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Ying Compestine

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.

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Every Word Counts

Books and an article I wrote.

Even after publishing 18 books and over 60 feature articles in national magazines, when people ask me what I do for a living, I feel very self-conscious telling them that I am a writer.

To be frank, writing is very, very hard for me, even with simple things like an e-mail. The stark differences between Chinese and English grammar makes it difficult to remember all the rules. To make things worse, I was taught to memorize individual words when learning English, a cumbersome method that limits my ability to spell correctly. I didn’t hear about phonetic spelling until my son was in grade school.

That is why I write most of my emails in a telegram style. I would much rather put the time it would take to write a long e-mail into writing my books. I get a perverse sense of joy when I catch mistakes in the e-mails I receive, as they assure me that nobody is perfect. So if you ever need to communicate with me, there is no need to double check your spelling or grammar. Your little errors just might make my day.

Sometimes I wonder if I have chosen the right career, but I can’t think of anything I would rather do than write (except play badminton). There are many days when I wish I were more adept linguistically. If only I could be like one of my friends who can write and speak six languages fluently.

After Revolution received numerous awards and much praise, people often asked me how I developed my spare, lyrical style. My answer: since I have to put an enormous effort into anything I write, I try to make every word count.

[Read on for inspiration and dumplings.]

True Friendship

In my debut novel, Revolution is not a Dinner Party, there is a scene where Ling, the main character, watches her father burn the family’s books and photos. This actually occurred in my childhood. My father, a prestigious surgeon trained by American missionaries, destroyed all his beloved books to protect our family from the zealous Red Guard. Yet he continued my education in secret, which included English lessons, a dangerous violation. He instilled in me a love for books and a yearning for freedom. During the Cultural Revolution, the only books we were allowed to read were Mao’s teaching and government-approved propaganda that praised the Communist philosophy. Everything else was banned and burned.

My father, Dr. Chang Sin-Liu

Revolution Is Not
a Dinner Party

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Ghosts of the Great Wall

For three years I worked as the food editor for Martha Stewart’s magazine, Body+Soul. I began with my own food column, “Yin/Yang Diner,” in which I developed recipes based on the Chinese concepts of Yin/Yang balance and harmony. Before long, I was asked to develop all of the recipes for each issue. Instead of trying to pre-plan each recipe, I would go to numerous grocery stores and farmer’s markets and buy whatever ingredients appealed to me. Upon returning home, I would spend hours in my kitchen, pairing the ingredients, cooking and tasting in search of the perfect balance.

To me, writing a story is like developing a recipe with a Yin/Yang balance, offered with a beautiful presentation, and most importantly, to be deliciously satisfying. In a well-written story, a strong protagonist needs to be balanced by a strong antagonist; a great injustice should lead to a grand revenge. The story should be fast paced and character-driven. Just as each ingredient in a recipe serves a purpose, so should each element of a story, supporting the plot and contributing to an unexpected climax and a satisfying ending.

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On Becoming a Hungry Ghost

In Chinese folklore, hungry ghosts devour everything they can find and are never satisfied. We may scoff at their appalling lack of self control. Yet if we look around, how many of us have become entwined in the same fate?

In the story “Tofu with Chili-Garlic Sauce” from A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts, the antagonist, Dr. Zhou, surrounds himself with material goods: an expensive car, a luxury apartment, and the latest electronic gadgets. He constantly strives to make more money even though it entails the abuse of his position as a doctor by ruthlessly exploiting the families of his mental patients and disregarding his medical ethics. Like a hungry ghost, he consumes indiscriminately, and remains unfulfilled and unsatisfied as he devours his way through life.

The modern lifestyle, which emphasizes the acquisition of material goods, makes it frighteningly easy to forsake what is important in life. Instead we fall victim to a perpetuating cycle of thoughtless consumerism.

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Ghosts to My Rescue

While I was writing A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts, I frequently wondered if at some time every child has fantasized about having a powerful ghost come to their aid. The brightest light in my childhood was torn from me when, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, my father was imprisoned for the “crime” of being a Western-trained surgeon. His act of loyalty, choosing to stay and help build a new China, was met with punishment. I was categorized as bourgeois, and attacked by working-class children at school.

Always hungry and often scared, I dreamt of mighty ghost companions coming to my aid and exacting righteous revenge upon my enemies. My ghosts’ mystical powers would protect me and punish my tormentors. Or even better, they could just magic me away to a distant, happy place. Those fantasies planted the seeds of my fascination with ghosts and supernatural powers.

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Airing China’s Dirty Laundry

A Prisoner being paraded through the streets before his execution

The last boyfriend I dated in China, before I left to attend graduate school in the US, was an army officer whose father was a general. One afternoon at work I received a distraught call from him asking to see me immediately. I met him in a park near the Seismological Bureau where I was working as an English interpreter. He arrived in his military jeep. When he stepped out, his face was stony and pale.

He told me that he had just returned from his first assignment as an officer in charge of an execution. He had been appointed to such a vital role because his father’s position ensured that he was from a trustworthy, truly revolutionary family.

The idea of people being executed was nothing new. I’d grown up seeing sheet after sheet of public notices pasted around the city. Always with the names of the executed criminals written in black ink, each marked with a red cross–to signify their execution. I had also been required, along with the rest of my peers, to watch public trials and the parading of condemned prisoners through the streets before their execution. However, I never knew what happened on the execution grounds, and what he described below haunted me for years to come.

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Pretending to be a Teacher

Ying as a young girl

As a young girl living under the Communist system in China, nothing was more thrilling for me than breaking government rules and getting away with it. I traded ration tickets at the black market, and bought meat and eggs from the “back door,” where Communist Party members obtained their fine food without being inconvenienced by ration tickets or long queues.

The story “Tea Eggs,” in A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts, is based on my childhood experience growing up in a hospital compound in Wuhan, China, where my parents worked. Like me, the protagonist Yun constantly finds ways to make life interesting.

 In the story, during summer break Yun’s greedy school principal forces Yun and her classmates to manufacture fireworks. Chicken-Lays-An-Egg is one of the fireworks they make. When lit, the chicken would spin in circles, shooting sparks all about and spitting out a little egg.

[More below the fold.]

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