1) As I might have mentioned before, I took a year off before college and went to Beijing to teach English and study Mandarin. I spent several months living with the family of a Chinese philosophy professor, some of whose grad students had gone to the United States to study with my own father, and I was able to cover most of my room and board from the money I was getting paid as a teacher. (I was a terrible teacher, because I was seventeen years old. If any of my former students are reading this, I'm sorry.) When my time in Beijing was up, I traveled a bit, going to Shanghai and then Guangzhou via train.
The train journey from Shanghai to Guangzhou was around 36 hours or so. (This was before they put in the new "bullet trains," which I understand are much faster.) And there were a few classes of ticket: sleeper, soft seat, and hard seat.
Because I was trying to live within my means, and because you kind of needed to have connections to get one of the better tickets, I ended up getting a "hard seat" ticket. Which meant... I was sitting upright, on a kind of rigid bench, with people squished in next to me on all sides, for a couple of days and one night. I had all of my earthly possessions with me, in two big duffel bags, and I was paranoid about keeping track of them, plus it was way too uncomfortable to sleep anyway. I just sat there, half-awake, watching the Chinese countryside roll past, until I got to Guangzhou where I found a cheap place to stay and just crashed out. I was the only non-Chinese person on the train, and people stared at me a bit, but also were super friendly and helped me to figure out the ropes.
I'm not sure how much things have changed since then, but if you're ever thinking of taking a long train ride across China, definitely do not go for the "hard seat" option.
2) After my visa to China ran out, I ended up in Hong Kong, where my hostel caught fire in the middle of the night, and I ended up taking shelter in the same strip club that James Bond had visited in The Man From the Golden Gun. (Long story.) I managed to get a cheap plane ticket to Sydney, where I lived for a few months, working under the table. (I went into the Australian embassy in Hong Kong and asked the staff there if it would be okay for me to work if I was on a tourist visa. They said that it was technically illegal, but nobody would care. And they were right, probably because I was white and English-speaking, and I was only taking the jobs nobody else wanted.)
Anyway, once I had saved up some money, I decided to travel around Australia, including a bus ride from Melbourne to Alice Springs, in the dead center of the country. Which... is a long, long bus ride, FYI. We drove for days and days and days. The bus had video screens over every seat, and the bus driver was a massive Chevy Chase fan, who basically played every movie Chevy Chase had ever made for us. There are a lot of Chevy Chase movies that I never knew existed, including one where he solves a murder on the set of the Wizard of Oz. Or maybe I hallucinated that film? Gotta check IMDB.
Our bus had a huge cow-catcher on the front, and I quickly learned its purpose: kangaroos leapt in front of the bus at night. All night. I valiantly tried to sleep, but all night we were rocked by the constant THUMP, THUMP, THUMP of kangaroos flinging themselves in our path and dying. I sat up front with the driver for a while in the wee hours, and watched as he made every effort to swerve and avoid these poor creatures, mostly to no avail. They saw our headlights and wanted to make friends. It was horribly upsetting. And then during the day? Every Chevy Chase Movie Ever.
3) I was doing Asian Studies in college, and once we'd achieved a high proficiency in Mandarin, some of us took advantage of a program that would let us learn Japanese as well. (Toward the end, we also got to take a class in Mongolian, taught by a guy who spoke no English -- he only spoke Mongolian and Japanese, so he had to teach us the fundamentals of Mongolian grammar in Japanese, and it did not work out great. Also, the textbook was in German.)
Anyway, the university sent me on a summer abroad in Japan, living with host families and -- once again -- teaching English as a foreign language. The cheapest and most scenic way to get to Japan was to fly to Moscow and then take the train to the coast, near Vladivostok, and then take a boat. (See map up top.)
Pop culture has conditioned us to think of Siberia as a frozen waste, but in the late spring/early summer, it was horrendously, unbearably hot. Three of us students shared a room with tiny bunk beds, with no air conditioning and a window that only opened a tiny crack. There were huge shortages in Russia, so the only food we ever got our hands on was instant noodles and caviar. There was plentiful, cheap caviar, and it was the most delicious thing I've ever tasted --- until I had it for every other meal. When I wandered about the train, scowling men would approach me and ask if I wanted to "fuck Russian girls." (I tried to decline as politely as I could.)
The two students I was traveling with were friends from college -- and one of them had been a closest friend since we were five years old, and remains a friend to this day. The other one, unfortunately, was a newer friend, and she decided on day three or four of this train ride that she now hated the two of us. She started writing long diary entries about her profound loathing for us, and how evil we were, and leaving her diary open on her bunk for us to see. After a few more days of being cooped up in a room the size of an airplane bathroom with her, it started to get a bit tense.
I'm writing this newsletter on a domestic flight, where I managed to use my frequent flier miles to snag an exit-row seat, and I'm feeling very grouchy about how uncomfortable I am right now -- so I can't even imagine how I'd be feeling if I was on a two-day train ride in "hard seat," on a bus listening to the death throes of kangaroos and watching Chevy Chase's entire ouevre, or bunking with an angry diarist while snarfing caviar and Top Ramen in 110-degree heat. I honestly don't think I could do any of those things, now that I'm not a teenager.
I used to see Major Powers and the Lo-Fi Orchestra playing around San Francisco occasionally, when they were on the bill with other bands that my friends were in. At some point, I got a copy of their debut album, We Became Monsters, but I only recently dug it out and started to listen to it. And wow, it is really good. Their music is sort of carnival-esque, circus-y music that's a bit like Queen and a bit like the Scissor Sisters, and it's very campy and silly but with a huge undercurrent of anger and sarcasm. (You can actually download their first album for free from their website.) I finally picked up their second album, You'll Be Okay, Maybe, and it's way, way better than their very good debut -- it's been on constant rotation the past few weeks. They kind of honed their songwriting and dialed up the sarcasm, and the song "Fake It Til You Make It," in particular, is amazing and feels very of-the-moment. I hope they make a third album at some point!
I just recently published Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, the sequel to my YA debut, Victories Greater Than Death. Where Victories was about a teenage girl struggling to live up to the legacy of the hero she was in a past life, Dreams is about a trans hacker who goes to a magical palace and tries out to become a cyborg princess, and a dreamy artist who can no longer make art, until she goes on a quest to get her artistic ability back. These books are available wherever books are sold.
I created a whole new superhero for Marvel's annual Pride issue, and I can't wait for you to learn all about her. For now, please please please tell your local comic shop to put this issue on hold for you. It's full of amazing superstar creators, and it adds a ton more trans characters to the Marvel Universe overall. I hope we'll be able to give more details soon, but trust me --- this is going to be something special.
Tomorrow I am at YALLWest in L.A., on two panels and also taking part in a kind of talent show thing. Please come say hi!
On Monday at 7 PM, I'm at Brookline Booksmith in Boston, in conversation with Rebecca Kim Wells. Registration strongly encouraged --- just go to the Booksmith webpage and click on "events."
On Thursday at 5 PM, I'm at Housing Works in NYC, hanging out with Emily X.R. Pan. We're going to have an impromptu craft panel. It's going to be super fun!