Friday, October 31, 2008

Poetry Friday: Autumn Plants, Flowers, Bamboo, Rocks

Autumn Plants, Flowers, Bamboo, Rocks

by Yun Shouping (1633-1690)

Evening wind, morning frost:

these things make solitude beautiful.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Poetry Friday: The Wind

The Wind

by Song Yu (290-223 BCE)

The the breath of heaven and earth.

Into every corner it unfolds and reaches;

without choosing between high or low,

exalted or humble,

it touches everywhere.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Jia Jia Tang Bao: Best Soup Dumpings in Shanghai!

My friend, Yucca (aka She Who Knows Everyone in the World), took a few of us to The Best Dumpling Spot in Shanghai: Jia Jia Tang Bao (Home Soup Dumplings).

Imagine a little packet of yumminess, stuffed with crab or pork or salted egg, nestling in a sipful of hot soup. Welcome to xiao long bao, one of Shanghai's famous dishes. The chefs at Jia Jia Tang Bao deftly make each and every one of your dumplings to order.

The duck-and-chicken blood soup though? I took my no-thank-you bite. And then it was back to my little dumplings.

And just to prove that Yucca Knows Everyone in the World... She brought along two friends who were passing through China on holiday. One of them has worked with my brother, Dave Chen, on a capital campaign for Oregon State University's School of Engineering. It's a small, dumpling-filled world!

Jia Jia Tang Bao
90 Huanghe Lu, by Fengyang Lu
Tel: 021-63276878

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Goals: Checkpoint Two Months

We have been in China for two months now. And that's check-in time on the goals I posted on August 22. I just don't want a year to slip by and then at the end of it wonder: what on earth did I do with my time?!

1. Acquire some basic Mandarin language skills!
Well, I still speak Cave Man Chinese as in Me. Want. This. (cue: pointing finger) But I have hired a Mandarin tutor and practice as much as I can (to the chagrin of my pre-teen son who is mortified every time I speak and Chinese people cock their heads at me as though I'm channeling some foreign language. Which I am.)

2. Write my next novels!
I finished 5 weeks of plotting my YA fantasy series and I am officially starting the rewriting process. YAY! This took much, much, much more time than I thought it would. Hopefully, this prewriting exercise will pay off in the long run.

3. Throw myself into the China experience!
I've set aside every Friday to explore the city and I'm gadding about town...although at a slower pace than before. My big dilemma is this: I started my Shanghai turnSTYLE project where I committed to interviewing 100 cool people here. I'm well on my way with that goal. But...I see a novel idea formulating. I wonder if I should abandon turnSTYLE (weep) to focus my interview time... I hate not completing projects. But my time is limited. (Note to peeps: THOUGHTS? Advice?)

4. Take exquisite care of my family, friends, and self!
I am exercising every single day--whether it's running or biking or popping on the elliptical. I've decided that driving an hour to yoga each way wasn't worth the bliss. Every Friday night is Pizza Night with the fam where we plop in front of a movie and chow down on pizza. And, yup, I have committed to being the writer-in-residence at an international school in Shanghai. Lucky Son, he gets to live with one of his teachers. Hee. And best of all? I've reinstated date nights with my hubby.

So...for those of you who made 2008 New Year's Resolutions, how are you doing with them?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Me Speak Cave Man Chinese

My girlfriends turned out in full force after my last post on being called a FATSO in China. I swear, just about everyone emailed me, assuring me that I am not hugely ugly. It's hard to stay hurt or harbor anger when you're Mitali Perkins made me giggle when she told me that "in some villages in India, being fat is a compliment."

Or Janet Wong who emailed: "I’ve got to believe that you heard the tones wrong, and instead, they were beckoning you to…fight death…or buy a shed…See peng zi and pang at"


However, I've determined that I need a few quick comebacks in Mandarin. Look, I know when people are making fun of me or deriding me. Yes, yes, in most cases, walking away is the best strategy. That IS what we teach our kids. HOWEVER, we all know that there are certain times when just the RIGHT COMEBACK QUIP does wonders for your own soul--never mind putting the insulter in his / her place.

So. With my 75 Mandarin words I have mastered, I now give you Justina's Top 4 Insta-insults in Cave Man Chinese:

  1. Ni erzi de wugui! (You son of a turtle!)

  2. Ni shi tongxue de ben! (You are a student of stupid.)
  3. Ni he huantuan yiyang! (You are the same as a wonton.)
  4. Duibuqi. Qing wen. Ni de mingzi shi bu shi "wo shi men"? (Excuse me. May I ask you a question. Is your name "I am Slow"?)

Do you think the mean people in China will quake in their shoes?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

BIG, FAT GIANT in Shanghai

After I flew in from America a few days ago, I was too jetlagged to write. Apparently, not jetlagged enough to stay home and sleep as I should have. I went shopping instead. (I have another trip to America looming in November--a trip where I get to see my most awesome of Library Marketing team and my editor! I need to bring them presents!! Yeah, yeah, I hear my husband saying. So why did you bring home two purses for yourself? Shhhh...)

So there I am--jetlagged--in the surreal underground market beneath Shanghai's Science & Technology Museum. I'm beelining my way to two vendors my friends have assured me are trustworthy, when I hear a chorus of shopkeepers call out to me: PANGZI!

Translation: FATSO!

Okay, then! Fatso. Nice.

This, after I had spoken at the WLMA conference about the notion of true beauty as filtered through my next novel, North of Beautiful. I'm up there in front of all these librarians, unwittingly baring my (apparently big fat) belly, as I gesture emphatically: What does it mean to be beautiful? How do we define beautiful? How come we can't see it in ourselves? And isn't it terrible that we are so impacted by our very narrow definition of beautiful...only to be sidelined myself in Shanghai by PANGZI!

My good friend, Mitali Perkins (who just won the Jane Addams Award!), quickly assured me that in some villages in India, fat is beautiful. It means being wealthy! Healthy!

Ummm...I'm in SHANGHAI. Fat does not equal Beautiful. Or wealthy. Or healthy.

On the way home, I thought to myself: how sad is it that of the 100 or so words I know in Mandarin, one of them is PANGZI. How is that even possible? Is our global culture so focused on a woman's looks that we simply cannot escape always being evaluated? Judged? And found WANTING?

If anything, this has made me even more impatient for my book to come out so I have a platform to talk about BEAUTY. To point out that really, every one of us is beautiful. We just need a different definition of Beautiful, one that's COUNTER-CULTURAL. One that's REAL. One that's revolutionary.

To obsess otherwise--with our scales and mirrors--is a Big Fat Waste of Time. So here I am, CHINA: You may think I'm Big and Fat. I think I'm Happy. (And I found presents for my peeps at Little, Brown Books!)


Friday, October 17, 2008

Poetry Friday: The Palace of Rocks

I am late joining the Poetry Friday tradition set up a year or so ago by Kelly Herold, my hero in the kidlitosphere over at Edge of the Forest and Big A, little a. For an overview of Poetry Friday, check out the fantastic article by Susan Thomsen (who blogs as Chicken Spaghetti...I love that!) published at with the wonderfully cheeky subtitle: "It's an online literary happy hour without the drinks."
What possible contribution could I make in this worldwide celebration of poetry with so many better versed (pun intended) experts sharing their favorite poems each and every Friday?

Then, I thought: why not offer up ancient Chinese poems that are spare yet gorgeous in honor of my yearlong stint in Shanghai? So here is my first offering (and check out how LONG ago this poem was written!!):

The Palace of Rocks
by Yuan Jie (719-772)

At the palace of rocks, spring clouds white--

white clouds are best for the green moss;

brush apart the clouds, tread the rocky path:

what ordinary man could come along?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Shanghai | turnSTYLE: Sarah Kong, Shokay

turn·stile –noun1. a structure of four horizontally revolving arms pivoted atop a post and set in a gateway or opening in a fence to allow the controlled passage of people.

turn·STYLE - noun1. Justina's snapshot profiles of cool people in Shanghai who are creating and defining China style.

Sometimes when the stars and fate align, the right person appears when you need them. Such was the case with Sarah Kung, marketing director for Shokay, the world's only purveyor of an exclusive line of yak-down goods. You'll see why I need to learn all about yaks and weaving in an upcoming novel. Stay tuned!

Still, I hear the skepticism in your reading mind: yak down...uh-huh. Let me assure you that these knitted and felted goods were beautiful. Sumptuously soft. And gorgeously designed.

Started by two Harvard postdocs, Shokay is a fine example of social entrepreneurship. These women, along with Sarah, are helping thousands of Tibetan yak herders earn a new living by harvesting yak down and creating high-end luxury products.

And some of them are just plain cute, like these...

knitted goods like these replicas of a dish my mom used to make: batsang! Rice stuffed with meat, peanuts, salty eggs--all wrapped in bamboo leaves and shaped into a pyramid.

Sarah herself is an interesting story. She's a former editor for Elle in Asia who happened to hear about the two founders of Shokay. So impressed with their mission to help these Tibetan herders, Sarah talked herself into a job. She still freelances as a magazine writer. Her latest article featuring one of the sophisticated women who danced in halls during Shanghai's heyday in the 1930s. After scouring the Old Town to find a woman who lived in that era and was still alive in this one, Sarah found a perfect person to profile. It took her several weeks to gain the woman's trust and ease out the story. But she did. That's enough for me to want to learn how to read Chinese characters so I can study her article. (Or maybe I'll just find a translater.)

An hour later, I got the information I needed to write about yaks. And weaving. Curious?! Me, too! I can't wait to use this good stuff in my novel.

readergirlz LIVE Night Bites: October 15th Contemporary Bites!

This morning (tonight in the U.S.), I'm hosting Ally Carter and Maureen Johnson at readergirlz LIVE in celebration of Teen Read Week!

Readers from around the world are invited to join readergirlz every night as we chat about books, life, and writing.

Here are the coordinates:

6:00 p.m. PST / 9:00 p.m. EDT / 9:00 a.m. Shanghai Time

Hope to see you there!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hanging with Librarians @ OASL / WLMA, Day 2

A night after crashing catatonic in bed without changing positions for seven hours straight, I'm happy to report that a more alert Me presented at Day Two of the WLMA / OASL Conference in Portland, Oregon.

My audience was skeptical when I told them that I get inspiration for my novels from so many places: travel. Eavesdropping. Daily humiliations.

Case in point: Lorie Ann Grover informed me post-presentation that my shirt rode up everytime I gestured, leaving a big old two inch swath of bare, stretch-marked belly for all in the ballroom to see. *sigh* So reminder to self: before ANY presentation, move in front of a full-length mirror with my outfit to ensure no undue belly baring or otherwise. (Or perhaps an amendment is in order: check outfit before appearing in public. Anywhere. Why? Oh, like the time when I met a certain bigwig's sister AND found out to my horror later that I had bared half my breast in front of her. And people wonder why I am so connected to my inner teen?)

I'm happy to report that I've made a full recovery of today's humiliation. First, I had a great conversation with Liz Gallagher. Then, my brother, Dave Chen, and sister-in-law, Jill, took Lorie Ann and I out to dinner at Biwa, a fantastic little Japanese restaurant with yummy skewers and homemade noodles. Homemade chubby udon noodles--the sumo wrestler of noodles. I will be dreaming about them...

And then Lorie Ann and I whooped it up (okay, looked bleary-eyed at each) in a swanky boutique hotel in Portland.

I am a princess. And I know it. (Live it up, I'm telling myself. In 24 hours, I return to the land o' squat toilets.)

Bleary Eyed @ WLMA!

I'm back in the States! My peeps have asked me what I miss most about the U.S. Was it the food? (Well, I did have a hankering for a hamburger...and satiated it with a big, greasy one!) Was it the clean water? (Yup, missed being able to drink and brush my teeth with tap water.) Was it Oreos? ( And's not our sad, sinking economy.

To be honest, what I miss most are LIBRARIES (and my family and friends). I miss being able to check out a limitless number of books. I miss my favorite librarians: Robin and Dawn and Barbara and Darcy and Erin and Pam and Brenna and Jackie and all the others who have sustained me through research and book tours. Did you know that three of these librarians told me that they would help me with whatever research I needed this year while I was in China?! That they would scan and send whatever chapters I needed. How truly amazing is that?
So it was with huge delight that I returned to my book peeps--librarians where I spoke at the sensational Washington and Oregon Library Media Association Convention. I picked up Lorie Ann Grover on the way to the conference since she was worried that I would be driving by myself at what was the equivalent of 1:00 a.m. Shanghai time.

There I met Jone MacCulloch, the powerhouse blogger who hosted the Kidlitosphere Conference with Laini Taylor two weeks ago! I was so sad that I couldn't attend that pow was super happy that I got to meet her! She truly has the most luminous skin I've well as the cutest grandchildren.

After 30 hours of being awake, I presented on my favorite topic--readergirlz! And then wobbled with Lorie Ann down to the car where we had Hamburger #1. Honestly, I am not sure how much sense I made at the presentation. My head was fog. TODAY was much better after getting a few hours of sleep!!!!

More later, gators!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Project Novella...or Justina is Insane.

I promised myself that this year while in Shanghai, I would focus exclusively on my writing. Block out hours to write my next couple of novels. Accept no other commitments. My writer buddies made me practice saying NO. My volunteer-friends made me practice saying NO. My sister made me practice saying NO.
I practiced saying NO.
I really did.
But opportunity came up to be a writer-in-residence at an international school in Shanghai. What a great way to meet students! To meet teens who are living an expat life! To work with them on writing and using their words...
So...I said...yes.
But under these strict parameters, gleaned from my previous writer-in-residency experience:
  • I'd conduct one single session per month throughout the school year.
  • In these one single sessions, I'd teach roughly 100 students at once in the high-tech auditorium.
  • All of the students would be armed with their laptops.
  • And most importantly of all: every student would write their own novella, using a common prologue that we would write collaboratively.

So yesterday, I talked about my journey to becoming a writer, drawing inspiration from everyday life (and eavesdropping) for writing, harvesting their field trip next week to BEIJING. Here's what the teacher wrote:

Students in class were asking, "Can we write at home, or only at school?" When I told them that the novella was THEIRS because they were the AUTHOR and they could work on it whenever they wanted, they were thrilled! And when I asked who knew Mandarin well enough to "eavesdrop in Mandarin" during the Beijing Trip, a few usually shy students sat tall and proud with a grin on their face! It was beautiful.

I love how words empower teens! Their own words!

Anyway, I am now on my way back home to the states to speak at WLMA and cannot wait to be with my peeps: librarians and libray media specialists. Yay! Hamburgers, here I come!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Camels & Caves & Forts...oh, my!

Greetings from Camel Country! That would be Dunhuang, the oasis town in Northern China that was once the hub of the Silk Road a thousand years ago. Ever since my husband's cerebral and vivacious Aunt Barb shared her fascination with the Silk Road with me almost a decade ago, I've wanted to visit at least part of the route where caravans of traders brought goods (such as silk and porcelain) and ideas from the East to the West and vice versa. Part of the route. We're talking some 5,000 miles that traversed Asia, the Mediterranean, and Europe, starting around 115 B.C.E.!

For the Chinese National Holiday 2008 (celebrated Oct 1-5 for the founding of the People's Republic of China), our family joined two of our new friends, the Roeschels and Idekars, on our modern-day caravan to China's westernmost trading town and military garrison back in the Silk Road Days.

We descended on two of the main passes along the Great Wall: one at the Jaiyuguan Pass, the other at Yangguan Pass. Jaiyuguan was constructed around 1372 A.D., and filled with soldiers to protect China from the "barbarians." This is one of the oldest surviving military forts, which included traps so that mauraders could be corralled and then shot from above.

I realize that I am displaying way too much joy in my defense lesson. Not that any invader would have to worry if I were stationed to protect a fort. My arrows flew nowhere close to the straw dummy stationed below...
Afterward, we climbed the Hanging Wall, the end of the Great Wall of China. The end! Imagine being the lone soldier stationed at this distant locale and being the one to spy the marauders...then racing down steep stairs, some sections sitting at a 45 degree incline atop the ridgeline of the Black Hills...

A long, five-hour drive took us through some of the most desolate land I've encountered in the desert from the pass to Dunhuang. Then, we happened on a small oasis which grew the region's famous Hami melon. I can only imagine how psyched those old caravans were to spot green! Fruit! Water! Hundreds and hundreds of these sweet melon (somewhere between cantalope and honeydew) were piled at roadside stands. Here are strips of the melon drying in the sun like peach-colored peapods. Yup, tasted them. Yummy.
And then we arrived in Dunhuang itself. Spectacular. That's all I can say. Truly, the sand dunes were every bit as gorgeous and picturesque and exotic as I had imagined them to be. So beautiful, in fact, that I braved the cold to watch the sun rise and set. Which says a lot since I hate being cold.

Our adventured included a camel expedition through the Echoing Sand Mountains. (Note: Camels are more pungent than I thought they would be. And they whimper like little children! Mine, however, did not make a sound. Could petting its hump help?) And then there was the sand sledding down an ultra steep, very long dune. (Note: Scary! In my feeble Mandarin, I aptly communicated that I was very scared--wo shi hen pa!!!! The guys manning the top thought I was hilarious...and then pushed me down in my inner tube.)
As wonderful as the camels were (and traumatic as the sledding was), my favorite part of the trip was our daylong visit to the Mogao Caves, possibly the most breathtaking manmade site I've ever seen.

Imagine hundreds and hundreds of meditation caves carved into the mountainside and decorated with gorgeous Buddhist paintings, all between 1,200 to 1,600 years old. Starting around 400 A.D. (did you read that year right?), monks carved out caves and illuminated different Buddhist sutras. Some of the caves were tiny--no bigger than a computer-sized niche. Others were enormous, able to house a 37 meter sculpture of a Buddha...You walk into the cave and all you see through the doorway are huge toes. And then you look up. And up. And higher up yet. And there, sitting in the cave, is a serene Buddha, perfectly proportioned, carved out of the sandstone.
The caves are now locked behind doors to protect against the elements and graffiti. Only 10 or so of the nearly 500 caves are still open to the public. We decided to pony up the moolah for a private tour in the morning where we were able to visit five caves closed off to the general public. Our guide was so thrilled to be in one of the caves rarely ever open that we stayed in it for nearly an hour as she told us story after story about the sutra illustrated within.
I have to say: if you are at all inclined to visit the Mogao Caves, one of the world's most historic sites, book your visit within the next three years. I just don't see these caves being open to the public for very much longer. (Note to my mom: Mama, you would LOVE this place. Art and spirituality.)

As for my writing... The best part of this trip wasn't just filling my creative well with what I saw and tasted and heard and learned, but it was discovering ideas that I needed for my next novel. Coincidence? Or providence?

In any case, to inspiration fueled by embracing the new and different!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

I Love Your Blog, Too!

Greetings from Dunhuang--the upper northern reaches of China. I'll be posting soon about the truth about camel rides and sunrises in the desert. But first...this...

After bad times (read: evil taxi driver from hell) and hard times (read: melamine scare in milk), you know who your reals friends are. Thanks to everyone for emailing me about my Kidnapping Crisis 2008 and sharing your own harrowing stories of life on the road. I'm not sure if those anecdotes were supposed to comfort me or SCARE me more (thank you, Nicole, for sharing with me your boat hijacking on the Mekong story). But in all seriousness, the support was amazing.

And thanks to friends like Janet Wong and Molly Goudy who have emailed me, asking if I want a food shipment from the U.S. (We are okay...although my sweet tooth husband is seriously missing chocolate. I have found sources here though. So Chocolate Crisis 2008 has also been averted!)

And special thanks to the Blue Rose Girls and Mrs. F-B's Book Blog for nominating my blog for the I Love Your Blog award during this tiny little rough patch!

So here's how the award works, taken straight from Mrs. F-B herself:

1. Add the logo of your award to your blog. (Check)

2. Add a link to the person who awarded it to you. (Done! Please check these blogs out)

3. Nominate at least 7 other blogs. (See below!)

4. Add links to those blogs on your blog. (Yup! Done!)

5. Leave a message for your nominees on their blogs. (About to do this!)

Here are my nominations for great, wonderful blogs with an emphasis on the women who co-founded and run readergirlz, the world's foremost online book community for teens! (I've omitted some of other favorite blog reads--such as Little Willow, Miss Erin, Jen Robinson, Kelly Herold, BookSlut, etc--since I know that everyone already knows about them.)

1. readergirlz: check out the website and blog to catch the latest and greatest about books and authors who are empowering teen girls through literature. Dia Calhoun has been blogging on our behalf and has done a wonderful job!

2. On Point by Lorie Ann Grover: this blog gives mucho insight into the world of Lorie Ann who is a brilliant verse novelist and board book author.

3. Dreamwalks by Janet Lee Carey: Janet is one of my mentors and best writer-buddies. Her very soulful blog is filled with insights into the creative process.

4. Mitali's Fire Escape by Mitali Perkins: Well, everyone knows Mitali! And I love her blog which focuses on multicultural literature. Her books, Rickshaw Girl, happens to be on of this year's Jane Addams Honor books. Go, Mitali!

5. Brimstone Soup by Holly Cupala: Watch out, world! Holly's debut novel, A Light that Never Goes Out, is set to be published in 2010, and I think it's going to rock the world.

6. Design Sponge: My very dear friend, Janet Wong (she of the food-to-the-rescue email above), turned me on to Design Sponge. This is my guilty and not-so-guilty read on all things design related. I love this blog!

7. Moo by...moo! I love, love, love It's where I print my business cards and gift enclosure cards for my books. So, of course, I'm crazy about the blog, too. I just wish they would blog more frequently with more case studies of how other people are using their products. That, however, might be dangerous for my credit card.