Following Her Heart To Asia At 45+: Interview With Janet Brown

Tone Deaf in Bangkok by Janet BrownIt’s never too late to follow your heart to Asia. Just ask American writer Janet Brown, who went to Bangkok at age 45 to teach English and ended up falling in love with her newfound home (and, for a brief time, a Thai local). She captured this experience in her memoir Tone Deaf in Bangkok, which reads like a valentine to the city and Thailand itself, the country where she feels most at home.

Then Janet returns to Bangkok at 60 and wonders: could she still remain closely connected to her two sons in Seattle and live happily in Thailand at the same time? That’s the question at the heart of her second memoir titled Almost Home, a book where she also explores the possibility of putting down roots in three other Asian locales — Beijing, Hong Kong and Penang.

Not surprisingly, while Janet currently calls Seattle, Washington home, she has just returned to Asia this year for some traveling and hopes to continue her love affair with the continent.

I’m delighted to introduce you to Janet Brown and her writing through this interview. Besides Tone Deaf in Bangkok and Almost Home, Janet is also the author of the forthcoming book Light and Silence: Growing Up in My Mother’s Alaska, which will be out September 1, 2014. You can follow her writer’s notebook at Tone Deaf in Thailand.

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You’re currently in Hong Kong and have plans to return to Thailand. It must be exciting to return to two places that feel like second homes to you and reunite with close friends there. What does it feel like to be back?

Coming back to this part of Asia is always like leaving one life to step into another. It’s exhilarating and joyful and a tiny bit exhausting at first, because to enter one life you have to be prepared to completely leave the other, if only for a little while. I think we call this jetlag, but it’s really the effects of time travel.

As you chronicled in Tone Deaf in Bangkok, you fell in love with your Thai language tutor, who was much younger than you. Did your attraction to him surprise you and if so, how?

When I first met the man I fell in love with in Bangkok, I didn’t even think we’d be friends. He was so conservative and quiet, but that turned out to be a professional mask that covered the face of a rebel. I fought the attraction as it grew, telling myself it was one-sided and absurd, concentrating on the work of learning Thai and getting to know the person who was teaching me to speak it. Because of the age difference between us, I was hesitant right up until the moment that he first kissed me.

Almost Home by Janet BrownWhat did you learn from this brief romance? And what did it feel like to see him years later, as you recalled in your book Almost Home?

I learned that love takes many forms and can be expressed in ways that don’t depend upon a sexual relationship. After our physical intimacy ended, we continued a close and loving friendship up until his death. We met each time I came to Thailand on vacation and stayed in touch through email and photographs. I urged him to marry the woman who became his wife and celebrated the birth of their daughter. Even so, when he first brought his family to see me after I moved back to Bangkok and they came on vacation from Italy, it was much more difficult than I had expected. Although we had become friends, the underpinning of that relationship was still the memory of bodies in a dark room, laughing.

Perhaps the greatest gift he gave me was coming to see me without his family the very last time I saw him, ten months before he died. The bond between us was very strong and very tangible; I feel a deep and inerasable loneliness now that he is no longer in the world.

Where will you spend Chinese New Year? What are your plans?

I’ll be in Bangkok this Chinese New Year, as I was three years ago, on Yaowarat Road in Chinatown as the Lunar New Year celebrations began. It was wildly crowded and I left after an hour of walking and staring. I’d left my phone at home and when I entered my apartment, it rang. “I saw you in Chinatown a couple of hours ago. Why didn’t you answer your phone?” The voice at the other end of the line didn’t surprise me. We always found each other in unlikely circumstances, from the moment we first met. Now I find him in unexpected places, with memories that are so strong that they blot out the world for a minute and once again I’m in another life.

As someone who found a new life, love and adventure in Asia over the age of 45, you’re truly an inspiration. What advice do you have for women over 45 who want to follow in your footsteps, including dating men in Asia?

Janet Brown
Janet Brown

I think women in their forties now are much more open to adventure than their counterparts were twenty years ago. But to those who think they have to settle into a lackluster middle age, I urge them to take a risk and explore different ways of living—and loving. Skydive, damn it.

Author of Tone Deaf in Bangkok and Almost Home, Janet has a third book, Light and Silence, coming out in 2014. She keeps a writer’s notebook at tonedeafinthailand.blogspot.com.

Double Happiness: “Enter Zhao Ming…China’s Answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger”

Ming and Rosalie at their wedding in 2007 (Photo courtesy of Rosalie Zhao)

I love stories that challenge stereotypes about Chinese men. Well, you can’t get much better than this love story, where a white American woman goes to China and ends up falling for a guy she considers the Chinese version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Thanks to Rosalie Zhao for sharing her amazing story, which just might inspire more Western women out there to give Chinese men a chance.

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Thanks to a relative’s cute Chinese neighbor, I went through a brief phase of yellow fever in high school. It came and went in the same fashion as most things (Josh Hartnett, Doc Martens) I pined after during my teenage years. I didn’t think my attraction to Asians would resurface, even as I packed my bags for my post-college teach in China stint. Just a week before I left, in February 2005, my cousin Nicky called it, “You’re gonna fall in love in China.” I couldn’t help but laugh.

Fast-forward a couple months later and you’d find me in China, sweating it out at the local gym. I’d never been much of a gym rat, but with a 12 hour per week teaching schedule, virtually no English-language television, and no home internet (remember—this was 2005 and I was in a small Chinese city) all that was left to do was hop on a treadmill.

Me exercising is no picture of grace and beauty, nor is it a time during which I enjoy critique or idle chit-chat. Enter Zhao Ming, seemingly China’s answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger. As I made my feeble attempts to use five pound free weights, Ming took it upon himself to criticize my form. While I understand now that Chinese people often offer unsolicited advice as a gesture of kindness, at the time I was thoroughly annoyed. Who did this meathead think he was? And he could hardly speak English!

Ming and Rosalie in June 2005 (Photo courtesy of Rosalie Zhao)

Though awkward, I was relieved by our failure to communicate. It meant Mr. Muscles would leave me alone. It wasn’t but a few days later, while I was on the treadmill jogging, thoroughly red-faced, that he made his second approach. I tried to politely ignore him, but as anyone living in China knows, you cannot politely ignore a Chinese person who really wants something. This guy was on a mission. In a tone that sounded a bit rehearsed, he asked, “Can I with you walk home?”

I decided it was best to stick with honesty. “Oh, sorry. I have to go home and take a shower,” I replied. His face was thrown into a state of utter confusion. He really didn’t understand English. Continuing my jog, I began to pantomime while yelling, “US, NO WALK. ME, GO HOME. SHOWER.” His face lit up; he understood. But a second later his expression collapsed, realizing I wasn’t willing to walk with him.

Over the course of the next two weeks we repeated the same song and dance—him asking to walk me home and me gesturing my refusals. It wasn’t until one night that he cornered me at the gym exit that I finally decided to give him a chance. What was the harm in letting him walk with me?

So we walked, with few words, just his bicycle and our foolish grins between us. He stopped and bought us each a yogurt, then carefully unwrapped the straw and stuck it in the drink, smiling at me widely. I felt my insides melt. When we reached my apartment I decided to run upstairs quickly to grab my Lonely Planet phrasebook. Somehow we fuddled through an hour’s worth of “conversation” before it started to rain lightly. We quickly ran into the building’s stairwell, laughing. Then he kissed me. In that moment I somehow knew that I could, in fact, find love in China. And here we are, eight years later, five years married, and still very much in love.

Rosalie with Ming and his family in December 2011 (Photo courtesy of Rosalie Zhao)

Ming later revealed to me that his approach at the gym exit was going to be his final attempt to ask me out. I’m so glad I didn’t turn him down. Looking back, I’m not sure why I found the thought of finding love in China so humorous and inconceivable. In a country of 1.3 billion people, the majority of them male, why did finding a boyfriend seem so implausible? My closed-mindedness and arrogance nearly cost me the love of my life. A cautionary tale? Maybe. But more importantly, just a reminder—anything is possible, even love for the single foreign female in China!

Rosalie Zhao resides with her husband in Hebei, China, where she writes a blog in Chinese and English called An American Woman in China.

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We’re looking for a few good stories from Chinese men and Western women in love — or out of love — to share on Fridays. Submit your original story or a published blog post today.