‘Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go’: Interview With Josh Summers

Years ago before my first foray into China, I agonized over exactly what to pack for the year of work there that loomed ahead of me. I had studied every guidebook, primer and even memoir I could get my hands on about the country. Yet none of them seemed to answer certain nagging concerns about what I should make of my precious, and very limited, luggage space.

Could I purchase the feminine products I needed there? Would I still find contact lens solution if I needed it? Should I bring a year’s supply of vitamins, just in case? And what about deodorant?

As trivial as these questions might seem in retrospect, details matter when you’re planning for a trip or, in my case, a long-haul adventure of work overseas. And newcomers to China who sift through the usual titles on the country — such as the Lonely Planet China Guide (at the time, the most definitive and trusted guidebook) — may find themselves disappointed on small details that, nevertheless, make a big difference in travel.

That’s why “Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go” by Josh Summers, which truly lives up to its title, offers a welcome addition to the world of guidebooks about China.

From basics such as visas, documents, money, packing and accommodations down to transportation of all kinds, staying connected, the Chinese language and keeping healthy, the book covers almost every issue a traveler might have and steers you toward the best choices for a smooth journey in China. It even includes a sample packing list to simplify your decisions on what to put in that suitcase (if only I had possessed that years ago!).

Essentially, it’s chock full of all the practical tips you’d need to know from a travel insider, and will easily pay for itself by saving you time and money. I recommend this guide to anyone either planning or considering travel to China (there’s even a chapter actually addressed to travelers on the fence about visiting the country).

It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to “Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go”  through this interview with Josh Summers.

Here’s Josh’s bio from Amazon:

Josh Summers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas and never considered the idea of writing until he started traveling the world. In 2006, he and his wife set off for an adventure around Asia that aroused a passion for photography, filmography and, of course…writing. Over time, Josh has become known for a unique style of travel writing that is extremely personal, empathetic to the reader and very easy to follow. His blogs and videos reach millions of travelers each year and have inspired countless travelers to venture out beyond their comfort zone.

You can learn more about Josh and his book at his website Travel China Cheaper. “Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go” is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this blog.


What sparked the publication of this book?

I get over a thousand emails every month from travelers that run across TravelChinaCheaper while planning for their trip. As much as I try to respond to these emails, it has just become too much for me to handle. What I wanted to do was create a concise, low-cost resource that I could point people to not as a way to make tons of money, but rather as a way to provide help to as many of these people as possible.

Unlike most guidebooks, which usually assume you’re planning to head to China because you purchased them, yours has a chapter titled, “Should I travel to China?” Why did you decide to include this in the book?

You’re right: a number of the questions that I hear from travelers center around their fear of the unknown. They have a desire to travel to China and they’re making the necessary steps to get there, but they’re not 100% convinced. Will they be able to get around using only English? Will they have to use a squatty potty? I wanted to be realistic about the challenges of China but also erase any unnecessary fears from the equation.

Tell us something from your book that you’ve found travelers are surprised to learn about China.

People are generally surprised to learn that China has surpassed most of the world when it comes to the adoption of mobile payment systems. As most expats in China know, we rarely walk around with cash anymore! What’s equally frustrating for tourists to learn, though, is that these mobile payment systems (WeChat, Alipay, etc.) are not geared toward short-term travelers and are pretty much impossible to set up without a Chinese bank account. So, like it or not, cash is still king if you’re walking around China as a traveler. This is the type of information that most travel guides don’t/can’t cover.

Could you share with us a few of the great tips from your book that travelers might not glean from a typical guidebook?

Sure! There’s an entire chapter dedicated to staying connected while in China. For many of us, that means finding a way to connect our mobile devices to the internet while we’re traveling. Most guidebooks will tell you that the internet in China is censored and that WiFi is ubiquitous around most major Chinese cities. It’s very generic and obvious information. What they don’t tell you is that often times these WiFi hotspots are locked behind a text-verification wall, which means that if you don’t have a Chinese phone number, you can’t use the WiFi. This is the case for most airports, shopping areas and even some coffee shops. My guidebook gives simple tips on how to prepare your phone to connect to the Chinese network or how to access global WiFi easily without the need for text verification.

How have readers responded to your guidebook?

So far the reception has been great! I’m so encouraged when I receive emails from people telling me that reading the book was like sitting down with me to chat about my experiences in China. Whereas most emails I used to receive ended with a travel question requiring an answer, nowadays I’m getting more and more emails that are simply a “thank you for your help”. It’s genuinely satisfying.

What do you hope readers gain from your book?

In the end, my desire is that readers will walk away with a confidence that even as a first-time traveler with no Chinese language skills, they could enter China and easily travel around. The world – not just China – is a much friendlier place if you know what to expect before you arrive.


Many thanks to Josh Summers for this interview! You can learn more about Josh and his book at his website Travel China Cheaper. “Travel to China: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go” is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this blog.

‘Recipes From the Garden of Contentment’ (随园食单): 1st English Translation of Seminal Guide to Chinese Gastronomy

Chinese cuisine has endured for thousands of years — a rich, diverse gastronomic cultural heritage that offers much to explore for foodies, chefs, scholars and anyone else eager to trace the flavors behind every meal.

Anyone passionate about Chinese food has reason to celebrate — thanks to the fact that one of the seminal classics of Chinese gastronomy has now been translated into English for the first time: Recipes From the Garden of Contentment (or Suiyuan Shidan, 随园食单), translated by Sean Chen, and published by Berkshire Publishing.

This monumental work first published in the late 18th century by the Qing Dynasty poet Yuan Mei, considered one of the greatest Chinese food writers, has long been hailed as one of the most important guides to Chinese culinary philosophy. You could arguably call it the Bible of Chinese gastronomy, as well as a window into China’s culinary past.

This first-ever translation finally makes this literary classic accessible to an English-speaking audience. Additionally, anyone with an interest both in Chinese food and the language will treasure the fact that the book provides the original Chinese beside the English translation, with copious footnotes that offer delicious tidbits about Chinese culture and cuisine.

Even the book’s recipes, which are mainly rough sketches, will surely inspire seasoned chefs to push their cooking skills further. Sean, the translator, recommends a number of these classic recipes that readers could replicate with good results in the kitchen. The more ambitious might even turn those recipes into a Yuan Mei-themed dinner party for friends, sharing at the table flavors first recorded over 200 years ago.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a deep and abiding love for Chinese cuisine.

It’s my great pleasure and honor to introduce you to Recipes From the Garden of Contentment through this interview with translator Sean Chen.

Here’s Sean Chen’s bio from the publisher’s website:

Translator and annotator Sean Jy-Shyang Chen is a scientific developer for computer assisted minimally invasive neurosurgery. This is his first publication outside the fields of science and engineering.

You can learn more about Recipes From the Garden of Contentment at the website for Berkshire Publishing and also at Sean’s blog The Way of the EatingRecipes From the Garden of Contentment is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.

(Note: In this interview, I refer to the book as Suiyuan Shidan, the pinyin of its original Chinese title.)


When you began this project, were you surprised that no English translation previously existed for this seminal work?

I found it very surprising considering how often it was mentioned in both English and Chinese culinary and academic works. To be honest, I’m still a bit baffled that no one decided to translate it before me, though if I were to venture a guess, it may be because many in the past saw topics on food culture as frivolous and less worthwhile for serious study. Thankfully this has changed over the last 10 or 20 years.

How long did it take you to complete the entire translation? What was the most challenging aspect of the process?

The translation and research done for the annotation took the more than 4 years with another year spent on re-transcribing from the original 1792 text.

At the beginning of the project the most challenging aspect was learning and understanding the classical Chinese text, then finding the right tone and methodology to translate it. However, as I became more proficient in classical Chinese, what ended up taking much of the time is decoding the recipes, figuring out obscure terms for noting things such as anatomy or time units. There was this “white tendon”, that had to be cleaned from fish that took a lot of research. A lot of time was also spent in figuring out the the scientific names of the animals and plants referred in the book.

Of course, tracking down two copies of the 1792 edition of the book was also a large challenge. One of them had many printing defects and damage which made a second copy essential to correct the errors. Then, there was the actual process of transcribing the text in the images to computer UNICODE characters of the same form as that seen in the original text. This was more tedious than difficult, but doing it was arguably the least fun part of the project. Still it made the book and work significantly better as a result.

Could you share some of the more fascinating things you’ve learned about Chinese gastronomy through the process of translating Suiyuan Shidan?

A huge amount actually on the preferences of Yuan Mei, how he likes his food prepared. But more, one also notices that what what was eaten and cooked in the past is very similar to what is eaten now and that there is something of an unbroken lineage between the two.

Furthermore, that there are large influences of other cultures on Chinese cuisine, Central Asia and the Middle East all the way to Europe. One sees that fusion cuisine is not some new and modern thing, but has been continuously synthesizing and growing organically for centuries.

The first two chapters for the do’s and don’ts of Chinese gastronomy and cuisine actually shine a lot of light on what makes Chinese cuisine unique when you compare it with the gastronomical works of other cultures. It is the “must read” of this book. Still one also notices how applicable some of the ideas in these chapters are to modern cuisines of the West.

I also noticed how sugar was used as topping in many chicken dishes in that time period, several of them also being seasoned with sugar. Perhaps there is something in the Chinese gastronomic psyche for sweet-tasting chicken dishes, which we see manifested in dishes like sanbeiji or the pan-American honey-garlic chicken.

In the introduction, you referenced “Yuan Mei’s literary style and humor” and the importance of capturing that in the translation. Could you tell us some of your favorite examples of his style and/or humor that you particularly enjoyed?

Yuan Mei’s humor comes in two forms in the book: 1) as funny anecdotes and stories or 2) sharp stinging jabs at people he doesn’t like, which are both found throughout the book. My favorite, which combines these two, is a story Yuan Mei recounts of a pompous banquet thrown by prefecture head where they served huge quantities of expensive bird’s nests, no doubt for the head to make a statement and to impress the guests. The problem was the bird’s nests were only cooked in water. Considering that preparing bird’s nest is a laborious process, involving meticulous cleaning and a multiple infusion of flavors to make it enjoyable, bird’s nest in water is basically a raw ingredient for a dish. In fact, eating it would have been unappetizing, if not a bit disgusting. But while all the guests were lauding and praising the host for the bird’s nest, Yuan Mei was not impressed. In his usual “take no prisoners” fashion, he told the host out loud: “Hey, I came here to eat bird’s nest, not to collect and stock it for resale.”

While this is primarily a book of gastronomy and the vast majority of recipes are rough sketches, you do recommend a number of recipes that people could follow with good results. Could you share one you particularly like?

My favorite, which I have made several times is Chicken “congee”. It is essentially a chicken soup thickened with starch, with chicken shredded so finely that the meat looks like the cooked rice grains in congee. This dish typifies haut-de-gamme Chinese cuisine, where taste and texture is refined and delectable, but it is concealed under the guise of a simple bowl of rice congee, at least on a first glance. It’s very Chinese literati chic.

What do you hope people come away with after reading your translation of Suiyuan Shidan?

I want people to use it not just as a cookbook or a gastronomic guide, but as a window to the past, showing us the foods eaten by people of that time, from the imperial officials to commoners, and how truly cosmopolitan many of the foods were. By looking at the dishes, we also see the Chinese dishes eaten today have deep roots going back centuries and are in someways timeless. As well, in setting out the principles of Chinese gastronomy and culinary theory in the first two chapters, we can also begin to see what makes Chinese food culture and gastronomy unique. Like all great works I think, one could read the Suiyuan Shidan under different context and learn different things from it; a chef reading it will learn as will a scholar studying food-ways or history. Hopefully the reader will see from it the heritage, elegance, and art of Chinese cuisine from the translated work and be inspired and spurred on to learn more about it.


Many thanks to Sean Chen and Berkshire Publishing for this interview! Once again, you can learn more about Recipes From the Garden of Contentment at the website for Berkshire Publishing and also at Sean’s blogRecipes From the Garden of Contentment is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.

‘Hong Kong Noir’: Fictional Anthology Explores City’s Dark Side

Hong Kong is a city with a sordid past of its own. After all, it has seen pirates, the Opium Wars, Japanese occupation in World War II and many other dark chapters, which also make for great stories.

So naturally, this side of the city deserves a literary nod – which is why it’s fitting that Akashic Books recently released the anthology Hong Kong Noir, edited by Jason Y. Ng and Susan Blumberg-Kason.

Of course, it has 14 stories – a requirement of the publisher, but also rather apropos since the number 14 sounds like “certain death” in Cantonese. And these tales — everything from ghost stories to family issues to death and beyond – are gripping and occasionally grim, but overall make for a great read. The stories in the collection even feature a few cross-cultural relationships between foreigners and Chinese (including foreign women and Chinese men).

Even better, because the anthology covers so much territory of Hong Kong, it becomes a kind of nontraditional “travel guide” to the city, introducing you to many of the city’s most prominent neighborhoods. You could even take it a step further and try visiting that temple known for ghosts, or those steps drenched in blood, to add a noir twist to your travels.

I recommend this anthology for anyone interested in Hong Kong who also enjoys dark stories.

Photo by Annette Patko

It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to Hong Kong Noir through this interview with one of its editors, Susan Blumberg-Kason (who many of you already know through her compelling memoir Good Chinese Wife).

Here’s Susan’s bio from her website:

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (Sourcebooks, 2014) and co-editor of Hong Kong Noir (Akashic Books, 2018). She is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Asian Review of Books. Her work has also appeared in The FriskyCha: An Asian Literary Journal, and the South China Morning Post. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where she researched emerging women’s rights over 100 years ago. Born, raised, and now based in the Chicago suburbs, Susan is an elected trustee of her public library.

You can learn more about Hong Kong Noir at the publisher’s website. Hong Kong Noir is available at Amazon.com, where your purchases help support this blog.


Could you share with us how you came to be involved in this anthology?

I’d been wanting to read this book ever since I learned about the Akashic Noir series back in 2008 or 2009. Every six months to a year, I’d check Amazon and Akashic’s website to see if it had come out yet or if one was in the works. And for all those years nothing seemed to materialize. In late 2016, I was talking to my agent, Carrie Pestritto, about the year to come and had thought about trying to edit this book, but wasn’t sure if I would bring it up just then or wait another year or so. But at the end of that conversation I brought it up anyway without making a conscious decision to do it. It just came out. And she loved the idea. So I put the proposal together in a month or two and voila. We had a contract by the middle of 2017.

How did you select the contributors?

I contacted the biggest names in Hong Kong I knew. Akashic wants their Noir contributors to fit a certain formula: a number of best sellers in the city where the book takes place; some crime writers; a couple of up-and-coming or new voices; and writers who haven’t written noir or crime stories before. The contributors all needed to have a strong connection to Hong Kong. Akashic also wants a mix of backgrounds and gender. My co-editor, Jason Y. Ng, brought on a few contributors as did a couple of the other big names I had first contacted. Akashic’s other requirement is that we limit our number of contributors to fourteen. We had more than that, so to be fair I cut myself out first.

You have a deep relationship with Hong Kong, which you’ve detailed in your compelling memoir Good Chinese Wife. How did that impact your experience as you worked on this noir anthology?

I feel like I know Hong Kong better than any other city, including my hometown of Chicago. Maybe it’s because I came of age in Hong Kong and have never driven there, thereby learning the neighborhoods on foot and through public transportation. I think that allows one to pay more attention one’s surroundings than if traveling everywhere by car and just focusing on other cars and the street signs and traffic lights. My story in Good Chinese Wife is pretty dark and isn’t unlike some of the stories in the book, but without the bleak ending! I’ve also had some other noir experiences apart from that marriage, so could relate to the feelings the contributors conveyed in their stories. Fiction writers obviously can’t always write about their own experiences, as shown in most of the noir stories, but many of the feelings they convey are genuine. I connected with these feelings, even though I certainly don’t have any experience castrating a boyfriend who’s done me wrong!

This anthology brings together a collection of stories — from ghostly to grim — that transports the reader to some of the darkest corners of Hong Kong, including many places you know. Could you share with us any places or settings in Hong Kong that you’ve visited that you happen to consider shadowy or noirish?

I have a bittersweet anecdote about Diamond Hill, the setting of Feng Chi-shun’s jaw-dropping story, Expensive Tissue Paper. Diamond Hill is located on the Kowloon peninsula, the latter of which is also known as the Dark Side. In November, Bleak House Books, a lovely bookstore up near Diamond Hill, so generously hosted a preview event for Hong Kong Noir. The bookstore was actually in an industrial area called San Po Kong, not far from the Diamond Hill subway station. So I took the subway alone while my family was out sight-seeing and shopping with my college roommates. I’d gone all over Hong Kong alone in my twenties, so how hard could it be in my forties? But after I got to Diamond Hill and followed the signs for San Po Kong, I couldn’t for the life of me find the right street to reach the industrial block that houses Bleak House Books. My phone’s GPS wasn’t working and I couldn’t tell east from west. Just as I started to give up and look for a cab (which I would never do in my twenties), my co-editor Jason found me completely disoriented! Of course he was heading to the bookstore, too, so I gave up trying to figure out where we were and enjoyed catching up with him, all the while feeling a huge sigh of relief. And just like everything else that has seemed daunting and a little scary, things always turn out fine in the end. After the event, I left with Jason, our Hong Kong publisher, Pete Spurrier, contributor Ysabelle Cheung, and writer and translator Martin Merz. We found the subway station just fine (well, I just followed the group!) and took the train together. I was the first to exit the subway to meet my family and friends, and as I ran across Nathan Road, it took me a second to remember I didn’t live there anymore.

A number of the stories touch on relationships and marriages — including interracial and international, LGBTQ and even those between Western women and Asian men — but all with a bleak twist. Without giving too much away, could you share with us a few of these couples or relationships that you found fascinating?

Tiffany Hawk’s and Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang’s stories appear in the second section, Obedience and Respect, and resonated with me for two reasons. One, they are both Handover stories, although Tiffany’s flashes back to the Handover, and mainly takes place this decade. And they both involve relationships between caucasian women and mainland Chinese men, which of course is my background, too. In the 1990s, before the latest wave of mainland immigrants, there wasn’t a large newly-arrived mainland community in Hong Kong. It was a special time because no one really knew what would happen after the Handover, which gave the era a sense of romanticism. I think many people in Hong Kong now reminisce about the 90s and these two stories epitomize the hope and endless possibilities back then.

What do you hope readers come away with from this anthology?

The desire to book a trip to Hong Kong! Seriously, I hope they’ll learn more about Hong Kong and be able to visualize the many different places that make up this amazing city. I’ve joked with Jason that I hope people use it as a guidebook. And that’s kind of rung true. My uncle came away from the book wishing he’d read it before he first visited Hong Kong so as to better understand the different areas there. His first trip to Hong Kong was in 1965. I can’t think of a nicer compliment


A huge thanks to Susan Blumberg-Kason for this interview! You can learn more about Hong Kong Noir at the publisher’s website. Hong Kong Noir is available at Amazon.com, where your purchases help support this blog.

Holiday Book Sale + Other Great Gifts for Readers

My friend author Antonella Moretti recently launched a special holiday sale for her expat novel “Parsley and Coriander“, which I featured on this blog last year. It’s just $2.99 for the Kindle version on Amazon!

For those of you new to “Parsley and Coriander“, it’s a delightful novel that captures the spirit of finding your own path in China, especially as an expat woman. Learn more through my interview with Antonella.

But it’s not the only book that could make a great holiday gift this season. I’ve featured many books over the years on this blog, and I’d like to give you a quick roundup of every title, listed in alphabetical order according to the author’s last name. (P.S.: These titles are linked to Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.)

“There’s Something I Want to Tell You: True Stories of Mixed Dating in Japan” by Yuta Aoki

Yuta Aoki’s book shares the stories of 15 different people spanning 8 nationalities who dated Japanese locals, and explores the cultural dynamics. Learn more through my interview with Yuta.

“Good Chinese Wife” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

When it comes to the success of a cross-cultural relationship, does culture or personality matter more? Susan Blumberg-Kason’s gripping memoir “Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong” offers a very personal answer to that question. Learn more through my interview with Susan.

“Tone Deaf in Bangkok” by Janet Brown

It’s never too late to follow your heart to Asia. Just ask writer Janet Brown, who went to Thailand at age 45 and fell in love with the people and places. Learn more through my interview with Janet.

 

Quincy Carroll“Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside” by Quincy Carroll

This novel explores the clash between two Americans (a deadbeat and an idealist) teaching English in China, and the student who comes between them. Learn more through my interview with Quincy.

“The Reluctant Brides of Lily Court Lane” by Susan Chan

“The Reluctant Brides of Lily Court Lane” is an easy breezy love story that reads like one of my favorite romantic comedies on the screen. Learn more through my interview with Susan.

“Tiger Tail Soup” by Nicki Chen

In “Tiger Tail Soup”, Nicki Chen transports us to a place you don’t often find in wartime China literature – Fujian Province’s Gulangyu Island. Learn more through my interview with Nicki.

 

“A Geek in China” by Matthew Christensen

“A Geek in China” by Matthew Christensen is the perfect book for anyone who wants to be culturally savvy about China, fast. Think of it as a fun, smart 150-page China 101 course. Learn more through my interview with Matthew.

“Little Soldiers” by Lenora Chu

This memoir offers a nuanced and balanced perspective on the benefits and drawbacks of the Chinese education system, and ought to be required reading for any Westerner wondering if children would benefit from Chinese schooling. Learn more through this post at WWAM BAM.

 

 

“A Bollywood Affair” by Sonali Dev

“A Bollywood Affair” is such a unique and enchanting book that, even if you’ve sworn off the romance genre, you must read it. Learn more through my interview with Sonali.

“Start, Love, Repeat: How to Stay in Love with Your Entrepreneur in a Crazy Start-up World” by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun

For entrepreneurs in China and their spouses, Dorcas’ helpful guide has additional value thanks to her time in Shenzhen, where her husband opened offices to expand the business abroad. Learn more through my interview with Dorcas.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes“The Girl Who Wrote in Silk” by Kelli Estes

“The Girl Who Wrote in Silk” by Kelli Estes links two women across centuries to a silk embroidered sleeve in a story of love, courage and humanity. Learn more through my interview with Kelli.

“Love Me Anyway” by Tiffany Hawk

Tiffany Hawk offers an inside look into being a flight attendant — along with some AMWF romance — in her coming-of-age debut novel, “Love Me Anyway.” Learn more through my interview with Tiffany.

 

“Pearl River Drama: Dating in China” by Ray Hecht

Ray doesn’t shy away from letting you into his utterly imperfect love life, and ultimately he comes across as a genuinely nice foreign guy just looking for love in China. Learn more through my interview with Ray.

“South China Morning Blues” by Ray Hecht

Through 12 viewpoints, South China Morning Blues takes readers on a tour of the underside of the expat scene in China. It’s a fresh take on modern China. Learn more through my interview with Ray.

“Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China” by Leta Hong-Fincher

This book shows how women in China no longer hold up half the sky and women who don’t marry by twenty-six are suffering from this inequality. Learn more through this comparison review by Susan Blumberg-Kason.

The Porcelain Thief“The Porcelain Thief” by Huan Hsu

“The Porcelain Thief” deftly combines Huan Hsu’s personal experiences as a Chinese American in China, family stories, and his quest for buried porcelain. Learn more through my interview with Huan.

“The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap” by Gish Jen

If you’re as fascinated with culture as I am and happen to be in an intercultural relationship that spans China and America, “The Girl at the Baggage Claim” should be required reading. Learn more through my interview with Gish.

“Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower” by Roseann Lake

This book focuses on the women in China who are not marrying by twenty-six and are influential in China’s rapid rise. Learn more through this comparison review by Susan Blumberg-Kason.

“A Field Guide to Happiness” by Linda Leaming

Linda Leaming’s new book “A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan about Living, Loving, and Waking Up” reads like a love letter to Bhutan. Learn more through my interview with Linda.

 

“Expat Jimmy” by Travis Lee

“Expat Jimmy”, the new short story by Travis Lee, offers a vicarious look into the experience of a new foreign teacher arriving in China. Learn more through my interview with Travis.

 

Here Comes the Sun by Leza Lowitz“Here Comes the Sun: A Journey to Adoption in 8 Chakras” by Leza Lowitz

Leza Lowitz shares her emotional journey towards marriage and motherhood in Japan (as well as opening a yoga studio in Tokyo) in “Here Comes the Sun”. Learn more through my interview with Leza.

“My Japanese Husband Thinks I’m Crazy” & “My Japanese Husband (Still) Thinks I’m Crazy” by Grace Mineta

If you’re a fan of graphic novels and you’re curious about Japan, you don’t want to miss these charming comics by Grace Mineta. Learn more through my interviews (here and here) with Grace.

“Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng

“Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng is a dark, powerful tale of an AMWF family in America facing a tragedy. Learn more through my interview with Celeste.

 

“All Under Heaven” by Carolyn Phillips

“All Under Heaven” is over 500 pages of the greatest recipes from all over the Middle Kingdom. It’s so comprehensive that you might never need another Chinese cookbook again. Learn more through my interview with Carolyn.

“The Dim Sum Field Guide” by Carolyn Phillips

Framed as a “field guide” (not unlike a field guide to birds), this book demystifies one of China’s most beloved culinary traditions and makes it accessible – and fun – for the average diner. Learn more through my interview with Carolyn.

“The Empress of Bright Moon” by Weina Dai Randel

Weina Randel has crafted a beautifully written, engaging and suspenseful tale of how one of the greatest rulers in China came to rise. You can learn more about this second chapter of the duology by reading Weina’s guest post on sex education during Tang Dynasty China.

The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel“The Moon in the Palace” by Weina Dai Randel

“The Moon in the Palace” by Weina Dai Randel, about the rise of China’s young Empress Wu, truly reads like a Tang Dynasty-era Cinderella story. Learn more through my interview with Weina.

“The Secret of the Nightingale Palace” by Dana Sachs

The romance at the heart of this novel — which relates to its intriguing title — just stole my heart away. Plus, the book explores a side of World War II that we all too often forget — the US internment of Japanese Americans. Learn more through my interview with Dana.

The Good Shufu“The Good Shufu” by Tracy Slater

“The Good Shufu” by Tracy Slater is a heartfelt story about love & life abroad that proves sometimes those unexpected detours lead us to incredible joy. Learn more through my interview with Tracy.

 

“Empire of Glass” by Kaitlin Solimine

“Empire of Glass” is stunning for its lyrical prose and unique in that it’s presented as a “translation” of the story of Li-Ming and her husband Wang. Learn more through my interview with Kaitlin.

 

Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self“Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self” by Alex Tizon

Alex Tizon’s memoir “Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self” offers a personal view on Asian masculinity in the West — and is a book you must read. Learn more through my interview with Alex.

 

Atom Yang Red Envelope“Red Envelope” by Atom Yang

Thanks to Atom Yang’s exceptional writing and sense of humor, Red Envelope is a fun, romantic romp through the most wonderful time of the year for Chinese. Learn more through my interview with Atom.

“Ferry Tale: A Hong Kong Love Story” by Shannon Young

It’s as enchanting as any big-screen rom com – but better, thanks to the Hong Kong setting and charming AMWF couple. Learn more through this post on Ferry Tale.

“How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia” edited by Shannon Young

For me, this is the rarest of all anthologies. I actually devoured it from cover to cover in record time, and found something to love in all the essays — regardless of the story. You’ll also find my essay “Huangshan Honeymoon” featured in this collection. Learn more about my essay and 12 other essays you’ll want to read.

Year of Fire Dragons“Year of Fire Dragons” by Shannon Young

“Year of Fire Dragons” details the life-changing year Shannon Young spent in Hong Kong while in a long-distance relationship with her Eurasian boyfriend. Learn more through my interview with Shannon.

 

Roseann Lake’s “Leftover in China” and Leta Hong Fincher’s “Leftover Women” Compared

A huge thank you to Susan Blumberg-Kason, author of Good Chinese Wife, for this comparison review of Roseann Lake’s Leftover in China and Leta Hong Fincher’s Leftover Women.


Some months ago, there was a stir on social media about a new book on leftover women. Leta Hong Fincher is the veritable scholar on this subject, so was Roseann Lake’s new book taking credit from Hong Fincher by not crediting her work? I set out to read both books and compare the two since I hadn’t seen anyone else do so in detail.

Let’s start with the titles. Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (Zed Books, 2014) by Leta Hong Fincher tells me that her book will show how women in China no longer hold up half the sky and women who don’t marry by twenty-six are suffering from this inequality. (Up until the mid-90s, before I read Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book China Wakes, I had thought China had done better a better job with gender equality than most other countries. If it wasn’t clear since then, Leta Hong Fincher certainly makes that case in her book.) Roseann Lake’s book is titled Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower (Norton, 2018) and to me sounds like it focuses on the women in China who are not marrying by twenty-six and are influential in China’s rapid rise. Both books are pretty true to their respective subtitles.

But could there be overlap? And how much and in which ways? These were the questions I was looking to answer when I read both books. I first kept my eyes open for statistics since those are easy to compare. I found similar facts on page 47 of Hong Fincher’s book and page 188 of Lake’s.

  • According to Hong Fincher, “The 2011 interpretation of the Marriage Law by the Supreme People’s Court, however, specifies that upon divorce, if both parties are unable to reach an agreement on the division of property, each side is entitled to keep whatever property is registered in his or her own name.”
  • And this from Lake’s book: “A 2011 amendment states that in the event of a divorce, the marital home belongs exclusively to the person whose name is on the deed.”

While these two passages are not word-for-word duplicates, the information is the same. It’s important to note here that Chinese parents strive to buy their sons property as a way to attract a bride. Even if the bride-to-be owns her own apartment, she sometimes puts it in her husband’s name so the husband doesn’t feel emasculated. The bride may sell her property and put the proceeds towards a new property she and her husband jointly own—with his name solely on the title per the custom in China. Hong Fincher doesn’t have copyright on this 2011 amendment, but this was a good place Lake could have cited Hong Fincher’s work, mostly because this information is the crux of Hong Fincher’s book.

Another part that stood out was when both authors cited statistics from Mara Hvistendahl’s fabulous book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (Public Affairs, 2011).

  • In Leta Hong Fincher’s book, she writes on page 22, “Mara Hvistendahl writes in her book on the global sex ratio imbalance, Unnatural Selection, about some remote parts of China with villages teeming with men, where the ratio of boys to girls had reached 3 to 2.”
  • Lake expands on this on page 23 of her book. “As reported by Mara Hvistendahl in Unnatural Selection…, there are places in China like Yichun, in Jiangxi province, where the ratio is 137 males for 100 females under age 4…and in Tianmen, Hubei, it escalates to a perilous 176 to 100, or the mathematical equivalent of 1 in every 3 men being unable to find a bride.”

So did Lake lift material from Hong Fincher in this case or not cite her? I don’t think so. Mara Hvistendahl’s work was cited and it’s interesting that both Hong Fincher and Lake use this material in similar places in their books.

As a sidenote, Tianmen is next to my former in-laws’ hometown. Two decades ago, I left my AMWF marriage because I was terrified my then-husband was going to whisk our son to his parents’ home so they could raise him. I didn’t know about the gender imbalance there, but that could have been the life my son would experience had the ex and his parents had their way. It makes me shudder.

Both authors address the somewhat common occurrence of gay men marrying women but not telling their wives about their true identity. Women are desperate to get married and not become leftover women (according to Hong Fincher, this label was created by the Chinese government to get independent and highly educated single women onto the marriage track when they realized the surplus of men, called “bare branches”, was left without wives). Because they don’t want to become leftover women, sometimes women won’t ask questions when their partner doesn’t seem quite into them.

Hong Fincher writes about LGBTQ activism and how property ownership is an issue for gay men who won’t and cannot marry. I didn’t find any similar wording in Lake’s book, which talks more about the history of gay rights in China. Both authors interview women who were or are still married to gay men. In Hong Fincher’s book around page 91-92, the woman was still in denial about her husband’s need to live apart from her while he shared an apartment with a college roommate (they shared the same bed), while around page 109 in Lake’s book a woman divorced her husband after she suspected he was leading a secret life that didn’t include her.

I may have missed other similarities, but the reason for that is that these books really did seem like different stories. Hong Fincher’s book reads like a thrilling narrative that centers around property ownership and all that entails in contemporary China:

  • parents not giving their daughters money for a down payment and instead giving it to a male cousin;
  • how property ownership is tied to masculinity and how independent women give up their property rights or are stripped of it by Chinese custom when they marry in order to avoid becoming a leftover woman; and
  • how Chinese women have enjoyed property ownership rights in the past, even going back to the Ming dynasty.

Hong Fincher also includes chapters on spousal abuse and women activists.

Lake, on the other hand, includes profiles of women she met in China and tells their stories about becoming leftover women and how they’ve tried to find suitable partners or have escaped terrible marriages. Her book is lighter in some ways, for instance when it features a bikini waxer, which segues into the section about women marrying gay men in China. I’m still not sure about the relevancy of the bikini waxer, but it gives the book a different tone from Hong Fincher’s. On the other hand, Lake writes about the mistress culture in China, whereas I can’t remember Hong Fincher discussing it at all. Hong Fincher is not so optimistic about women’s rights in China as long as the property market is skewed against them, whereas Lake views the status of women in China to be on the right track if they can find better marriage prospects or feel all right about being single for life. They both conclude that women have it pretty rough in China.

Back to the controversy: should Lake have credited Hong Fincher? I think that would have been the decent thing to do, especially since she had contacted Hong Fincher while researching her book. In her footnotes, Hong Fincher meticulously credits scholars even for a conversation about a particular detail she wrote about in her book, whether or not said scholar wrote a book she used in her bibliography. Lake admits she didn’t read Hong Fincher’s book because she wanted to form her own ideas. I would have taken a different approach, but this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of an author admit to not wanting to be influenced by outside ideas. She’s certainly not alone in this.

After thinking about both books and recently reading Mara Hvistendahl’s, the bottom line to me is this: we need more books in this space. Between Hong Fincher, Lake, Hvistendahl, we’ve seen different ways leftover women and bare branches shape China today. Still other authors like Mei Fong and Lenora Chu write about the one-child policy and how that is shaping China, too. If we can have over half a dozen memoirs written by white American Peace Corps volunteers in China, I think it’s high time we listen to women’s voices, too.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife.


Leftover in China and Leftover Women are available at Amazon.com, where your purchases help support this blog.

2016-17 Gift Recommendations for Books Featured on This Blog

Do you have a book lover on your holiday shopping list? Consider giving them one of these books I’ve featured on the blog in 2016 and 2017.

Why 2016 too? Because last year at this time I was busy with a big move and never got around to posting on the books for that year. But there were some great books on the blog in 2016 worth mentioning this time around.

I’ve listed these in alphabetical order based on the author’s last name. All titles are linked to Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.

Quincy Carroll“Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside” by Quincy Carroll

This novel explores the clash between two Americans (a deadbeat and an idealist) teaching English in China, and the student who comes between them. Learn more through my interview with Quincy.

“Start, Love, Repeat: How to Stay in Love with Your Entrepreneur in a Crazy Start-up World” by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun

For entrepreneurs in China and their spouses, Dorcas’ helpful guide has additional value thanks to her time in Shenzhen, where her husband opened offices to expand the business abroad. Learn more through my interview with Dorcas.

“A Geek in China” by Matthew Christensen

“A Geek in China” by Matthew Christensen is the perfect book for anyone who wants to be culturally savvy about China, fast. Think of it as a fun, smart 150-page China 101 course. Learn more through my interview with Matthew.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes“The Girl Who Wrote in Silk” by Kelli Estes

“The Girl Who Wrote in Silk” by Kelli Estes links two women across centuries to a silk embroidered sleeve in a story of love, courage and humanity. Learn more through my interview with Kelli.

“The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap” by Gish Jen

If you’re as fascinated with culture as I am and happen to be in an intercultural relationship that spans China and America, “The Girl at the Baggage Claim” should be required reading. Learn more through my interview with Gish.

“Expat Jimmy” by Travis Lee

“Expat Jimmy”, the new short story by Travis Lee, offers a vicarious look into the experience of a new foreign teacher arriving in China. Learn more through my interview with Travis.

 

“Parsley & Coriander” by Antonella Moretti

“Parsley & Coriander” is a delightful novel that captures the spirit of finding your own path in China, especially as an expat woman. Learn more through my interview with Antonella.

“All Under Heaven” by Carolyn Phillips

“All Under Heaven” is over 500 pages of the greatest recipes from all over the Middle Kingdom. It’s so comprehensive that you might never need another Chinese cookbook again. Learn more through my interview with Carolyn.

“The Dim Sum Field Guide” by Carolyn Phillips

Framed as a “field guide” (not unlike a field guide to birds), this book demystifies one of China’s most beloved culinary traditions and makes it accessible – and fun – for the average diner. Learn more through my interview with Carolyn.

“The Empress of Bright Moon” by Weina Dai Randel

Weina Randel has crafted a beautifully written, engaging and suspenseful tale of how one of the greatest rulers in China came to rise. You can learn more about this second chapter of the duology by reading Weina’s guest post on sex education during Tang Dynasty China.

The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel“The Moon in the Palace” by Weina Dai Randel

“The Moon in the Palace” by Weina Dai Randel, about the rise of China’s young Empress Wu, truly reads like a Tang Dynasty-era Cinderella story. Learn more through my interview with Weina.

“Empire of Glass” by Kaitlin Solimine

“Empire of Glass” is stunning for its lyrical prose and unique in that it’s presented as a “translation” of the story of Li-Ming and her husband Wang. Learn more through my interview with Kaitlin.

P.S.: In search of more great recommended reads? Check out my summer reading list from earlier this year and also this list of memoirs featuring Asian men and Western women in love. Plus, don’t forget my page devoted to a number of books I’ve enjoyed over the years.

“Start, Love, Repeat” by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun – an Interview

Years ago when I first opened my writing business, I thought I had it all down. Business licenses and forms? Check. Tax assistance? Check. A business plan in the form of a book detailing the ins and outs of successful freelance writing? Check.

But amid all the planning and preparation, one thing I never considered was this: how might starting a business impact my marriage? Thankfully, my relationship thrived – but that’s not always the case for many entrepreneurs.

The reality is, many entrepreneurs and their families don’t consider how a business could affect the relationships with the people closest to them, often to their own detriment. After all, it’s our loved ones who usually support us in our entrepreneurial endeavors. How can entrepreneurs and their families weather the inevitable ups and downs of running a business, and stay together through it all?

Enter “Start, Love, Repeat: How to Stay in Love with Your Entrepreneur in a Crazy Start-up World” by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, the ultimate guide for couples navigating life with a startup in the family.

As the wife of Ned Tozun, one of the founders of the social enterprise d.light, Dorcas intimately understands the challenges of being married to an entrepreneur. She’s also the kind of person who tends to worry about things, which makes her husband’s entrepreneurial journey all the more nerve-wracking. I love how Dorcas doesn’t shy away from sharing some of her toughest moments in the process. But more importantly, she offers valuable advice, backed by research and interviews with top experts, to help couples survive those hardships with their marriage intact.

For entrepreneurs in China and their spouses, Dorcas’ book has additional value thanks to her time in Shenzhen, where her husband opened offices to expand the business abroad.

“Start, Love, Repeat” has a conversational tone that will hook you from the beginning, and it delivers sound guidance that you’ll want to return to time and again as the business in your family continues to evolve. I can’t recommend this book enough for anyone who is an entrepreneur or married to one.

It is a great honor and pleasure to introduce you to “Start, Love, Repeat” and Dorcas Cheng-Tozun (who was also featured along with me in the anthology “How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?” and wrote a guest post for this site titled “Three Words from a Chinese Father“) through this interview.

Here’s the bio for Dorcas from her website:

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is an award-winning writer, editor, and speaker. As a columnist for Inc.com, she writes about the intersection of start-up life with marriage, family, and well-being. She also contributes regularly to Christianity Today, The Well, and Asian American Women on Leadership. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, BlogHerThe Entrepreneurial Leader, and dozens of other publications in the U.S. and Asia.

Dorcas has more than a decade of experience as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional. She served as the first director of communications for d.light, one of the world’s leading social enterprises. A Silicon Valley native, she has lived in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Kenya. She and her entrepreneur husband, d.light cofounder Ned Tozun, have been married for twelve years and have one adorable hapa son.

Dorcas has a B.A. in communication and an M.A. in sociology from Stanford University, as well as a professional editing certificate from the University of California, Berkeley. She is a proud member of the Redbud Writers Guild and the Bay Area Editors Forum.

You can learn more about “Start, Love, Repeat” on Dorcas’ website, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook. The book “Start, Love, Repeat” is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.

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What was the inspiration for this book?

This book came about for selfish reasons: After about nine years of being married to an entrepreneur, I was desperate for advice from someone who understood what it was like. But there are so few resources for entrepreneurs’ spouses out there, and many that exist are unrealistically optimistic.

I wanted a resource that was completely honest about how hard it can be to do life with an entrepreneur, but also provided practical advice and offered tangible reasons why all the hardship was still worth it. I wanted someone to acknowledge that I could simultaneously love and support my husband and still hate the ways in which his business turned our lives upside down.

As I talked to other entrepreneurs’ spouses, I heard the same thing from them. They couldn’t find the support or help they needed. They couldn’t find a book that reflected the experiences they had lived.

So I decided to write what I would have wanted to read when I first married my husband. I wanted to tell the whole story of what marriage to a creative, inspired, ambitious business founder looks like, in all its imperfect glory.

Why is the start-up journey so difficult for couples and families?

There is nothing quite like starting a business from nothing. It requires entrepreneurs to lay almost all of what they have and who they are on the line: financially, professionally, but also emotionally. They’re signing up for a heavy load of uncertainty, stress, and responsibility.

Significant others, whether or not they are entrepreneurial themselves, are inevitably pulled into these risks. Being with an entrepreneur forces you to confront your own issues around security, money, quality of life, self-confidence, control, and more—all at the same time. Unsurprisingly, such couples almost always have challenges around conflict, communication, and decision-making, even while neither partner is operating at their best because they’re so stressed.

In addition, spouses often feel like they’ve been demoted or replaced because running a company is such an all-consuming vocation. Imagine: the person you considered your life partner has entirely dedicated him- or herself to another entity. More than one therapist I interviewed said it was comparable to your spouse having an affair. That feeling of betrayal can lead to deep, longstanding wounds if not proactively addressed.

On top of all this, entrepreneurs are so revered in American culture that there can sometimes be an extra shiny veneer over everything about them—including their family lives. That can make it hard to talk about, or even acknowledge, the personal pain that entrepreneurs and their partners and children carry. Many of the spouses I spoke to felt isolated and unable to find confidantes who could really understand what they were struggling with.

Throughout the book, you share some of the challenges you and your husband faced after moving to China for his company. Based on your experience, do you think there are any unique issues couples might face with a startup in China?

While entrepreneurship is growing in China at an exponential rate, the typical Chinese founder is likely going to face quite a bit of pressure from his or her family to choose a more traditional profession or to provide a stable income for the family. Such cultural norms can also make it more difficult for start-ups to hire well qualified employees, as there are fewer experienced professionals willing to take a risk with a new company. This is what we found when we were in China.

All these factors can cause couples to be under greater financial strain and stress, and may make it challenging for the business to scale. So I think it’s even more imperative for entrepreneurial couples in China to be clear with one another about what doing a start-up will require of both of them and what support they will each need before moving ahead.

What advice would you have for couples when one or both are running a startup business in China?

In the U.S., only about one in every four small businesses is run by spouses; in China, this is far more common. Co-preneurs, as they’re called, have the ongoing challenge of trying to retain some separation between work and home. I would advise such couples to prioritize times and places where you will not discuss business; perhaps you set aside one night a week for a date, or you establish your bedroom as a non-work zone. One couple I spoke with used a dress code: they would only talk about work stuff when in their work clothes. You should establish whatever routines or activities you need to remind you that you are life partners first and business partners second.

In addition, in China work hours tend to be long and leaves are short–and entrepreneurs in particular will be tempted to push themselves to their limits. It’s important to remember that the amount of time you spend working isn’t related to your chance of success. It’s more critical that you and your spouse work in a way that’s sustainable, because it’s going to take years for your start-up to become an established company. So that means taking time to rest, to do weekend getaways, to pursue hobbies, and to take vacations. Doing so will help your relationship and it will give you more energy and clarity in leading your company.

How did writing this book change your perspective on your own marriage?

As a perpetual pessimist, it’s easy for me to get caught up in the hardships of my marriage. I find myself counting the sacrifices, the inconveniences, and the ways in which I have been hurt.

But as I reflected on our last twelve years together, I saw how—even though there were plenty of ugly episodes along the way—our relationship has matured and been positively transformed because of all that we’ve been through. Ned and I were forced to confront personal weaknesses, mismatched expectations, and conflict early on in our relationship. Thankfully, we were both willing to make adjustments along the way, and we have been able to move closer toward a healthier and more fulfilling relationship.

I also saw how profoundly Ned cared for me each step of the way, even when I felt isolated and neglected. I realized how he had done so many things, big and small, to try to make things easier for me or to respect my wishes. He has made plenty of sacrifices as well, like booking crazy flight itineraries so he could get home twelve hours earlier, or saying no to amazing business opportunities so he would have more time to spend with our kids and me.

Being married to Ned has also pushed me to live with more boldness and courage, and to take more risks. I don’t think I would have been able to write this book without Ned encouraging me and cheering me on along the way.

What do you hope are the main takeaways for your readers?

I hope entrepreneurial couples—especially those who are struggling in their relationship—will recognize that they’re not alone. No matter how crazy your life is because of the business, it’s likely that someone else has been through something similar and found a way to make it through with their marriage intact. With few exceptions, there is always reason to hope, and there are always changes you can make to try to improve your relationship. Even tiny steps can make a big difference.

It’s never easy to change ourselves or our relationships, of course, and it takes a fair amount of dedication and effort. But I hope readers will realize that it’s worth it. Nobody ever regrets spending too much time with their family when they’re on their deathbed; we’re far more likely to regret not spending enough time with our loved ones. And if you can move toward a relationship that is healthier and nurtures both of you as individuals, in all likelihood you’ll experience rich, long-lasting benefits—in your family and your career—from living the adventurous start-up life.


A huge thank you to Dorcas Cheng-Tozun for this interview! Once again, you can learn more about “Start, Love, Repeat” on Dorcas’ website, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook. The book “Start, Love, Repeat” is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.

“The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap” by Gish Jen – an Interview

Is this cultural? It’s a question I’ve heard over the years as readers have poured their hearts out to me in confessional emails, seeking advice for their intercultural dating woes.

While it’s not always possible to discern the truth from a simple email report, the fact of the matter is culture does matter in intercultural relationships. I’ve known for years that cultural differences can affect how people view dating, marriage and even family, once writing that ignoring cultural differences in a cross-culural relationship is actually harmful.

That’s not to say culture is always to blame when things go wrong in a relationship between, say, an American woman and a Chinese man. But because we view the world through our own cultural perspectives – psychologists call this our “cultural lens” – it’s important to understand these differences. In some cases, what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” depends on where you were born and what your culture values more.

So when acclaimed author Gish Jen contacted me about her new book “The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap,” I couldn’t wait to read it.

Through stories and anecdotes, including her own personal experiences, Jen helps readers understand the East-West culture gap, focusing mainly on differences between America and China. She writes about the distinctive selves that tend to dominate in these countries, and how our worldviews can lead to completely different perspectives on life. Along the way, Jen challenges some widely held beliefs, such as the idea that China just isn’t as innovative as America. She also points out what some of us have always known – that, in fact, Americans are a pretty weird bunch compared to the rest of the world.

If you’re as fascinated with culture as I am and happen to be in an intercultural relationship that spans China and America, “The Girl at the Baggage Claim” should be required reading.

It’s my great pleasure and honor to introduce you to “The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap” through this interview with Gish Jen.

Gish Jen

Here’s the bio from her website:

The author of six previous books, Jen has published short work in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and dozens of other periodicals and anthologies. Her work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories four times, including The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. Nominated for a National Book Critics’ Circle Award, her work was featured in a PBS American Masters’ special on the American novel, and is widely taught.

Jen is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has been awarded a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study fellowship, and numerous other awards. An American Academy of Arts and Letters jury comprised of John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Don DeLillo, and Joyce Carol Oates granted her a five-year Mildred and Harold Strauss Living award; Jen delivered the William E. Massey, Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University in 2012. Her most recent book is The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap.

You can learn more about Gish Jen at www.gishjen.com, and follow her on Facebook. Her book “The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap” is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.

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You wrote in your introduction about how much culture and self have informed your writing, stating, “Never has a book so begged to be expanded upon until finally I gave in and allowed it to grow into this one.” Could you tell us more about what inspired you to write this book?

I wrote this book because I could see that as globalization brings us closer, people from different parts of the world are not less baffled by each other, but more. I could see that people working and studying in Asia had trouble understanding the people they lived among; I could see that American teachers were really struggling with their Asian students; and I could see that this was only the tip of the iceberg– that the East-West issues in fact shed light on tensions felt by a great many people throughout the world. And I knew that I could articulate what was up in a fresh and interesting way.

You wrote, “Culture is, after all, the trickiest of subjects”. Could talk more about that and how you were able to find an approach that you were comfortable with for this book?

Culture is one of the most successful of human adaptations. It has enabled us to survive in every part of the globe. But it works best when it’s internalized–when it’s tricked us into believing that its truths are “the” truth, that our way of being human is “the” way, and that other ways are wrong. Cultural psychologists know there is a cultural divide when they feel irritation. They know that the deeper the irritation, the deeper the divide. But while they have trained themselves to use that irritation to guide their research, most of us just register the irritation. We don’t want to understand it; we want to reject what’s irritating us.

I am lucky in being bicultural. I have grown up knowing both sides — and, I will say, have always found more humor in the disconnects than distress. In writing this book, I often thought about moments of discombobulation and how to explain them. It’s story-based, not theory-based.

Anyone reading this book might encounter a number of surprising facts — for example, “the counterfeiting of money was once so rampant [in America] that a nineteenth-century editor exclaimed that we seemed ‘liable to be called a nation of counterfeiters!’” Could you share with us something you uncovered in your research that surprised or shocked you?

Oh, so many things. But to give just one: I was amazed by the Chinese counterfeiter who had knocked off Rothko so successfully he fooled the chairman of Sotheby’s! Also that the poor counterfeiter was paid such a pittance, while the gallery that sold the art made millions.

When I was reading your book, I couldn’t help thinking about the intercultural relationship issues I’ve heard about from Chinese and Westerners. What do you think are some things people can do to help bridge the East-West cultural gap in an intercultural relationship?

As in all things, progress begins with understanding. Just yesterday I met a American woman who said my book really helped her marriage because it helped her understand what her Chinese husband lost when he came with her to the US. I don’t know that I could advise her as to what to do with her knowledge exactly, but I have to think that an understanding heart is essential.

Your 2017 calendar has included an impressive lineup of author events. How have audiences responded to your book?

I am thrilled to say that I have gotten tremendous response from all sides. Dozens of students studying or working in Asia have told me how much my book has helped them, and dozens of teachers with Chinese students have told me this as well. So, too, have lawyers and businessmen working in Asia. Interestingly, one of the groups that has responded most strongly has been the parents of children who have married an Asian spouse. Their desire to understand their son- or daughter-in-law is really touching. And interestingly, too, it hasn’t only been all about the Asia-U.S. gap. A huge number of people from other backgrounds – Irish, Polish, Greek, you name it – have found clarity in these pages, including many who have been in America for generations. In response to the part of my book about naming, for example, one woman told me that the women in her family were all named Eunice. And the discussion of how different cultures treat their elderly really hits home for everyone.

What do you hope people gain from reading your book?

I hope that people will come away with a new perspective, not only on culture, but on life itself and what it might mean to live richly and deeply.
—–

Thanks so much to Gish Jen for this interview! You can learn more about her at www.gishjen.com, and follow her on Facebook. Her book “The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap” is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.

Touching Home in China: In Search of Missing Girlhoods – Interview With Melissa Ludtke

When I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, two of my closest friends happened to be adopted from Korea. Our parents were close with their parents, which meant many weekend visits and sleepovers and dinners together. Some of my fondest childhood moments were shared with these girls. We binge-played Atari video games, stayed up late watching “Real Genius”, and bopped our heads to videos on MTV.

But tucked among the Run DMC and Tom Cruise pictures in their rooms were posters of Korean dancers dressed in silk hanbok, their arms and hands curled with all the elegance of ballet dancers. The word “Korea” was printed on the bottom of the posters, the most prominent reference in their rooms to where they were born.

I never asked them about their experience of being adopted from Korea, and they never mentioned it in conversations. But in retrospect, I wonder what they might have told me, had we ever talked about it, and wonder what they thought about their birth country.

So it was fascinating for me to discover the transmedia storytelling project Touching Home in China: in search of missing girlhoods, created by Melissa Ludtke, Julie Malozzi and Jocelyn Ford.

Through words, photos and videos, it tells the story of two American adoptees abandoned as newborn girls who return to China to discover what it might have been like for them to grow up there. At the same time, Touching Home in China gives audiences a personal look into the lives of girls and young women in contemporary China, including the challenges they face.

It is my honor and pleasure to introduce you to Touching Home in China through this interview with Melissa Ludtke. Here’s Melissa’s bio from the website:

In her award-winning career as a journalist, producer and author Melissa Ludtke reported at Sports Illustrated, was a correspondent with Time, and the editor of Nieman Reports at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Her lifelong engagement with girls and women’s issues led her to write On Our Own: Unmarried Motherhood in America (Random House, 1997). She intends to write a narrative social history of the 1970s women’s movement, drawing from her experience as plaintiff in the federal case Ludtke v. Kuhn. That case secured equal access for women to report, as male reporters did, in Major League Baseball locker rooms.

Touching Home in China has been featured on in Adoptive Families magazine, Ochre, as a PRI Podcast, “Whose Century Is it?” and as a cover story in Wellesley magazine. You can visit the website at Touchinghomeinchina.com and follow the project on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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What inspired you to start this project?

Simple answer: Listening to and watching the girls, the two American adoptees and six Chinese girls who in getting to know each other as teens (in the two towns in Jiangsu Provice where the Americans had been abandoned as newborns) created a rare cross-cultural dialogue that I felt could serve as the foundation for multimedia, narrative storytelling.

Idea for spending time with girls in my daughter’s “hometown” was mine, shared with my daughter, Maya, and then by Maya with her orphanage crib neighbor and longtime friend, Jennie, who expressed interest in doing this, too. Maya and I had made a three-week trip back to China when she was 7 years old, and one morning we’d had our guide bring us to the police station in Xiaxi and then briefly into the town. As I describe in the story Touching Home, I had not prepared Maya (or myself) for this pop-in visit in Xiaxi, and our brief foray into the marketplace frightened Maya (as people grabbed at her and walked to talk with her in Chinese.) Here’s how I tell this story in our project:

Maya was seven years old when I brought her back to China for the first time. We spent most of our three weeks there doing things tourists do. But toward the end of our trip, we traveled by train to Changzhou. I wanted Maya to visit her orphanage. After what I felt was a good visit there, I had the idea of taking a trip to Xiaxi Town. That morning our driver parked the car on Xiaxi’s main street, and Maya and I got out to walk through its bustling outdoor market. The merchants and customers stared at us. We were an odd pair that left a disconcerting impression. There I was, a woman with blonde hair and white skin, a rare sight for them other than on TV, and I was holding hands with a Chinese girl whose expression said, “I’m scared.” Likely, many wondered if I had kidnapped her.

A few people approached Maya and spoke in a language she didn’t understand. Perhaps they were asking if she was okay. She froze, unable to say “hello” as she’d done routinely in China. Maya gripped my hand tightly, and as she did I knew we had to leave. After completing the oval path past stalls of vegetables, meat and fish, we went directly to the car. Take us to our hotel in Changzhou, I asked our translator to tell the driver. That afternoon, Maya and I stayed in our room. She didn’t want to go out. In thinking over what had happened in Xiaxi, I knew that what I wanted most for Maya was for her to return to Xiaxi on her own one day — and feel less of an outsider when she did.

Now 16 years old, Maya is in Xiaxi spending time with girls her age. I’m staying behind in Changzhou. This is Maya’s journey to make, not ours.

Two other factors are part of our decision-making about this trip and eventually the project that emerged out of it:

I’ve been a journalist for more than four decades, and for many of those years I reported on girls, women, families and children for Time magazine. And prior to my stint at Time, I’d been a baseball reporter at Sports Illustrated and ended up as the plaintiff in a well known federal case that challenged Major League Baseball to provide equal access for women reporters to the locker rooms (Ludtke v. Kuhn). So as a journalist and a mom, I do a lot of thinking about the lives of girls and women (along with my early activism in the court case), and so to me it seemed a fascinating path of inquiry for my daughter to find out what her life might have been had her family not abandoned her, most likely, due to her being a girl but rather raised her a daughter in 21st century rural China.

No better experts to turn to, I felt, than the Chinese girls who had lived this experience in the town where my daughter was abandoned. When Jennie asked to join our journey, with the help of Chinese journalists who are friends I reached out to find girls to be her guide there, too.

Finally, my mom had recently died and a small amount of inheritance was coming my way. (I mean small.) My mom was trained as an anthropologist and had devoted her research to the study of women’s lives in the Portuguese speaking islands of the Atlantic Ocean. (She wrote a book about her research called Atlantic Peeks.) Instead of putting this money aside in my savings, I decided to use my mom’s gift to me as a gift to Maya and other adoptees and I hired a videographer – Jocelyn Ford, former Marketplace bureau chief in Beijing who had left that job to shoot her own documentary, Nowhere to Call Home. We were introduced by a mutual friend of ours, a fellow Chinese journalism in Beijing, but it didn’t take us long to find out we grew up in the same town, Amherst, MA, and our fathers each taught at U. Mass Amherst. (Jocelyn, who is younger than me by about a decade was on the gymnastics team with my two younger sisters.) Felt like the Red Thread at work!

Why did you choose to introduce this topic through personal stories?

As a reporter for Time magazine, I often would seek out personal stories to exemplify issues revolving around policies and practices. As a reader, personal narrative draws me in, and once I’d seen the video that Jocelyn shot of the girls together, I simply knew I’d be stepping out of my comfort zone – as always a print reporter – and challenging myself to learn how to tell stories using multimedia tools.

This is where my project partner Julie Mallozzi, a documentary filmmaker, comes in. I’d been introduced to her before we left in 2013 for China, and when I returned she and I got back together. I knew I would need help with video editing, and with Julie I got so much more than that. She’s become a TRUE and invaluable partner of mine in every aspect of this project. (her bio is on our website.) Like me, Julie’s films speak to core issues but do so through the telling of personal stories.

Also, as a reporter at Time, the reporting project that I’d felt made the most impact of any I did and also broke ground for the magazine was a story called “Through the Eyes of Children.” (FYI, attached to this email.) This experience had a profound affect on me, and it is one that very much informs that ways in which these stories are told, too. The premise to reporting Through the Eyes of Children had been that there would be NO voices of adult “experts” in the storytelling unless they are adults who play significant roles in the children’s lives. Everything else about their lives will come from observing their lives – very, very close up, including sleeping in the same bedroom with some of the kids, such as the three children who slept in one bedroom with their gun rack in West Virginia coal mining town.

As you ask this question, I realize I never thought of any other way to do this project except by have the core of it be the girls’ personal encounters.

One of the girls featured on the website happens to be your daughter, Maya. What was it like exploring Maya’s hometown and the girlhood she never had in China?

As I mentioned, I purposely WAS NOT with Maya (or Jennie) while they were exploring their town with the girls. Had I been with her, it would have changed the dynamics of the girls’ interactions simply by me being there. But to your main point with this question, often in the evenings I would watch video that Jocelyn had shot of the girls and it was an extraordinary experience to observe my daughter at ease with the girls and their families and seemingly at home in Xiaxi. I recall one night, in particular, when Jocelyn put on video she’d shot of Maya at the same marketplace where we’d gone when she was seven. Only now I was watching a teen hanging out with friends she knew in this same market, laughing, at ease, saying hello to people she recognized, and she was not in any rush to leave. I cried, only they were tears of joy. Later Maya would write in her college essay about how welcoming the people were to her and how she’d felt at home in this town she’d left involuntarily when she was 3 days old.

You traveled along with your daughter and another American adoptee to China as part of your exploration. Could you share one of your favorite moments from the trip?

Just mentioned one key moment, above, with seeing Maya with her friend Mengping and Mengping’s mother in the marketplace where nearly a decade earlier my daughter had been frightened. Among other highlights was when the girls from the towns decided to come into Changzhou, where we were staying in a hotel, and hang out together in the city. On these occasions, I’d get to spend some time with the girls and one time Mengping brought her mother with her, so mother-to-mother we talked about raising daughters, through a translator.

Do you or your daughter still keep in touch with the six Chinese girls you visited in China? If so, how are they doing?

Not with all six of the girls, but with two of them, one in Jennie’s town, one in Maya, we remain in close touch via WeChat. Over time, we’ve gradually lost touch with the others. It’s hard due to language challenges, the time difference and simply life moving on for on-going contact to happen. Do want to mention that in our sixth story, The Girls Reflect, which I will soon be up on the site, I asked Jocelyn to go back in 2016 to spend time with Jin Shan, one of the girls from Jennie’s town, and Mengping, the friend of Maya’s in Xiaxi. I am in WeChat contact with each of them as this story is being built and shared.

Your website includes a curriculum for schools who would like students to learn more about contemporary China, gender, identity, race, population policy and multicultural America. How have schools responded to the resources you provide?

Impossible question to answer since we’ve intentionally made our Lesson Plans (and stories and resources OPEN SOURCE (free to us, no paywall, and digital). This means no school or teacher has to let us know they are using our lessons or stories or resources. That said, we’ve workshopped Touching Home in China at more than a dozen national conferences (see attached list in a report to one of our funders, Mass Humanities), we received the endorsement of The National Council of The Social Studies, NCSS, and in November we will be presenting Touching Home in China at the national convention of NCSS. I am also slated to do professional development workshops with three school districts and two community colleges during this academic year, as well as a presentation for teachers in a seminar with the Five College Center on East Asian Studies at Smith College. In October, Touching Home in China will be co-presenting at the MassCUE statewide Digital Technology in Education conference with the Acera School where our lessons plans were used in the spring semester.

What do you hope people come away with from Touching Home in China?

Enjoyment of the girls’ stories. Fun dips into the video and interactive graphics to reveal something fresh. A feeling they’ve learned something new and/or come away with a change in their thinking about ideas and topics that perhaps they’d long held assumptions that turn out not to be quite what they thought. To appreciate similarities they might not have expected to find among these girls and discover the cultural foundations on which these girls’ lives and beliefs and ways of learning  are framed by the time they are teens.

For students to end with more questions than they began with – and dig into our resources, apply critical thinking to their inquiry, and emerge with new knowledge to inform their civic engagement in their Reflection and Action Projects tied to the themes they’ve explored.

I want them to find materials to build bridges of understanding and not be fearful of those who have learned differently than they do. I want them to explore their own identity, being aware of the how others see them and how they see themselves.

Jocelyn: You saved your toughest question for the last one – okay, deep breath, and as you can see, my responses are as varied and broad as our potential groups of readers. I know, for example, that adoptees from China take away very different impressions and experiences and feelings from this project, especially the girls stories, than will students whose lives have not been touched by adoption and enter into this project with no specific connection to China.

Yet, today students from China are in primary, high school and college classrooms with American students. They live together in dorms. They interact in workplaces. And on the larger global stage, China and America are global economic and military powers. For all of these reasons, and so many more, it is beyond vital and essential that students in American classrooms test their assumptions, challenge their biases, gather fresh knowledge and become engage civically in exploring topics that can prepare them better for encounters and friendships and work relationship they will undoubtedly have with colleagues of many different races and cultural backgrounds from their own.

LAST ITEM TO ADD: Aside from being a storytelling project created for digital native students, we expand our storytelling, our lessons and most of all our resources on a daily basis through our family of social media – Facebook (a large, active community), Twitter, YouTube channel and Instagram. From what I can tell, our social media platforms as a continuation of our storytelling and learning makes Touching Home in China unique among pathways for classroom learning about contemporary China.

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A big thank-you to Melissa Ludtke for this interview about Touching Home in China! You can visit the website at Touchinghomeinchina.com and follow the project on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

22 Memoirs to Read with Asian Men & Western Women in Love

It’s been almost seven years since I posted about books featuring Chinese men and Western women in love, and over five years since I posted about memoirs featuring Asian men and Western women in love. Plus, a lot of wonderful memoirs have come out in the past few years. Time to update you with a full list of AMWF memoirs you should read!

I’ve listed the titles in alphabetical order according to the author’s last name and linked them to Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.

“Good Chinese Wife” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

When it comes to the success of a cross-cultural relationship, does culture or personality matter more? Susan Blumberg-Kason’s gripping memoir “Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong” offers a very personal answer to that question. Learn more through my interview with Susan.

“Tone Deaf in Bangkok” by Janet Brown

It’s never too late to follow your heart to Asia. Just ask writer Janet Brown, who went to Thailand at age 45 and fell in love with the people and places. Learn more through my interview with Janet.

“Burmese Lessons: A true love story” by Karen Connelly

When Karen went to Burma in 1996 for research on the conditions of Burmese political prisoners, love wasn’t on her mind — until she met Maung, a sexy young Burmese revolutionary leader. But this isn’t just a love story, as she beautifully captures her entire experience in this country — including her interview with Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China” by Rachel DeWoskin

A woman who dared to love Chinese men on screen (and off), as well as Chinese culture. DeWoskin writes about it all with passion and humor.

“Kissing Outside the Lines: A True Story of Love and Race and Happily Ever After” by Diane Farr

Think gorgeous girls don’t go for Asian men? Then you haven’t met actress and celebrity Diane Farr, who married a Korean-American man and shared her story — and those of many others who crossed racial/cultural/ethnic lines in the name of love — in this humorous read.

“Mae Franking’s My Chinese Marriage: An Annotated Edition” by Mae Franking

A rare window into the world of a Western woman who married a Chinese man in the early 20th century, despite the estrangement of both families. Half a love story, half a collection of letters that capture the times in which they lived.

“The Natural Laws of Good Luck: A Memoir of an Unlikely Marriage” by Ellen Graf

In her mid-forties and divorced, the last thing Ellen ever expected was to travel to China and marry a Chinese man she knew for less than a week. But the unspoken connection between then brings this unlikely pair together, and sustains them through the trials and tribulations of their new cross-cultural relationship.

“Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India” by Miranda Kennedy

Miranda’s book is an exploration of the many cultural rules and norms that govern women’s lives there, especially love, marriage and family. She dates some Indian men along the way, but reveals so much more through the Indian women she comes to know throughout the story.

“A Field Guide to Happiness” by Linda Leaming

Linda Leaming’s new book “A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan about Living, Loving, and Waking Up” reads like a love letter to Bhutan. Learn more through my interview with Linda.

“Married to Bhutan: How One Woman Got Lost, Said “I Do,” and Found Bliss” by Linda Leaming

Linda discovered her bliss — and later, her Bhutanese husband — in this oft-overlooked Himalayan country. This magical tale of her relationship with her future husband and his country is filled with moments that will have you laughing out loud.

“Mao’s Last Dancer” by Li Cunxin

Li Cunxin is a poor rural Chinese who skyrockets to fame as a ballet dancer. But when China sends him to Texas as part of an exchange, he falls in love with an American woman and America, and wants to defect. (Also a movie.)

“Son of the Revolution” by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro

Most of the story revolves around Liang Heng’s personal suffering during the Cultural Revolution. However, the last few chapters of this book document how Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro incredibly fall in love, and marry, in a China just barely open to the world.

Here Comes the Sun by Leza Lowitz“Here Comes the Sun: A Journey to Adoption in 8 Chakras” by Leza Lowitz

Leza Lowitz shares her emotional journey towards marriage and motherhood in Japan (as well as opening a yoga studio in Tokyo) in “Here Comes the Sun”. Learn more through my interview with Leza.

“My Japanese Husband Thinks I’m Crazy” & “My Japanese Husband (Still) Thinks I’m Crazy” by Grace Mineta

If you’re a fan of graphic novels and you’re curious about Japan, you don’t want to miss these charming comics by Grace Mineta. Learn more through my interviews (here and here) with Grace.

“At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman’s Journey of Discovery” by Rebecca Otowa

Rebecca’s book explores her 30 years as the foreign housewife of a Japanese man in their 350-year-old farmhouse in Japan’s countryside, a home that you might argue is one of the most important characters in the story.

“Love, Again: The Wisdom of Unexpected Romance” by Eve Pell

At 68, Eve fell for Sam Hirabayashi, a man 10 years her senior. She wrote about it for The New York Times, and the overwhelming response from readers helped spark this memoir exploring late-in-life love through her own relationship and others.

“The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam” by Dana Sachs

Dana truly followed her heart in moving to Vietnam when, in the course of learning the language and later teaching, she landed into an unlikely relationship with a local Vietnamese man. She writes about it with honesty and vulnerability, which made her a delightful narrator.

The Good Shufu“The Good Shufu” by Tracy Slater

“The Good Shufu” by Tracy Slater is a heartfelt story about love & life abroad that proves sometimes those unexpected detours lead us to incredible joy. Learn more through my interview with Tracy.

Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self“Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self” by Alex Tizon

Alex Tizon’s memoir “Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self” offers a personal view on Asian masculinity in the West — and is a book you must read. Learn more through my interview with Alex.

“Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband” by Wendy Tokunaga

I connected so much with the experiences of the women interviewed by Wendy that I almost thought it could have been “Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Chinese Husband.” (Sorry, John.) It’s not one memoir, but more like a collection brought together.

Year of Fire Dragons“Year of Fire Dragons” by Shannon Young

“Year of Fire Dragons” details the life-changing year Shannon Young spent in Hong Kong while in a long-distance relationship with her Eurasian boyfriend. Learn more through my interview with Shannon.

What memoirs did I miss? What would you recommend?