Ask the Yangxifu, Travel guides, More posts…Coming up in 2010

Well, while everyone is getting their lists together and checking them twice for Christmas, I’m doing the same — in terms of  improving Speaking of China.

Thanks to the overwhelming support I’ve had so far, I’ve decided to expand this site with an ambitious plan, starting January 4, 2010. Here’s what you’ll be seeing: Continue reading “Ask the Yangxifu, Travel guides, More posts…Coming up in 2010”

The Grass is Greener?: when the romance ends, and China’s reality begins

I am so far behind on my Christmas preparations, so I’m running another classic entry week, from the original Speaking of China. This is also pretty dark (am I dreaming of a “dark Christmas”?). After living with John for more than two years in Shanghai — and marrying him — I experienced the difficulties of an average Chinese through him. I was shocked. And so, I wrote this article. Enjoy!


They say the grass is greener on the other side. Or sometimes, on the other side of “the pond.” An odd repulsion to the familiar moves us to board planes for hours and battle fierce jetlag, all to experience a life different from our upbringing.

For some of us, it’s more than an occasional “flirt” with another country. We’re not interested in a one-night or one-week stand — we want the whole relationship. We want to dig deeper. We want to get to know what’s really under those covers.

That’s why I returned to China in 2001 — to get cozy with this ancient land across the Pacific. I learned from my many Chinese friends. I became fluent in Chinese.

Most of all, I fell in love and married a Chinese man — which made me closer to this country than I ever imagined. But with closeness comes a new understanding — one that made the greenery on this side of the pond start to wilt. Continue reading “The Grass is Greener?: when the romance ends, and China’s reality begins”

Meet Ailin, my identity in China — guest posting on ExpatHarem

I just did a guest post on ExpatHarem about expat identity, through my own identity in China, Ailin:

Ailin sings a fierce karaoke song, loves pink pastel T-shirts, paints squiggly green snakes, and isn’t afraid to argue with a bus driver. I know her well — because Ailin is me, when I’m in China.

I encourage you to visit ExpatHarem to read the full post, and others like it, and comment!

If you’ve never visited before, the site supports globally minded women writers — especially those who have lived in Asia. Thanks to Anastasia Ashman’s editorial direction, it’s like reading a fine magazine.

China, the Renovation Nation

I wrote this piece about five years ago. It’s a dark piece, and came out of a dark time in my life — when I experienced a lot of renovation around the place I lived in Shanghai, and was grappling with what to do with my future. If you’re having some dark days (from weather, life, or even holiday blues), this is for you.


Across the street from my gym, there is a clothing store for infants and toddlers. I know it well because I always park my generic, cement-gray bicycle right next to its display window, lit up with the tender image of some darling baobei sporting the latest in baby fashion – an odd foil to my ugly wheels.

I began to notice how the windows became plastered by screaming yellow signs promising deep bargains. Fifty, 60, 70, 80 percent off! Like lichen covering a rock, they even obscured the front showroom and finally that trusty display window. Inside the store, free-for-all bins sloppily loaded with clothes had replaced the racks and models.

There they were – all of the telltale signs of store renovation.

And sure enough, for weeks afterwards I parked right next to a work-in-progress. I saw the team of workers, night after night, navigate the noxious fumes and the symphony of drills, saws and chains in what I feared might foretell the end of retailing of infant and toddler clothes on Danshui Road as I knew it.

One night, I saw those workers in the middle of the half-finished store. The décor captured that feeling of newborn innocence. Whitewashed walls, floors and shelves; a pastel painting of imaginary elephants with a poem about the joys of being a child. The men stood there smoking cigarettes, as though they were in a bar, and sullied the floor with ashes and spit. Well, I suppose if babies are born with original sin, then stores for babies are no different.

I never really saw renovation like this, in all of its glory, mystery and (in some cases) malevolence, until I came to China. Continue reading “China, the Renovation Nation”

Giving Gifts to Your Chinese family – A Modest Guide

(NOTE: This is NOT my only post on giving gifts. Before making your final purchase, I recommend visiting my Holiday Gift Roundup Post, where I’ve collected all the links to my gift-giving advice in one place.)

I thought I couldn’t go wrong with the American ginseng root. My coworker Grace — a Chinese girl who doted over me like a mother, despite the fact that she was a few years younger than me — had helped me pick it out. “Her parents will love this,” said Grace as she handed the package to me. The ginseng was displayed in red and gold foil packaging with a matching bag. It was elegant and auspicious — surely the perfect gift for the parents of Mandy, my Chinese tutor who invited me to her home to spend the Chinese New Year in 2002.

But then, days after my arrival at Mandy’s house, I went with her family to visit her grandma and grandpa. There was Mandy’s mother carrying a surprisingly family ginseng package. Wow, they have the same ginseng here in her city, I thought. Until it hit me — Mandy’s mother was re-gifting my gift to her in-laws, right before my eyes. It turns out, the ginseng made them feel too old.


Gift giving has been a lot less painful since I married a Chinese man. I know the basics (avoid white, don’t give clocks, etc.). And I’ve bought more business gifts (think pens and bookmarks) than I’d care to write about.

But knowing what not to get doesn’t get the shopping for your Chinese family done.

So, I’d like to share how I get my shopping done — with recommendations for gifts for the Chinese family.

(NOTE: I call this a “Modest Guide” because I couldn’t begin to cover every single gift possibility — or, for that matter, every single region of China! But if I can help you, then this post was worth it.)

Any adult in your Chinese family:

Fruit baskets. This is my go-to choice whenever I have NO idea what to get! In China, fruit baskets are always sure to please, whoever you’re buying for. Almost any large supermarket in China will have fruit baskets on sale. See my post 4 Tips for Giving Gift Baskets in China for guidance on fruit baskets and other gift baskets.

(P.S.: If you’d like to send one to China from overseas, make it easy by purchasing from Gift Baskets Overseas. Disclosure — I’m an affiliate for this company.)

Snacks: Western-style pastries, such as sweet rolls or sweet croissants, are a nice treat. Don’t bother bringing them from overseas if you’re coming in to visit; I have an easier time finding these in China than traditional Chinese pastries. Visit vendors in the food court of a major shopping center (Bread Talk is one to try), or try supermarkets such as Carrefour, Wumei and Hualian.

Most Chinese love local specialty foods (土特产) — especially if you’re visiting them after travels around China, or live in a Chinese city far from them. For example, my husband’s hometown makes a great smoked tofu, and I give this gift to people of all ages, all over China. Many come in gift boxes available in the supermarkets, or from specialty food vendors (often located in the basements of malls or shopping centers)

You can also bring local specialty foods from your country too, provided they don’t give you too many headaches with airport security. Just don’t bring them your country’s chocolate in the summer — unless you want to present them with puddles instead of presents.

Remember, if your recipient is more elderly: keep it soft. Grandma and grandpa may have a lot of love for you, but (at least for mine) not so many teeth.

For the younger set, reach for some more sophisticated — and crunchier — choices, from Starbucks products to specialty chocolates.

(If you’re interesting in sending a sweet gift basket over to China, head over to Gift Baskets Overseas. And, as a disclosure, I’m an affiliate.)

Chinese tea: Premium teas — especially those from outside the recipient’s hometown — make great gifts for people of all ages. They often come in gorgeous containers, with matching bags. Best place to buy is a teahouse or tea store in China, such as Tenfu’s tea or the Huangshan tea company.

Chinese Grandparents (外婆,外公,爷爷,奶奶)

Chinese traditional herbal medicines: Deep in every Chinese supermarket is an aisle almost as fascinating as a trip to the carnival. Lamb’s placenta. Spirulina. Royal jelly. Swallow spit. Nutritional wines. All packaged in boxes too beautiful to throw away — a forest scene from a scroll painting in red and gold foil; a Qing-dynasty emperor perched silently on his throne; traditional Chinese script from a classic book.

There’s nothing that says “filial” quite like these nutritious herbal medicines and supplements. Just make sure you’re choose a healthful and effective one, instead of the fake supplements my father-in-law took. Buy from a large, established supermarket such as Carrefour, Wumei or Hualian.

Multivitamins and supplements: These score high on the “filial” meter. They also usually come with names in English — helpful for any foreigner dazed and confused by Lamb’s placenta or royal jelly. You don’t even need to buy them in your home country either. My preferred choice of vitamins in China comes from the brand By-Health (汤臣倍健) — you can purchase them online on Taobao and also find them in most major supermarkets.

(Avoid): Clothing: This summer, my husband and I made the mistake of buying bright orange college T-shirts and sweatshirts for grandma and grandpa. “Why did you waste your money?” said grandma. While she usually says that when we give her any gift, we probably did waste our money on these shirts.

Seniors in China don’t wear clothing outside of the indigo-gray-black-brown spectrum. Clothing might work if you stick to super-drab colors. But why bother? Chances are, grandma and grandpa will find the clothing’s style too strange for them anyway.

Chinese Parents (老爸,老妈 )/Chinese Brother-in-Law or Chinese Sister-in-Law

Gifts for Chinese parents depend on their age. Are they retired? Over 55? See my recommendations for Chinese Grandparents.

For younger Chinese parents (or a Chinese brother-in-law/Chinese sister-in-law), here are some ideas:

Bath and body products: Luxurious lotions and perfumes for her; cologne for him. Either way, you can’t go wrong with these gifts. Many are available in China — Watson’s or duty-free stores — but your family may love something special from abroad. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law loved the Bath and Body Works cologne and perfume we bought them a few years ago.

Clothing: T-shirts, sweatshirts and baseball caps from your local university or sports team work great for men, and just about any color is fine. But don’t bother for the ladies. I’ve yet to find the same ultra-feminine fashions in the US.

Books: Foreign language learners will love a good read. The choice depends on their interests and language level. Two I might recommend for advanced English learners are The English Fluency Formula and English the American Way: A Fun ESL Guide to Language and Culture in the U.S.

Young Chinese Children

I only have one 8-year-old nephew, and very little experience giving gifts to Chinese children for the holidays. But I stick to one of three choices: toys, a special sweet snack or pastry, or a hongbao. The hongbao is a red envelope filled with an auspicious amount of money, given to Chinese children during Chinese New Year.

What about you? What gifts do you usually give to your Chinese family? What gifts have been a hit — or a miss?

P.S.: Don’t forget — please also see my Holiday Gifts Roundup Post for more advice on gift-giving. In particular, have a look at 7 Great Chinese New Year Gifts Sure to Impress Friends, Family and Coworkers as well as Gifts to Buy Abroad for Chinese Family and Relatives.

P.P.S: Still stumped? I’ve created a hand-picked selection below of gift baskets to China from Gift Baskets Overseas sure to please most any Chinese friend, family member or colleague. Just click, buy and let Gift Baskets Overseas take care of the rest! (Disclosure — I’m an affiliate for Gift Baskets Overseas.)

Cookie Country to China

Price: 99.95

Unique Treasures to China

Price: 99.95

Holiday Chocolate Tower to China

Price: 99.95

The Love for Chocolate Holiday Tower to China

Price: 119.95

The Tower of Happiness to China

Price: 149.95

Wine Sophistication to China

Price: 149.95

Fruity Poinsettia and Chocolates to China

Price: 164.95

Fruits and gourmet basket to China

Price: 184.95

A Chinese boyfriend/Chinese husband and foreign woman 30 years ago, through “Son of the Revolution”

As I’ve written before, Chinese men and foreign women — dating or marrying — are a rarity. But when Liang Heng and Judy Shapiro fell in love in China in 1979, they weren’t just a rarity — they were pioneers at a time when the idea of marriages between foreigners and Chinese were still questionable.

Most people read the 1983 book Son of the Revolution — written by the couple — to learn more about the experience of living through Chairman Mao’s rule and the Cultural Revolution. I, however, was anxious to know about the challenges they faced in their relationship, and how they overcame the odds to marry in a China that had barely opened up.

Liang Heng, studying to be a Chinese language teacher at Hunan Teacher’s College, first met Judy Shapiro, the resident English teacher and foreign expert, when he needed help with a translation. But pretty soon, the two made more than just beautiful prose together. This relationship — a Chinese man and an American woman — was something that not even the two of them could keep secret forever. Continue reading “A Chinese boyfriend/Chinese husband and foreign woman 30 years ago, through “Son of the Revolution””

The emotional yin-yang: Of one calm Chinese husband, and a sensitive American wife

“你的情绪波动太可怕了!” Your emotional ups and downs are too frightening.
I found the text message in my mobile phone a day after a wrenching encounter with Frank. Frank had been my Chinese boyfriend for nearly a month. But now, after nearly a week of uncertainty, it was clear — our relationship was over.
Weeks later, when I met Frank for dinner, just as friends, it was worse than I expected. Not only was our relationship over, but Frank was over love, forever. He told me “it is more important to focus on a career and family, than to deal with emotions, or love.”
As I tried to autopsy our past month together and understand what sent our relationship to the grave, I began to shudder. Could a Chinese guy ever love an American girl who is emotional, and isn’t afraid to cry?
The worry followed me later that summer, as I began dating John, who would eventually become my Chinese husband. When John didn’t take me home to meet his parents in late August, just before starting graduate school, I wondered if I was too melancholy about our separation. When he left me alone on an entire Saturday — our usual date night — just to be with his friends, I had flashbacks of Frank, who, by the end of our relationship, used outings with the boys to avoid seeing me on the weekends.
It’s true. In our first six months together, I did a lot more crying, and showed a lot more excitement than John ever did. And that wasn’t just because I had some major life events, including severely spraining my foot (and missing a trip to Hong Kong) and losing my job. I’m a sensitive girl, and I’ve always been that way. But not John. Good or bad, John usually responded with a smile or laugh, and never yelled, or raised his voice, or showed anger, or really even cried. He was always so calm and steady. Just like Frank.
But over time, I realized that “calm and steady” Chinese boyfriend plus “emotional” American girlfriend doesn’t equal breakup. At least, not for John and I. He became the lighthouse of reason in my emotional storms, someone who could show me the way to a more peaceful state of mind. And as a psychology student, he helped me work with my emotions — what he called his “emotional management program” — so I could learn to save that good cry for when it mattered.
And, while it still surprises me, I taught John about emotional awareness. Before, he didn’t even realize his emotions were a vague mixture he couldn’t understand — many times, he confessed “I don’t really know what emotions I’m feeling.” My hypersensitivity actually inspired him to get in touch with his emotions, to be more aware of what he is feeling, and to let it out. Of course, letting it out is relative. I’ve only seen him cry about five times, but every time has been an honor, and an opportunity to help him through hardships.
When it comes to emotional expression, we’ve built a yin-yang balance together over the years. Of course, we still have our ups and downs. We had a lot when we moved to the US, and struggled to get John into graduate school. But one thing is for certain — it’s never been frightening.

Your emotional fluctuations are too frightening.

I found the text message in my mobile phone a day after a wrenching encounter with Frank. Frank had been my Chinese boyfriend for nearly a month. But now, after nearly a week of uncertainty, it was clear — our relationship was over.

Weeks later, when I met Frank for dinner, just as friends, it was worse than I expected. Not only was our relationship over, but Frank was over love, forever. He told me “it is more important to focus on a career and family, than to deal with emotions, or love.”

As I tried to autopsy our past month together and understand what sent our relationship to the grave, I began to shudder. Could a Chinese guy ever love an American girl who is emotional, and isn’t afraid to cry? Continue reading “The emotional yin-yang: Of one calm Chinese husband, and a sensitive American wife”

“What did I just sign?”: On informed consent in China

My husband John had done everything the Human Subjects Committee asked. He reviewed the study with his departmental ethics representative, completed online training on human subjects, and, most importantly, created clear consent forms for his study, with this vital clause:

Right to Withdraw: Your participation in this study is completely voluntary. You have the right to withdraw from this study at any time, without penalty.

Prospective subjects would read the consent form and, if interested in participating, sign their name and then complete the questionnaire. The consent form listed the contact information for all researchers, including John, so they could contact them with any questions — by phone or e-mail.

Additionally, the consent form said the following:

We will conduct several 30-60 minute focus groups. The American treatment program will be discussed and the participants will be asked to comment on the program. If you are interested in being contacted about participating in the focus group, check here_______, and provide us with a means of contact:
phone__________________ email________________________ cell phone_________________

After John went to China, he distributed his consent forms — with the questionnaires — to parents of young children via a school teacher. To John’s surprise, out of 150 returned questionnaires, around 90 participants volunteered to participate in focus groups. We were thrilled — but surprised at the same time. Most studies in the US, including psychological studies like my husband’s, have difficulty recruiting participants, especially for discussion groups. Why was it so easy in China?

But when John called one of the focus group volunteers, something seemed wrong. Continue reading ““What did I just sign?”: On informed consent in China”

“Do you believe in God?”: How religion surprised me in Zhengzhou, China

This post is a remembrance of my experiences with religion during my first year in China — 1999 — when I taught English in Zhengzhou.


It was an early week in September, just as China’s Autumn Tiger — the fierce summer heat that claws its way into September — was in full force when a college-age Chinese girl with a ponytail approached me on the streets of Zhengzhou. I had been looking for the Indian restaurant in town with my friends, and had fallen behind when this girl stepped out of a group of young people and spoke English to me.

“Hello! Are you a Christian?” the girl blurted out as naturally as if she was asking how my day was.

She had hit me with the 64,000 yuan question — religion. Continue reading ““Do you believe in God?”: How religion surprised me in Zhengzhou, China”