is not uncommon in China—yet it’s also in foreign companies’ best interest that these products are defacto accepted in the market—all the easier for them to make the argument for their own. And there are also cases where foreign entities are involved with Chinese counterparts, and one side or the other evades regulation and accountability.

For example, in 2012, Tufts University, the USDA and a Chinese university were implicated in an unapproved study involving Chinese children fed “golden rice”— genetically modified rice that is enriched with beta carotene. While the idea behind this rice – preventing Vitamin A deficiency – may be a good one, conducting an experiment on Hunan village kids without their parents’ full informed consent, was not. The lines of responsibility are difficult to determine in this case. So far, three Chinese officials have been sacked, and Tufts is conducting an internal review.

So, in China you have GMO research taking place in an environment with a poor food safety record and an opaque decision-making structure that makes review and accountability difficult. In the US, you have a GMO industry dominated by several large players who have poured millions of dollars into the political system to have the regulatory system written in their favor.

Industry spokespeople tell us that any worries about the safety of these products are unwarranted, even “anti-science.” It is true that there is not a lot of data, precisely because they were released onto the marketplace without any rigorous studies of their effects on humans. But let’s put aside the evidence we do have, that GMOs may not be as nutritious as their natural counterparts, that they may cause allergic reactions in some people, that they may promote tumors and kidney and liver damage in rats. Let’s also put aside any concerns we have about a GM salmon that grows more rapidly and is extremely aggressive getting loose into the wild population, or questions about how an unapproved, experimental GM wheat showed up in farmers’ fields in Oregon. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that GMOs may be as safe and nutritious as their natural counterparts.

We’ve all heard about the dangers of monoculture in food supplies, the Irish potato famine being just one example of a catastrophic crop failure due in part to a lack of genetic diversity. What does it say about our food system that three large companies, two of which are American, control half of the world’s proprietary seed market, and that one of those alone, Monsanto, over one quarter of it? That five huge biotech companies have bought up more than two hundred other seed companies, greatly reducing the number of seeds offered, making commercial access to a greater diversity of crops more difficult for farmers? That the average price of planting an acre of soybeans has risen 325% in less than ten years? Do we really want that kind of “monoculture” controlling what we eat?

By the way, my original inspiration, that American eco-terrorist busted in Dali. What I knew about him from the article I’d read in Yangshuo was that he’d been accused of acts of arson in the Pacific Northwest, including one that destroyed a horticultural center at the University of Washington. There were no details about the motives behind the attacks. It wasn’t until I’d nearly finished writing the first draft of HOUR OF THE RAT that I looked deeper into the case and found out what those were.

He and his group were protesting GMOs.

Lisa…every other Wednesday...