Tibetan-Style Blankets: Cross-Cultural Couple Creates Colorful Business

A few years ago, I discovered Kimberly, a white American woman married to a Tibetan man in Qinghai, and later shared her story in the post Love on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau – Konchok and Kimberly.

More recently, the couple has built up a business selling blankets in a rainbow of brilliant hues — and is gaining a following for the beauty and quality of their Tibetan-style products.

How did it all come about? Kimberly has graciously written a guest post sharing the story behind Shema-lep Tibetan Style Blankets.

If you’d like to learn more or make a purchase, you can connect with Shema-lep Tibetan Style Blankets through WeChat (by scanning the QR code in the photo below) or through Facebook and Instagram.

As a foreigner living in a minority area in China, I have had the opportunity to enjoy traditional handicrafts around every corner. I’ve also had the chance to spend time with and observe other foreign visitors to the area. One thing we all seem to have in common is an admiration for traditional Tibetan clothing.

Pictured, from left, are Kimberly’s daughter, Kimberly, Tsoko (the main tailor for their business), Tsoko’s son, and Kimberly’s husband Konchok.

Having married into a Tibetan family has also taught me a lot over the years. I’ve been able to get to know people in my husband’s hometown and the surrounding area, see how their lives are, and watch the rapid changes happening there.

The idea for our Tibetan-style blankets came to me after realizing a few different things.

Even though the traditional robes Tibetans wear daily or for special occasions are beautiful and readily available for purchase, they do not make very good souvenirs or gifts for visitors. This is because there aren’t many opportunities to wear them once visitors go back home. I wanted to provide something similar to these robes that everyone can use, display and enjoy.

I have learned a bit about Tibetan tailors in my husband’s hometown area. Most are elderly; young people are not learning the trade. The culture has changed in recent years due to shifts in the economy and education. Now, instead of patching up old robes or asking tailors to make new ones, people buy new premade robes in shops. This means less and less work for local tailors.

By employing seasoned village tailors to make blankets in the style of their Tibetan robes, we can improve their incomes while providing useful and cultural home furnishings. It is our hope that our success will help Tibetans realize the beauty and value of their traditional crafts, and inspire an interest in preserving them for future generations.

Tsoko at work on a Tibetan-style blanket.

At the moment, our main tailor Tsoko is working on the majority of our blanket orders. At the same time she is providing for her 80-year-old mother and middle school-aged son. As a single parent and sole caretaker of her mother, she is the only earner in her family. She has been working odd jobs to make ends meet. We are happy to be able to provide her with a more regular income and to reduce the strain on her family’s finances.

Because our blankets are so beautifully colorful, like butterflies, we chose to name our business Shema-lep, the word for “butterfly” in the Amdo Tibetan language.

Shema-lep Tibetan Style Blankets lets customers choose from a variety of colors, materials and sizes. All of the materials available are the same materials Tibetans use to make their modern-day robes. Now real sheep and lambskin blankets are available as well. We are pleased to be able to provide something that is both authentically Tibetan and beautifully useful in any home. We are looking forward to growing and helping more tailors in the future. We enjoy sharing Tibetan culture through textiles and stories. Thank you for reading our story.

A huge thank you to Kimberly for sharing this story! If you’d like to learn more or make a purchase, you can connect with Shema-lep Tibetan Style Blankets through WeChat (by scanning the QR code in the photo below) or through Facebook and Instagram.

Cambodian Husband Deported from US, White American Wife to Follow Him to Cambodia

As the US continues to ramp up its deportation efforts, the media have documented the casualties of this punitive response toward immigrants in terms of affected families.

A heartbreaking story on PRI I came across the other day details the deportation of a Cambodian man married to a white American woman from Wisconsin:

Lisa Kum has an endless list of tasks every day. The 41-year-old from Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, has a 19-month-old daughter and a high school-aged son. She’s also tending to her health after undergoing elbow surgery earlier this year.

Nowadays, she’s also busy growing her business that sells refurbished HP printer parts — so that she can sell it and move her family to Cambodia. That’s because Kum’s husband, Sothy Kum, was deported to Cambodia, a country he left when he was just 2 years old. She plans to shut down the small business they started together four years ago and start over 8,000 miles away.

“It’s pretty much been pure hell,” she says. “It’s very emotional. At the same time, you have to get up every morning and keep going because what other choice do you have?”

I can only imagine what a nightmare this has to be for her and her family. Meanwhile, you’re probably wondering, what exactly prompted the US to arrest and deport Sothy Kim? The article details that as well:

Lisa says her husband spent most of the last two years in immigration detention, almost as long as their young daughter has been alive. Sothy and his family fled Cambodia as refugees and spent years in camps, first in Thailand and then the Philippines. He arrived in the US in 1981, when he was about 6 years old.

Lisa and Sothy met in 2009 when they worked at the same company. In 2014, they decided to quit their jobs and take the financial risk of starting their own business. Sothy allowed an acquaintance to pay him to send marijuana to his house. He was convicted of possession of marijuana with the intent to deliver.

After serving his one-year sentence in 2016, Sothy was again detained by ICE. Though Sothy was a legal permanent resident with a green card, his conviction made him deportable. He remained in ICE detention until August 2017, when he was released just in time to see his daughter turn 1 and to marry Lisa. But by October 2017, Sothy was back in custody.

The reporter doesn’t probe further into Sothy’s conviction for marijuana, but it follows a sinister pattern in the US — that people of color constitute close to 80 percent of those imprisoned for possession and sales of marijuana, compared with a paltry 4 percent for whites. (And interestingly, with the legalization of marijuana in America, the people who now stand most to profit are overwhelmingly white.)

Does a conviction of this nature warrant deportation? Supposedly only people committing “crimes of violence” should be sent back to their countries, and it’s hard to imagine that any real violence was going on here.

Meanwhile, there’s another question worth asking — is it right to deport a man who came to the US as a refugee, and at such a young age? The actions of the current Trump administration have overwhelmingly shown they have no regard for such people, including the most recent example of ending protected status for Hondurans in the US. But still, it boggles the mind that a country that would welcome a refugee when he was only 6 years old has now shipped him back to his country of birth, despite the fact that he’s lived the vast majority of his adult life in the US.

Lisa and Sothy Kum remind me of so many interracial couples I’ve encountered over the years, and it was chilling to encounter their story in PRI. Meanwhile, I can’t help but wonder, what will their lives be like after reuniting in Cambodia? Will they be able to find a way forward for themselves and their family? I know deportation can have a devastating effect on people and their families, as a recent report of the tragic end of one man deported to Mexico revealed.

But here’s hoping their family will overcome these difficulties and start anew in Cambodia.

What do you think of this story? Do you believe Sothy Kim’s crime warranted deportation?

How “Italian Eggplant” Divided Us, and Then United Us in Love

(Photo by Alice Henneman via Flickr.com)
(Photo by Alice Henneman via Flickr.com)

The old saying goes that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. But what of a woman’s heart? I have to wonder if that’s even more true for us, especially after the culinary feat my husband accomplished in the past few months.

In case you didn’t know, my husband is now the chef in our family. He’s the one who toils every evening in the kitchen to put together some of the most scrumptious meals I’ve ever tasted.

That’s quite a feat from a fellow who once shied away from the wok. Whenever people asked him if he could cook, he’d always laugh and reply, “I only know how to add in oil and salt.” He always used to claim I was the one more skilled in this arena, preferring to leave the spatula to me.

But in the past few years, my husband started shouldering more of the cooking responsibilities. Until at some point (I still can’t remember exactly when) he took over preparing all the meals in our home. It was a godsend in many respects, especially when I was in the hospital last year and couldn’t have managed the recovery without his support in the kitchen.

The last thing I expected, however, was for my husband to prepare that infamous eggplant dish, just for me.

Jun and I have a fascinating history with eggplant – specifically, a Chinese-style dish I’ve nicknamed “Italian Eggplant”. It’s one of the first dishes I ever prepared for him when we started dating years ago. It’s also a dish that led to one of our first heated (no pun intended) arguments.

I remember that muggy summer evening in Hangzhou, proudly setting that blue and white porcelain bowl on the dinner table after toiling over the wok. The whole apartment was redolent with the savory aroma of eggplant stir-fried with tomatoes, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, a dash of vinegar, and a touch of sea salt. I inhaled with satisfaction as I thought of all the friends who had tasted the very same dish, heaping on the compliments as big as the second and third helpings they enjoyed at my place.

Surely, Jun was going to love this dish just as much. Or so I thought…until he started eating.

“Too sour. Too much soy sauce. Too much tomato,” he said. Jun grimaced with every bite – and I could feel my anger rising with every complaint. How dare he insult the food I so lovingly prepared for him! Where was his appreciation for my hard work?

I let him have it, as I slammed my chopsticks on the table and asked him what the hell was wrong with him?

Admittedly, I was a little hot-headed at the time. But it had to do with how I’d been raised – to always say thank you to the chef, even if you didn’t like the food. It was a lesson I’d learned well after years of dining at my paternal grandmother’s house. She was a notoriously horrible cook who would entertain us with things like soggy, tasteless macaroni and veggies from a can. Even though I could sometimes barely stomach the stuff on my plate, I would force myself to say how good the food was.

When I told Jun about this, his face turned as red as the tomatoes in the dish. Turns out, he had a completely different experience growing up at the table. Every dinner included a course of blunt feedback about how everything tasted – even if that meant saying the food was unequivocally bad.

I apologized for my outburst, and he apologized for criticizing my food, instead of saying thanks.

Meanwhile, I figured that was the last time we would ever dine on my Italian Eggplant.

Except, it wasn’t.

Over the years, Jun surprised me by actually giving the dish a second chance – and loving it. It gradually became a favorite for us. Yes, a favorite! Who would have thought?

Then, after Jun assumed the role of chef in our home, he surprised me again.

One evening, our house was once again redolent with the aroma of dinner, courtesy of Jun. And it smelled very familiar. Was that eggplant and tomato in the air? And soy sauce? I followed my nose to the table, only to discover that Jun had cooked Italian Eggplant just for me, from scratch.

With one bite, I found myself in ecstasy once again. “Mmmm, this is so delicious!” I exclaimed, unable to contain myself over the delectable flavor. How had he so perfectly replicated the dish I once lovingly crafted for him all those years before?

Jun likes to say he transcended himself in finally learning to make this dish. I like to say he did it for love. But honestly, whenever it’s on the table, we don’t say much at all. We just eat and eat and eat, thankful that the food that we once argued over brought us together in delicious harmony.

Interview with Lita, China’s WeChat Cookie Queen

If you’ve never heard of Lita (also known as China’s cookie queen on WeChat) you’re missing out on some heavenly desserts. Especially her pie cookies.

A native of Atlanta, Georgia, USA, Lita came to China looking for adventure, and found a husband here as well as her groove in the baking business. She opened Sweet Tooth Confections and now sells her delectable cookies across China, with plans to start a “cookie of the month” club. Lita’s pie cookies — the goodness of a homemade pie, baked into a convenient cookie size — are a big reason people keep coming back for more. 

Plus, it’s not hard to love Lita, who shines happiness upon everyone in her friendly little corner of WeChat.

I’m thrilled to introduce you to Lita and Sweet Tooth Confections through this interview. To order Lita’s cookies on WeChat, just scan the QR code below and add her on WeChat (her WeChat ID is “Chocolatasian”). (Note: delivery limited to residents of China.)

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Shalita, but most people just call me Lita. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia. After high school, I moved in with my grandmother and attended Georgia State University. During that time my grandmother developed uterine cancer, and in my senior year passed away. Nine short months later, my mother passed away. I was just turning 21. Maybe my mother knew that she didn’t have much time left because after my grandmother’s funeral, she made me make her two promises if anything was to happen to her. Promise number one was to not let anyone separate us and promise number two was that my brother and sister get an education. At age 21 I became guardian and mother to an 8-year-old and a 13-year-old who had no parents and no grandparents. I dropped out of college and devoted my life raising and loving them. Many years later after the kids had grown and gone, I found that I didn’t have much of a life. I had never even had a boyfriend. They had become my everything. A decision that I have never regretted. What I did regret was that I hadn’t spent enough time building a life for myself. I had been working for the government for 9 plus years. I had a good job with great benefits. I was good at my job, had a nice apartment downtown, but something was missing. So I went back to school, which led me to China and led me to my husband. I always told my brother and sister, we are not defined by the pain and loss we have suffered, but shaped by them to become better people. I never allowed them to feel sorry for themselves, to wallow in self-pity, or to use excuses. Now my brother is married and the proud father of four. He is a very successful military man. He has done very well for himself and family. My sister is a professional chef and mother of three with two degrees. As for me, I am creating and living my dream.

How did you first come to China?

I first came to China in 2006 on a study abroad trip through my university. It was a great experience and I not only made lasting memories, but I also made some great friends. Afterwards, I went back to life as usual, but I knew that I wanted to someday return. In 2009, I reconnected with a friend from that time and she asked me when I was coming back. Long story short, a few months later I was back in China, this time as a teacher instead of a student and embarking on a new adventure.

You reside in Yiwu with your husband, who is Chinese. How did you two meet?

I met my husband at church. I was working in Jinhua at the time, which didn’t have an English church service. A friend told me about services in Yiwu. So, every Sunday I would travel by bus to attend the service. My first Sunday there, the Pastor asked me to teach classes after service. I agreed and started teaching that very same day. My husband was in that class. The topic was about being single and waiting. My husband made a comment about how he had lost faith in love because Chinese women were only concerned about money. I asked him if they were blind, crazy or both, because he was so handsome. He smiled and that was it for me. Love at first smile. Let him tell it, it was the same for him. I continued to visit the church and become quite active. I harbored feelings for him the next years and a half. In 2011 he was moving to another city for a job and the only person alive that knew how I felt about him decided that he should know before he moved away. It turns out that he felt the same way. We were married the following year in 2012.

How did you start your business, Sweet Tooth Confections?

I was always baking and posting pictures on my moments on WeChat. My friends would comment on how delicious it looked and several suggested that I start a business. I had thought about starting a business but I was really having a hard time personally. I hadn’t been back home in over six years and I was constantly battling homesickness. My husband and I were also trying to overcome serious cultural differences that were putting a strain on our marriage. I wanted to start a business but I was not in the right frame of mind. So, I let it go. During that time a good friend, Jo Bai moved to my city and I took a much-needed trip back home. She gave me a well-deserved kick in the butt. My trip home rejuvenated me and gave me clarity and perspective. I came back to China with a new attitude. Months passed and I had no idea how I was going to start. Initially it was going to be a joint venture between myself and Jo, but even that seemed to move slow. Then during the holidays, I promised that I would make her a pie because she was feeling a bit homesick. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances it burned. When I told her about it, she was so disappointed. I knew that I had to make it up to her so I decided to make her something special and surprise her. She loved the pie cookies that I made her and shared pictures in our group and on her moments. Consequently, I also made some for other members of the group as a gift. Right away I was asked, “When can I buy more of these?” That was the beginning.

What is it like behind the scenes, when you’re putting together batches of cookies for your customers? Is there something interesting or surprising that people might not know about your business?

I make every batch of cookies on my own. I usually get up at 5 and start baking by 6. I must have everything organized and laid out before I start. I can be very strict about my tools and area. I have an entire ritual when I am baking. It involves a lot of music and dancing. I believe that whatever attitude or spirit I have at the time of baking inevitably makes its way into my cookies, so I like to fill my kitchen and prep area with lots of joy and love.

How has your husband helped support your business?

My husband handles packaging and shipping, which enables me to focus solely on baking. After I finish a batch, he prepares them for shipping. Because of his help, it allows me to spend more time on what I do best.

What are some of your most popular cookies?

Right now my most popular cookies are pecan pie, lemon pie, sweet potato pie, and salted caramel.

Could you share some of the sweets or desserts that are off the menu — you know, things you like to bake for yourself or people you love?

That’s easy. When I am baking just for us, it’s always carrot cake, chocolate cake, or apple pie.

Thanks so much to Lita for this interview! To order cookies from Sweet Tooth Confections on WeChat, just scan the QR code at the top of this post and add her on WeChat.

Photo Essay: How My Chinese Husband Shows Love in Everyday Moments

Later today after 8pm Beijing time, the new group blog WWAM Bam (Western Women & Asian Men – Breaking All Molds) will be publishing a group post on how our Chinese husbands show their love for us, including a short contribution from me. I wrote:

My husband is the kind of guy who shows his love in those thoughtful everyday moments. You know, the little things he does to tell me — through actions, not words — just how much he cares.

To honor Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d extend that with a photo essay highlighting some of those everyday moments – in no particular order — that remind me just how much he loves me.

#1: Bringing me a steaming hot cup of my favorite dragonwell tea every morning

Jun knows exactly how I love my green tea, and always has it ready just after I wake up. 😉

#2: Putting bandages on my cuts (like when I cut myself shaving)

I’m such a klutz…but Jun is such a sweetie to want to bandage my cuts.

#3: Blow-drying my hair after I shower

Once I step out of the bathroom, Jun is usually ready — blow-dryer in hand — to serve. Thanks Jun!

#4: Tucking the covers around me to help me stay warm

When Jun goes to bed after me or gets up before I do, he often tucks the covers snugly around my shoulders. (He also did it when I was in the hospital last year, which is where this picture was taken.)

#5: Taking the garbage out (and doing other “dirty jobs” around the house)

Ever since we married, Jun has this thing about “dirty jobs” (like taking out the garbage) — he prefers to take care of them. (Did I also mention he loves to help my dad mow the lawn, as he did last year when we went to the US?)

#6: Warming my hands in his when they’re too cold

I love it when Jun holds my hands, especially just to warm them up when it’s cold outside.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Jun. I love you.