Finnish Woman in Guangzhou Spreads Love for City w/ Heartwarming Campaign

The coronavirus has not only ravaged countries around the world with an alarming death toll and economic hardship, but also through heightening anxieties and igniting hatred and discrimination. These are dark times for us.

But some have responded by lighting the way forward to spread a little more love and understanding, like Sara Jaaksola, a Finnish woman in Guangzhou who runs a Chinese language teaching business and is married to a local man. Here’s what she said:

I’ve been living in Guangzhou for 10 years, probably will stay here for the next 10 years as well. I feel this is my city, this is the place where I feel like home. So when fear and hate spreads faster than the virus, I feel responsible for doing something about it.

So she created a social media campaign, sharing her love for Guangzhou and asking others to do the same. And she got 80 other residents to join in, posting their own uplifting photos declaring their affection for the city. She shared the backstory behind it all:

To share a little personal story. My local sister-in-law sent a message in our family WeChat group: “Check out this news and be careful when being in touch with foreigners”. I felt my heart broke.

All my years in Guangzhou I’ve been trying to work as a bridge between the Chinese and foreigners. I moved here because I love the language and the culture. I’ve been married to my local husband for 6 years and our daughter is 4.

After all of this, she sent me this message. Not just a stranger on the street, but my family member. Telling me I should be careful when seeing my students and friends. That other should be careful when seeing me and my daughter.

I decided then, that I can’t stop when I feel hurt or sad, that is exactly the time to show everyone that we all can live together in Guangzhou. That we don’t need to be afraid of each other, instead we should learn to understand each other.

Head on over to Sara’s blog to read the whole story and also view all of the touching personal photos from other Guangzhou residents. She proves that, while fear may be contagious, so is love. Pass it on.

 

‘Always Goodbye’: Ups, Downs in China, US and Beyond in Graphic Novel by Ray Hecht

In this midst of this worldwide pandemic, I’ve found myself passing on those dystopian novels I used to adore and instead seeking out a little more “comfort food” in the books I’ve read this year. Lighthearted, humorous and even self-deprecating stories of people grappling with everyday problems that you wouldn’t find in a disaster film have offered me much-needed refuge in these unusual and challenging times for all. Bonus if they touch on experiences I’ve had living here in China and Asia, including cross-cultural dating and relationships.

Thank goodness Ray Hecht sent me his new graphic novel Always Goodbye, which really hit the spot on all fronts.

The graphic novel spans Ray’s life from birth up to 2019, and it makes for a pleasant read, thanks to its honesty. As much as it charts the highs in his life, the novel also delves into those lows and failures too as he pursues a variety of different careers, not always with success. Ray approaches even difficult topics and moments with a refreshing sense of humor, and we could all use a laugh these days. And Ray’s experiences in moving to China and dating locals will resonate with those of us who have visited or lived here.

I’m honored to feature this interview with Ray Hecht about Always Goodbye.

Here’s Ray’s bio from Amazon:

Author Ray Hecht was born in Israel and raised in the American Midwest. He currently lives in Taiwan.

You can learn more about Always Goodbye on Ray’s website. The graphic novel Always Goodbye is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this blog.


Why did you decide to create this graphic novel?

I’ve always loved the comics medium. I worry I”m not quite good enough at drawing, and that’s why I’ve been focusing on prose writing for most of my creative career, but after a bit of a dry spell in book publishing I decided to return to my first love…

The decision was partly due to me just trying to practice the art of cartooning again. Focusing on myself has worked well with my writing before, so why not? Autobiography/memoir has been an indie comics tradition for many years, and it simply felt right for me to share my perspective that way. When I sat down and thought about the whole of my life, with the second half focused on being an expat in China until in the “climax” finale I moved to Taiwan, it seemed like a story worth telling.

What’s the story behind the title?

To be honest, I struggled to come up with a title. At last, it came to me.

Perhaps it’s a somewhat dark interpretation, but the one constant in my life seems to be that I always move. I moved from Israel to Indiana to Ohio to California to Ohio again to California again to China to Taiwan.

That’s a lot of goodbyes. So what else could I call this, other than “Always Goodbye”?

In your graphic novel, you chose to organize it chronologically, through your entire life. Why did you choose this approach?

Good question. Indeed, such a narrative doesn’t necessarily need to be chronological. Nor must it start at the beginning. Authors more clever than me may have taken a non-linear approach, but I went with being direct.

Back when I first thought about how to explain my life in a way that made sense, taking notes and interviewing my mom, I realized I didn’t just need to start with my birth; I actually needed to start with my parents. So the first years covered were 1954 and 1956, in Chicago and in the Ukraine of the former Soviet Union. From there, naturally it led to the year that I was born, and so on.

Plus, it was fun to map out a pop cultural or technological marker. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. 1982 to 2019, every year needed at least it’s own little chapter.

What was your favorite year to detail and why?

That would probably be 2008. A seminal year for me.

It was of course the year I risked it all and moved to Shenzhen, China to do the expat thing. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be in the China blog scene at all! But even before I moved, over in Southern California, a lot changed in my life. Maybe in a way that was the year I finally grew up. The crazy Burning Man festival part of that story was pretty interesting as well.

Your graphic novel gets very personal, including in how it portrays people close to you, such as family and friends. How have family and friends responded to your book?

I’ve been very fortunate to so far have almost no negative criticism from anyone portrayed in the book. I feel extremely lucky and grateful for that, otherwise it could have gone awkward.

Even if someone did respond negatively: My philosophy is that they were my experiences and I have a right to express what happened as long as I was involved (so long as I don’t literally libel someone, or expose some deep dark secret or anything). There was a common sense balance to the portrayals. I also didn’t include any last names for obvious reasons.

I needn’t have worried. For the most part, I have found that a lot of people are flattered to be caricatured in a graphic novel by me!

What do you hope people come away with from reading your graphic novel?

I suppose the main hope is to increase readers’ empathy.

If you’ve met me in person, please read to get a better understanding of who I am and where I come from. If you haven’t met me in person, I do hope that my life stories around the world are interesting and entertaining, and can also give some sort of deeper window into a different person’s perspective.

After all, isn’t that ultimately what all art is all about?


Many thanks to Ray Hecht for this interview! You can learn more about Always Goodbye on Ray’s website. The graphic novel Always Goodbye is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this blog.

No Longer ‘Sleepless in Beijing’ After Sharing My Epidemic Experience – Pub’d on China Daily

China Daily just published my latest column titled No longer ‘Sleepless in Beijing’ after sharing my epidemic experience. Here’s an excerpt:

If my life in March were a movie, you might call it “Sleepless in Beijing”, as I spent much of the month worrying about the health and well-being of family and friends in my home country of the US, where the coronavirus epidemic was getting worse.

Only a month or so earlier, I had been the one they were concerned about, as they inquired about my situation in China and wondered if I was safe. But the tables had swiftly turned as the epicenter of the pandemic had shifted to Europe and experts predicted the US would be next. So there I was, dashing off anxious text messages to make sure nobody in the family had coronavirus symptoms, and even pleading with loved ones, sometimes in tears, to cancel meetings and other social gatherings.

At the height of my fears, I woke up one morning and decided to send out an email to my closest family and friends in the US, detailing my own personal experiences in Beijing with epidemic prevention and control over the past few months. I thought they might better understand the importance of the measures we had already lived – such as going out less, avoiding contact with other people, and not gathering together – if they heard it from someone they knew and cared about.

I hit the send button, crossed my fingers, and prayed at least one of them would actually read my words and heed the warnings.

You can read the full column here. And if you like it, share it. Wishing everyone out there safety and good health.

Staying at Home? Roundup of Books, Movies Featured Here For Your Quarantine

If you’re one of the millions of people around the world forced to stay at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, chances are you may have a lot more time on your hands than you bargained for this spring.

If you’re in need of something to entertain you or offer some much-needed relief from the overwhelming onslaught of often unwelcome news, books and movies do come in handy. And I’ve featured a ton of them right here on the blog.

Consider this your ultimate quarantine list of resources I’ve previously featured on the blog.

This post I put out in late 2018 contains the vast majority of the books already featured on my site.

Since then, I’ve also featured a few more books you can peruse: Hong Kong Noir, Recipes from the Garden of Contentment, Travel to China, Squeaky Wheels, Someday We Will Fly, Touching Home in China, and Spinster Kang.

Looking for movies? My list of critically acclaimed AMWF movies remains a perennial favorite on this site. But don’t miss my earlier list of movies with Chinese men/Western women in love as well as any posts I’ve tagged under movies. Some of my posts on movies over the past couple of years highlight Last Christmas, The Sun Is Also a Star, Tomb Raider and Crazy Rich Asians.

Enjoy! And wherever you are, wishing you good health and safety during this critical fight against the coronavirus.

(P.S.: Looking for more books, movies and other entertainment during a quarantine or stay-at-home order? The Boston Globe lists free streaming movies possibilities and USA Today offers links to free resources. NY Times has a weekly updated list of what to watch, listen to and read.)

Just How Contagious Is Coronavirus? <1 Minute of Close Contact Got People in China Infected

The reopening of the Badaling Great Wall in Beijing this past week with restrictions (health checks, no more than 30 percent of normal crowds) reflects just how much the epidemic situation has improved in China’s capital city, where I live. But it’s still a cautious approach – and caution does reign for many of us in how we live our lives.

For example, I still continue to distance myself from anyone I meet on the street, and sometimes six feet even feels too close to me. I’m not the only one who would rather stay farther away, as an article from the local Cleveland, Ohio news site attested to (I’ve closely followed the news in Ohio since much of my family lives there):

Linsey Marr, an aerosol virus transmission expert at Virginia Tech University, told cleveland.com in an email that any viruses released outdoors “will be quickly diluted such that there’s a much lower chance for someone to breathe in many viruses than if they are indoors.” She recommends that people stay 10 feet apart — the farther the better.

So while it’s perfectly OK to go outside for a walk or run, still it might be a good idea to cross the street if you see someone coming on the sidewalk, or keep your distance as you wait for them to pass.

This advice makes sense because the coronavirus is highly contagious. And shocking news reports of how people contracted the virus here in China have really emphasized this reality for me.

Consider this Chinese language news story, which in its headline highlights two cautionary tales: infected in 15 seconds while buying vegetables, infected in 50 seconds while picking up medicine (买菜15秒被感染,取药50秒被感染) [Note: I’ve included the original text along with my translation]:

杭州和宁波于2月5日和2月6日发布的两则确诊病例显示:一人出门买菜,和另一确诊者在同一个摊位有过共同驻留,事后被确诊感染;另一人去药房取药,和另一确诊者在吧台有过共同驻留,事后被确诊感染。这两起病例,共同驻留的时间连一分钟都不到,共同点是两起案例涉及的4个人,都没有戴口罩。

Two confirmed coronavirus cases respectively reported by the cities of Hangzhou and Ningbo on Feb 5 and Feb 6 showed: One person who went out to buy vegetables had stayed at the same vegetable stand with a person confirmed with the virus and was later diagnosed with an infection; another person who went to the pharmacy to get medicine and stayed with another person confirmed with the virus at the counter was later diagnosed with an infection afterwards.

In both cases, the time these people spent together was less than a minute. What these stories have in common is that the four people involved in the two cases did not wear masks.

根据宁波市江北区公安部门2月5日公共视频比对发现,1月23日早上7:47,该患者在双东坊菜场买菜时与路人(江北区确诊患者2:女,61岁,家住文教街道翠柏西巷,1月19日应约参加祈福活动)在同一摊位有过短暂(约15秒)的近距离共同驻留,且两人均未佩戴口罩。

According to a public video comparison of the public security department of Jiangbei district, Ningbo city on Feb 5, it was found that at 7:47 am on Jan 23, the man was shopping at the Shuangdongfang Vegetable Market with a passerby (the 2nd patient diagnosed in Jiangbei district: female, 61 years old, living in Cuibai West Lane of Wenjiao Jie and was invited to participate in a blessing event on Jan 19). The two had a short stay (approximately 15 seconds) at the same booth, staying together at a short distance, and neither of them wore a mask.

根据杭州当地公安部门2月5日公共视频比对发现,1月22日14时21分,徐某某从该医馆的药房门口处进入医馆,与杨某某(1月22日发病的确诊病例)正面相遇,当时徐某某在一楼吧台处取药,杨某某在外侧吧台处停留,有过约50秒的近距离共同驻留,期间两人均未佩戴口罩。1月25日、1月27日徐某某、王某某相继发病,2月5日确诊。

According to a public video comparison on Feb 5 by the local public security department in Hangzhou, at 14:21 on Jan 22, Xu Moumou entered the medical hall from the pharmacy entrance of the medical hall, and Yang Moumou (onset of illness on Jan 22, a confirmed coronavirus case) encountered each other head-on. At that time, Xu Moumou got medicine at the counter on the first floor, while Yang Moumou stayed at the outer side of the counter. The two people stayed together at a short distance for about 50 seconds. During the period, neither of them wore a mask. On Jan 25 and Jan 27, Xu Moumou and Wang Moumou [wife of Xu Moumou] developed symptoms one after another, and their diagnosis [of COVID-19] was confirmed on Feb 5.

Note that in both cases the people got infected in indoor settings, which underlines just how risky it is to be in close contact with anyone in an indoor space.

Wherever you are in the world, please stay safe – and keep a distance, especially indoors.

What do you think?

Coronavirus ‘Signs’ of the Times: Public Service Posters Seen in Beijing

First came the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, epidemic, followed by a flurry of public service announcements and posters. These posters in particular have become an ubiquitous part of the daily landscape I pass through between the office (just a 10-minute walk away) and home.

Previously, I shared with you my 11 tips for preparing for a coronavirus outbreak in your neighborhood.

Some of you might also be wondering, what kinds of things are the authorities recommending here to the public? I’m sharing a number of the public service posters I’ve encountered during my walk to the office and home, which give you a visual look at some of the advice we’ve received.

(Note: The advice below does recommend wearing masks, something we are all required to do here whenever we go out; however the WHO does not encourage everyone to wear masks.)

This poster, on the door to my building of residence, outlines six major things people should do to help prevent infections of the novel coronavirus. Clockwise, from top left, they are: Wash your hands regularly, eat cooked foods, wear a mask, don’t go to crowded places, drink more water, do regular ventilation.

This poster outlines four things offices can do to prevent the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, listed on the little white square in the poster. They are, from top: Wear masks, maintain good hand hygiene, regularly open windows for ventilation, keep objects clean.

This poster focuses on six things to be aware of during office meetings, listed in the small rectangular area in white characters. Clockwise from top left, they are: wear masks, bring your own cups, maintain distance, shorten the time, open windows for ventilation, disinfect after the meeting.

This poster introduces five principles for prevention of the novel coronavirus in elevators:

  1. Wear a mask during the entire ride
  2. Reduce touching or contact as much as possible
  3. Using the stairs is recommended for those on a lower floor
  4. When more people are present, they should ride the elevator in turns
  5. Stand a meter apart while waiting to ride the elevator

What guidance have you seen or heard in your area regarding coronavirus outbreaks?

I Loved Hair Salons in China, but Now I’m the Home Barber, Thanks to the Virus – Pub’d on WWAM BAM

The group blog WWAM BAM just published my post I Loved Hair Salons in China, but Now I’m the Home Barber, Thanks to the Virus. Here’s an excerpt:

For years I have lauded barber shops in China as one of the greatest things about living in this country. I’ve praised their service in so many ways, from the nice scalp massages that come along with the wash and rinse to the fact that they actually know how to cut my husband’s hair (you would not believe how many US hair salons I’ve seen bungle Asian hair, but that’s another story…).

So about a week ago, I did something I never would have imagined myself doing in China — I cut my husband Jun’s hair. Yes, yours truly became the family barber, wielding our newly bought Flyco electric clipper set. And it’s all thanks to the coronavirus.

Read the full post on WWAM BAM. And if you like it, share it!

In Old Frontiersman’s Lost Horse, We Find Encouragement – Pub’d on China Daily

China Daily just published my most recent column In old frontiersman’s lost horse, we find encouragement. Here is an excerpt:

Long before I ever uttered my first word in Mandarin Chinese, I encountered a story that has helped me redefine how I approach the good and the bad in life-the tale of the old frontiersman’s lost horse, or sai weng shi ma.

According to the tale, an old man living near the border happened to lose his horse when it ran away. People came to comfort him, but he responded by saying, “Why couldn’t this be something fortunate?” After a few months, the horse returned to the old man, bringing along with it a number of fine steeds from the frontier. People came to offer congratulations, but the old man said, “Why couldn’t this be a calamity?” The old man now had many horses at his home, and his son loved to ride. But one day, while on horseback, the son fell off and broke his leg. People came to console the old man, who instead told them, “Why couldn’t this be a good thing?” A year later, barbarians carried out a large-scale invasion on the frontier, and every able-bodied young man took up arms to go to war. The vast majority of the people living at the frontier died. But the son was saved from going to battle because of his lame leg, allowing him and his father to survive in safety.

Ever since I’ve first read this story as a high school student, I’ve returned to it again and again whenever the world yields more sorrows than sweetness. The idea that, perhaps, things that seemed bad might actually prove to have a silver lining, one we might not discern at first, has provided a certain reassurance I depend on amid the vicissitudes of life. And indeed, sometimes what seems apparently unfortunate can still yield blessings after all.

Read the full column here, and if you like it, share it!

Coronavirus: Loved Ones Once Worried About Me in China, Now I Worry About Them

Are you OK? Is everything all right there in Beijing?

In late January and early February of this year, the messages from family and friends, though brief, packed a great emotional wallop. I sensed the care and concern behind them, and I could understand why.

I had followed much of the Western news coverage of the novel coronavirus epidemic, and it painted a rather bleak picture in China, often characterizing the pathogen as “deadly”. In fact, it seemed that every story about the outbreak in China had to use the phrase “the deadly coronavirus” multiple times.

Except, my reality in Beijing was a lot safer than what these media reports portrayed.

Was the virus something we had to take seriously? Of course. But I live in a small and isolated community (which checks our temperatures when we come in and doesn’t allow outsiders to enter). And my office is a 10-minute walk away so I never needed to take the public transportation. There were hardly any people on the street, so I didn’t need to worry about catching something from a stranger; besides I was exercising social distancing on the street, keeping at least six feet away from anybody. And I was ultra-cautious in following the recommendations to stay at home, avoid crowds and crowded places, and just in general not socialize or go out if not needed.

On top of it, my husband could work from home easily and we were even able to go a record 12 days without buying any groceries. And when we did finally order some, we did so through an online service which drastically reduced the chances of any contact with another person.

Sometimes it wasn’t easy to convey all of this to folks not here in China. But I attempted to as best I could. I hoped they understood that I was in an ideal situation for avoiding any possible infections.

I also took much comfort from the fact that I lived in a country that adopted an aggressive approach to control and contain the coronavirus.

I never thought that, all of a sudden, the tables would flip and I would find myself fearing for family and friends overseas, as their countries are forced to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.

The other day, family texted a slew of photos from local grocery stores, filled with the empty shelves that have made headlines. I couldn’t help worrying, were they able to buy enough to eat, so they can stay indoors? Do they have enough supplies to manage?

When I look at how other countries have responded to this pandemic, I actually feel safer here in China. How I wish they all had this sense of safety I had.

What I found solace in during the hardest of times was this — we were not alone in our situation in China. Everyone was staying more at home, avoiding crowds and the like. We were one unified front.

I hope they too will find that same sense of commitment and solidarity in their response to the coronavirus.

Whether or not you believe it, we are at war, albeit with an invisible enemy. And in wartime, I think of my loved ones a little more, and hope they will see themselves safely through this dark period.

Are you thinking of loved ones more during the coronavirus pandemic? How is your family managing?

P.S.: You can read more coronavirus-related posts here, including my tips for preparation.

Coronavirus: My Bread Flour Shortage Points to Curious Trend in China

Toilet paper shortages? Seriously?

I was stunned when I read news of how this bathroom essential was flying off shelves — and leaving them bare — around the world, all due to fears about the coronavirus.

I found it rather bizarre because here in China, we never saw toilet paper selling out in our supermarket. And apparently I’m not the only one puzzled, since news articles have surfaced on this subject, such as Why are people stockpiling toilet paper?

Still, the coronavirus has led to some unusual pressure on supplies that I never had to virtually elbow my fellow shoppers over.

Witness, for example, how in the past couple of weeks my favorite brand of bread flour, Xinliang, the best-seller in the online supermarket, has consistently been out of stock. I’ve been purchasing it for over a year and this is the first time this has happened.

And we’re not talking about just one type of Xinliang bread flour. Every single darned variety — white flour for bread, whole wheat flour, cake flour — in every single size — from 5 kilograms right down to 500 grams — is unavailable.

The online flagship store for Xinliang on Alibaba’s Tmall provided even less reassurance. While they were selling all my must-have varieties of bread flour, they came with a rather painful asterisk — that the store could ship them out as late as early April. Early April!

Now, granted, the online supermarket has other brands of bread flour on sale — but I’m stubborn. I really, really like Xinliang, right down to the adorable English words “Pure bread flour” printed on the front of its white bread flour packages.

Why has Xinliang been selling like hot jiaozi dumplings? Well, some recent coronavirus-inspired trends might offer some clues.

Last month, I wrote about how spending more time at home inspired me to get more creative in the kitchen, as I prepared more foods from scratch — including home-baked bread (thank you, bread machine!) — and expanded my repertoire, even creating my own homemade hummus.

The problem? Everyone else was steaming up their own kitchen cooking for themselves — and lots of them wanted bread too, by the looks of news reports. Consider this detail in the article Sales of cooking goods soar on online platforms (emphasis mine):

Sales of yeast, a necessity for making bread and pastries, soared by nearly 40 times while dumpling wrappers were sold seven times more than before. Seasonings were a hot item, with over 3.93 million onions, pieces of ginger and heads of garlic sold.

Data from Tmall International also showed that a UK multifunctional boiler, a Japanese sandwich maker as well as bread makers saw their sales soar 400 percent in its platform during the past one month.

So if more shoppers have been snapping up yeast and bread makers, then it’s no wonder my precious Xinliang bread flour has been missing in action in the online supermarket.

I keep waiting and hoping for it to reappear on the virtual shelves, checking every single week for signs of its re-emergence. But so far, no luck.

Meanwhile, I’ve observed shoppers moving on to a new brand of bread flour, touting how everyone in those Tik-Tok cooking videos uses it and posting their photos of bread hot out of the machine. It offered some reassurance, at least, that shifting to a new brand wouldn’t somehow lead to lackluster loaves.

But since I still have at least 3 kilograms of Xinliang bread flour left over — and a perhaps somewhat irrational attachment to the brand — I’m willing to wait a little longer.

However, if you’re one of the poor souls facing toilet paper shortages, waiting a little longer, depending on how many rolls you have left, might literally bite you in the bum.

Have you been seeing any unusual shortages in your area because of the coronavirus? Sound off in the comments.

P.S.: If this post inspired you to bake some more bread, consider heading over to When West Dates East for a delectable recipe for Shaker bread. And please, do your other fellow bakers a favor and leave some bread flour for the next person!