Do Not Say We Have Nothing: Chinese Modern History Spanning Over Three Generations

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien.

For a while, I got tired of reading Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The novel spans so many generations, and I became confused about who is related to who, how they are related, and why any of it matters. When I got to the part about Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli during the cultural revolution, I thought their characters were so subdued and bland; I was almost bored to tears. However, I soldiered on, because as a Taiwanese Canadian living in Hong Kong,  modern Chinese history fascinates and horrifies me at the same time. Slowly and unknowingly as I continued to read, the book engrossed me as I became more and more attached to specific characters, especially Sparrow, the Quiet Bird.

The book starts in 1991 when Marie met Ai-Ming in Vancouver. Marie is the daughter of Kai, an accomplished pianist and an old friend of Sparrow, a talented composer who is A-Ming’s father.  When the reader first meets Ai-Ming, she had just fled China due to her activities during the Tiananmen Square protests. She found refuge in Marie’s home and was planning to seek political asylum in the United States. Through Ai-Ming’s storytelling, the reader, along with Marie, discovers the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward, the Culture Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square massacre presented themselves through a story that spans three generations.

Threaded through the whole book is the story from the Book of Records, a collection of hand-written manuscripts passed from husband to wife, from parent to child and from friends to friends, a novel within a novel that was amended and updated each time it was passed to a new steward. At time confusing, the Book of Records blurs the line between fantasy and reality. However, it is a book with no ending. As an unfinished book, it provides hope for the characters in the book, and in turn, enables the reader to imagine multiple, alternative, and perhaps more positive outcomes.

How many of us, Chinese or Taiwanese or Hong Kongese descendants in North America, understand the horrors of the Communist Party of China (CPC) inflicted on its citizen for the latter half of the 20th century? How many of us know about the starvation and death millions of people during the Great Leap Forward, the purging of the members of the intelligentsia class during the Cultural Revolution and the massacre of thousands of civilians in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests? Through Thien’s powerful and direct narrative, we learned the horrors of living under Mao and Deng in China–through modern history, the CPC dictated where people lived and worked, suppressed desires and aspirations, tore families apart and murdered their citizens.

One of the most vivid imagery in the book was how the residents of Beijing collectively gathered in the city, physically blocking the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to reach the Tiananmen Square, where thousands of university students were protesting. Thousands if not millions of people lost their lives on the night of June 3, doing what they thought was right. In the end, all was futile: “Street by street, no matter how many Beijing residents stood on the road, the People’s Liberation Army was forcing its way into the centre.”

Sparrow witnessed a the PLA soldier thrust a bayonet into a teenager on the street. He went to comfort the boy as he lay dying. “What had any of them done that was criminal?” He asked, “hadn’t they done their best to listen and to believe?” I imagine his question captured millions of Chinese people’s sentiment during the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests. So many lives lost and destroyed, and for what?

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an epic novel is intricate and touching. It’s a heartbreaking read, a portrait of the struggle of millions of Chinese people who have suffered, physically, emotionally, and psychologically under a regime. Perhaps it will provide a glimpse of why someone like me is terrified of China’s growing power and influence in the year 2018. If they could be cruel and ruthless to their citizens, what would they do to the rest of the world as they gain more control of the world’s economy and wield their influence across the globe?

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Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win: The Story of a Strong Women in the Trump Era

Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win by Jo Piazza.

Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win by Jo Piazza is particularly poignant in the age of Trump and the #MeToo Movement. It’s a story of Charlotte Walsh, an ambitious and capable woman, and her quest to achieve her agenda: to run for Senate while maintaining her marriage and raising her children. It asks an important question that’s on the back of our minds when we see someone like Charlotte, or in real life, Hilary Clinton running for political office, “Do men want ambitious women in their lives as their partners and their government representative?”

Charlotte Walsh was a COO of Humanity, one of the fastest growing companies in the world. She implemented a progressive family planning package, allowing employees the flexibility of having and raising children. Furthermore, Charlotte also had an aspiration to serve the public as a Senator. She believed “that politicians were failing Americans. Corporations were failing Americans. She hated the hate she saw every time she read the news. She felt terror and anger when she scrolled through Twitter. Americans were at each other’s throats and it was disgusting. She was scared to death of raising her daughter in this country.” Her reasons to run for office echo what many of us are thinking as we witness mass shootings, police brutality, and racist, inflammatory rhetoric on a daily basis.

Charlotte took a leave from her lucrative career in Silicon Valley. She moved back to her hometown in rural Pennsylvania along with her husband Max, their three young daughters, and her trusty and feisty assistant Leila. She hired Josh Pratt, a brash albeit competent campaign manager to ensure her victory.

Throughout the campaign, she worked insane hours and lost all sense of privacy. Her Trump-like opponent, Ted Slaughter, threw misogynistic insults from all directions in trying to sway the election. Instead of paying attention to Charlotte’s campaign speech, the media was more captivated by the shoes she was wearing. Instead of paying attention to issues she had brought forth, her personal life, the ugly mistake she had buried from the past was threatening to resurface, potentially obliterating everything she had worked for: her campaign, her marriage, and her perfect life.

Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win is an engaging and gripping read. Piazza’s prose is accessible and witty. The characters, though flawed, are likable. As a reader, I couldn’t help but cheer for Charlotte, though she had made some unforgivable decisions that impacted the lives of many.  I love the scrappy and loyal Leila, who also committed a betrayal during the campaign that almost cost her relationship with Charlotte, who was her mentor and best friend.

One of the elements I enjoyed the most about the book is how accurate Piazza depicted how our society treats powerful women. Josh, the campaign manager, played the role of preparing Charlotte for the brutal campaign ahead of her. In doing so, he represented the voice of men who fear powerful women:

“You can be a strong female candidate, but not a feminist candidate. There’s a difference. The subtle path is the surer one. It’s all in the nuance. And the hair… Thank God you didn’t chop off your hair when you had kids.”

Powerful women are often accused of emasculating men. They are often put in a position where they have to choose between a happy marriage and a successful career. Early on in the book, Josh commented on the power dynamic between Charlotte and her husband Max, who also worked at Humanity:

“I’ll bet that was though on Max, having his wife as a boss, the big dog at one of the most powerful companies in the world.”

Her reply to Josh: “My husband is a very evolved man, not a dinosaur.”

Charlotte’s statement was telling, especially for the final chapter of the book. What would Max do, in the midst of Charlotte’s quest to the Senate while their marriage and lives are under scrutiny?

For many millennial women, we have been raised with the idea that as girls, we can do anything we wanted, as long as we work hard for it. However, there is a definite gap between what our mothers taught us and the reality in the technology-obsessed, consumer-driven, and still-patriarchal 21st century. It saddens me, that despite all that women had fought for in the last hundred years, from women’s suffrage to sexual liberation to the #MeToo movement, many of us still believe: “only let the world see half of your ambition. Half of the world can’t handle seeing it at all.”

 

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Though I Get Home: Interconnected Short Stories From Malaysia

Though I Get Home by YZ Chin.

Though I Get Home is YZ Chin’s debut book, a collection of interconnected short stories that illustrate the Malaysian post-colonial experience and modern-day political dissidence. I picked it up because as a writer, I am interested in post-colonialism, diaspora communities, and activism.  Furthermore, I would like to experiment with Chin’s use of interconnected narrative with my current project, In the Shadow of the Middle Kingdom.

The book centers around Isabella Sin, known as Isa, an aspiring writer-activist who was imprisoned for writing obscene poetry. The government arrested her he along with others who participated in a protest in Kuala Lumpur. Her grandfather, Gong Gong, had worked as a butler and a nanny for a British family during colonial times, had told her stories that ignited Isa’s fascination with England. After his death, Isa spent a year in London, which led her mother to blame her lack of marital prospects on her Anglophone speech and attitude. There is also the story about her friend K, who at the opening of Starbucks in Taiping, pondered whether or not to leave her ex-boyfriend who had already broken up with her.

There are other characters in the book who aren’t directly related to her, like Howie Ho, a Chinese Malaysian studying in New York, who dated an American girl who was sympathetic to Malaysian activists and had a penchant for writing poetry. There’s also Ibrahim, a member of the RD, who acted as the moral police. His job was to make sure that their fellow Malays, who are all technically Muslims, are preserving their purity and not engaging in sexually deviant behaviors, such as sex before marriage and cross-dressing. They knocked on the windows of parked cars and broke into hotels to make sure that everybody was behaving themselves.

Initially, I didn’t care for the book. I didn’t connect with the storytelling and felt that the book was messy overall. I didn’t always understand how each story related to one another. There was a story about a concubine that seemed out of place. Furthermore, while reading  “A Malaysian Man in Mayor Bloomberg’s Silicon Alley,” I was frustrated reading about this Howie Ho, a seemingly unrelated character who went away to the US for college, dated an American girl, and went back to Malaysia to vote for an election. It is the longest story in the book, and at first, I didn’t understand why he even mattered. Chin does reveal the relevance of this character at the end, but I wish there was some foreshadowing in the earlier stories. Also, there is a thread in the story where Howie Ho witnessed an incident of abuse and violence in his college dorm room but chose to do nothing. That annoyed me—not only because I thought he was a coward, but I also didn’t understand how the incident added to his character.  I just felt appalled and disliked him.

Having said that, I enjoyed some of the stories, such as “The Butler Opens the Door.” After the daughter of the British family he was working for had gone missing, Gong Gong staged a funeral to help his employer grieve properly. The British people who attended the funeral were appalled and fascinated at the same time, which reminded me of my own grandfather’s funeral that I attended as an eight-year-old. It was an open casket funeral, and Mama had led me to see him, despite my unwillingness. I saw him through a glass sheet over a fridge-like thing— I jolted at how cold it felt when I touched the surface. He looked like he was sleeping, but he also seemed strangely hollow and weird. I didn’t like it. On the same day, I also got yelled at for playing with the joss papers, the money for the dead, by folding them into cranes and other origami animals before feeding them to the fire. There is a lot of burning at a Chinese funeral: I watched in awe as flames engulfed an entire paper home that looked like a dollhouse and a paper car. All these memories came rolling through my mind as I read about this funeral with no corpse.

Initially, I didn’t like the book. However, after reading parts of it a few times to write this review, I grew to appreciate it. It’s like a bottle of good, vintage wine that takes time and patience to enjoy. I learned a great deal about Malaysian history, politics, and how similar Chinese folk religion is wherever people practice it.

 

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So You Want to Talk About Race: Understanding Racism in America

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo.

Have you ever tried to ignore the uncomfortable conversations about race that happen around you? Have you ever been angry that your well-intended comment has been labeled as racist? Have you ever defended yourself as not a racist because you have African American/Asian/Other People of Color friends? Have you accused a person of color of being overly opinionated or sensitive when someone cracks a racist joke? Do the words “white supremacist society” make you cringe?

If any of the above has happened to you, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo is the book for you. It’s a vital book in our divisive society, to help all of us understand what is racial oppression and why we need to talk about it.

This may not be a popular opinion, but here it is: As humans, we are inherently racist. Our tribal roots make us feel safer around people who look like us. However, this does not justify racism— in our globalized world, we need to question and address our tribal conditioning. We need to treat everybody, regardless of the color of their skin, with dignity and respect.

From the get-go, Oluo makes a strong case that race is a system of power and that racism is a systematic oppression against people of color. She says that its goal was to “profit and comfort of the white race, specifically, of rich white men. The oppression of people of color was an easy way to get this wealth and power and racism was a good way to justify it.”

This may sound harsh, but it’s true. Racism goes way back to slavery when slaves imported from Africa were considered less human than their white masters.  They were treated as property, were abused and dehumanized. Just because slavery was technically abolished 153 years ago doesn’t mean that racism died with it.  On the contrary, it still thrives.  In her book, Oluo provides statistics about African Americans and how they are less likely, compared to White Americans, to graduate from high school and go to college. Furthermore, they are also more likely to be incarcerated, repeatedly.  Not to mention that the number of African Americans who died at the hands of police brutality is high, and the number of prosecutions low.

Something is broken, and we must talk about it.

As a Taiwanese Canadian based in Hong Kong, my reality is vastly different than the African Americans in the United States. Hong Kong and Canada have their own set of problems related to racism, but nothing like it is in the United States. In the autumn of 2017 and the winter of 2018, I lived in Savannah, Georgia, taking classes for my M.F.A. degree in writing at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). There, I made a close friend. Her name is Halle. I adore her because she is talented, thoughtful, and one of the most poetic writers I know. She is also smart, funny, and a beautiful person inside out. She is also the first African American I can call a friend. Growing up on the west coast of Canada in the 90’s, I didn’t know very many African Canadians, let alone one I could call a friend.

Watching American news in Hong Kong, I was aware of police brutality, but I never knew how deep the fear is until I had spent time in the United States.  When Halle and I became friends, I got a glimpse of her world and reality. Earlier this year, we took a short road trip from Savannah to Atlanta to see a talk by the amazing Zadie Smith, one of our favorite writers. Our spirits were high in the car—we were singing along to the music, gossiping, laughing—until a police car drove by us. Halle flinched and her whole body tensed.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Oh, I get nervous when I see a police car,” she said, her hands gripping the steering wheel, her eyes frightened, looking straight ahead.

How can the police, who are supposed to protect the citizens, put so much fear in a law-abiding young woman? Halle was so terrified of getting pulled over, she didn’t go over the speed limit once during the whole 4.5-hour journey.

During that trip, I begin to understand the privilege of not having that same fear. Still, her fear resonated with me; it made me sad and angry.

So You Want to Talk About Race helped me further understand Halle and millions of African Americans’ experience in the United States. It explains how racism was created and how it still works in America. Oluo, in her informal and engaging way, defines racism, how to talk about it, and how to do something about it. She defines racism as”any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power.” She further elaborates that racism is interwoven into our social, political, and economic system. She says, “instead of trying to isolate or ignore race, we need to look at race as a piece of the machine, just as we’d look at class or geography when considering social issues. Race alone is not all you need to focus on, but without it, any solution you come up with just won’t work.”

In addition to defining racism, Oluo also discusses different concepts that are related to racism, such as the importance of intersectionality, the disrespecting of oppressed racial groups through cultural appropriation, and the harmful effects of microaggression. Oluo is biased, as she should be—African Americans are dying within the racist system in America.

For those of us who stand by and do nothing when our colleagues make a racist comment or claim that we are not racist since we have African American friends, or think our African American friends are being over sensitive when something happens to them, remember:

“It’s the system, and our complacency in that system, that gives racism its power, not individual intent. Without that white supremacist system, we’d just have a bunch of assholes yelling at each other on a pretty even playing field—and may the best yeller win.”

So You Want to Talk About Race? You probably want to say, not really. But we must. Please read the book. Please recommend it to your friends. If you are a teacher, please assign it as a class reading. If you are a parent, please read it with your children (though they are some cuss words in it, FYI). If you are a manager, please use this book when doing cultural sensitivity training. It’s time we all get uncomfortable and start talking about race.

 

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Heating & Cooling: A Delicious Bite-size Memoir

 

Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly.

Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs is an absolute delight. They are delicious bite-sized stories, filled with the wisdom and humor of Fennelly’s life as a wife, a mother, a daughter, a feminist, and a writer. The book deals with the whole spectrum of the human condition: joy, love, jealousy, loss. They read like flash fiction, except they are non-fiction pieces. Each piece is about a few pages to a few sentences long; there isn’t a single wasted word.

Some of my favorites pieces are short:

“Morning: bought a bag of frozen peas to numb my husband’s sore testicles after his vasectomy. Evening: added thawed peas to our carbonara.”

This little gem is number four of the “Married Love” series, and it gives the reader a snippet of Fennelly’s marriage and of course, cooking.

When I was watching 13 Reasons Why on Netflix, I’d cringe when the high school boys would call each other pussies. In “What I Think About When Someone Uses ‘Pussy’ as a Synonym for Weak,” Fennelly described the thoughts going through her head while giving birth to one of her children. She ended the piece with:

“The pain was such that I made peace with that. I did not fear death. Fear was an emotion, and pain had scalded away all emotions. I chose. In order to come back with the baby, I had to tear it out at the root. Understand, I did this without the aid of my hands.”

I wish every time a boy (or a man) call each other a “pussy”, he remembers that his mother tore him out of her body without using her hands. Pussies are strong and badass.

The book also deals with the challenges we all face, such as a quiet feud with a neighbor,  raising stubborn children, and the death of a loved one. I don’t want to say too much more about this book without giving it all away. All I can say is, when I finished reading the 52nd piece, I was sad. I wish there was a 53rd piece. Fennelly’s warm and humorous micro-memoirs are like little brain candies. I gobbled them up pretty fast. When you pick up your copy, I suggest you savor them while you can.

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Motherhood: Should I, or should I not?

Motherhood by Sheila Heti

I picked up Sheila Heti’s Motherhood because like the narrator of the book,  I am in my mid 30’s, a writer and often ponder whether or not I want a child with my loving and supportive husband, Derek. I had no idea what to expect when I started reading it, and the book is something beyond my imagination—it is not a conventional work of fiction.

The book is an intriguing journey of a woman talking herself out of motherhood. The narrative is generally plot-less and follows the stream of consciousness of the unnamed narrator, who I believe might be the Heti herself. Heti blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction, and the result is a poignant work that made me think about my attitude towards having children.

Throughout the book, the narrator obsessively tackles and reasons with herself about having children with Miles, her long-term boyfriend. She tosses her coins, which is a technique used by people who consult the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination system, used to help people with their life problems. Through the coin tossing, she addresses her uncertainty such as whether or not she is truly deserving of Miles, whether her anxiety is ever going away, and visualized her fear (a kitchen knife with a black handle) that cuts away hope and optimism out of her.

At one point, Heti tries to reason logically, at why having a child is narcissistic. She writes,

“The egoism of childbearing is like the egoism of colonizing a country—both carry the wish of imprinting yourself on the world, and making it over your values, and in your image.”

Then she follows up by comparing her religious cousin who has six children and herself, who has six books. Then she muses, “maybe there is no great difference in our faith—in what parts of ourselves we feel called to spread.”

I think I would rather have six books too.

Deep down, the narrator has never wanted a child, but often feels pressured by society. She thinks perhaps she might be sorry for not having a child, and therefore, should have one to prevent future regret. Furthermore, there are unrelenting expectations people have over women, to fulfill their “biological destiny.”She writes,

“It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their thirties—when you finally have some brains and some skills, and experience—from doing anything useful with them at all. It is hard to when such a large portion of your mind, at any given time, is pre-occupied with the possibility—a question that didn’t seem to preoccupy the drunk men at all.”

It is true—men don’t think about having a child in the same way because men aren’t expected to be the primary caretaker of the child. This responsibility squarely falls on women, to feed, clothes, and love the child while the man is away in the big world earning a living.  Heti criticizes our contemporary world— after all these years of feminism, the structure of our society hasn’t changed much at all. It is still patriarchal, and women are the ones judging other women when they choose not to have a child.

Heti, through her narrator, also criticizes how women are conditioned to have children to find fulfillment, instead of pursuing their interests and careers. She writes:

“All this wondering about children is just evidence of how much a person can give up what they know is right. It would be easier to have a child than to do what I want. Yet when I so frequently do the opposite of what I want, what is one more thing? Why not go all the way into falsehood, for me? I might as well have kids. Yet that is where I draw the line. You can’t create a person dishonestly.”

This passage was a bit of a revelation for me. I never really thought that it would be easier to have a child than to pursue one’s dreams. I’ve always thought to have a child would be so much harder, and the stakes are so much higher because once I am a mother, I’d be responsible for another person’s safety and well-being. There will be no more time to write, to travel, or do anything. That seems daunting to me.

I have nothing but respect for all the mothers of the world, and glad that their children bring them satisfaction and fulfillment. But I can’t help but think, how many women fell into the trap of motherhood because it’s too scary to say, pursue a new career at age 35?

At the end of the day, the question of motherhood is emotional and illogical. Logically, I understand all the reason against having children. However, as I get older, emotions are slowly clouding my logic. I can’t help but wonder: what would it be like to have a child?  I think Derek and I would make a pretty and bright child. We would teach her (I want a girl) to be kind, and she will make the world a better place.

As I sit here in front of my computer writing this book review, I ask myself, would I rather do this than say, comforting a screaming baby? The answer is, I would rather write.

But, I still think I might want to have a child.

 

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation: A Vapid, Spoiled Brat Took Pills to Sleep for the Whole Year

 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. The premise of the book is pretty far-fetched— a thin, pretty, and rich young woman, our unnamed narrator, decided to check out from life for a year by sedating herself with an array of pills. This was made possible with the assistance of the world’s most unethical psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle.  She was the impersonation of the pharmaceutical industry who touts that there is a pill for every illness and cure for every ail. If only life was that easy.

When not in a drug-induced sleep, our unnamed narrator watched movies on VHS, ate animals crackers while taking Ambien and Nembutal, and eventually drifting off into a deep somber on the couch. Instead of having her laundry picked up and dropped off like a civilized person, she opted to throw away her dirty underwear and orders tacky lingerie from Victoria’s Secret. The only time she left the house was to get coffee and cigarettes from the bodega at odd hours of the night. Meet our spoiled, vapid, and entitled narrator—who despite all that she had, went into “hibernation” in June 2000, when she was 24-years-old. At this time, she had been fired from her cushy job at an upscale art gallery for sleeping in the supply closet. Her on-again-off-again boyfriend Trevor treated her like a disposable piece of trash. Her only friend, Reva, was a whiney, insecure woman who was jealous of the narrator’s beauty, wealth, and her size 2 wardrobe.

This is the starting point of the book, and needless to say, none of the characters seemed likable. Yet, I couldn’t put down the book. In some ways, reading the book is like witnessing a trainwreck— it is horrifying, yet fascinating in a morbid way—how will this unnamed narrator destroy or redeem herself?

I’d like to be clear: the trainwreck metaphor only applies to the characters in the book. The book itself is flawlessly written— it is engaging and funny in a despondent way:

“You’re so needy,” I said. “Sounds frustrating.”

“And there’s Ken. I just can’t stand it. I rather kill myself than be all alone,” she said.

“At least you have options.”

In some ways, whether I like to admit it or not, I can relate to Reva, or even the narrator herself, living in a world consumed by vanity. As women, we are always told to strive for the size 2 body, the rewarding career, and give all that up when we meet the perfect man. When we don’t achieve what is expected of us, we are made to feel bad about it. Ironically, the unnamed narrator seemed to have it all, and instead of living it, she chose to sleep her life away. What does this say about ourselves and the values we hold dear?

This book took place in the year 2000, right before the boom of smartphones and around-the-clock tweets.  And yet, little has changed since then. Like 18 years ago, women are still subjected to ridiculous expectations, and we continue to allow men to treat us badly (in the book, the narrator’s boyfriend Trevor would come over to have sex with her like it was a favor for her, and Reva was involved with a middle-aged married man who just “loves” her on the side.) Many of us are still afraid to die alone and would do anything to avoid this fate. The #MeToo movement brought some awareness to women’s plight, but, has it achieved a lasting impact on how women view our worth?

Through My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Moshfegh is holding up a mirror for us to examine ourselves, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. It’s an intriguing and refreshing read, perfect summer book for the beach.

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