Saturday, December 10, 2016

Gifts from a Great Man

Today Bob and I attended Jay Forrester's memorial service at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Concord. Jay was the founder of System Dynamics and Bob's mentor at MIT. Jay was also the inventor of magnetic core memory—the earliest widely used computer memory. (See the great man's obituary in New York Times, which was written before his death, with his approval.)

Beyond all that, Jay had a much more personal impact on my life. Twenty nine years ago, Bob was teaching System Dynamics in Shanghai, and I was studying it in Chengdu. Our first encounter in spring 1987 thus was an unintended gift from Jay.

When Jay was a young inventor of computer memory (1951)

Who'd have thought that Jay, even after his death, would give me another surprise? Today's otherwise completely traditional service took one digression from beautiful Christian hymns: we all stood and sang "Home on the Range" with the church's choir. Jay's children said this was a song Jay loved, and wanted to be sung in his service. Bob was amazed that I, who didn't know the other songs, was utterly at home with this one. I don't know who the Chinese translator of its lyrics was, but in the 1970s, for many of us "zhi-qings" (also called "sent-down youths"), the song had accompanied and consoled our homesick hearts through long days and nights in the countryside far away from home.

My eyes were wet when I softly sang the Chinese words I remembered from my youth—words I was surprised to still remember after all these years—they mingled harmoniously with others' English rendition. The words and music are so dear, intimate, nostalgic, that I've lost the ability to judge the translation.

[Chinese] 草原上的家园

在草原上 野牛自由流浪
我愿 把草原当家园
这儿难得听到 诅咒和吵闹

我家 在草原上
这儿难得听到 诅咒和吵闹

[English] Home on the Range (listen to it on YouTube)

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day

Home, home on the range
Where the dear and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day

Thursday, November 10, 2016

An Amazon Review

I was surprised and very touched today by an Amazon review of my book, Apologies Forthcoming. This is a good time to be touched by something nice, so let me share it with you:

The kind of literature that makes you stop and feel
By M  on November 2, 2016
Format: Paperback|Verified Purchase

This is a genuine work of literature. The two stories I remember most are "Feathers" and "Pivot Point." The former is a devastating portrait of family loss, the latter, a haunting illustration of longing. In several of these stories is a protagonist who really establishes herself as a sort of feminist hero, a young woman at once happier as "just one of the guys" and critical of the way they treat women, including herself. An additional pleasure is the way the stories get the cognitive faculties working: suddenly the reader will come across two characters debating a mathematician's theorem, or a substantive quote by Confucius. Eberlein has a poet's eye, giving us the image of two birds on a wire when we don't expect it, and it's these unexpected moments--many of them image-based, some of them dramatic--which the reader remembers vividly. At the heart of Eberlein's craft is a finely tuned and inimitable sense of language. "I want to travel with you to every mountain, every water, I told him," and that use of "water" is le mot juste. To read these powerful works by Eberlein is a great privilege.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Chinese Americans Against Trump

I just can't imagine Trump as the President of the United States. Hillary Clinton might not be the best candidate, but Trump is the worst I've seen. He has demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of democracy. (Update: Obama did not overstate when he warned that "The fate of the world is teetering.")

I'd also like to point out the fact that many Chinese Americans are against Trump. See for example (update: the name of the FP page has been changed after the election day).


(updated 11/4)

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Does East Germany Live?

For both Bob and me, the trip to Berlin two weeks ago was a first time. It started well.  Upon our arrival on Tuesday evening, we took a walk in the cool breeze, along the cobblestone streets outside the hotel, passing by leisurely locals here and there in groups of two or three.  I sent a WeChat message to Chinese friends in Boston (in translation): "Unlike the deserted evenings in American suburbs, Europe's dusk is enchanting." In that message I had likened Berlin to some other Western European cities I visited a few years earlier.  
My event the next day, a panel discussion titled "Engaging with China," also went well.  My fellow panelists and our German host are very knowledgeable about China, and I was glad to get to know them. The audience was enthusiastic and thoughtful about the topic of the Cultural Revolution, and this, including the participation of some younger people from mainland China, gave me hope.

Things made an unexpected turn on Thursday. Originally Bob and I had planned to join a 6-hour walking tour recommended by a fellow panelist, but, being jetlagged, I slept in and missed the meeting time.  So we changed plan and decided to take the train to visit Potsdam. 
Shortly before noon, we walked to the Alexanderplatz train station. It was an overcast day and the temperature had dropped to below 20ºC.  I felt cold in short sleeves, and so went into a souvenir shop to buy a sweatshirt. At the cashier's counter I saw that they were also selling the Berlin WelcomeCard, "the official Berlin tourist ticket." I had heard of this card before and the convenience of using one ticket for all public transportation in town made it seemingly a great idea. We asked the cashier if the WelcomeCard included the train to Potsdam, and she said yes, so we gladly bought me a three-day card for 29.50 Euro and Bob, who was going to leave Berlin one day earlier, a two-day card for 21.50 Euro.
A few minutes later Bob and I boarded an S-train to Potsdam, looking forward to a day of interesting tourist experience. Before the train reached its second or third stop, a man with a scanner in hand came to check tickets. Bob gave him our WelcomeCards.  The man looked at the cards, paused, and told us he needed to ask someone something. He then took our cards and walked toward the other end of the train.
I said to Bob, "Something wrong?" and Bob, being a forever optimist, replied, "I don't think so."
The man with our cards returned just when the train came to a stop. He told us that our WelcomeCards were invalid. We'd have to go with him.
Surprised and suspicious, we followed him off the train.  On the platform were three men in dark-colored jackets dealing with a young couple who looked like tourists.  Seeing us, one of the men walked over.  His sturdy figure posed intimidatingly before the 5'2" me; for a moment I wondered if we were running into some kind of mafia.  He took the cards from our escort and, with a cat-caught-mouse like triumphant smile, demanded ferociously, "Sixty euro each. One hundred twenty total." His English had an accent that did not sound like from a German.
"Why should we pay you? Who are you?" Bob said.
"Give me your ID," another rude voice said. The other two men had joined the show.  
"Let us see yours first," Bob replied.
One by one, the men took their IDs out of their pockets and flashed to us.  I tried to take one for a closer look, and the man said "No!"  A quick glance told us that the language on the IDs was German, unrecognizable to us anyway.  Yet one thing was clear:  the men were not police. In their dark jackets and humiliating expressions, all three looked like thugs to me.   But this was in a public space of a democratic country, under broad daylight, even though the train had left us alone with those men, even though the sky was overcast.
"What happens if we don't pay you?"  I said, evaluating possible options as a writer would. It might not have been the smartest thing to say in the circumstance, because the triumphant smile was disappearing from the first man's face.
"Then we have to call the police," he threatened.
"Yes, call the police!" Without coordination, Bob and I said in unison.  We had the same thoughts:  only police could check those men's identity. That is, unless the police were their co-conspirators, a highly unlikely circumstance.  
"You are not going to have our passports until we hear from the police," Bob added.
The three men looked at each other.  Their humiliating manner gave way to a look of surprises. After a moment, one man walked aside to make a cellphone call.
We waited.  For about ten minutes nothing happened, during which one man tried to play the nice guy. "You are not the only ones," he said. "Did you see the other couple?  Many tourists are caught like you, you'll just have to pay."
He said that, after one purchases a WelcomeCard, an extra step has to be taken to validate it on a specialized meter. It is to prevent people from trying to use the card forever.
"Then why did no one tell us this?" I said.
"It is your own responsibility as a tourist to inform yourself," he said, sounding like a recorder. He must have recited the same line numerous times by now. I began to suspect that they were not thugs but hired guns.
 "Where is the meter?" I asked.
He pointed to some device on the platform.
"Then give us back the cards.  We'll go validate them now," I said.
"No," he said. "You must pay the fine first!"
The man who had been making calls came back to say the police wouldn't come.
"We can go to the police with you," Bob offered.
It must have been the first time those men ran into such tough prey.  They hesitated.  Their hesitation made us more suspicious.
"We can't force you to go to the police," one advised.
"We are going voluntarily," Bob said.
We took a train in the opposite direction back to the main station, and followed the guys to a police office. One guy spoke German to a police officer for a long time.  The officer went to find a different officer who could speak English.  The English-speaking officer verified the train line's policy that anyone who didn't validate the WelcomeCard would be fined for 60 Euro. 
That was how a Berlin WelcomeCard became a Berlin UnwelcomeCard. At this point, the card felt like a trap for unsuspicious tourists.
I tried to point out to the police officer that we had just bought the cards minutes before running into those men, that we had no idea about the validation requirement, and the fine was an insult.
"I am sorry. This is the way things are here. A person can cheat and use the card for a long time."
The officer was fairly polite and did not quite point a finger at us, but both Bob and I felt deeply insulted for being treated as thieves. Yet there was no point in arguing any further. Bob simply handed 120 euros to the sturdy guy, who seemed a bit surprised by it. He gave us receipts and, for the first time, tried to make a friendly gesture. "You can return the unused WelcomeCards," he suggested. We ignored him and walked out.
We boarded the S-train again and headed to Potsdam, but the good mood was broken. The ride was less than an hour.  In Boston, the commuter rail for that length cost US$6.50. We never asked what an actual train ticket would cost to Potsdam had we not bought the Berlin UnwelcomeCards in the first place.  What was the point to find out, after we had spent 171 Euro for that trip?
As we toured the Sanssouci and other palaces in the afternoon, I was often mind absent.  From time to time the humiliating scenes on the train platform and the police station replayed in my head.  Those men in dark jackets never explicitly told us which organization they were working for; it was our guess that they were hired by the railway company. According to them, they had gotten many foreign tourists the same way they got us. But why would Berlin's railway company use this way to humiliate tourists, to make people's visits a bitter experience? 
I recalled that, nearly three decades ago, when I just immigrated to the United States, the honor system of the US public transportation surprised me in a big way. It was a sharp contrast to the China I came from, which treated every citizen as some sort of suspect. In the US, everyone was trusted to pay their own fare honestly.  I was a poor student then; if I wanted to I could have easily cheated on bus fare in Boston.  But I didn't.  The honor system made such behavior a great shame. During the years, more than once Chinese friends have told me that living in the United States made them more honest and honorable persons.
In Potsdam, we bought tickets to see both the old and new palaces. When we walked across the grounds to the New Palace's entrance and presented our tickets, the female guard told us—quite impatiently—that we needed a stamp. We walked a few hundred meters to another ticket office, got a stamp, returned and were admitted.
It was a stamp-thirsty ticketing scheme. The requirement for getting extra stamps on our tickets at different locations again reminded me the China I came from, when any little thing would require a lengthy stamp-tour to get approved.  It made me suspect that Potsdam belonged to East Germany in the not-so-remote past.  For the same token, I also suspected that Berlin's railway company had belonged to East Germany. 
Upon returning to our hotel that evening, an online research verified both.

On Friday we took a 6-hour walking tour provided by  Compared to Thursday's unpleasant experience ( thanks to the railway company), the walking tour was more than a great success.  The ticket cost only 15 Euro each – Berlin's low-cost of living was unexpected to me. Some people bought tickets online in advance, but most didn't.  Our tour guide, a knowledgeable and passionate Israeli, told us to pay at the end of the tour.  Apparently he didn't worry about anyone escaping half-way. (As a matter of fact, no one did, and all fifteen of us in the group gave him generous tips.)
Toward the end of the walking tour, we stopped across the street from an enormous grey building, said to have a thousand windows (see photo below).  It had been both East Berlin's and the Nazi's government building, and now hosts the country's Finance Ministry.  Its numerous windows, our tour guide said, were meant to intimidate citizens and remind them that they were small and being watched all the time.
There are many wonderful things in Berlin, with great historical significance. The holocaust memorial is very moving, and the architecture and museums are noteworthy. Still, for Bob and me, it felt like something was missing or out of place.
Perhaps it's worth noting that, after the train trip to Potsdam, we never used our Berlin WelcomeCards again.
Berlin's Thousand-Window Building

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Chinese Poetry Translation: Room for Disagreement

      This might be a bit unusual: in the short span of two months, the LA Review of Books published two essays on Chinese poetry translation: mine titled "Is There a Good Way to Translate Chinese Poetry?" and Lucas Klein's "Tribunals of Erudition and Taste: or, Why Translations of Premodern Chinese Poetry Are Having a Moment Right Now." My piece focuses on contemporary poetry translation, while Klein's gives more attention to the ancient works, but our topics – at times even views – converge. Still, as Klein points out, "There is much room for disagreement inside the agreement that…" (feel free to finish the line with your own words).

Sunday, July 3, 2016

A Friend on Lessons Learned from the Cultural Revolution

This is a long overdue post that I have been meaning to write. Now that the July 4th long weekend is here, I finally got the time.

After the New York Times interviewed me in early April, a friend who read it emailed me a comment, in which she says (in translation from Chinese):

The Cultural Revolution kept lots of youngsters out of school, but in a cruel way it also taught a few hard principles.  For example:

-          Stay far away from the Cult of Personality (regardless of its genesis and agenda);
-          Don't easily believe accusations against anyone (especially large-scale, top-down accusations);
-          When it comes to forming opinions on a person or a matter, don't use group thinking; 

How well said! How fundamentally down-to-earth these principles are to every individual. Those born later than our generation, those who are lucky enough to not have experienced the Cultural Revolution – a time when mob mentality played to its extreme – might not get the urgent point or understand the importance of these principles. I dare say, chances are, people will more often do exactly the opposite. It's human nature; it's the kind of human nature we need to be on guard for and fight against.

The friend then adds:

As long as human nature doesn't change, it is possible that the Cultural Revolution will be repeated. If we perceive any sign of that tendency, we must try to stop it regardless of personal dangers.  This is the mission that history entrusts to those of us who were there.

What a courageous thing to say.

On a different but related note, I will be in Berlin on July 13 to participate in a panel discussion as part of the Robert Bosch Stiftung's "Engaging with China" program. The topic is "50 years after the Cultural Revolution – how dealing with the past is shaping China's future."

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

An Overlooked Message of the Peter Liang Demonstration in Boston

On Saturday, Feb. 20, I walked in Boston Common about 11 am, in time to see a large group of Chinese Americans gathering by the Brewer Fountain in front of the gold-domed Massachusetts State House.  Behind the crowd, a man in a black ski jacket and a woman in blue jeans quietly placed a small, home-made memorial under a tree.  They carefully laid down pine twigs and flower bouquets on the lawn, and set up a cardboard sign with hand-written words:

People came from as far away as Rhode Island to demonstrate in Boston, responding to former New York policeman Peter Liang's conviction.  The majority of the participants were middle-aged, and quite a few brought children with them. Led by a Boston University Professor named Wang Hua, the first thing the demonstrators did together was observe one minute of silence in mourning of Akai Gurley and as an expression of condolences to his family.
I watched them from a distance. I had decided from the very beginning to stay out of the mass rally, and advised my friends to do the same. In addition to personal reasons, I was also concerned about possible adverse consequences of racial tension. But I would be surprised this time.
My first surprise was that a friend, Hong Jiang, a former IT professional who had been skeptical about the rally early on, brought with her two hand-made placards. One read, "Condolences to Mr. Gurley's family," and the other "Fair Trial for Peter Liang."  She said she decided to get involved because she really didn't want the rally sending the wrong message to the public.
As it turns out, these were the two main messages of the rallies across the country that day.  Sadly, however, the mainstream media, and many in their readership as well, seem to have seen only the second message or, worse still, to characterize the demonstrations as a  "square-off" between the Asian and black communities. Few recognized that the Chinese American community as a whole has emerged from its customary quietness to make a collective bow to the victim's family, to express regrets and sorrow, to issue a profound apology, and to acknowledge the failure of Liang's defense team for not delivering an apology until after the verdict was read. Such a collective apology is something unheard of in the 190-year history of Chinese Americans.

The consensus on apologizing was not manifest at the outset. On WeChat, I early on saw an ambivalent question: Are we begging for leniency? In the week between the verdict and the demonstrations, I watched on my cellphone people debating passionately, sometimes fiercely, on whether mass rallies should be held and how.  There were no authorities anywhere; anyone could propose any idea, and people took or rejected ideas at their own discretion.  Despite endless arguments, some sort of convergence—though in no way unanimity—did seem to appear at the end. One example: inappropriate slogans such as "Support Peter Liang" stayed around for a while but were ultimately rejected by the majority.  "Support him for what? For shooting?" the question from a random person had made others think twice.

As a rookie cop, Peter Liang made a grave mistake on the evening of November 20, 2014, on the 8th floor of a dark stairwell in a Brooklyn public housing complex, when a bullet discharged from his gun, ricocheted off the wall, and fatally struck Akai Gurley one floor below. Though all evidence points to the fact that neither man was aware of the presence of the other at the time, and that even the victim did not immediately realize he himself was hit until he ran down two more floors and collapsed on the 5th floor landing, Liang, as well as his partner, made a further mistake by not performing CPR for the dying man after they saw what happened minutes later. While Liang's defense team had argued that a devastated and not well trained Liang was incapable of handling such a crisis, an unarguable fact is that a young man's life was lost because of him, and for that Liang must bear the responsibility.
Yet it is also a fact that the tragedy was a horrible accident, made even more tragic by the extremely low probability that a ricocheting bullet would strike someone in the heart. As Ken Thompson, the Brooklyn DA who prosecuted Liang, said in a video interview on Feb. 19, the day before the demonstrations, "I do not believe that Peter Liang intentionally killed Akai Gurley. We have never said that." 
An accident is not the best example of evilness. An individual who caused an accident without intent should not be symbolized for political causes or be given the harshest punishment. As far as I can tell, this is what pushed Chinese Americans to the streets on Feb. 20. But as they sought fairness for a member of their own, it also became clear to them that "fairness" might not mean the same thing to those on the side of the victim. Thus, as a grassroots movement, the Peter Liang demonstrations ran into a dilemma. That dilemma, embodied in the two slogans carried by my friend, also became part of the rallies.    
On the grass of Boston Common, I asked a demonstrator, who identified herself as a housewife, why she brought her children here.  She replied in Chinese, "I want them to know we are a minority. They have to know that unfair things happen to us because we are a minority." She paused, and then added somewhat ambivalently, "But we don't want our black friends to think we are against them. They are a minority too.  We are both disadvantaged groups."

            A park ranger on horse attracted children who came with their parents. The kids wanted to pat the horse.  They wanted to take pictures with the handsome policeman.

I couldn't help but wonder: when Peter Liang, at age five, witnessed her mother being robbed on the street, and vowed to protect her when he grew up, was it the mighty image of a policeman like this that inspired his dream career?  How could he have known there's so much behind a beautiful image!

By the Brewer Fountain, a woman speaker stood on a bench and called on Chinese Americans to actively participate in public affairs. The crowd responded with foot stamping while shouting in unison: "Vote! Vote! Vote!"  Hong Jiang, who became one of the provisional organizers with the BU professor, spoke next.  She told people to care not only about our own community, but also all other minority groups. 
After seven or eight men and women made impromptu speeches, people began to sing "God Bless America."  A man with a singer's voice held a megaphone and led the chorus. I was surprised that many remembered the lyrics; those who didn't hummed along.
As the demonstrators paraded along the outmost ring inside the large park, the procession stretched for more than half a mile. I asked the park ranger on horse how many people he thought there were.  
"More than 2000," he said, impressed. "I thought there'd be 50.  That's the estimate on the permit."
"Is it okay there are so many?" I asked.
"Oh yeah, " he said, "perfectly fine. It's a good thing."

The parade marched past my camera, shouting slogans. Suddenly, a white man standing next to me in the audience ran to the parade and stopped a woman holding a sign, on it were the words "Free Peter Liang." 
"Where is he being held?" the man, who later told me his name was Ed, asked her. The woman looked puzzled. Several others came around and tried to explain, but Ed cut them short. "You can't ask to free someone who's not being imprisoned," he said.
This slogan, in fact, had been one of those deemed inappropriate by most—albeit for different reasons than Ed's—during the WeChat discussions before the demonstration. Many seemed to want leniency for Peter Liang, not exactly "free," but unsure what term would be fair.  
  I spotted another friend, also an IT professional, at the tail of the parade. I asked her why she came to demonstrate. "If we didn't," she said in a Sichuan accent, "Peter Liang would be locked up for 15 years!"