A Bird Out of the Cage

From classrooms to the cruise ships, traveling is always a fascinating adventure

As a child, the only trip my parents took me on was to Southern China, to visit my dying grandmother. My parents spent months applying for various travel documents, retrieving permits from the local police and standing in long lines for days to buy the train tickets. When we had to spend a night in a hotel, the clerk not only demanded that my parents show all kind of official permits, she also insisted on seeing their marriage certificate. Failure to produce a certificate would have resulted in stiff punishment and public humiliation. For years in China, it was illegal for unmarried couples to stay in the same hotel room. Even today, it is not uncommon for police to routinely search rooms in the middle of the night, demanding identification and marriage papers.

Perhaps because of the lack of freedom, throughout my childhood I entertained exotic dreams like dancing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, climbing the Egyptian pyramids, shooting guns in the mysterious Golden Triangle, or sailing through the Antarctic Sea. At the time, these dreams seemed so unreachable. Not only did I have no money, I was not even allowed to leave the city without official permits, much less the country.

After I left China, I felt like a bird out of a cage and took every opportunity I had to travel around the world, speaking at schools and conferences and lecturing on cruise ships. After years of longing, when I finally reached these destinations, the joy and satisfaction was indescribable.

I am not a disciplined writer. I admire those who can set a goal to write a certain amount of words every day and fulfill it. I can’t do it. If I sit in front of a computer without a clear idea of what I am going to write, I distract myself by sending emails to everyone in my address book and sometimes even to strangers. If you have read my last blog, you can tell how desperate I become to avoid working. After a few hours rambling through my emails, my back begins to hurt and I have to stop. There are weeks that go by when I don’t write anything. When I travel, I don’t bring a laptop and rarely check my email. I want to truly enjoy the moment and pay attention to the people I meet, the places I visit, and dishes I taste. When I return home, I’m always eager to reach for my keyboard to start a new book, write a new article, or develop new recipes, inspired by my latest adventures.

Right after I sold Revolution, I flew to China and sailed down the Yangtze River. I found that virtually all historic sites are rich in myths and folktales. Trips to these sites inspired the story “Egg Stir-fried Rice” in Banquet, which takes place in ancient China. It draws upon historical facts about the elaborate burial rituals of ancestral Chinese, and the folklore surrounding these customs.

Sailing through the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River

The tour guide, the cruise ship and the mountains
famous for having coffins hanging off of their cliff edges.

While researching stories for Banquet, I realized that all the ghosts in Chinese folktales have the power to roam freely. Perhaps it’s because throughout history, people lived under oppressive regimes and had little opportunity for travel, and ghosts were granted a privilege denied the living. I feel very fortunate that I can enjoy the liberty of a Chinese ghost without being dead. Or hungry!

Golden Gate Bridge


Golden Triangle

St. Petersburg


South China Sea

The Louvre

Lima, Peruo

South China Sea




Southeast China


Karl Marx’s tomb in London

Ying writes ghost stories, novel, cookbooks, picture books, and hosts cooking shows. Her novel Revolution is not a Dinner Party has received twenty-eight awards, including the ALA Best Books and Notable Books. Ying has visited schools throughout the US and abroad, sharing with students her journey as a writer, how her life in China inspired her writing, and the challenges of writing in her second language. She has lectured on a variety of subjects at writer’s conferences and universities, and aboard cruise ships. Ying is available to talk about her books to book clubs in person, by telephone, or online, and she was recently interviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle. Ying was born and raised in Wuhan, China. Her website is www.yingc.com.


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