I’ve often heard that life is what happens when you’re making plans. Never have we had a more salient reminder of that reality than the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ravaged not only our lives but also our best of plans.
For American Apryl Reagan, a singer and actress in Beijing, and Ma Yinliang, that meant facing a wedding in Beijing where, due to the pandemic, Apryl’s family could not attend in person. So she decided to add a little American flair to the special day by inviting some Americans she didn’t know to join in the ceremony, according to a recent report on the Beijinger:
When asked about her decision to invite strangers, Reagan says that the choice was simple.
“Of course, a wedding is a great place to celebrate our love, but it’s also just a great place to celebrate! And judging by the amount of energy these Americans brought to our group chat, they were guaranteed to make it a party,” explains Reagan. “I also really wanted to give my new Chinese family this opportunity to see how Americans party! But even more than that, sometimes I am afraid they see me as ‘America.’ Since they have never met another American, I worry that anything I do will be seen as what ‘all Americans do.’ So, I also wanted them to be able to have a chance to be around Americans other than me, meanwhile experiencing first-hand some of the cultural differences between an American wedding and a Chinese wedding.”
Americans filled two tables at the Beijing venue — the Palace International Hotel — with many of them meeting the newlyweds for the first time as they went around to personally thank all of the attendees.
Despite the year’s Covid fears and border closures, however, Ma and Reagan kept their hearts open to love. At the ceremony, the maid of honor noted in her remarks that their whirlwind romance inspired many friends present who hoped to one day build a partnership on the same foundation of care and respect.
You can read the full piece and peruse the lively photos from the evening — which included dancing to the Macarena! — at the Beijinger.
I’m on a 10-day work trip to Xinjiang that includes travel to Kashgar, Kuqa and Urumchi. This marks my first time to visit the far western province of China, so I’m looking forward to experiencing places I’ve read about for years in guides on China. As I’ll be very busy during and after this trip, I’ll be on break from the blog for most of this month.
Wishing you a jubilant July, filled with adventures of your own.
With the arrival of July, the month I was born, conversations at my home have invariably shifted to discussing potential “birthday programs”, as my husband Jun likes to say. ….
This year, he has already begun sketching out details for a birthday trip to the Chengde Mountain Resort, where we can walk together hand in hand in the splendor of the former imperial summer palace and grounds, and hopefully take in some of the picturesque mountain views I’ve glimpsed in photographs online.
But while Jun has approached my birthday like a production, he has often seen his own birthday as just an afterthought.
At the end of April I made a brief trip to Southwest China’s Guiyang (capital of Guizhou province) and Nanning (a major inland city in Guangxi province). I wanted to take the chance to share are some of my favorite photos from that week:
We visited an ancient town in Guiyang, with hundreds of years of history and minority traditions in its rambling stone alleyways. Here I am having a conversation there while sampling some local green tea.
Guiyang is also a city on the move, with many emerging industries, from big data to even electric vehicles and buses. This factory we visited there produces electric buses. I also had my first ride on a self-driving bus, which took us for a short drive on the factory grounds.
I was surprised to discover a legal aid clinic nestled within a community center in Guiyang, and had the chance to meet and interview the head lawyer, Liu Yuanhe, who inspired my most recent column.
At the same community center in Guiyang, I tried my hand at Chinese calligraphy, with the help of a very patient volunteer instructor!
Nothing quite like tasting the “fruits” of agricultural labor firsthand — especially at this agricultural demonstration base in Nanning. The cherry tomatoes I sampled were organic and delicious!
In Nanning, we also visited a Zhuang minority brocade base, where the staff schooled me in the intricate art of weaving silk brocade into stunning designs.
I also had the opportunity there to try on some ethnic minority clothing, including this colorful outfit from the Miao ethnic group.
We visited a dragonfruit agricultural base as well, where we had the chance to visit the fields during the day…
And night as well. The lamps aren’t for show, but are actually used to stimulate the dragonfruit plants to stay in “production mode” 24 hours a day, boosting the productivity of the fields.
What an “enlightening” weeklong journey (sorry, couldn’t resist with the pun).
Have you ever been to Guiyang or Nanning in Southwest China?
How to hold a reed leaf was just one of the things I learned one evening in my mother-in-law’s kitchen in rural Zhejiang province, as she schooled me and my husband Jun in a delicious family tradition.
“Like this,” she said, cupping the leaf like a cone, a gesture we tried to imitate by subtly adjusting our own hands.
Next, we learned how much glutinous rice to add, watching her scoop a measuring cup of the grains into her reed leaf before we did the same. Then came the honey dates－only two, she said, placed right in the center and covered by more rice, before wrapping it up with the leaf followed by lengths of string.
Our new creations landed in my mother-in-law’s bamboo steamer, transforming them within minutes into that distinctive holiday snack known as zongzi, or rice dumplings.
Except, these zongzi weren’t made for that summer holiday in June.
Instead, we had bundled up in down jackets and layers of clothing, warming our hands in turns over the wok as we prepared the treats in the chilly night air, to welcome the arrival of Chinese New Year.
It might seem strange for zongzi, the quintessential Dragon Boat Festival snack, to appear in this winter holiday more associated with jiaozi dumplings. But for some reason, zongzi has transcended these traditional Dragon Boat Festival roots, to become a beloved food at nearly every important gathering in my husband’s family in Zhejiang.
China and the US actually fought as allies during World War II?
I had spent so much of my young life secure in the idea of China as the enemy or competitor or otherwise, that the discovery of Chinese and Americans joining hands in the Pacific theater to fight against the Japanese astounded me.
I’m embarrassed to admit I learned this not from my high school or even college history courses, but rather from some historical novels by Pearl S. Buck.
Indeed, historical fiction has frequently served as an indispensable window into the past, filling in the gaps from my own education through realistic narratives that add a human perspective to devastating events from generations ago, such as World War II.
Award-winning author Zhang Ling, in the highly anticipated English translation of her novel A Single Swallow, transports the reader to a small village in eastern China during and after World War II, where one woman deeply touches the lives of others, including the three men who loved her — one Chinese soldier, one American soldier and one American missionary.
The ghosts of these three men, who each knew her by a different name, manifest her into the pages through their recollections of her life — recounting everything from the chilling brutality and suffering she endures to the light she shines upon them and the world with her determination and resilience. Despite not having a direct voice, this woman speaks powerfully through her actions in what is ultimately a feminist tale.
Fans of historical fiction who prefer a story that takes its time, unwinding the narrative with lyrical prose and rich, evocative descriptions, will savor A Single Swallow.
Zhang Ling is the award-winning author of nine novels and numerous collections of novellas and short stories. Born in China, she moved to Canada in 1986. In the mid-1990s, she began to write and publish fiction in Chinese while working as a clinical audiologist. Since then she has won the Chinese Media Literature Award for Author of the Year, the Grand Prize of Overseas Chinese Literary Award, and Taiwan’s Open Book Award. Among Zhang Ling’s work are Gold Mountain Blues and Aftershock, adapted into China’s first IMAX movie with unprecedented box-office success at the time.
The novel A Single Swallow is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.
What was the inspiration for your novel?
Compared with the attention Europe has received in the World War II narrative, the Asian portion of the war is little known to the rest of the world. For years I brooded over the idea of a Chinese war story, but the idea remained vague. Then I found, through my reading, there was a small, secretive American naval group specializing in spy and guerrilla warfare active in China during the war. This group, working together with the Chinese, established thirteen camps along the coastline, to gather meteorological data for potential air raids on Tokyo, and to train local guerrilla forces using the latest technology at the time. The 8th camp was located in a place called Yuhu, under the jurisdiction of Wenzhou, my hometown in southeastern China. An American presence more than 70 years ago in a poor and isolated village immediately roused my curiosity, and it became clear that I wanted to write a war fiction set in my hometown, about the Chinese and the Americans fighting together against their common foe.
Your novel centers on Ah Yan, the woman loved by three different men, who in telling their own tales allow the reader to know her story. Why did you choose to narrate her life mainly through other characters?
This novel begins in the early 40s in a poor Chinese village. Women then typically didn’t have much of a say in any issues, which accounts largely for my decision not to adopt Ah Yan’s voice as a dominant one.
Ah Yan is a very complex character, and each of the three men who come to her life draw out a different part of her. I find it harder to write from Ah Yan’s perspective, i.e. to create multiple versions of “her” while using her own voice as “me” speaking. A third person narrative seems to offer me more freedom and ease. However, her actions, revealed through other characters’ voices, speak louder than her suppressed voice. In the end, she is the one who sustains and survives the three men who, each in their different ways, have tried to “save” her.
The novel is set during and after World War II, and touches on the human costs of the war. What research did you do in preparing this story?
My research mainly falls in two categories, library reading and field trips. Through the help of a local volunteer group, I was able to visit the training camp site which miraculously survived the Cultural Revolution. Vivid details emerged from my meetings with the surviving trainees and local residents who have clear memories of their wartime experiences.
While my library research has helped me to gain a historical perspective of the war, the field trips made me understand the poverty and sufferings of China as a war-torn country, the initial distrust of the local people towards the “foreigners” forced upon them by war, and the displacement and loneliness the Americans felt in a country so far away from home. These elements have been reflected in my description of the bond that eventually established between these people.
The resilience of Ah Yan, despite her brutal life experiences, stands out in the novel. Without giving away too much, could you share with us a favorite moment from the book showing Ah Yan’s strength?
One section has stayed with me for a long time after the book is finished — that is when Ah Yan decides to lay bare her past in front of the entire training camp, just to stop, once and for all, the gossip that has haunted her wherever she goes. It breaks my heart to write about the trauma inflicted upon her by the war as well as the oppressive social norms that associated the loss of virginity with such a degree of shame. Her brave decision to speak out brings a light of humanity to the darkness of brutality and ignorance.
You first published this novel in Chinese, and later released this English translation. How have readers of the English version responded, compared to those reading the original Chinese version?
Readers in general are intrigued by the American naval presence in China and the training camp stories during the war. Ah Yan’s traumatic experience, her incredible resilience, her innate ability to forgive and love, and her power to neutralize the most trying crises seem to stir up a universal feeling of empathy, understanding and admiration. However, the Chinese readers seem to focus more on the historical events of the war, whereas the English readers tend to pay more attention to the feministic aspects in the narrative.
What do you hope people gain from reading your novel?
I’d like to present WWII in a different light through Swallow, so that the readers can, hopefully, gain another perspective from the Asian war experience. I also hope to bring more awareness to the sexual brutality women suffer during the war and its long-term traumatic effects on their lives.
Many thanks to Ling for this interview! The novel A Single Swallow is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.
The first time I really started to consider my life as a prospective father was when I was around twenty-two or twenty-three years old. One day, as I was staying in a small village in the southern province of Guangxi, I chanced upon an old soothsayer from the Yi ethnic minority who I still remember vividly. She stood only about 1.5 meters (less than five feet) tall, had more wrinkles than a Chinese Shar-pei puppy, and only a few crooked teeth left in her mouth, all stained a reddish-black, dyed from years of chewing betel nuts. She wore a big black turban with her white hair sticking out, and a cape over a simple blue and reddish set of clothes. Around her neck, dangling from her long earlobes, and wrapped around her wrists were elaborate and lovely pieces of silver jewelry. I believe (maybe naively) that I was the first foreigner she had ever set her beady black eyes on. She looked directly at me for a while and then took my left hand and turned it over and looked at my palm with a concentrated look on her face. Then she started to tell me what my future would be. Maybe because of the betel in her mouth or because she spoke only limited and broken Chinese, and my Chinese was very far from perfect at the time, I did not understand that much. However, what I did understand was that I would live to be 88 years old, and father no less than four children. After she finished predicting my future, almost to underscore her divination, she spat a red chunk of saliva on the ground dangerously close to my feet and left.
Fu and I had been trying for children for some months (Fu had long since given up smoking), even before we were married (please don’t tell anyone), but since nothing had really happened and considering we were both already in our mid-thirties, we began to wonder if everything was okay down there. This included me visiting a very local hospital to have ‘my everything’ looked at thoroughly, while struggling to keep the door closed to prevent people from peeking in. Ultimately, I was prescribed something probably derived from a poor dead animal or a fast-disappearing exotic forest somewhere in Southeast Asia. It wasn’t fair on my little boys to stand trial on such a hot and humid August day in Beijing anyway.
Then I did what probably quite a few Chinese, but very few foreigners, would consider normal. I invited a couple of friends out for a meal at the local restaurant called Guolizhuang, which translates into something like “the contents of the pot will make you strong”. Here we were shown into a small private room for a dinner consisting of mainly animal genitalia, which, according to Chinese beliefs, should increase male potency. To be more precise, a set menu which had been given the poetic name “The Essence of the Golden Buddha” was presented to us and it included not only ox, sheep and dog penis and testicles, but also a floating turtle and a sprinkle of seahorses. To my surprise, it was really tasty, although the dog penises were a little like eating a really old gummy bear. The waitress politely explained that our female companion should avoid eating the testicles, because it could give her both a deeper voice and even a beard. But she added that the penises would be fine for her to eat.
Harmless or not, I have to say that I was very sceptical to begin with, but I must admit that for the next twenty-four hours after we had finished our exotic meal, I have never felt so energized. I might sound weird, but I really felt like a ball of pure energy was streaming out from my belly and through my whole body. Animal genitalia or exotic forest plants, whatever the reason, something happened down there and just one month after our December wedding, Fu came to me one day with the delightful, but shocking news that she was pregnant.
Globetrotting through the pages of books has long been a favorite pastime for many. And with post-pandemic restrictions, more of us have turned to vicarious travel, often via novels, to satisfy our wanderlust and curiosity about the world.
So you might say I made my first “trip” to a certain South Pacific destination, thanks to reading Nicki Chen’s latest novel When in Vanuatu.
Inspired by the time she and her husband lived in the Philippines and Vanuatu, the story follows Diana, a trailing spouse troubled by infertility after years of living abroad. When in Vanuatu dispels the notion that moving to a warmer, tropical climate promises an idyllic existence. But it also stands as a reminder of the redemptive and healing power of friendships, wherever we are in the world.
Armchair sojourners will delight in the details, from delicious specialties at the dinner table to divine beaches, and find much to ponder in its narrative as well.
Nicki Chen was born in Sedro-Woolley, WA, in 1943. While studying at Seattle University, she met her future husband, a Chinese engineer. They lived for a time in her hometown, but before their third daughter was a month old, his new job took them to a new home in the Philippines. They didn’t return to the United States to stay for another twenty-two years. While abroad, Ms. Chen earned an MFA in Creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, a feat that required nearly round-the-world travel twice every year. In 1983 she visited Xiamen, China, her husband’s birthplace and the setting for her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup.
Ms. Chen has been an accomplished Chinese brush painter and a batik artist. Currently she lives in Edmonds, WA, and spends her time writing and traveling to visit her far-flung children and grandchildren.
Before we moved to Vanuatu, I knew next to nothing about it—which, I suspect, is the case with most people in the world. But I was charmed by the country, by its beauty, its land and people. I thought it deserved to have a novel written about it. And I went from there.
The protagonist of your novel is a trailing spouse named Diana who is grappling with infertility. Why did you decide to explore infertility through your narrative?
Of the expatriate women I knew in Vanuatu, most had no particular reason for wanting to be there. They were simply trailing spouses. I wanted a character who chose to live in Vanuatu for herself and for the peace and beauty of the country.
On a side note, the phrase “trailing spouses” was never used as far as I know during the time we were overseas (1971-1993). We were simply “Embassy wives” or “WHO wives” or “Bank of America wives,” etc. In my case: “an ADB wife.” But “trailing spouse” is apt.
In writing this novel, you’ve drawn from the time you and your husband spent living in Asia and the South Pacific. What are some favorite memories from that time that also made their way into your novel?
The first thing that comes to mind is the weekend beach trips we took in the Philippines. My favorite was to Hundred Islands. It was mentioned in the novel, but, sadly, it didn’t work out for Diana and Jay and their friends. In Vanuatu, snorkeling at Hideaway Island was a favorite. I still remember the underwater landscape there, which came in handy when I wrote Diana’s snorkeling scene.
Food I’ve eaten also made its way into the novel — the excellent churros y chocolate at Dulcineas in Makati, Clarita’s guinataang, halo halo especial. The restaurants and cafés in Port Vila are all based on places where I’ve eaten, although not necessarily the dishes Diana ordered. Manila has many wonderful restaurants. Diana and Jay made their own choices, though.
Your book marks the first time I’ve ever read a story set in Vanuatu. Could you share with us something about Vanuatu that has surprised or fascinated you?
First of all: the people. Before we thought about moving to Vanuatu, I imagined all Pacific islanders as Polynesians. But the ni-Vanuatu, as they call themselves, are Melanesians, more closely related to the people in Papua New Guinea than those in Hawaii.
Remnants of the colonial period. In the days when European sailing ships were exploring and colonizing the rest of the world, Vanuatu became the colony of two countries simultaneously, England and France. They called the result a condominium. (Some called it a pandemonium.) The colonizers set up two of everything: two flags, two police forces, two currencies, and two school systems. Vanuatu became independent in 1980, so they no longer have two flags, but they still have separate schools for English and French speakers.
Language: Vanuatu has the highest density of languages per capita in the world with an average of only 1,760 speakers for each of the 113 indigenous languages.
The official language, though, is Bislama, a creole language derived from English. It was developed during the period of “blackbirding” in the 1870s and ‘80s when ni-Vanuatu and other Pacific islanders were kidnapped or signed on as indentured laborers to work on plantations in Australia or Fiji. The men were thrown together with workers who spoke a variety of languages, so they developed a lingua franca based on English. Later they brought that language home with them.
The language used in schools, however, is either English or French.
Seeking one’s identity emerges as a theme in this story. Do you think searching for one’s identity is more challenging while living abroad, and if so, why?
At various times in our lives, we might feel a need to better understand or clarify our identity, or even to reinvent ourselves. That could happen at home or when living abroad.
But yes, I do think it’s more difficult when living abroad. First, there’s the added question of deciding how much of one’s identity is tied up with the home country and all that implies. Am I an American (or Frenchman or Pakistani) who just happens to be residing in this foreign country? Or am I more interested in fitting in in that country? Or do I want to find my identity as a member of the international community, a cosmopolitan?
The more difficult problem for a trailing spouse is her career. Her former career and a big part of her identity is unlikely to be available to her where she lives now, and the opportunities to create a new career are limited, especially in a developing country or a place where work permits for non-citizens are tightly restricted.
What do you hope people gain from reading your novel?
First of all, I hope readers will enjoy reading it. After all the lockdowns and quarantines during COVID, I hope they will enjoy some vicarious travel to a couple of interesting and beautiful Pacific island countries. And I hope the reader will benefit from the experience of living for a few hours in the characters’ skins, that they will laugh and cry with them and better understand the hopes and struggles of people like Diana and Jay and their expat friends.
Many thanks to Nicki Chen for this interview! You can learn more about Nicki and her writing at her website Nicki Chen Writes. The novel When in Vanuatu is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.
China Daily just published my latest column titled Guiyang Legal Clinic Serves Up Remedy of Justice, detailing my encounter with a legal aid clinic nestled within a community in Guiyang, Southwest China’s Guizhou province. Here’s an excerpt:
On a tour of the comprehensive service center for the Jinyuan community in Guiyang, the capital of Southwest China’s Guizhou province, the last thing I ever expected our guide to say was, “This is our legal clinic.”
A red sign with the Chinese characters for “legal clinic “hung just above the door, and inside, behind a desk, sat a middle-aged man wearing a military green button-down shirt. As I peered inside, I noted the curious smile on his face, as if he were just as surprised to find a foreigner observing him from the hallway as I was to discover this clinic. Never before had I seen a lawyer within the walls of a community service center anywhere in the world.
“Pardon me, but could I ask you a few questions?” I said to him, as I stepped into the clinic with an outstretched hand and my fascination.
He introduced himself as Liu Yuanhe, the head of the clinic’s legal team and a retired soldier from the People’s Liberation Army. While his career as a lawyer dated back to 1996, when he passed exams to become certified in the profession, he had been involved in legal aid service in the community over the past year. Liu said the clinic, which had officially opened its doors in January, helped people free of charge with anything at all involving the law. While typical cases involved matters like contract disputes and recovering unpaid wages, he emphasized they handled any legal problem and would even file lawsuits, if needed, at no cost. In his view, the work he did at the clinic was part of a selfless dedication to give back to society.
Moreover, he stressed the importance of justice to people’s well-being. “What do people want? They want some form of happiness. What is the essence of happiness? I think it is a kind of social fairness and justice.”
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