by Jennifer Gresham
Dr. Valdez is an Assistant Professor in the School of English. She holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and has previously been a lecturer at NYU Shanghai. Currently she is working on Mediating Englishness: Newspapers and National Identity in the Victorian Novel, a book project examining depictions of news and newspapers in nineteenth-century British novels.
Studying at John Hopkins University and living in Baltimore would have been an amazing experience. I’ve never been to Baltimore, and all I know about the city comes from watching a couple episodes of the TV series The Wire. What’s it like?
I lived in Baltimore for more than ten years and really loved it there. It’s an eclectic, idiosyncratic city that doesn’t put on airs like Washington, D.C. or Philadelphia. It’s far more charming and down-to-earth than its neighbor to the south, Washington D.C. I grew deeply attached to the city when I was a college reporting intern for the city’s newspaper, the Baltimore Sun. As a young reporter, I met people all over the city who faced structural inequality and government indifference, yet who also remained committed to revitalizing their neighborhoods. As a result, when I became a graduate student, I encouraged my undergraduates to see Baltimore as their city and to become more involved in its everyday world. I taught courses that featured The Wire and asked students to think across Victorian London and contemporary Baltimore, so that Victorian literature pushed them to think and live beyond the immediate university environment. Baltimore is both charming and deeply troubled, and it was hard for me to leave it when I moved to Asia.
Before moving to Hong Kong, you were a faculty member at NYU Shanghai. From Baltimore to Shanghai—that must have been quite the transition! Can you tell us anything about that?
I had visited Shanghai as a tourist, so I had a sense of what to expect. The biggest challenge for me was adjusting to the Chinese culture of paperwork and fapiaos. Every visit to the bank involved at least a two-hour wait and numerous stamps, papers, and receipts. Each stamped fapiao (an official government receipt) is like gold – if you lose it, that’s it.
I also had to adjust to the new food culture of Shanghai – but that was easy. Food is cheap and abundant on the streets and in small restaurants. I enjoyed eating shao kao (barbecued street food), xiao long bao (soup dumplings), and endless pork dishes. Shanghainese food is heavy and rich, and so delicious!
If anything, my cats faced a bigger adjustment than I did. They traveled from Baltimore, Maryland, to Amsterdam, where they had a stopover at a pet hotel. Then they flew to Hong Kong and were driven to Shenzhen for another overnight stay. Finally, they took a domestic flight from Shenzhen to Shanghai. The three of them experienced some serious jet lag when they arrived!
You’ve lived in Hong Kong for a few months now. What were your first impressions of the city? Is there anything that you really love or hate about it or anything that sort of took you by surprise?
Occupy Central has completely won me over to the city of Hong Kong. After spending a year in Shanghai, I’ve found it exciting and inspiring to see the activism of Hong Kong students and residents. I live near the Admiralty location of Occupy Central, and I regularly walk over to the protest to watch the site grow and develop. What began as a massive gathering in the streets has now developed into a small city of its own. It’s fascinating to watch how the protesters reconfigure the public space of the highway into a shared living space.
I also love the liveliness of Hong Kong and the ease with which I can get around and explore. I’ve found everyone friendly and welcoming, and I hope to become conversational in Cantonese so I can learn even more about the city. I’ve started my lessons but have much to learn!
Do you find that your recontextualization from the US to China and Hong Kong has had an impact on your research? Has it changed anything about your areas of interest or your approach more generally?
As a result of my move to China and Hong Kong, I’ve become far more committed to academic freedom and free speech. In particular, I’ve followed the English-language media in Shanghai and Hong Kong to see how they adapt to speech restrictions. In Hong Kong, Twitter and other informal social media seem to have a better grip on what is happening than the mainstream media. I’m especially interested in the media climate of China and Hong Kong because my research looks at nineteenth-century print media. My current work deals with the expansion of newspapers and the mass media in the nineteenth century, and I look at how mainstream Victorian novelists responded to the media’s increasingly pervasive influence.
Can you give us an example of a book, theory, or topic that was either really challenging or extremely rewarding to teach to undergraduate students?
While a graduate student, I was awarded a Jewish studies teaching grant to teach an upper-level course called, “The Victorian Novel and the Jewish Question.” In researching material for the course, I decided to assign late-Victorian writer Israel Zangwill’s 1892 novel, Children of the Ghetto, an expansive realist novel about the Anglo-Jewish community in Victorian London. It’s a long and difficult novel that few people have ever heard of, and yet my students were fascinated by it. We discussed Zangwill’s adaptation of the realist novel to accommodate a bilingual immigrant experience. One student, who was enrolled in beginning Yiddish, scrutinized the use of transliterated Yiddish throughout the English-language text. She said she felt like she finally had something important to say in a term paper. It was exciting to see this student learn to see literary studies as an active field. This experience inspired me as well: I wrote my last dissertation chapter on Zangwill’s novel and plan to orient my second project around the imbrication of Yiddish and English in late-nineteenth-century Anglo- and American-Jewish fiction
Hong Kong is famous for its dim sum restaurants. Have you sampled any of these yet, and do you have any favourites? Which dumplings do you like the most?
Of course I love Hong Kong dim sum! I don’t remember the names of the restaurants I’ve visited, but I’ve had excellent food. My favorites include lotus leaf rice, cha siu bao, and the steamed shrimp dumpling. In September, I visited an excellent dim sum restaurant in Kowloon and then took a walk to the bird market.