Eveline Chao is a journalist specializing in China, business, language, censorship and the clash of cultures. She spent five years in Beijing where she authored her debut book, Niubi!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School (2009). A graduate in English and Creative Writing from Princeton University she now lives in New York.
Why I write
Because I love reading, and writing feels like a way of forming a dialogue with the ideas that I’ve been reading and absorbing all these years. And it’s just fun.
Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
I do try to write every day, but it doesn’t always happen. As for how long, I’ve never really been able to sit down and come up with new creative material for more than maybe two or three hours a day, though I’m mulling over the ideas behind what I write pretty much 24-7. If I’m writing something strictly work-related, like a business article, or doing more grunt-work type stuff like editing or compiling notes, I can force myself to power through for eight or nine hours, but it’s always painful to do so.
Worst source of distraction?
My social life. I struggle a lot with the fact that writing is essentially a solitary activity but I like going out a lot and being around people. There’s also a mismatch between the conditions I need to be productive, which is to have an extremely regular schedule where I’m going to bed and waking up early every day and can have a lot of alone time to think, versus the circumstances of being a young person in New York, where I lived before, and now Beijing, which somehow always seems to involve being out till five in the morning and losing an entire day’s work to nursing a hangover. I’m about to turn 30 and am really looking forward to it just because it’ll finally be socially acceptable for me to be boring and go to bed at ten every night.
Best source of inspiration?
Waking up to a new day.
How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
I’m pretty much always in a low-level state of insecurity and self-doubt.
Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
I’m obsessed with Anthony Lane, the movie critic for The New Yorker. He is incredibly acerbic and sarcastic and funny, but also really erudite and will absolutely slay a bad movie with, say, some point about Old English, or a joke about a French existentialist.
Favorite Chinese writer?
I have to admit that I’ve never managed to get into any Chinese writers, though I’m still working on it. There’s a very distant, detached quality to the tone of so much Chinese literature that makes it really hard for me to feel engaged with the story. I still have a lot more to read though – for example I haven’t read any Lu Xun or the four biggies like Dream of the Red Mansion and Journey to the West – so I’m hopeful that the love will come.
Best book about China?
I’ll always love River Town by Peter Hessler because it’s about a period when the author was really young and everything he encountered in China was new and strange to him, and it reawakens that same feeling in me. Sadly the magic is starting to fade a bit now that I’ve been here a few years, but then the second I start thinking I’m bored, I’ll suddenly see some guy jack-hammering a road barefoot with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth and a baby in one arm, and then it’s like, I take it all back, this place is nuts.
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook by Gary Shteyngart. Really hilarious and neurotic story that mocks expat life.
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
I’m reading Crime and Punishment right now and it’s rocking my world so now I want to tackle all the other Russian giants. Also when I was little I got it into my head that I wanted to read the entire Bible, but I pooped out during Genesis when I got to all those begats. Someday though I’d like to finish.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
Well, Niubi! is the first book I’ve published and it just came out so I haven’t had much time to ‘look back’ at it. Several friends have told me they bought the book for their parents so I do have to say I feel a little weird about that. I might have made it just a teeny bit less obscene if I’d thought more about the fact that it wouldn’t just be students and young people reading it. One guy I know gave it to his parents who are about to visit China for the first time and told them not to read chapters five or seven. On the other hand, another friend totally made my day with a story about how her 7-year-old bookworm nephew picked up her copy of Niubi! and flipped through a few pages before sadly intoning, ‘I don’t think I’m supposed to be reading this.’
Does writing change anything?
Absolutely. I don’t feel qualified to get all deep about why, but yes.