2019: A Tale of Many Cities

Selina Xu Kaiping 碉楼

滚滚长江东逝水,浪花淘尽英雄。
是非成败转头空。
青山依旧在,几度夕阳红。
白发渔樵江渚上,惯看秋月春风。
一壶浊酒喜相逢。
古今多少事,都付笑谈中。

《三国演义》开篇

Roiling waves of the river flow,
Rippling tides sieve out heroes,
Wins and losses now hollow.
The earth lies here still,
Many sunsets come and go.

A snowy-haired elder perches by,
Seasons ebbing in his eyes.
History’s many tales
All washed down with wine,
Drowning in laughter with old friends.

(my translation)

Romance of Three Kingdoms Wuhou Temple 三国演义武侯寺

The huge stone engraving sits in a courtyard of the Wuhou Temple, carrying the opening verse of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Chengdu. Centuries ago, once the Kingdom of Shu. The Temple memorializes Zhuge Liang, who ought to have been forgotten by time — only a prime minister of a kingdom that lasted 43 years, dating back to close to two millennia ago; not to mention, China was split into three — no one could call himself emperor (帝), only king (王). Being neither king nor emperor, Zhuge Liang has posthumously found outsized fame. When I was a kid, my parents would say, Be as smart as Zhuge Liang. His is one of the first names that come to mind when one thinks of wisdom, strategy, or yin and yang (八卦). Ironically, in this temple named after him lies the tomb of Liu Bei — the King of Shu, who Zhuge Liang had served.

But why? Because of one book.

No one would remember Zhuge Liang, Cao Cao, Liu Bei, or Guan Yu, were it not for Romance of the Three Kingdoms (which, alongside Dream of the Red Chamber, Journey to the West, and Heroes of the Marshes, are deemed as China’s four great literary classics).

The temple is crowded with visitors. Every corridor, every statue, every inch of the bamboo-shrouded red walls are surrounded by bobbing heads and peering faces. Several of the famous generals whose statues loom are, in fact, fictional. So pervasive has been Three Kingdoms that legacies are invented and History reconstructed. Like everyone else chasing the words of the guide, my grandpa, my father, and I are devotees to a book that has grown larger than life — one that reigns over modern Chinese consciousness.

A Western pop cultural parallel that immediately comes to mind is Hamilton, which I caught this summer in New York. It celebrates history in the making and, in a musical spectacle, tears open the sinews of History to show us how it is written, construed, and remade. What captivated me most wasn’t those contemporary bits, but how it seemed that the audience was watching the arches and domes being constructed for a narrative-in-the-making. Letting the music wash over us was to partake in Hamilton‘s version of history; commemorating Zhuge Liang in a temple where a literary overture resides front and center is to blur the line between fiction and history.

You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

Selina Xu Chongqing 磁器口

这个冬天,我最后的足迹遍布了各大古镇:从开平的碉楼到顺德的逢简水乡,从成都的宽窄巷子到锦里武侯祠,从重庆的洪崖洞到磁器口再到民国街。中国的大江南北充满了历史残留的韵味与商业化的喧哗。不经意间,我扑捉到了很多很多梦想篇幅的一小边角:阁楼酒吧和茶馆驻唱的歌手、执着于快要失传手艺的老人,还有能写出《三国演义》的罗贯中。我们如此平庸的活着,怀揣着亦伟大亦渺小的梦想,品味着人生百态——不正是舌尖上的人生吗?

在重庆山城里,我扶着爷爷,闻着火锅的味道,淌着长江的风,看着姑姑录抖音。爷爷给我讲了他在文化大革命时候的故事、1966年来看武侯祠时的光景,还有他在十六岁时独闯哈尔滨的孤独与憧憬。我想到了命运的波折和转机,以及上帝神奇的手。我的爷爷出生于浙江,在哈尔滨谋生,在四川成家。他的孙子如今在东京,而孙女风尘仆仆地终于从新加坡飞到了他的身边叽叽喳喳。

在东莞,我握住了年迈的外婆躺在病床上的手,嘴巴里是咸咸的。小时候,我在公园里骑车,外婆总是追在我的后面跑。她是全世界最善良的人,总是为别人着想,为别人流泪。现在,她想吃一颗巧克力,我却不能给她。在医院里,我想到了疾病与死亡,想到了我的青春意味着长辈的衰老,想到了自己的幼稚与无知。怎么这么快我就已经成为了大人呢?

Chongqing Peijie Hotpot 珮姐老火锅

In 2019…

I turned 21.

In 2019…

I draw a map of cities. I embraced the new year with fireworks in Taiwan, visited startups in Beijing and Shanghai, scaled the insides of a pyramid in Egypt, watched 9 Broadway shows in one New York summer, turned 21 in Los Angeles, crossed the deserts to Vegas, cried over a book in Halong Bay. The final days of the year are spent in a roundabout of cities — the frigid winds by the Yangtze River and the misty fog of Chongqing, laced with the smell of hotpot; in bamboo-shrouded temples and dirt mounds masquerading as kingly mausoleums; by moss-covered bridges and dusty ancestral shrines.

Despite milestones and numbers, 2019 does not strike me like a circle, or a period, or a threshold. I think of the year as a phase, a transition, a map of footprints, another collection of stories to catalog in the library of my life. I think of growth — uncomfortable, alienating, redemptive, then hopeful. I feel the surge of days, the flipping pages of years. I see the new decade open before me, first like a horizon, then like a ravine. The minutes tick like I’m standing at the edge of an unfurling abyss, on the precipice of the untold. My hair rustles in the face of time’s inexorable pull. A quiver, and we free fall into the roaring twenties.

Thank you, 2019, for your blessings, lessons, wonders, adventures, and growth. Thank you, God, for showing me life’s difficult questions and inspiring me with the faith and strength to shoulder them. ❤️❤️❤️

Hello 2020!

Selina Xu Hongyadong 洪崖洞

May 2020 treat you each with love, ❤️

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Conversation Sparks: Life, you’re the dancing queen

We tend to romanticize the past. For a while, I complained to friends that I was feeling the belated onslaught of the Sophomore Slump — call it the Junior Jetlag. Every seven hours, I would reminisce about my idyllic, fulfilling sophomore fall. But then, I went to read what I wrote one year ago — my pillow book: the pathos of November. MAJOR THEMES (tl;dr): Bad days, paper extensions, and all-out clumsiness. Turns out, last year this time, I fell down an entire flight of stairs in Quincy. HAHA. I must have edited out the memory from my head.

Ever since the (angsty) post about October unraveling, the universe has been sending me sparks left, right, and center. Grateful to everyone who has engaged in long conversations and hearty eating with me over the past two weeks.

ME: Life, you seem meaningless. I feel hollow.

LIFE: Catch this! Try this! Hear this! WATCH ME JIVE!

ME: (speechless and incapable of mustering a further complaint)

IMG_6775

LIFE.

Three Life Paths Appeared Yesterday

Over Louisiana Gumbo at Legal Sea Foods, Professor Graham Allison suggested to me Singapore’s unique position as a hub for independent analysis/opinions during this chapter of U.S.-China relations when the global discourse is increasingly polarized.

In a dusky café by a church, I chatted with a Singapore writer about MFA programs, novel-writing, and how we don’t fact-check public discourse in Singapore. She writes beautifully and two years ago, her incredibly honest post on her scholarship experience— Once Bonded — inspired me not to take the PSC scholarship. If you’re at that crossroads, this is a must-read. If you want to be a full-time writer, she said, be ready to accept that you will be poor.

The day ended with an absolute intellectual blast — a three-hour conversation with an ex-TF (teaching fellow). I came away with ten book/thinker recommendations after a wide-ranging, spontaneous discussion on intellectual history, internet sub-culture, Chinese politics, post-colonialism, speculative history, family diaspora, the culture of academia, etc. You are a good fit for grad school, my TF said, but every system has its own expectations. Don’t romanticize it and think you will have a lot of free time to write creatively.  

Dining Hall Pep Talk

“Why are you so hung up over a single bad grade? You study power and politics and systems and society. Can’t you see that you care so much about a grade because of conditioning from young? Getting an A used to matter, but does it matter that much now?” Marwah drills me.

She eats a piece of bread and I eat a slice of apple pie.

“Procrastination is not a waste of time. Total energy remains constant. When your kinetic energy goes down, the energy is still there. Except that now it’s potential energy,” she continues, voice crisp like a commander.

I nod, mesmerized by her oration.

She eats another piece of bread, slathering cream cheese. This time, I choose blueberry pie instead.

She tests me between chews, “You sit in bed looking at your phone for three hours versus you meditate by the river for three hours — which one makes you feel more guilty? Exactly, when you’re using your phone. We are indoctrinated by the older generation, who are wary of technology.”

A pause.

I said, “On a side note: when I’m with you, I always feel hungry.”

selina marwah mamma mia

MAMMA MIA! ❤

Global Consciousness

“I like that you situate part of it in China,” Professor Maya Jasanoff tells me over Faculty Dinner.

We have stories with a global consciousness about South Asia or Africa. Think: writers like Mohsin Hamid or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But, most writers of Chinese heritage writing the anglophone novel have tended to deal with identity, traditions, and generational trauma. (A generalization, perhaps. Feel free to suggest titles that prove otherwise — would love to read!!)

“Perhaps, you could write that,” she says.

I clasp my hands and silently murmur a quick prayer there and then.

“That’s the aspiration,” I say.

Talking to someone who sees the world humanistically is powerful and inspires faith — faith in our capacity to see outside the bubbles of our identities and the limits of the present; to think intelligently and independently beyond echo chambers, demagoguery, and establishment views; to recognize inherent within our own subjectivity, our ignorance; to empathize, imagine, and understand. Professor Jasanoff makes me want to be ardently, unwaveringly a humanist.

Maya Jasanoff Faculty Dinner

A Dose of Tough Love

On our weekly Friday lunches at Leverett, I whisper furiously to Shi Le, “I need to hear harsh things. I need your tough love.”

“First,” she said, “you cannot take a second cookie.”

After I visibly wither under her gaze, she calmly continues, “Secondly, you need to stop getting out of bed at noon. Since you need to hear this, listen: THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE.”

“If life unravels, ask yourself what you have control over. You can control when you go to eat and when you sleep. So do that. Structure.”

Selina Xu and Wong Shi Le

Tracing the Dots

For two nights, Xin Min sleeps in my room.

On the last day, as she zips her luggage and I shuffle songs, she tells me, “I’ll leave at 10pm.”

We talk about the five things we want in life. We talk about our threshold of fulfillment.

It’s past 10. Her luggage is ready by the door.

“Ok, I’ll leave at 11pm.”

We talk about how to hold ourselves accountable, how to test aspirations.

She sits cross-legged on the floor and throws me suggestions, “You should post more often on your blog. Put each complete scene on your blog. Build Insta.”

The room is cold and we are quiet. Our conversation is meandering, our voices soft. My hands are numb but I’m thinking, How rare it is that someone will sit down with you and interrogate your dream. Brainstorm your life like it’s theirs, just for a moment. 

“That’s what I admire about the liberal arts education, you have ideas all over the place,” Xin Min says, “like dots.”

“Like dots?”

“You have many dots. The problem then is how to trace them and draw them into a constellation.”

We leave the room at 12:24am.

Selina Xu and Lee Xin Min

On Halloween

In the airy atrium at the Harvard Art Museums, my creative writing professor Claire Messud paints for us the world of a writer over lunch — there are expectations (perhaps, gendered), reviews, time/sacrifices/choices when one has children, and how 99% of writers can’t pay the bills with writing. But, still, we write on. A girl talked about how she quit her job and started bartending so she could have more time to write.

As I poked at my salad, I wondered about this weird instinct that compels us to create and live in words. We inscribe our place in the world with a frantic pen. We anchor our life in stories and cup them in our hands, hoping that strangers will read. We surrender to one vivid and continuous dream after another.

If writing is easy, anyone can be a writer. I think it’s a holy life; a moonkissed mind, a conduit — by choice.

***

If you’ve read till here, thank you for indulging me. x

Sending you sparks! ✨✨✨

Lots of love,

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[Story] Remembering Jamal Khashoggi

Author’s Note: Wrote this story in March. Today marks one year since the gruesome murder (and dismemberment) of Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

One morning before class, on a misty pink spring morning, I went on Twitter for the first time in forever. Behold then: a trailer for CNN’s Saudi Arabia: Kingdom of Secrets.”

The video automatically played the following snippet of conversation. It blanketed me in a sudden drift of coldness — as though some invisible, icy fingers were slowly wrapping around my body. 

“Why would you bring a bone saw to an interrogation?”

“Any saw could dismember a human being.”

“Why did they bring any saw?”

In the bright daylight, I felt physically sick. Many months after his gruesome death, a morning post-daylight savings time, the story of Jamal Khashoggi made me want to draw my knees up against myself, numbly rock back and forth, and take deep breaths — a muted pressure behind my temples to pray for redemption and the assurance of goodness. I looked into the intelligence gathered on the last moments of his death, and in an attempt at catharsis, I recreated it.

***

He must have drawn a quick, sharp intake of breath when he turned around the corner. He’s here, in this quiet district in Istanbul, picking up papers. Papers that would allow him to marry Cengiz, with her wet lashes brushing against her thin-rimmed glasses. Cengiz who is waiting outside. Cengiz who is Turkish. Turkish whilst he is Saudi.

The consulate is the same as last time. At least, at first glance, it is so. But, he is turning this way and that, entering deeper into this flaxen yellow labyrinth. Towards the heart of it, towards the papers that he has come here to get.

The thought — just briefly, like the caress of whiskers — must have touched his mind. Suggestively. They wouldn’t dare. Of course not. 

When he steps into the room, glancing up at the man who comes to meet him, he knows that those whiskers — ticklish, impossibly so — should have stung him. This man should have been some nice, slow bureaucrat, who might have asked for a photo or offered coffee.

“What are you doing here?” he asks the man-who-has-come-to-meet-him.

He is old now, he cannot run, and there are another five men behind this one and more slinking in the shadows of the door frame. He is already at the heart of the labyrinth, staring into the mouth of the abyss, mid-swallow. He should not have been able to recognize this man, but oh, he does. Though how he wishes that he doesn’t. Because this man-who-has-come, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, is only the teeth. The darkness behind him is the man he has played chess with from across oceans. MbS.

Mutreb speaks, “You are coming back.”

His glasses fog up. He grows suddenly aware of the mechanisms of his body, like a fish out of water with all senses enlarged. His veins powderizing, his windpipe constricting, his skin papery, prickling, poised to be peeled any moment now. Their fragility made apparent by what could only be a revelation of mortality.

“You can’t do that,” he says, keeping his voice steady but there’s a sheen of perspiration on his head. “People are waiting outside.”

The air-conditioning is on full blast. Nobody speaks for a moment.

He watches what could almost be a smile stretch over Mutreb’s face. Blink.

The men are on him. There’s no more dialogue. They are grabbing him by his arms, and he flounders, tripping on the hem of his thawb. Someone grabs him from behind, thick hands closing around his neck. Another palm, sweaty and hot, closes over his face.

He fights for air. Loud gasping. He is buried alive in billowing folds, smothering hands, violent fists, and that steel-like grip around his neck. His world is screaming. He thinks Cengiz ought to hear this cry that is penetrating and shattering the roof of the universe, but when his mouth finally forms the shape of words, he only hears himself from far away. The weak rasp of a drowning man:

“I can’t breathe, I can’t—”

There’s a scuffle like a final tumble.

Panting.

The fans whirl overhead.

***

The story was written back according to this CNN report: ‘I can’t breathe.’ Jamal Khashoggi’s last words disclosed in transcript, source says.

More recently, a detailed transcript of the conversation between Khashoggi and Mutreb has been released by the Daily Sabah, so my rendition is actually inaccurate: Saudi hit squad’s gruesome conversations during Khashoggi’s murder revealed.

May you rest in peace, Jamal,

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Confession: “I Was Born A Writer”

I’m not sure that Morocco or France are my countries… No, my country is language. My country is a library.

Have you ever felt utterly exhilarated just listening to someone talk?

I was in a conference room somewhere in the basement of the Center for European Studies. Leila Slimani was in conversation with my Advanced Fiction Professor Claire Messud.

Every single word that tumbled out of her mouth — matter-of-factly, resolutely, spontaneously — was setting off fireworks in my head. 

I was born a writer, she said. I always knew I was going to be a writer. 

When hard things happened in her life, even before she started writing her first novel, a part of her was always thinking, Now I’m getting closer to my destiny. Every moment, life was giving her material that could be digested and transformed into literature. So you’ve survived, now you can write. Everything is literature. 

When she said the word “destiny,” I was falling through time and space. When I was in first grade, the school project for the holidays was to fill out a 10-page activity sheet on our life ambitions. (Think: when I grow up, I want to be x.) In 2005, my dad was a computer scientist with entrepreneurial zeal and my mom was a homemaker armed with an engineering degree and childhood education diploma. I wonder how I knew even then the destiny of those letters as my seven-year-old self painstakingly penciled the word: w-r-i-t-e-r. My most primordial instinct, before socialization.

Then I lost that sense of destiny.

Sitting there, hearing Leila talk about how we reach the unreachable and the unspeakable with respect and tenderness in art, about the sheer freedom of writing (we can write about anyone from the inside with intimacy, even monsters or people we hate), about how writing is never to judge but simply to reveal how a person is like, gave me vertigo.

I don’t know if I have talent but all I know is that if I wasn’t a writer, I would have been a bitter, angry, jealous person, Leila said in response to my question. In writing, I accomplished myself.

She was the silhouette of a 37-year-old I hoped to grow into, what I had let fall in the march of years, and what I so desperately wanted to believe, believe, believe. And to remember.

I was born to be a writer. I am going to be a writer.

Even if some days I can’t write, even when I’ve never written anything close to a novel, life has an arc, a constellation of dots, a thrumming of strings ONLY IF WE CHOOSE TO SEE. This vision, undercut by my own doubts, has been postponed, danced around in conversations, swept aside and buried when it wasn’t achieved in 21 years of existence.

But these years should neither be proof of my inadequacies nor a tractor demolishing intuition. The life I’m living through and the inner life that’s ever-shifting within me are all pieces and strands that will eventually crystallize. Every moment I’m just a step closer. 

Thank you, Leila, for the sheer imprint of your burning-hot conviction. I’ve never met someone this serenely confident in the meaning of their existence. You’ve delivered my sense of destiny back to me.

Leila Slimani Harvard.jpeg

Here’s an article about Leila from The New Yorker: The Killer-Nanny Novel that Conquered France.

Here’s a short story by Leila, The Confession. Trigger warning: it’s from the perspective of a rapist.

***

Lots of love on a revelatory day,

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Interning at CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS

Selina Xu Fareed Zakaria

Working at CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS has been one of the most interesting internship experiences I’ve had. It has exposed me to the specifics of producing a show for air, what it’s like to work at a place like CNN, and the excitement of dealing with ideas, international news, and incisive analysis on a day-to-day basis. Never in my life have I been this in tune with what’s happening around the world — it’s like keeping one’s finger on the pulse of geopolitics. As an intern, I have had the chance to pitch ideas, meet guests, and contribute to the technical side of the show — finding images and footage, time-coding, fact-checking, etc. The job has pushed me into unfamiliar and exciting terrains: I’ve written a book report on cybersecurity, worked on a live show featuring a guest on the streets from the Hong Kong protests, watched Fareed interview Nancy Pelosi at the Council on Foreign Relations, and pulled visual elements for topics ranging from the recent U.S. gun violence to G20 summit to the 1960s civil rights sit-in movement to the LGBTQ Pride Month.

It’s refreshing to examine news in a weekly format instead of the daily news cycle. More than highlighting headlines, GPS has been about analyzing news in an intelligent manner with multiple perspectives. The close-knit team provides a collaborative and open setting, where ideas from interns do matter. Fareed has also taken the time to have conversations with us. In short, this internship has utterly transformed the way I engage with international news.

If you’re someone at all interested in what lies at the intersection of international relations, media, journalism, or even storytelling at large, I highly recommend applying for this dynamic, interdisciplinary experience!!! 🌟💪💪

***

Q: So… why did you want to apply for this internship?

CNN Fareed Zakaria GPS is one of the leading foreign affairs shows in the world — what better place to learn about global affairs and how to write news/tell stories? The nature of the show — a weekly format that provides deep dives — brings together experts, cultural observers, world leaders, and other titans of their fields to think, analyze, and debate perspectives across the spectrum. It’s the antithesis to all that is disappointing in media today, and all the more inspiring because of its scope, ambition, depth, commitment to intellectual rigor, and adherence to facts (in a day and age when those don’t seem to matter as much to some audiences).

Click the image below to listen to the weekly podcast. 🌎💡🎥 

Fareed Zakaria GPS Podcast

Q: What have you focused on in your internship?

International relations – the shifting tides of global geopolitics, the unlikely stories in different parts of the globe, how to tell news and explore ideas visually with an eye on the facts (often the numbers tell the true story), U.S.-China relations which are close to my heart and which will dominate the changing world order for the decades ahead.

Q: What has been the most exciting part of the job?

Hearing from the guests & having my pitches picked!

Guests include political figures — for instance, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the first female President of Ireland Mary Robinson — as well as political experts/commentators like Ian Bremmer, Niall Ferguson, Thomas Friedman, and Zanny Minton Beddoes.

But nothing beats having your pitches picked and seeing them transformed for air, uttered by Fareed on screen, and produced to be shown on TV in millions of households around the world. My pitches for QOTW (Question of the Week) on robots, the WTO, and Brexit were chosen — I now know a bunch of random IR trivia, come hit me up! 😉 Check out the podcasts to catch these brief segments! 🥰🍀✨

Q: What have you learned/got out of your internship experience this summer?

I got a better sense of the global landscape beyond major headlines and the relentless chug of the news cycle. This internship has been eye-opening in the way it compellingly delved into key recurring international stories (e.g. the U.S.-China trade war, Brexit, Iran) but also investigated a transnational perspective on issues (white extremism as a global phenomenon, how U.S. gun legislation compares to other countries, conceptualizing climate justice across developed/developing but also gender lines etc.).

Q: Would you recommend the Director’s Internship program to another Harvard student?

Of course! The opportunities available are amazing — without the IOP (Institute of Politics), it would have likely been a lot harder to secure an offer in public service amid a huge pool of applicants. Many public service internships are also either unpaid or minimum wage, so the generous stipend that the Director’s Internship offers really makes a huge difference. With a fully-funded summer, and an incredibly helpful staff assisting your queries, providing guidance, and building community, the program is a fantastic way to delve into public service whole-heartedly.

Fareed Zakaria GPS CNN Intern