Conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe Class of 1992.
Hosted by Will Bachman.

Episode: 38

Evelyn Ch’ien, Researcher, Editor, Author

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Show notes

Evelyn Ch’ien graduated from Harvard with an A.B. in Philosophy and a Ph.d. in English Language  /Letters.She is the author of Weird English, and co-editor of The Annotated Poetry of Liao Entao. She is also a former tenured professor, and more recently, she was a principal investigator of a project funded by the European Union. Currently, she is Senior Books Editor for Hyphen. You can connect with Evelyn through Linkedin.


Key points include:

  • 07:36: Writing a book about immigrant language
  • 24:50: Censorship in 1940’s China 
  • 31:33: The art scene in the Asian American community

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92-38. Evelyn Ch’ien


Everlyn Ch’ien, Will Bachman


Will Bachman  00:01

Hello, and welcome to the 90 T report conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1992. I’m your host will Bachman. And I’m so pleased to be here today with my friend Evelyn. Ian. Evelyn, welcome to the show.


Everlyn Ch’ien  00:18

Thank you, I’m so happy to be here.


Will Bachman  00:20

So one thing that I thought was cool was in our most recent write up, you split up your kind of post Harvard life into the blue period, the gray period and the gold period. Tell us a little bit about that. And also, maybe we actually, let’s start with, you have some very interesting family history in China in terms of some people who were, you know, served at relatively high levels of government, may we start there, and then you can go into your three periods.


Everlyn Ch’ien  00:52

Sure. So sort of quite late in life, I’ve found out that my family history was actually pretty, pretty interesting from a research level and a personal level. And this was sort of stimulated by my questioning my parents about what you know, our family history was, my mom was actually suffering from cancer. And I was really worried that the culture that we had would kind of go with her. So I started to ask about our family. And my I’ve always known that my great grandfather was a diplomat from China, to Cuba and to Japan, and he done a stint in Korea as well. His father actually had come to America in the 1870s, to build the first first HSBC in San Francisco. So technically, yes, technically, my great grandfather was actually Chinese American, because he came when he was a young kid, and then was sent back to China at the age of 16, to take the Imperial exams, because they wanted at the time, and this is something that required Research to Learn, the Chinese Exclusion Act was in place. And the only way that he would be able to travel afterwards was with a diplomatic passport of some kind, or high level sort of passport of some kind. They were not allowing laborers to come over even in many cases, white collar laborers to come over, but that that was not the majority of the Chinese were coming over anyway. But they were establishing the first HSBC to organize the finances to actually deliver money from the railroad workers to China. So that’s why my great grandfather’s father was there. And then he went back to China, took the Imperial exams and became a diplomat and his little brother, who was 15 years younger, actually had come to San Francisco as well, for some education, experienced a lot of racism, went back to China, all like, fired up and became a revolutionary. And China was going through a real phase of disillusionment with the Empire, essentially. And the emperor, the emperor, and the Emperor’s were corrupt. And they were sort of taking a lot of money from the citizens for taxes and sort of selling off parts of China. I mean, that’s sort of that very sketchy and general conception of what was going on. And, excuse me for lack of precision. But anyway. So anyway, after that, basically, that disillusionment led to the formation of a lot of different groups and China went through a lot of turmoil politically. Basically, from the end of the imperial examination, which took place in 1905. They decided to get rid of it, which by then, my great grandfather had long taken it and had become a diplomat. But my great grandfather’s little brother, worked for a very well known leader, Sun Yat Sen, and became his finance minister. And sort of towards the end of Sun Yat Sen debt, he became sort of the anointed one to take over the presidency because Sun Yat Sen was the first president of the republic, after the Revolutionary overthrew 4000 years of dynastic rule in 1911. And in 1912, Sun Yat Sen became the first president of the Republic, which, you know, was rumored to have based on a lot of ideas coming out of France, they wanted to design an electoral Republic that was similar to countries like that. But anyway, so Sun Yat Sen took over and in 1925, Sun Yat Sen died, and my great grandfather’s little brother lives on chi was supposed to take over as president at that point, but he was assassinated before he could assume the position in 1925. So anyway, that’s the kind of telescoped version and your mom and my mom. Yes. I mean, and this is, to me, in some ways more impressive because she did not have the force of history behind her. She was I raised in outside of Shanghai, and left in 49 to Taiwan as a little child, probably like three or four years old. And then she landed into the nursing profession, even though she told me, she would have rather gone into literature, something fun. A friend of hers dragged her to the nursing examination. And so she took it and became a nurse worked at Veterans Hospital and became the nurse on duty for Chiang Kai Shek at the hospital. And so I got a lot of stories about his family. And actually, pursuant to this, I’ve met the pastor of Chiang Kai Shek, the son of the pastor of Chiang Kai Shek, and was able to like, talk to him and interview him and much the way you’re doing an interview project as a part of my project for a research grant that I received in France. So that was really fascinating, because we had a lot of crossover stories, and it was great to hear like, validation, but also correction through it another person.


Will Bachman  06:01

Okay, so this is already shaping up to be one of these fat, like, multi generational novels, you know, I mean, you can’t,


Everlyn Ch’ien  06:10

you’re not supposed to write anymore, right? People can’t stand it. So but I was told by a really good friend of mine, he’s a super talented writer, and has gotten a lot of accolades. He said, you know, everyone’s gonna tell you don’t cite, don’t write the multi generational family saga with a lot of suffering. But I did it. And, you know, he won a Pulitzer for his so, you know, I don’t It’s not like I have those kinds of ambitions. But suffice to say someone with like super high standards, has said to me, right, what you want, you know, it you can’t stop it anyway. Right. It’s, it’s a passion. It’s something that has a force of its own. So.


Will Bachman  06:50

Okay. So now that we’ve had that intro, give us the quick recap of your journey since leaving Harvard.


Everlyn Ch’ien  06:59

Okay, I think it was pretty, pretty chaotic. I’ve listened to a lot of the interviews, which seem so fascinating to me. I graduated, got a job as an economist for a couple of months, didn’t do very, didn’t, couldn’t figure out what to do during that job. I don’t know if anyone has had this kind of moments where you’re in a place and you’re just so Ill fitted, left that that was in Boston, when I love to read and I’ve always loved to read. So I went to Random House and became an associate publisher there for like, a couple of years. I didn’t feel totally suited to that either, because you actually had demand and things and I actually wanted to read all the time. So I ended up applying to graduate school and got my PhD at the University of Virginia and English literature and language. And then I wrote a book, which was published in 2004, called Weird English about immigrant English is and kind of how special they were grammatically, and sonically, and otherwise, and I become interested in all sorts of linguistic expression. And one of the things I’m most proud of is that I was teaching at the time at the University of Hartford, and a lot of my students, during 911, we were able to publish a CD, on music that they created. We were associated also with the heart music school. So I had a lot of rappers in my class. And so that was fun. So we created a CD about 911. I don’t know if you remember how crazy those times were, but I was sort of half living in New York at the time, too. And I remember the burgeoning of the internet and all of the startups and actually had a lot of friends were working for different startups. And I think a couple of them are class even. So when I remember there were there were startups designed to read crazy things like personalize your own cursor. You know, just funny things, right. So then after that,


Will Bachman  08:51

I hold on, hold on, tell me just a little bit about weird English. So okay, what is like you know, certainly living in New York in her life with a lot of immigrants I married one. And but, you know, she had been here for a while, but what, what’s special about the language of immigrants?


Everlyn Ch’ien  09:12

Well, I think that a lot of grammar from the originary language is imported into English that we, we sort of assume as like, like not proper English, but in fact, it’s like, the overlay of of you know, one grammar on top of another like for example, in a lot of Indian language words, words are repeated for emphasis, right. So you’d have like, somebody who, who wrote you know, and I would cover novels about this like Arundhati Roy’s book was, is is a really good example of like, kind of experimental grammar as a result of with English as a result of having been influenced by so many of the Indian dialects that she speaks, right. So, repeated words, kind of different verb or noun placement than you would expect, like subject for replacement than you would expect. But just also like things that are considered bad grammar. You know, Junot Diaz is also someone who is able to write in this kind of weird English, he like imports like Spanish words, but just unexpectedly, kind of has also just extremely vivid, beautiful, metaphorical English language in his writing to some extent. So, I was sort of writing about how you, you find these, like, a lot of people who are, you know, very educated and very literate, but they can’t help but somehow bring that sort of Cadence from their original language into English. Anyway, I published that with Harvard, actually, in 2004. So it was quite a bit of time ago, and I am not as fresh with some of the examples as I should be.


Will Bachman  10:53

Okay, and then you ended up in Paris?


Everlyn Ch’ien  10:57

Yes. So I was in New York, and I was I was actually leading the super fun life, but also like, classic New York tortured life. I mean, everybody I knew was, you know, running from job to job because it was, we were young, and we were confused. But maybe we weren’t. And most of my friends weren’t in structured professions, like investment banking or something. They were kind of wondering if they could actually be a project manager and internet startup and what that really man and a project manager actually meant anything. And so and this, this was the time of pink slips, I don’t know if you remember this time, but like, you know, companies would like start and then in nine months just fail, and they would just distribute pink slips to everybody. And there was, since all of the people were young, and there was no hierarchy, there was no like, arranged resignation program or anything like that, right. So I ended up meeting someone at a party, through just through a bunch of friends in New York, and I kind of who, who was studying actually, he had just finished his MD PhD, and we met at this party where they’re sort of trying to cross pollinate a bunch of people who were doing research in New York, and they thought it would be really interesting to have like a salon. And we met there and, and it’s a lot more complicated those, but then I was like, Oh, this will be fun. And you know, to hang out with a bunch of these people. And, you know, later we ended up dating, and then he had gotten one job offer and Paris and was went, by the time I’d met him had already was going there. So I just kind of assumed nothing was gonna happen. But anyway, something did happen. And I had just gotten a job at the University of Minnesota. So we kind of did transatlantic, for a while until we had a kid. But I moved to Paris, and I ended up at a research institute there, I sort of had connections there anyway. And I had thought about going because I, I took a semester off during when I was at Harvard to teach music in Paris. And then I decided to, you know, then when I went back, I was like, wow, this is kind of fun. I never thought I would go back actually, ever again. I mean, except for tourist reasons. But we ended up thinking, Okay, we’ll spend like a few years here, and it turned into like, I guess, 1213 years. So anyway, it was a very long duration there. I ended up having my child there. And she’s now you know, she was raised there until she was not and so and then we move back to the States. But Paris was phenomenal. It was where I really I realized that I should leave like I had gotten tenure in Minnesota. But I realized that I I wasn’t really doing the work that I wanted. Exactly. It had nothing to do with the department at Minnesota. The people were lovely, and amazing and accomplished. But something about I don’t know the work I was doing wasn’t quite wasn’t quite intuitive to me. It felt like I was, you know how everyone says they felt like an impostor, but I just felt like double triple impostor doing it. I can’t explain it. I don’t know. It just felt like, you know, people like oh, yeah, imposter syndrome. Don’t worry that we all have that. And I was like, No, this is something more fundamental. This is like really, like, I feel like just as weird species or that, you know, I felt like dishonest in a way it was more. It wasn’t like I wanted to do the job, but I felt like an imposter. It was just like, I saw these people with deep passion for what they did. And I had gotten pretty far from weird English and I, which I really did have a passionate about, but I was like, you know, I think I’ve found something that I really want to work on. But the only way I know how to do it is to leave my job. So I got a Fulbright to go to China while I was in Paris as well. And then I came back and I was like, This is what I need to be doing. And there was a research institute at the University didn’t do and there’s A man there, this who was the director and was very supportive of what I was doing because he himself was working on Chinese diaspora issues. And his own father had been a seaman who had died like a you know, anyway, it’s a long story on his part two, so, but he was exploring a lot of these issues to a lot of things that are uncovered, because only in 2006, to the archives and China become available for researchers, and, you know, you’ve probably seen through all over the news that often researchers get arrested or deported or, you know, taken into custody for doing things that are not approved by the government. So you know, it. You know, it was amazing that those archives were open, it was also like, you know, for me, I didn’t have a project for which I had to proceed with caution. But a lot of people who do research over there, you know, if they have highly political subjects have to be very careful. So anyway, I did spend a lot of time in Paris researching, finding connections. And then I got this grant, which I never expected to get get called the Marie Curie Sklodowska. Grant, which allowed me to actually spend more time in China, and also work on this sort of collection of memories that I was filming. And I’m still working on this, they’re largely done, I just have to think about distribution. And I had written them all up and wanted to publish a book first on that. So that’s, that’s being worked on. While I was on that grant. However, I did publish a two volume set in Chinese of my great grandfather’s poetry. He was a poet while he was a yeah, these 1000s of pages, but it it, it’s actually available in the US, but mostly in libraries, it was I set up, because they don’t you sort of pay for your own publishing projects there. You can have beautiful editors and all of this stuff, too. I raised a sort of GoFundMe type projects, if it’s Kickstarter, so it’s like, project for it. And I, you know, was able to, like publish this two volume set, which is like, probably 400 poems, his but they’re heavily annotated because he had written them in this old Chinese style. So my partner, Paul Quinn, Keane, who was a academic he, he had, I had found him while I was in Asia, because he had loved my great grandfather’s poetry, and I posted some stuff about it. And so I was like, well, we should do this. But so it was really through a lot of his effort that we found a lot of people who were older, who could actually interpret this poetry and annotate it. So what’s special about the book, or these annotations and the stories because all of his poetry had references to other things that were about the Emperor’s and, and the lifestyle and court matters and things like that. And they had to be explicated for modern people, like, you know, anyone after 1900. And to find these people, they probably had to be in their 60s or 70s. Often, if they weren’t like specialists in academics. In fact, one of the people died while he was trans, interpreting a lot of this stuff for us. So it was kind of amazing. But also, like, heart rending project, but we did publish it in 2016. And I can show you that later. If you want to take it, send you some links, but


Will Bachman  18:34

include a link in the show notes give us an what was the original source material were these sort of like typewritten pages, or handwritten or that were these poems that had been published in some magazines,


Everlyn Ch’ien  18:47

or you had published them in old newspapers, but also in Colette, she had also, okay, basically written these beautiful calligraphies for people. And in fact, there’s someone in California who contacted me because his father had been, and it’s amazing, this network once it once it opens, it’s a really incredible network. And there’s no way I would be able, in a lifetime, I’m not sure I’d be able to connect to all the people I needed to. But he, his father had been the president of Lincoln University where my great grandfather, kind of he, my great grandfather, in his later days, retired in Hong Kong and actually died at the age of 93, which is phenomenal for that generation. He lived from 1864 to 19 to 1950 something so it it was amazing that he had that kind of longevity because of the you know, it really it was really taxing lifestyle. He actually crossed the ocean to from to get to Cuba from China, like something like you know, at least 15 times kind of, you know, your journey was really long, right? And then he had lived in different places. So it was amazing that he had lived so long, but he had also created this record because he would write a calligraphy and give it to a friend. And he ended up doing this with one of his friends like 100 times. So we had calligraphies. From that collection, we had I have personal Calligraphy is that he wrote there are Calligraphy is that he, you know, there’s a calligraphy in a museum in France called the Museo de May, which is an Asian Museum, that was written by his brothers. So you know, all of these things, you know, people would come up with different ideas. And then most of them, frankly, were from publication, because he published a lot, but many were from letters and for things, and calligraphies that and collections that are now in libraries in Hong Kong, so people would, you know, we would extract those, and then people would like, translate them and interpret them, which was amazing. It isn’t work that I could actually, you know, I mean, sort of monitor myself, my co editor was able to, like, kind of collect them all on the house style. So, you know, basically just, you know, I wrote a foreword to it and looked at the history and, and also raised money for it. And also had a student who ended up writing his thesis on my great grandfather, a fantastic student. And we were able together to do a lot of research on his life to fill in any sort of holes that were in the sort of history of this or or in any of the annotations. So anyway, that’s how that came to be.


Will Bachman  21:33

Well, can you? Can you what it was really,


Everlyn Ch’ien  21:38

at the end of it, I didn’t realize it, I was so into it, I didn’t realize how tiring it was, at the end.


Will Bachman  21:44

Any examples come to mind of like, an annotation of you know, some reference? And then, like, what was? What was the explanation or the context that you were able to provide?


Everlyn Ch’ien  21:56

Sure, um, like, you know, there used to be an in China, for example, one of the old capitals, and China has had a lot of them, right, because it, it went through a lot of different periods of different regions ruling the country. For example, you know, for well, Nan Jing was the capital, right, Beijing is the modern capital, right, where the, you know, obviously not that modern, because the palace is there. But it used to be Xiang was the ruling region and Tang on was the capital, right. And this is a really basic kind of annotation, but like, you know, let’s say, you’re reading this poem, you’re like, what is you know, most Chinese people would know, but, you know, I’m just doing this to just give you a very general example, then you would explain, oh, this city was a city where it was the reigning capital for a lot of for the ruler at the time. And Xiang was the region, right. Or you could say something like, you know, he had a lot of phrases from poets who had preceded him. And it would be like, you know, he would refer to something about the moon and its position, and it you know, and drinking at a tea house with lanterns, and hearing certain kinds of drum music. And so you would annotate, like, what that music was, what the instrument was, what the you know, if if you’d been explicit about the piece, then you could talk about that you could talk about why the Moon was such a reference and a lot of this poetry in the way he expressed it, right? He did have references to Cuba as well, like, and he, I, you know, there’s just so much that I could tell you, like, for example, one, one really basic one, which is not something that they might have annotated. But something that I’ve had to explicate in the past is that Chinese people have a lot of names, right. And so even researching him sometimes got kind of difficult, just because he had a name that he was given by his parents, and auspicious name, probably, with the aid of Geomancer, right? You don’t give your kid a bad name in the beginning, right. So then, later, he gave himself a name as a professional name, or a name that you know, which was like, you know, the emerging Phoenix or whatever, because it was like his own name, that he would use as a poetic name like a nom de plume, right. And then, you know, any, it’s several other names, probably six, you know, for different occasions. And then there, you know, there were transliterations for his personal name, his parents are different, like the family name, but also his sort of professional name, and then those translated aerations. Were in different Romanization systems. So by the time it’s sort of like playing telephone with a name, by the time you got to the romanization sometimes it’s like whoa, that doesn’t look anything like, you know, the original name. But still, you know, if you know these Romanization systems and stuff, you can track these things down. It’s just it’s Romanized differently in Hong Kong than it was in China than it would be in modern times and things like that. So, you know, and he wasn’t, you know, a hugely well, he’s quite well known, actually in Hong Kong, but he wasn’t, you know, because he established a literary society and had published all these things and comic things, he’d actually published some really, apparently quite dirty things as well, that, that I was I sat down by library, and he said, you know, do you want to, like, soil, your family name? And I said, you know, it said, it’s body, but it’s not that bad. I mean, you know, it wasn’t like pornographic, you know, or anything, it was just like, body because he, he went to a lot of Cartesian houses and things like that, and make jokes about their bodies and the musicians and getting drunk. And, you know, that’s it, you know, 100 Thompson, you know, is way worse. Like, you know, what, you know, I’m being sat down, this feels like the 1940s, you know, but it was pretty funny. So anyway, those were the kinds of things that an annotation would take care of, but, you know, probably even little things like, you know, he wrote letters to a friend of his a lot, and a lot of it was explaining the people because he would be like, thank you so much for your poem. And remember, when we were sitting on that rock, and on that lake, and you know, the annotator to be like, it was the West Lake, it was this day, it was this person, like, they would have to go back in time, to the history and, and it exactly what the details were. And the other thing is, is that, you know, we read this collection came out of Guangzhou, China, or you know, Canton, or however you want to pronounce the city again, like, you can see the difference between the old parenthesis and Canton and Guangzhou, there’s absolutely no recognition. Like, if, you know, if you had no idea and had never lived in the world, and did not know what these words were, they would look completely and sound completely different. But they’re the same place. Right? So anyway, this book came out of there. And it meant that it had to pass approval by the government editors as well. So you’ve got these editors who work for the Communist Party who are looking for not only grammatical stuff, but also any problematic type stuff, you know, and, you know, in a way, it’s like having a gun to your head. But they were absolutely brilliant and caught so much stuff. It was, it was amazing. So I’m kind of, you know, really, I had a really interesting experience, you know, on that side, like, you know, I would not say that we were censored in any definitive sense, you know, they did an excellent job, they were really good at what they did. And they caught things that needed to be corrected. So I was impressed, basically, by the end of it, but it was an experience for sure.


Will Bachman  28:01

That’s so fascinating. I mean, that’s not normally maybe your cultural kind of, you know, sort of expectation, right for, for Chinese Communist Party censors. So that’s, that’s,


Everlyn Ch’ien  28:14

I mean, they were literary and excellent and skilled, and, you know, all those things. So I think, um, you know, and yeah, it’s really interesting people have you say, censorship or something in China, we can get into problematic waters, like discussing this, because, you know, I really don’t know the details that much. But just my own personal experience. I, you know, I know that censorship exists, and it isn’t, you know, but I also know that, like, there’s so many problems in our own country. So I don’t, I don’t feel I’m not like a panda hugger, right? Or anything. I do feel a definite tie with Chinese culture, obviously, like, historically, personally, and things. But I also feel like, you know, we just need to be a little bit more aware of as global citizens of all of the weaknesses and strengths of every country. And, you know, anyway, that’s a long conversation. And I’m speaking vaguely now. So you could probably, I don’t know, not very interesting.


Will Bachman  29:21

So tell me what you have going on now. So you’re a book editor, I believe, and books editor. And what else do you plan?


Everlyn Ch’ien  29:30

So I want to really write this story in a way that people who are not in academic circles could could actually want to read this stuff, right? Because I did, cobbled together a bunch of the historical stuff, and I sent it off to someone in the profession, and they were like, this is really interesting, but it just feels like pretty like, you know, it’s just felt like a very much of a history book. And then I sort of just for on one day, I actually converted some of that work to fiction. Like I, you know, I just went all out with like, being dramatic. And I’ve, I kind of love doing this in general. And I did it even in weird English at the beginning. And I just remember, I should have listened to my heart, which is more like, you know, writing is fun you can. Creative Writing is is, is a passion of mine. And I just always felt like a little bit hesitant to pursue it. But I just went all out on this piece of work. And I gave it to people who I really trust their opinion, and they hadn’t read my other historical stuff. I had actually given it to them, but they were like, Oh, I’ve been really busy. And you know, you can’t really push people to read your stuff. Like, that’s kind of the worst. But they read this fiction right away, I was like, wait a minute, you didn’t touch the historical stuff. You’ve had it for months, you read the history right away, and they loved it. And I was like, you know, maybe, maybe it’s not really my job to educate people about this, but it’s kind of a more appealing job right now to entertain people. And maybe through that entertainment, people will be more interested in learning about this stuff. And and, you know, that’s kind of an obvious, you know, logic, right. So I, I just started to apply to an MFA to really learn how to write and to actually get feedback, because, you know, I really believe in community feedback on your writing. So I’m going to enter that in the fall here in San Francisco at SF State. And meanwhile, for the past five and a half years, I’ve been the books editor for hyphen magazine. I kind of have always written book reviews, I’d love to read as I’ve told you. It’s kind of a dream job. And I’ve been, I’ve been able to cover a lot of stuff. Yeah, a lot of new work that’s been coming out. I also think it’s, it’s been great to have a niche magazine like this that can speak to teen voice. All of these, you know, issues that Asian American moods have been facing, especially with COVID. It’s been a quite an intense time for a lot of Asian Americans. So it’s been great to actually have I think it’s an exceptional moment for Asian Americans in the arts. I mean, you’ve got Pachinko on Netflix, and we covered that book. You’ve got you know, Asian American actors and actresses finding roles that they want. You’ve got Michelle Yael, and the recent I don’t know if you saw the film everything everywhere all at once. Yeah, and, you know, it’s like, this is some kind of weird, Renaissance moment for the Arts. I mean, it has been going on for a few years, but it’s, it’s there, you know, I’m flooded with books, like I, I’ve been writing Asian American book reviews for years, like literally, I started in New York for a magazine, which no longer exists. But it was an Asian American magazine. And it was started by Jeff Yang, who actually graduated a few years ahead of us from Harvard. But you know, I was doing that on the side while working at Random House. And it just, you know, I remember just trying like trolling, the, like sort of book selections and bookstores for Asian American work. Now, I can’t cover even like, I feel like I can’t even cover like 5% of what’s coming out which is painful. So we’re actually trying to come up with more creative ways to get coverage on all of these books that are coming out and and all of the stories there have been a lot of you know, even the peerless was one for the sympathizer, you know, Vietnam unions book. So it’s, there’s just a lot of stuff happening. And it’s a really exciting moment to be editing. So I that’s what I’ve been doing for the past five years. While I’ve been kind of toggling between my research projects and this because I don’t know if there’s only so much brain space I had for my research project, I realized I needed to go back in a very structured environment to finish it because I was getting the point was right, writing more and more pages, but nothing was really coagulating. So anyway, there’s always school, right? I feel very lucky and privileged to be able to do that.


Will Bachman  34:26

Talk to me about any courses or professors you had in school at Harvard, that have continued to resonate for you.


Everlyn Ch’ien  34:37

You know, it’s really interesting. So I took Cultural Revolution, which obviously resonated with me and the work I have now. I took I had a seminar with gosh, you know, I It’s terrible. I’m sort of blanking on his name, Gary abs, who was a musician and he was a I was a philosophy major, which I don’t even know In retrospect, I’m like, wow, that was super self indulgent. But I really felt like it was conditioning for my brain. And I really enjoyed it. But I remember I took a course from him on sort of metaphysics, and philosophy. And, you know, I was really into, like, all of this stuff about AI and identity, and whether like, what it means to like, keep your identity as you grow, like, you know, do you? Do you actually, are you replaced? Like, what, what counts is a critical mass for holding on to your identity, let’s say if all your cells were replaced, you know, then you’re actually not the same person, right? Or are you like, if you, you know, what percentage has to stick, you know, so that you retain your self identity. And I got into all of this stuff about identity, and I think it was super meta, right. But now I’m working on identity in a very, you know, race based way. So it’s, you know, and part of me is like, you know, the Asian American identity, and the landscape is shifting so much like, you know, it’s almost like, you know, I think there’s terms like post race, Asian Americans, like people who, like no longer feel or carry the burden of thinking about their race, like, what, then have been the identity shift, if you don’t identify with, like your race, right? That you don’t even want to like, what does that mean, right? I’m not sure if that makes sense. So that that course was really a that sort of set of ideas that I learned in these courses was really interesting to me. And then later, I took a course with Elaine scary, and it was like a graduate course. But I was in my senior year. So a lot of people did that. And she she introduced a lot of interesting ideas to me about writing and how you could actually create, like, palpable feelings for people as they experienced writing like, and that was something that spoke to me, because I’ve always, again, love to read. And I always felt like it created a world where I can touch feel, and smell and sense and how do you do that for people? So it’s exciting. And so they want to keep reading, right? And those those ideas have stuck with me. Absolutely. But I mean, to be honest, like, I really do feel like I got one idea from every course, that was kind of I never, like hated a course. You know, I never took something that I hated. But you know, then again, I majored in philosophy, I wasn’t taking like organic chemistry, or like high level math or something, which I could see being a little bit more, you know, intense about, right in terms of, you know, just not being able to find something to squeeze out of that, that you had a passion for. But I don’t know, I mean, I’m married to a scientist who loves all science. So I know,


Will Bachman  37:54

you’ve mentioned music a few times. Are you a musician or practicing musician or


Everlyn Ch’ien  38:00

so I haven’t really been practicing much lately, but I am a pianist. And I was I did play a lot, like when I was younger, and you know, was it a pretty decent level? Like I, I had my own, like, solo concerts and stuff in high school and things like that. But I you know, it’s really funny, because my, I was talking to someone about college applications, because my kid is getting it like, she’s not there yet. But you know, and they were like, yeah, when you apply to Harvard, any sort of musical talent you have, it’s kind of a throw away. I was like, you’re talking about years of musical, you know, commitment. People have been calling it a throw away, but you’re probably right, you know, this is another Harvard person. So yeah, it was serious about music. And, and I did, I was able to get into, I got my certificate in sound, recording engine sound engineering, while I was teaching at Hartford and creating that CD with my students, because I really felt it was important to learn the software, we were using ProTools. And reason at the time for like, beats and rhythms. I felt that that was really important for them to have on that CD in the background, other voices, and I had a couple of people who, like, one of them went professional in this, you know, they were really serious about the musical aspects of it. And I, you know, I do think that there is a musical undertone to like, a lot of languages, too. And that’s, you know, I mean, I often think that people from tonal languages already have a head start and learning instruments, right, like, a lot of people in China, you know, because they grew up with a tonal language, and, you know, it’s really interesting. So one other thing I can talk about is that, you know, in southern China, they speak Cantonese, and, you know, depending on where you’re coming from, it can have like, nine to 11 tones. So that’s, you know, past an octave, right, which is ate, right. And so essentially people are like singing to each other all the time, which I think is really beautiful to think about it that way. And in the ancient times, like when it’s like reimagined for the stage, they are singing to each other. Right? And this operatic way that sounds kind of a little bit dissonant to a lot of Western heirs, right? Because it’s not, it’s not a traditional melodic sound for in our standard of things, but but when I listen to Chinese opera and things like that, I hear a whole different dimension. So anyway, musicality does, I think it’s played a more transcendent role in my life lately. But yes, in the early years, it was definitely like, practicing piano a lot. And I definitely was in the practice rooms at Harvard a lot. So another favorite course of mine was jazz. So I should jazz an American music. So Graham, Booz I think so those were courses that really articulated, like a lot of musical things that I had thought about, but hadn’t really articulated for myself.


Will Bachman  41:06

Jazz must have been so much more meaningful to you, I took that course. And it was very powerful for me, and just helping me like exposed to that genre of music and appreciate it more. But wow, with your musical training, I imagine you were really able to get much more of the fundamentals and really kind of understand what was going on in the music.


Everlyn Ch’ien  41:30

You know, I don’t even know. Well, it’s hard to compare, right. But I just remember being in one of the performance sections like that, you could sign up for that. And I think I played the make Maple Leaf Rag, but I think somebody after me was like, super good. I mean, I don’t even know if it was like, it was like Josh Redmond level. On his it might have even been him or something within the class and was playing and it was just so it just blew everyone away. We’re all just like, oh, no, our grades just. I mean, it wasn’t even that we were blown away. But like the good the back of my mind. There was like the sense of did I make a mistake here? Yeah. But then I was like, I’m so blown away. And I think that, you know, for someone like that, the course must have been kind of great to you know, I just put like, you know, I don’t know it was it. It was a recent seminar, someone said, compare and despair as you can’t really, if you got a lot out of it. That sounds great. I mean, it sounds you know, I think it was a course that anyone could take something away from. I knew I knew at Harvard that I wasn’t taking the maximum away from a lot of things. I don’t know, we weren’t a forestry summer together. Like,


Will Bachman  42:43

that’s right. Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. Freshman there


Everlyn Ch’ien  42:46

vividly, I remember that we had to cook a lot of stuff. And none of us had any idea. Did you I felt like we were left to our own devices quite a bit.


Will Bachman  42:57

We very much were that was such a fun seminar, where we’re going out to the harvest forest four times. So


Everlyn Ch’ien  43:03

it was really crazy, right? I don’t, I don’t feel like we were monitored very much at all.


Will Bachman  43:10

I, I remember, they gave us like, $400 to buy groceries or something for the weekend. And we just yeah, they would say stop. They say go ahead and shop, we would be responsible for cooking our own meals at the Harvard forest. Yep. And, and I mean, for, like, for Saturday, and for Sunday. They, I mean, there was some content. You know, I remember where they would teach us something in the classroom, and then we’d go for a hike or something. But that last weekend, we had to just do our own project. And I remember that being somewhat unsupervised.


Everlyn Ch’ien  43:48

Yeah, I remember actually walking in the woods and trying to identify bird calls. And I, you know, I don’t remember anybody being really successful at that, frankly, do you? I don’t remember any I mean, it was because we had no prep, you know, on like, sort of, in a in a sort of protected environment where we could actually hear the calls and then label them. And I just remember going outside and being like, I have no idea what I’m doing it just I mean, you know, again, but you know, we all loved being outdoors. So that was just really fun. So, you know, there’s always a part of something that can save you, right? You can always hold on to something. Yeah,


Will Bachman  44:32

you have you done a vineberg goals for the forest thing. I think my project for that course was trying to identify plants that were like within one meter of a little stream and then further out and compare the differences between them and it was quite challenging to firstly even just identify what the plants were and then come up with like some statistical difference between the plot was pretty much a failure pretty much a failure.


Everlyn Ch’ien  45:06

I don’t know. Yeah, it was pretty random. And then I think I just really liked the group of people. Yeah, I just were everyone was like, a pretty good soul, like, you know, willing to help out and stuff. Willing, even though we just were not given any supervision, so I couldn’t, I didn’t know what we’re supposed to do except go out there and have fun, which, maybe that was the spirit of it. Right.


Will Bachman  45:29

I think it was a recruiting device to get people to go into major in, like forestry or something. Yeah. But so what would surprise you on? How your career has played out? What would surprise your college age self?


Everlyn Ch’ien  45:47

Oh, that’s a really good question. Um, hmm. Like, what I thought I was going to do in college. And then what happened? Yeah. It’s really hard because I live in the moment. And I didn’t meet a lot of people who did at Harvard, there were always like miniatures of some, like, they were gonna have a crescendo to their career and arrive, right? I guess that I think the unconventionality of my pathway would really surprise me, I thought I was gonna go and be like, have a, like, steady professional job, you know, and kind of like, you know, maybe even be like an attorney or something. Right. And, you know, Harvard completely changed that, for me, I like even maybe even go to medicine. Like, I think I was even like, thinking about pre med when I got there, you know, and that, just like, I felt like, Harvard kind of opened the door and met so many people, and they wanted to do so many diverse and niche kind of things, like things that like, your average person, like, in high school would not express Right? Like going down and you know, working in a different country are different. And so that, that would really surprise me. And like I said, I went to France, spent like, you know, several months there, I took a semester off. I loved it. I mean, I loved a lot about it. But it was still a different country. And I didn’t think I would go back. So I think the unconventionality of the route I had taken would really surprise me. I would not have liked it to have lived in France for that long. And I’m actually a French citizen, too. And just have, you know, that experience?


Will Bachman  47:25

What are your tips on? On living in Paris? What what do what do tourists miss?


Everlyn Ch’ien  47:34

You I don’t know what tourists miss. Exactly. I would say that. I mean, there’s, it’s really hard to live badly there. Because you can get really delicious food for like, a very reasonable price. So you can always eat well. The markets are really wonderful. And the hours are pretty limited, like on Saturdays and Wednesdays in some places, or on Sundays, and Fridays, you know, just depends. And so I think tourists pay, enjoy that. And that probably wouldn’t be on their list, walking from one place to another and just not you don’t need a car there at all. It is beautiful from one end to the other. So that is something there are other sort of odd places that tourists probably wouldn’t go to like the city de la coos, which is a kind of area that was have, like giant museums devoted to like, like, unconventional topics. Like they’re not strictly art museums. So like, sort of science experiment museums, not even like Science Museum of Natural History. But like, Here, here’s an experiment we did with shadows, we have a whole exhibit on it, you know, that kind of thing, which is always in these unbelievably beautiful architecture, old buildings, you know, just architecturally designed old buildings and just incredible buildings. It’s like having a children’s like science, like, exhibit in the plati or something, you know, like, it’s just, they just have these gorgeous buildings. And there’s some museums that aren’t like them. There’s a museum called like, the machine, I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s in there. It’s called the machine something. Museum, which is great. There’s one museum where they have the pendulum Foucault’s Pendulum. And it’s really, really, I mean, it’s a very large scale pendulum that, you know, takes up like the entire, like, half of the museum and a lot of people wouldn’t go there. I have to figure out where that museum is, I can tell you, but I can send you the link for that. So there’s some really off the cuff museums that people don’t go to that aren’t like the museum or said the Louvre, the Wall Street. You know, people don’t necessarily go outside of the general list of these museums, which are on some sort of probably some sort of, you know, saver card or something you could try, like, you know what I mean? Like, they just get it. So but like things like music, you may that’s an Asian Museum, and it’s one of my favorites in the world. And I’ve been to a lot of Asian museums. So I, you know, that one is stunning to me, the French to know how to set up an exhibit like no other culture. They just pay attention so carefully and instinctively, to the aesthetics. And it’s it makes for such a beautiful experience.


Will Bachman  50:30

So Evelyn, for any listeners that wanted to kind of keep track of what you’re doing or follow up with you, are there any links or, or other info you’d want to share for people to kind of keep track of what you’re doing?


Everlyn Ch’ien  50:44

Sure. I’m on hyphen magazine, but my I have a Twitter handle. I’m like all over social media, frankly. But my hyphen one is a good one to read. A lot of my byline, if people are curious as to new books that are coming out, I had a couple of pieces on, I had one piece on Gish Jen, who recently read a collection of stories about like the Chinese diaspora. And it’s a really fascinating book, another one by Mimi lock. And other one. I’m just working on one by melee Chai, there’s lots of books that are coming out, but I do profiles and how they got to where they are, and as well as a kind of mini review of the book that’s woven in. And so that’s really fun. I edit all of the books section so they can read any of those reviews. And that’s that’s like a fun thing. I do. I do have a Twitter handle, but it’s at ch ai n 0121. I think, anyway, I don’t, you know, I post occasionally there. But that’s, you know, other than that, you know, I’ll hopefully be writing more soon and more, be getting more out. And let’s just hope that that going back to school, like helps me have the structure that I need to finish a book that no one is supposed to read.


Will Bachman  52:07

Looking forward to the multigenerational the Aspera family story of the great grandfather and the great God granddaughter goes and Reese becomes the Chinese, you know, literature professor and researches it. It sounds amazing. Well,


Everlyn Ch’ien  52:25

I’m hoping not to include myself. But you know, that might be a separate story. And it’s just like into paragraphs. All right. It’s crazy.


Will Bachman  52:33

You may end up in it despite your best interest, despite your best wishes. Evelyn, thank you so much for being on the show. It was great. Having a chance to chat with you.


Everlyn Ch’ien  52:43

Yeah, it was fantastic. Thank you. And thanks for doing this for our class. We will appreciate it so much when it’s all done. But even right now it’s been great to listen to a lot of the people you’ve covered.


Will Bachman  52:55

Thank you, Evelyn and listeners. If you haven’t already, you can go to nine to Sign up for the email to get notified of new episodes. Thanks for listening