Living out of a suitcase I was born in 1972, in Kyoto, Japan, where my dad was studying and my mom was teaching English. Both are from St Louis (in the United States). When I was a baby, my parents lived in a one-room teahouse; my 16-month-old brother slept in a drawer and I slept in a suitcase. I went back to Japan two years ago with my husband (American playwright Zayd Dohrn) and our daughters, then eight and 11. The day we found the house where I was born I rang the bell and a woman opened the door to find my family waiting in the rain. I pointed at myself. “Born. Here,” I said in Japanese. She politely invited us into the courtyard, where I showed her pictures of my parents, and one of me as a baby, and said my two words again and gestured to her house. I had no idea whether she understood. The day after we returned to the US, I got an email from a man who introduced himself as the woman’s husband, and whose father had been the landlord (who had since died). He wrote that he and his mother had been out when we came by. They were deeply sorry to have missed our visit. He attached photos of his parents holding my brother and me as newborns; my parents with his parents, seated around a tea table, smiling out at us across decades. China writer China has always been part of my life and imagination. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but my family began travelling to China in 1982 (her father, Kenneth DeWoskin, was a sinologist at the University of Michigan). We went to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and later, when I was still little, we travelled extensively in Sichuan. My childhood was composed of infinite staircases to Chinese walls and temples; lost villages in Sichuan; military guest houses with beds allegedly slept in by revolutionary heroes; ships down the Yangtze; trains across the countryside; Buddha bones; Han princess mummies; wax renderings of Three Kingdoms warriors; armies of bronze bells, stones and terracotta soldiers. I realised in China that the US and my life weren’t necessarily central stories – that billions of people had perspectives and narratives that differed from mine. I wanted to know what those views were, not just to imagine other people’s ways of seeing the world, but to inhabit them. In that sense, China made me a writer. Song and dance I graduated from high school in Ann Arbor in 1990 and moved to New York, where I studied at Columbia University, graduating in 1994. In October that year, when I was 21, I went to Beijing. Around that time, I met rock star Cui Jian at CD Cafe through mutual friends. I was star-struck. He had been underground since just after 1989, and started playing concerts again in the mid-1990s – I remember seeing him at a club called Poachers where we used to dance wildly on the weekends. I found his lyrics brilliant and dazzling. Beijing had a strange small-town feel in those years, and it was possible to know famous people as people; Cui Jian and I were friends, and I translated his album Power of the Powerless (1998) into English, trying to keep its gritty grace and integrity intact. A true foreigner I got cast in Foreign Babes in Beijing randomly. It was a show about Western girls in love with China and Chinese men. And China in ambivalent love with the West and our various liberties and toxins, as represented by the foreign girls. I was at a party and this Chinese guy asked me if I wanted to be in his friend’s soap opera. I didn’t, but I was restless at my corporate job – I worked at an American public relations consultancy as an account executive – so I tagged along with him to check out the old Beijing Film Studio. The sets were mostly outside and as I walked towards what would turn out to be my audition for Foreign Babes , I saw a giant two-storey teahouse featuring a hot-lit balcony on which actors were staging a fight scene. Dozens of production people bustled around beneath the balcony. One of them – Director Yao, as it turned out – asked the guy who had brought me, “Does she have acting experience?” I had once played a middle-aged lesbian with ovarian cancer in a Columbia University production, and had also been an embarrassingly suburban sha-bop girl in a musical version of Little Shop of Horrors . Did that count as “acting experience?” I was turning the table momentarily on the West’s “othersing” of Eastern women. My role was to play the exotic, mysterious femme fatale, relieving Eastern women momentarily of that chore Rachel DeWoskin For my audition, I did a scene with an American guy. Director Yao told us: “Pretend you are foreigners living in China.” And then, “You love to take the bus,” he told the American guy. “But you,” he said to me, “like to take cabs and live like a true foreigner.” “Let’s take a cab,” I said to the American guy. “No!” he said. “I want to take the bus!” We stood there. “You’re hired,” said Director Yao. Talk of the town As for fame, it was never possible to be a normal person as a foreigner in Beijing in the 1990s. I think that has changed now that there’s much more familiarity. But when I was first living in Beijing, for many people, seeing an American girl on the streets was surprising and interesting, so I was already engaged in countless conversations about life in the West and how I felt about the East. Being on TV magnified and intensified that, but that fame wasn’t as shocking as it might have been elsewhere. And I always felt like I owed my Chinese friends one – like I was turning the table momentarily on the West’s “othersing” of Eastern women. My role was to play the exotic, mysterious femme fatale, relieving Eastern women momentarily of that chore. War story I wrote the novel Someday We Will Fly , which was published in January, about Lillia Kazka, a 16-year-old Jewish refugee whose family had fled Poland for Shanghai in 1940, because I was curious about something I happened upon in Shanghai in 2011. I was there working on a TV project when I visited the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum on a whim and saw two photographs that shaped my imagination. The first was of a group of teenage boys, war refugees from Europe, like so many of the Jewish settlers who found themselves in Shanghai between 1939 and 1945. Stunningly, they were dressed in polo shirts with school insignias and holding table-tennis paddles. These were teenagers who had arrived in Shanghai having fled entire lives, and yet their grown-ups, on top of managing near-impossible survival strategies, had made a school, a table-tennis team and monogrammed shirts. Those tiny school insignias made me cry; they seemed iconic of how human beings save each other and our children, not to mention the resilience refugees demonstrate. Next to that image was a second, this one of two toddlers, girls holding rag dolls. The girls were in rags themselves, but someone who loved them had sewn dolls for them, and painted on those dolls lovely, expressive faces. The records of these children’s lives, and the objects that revealed their community’s devotion to them, inspired Lillia. Lillia let me ask the horrifying question of how human beings survive the chaos of war. Shanghai summers I left China to study poetry in 1999, and fell in love in the US so made a life in New York City and Chicago, where I am now teaching poetry at the University of Chicago. But my family and I have been back to China every year since 2000. We had an apartment in Beijing for many years, and spent the past seven summers in Shanghai, where I was researching Someday We Will Fly . We lived in the Embankment Building, which used to serve as the processing centre for Jewish refugees. In blazing heat, I walked the streets my protagonist Lillia would have walked, explored people’s kitchens, climbed the staircases of houses almost unchanged since the war, and sat thinking in places from Wayside Park to the Bund to the skinny alleys and lanes for which the magnificent city is famous. I ran along Suzhou Creek and over the Garden Bridge every morning, looking up at the banks and hotels, imagining what Shanghai looked like to Lillia. I thought about bowing at the entrance to the bridge, what the requirement of such a humiliating gesture might have felt like.