One Naxi Artisan in China’s Vanishing Culture in Lijiang

This is the second in a four-part series of articles providing a snapshot of modern life in China in observance of October 1, 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It was published September 27, 2009 in the Insight section of the Idaho State Journal.


Lijiang, Yunnan Province, China — At the foot of the sacred Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a peak soaring to over 18,000 feet in a mountain range just shy of the Tibetan border, I found my first moment of true serenity after weeks of traversing across China.

The artisan Bi Zhihui, right, and his grandmother work on embroidery from their home in Baisha, Lijiang. Bi's unique embroidery art, passed down through six generations, is a tradition that deserves more attention from tourists and tour operators in the area.
The artisan Bi Zhihui, right, and his grandmother work on embroidery from their home in Baisha, Lijiang. Bi's unique embroidery art, passed down through six generations, is a tradition that deserves more attention from tourists and tour operators in the area.

I was staying in an old wooden Chinese-style courtyard house, one of the many traditional homes lining a cobblestone street in Baisha, Lijiang that offered a rare glimpse into the life of one of China’s most distinctive ethnic minorities: the Naxi people. Baisha was once the capital of the ancient Naxi Dongba Kingdom, and even today the place seems to exist in another era. I saw Naxi women dressed in their characteristic blue blouses and pants wrapped with a blue or black apron, roaming the streets with baskets on their backs filled with produce, or babies tucked gently into a brightly colored child holder. Every now and then a herd of cattle or goats, often led by a man wearing the traditional cowboy-like Naxi hat, would flood the entire street, the soft click-clacking of their hooves the rhythmic accompaniment to this animal parade.

I am also here for something else — my friend Bi Zhihui, a 37-year-old artisan who is Naxi and Yi, one of China’s other ethnic minority groups. Continue reading “One Naxi Artisan in China’s Vanishing Culture in Lijiang”

For Many of China’s Rural Residents, Health Insurance is Not Enough

This is the first in a four-part series of articles providing a snapshot of modern life in China ahead of October 1, 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It was published September 20, 2009 in the Insight section of the Idaho State Journal.


Peng Qiulan and Jin Genxiu, like most residents in China's countryside, have rural health insurance policies that only cover a fraction of their medical costs
Peng Qiulan and Jin Genxiu, like most residents in China's countryside, have rural health insurance policies that only cover a fraction of their medical costs

Zhongshan, Tonglu County, Zhejiang, China — In a old wooden home hidden behind Zhongshan’s main street is a place where Ye Xianna, my husband’s 76-year-old grandmother, is quietly putting her trust in Jesus — to protect her against illness.

After sitting with for nearly four hours in the rows of turquoise-colored pews that felt like tiny park benches — witnessing speaking in tongues, singing hymns in Chinese, and preaching on the virtues of Christianity — it was one of the congregation who spoke the most important reason why Ye, like many others in the church, was present that morning.

A senior man in a tan-striped polo shirt and oversized brown pants, with squinty eyes, stubble and a mostly toothless smile, stepped behind the turquoise podium with a blood-red plastic cross attached to it, and began addressing the room.

He was speaking in the local dialect of Tonglu — one of the thousands of dialects in China that sounds different from the country’s official Mandarin Chinese — so I couldn’t understand his words, at first. “What is he saying?” I asked Ye, sitting next to me in the pew in a flowered blouse and pants, with her wiry, shoulder-length gray hair tied into two pigtails.

Ye, whose local dialect is better than her Mandarin Chinese, explained it to me as simply as she could: “His arm used to hurt. Then he believed in Jesus, and it stopped hurting.”

Her simple words spoke a powerful idea: that Jesus heals, literally.

And for many churchgoing senior citizens in China’s countryside, like Ye, it’s the one thing they can count on in the face of a rural healthcare system that is still far from ideal. Continue reading “For Many of China’s Rural Residents, Health Insurance is Not Enough”

The Troubling Chinese Mother-in-law Relationship

IMG_2151It could have been any other pile of clothing — pastel linen blouses, jeans with a flower pattern embroidered on the side, a silk robe in peacock blue, and more. But they were my the clothes of my sister-in-law, Da Sao, married to my husband’s eldest brother. And my Chinese mother-in-law was anxious to clear them away.

“Look at all of these clothes,” she said, lifting up a shirt and then the jeans, sighing. “She buys them on a whim, wears them once, and then brings them over here — and never wears them again.” Then, smiling towards me, she added, “you should wear them.”

It was a lonely pile of clothes, desperate to be worn. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was more than just housekeeping — because Da Sao was becoming infamous during our dinnertime conversations.

One day, my inlaws chastised Da Sao for enrolling her son, Kaiqi, in too many afterschool activities. Another day, they declared her too lazy, spending too much time on the computer. On another, they decided her cooking wasn’t up to snuff. I couldn’t help but notice that, even as both in-laws spoke, my Chinese mother-in-law supported the brunt of these indictments.

Da Sao is no saint — but not once did my inlaws suggest that Da Ge, her husband, did anything wrong (Da Ge, according to my husband John, is an uninvolved father who has also exacerbated his son’s behavior problems). Clearly, this was a troubling Chinese mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationship.

But it’s not just Da Sao. For thousands of years, daughters-in-law have dreaded their Chinese mothers-in-law. Why? Continue reading “The Troubling Chinese Mother-in-law Relationship”

Saying “I love you” with a toilet: of indirect displays of love in Chinese families

Nobody really asked why that toilet was built before Chinese New Year 2003 — at what would later become my in-laws home. They had always lived without indoor plumbing, instead using a feitong (a large urnlike container) or, for the room, a matong (a small bucket with a top). The feitong and matong made it easy to recycle human waste on their fields, and the whole system had worked just fine.

But then again, they had never hosted a foreign girl (me!) until that Chinese New Year.

That toilet is like many things in Chinese culture, where “I love you” is an unspoken phrase that finds its voice in the sumptuous feasts that fill the dinner table, the hongbao stuffed with crisp, red RMB bills, the boxes of green tea and smoked tofu that friends and relatives forcibly stuff into every last empty corner of your luggage.

My in-laws do not hug or kiss me, or any of their children. But they, like many Chinese, find extraordinary, indirect ways of saying they care. Continue reading “Saying “I love you” with a toilet: of indirect displays of love in Chinese families”

On the Rarity of Foreign Women and Chinese Boyfriends/Chinese Husbands

As a foreign woman with a Chinese husband, I couldn't help but wonder why we're so rare
As a foreign woman with a Chinese husband, I couldn’t help but wonder why we’re so rare

When I’m in China, I tend to turn a lot of heads, especially in the countryside — and that’s not just because I’m a foreigner. It’s because I’m often seen holding hands with my Chinese husband.

It’s true — the sight of a foreign woman and Chinese boyfriend or Chinese husband is much rarer than its counterpart, the foreign man and Chinese woman.

If you go to any major city in China, you will invariably run into the foreign man-Chinese woman pairings in any major tourist or shopping destination; not so with foreign women and Chinese men. It’s easy to gauge this reality on the website Candle for Love (CFL), devoted to helping US Americans bring their loved ones over from China. CFL is like a tidal wave of American men in love with Chinese women, with only a rare American woman/Chinese husband surfacing to break the monotony. Continue reading “On the Rarity of Foreign Women and Chinese Boyfriends/Chinese Husbands”

The sensitive foreigner’s guide to staying healthy in China

Forward: I wrote this article many years ago, but was reminded of it by my recent trip to China, where I caught the flu twice — including having the interesting experience of getting in-home IV service. After all of these years, I am still a sensitive girl when it comes to getting ill in China. If you are too, you’ll enjoy this classic piece.


Have you ever had such a severe case of the flu that it took away your voice? Have you experienced months of annoyingly frequent respiratory infections? Did you ever have cases of…er…diarrhea so horrible that you had to leave the room mid-sentence? Do you yearn for the days in your home country, when you only got ill once or twice a year?

If you’re a foreigner in China, you just might understand this. Getting up close and personal with a lot of odd colds, flus, and…yes, diarrhea…is all part and parcel of committing yourself to living in China.

But, for some of us foreigners, China’s illnesses have a wrathful hold. Look into our gentle, tired eyes, and you’ll see the tell-tale signs of multitudinous trips to hospitals, pharmacies, and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. Look in our homes, and you’ll find several Chinese traditional remedies hiding in the refrigerator, and boxes of prepared cold medicines strewn about the sitting room.
However, I discovered that surviving China’s illnesses goes beyond mere medicines, treatments, or therapy. Surviving demands that you take a holistic approach to your body and lifestyle.

With this “holistic”, common sense approach in mind, I’ll share what I’ve learned from my experiences, plus all of that good motherly advice from my Chinese friends. [see disclaimer at bottom] Continue reading “The sensitive foreigner’s guide to staying healthy in China”

It’s Henan College of Education, but not as we know it — looking back on 10 years of China

I first came to China in 1999, so 2009 is a big year for me, just as the Chinese government is gearing up to celebrate its 60th anniversary. So here’s one of my articles looking back on those 10 years, and considering how things have changed, and impacted my life. Enjoy!

Henan College of Education — located in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China — has a certain nostalgic pull for me. It was the place where I began learning Chinese, thanks to Wang Bin. It was where I first kissed Christian, my first Chinese boyfriend, and, from my perspective, first real love. It was where China schooled me in its rhythms and ways — always something new, always a learning experience. Even long after I left Zhengzhou, my mind often returned to Henan College of Education, and I even felt a certain allegiance to the people of Henan Province (some of whom would even call me a townsman, or  老乡).

But all of that is changing because, at the end of this year, Henan College of Education will not be the same. Oh, the institution will still survive, but it won’t be the Henan College of Education that we knew.

I discovered the shocking news when I casually wandered onto the campus in early July. It was 5pm and I had agreed to meet with Shelly and Lisa, two of the Foreign Affairs Office employees who remembered me when I was an English teacher there 10 years ago.

Shelly and Lisa had hardly changed. Shelly, the senior of the two who was planning on retiring at the end of the year, still had the same stout face, short permed hair, dyed black with an almost carefree flyaway pinned down with a bobby pin, and air of correctitude right down to her perfectly folded hands. Lisa, the younger and more warm of the two, had the same cap of short straight hair around her head, a smart gray belted dress that reached to her knees, and the same friendly sparkle in her eyes behind her glasses.

“You came just in time,” said Shelly as she sat behind her mahogany desk, a reminder of the authority she had accumulated over the years. “Henan College of Education will be closed for good at the end of this year — and moved to the new campus.”

Indeed I came just in time. Over all of these years, I had lost contact with these people, never knowing that the school in its present form would no longer exist at the end of 2009.

But why? It all comes down to two Chinese characters: 改制, which essentially stands for “change form.” Continue reading “It’s Henan College of Education, but not as we know it — looking back on 10 years of China”

How my Chinese mother-in-law cured a mentally ill chicken

At my inlaws’ home, I didn’t take much notice of the chicken habitually roosting in the corner of the room next to the kitchen. Chickens have free run of the first floor of the house (which means we have to watch where we walk) and even have their own sleeping corner.

But my Chinese mother-in-law did notice that chicken, and she didn’t like it one bit.

“It keeps sitting there in the corner, but it won’t lay eggs!” she exclaimed in her booming voice — a voice that is pretty normal out here in the countryside, but would border on argumentative if she were speaking in English.

A few days later, I discovered the cure. Continue reading “How my Chinese mother-in-law cured a mentally ill chicken”

Lost in China, and the spirit of the White Egret

It has barely been five days since I returned to the US, yet my mind is lost once again in China.

I had some shocking experiences, such as hearing stories from my heart surgeon friend in Beijing. I had to convince my father-in-law to give up on nucleic acids, and never take them again. I experienced a surprising detour on the way to Shaolin Temple, and realized it wasn’t really worth it. I am really alarmed by what I saw in Lijiang, watching a World Heritage site being capitalized to death.

But really, sometimes it’s too easy to get caught in the shadows of China — because there are so many shadows. I know I tend to react strongly when I see injustice. My husband John says it’s a good thing — it means I care about China, and I want the country to improve.

And, admittedly, there are improvements, especially in John’s hometown. Continue reading “Lost in China, and the spirit of the White Egret”

Hot as hell in heavenly Suzhou, with my mind still lost in Lijiang

What a couple of days. We just landed in Shanghai last evening, and were immediately hit with the infamous humidity of the Yangtze River Delta. It should have been no surprise to me, having lived in Hangzhou for a year and a half, and Shanghai for three years. But if you’ve just arrived from Lijiang, the heat hits you hard, as if you were suddenly wrapped in a jacket you didn’t even know existed. Today, arriving in Suzhou, I discovered the temperature was 42.3 degrees Celsius (over 100 F).

Yet, sadly, the differences between Lijiang and Shanghai (and the coast, for that matter) are becoming less and less as the city commercializes. I spent one week in Baisha, a charming Naxi village with cobblestone streets (watch out for that manure) that captured my heart five years ago when I came across a young Naxi/Yi minority trader named Bi Zhihui. Bi Zhihui touched me so deeply because of his extraordinary traditional embroidery (a dying art in his culture), his faith (he is Catholic, just as I was raised Catholic — he calls me “sister”), and his incredible depth of kindness. He once told me a story of how a Chinese tourist once came into his store and, after trying on one of his vests, then threw it insultingly on the floor. But Bi never argued with the guy or got angry (though he did kindly ask him to leave). I kept in touch with Bi over all of these years, and have even tried to help him in ways I could never have imagined.

Things have changed A LOT in five years, in ways that, admittedly, I wish weren’t so. Lijiang has now become a Disneyland version of the town it once was. Even in 2004 you could still find Naxi and other minority traders with a presence in the old town — restaurants, quaint little shops, small snack stands. Not anymore. The old buildings are still there, but every square foot of the entire place has been taken over by extreme commercialization. There are stores, but they are by and large run by Han Chinese, and sell items that are either made in factories (but made to look like they were done by the locals) or simply have no local flavor (translation: you could buy it in Shanghai or Beijing or Xi’an). It was so easy to get lost in there because, apart from the occasional store with actual local products (such as Spirulina), everything looked so much the same. That was heartbreaking enough, as well as learning that Bi, who used to have a store in the old town, had to give it up long ago because the rent was too high (a fate I expect hit many of the local Naxi people who used to be holed up in the old town).

But it was the Bar district that really gave me a moment to pause. Yes, there were still the same Chinese style buildings with the elegant curved roofs, the carved wooden windows open to the world, the river nearby with a romantic little bridge spanning it, and the small courtyards — but all pumped up to an alarming Shanghai beat as the place swarmed with people and the bars blared so much music you almost forgot you were in remote little Lijiang. As we weaved through the throngs of people, I peered into the bars, open to the world like a book. There were emcees looking and acting cool in cool Shanghai style clothes, announcing the next act as if it were Michael Jackson or Jay Chou taking the stage. There were young women dressed in minority clothing, but the way they sauntered and swayed, and the way the clothing seemed to leave their silouettes as exposed as the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain peaks, I didn’t have to hear Bi tell me they weren’t local Naxi women. Finally, I came to the famous start of the Old Town, where there is an old water wheel and the words, in Chinese, “World Heritage” written by Jiang Zemin himself. But it was worlds away from the Old Town I remembered, as the water wheel itself seemed to be one-upped by a huge four-sided TV screen planted in the square just in time for the 2008 Olympics. We were there at night, and between the light from the screen and blaring TV sound, I felt the romance of the place slipping away with each turn of the water wheel.

There is also now an 80 RMB “restoration fee” for the city of Lijiang, which wasn’t there before. I can’t help but wonder what has been restored (which wasn’t there before), and what, if anything, can be done to bring the old Lijiang back. Even the foreign tourists I met while there told me the only time of day they could really enjoy Lijiang was about 7am in the morning.

Still, at least there is still Baisha. I have faith that Baisha will not lose its charm, as it is still a place where your car can be stopped by a herd of cattle or goats, where you have to watch where you walk (yes, that manure), where the stores are run by local Naxi people, and where the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain seems to smile from above. Maybe I have even more faith, having lived there for a week in his gorgeous siheyuan, and having met the people that Bi calls friends and family. I dined on fantastic taro and wild mushrooms and local celery and, truly, some of the best fragrant, spicy sauce I’ve ever had in China. I watched Bi persevere, in spite of the huge blow that the economic crisis has brought to him (but I worry, nevertheless). I helped him make new business cards, and renovate a new sign for his store, and re-evaluate his sales strategy. And I am still overwhelmed with all of his unbelievable kindness throughout the week, from having us as guests, to coming up to my room when I was sick to check on me. It was like being at home again.

But then again, that is why I come to China in the first place. And it is why I will go back to China (and Baisha) again. Especially when Hangzhou and Suzhou are hot as hell! Good night.