Nothing is Real: Some Thoughts on China’s Housing Bubble

My body and I have drawn two conclusions from a couple of weeks of traveling through southwest China and eating copious amounts of tongue-numbingly spicy food: China’s public bathrooms have (very marginally) improved, but the urban planning has not. (I had a lot of time to think about urban planning while utilizing those public bathrooms, due to the aforementioned spicy food). Provincial capitals like Kunming and Changsha were expansive last time I visited a few years ago; the cities have only grown larger since, sprawling further and further from what used to be the city center. Thirty-story apartment buildings sit stacked in neat rows, stretching for miles in every direction, as though they were stamped there by a bureaucrat over-using the copy-paste function on his computer. Huge new tracts of former farmland on the outskirts of the city have been razed and flattened in preparation for further expansion. It takes an hour to drive from one side of the city to the other not because of bad traffic but because there are tens of millions of housing units, spaced far apart, that take up an incredible amount of physical space. It should be obvious to any observer that these cities have way more housing units than people. People may be living in houses in the city center, or they may be living in houses on the outskirts of town, but they can’t be living in both.

For a number of years, fears of a Chinese housing bubble rested on “ghost cities”: brand-new cities, built on local government debt and backroom deals, rising from nothing in the middle of nowhere and devoid of people. Developers were building with no regard for demand, so apartment blocks would sit unbought, unwanted, and slowly crumbling into oblivion. Excess housing stock is a problem in some places, but it pales in comparison to a related, and possibly more sinister issue. Vacant homes sit empty, but they have already been purchased as a second, third, or fourth home. Unwanted and unused are not synonyms in a country with no property taxes, an economy driven by real estate, negative real returns on regular bank deposits, and a volatile stock market.

Housing demand is insatiable not because people want to live in houses, but because they want to own houses. As I wrote about last year in Hebei (the New Jersey of China, if you will), even working class families purchase multiple houses. (If you trust the advice of a real estate company’s blog, a single family should buy six homes to feel financially stable: one to live in, one for each set of parents to live in, two for their children’s future use, and one to rent out.) Up to 25 percent of all housing in China is owned but not occupied as of 2015, a rate far higher than in other countries around the world. In China, housing is simply money that you can sometimes live in. There is no tax on holding property, so unused housing can sit there and increase in value. When you earn more money, you want to store it away in a place that is relatively safe and will earn high rates of return, which it seems, in China, means buying houses that nobody lives in but might come in handy later when your children can’t afford to buy one or you need to get a lump sum of cash to send your child to school in the United States.

We tend to think of bank deposits as safe and real estate investment as risky. Such a view, however, is built on the premise that the government will protect our money and that in the long term, interest rates will gradually create a small but stable return. Neither of those is obvious in China. Without much political trust in the banking system (controlled and operated by the state), why would a citizen choose to put their money in an invisible, liquid asset rather than an actual tower of concrete and steel? A fixed asset is more reliable in the minds of many Chinese citizens because it literally cannot be moved or disappeared with one stroke of a pen. After decades of real estate investment, from officials with hundreds of off-the-books apartments to single families saving up to buy a second or third home so their children can be socially eligible to marry, enough people’s assets are in the form of housing that housing has become a de facto banking system.

With so many people’s wealth tied up in the housing market, the ultimate fear is that housing prices will decline. If housing is a bank, allowing housing prices to drop is equivalent to banks losing money and all of their customers taking a hit. It would presage deflationary pressure and financial instability, if not a crisis, for housing prices to take a hit, so the government has to implicitly guarantee that they will not decline. The policy options for corralling an overheated market are somewhat constrained by the simple fact that allowing housing prices to decline, even if they are wildly overvalued, would presage large-scale financial instability. And if you haven’t heard by now, the Chinese government is not a big fan of instability, nor are they looking for massive deflation. Continue reading

Second Annual List of Unsolicited Book Reviews for Books I’ve Read (2017)

At the end of 2016, I vowed to read at least 50 books in the coming year. This would be an unachievable goal for anybody except in the most exceptional of circumstances; namely, that they are either Vaclav Smil or are enrolled in a humanities or social sciences Ph.D. program in the United States. I am not Vaclav Smil, but as of September my book count shot skyward with no signs of changing course in the next five to seven years, plus or minus a handful of nervous breakdowns.

The benefit of academic study is first and foremost the realization that there are far more excellent books already in existence than you ever thought possible. The thought that, hey, maybe someone should write a book about that – they have, and it’s yours to peruse at your leisure until some obnoxious undergrad “recalls” it from the library and forces you to return it post haste.

This year’s list of book recommendations that nobody asked for will thus be economized into a few select recommendations. If this year’s batch of obscure essays on Chinese politics and the 19th century trajectories of the British and American trade unions doesn’t quite fit meet your interests, let me assure you that next year’s selections are bound to be more esoteric and even less applicable to normal human beings.

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell
Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell
George Orwell: A Life in Letters, by George Orwell

Unsolicited review: Orwell, “the conscience of a generation,” is the greatest Anglophone essayist of the 20th century (don’t argue with me). I say essayist because his essays are better than his novels; and even his novels are essays, in the sense that, as Simon Leys astutely distinguishes in Broken Images, the essay tries to convey a clearly formed idea while a work of fiction succeeds only when it creates room for multiple interpretations. Homage marks a transition in Orwell’s politics and contains the seeds from which his later hallmark essays and novel-essays grew: the perpetual unreliability of elites in the struggle to empower the working class. Although Down and Out is far from a masterpiece, the anthropological deconstruction of the workflow of a hotel restaurant in Paris alone makes the rest of the book worth reading.

The Chairman’s New Clothes, by Simon Leys
Chinese Shadows, by Simon Leys
Broken Images, by Simon Leys
The Burning Forest, by Simon Leys
The Analects, by Confucius (translated by Simon Leys)

Unsolicited review: The ghosts of Orwell (and Lu Xun, “China’s Orwell“) pervade the writings of Simon Leys—so much so that I couldn’t write a description of Orwell without citing Leys at least once. The scholar of Chinese art and poetry, frustrated by Francophone intellectuals heaping praise on Mao from the other side of the world, penned what became a tetralogy of essay collections unmasking the destruction taking place during the Cultural Revolution in China. Maoism eventually fell out of fashion, but Leys’s writings have not—they stand the test of time not only as political polemics but also paragons of lucidity and elegant prose.

River Town, by Peter Hessler

Unsolicited review: When I read one of Peter Hessler’s books before moving to China, I thought it was decidedly mediocre. When I read one of Peter Hessler’s books after living in China for a few years, I took back everything negative I ever said. What is striking about reading River Town twenty years after it was written is that much of the cultural attitudes Hessler describes remain omnipresent today, even as China’s economy and physical infrastructure have undergone a complete

Continue reading

The Unswerving Values of Ye Fei

In Memoriam: 叶飞 (Ye Fei) (1985 – 2017)

On an unremarkable weekday evening in early 2016, as I was preparing to go to sleep, I received a message on my phone from my friend and colleague Ye Fei. It had been almost two weeks since our last message, and this message, sent at nearly midnight, had no introduction or pleasantries. It did not matter that I would see him at the office the next day; such an important question could not wait. Ye Fei asked: “Why is New Hampshire called the first primary state when it’s actually Iowa?”

It would not have surprised me if Ye Fei had sat up all night reading about American politics, analyzing Politico and The New Yorker in English, and then sifting through social media portals like Weibo and WeChat in Chinese. During the day, at his desk, he devoured whatever information he could find online; when it was time for lunch, he plugged in his earphones and turned on a politics podcast, usually BBC or NPR, and, back slightly hunched over, ambled out the door. He would return to his desk, unplug his earphones, and plug back into the internet, digesting and processing the endless stream of politics that flowed across his screen.

He was fluent in English and Chinese; in American politics and Chinese politics; and, most importantly for anyone in China, in both text and subtext. If anyone wanted me to help them peer beyond the news headlines and government pronouncements of the Chinese party-state, I would simply tell them to ask Ye Fei. He would sigh deeply, tilting his head forward or shaking his head while his thoughts coalesced. If you had the patience to wait for the response, when it eventually came, you would be duly rewarded: after the deep sigh and shake of his head would come an incisive answer, slowly spilling forth from Ye Fei’s vast storehouse of knowledge.

Or, even better, in place of a boring response, Ye Fei would offer a snide rebuke aimed squarely at whatever ridiculous phenomenon he was tasked with explaining. His comic timing had the power to deflate even the most hardened bubbles or egos. Our office started a list of memorable quotations; it was, in effect, a list of things uttered by Ye Fei.

I do not write this because I need to share my feelings. I write this because I want there to be a permanent record, somewhere, marking Ye Fei’s life and what he stood for: namely, the ideals of liberal democracy. I didn’t always agree with him, and he never missed an opportunity to tease me for my support of socialism à la Bernie Sanders. My own arguments could not sway Ye Fei: he knew what he stood for, and why it was important. Everything he did—each article he devoured, each comic takedown he delivered, each lesson he taught—was in service of this idea.

Ye Fei had incredible patience for long, drawn out discussions of politics, but he had no patience for people who sympathized with illiberalism. He could laugh off poorly made propaganda, but he could not hide his visceral disgust for wayward intellectuals who used their position to support unjust authority. Ye Fei wanted more than anything to push the world, even marginally, toward a place that was slightly more free and open. Any person or event that stood in the way was not worthy of his sympathy.

Ye Fei was endlessly fascinated by American politics. We watched the 2016 presidential election, the ultimate spectacle of American democracy, together with a few friends. As the results trickled in and we began to see that Donald Trump was going to be president, Ye Fei was even more distraught than any of the Americans among us. For Ye Fei, a black mark on America was a black mark on liberal democracy around the world. What happened in America mattered for the causes he cared about in China. Many of his fellow liberal Chinese intellectuals embraced Trump as part of their general embrace of the US Republican Party, but Ye Fei did not budge. He did not need party lines to define him: the only thing that mattered was free and open expression.

There is no place for someone like Ye Fei in China today. His views were too large; his passions for politics too great. Most people like him left the mainland long ago, but Ye Fei never did. Instead, he surrounded himself—whether on purpose or by accident I am not sure—with people who wanted to learn from him. And learn we did.

A few days before his passing, Ye Fei and I went to lunch. I asked Ye Fei about recent government policies, and his plate of food got cold as he lectured about history far and near. Our wide-ranging conversation, as always, touched on the bigger questions of Chinese development; the next day, unprompted, he sent me an essay by the influential sociologist Sun Liping. Attached to the article, he wrote: “May his essays help you better grasp what’s going on here.”

It encapsulates Ye Fei: overflowing knowledge, a willingness to share and teach, and perfectly manicured English with a touch of formal literary flair. Of course, there was one thing missing—but he duly rectified that a few hours later, again unprompted, by sending me an article ridiculing Donald Trump.

There will be many times in the coming days, weeks, and years, when each of us will want to turn to Ye Fei and seek his counsel, knowing the depth of his passions and for what he stood. It is these moments that will remind us of how deeply we feel this loss.

China’s Four Reform Futures

In 2012, the liberal sociologist Sun Liping argued that the social strains of China’s embrace of extreme capitalism were starting to show. For Sun, a reform advocate, China was in danger of falling into a “transition trap” in which institutional reform grinds to a halt and vested interests solidify their power.

This week, Sun reposted his article on his WeChat account. It was summarily removed by China’s censors (they weren’t too pleased with his ideas before, either). Fortunately, I forgot to close the tab once I had it open: my natural inability to keep my browser under 100 tabs at any moment is a natural loophole to China’s censorship apparatus.

Sun offers four possible directions in which China can go: return to the past, try to make the best of the current reforms, protect the status quo, or pursue a new reform path prioritizing equality rather than the overzealous pursuit of profit. And despite obvious political institutional difference, the four reform paths that Sun proposes for China are similar to those facing the United States as it faces the need to rebuild public trust in institutions and reduce vast inequalities.

One: At some level, return to the old system
The sentiment underlying the need to “Make America Great Again” would resonate with a growing number of today’s Chinese, who feel like they are falling behind while society leaps forward without moral stewardship. Every year, China is rocked by scandals in which companies insert something toxic into their products to save a few dollars; at the same time, while some people safely climb the ladder of the new economy into China’s emerging middle class, others work tirelessly, only to face wage arrears, lack of retirement benefits, and unaffordable health bills.

A couple of years ago, I attended an informal lecture that proposed an alternative history of the Cultural Revolution. The ruthless campaign that destroyed thousands of years of Chinese intellectual heritage—not to mention families, communities, and even individual lives—was, they argued, a time of unprecedented social coherence. The speakers were frustrated by China’s endless pursuit of profit at the expense of all else; at least during the Cultural Revolution there was an idea of public consensus, even if it was targeted at the wrong places. For those fed up with the moral perversity of today’s society, the past offers a refuge, no matter how wrong-headed it may seem to the outside observer.

“Although there was a short period of equalization, as reform deepened — especially after restructuring of state-owned enterprises in the 1990s—the disadvantageous position of those at the bottom rungs of society became even clearer…Therefore, some people look back for hope, and this is natural,” writes Sun. He cites Bo Xilai’s Chongqing model, in which a re-embrace of a strong, centralized Communist past was embraced due to public dissatisfaction about corruption and social polarization. Despite its obvious flaws, Sun writes, we should not overlook how “the Chongqing model positively responded to these very real problems.”

For most people, the horrors of China’s recent history are enough to dispel any further turn toward the past. But if nothing changes, Sun argues, and the struggles of the new wave of “little white collar” (xiao bai ling) service workers continue to grow, the appeal of the past may continue to strengthen.

Two: Continue with the reform path of the last 30 years
Nearly every Chinese policy document contains the words “deepening reform,” and there is a Deepening Reform Leadership Group mapping policy direction at the highest level of the government. But if deepening reform means not going back to the past, what does it say about going forward? The current reform path is “ambiguous and vague,” Sun argues: Continue reading

On Left-wing Politics

Two op-eds in the New York Times (first, second) about the problem of elites in a left-wing political party.

Can the Democratic Party, as it is currently constructed, maintain its commitment to a redistributive agenda?…Asking people to think of themselves as compassionate and to pay higher taxes is one thing — many Democrats have made that leap — but ask them to live in a mixed income neighborhood or ask them to have their kid give up her spot at Princeton, and you get a different response. (Tom Edsall)

It takes a brave politician to question the privileges enjoyed by the upper middle class. Recently, there have been failed attempts to make zoning laws more inclusive in supposedly liberal cities like Seattle and states like California and Massachusetts. The handout on mortgage interest appears to be an indestructible deduction (unlike in Britain, where the equivalent tax break was phased out under both Conservative and Labour governments by 2000). (Richard Reeves)

George Orwell, book review, 1939:

In a prosperous country, above all in an imperialist country, left­-wing politics are always partly humbug. There can be no real reconstruction that would not lead to at least a temporary drop in the English standard of life, which is another way of saying that the majority of left-wing politicians and publicists are people who earn their living by demanding something that they don’t genuinely want.

Destruction as Development

When the Beijing government first started tearing down and bricking up bars, restaurants, and shops throughout the city center, I didn’t really care. After all, I rarely go out to these bars and restaurants (by choice, I think), and having to deal with frustrations like the growing pains of a maturing city is probably within the terms of the implicit contract you commit to when living overseas.

But hip hangouts are only collateral damage. The main reason for the demolition, stated both publicly and privately, is to limit the size of the city. The Beijing government has committed itself to reducing the sprawling city’s population; it has decided that the most effective way to do so is, basically, to kick out as many poor people as possible. The poor in Beijing all come from elsewhere in the country; if taking a wrecking ball to their shops doesn’t drive these upwardly mobile migrants out, rising rents elsewhere will. It is an organized campaign of what US Republicans sometimes call “self-deportation”: make migrants’ lives so hellish that they will choose to leave.

The reason Beijing is home to so many migrants, of course, is because of the effects of the last campaign of destruction as development. In the early years of its tenure, Mao’s government decided to show its authority by destroying the old and bringing in the new. They brought in Soviet planners and cast aside the opinions of those who suggested preserving Beijing as a center of culture and administration. In Chinese Shadows, excerpted in the New York Review of Books, the ever-prescient Simon Leys describes the destruction of Beijing, while also throwing some serious shade in the direction of neighboring Tianjin.

For what they wanted to do to their own capital city, the rulers of the People’s Republic would have been better inspired to have a hideous modern city such as Tientsin [Tianjin], for instance; they could have bulldozed whole neighborhoods, laid out grids of those endless straight boulevards they seem to be so fond of; created vast esplanades and exalting deserts of tarmac for their mass manifestations in the best Stalino-Fascist style; in a word; they could have slaked their thirst for destruction without causing irreparable damage to the monumental legacy of Chinese civilization.

They chose Beijing because it was the center of power, and to declare the capital there was to invoke the continuity and legitimacy of their power. Beijing could not just be the center of culture and administration, but it had to be the center of industry, too. An article on the legacy of building expert Liang Sicheng, who argued to preserve Beijing’s historic core, explains the central vision of destruction as development in the eyes of Mao.

Columnist and writer Ma Dingsheng once wrote: in 1949, in the early stages of building the capital, Beijing mayor Peng Zhen told Liang Sicheng on top of the gate tower at Tiananmen: “Standing here, Chairman Mao wants to look out and see chimney smoke everywhere.” Liang Sicheng was surprised; he believed that Beijing was a city of ancient culture and architecture, and it should not develop industry. It would be best for it to be like Washington, DC, to become a center for government and culture.

Liang’s preservationist aims did not come to pass. Eventually, when the economy opened up, people flooded into where there were jobs; and so they came to Beijing. Not because they wanted to, but because they needed to make a living and this, as the center of everything, was where there was money to be made.

It seems to be a key feature of development in modern China that a new government plan must be accompanied by the elimination of whatever existed before. Leys, for one, does not buy the argument that this destruction is necessary. It is not part of any sort of progress, but a mere facade to hide the fact that there is actually limited progress taking place. For the Maoists, it was revolution; for the current regime, it is stable economic development. Leys:

What makes the Maoist vandalism so odious and so pathetic is not that it is irreparably mutilating an ancient civilization but rather that by doing so it gives itself an alibi for not grappling with the true revolutionary tasks. The extent of their depredations gives Maoists the cheap illusion that they have done a great deal; they persuade themselves that they can rid themselves of the past by attacking its material manifestations; but in fact they remain its slaves, bound the more tightly because they refuse to realize the effect of the old traditions within their revolution.

Leaders now realize that the previous destruction was a mistake. The new plan is to make central Beijing an administrative and cultural center, more like Washington, DC. The path to get there is to tear more buildings down. If the government kicks out all of the migrants who live in Beijing, the theory seems to be, it will be able to keep its center of power while avoiding the pesky overcrowding problem it created in the last round of development as destruction.

It is like a live-action version of James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: a government overlooks how local society functions and instead reorganizes it in service of an abstract idea. Here, the Beijing government envisions a clean, functional, “international” city — except that there will be nobody to clean or make the city function, because those people will have all been pushed out. And, unfortunately, this performance, although less destructive than previous stagings, is once again more likely to be a tragedy than a lighthearted romp.

Like it or hate it, Beijing feeds off renao — the noise and liveliness on the streets. It exudes life and energy. People come to Beijing because it is where things are happening, and the city responds in kind. But somehow renao has become incompatible with modernization. Beijing will be pushed toward becoming a sterile, lifeless mess until its residents find a way to inhabit the gray areas and make Beijing come alive once again.

Leys describes the aftermath of the first destruction, and it sticks:

For those who knew it in the past, Peking now appears to be a murdered town. The body is still there, the soul has gone. The life of Peking, which created never-ending theater in its streets and squares, the noisy and enjoyable life of the city has gone, leaving only the physical presence of a mute and monochromatic crowd, oppressed by a silence broken only by the tinkle of bicycle bells.

The Inimitable Grandma Stell

In Memoriam: Estelle R. Freedman (1926 – 2017)

On New Year’s Eve in 2013, I took a college friend of mine down to Atlantic City to visit Grandma Stell. We made dinner; then, a few hours before midnight, my friend and I got ready to walk down to the casinos to ring in the New Year. As we bundled up to face the nighttime cold, Stell grew very concerned about our plans to go out. It was dark, Atlantic City was not safe these days, there are lots of crazy people around during the holidays, etc. We told her not to worry, but of course she was going to worry, because Jewish grandmothers worry, and Stell could out-Jewish-grandmother any other grandmother on the planet.

We insisted on going, and Stell’s worries subsequently shifted: she became concerned that we wouldn’t have enough money for the casinos. She wanted to give us money to gamble with. We refused, of course, but she was not pleased with our stubbornness. Take the money, she urged us. The same woman who saved paper shopping bags full of decades-old receipts “in case there was something useful” would not relent: if her grandson was going to go to the casinos on New Year’s eve, well, then, she was going to give him money to do that. Only after a long standoff and my comments about the paucity of the social security system did we manage to reorient her concerns back to safety and the fact that we were going out after dark.

She implored us to be safe as we headed out the door. We stepped inside the elevator when the apartment door flew open and Stell came out, yelling at us. “Hold up, hold up!” she screamed.

“What is it, Grandma?” I asked as we retreated back into the hallway. I thought someone had been hurt, or worse.

“I forgot to tell you,” she said. “Make sure you win some money.”

We returned to the apartment around two in the morning, tiptoeing silently through the door so as to not wake her. But she was wide awake, sitting on the couch, waiting for us to get home.

“What are you doing awake?” I asked.

“I was worried about you,” she said.

My memory tells me that the next thing she asked was, “Did you win any money?”


Any remembrance of Stell will focus on two things: worrying and talking. Her care was expressed as worry, and she liked to talk, which meant that you were always fully informed about how much she cared, and thus how much she was going to worry.

In college, I woke up one morning to a distressed phone call from Stell. She had received a scam call saying that I had been arrested for drunk driving in Canada and needed someone to wire me money. She was on the verge of sending money, because she was worried.

When I moved to Washington, DC, she did not hesitate to share her concerns. “Stay away from the kookaboos,” she warned me. By kookaboos she meant crazy people, and by crazy people she meant kookaboos. And it didn’t matter: if I was thinking about going near them, she was going to worry.

And, of course, then I moved to China. I understand her worries about that one.

Yet despite this, she always maintained that she was not worried. “Joshua,” she would tell me, “I was with the girls, and we were talking about our grandchildren, and I said, ‘If there’s one grandkid I don’t have to worry about, it’s my Joshua.’” I’d inform her that, yes, she told me that the last time we spoke, and the time before that. “Well, it’s true,” she’d say. “Of all my grandchildren, I know I don’t have to worry about you.”

And when there was worry, there was something to talk about. Phone calls to my other grandmother, and nearly any other person in my family, have always been short and utilitarian, never lasting longer than a minute and a half. The key points — safe, healthy, no long-term relationship, no life direction, eating a lot — were satisfactorily established, we said “I love you,” and then we hung up. But phone calls with Stell could last nearly an hour, meandering from topic to topic, circling back around to once more bring up key worries (or lack thereof, because “have I ever told you that, of all my grandchildren, you are the one I never worry about…”). The telephone was basically an extension of her arm. It didn’t matter who was on the receiving end: she would take any opportunity to talk to you about what was going on in her life, about the Phillies and the Eagles and their painful ineptitude, about her grandchildren. She would walk through the Plaza Place apartment building, where most of the residents had long since cleared age 65, and work the room like a suave executive. She would spy her friends on the other side of the main social area — the card playing room — and launch into multiple conversations at once. “Harry, how are you this morning? Rose, what a beautiful day it is outside today!” And, of course, “Harry, Rose—have you met my grandchildren?”

When she got a cell phone, she would call me and leave a message.

“Joshua,” she would holler. “I just wanted to give you a call and hear your lovely voice.” Then, as if there were many octogenarian women who called me by my full first name, Joshua, and claimed I had a lovely voice, she would add, “This is your Grandma Stell, just in case you were wondering.”

It was her voice, and her style of talking, though, that will stick with me. Jahshua, she would say, drawing out the vowel to leave no doubt that she was my grandmother. My grandson Jahshua is coming to visit. It was an intonation grounded in a lifetime of Philadelphia accents; and it carried hints of Yiddish from her parents and older relatives, whose genes I share but whom I never met. When I was little she would pinch my cheek and shake it back and forth like a ringing phone. Shana punim, she’d say.

She even managed to turn a simple negation—“I don’t know”—into something funny in only the way that she can make it funny, something with just a touch of unnecessary shorthand. “Where’s the remote,” I would ask, and she’d look around and say, “Well, I haven’t the foggiest.”

I would talk about Stell to my friends, and even wrote a creative writing essay in my junior year of college about her. I don’t know many grandparents who would let their grandchildren tease them about their age or their verbal idiosyncracies, but I would do my old-Jewish-grandmother voice — modeled off of Stell and, to this day, the only accent I can do with any semblance of accuracy — and she would crack up and tell me that I’ve got plenty of new material for my next comedy show. And all of my friends who met her have memories that will never fade: her combination of unforgettable worrying, loquacity, and love makes even a regular Jewish grandmother look boringly plain by comparison.


Visiting Grandma Stell was a yearly ritual from my earliest days, and many of the memories that I retain from childhood are snapshots of time spent with her. The apartment she used to live in, with its rhyming address: three-hundred and twenty-two/north Wissahickon avenue. Bounding up the carpeted stairs on our immature legs to that apartment, where there sat a glass table with garish gold trim that could not have been more out of place in our own home, with its strict modernist decor. An infinite supply of paper shopping bags saved from Casel’s supermarket, and a corresponding number of discussions about the price of corned beef and potato salad. Eating Chinese food with her, in which she would never order her own dish, simply saying that she preferred to eat a little bit of everyone else’s. The story she would tell about her next-door neighbor in Philadelphia, the Italian woman who was aged 39 and already a grandmother. Learning to play, and then to love, the game Spoons. The all-you-can-eat buffet at Caesar’s casino, which she could take us to for $9.99 per person due to her discount from frequenting the penny slots. The smell of the salty marsh water of South Jersey wafting through the streets. That time we tried — and failed — to introduce her to the Internet, giving her the screen name GrandmaStell39. Spending hours thinking about what to eat for lunch, and then, after eating lunch, launching into the process of brainstorming all of the options for dinner. The animatronic teddy bear that lived on her couch, gifted to her by one of her friends, that belted out the oldies song, “Sunshine, lollipops and/ rainbows everywhere.” The number of times I pushed the bear’s paw to kick off the song-and-dance number would have annoyed just about any other human being in the world, but not Stell — she would be-bop along with it, absorbing its positive energy into her own routine.


The toll of aging is nonlinear: for a while, time seems frozen and bodies healthy, and then suddenly time works with incredible speed and nobody can keep up. When I was in high school and college, Stell’s signs of aging were still hidden, imperceptible unless you were looking for them or living through them. She had her canasta games, and her friends throughout the building. Her limp was getting stronger and she had more trouble getting to the casinos, but she was still the life of the conversation, in the center of everything. She would go downtown with her friends Selma and Zelda, whose names are forever etched in my memory, and she would attend her weekly or monthly girls’ lunches with all of her friends. She was aging, sure, but she was talking, and worrying, and telling stories about her reluctant visits to her new doctor, a young man, who could not believe that she was already in her 80s. “And I told him,” she said, “I said to this young doctor: age is just a state of mind.”

And then it was no longer just a state of mind. She needed a wheelchair long before she was willing to sit in a wheelchair; too embarrassed to admit that her body was failing, she would say that her refusal stemmed from the fact that she didn’t want to bother other people to have to wheel her around. Soon after she stayed up late into the night on New Year’s to make sure I had done well at the casinos, she couldn’t live on her own any more. She could not pick up new information. The smart and clever woman who would tease us and regale us with stories and generosity couldn’t figure out how to use a simple piece of electronics. Yet she could still remember old information clearly; as long as it happened long ago, it was clear in her mind.

When I visited this past August, we watched videos of her wedding, in 1950. She recognized each of the family members dancing across the screen in the grainy black and white. I had never met any of the people on the screen: they had died decades ago, at least. I never knew her parents, my great-grandparents. Yet she could pick them out with clarity, and drop nuggets of information about their lives. Her body was falling apart, but as long as she had her memory, she had stories, and she could talk, and she could worry, and she could love her grandchildren, even if they were off gallivanting somewhere in Asia.

I never called enough, of course; because we all never call enough. I have been fortunate to travel all over Asia in the last three years, and I made it a mission to send her a postcard from whatever far-off locale I visited. Finding postcards in Asia turned out to be more difficult than anticipated — only weird foreigners like me have any interest in sending postcards — but I could always dig up something to mail to Estelle R. Freedman, c/o Seashore Gardens Living Center, 22 West Jimmie Leeds Road. Sending postcards was an important way for me to stay connected, but it was also insufficient: Postcards are a one-sided conversation; they don’t capture what it means to be fortunate enough to be the grandson of Stell.

Of course, I had it easy. I got only the good parts, in a way. The infrequently visiting grandchild is always rewarded: just by showing up or sending a postcard I could brighten my grandmother’s day. And although I saw the toll of aging, I only saw it through a tiny porthole; if I caught her on a good day, even toward the end, it was almost as if not that much had changed from when she would dance around the apartment singing, “sunshine, lollipops, and / rainbows everywhere.” I didn’t have to be there for the bad days, or care for her when she was at her most vulnerable and feeble. In my infrequent visits, even the most obvious signs weren’t enough: I assumed there would be plenty of time because I thought she was still young at heart, even as she brought up her own mortality, and that Selma and Zelda and all of her friends were long gone, and her surprise that that she was still alive and kicking at the age of 90, and then 91.

I was worried about her, of course, because as her grandson I inherited at least some of the same tendencies. But worrying about her didn’t make much sense to her: she was never worried about herself, only about other people. If I asked how she was doing, she would laugh at the very question. “Of course there’s nothing doing here,” she’d say. She wanted to talk about me, to hear about my life and perhaps to find some new reasons to worry about me.

And even now, it is hard to make her death sink in. It is much easier to see the Stell that is telling the young doctor that “age is just a state of mind.” I still see the Stell that is engaging us all in a comprehensive discussion about the relative merits of each of the deli counter items at Casel’s. I still see the Stell that is hopping from one phone call to the next, filling her retirement schedule with card games and social outings and worries about her grandchildren. Even after she submitted to using a wheelchair, I still remember the Stell who, when I wheeled her out on the Boardwalk, was too worried that my arms were getting tired to appreciate the beach scenery.


Our phone conversations, fewer than they ought to have been, always ended with the same repartee. Other grandparents might say, “I love you,” and end the call. But that would not be Stell. “Have I ever told you lately that I love you?” she would ask.

“I believe you’ve said that before,” I would counter.

“Well just in case I haven’t, I want to say it again. I love you.”

“I love you, too, grandma.”

And sometimes she would forget something she wanted to say earlier, and we would chat for a little while longer until she would remark that she was probably keeping me from doing something more interesting. And before we actually ended the call, she would ask again, “Have I ever told you lately that I love you?”

“Nope, haven’t heard that one in a while,” I’d say. She would laugh; her memory was fading, but it hadn’t faded yet.

“I love you, Joshua.”

“I love you, too, grandma.”

First Annual List of Unsolicited Book Reviews for Books I’ve Read in 2016

If the year 2016 were a novel, any reasonable editor would reject it for its unrealistic plot lines. An insecure bankruptcy-loving real estate scion insults or offends hundreds of millions of people, admits to paying basically no income tax for two decades, is caught bragging about sexual assault on camera, and is still elected to the most powerful position in the entire free world—helped, in part, by an unrelated investigation into a disgraced former congressman’s lewd texts to a 15-year old girl and Russian hackers. Not to mention, of course, an unrelated and even more ridiculous story: Pokemon Go. That was a thing. Really.

Books come in handy for making sense of this world we live in, for retreating from the craziness when it becomes overwhelming, and for killing insects. It also helps me read more if I write things down. Here’s some of what I read in 2016, accompanied by brief reviews that nobody asked for. Continue reading

The Language of Noodles (Linguistic Notes on Understanding Chongqing Xiaomian)

I like noodles in an amateur, casual sort of way. Brother Lamp, whom I wrote about in my recent article “Chongqing’s Number One Noodle Obsessive,” is in a different category. He’s obsessed. He’s crazy about them. He’s so infatuated that an outside observer might categorize his relationship to noodles as a sickness.

The term “noodle obsessive” is an awkward translation: it captures some, but not all of this passion. This is a translation issue: in Chinese, Lamp is a 面痴 (mianchi).

The first character, mian 面, means noodles. The second character, chi 痴, means infatuation; it is literally translated as “silly or idiotic; crazy about something; insane or mad.” The character can be broken down into two parts: the outer section 疒, which represents an illness of some kind; and the inner part zhi 知, which means to know and provides the overall sound of the word (zhi —> chi). To be a 痴 is to be an obsessive, sure, but it is a level above and beyond. It is not just crazy about something in the way that we are all crazy about something, but literally crazy, linguistically more similar to a disease than a love.

Brother Lamp’s preferred noodle, Chongqing xiaomian, is itself confusing. It means “little noodle,” yet its distinct importance comes from the fact that it is not, in fact, little. Walk down any street in China and you will see stores selling all kinds of local snacks, or xiaochi 小吃 — little eats. Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and Chongqing’s neighbor to the northwest, is a hotbed of world-famous xiaochi, including dan dan mian 担担面. (Dan 担 means to carry on your shoulder; the name dan dan mian comes from the Sichuanese street vendors who carry it on a pole on their shoulders to sell it).

Some versions of Chongqing xiaomian, bursting with Sichuan peppercorns and chili oil, taste indistinguishable from Sichuan-style dan dan mian. Many people who are not Brother Lamp consider the differences to be marginal; yet to a true mianchi there is a key distinction: dan dan mian is a snack (xiaochi), while xiaomian is a staple food (zhushi).

Historically, xiaomian was served in portions of 150 grams, or three liang, a Chinese unit of measure equivalent to 50 grams. Dan dan mian, meanwhile, was only two liang. A two-liang bowl, Brother Lamp says, leaves you hungry for more; it is merely a snack. A three-liang bowl of noodles — and I will attest to this fact, having eaten far too many three-liang bowls of noodles — will leave you full. Extraordinarily, painfully full.

This linguistic difference is irrelevant in modern society, obliterated by consumer choice. At any xiaomian stall, you can order two or three liang bowls; at some, like Zhu Lin Beef Noodles, you can order a mere one liang. Yet during the early years of the People’s Republic of China, when food was rationed and resources limited, the difference between a two liang bowl and a three liang bowl meant something more.

To Lamp, the difference matters. After all, his identity depends on it. 

A Post-Mortem of Post-Mortems

Human beings are always looking for something to blame. My roommates are looking to point the finger at whoever ate all of their avocados (wasn’t me), and the population of Beijing has been searching for years for the real culprit as to why the air we breathe is laced with harmful pollutants (also not me). Now, much of the world is searching for a reductionist, digestible answer as to why Donald Trump, the man who personifies the word ‘bloviating’, has been elected president of the United States of America. (Ok, I took an avocado. So what?) So far, I have been informed that the real reason he won is racismsexismstupidity, the director of the FBIsocial media, the electoral collegeidentity politicsHillary Clintonthe DNCthe Russians, the liberal bubble, the white bubble, and Barack Obama.

It’s got to be one of those. Or maybe all of them. Or maybe some of them?

The Democratic Party, claiming the mantle of cosmopolitan anti-racism that gestures to the working class in an oblique way (“trumped up trickle-down”), suffered a crushing defeat — not only against its own expectations of vainglorious triumph, but in a favorable electoral map and running against a candidate disliked by 60 percent of people. The Republican Party hung onto majorities in the Senate, the House and statehouses around the country, despite facing numerous vulnerable seats; the Democrats could only pick up two seats, both in states won by Clinton. The Democrats now hold a minority of seats while staring headlong into an unfavorable 2018 map. The election of Donald Trump, regardless of what his own views happen to be or become, has emboldened the fringe elements of society who traffic in hate and fear.

In the days since the election, the internet has churned out a pile of ex-post analyses, mixing together a hodgepodge of righteous indignation, justifiable fear, and alarmist doomsaying about the state of liberal democracy (the justifiability of which remains to be seen). And a few people have written things that challenge us to think a bit more deeply about why politics matters, why tens of millions of people would vote for a man who has so openly broken social and political norms, and why the Left cannot uniquely claim the moral high ground. Here are a few of these; I welcome more. There is no comments section, so you have to email me or blockchain me, whatever that is.

They’re Going to Keep Losing” by Freddie DeBoer

You don’t have to get in touch with the rest of the country because that’s the right thing to do. You have to get in touch with the rest of the country because they’re kicking your ass. The Republicans will control the House, the Senate, and the presidency, have the chance to appoint at least one and probably several Supreme Court justices, run 68 out of 99 state legislative houses, and hold 31 gubernatorial seats. That is domination on an unimaginable level. Every minute you spend signal-boosting people who say that it’s Republicans who have to get on board with liberal values is a minute you’re not doing anything to change that condition…It doesn’t matter if you should have to change. You do have to change. Or else you have to accept the irrelevance of what you do.

The End of Identity Liberalism” by Mark Lilla

“How should this diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate” our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.

“The media’s newfound, almost anthropological, interest in the angry white male reveals as much about the state of our liberalism as it does about this much maligned, and previously ignored, figure. A convenient liberal interpretation of the recent presidential election would have it that Mr. Trump won in large part because he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage — the “whitelash” thesis. This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns. It also encourages the fantasy that the Republican right is doomed to demographic extinction in the long run — which means liberals have only to wait for the country to fall into their laps. The surprisingly high percentage of the Latino vote that went to Mr. Trump should remind us that the longer ethnic groups are here in this country, the more politically diverse they become.” Continue reading