Among the many talented foreign women who happened to marry Chinese men, there’s Kenyan Ruth Njeri, who rose to fame – and found love – on the stage in China.
Njeri is also known in China as “非洲茉莉花“ (fēizhōu mòlìhuā, the “African jasmine flower”), a nickname she received from the country’s former president Hu Jintao after meeting him and singing together with him the Chinese folk song “茉莉花” (Jasmine Flower) in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2006, which landed her in the national TV news in China. As China Daily reported in an April 7, 2013, story titled Chinese Tones:
Njeri’s patience and persistence in learning Mandarin paid off in April 2006 when Hu Jintao, then China’s president, visited Kenya. Because of her progress in Chinese, she was selected from the Confucius Institute to meet him.
“I was quite nervous meeting him, and I heard my voice trembling while talking to him. He is actually a nice person who is very approachable and likes to chat with young people.”
Njeri completed her studies at Nairobi’s Confucius Institute in June that year and moved to China to pursue a degree in language and literature at Tianjin Normal University a month later.
She also received a scholarship for her studies, thanks to winning the Chinese Bridge Competition in Kenya.
In the next several years, she went on to appear numerous times in TV shows on networks all across China, including the country’s prominent China Central Television, or CCTV, which named her one of the most influential foreigners of 2007.
But her greatest moment – the one that changed her life and love forever – came with her high-profile singing performance in the 2011 Spring Festival Gala, or Chunwan, China’s annual Chinese New Year’s Eve show broadcast across the country on CCTV on the most important night of the year. That year, she shared the stage with Ya Xing, a Chinese man she first met in a Shanghai:
Ya, 40, hails from Luoyang, an industrial city in Central China’s Henan province. He met Njeri, 34, from Nairobi, Kenya in a restaurant in Shanghai while she was studying on a Chinese government scholarship. At the time, they were both participating in the World Expo and met again a month later in Shanghai just before sharing a stage during the CCTV Spring Festival Gala in Beijing in 2011.
“It was fate, Yuánfèn“, Ya said.
The two of them would go on to perform together on TV many times.
Njeri also sang for the 2013 Spring Festival Gala as well (a year that saw Celine Dion perform for the event).
Three years ago, Ya Xing married Ruth Njeri before his friends and family in China. He is considered brave among his peers for starting a new life in Kenya but the ebullient entrepreneur, once a TV host, does not think so.
“I am in love,” he said. “It might look complicated to marry into a new culture, but I think people think too much of it.”
Read the full story — and see a photo of the delightful couple — at China Daily.
“But apparently this stems from a tradition whereby Russian ladies would meet Chinese men here in the forest and kind of go on dates. But I guess it’s evolved to become more of a, you know, all encompassing thing.”
Those were the remarks in a recent episode of Travelogue on CGTN, or China Global Television Network (formerly CCTV International), that piqued my curiosity.
In Inner Mongolia 2: Life in the saddle, the host of the program Tianran He walked through a virgin forest in the Hulunbuir region of Inner Mongolia, China, when he started talking about these small messages dangling from the trees: “…in the forest there’s loads of these little good luck charms, and most of them are for love, but this one’s like, I wish my dad, mom, granddad and grandma good health.”
And then he explained this came about because of these rendezvous in the woods between Chinese men and Russian women who were apparently lovers.
Naturally, I was intrigued and set off to find whatever I could about this secret tradition in one of northern China’s border regions.
And I looked…and looked…and looked. But nothing definitive surfaced among the many searches I made in Chinese. (Incidentally, the host’s description of those items as “good luck charms” is inaccurate. Chinese would call them 许愿牌, xǔyuànpái, which could translate to “wish cards”.)
To be sure, Inner Mongolia’s Hulunbuir is a very remote destination in China. It’s tucked right up in the northeast corner of the country, sharing a border with Mongolia and Russia.
The close proximity to Russia does add plausibility to stories of cross-border dating in a forest. And if parents back then were anything like today — after all, it’s not uncommon for families to oppose interracial or intercultural love — chances are couples like this would welcome the cover and privacy of all those trees.
But exactly where is this forest in Hulunbuir? Based on the trees in the video, I suspect it’s a virgin birch forest — and there is such a place in Hulunbuir: 白桦林, báihuàlín, the white birch forest or white birch corridor in Ergun (额尔古纳). This area of Hulunbuir borders Russia, making it the most likely candidate.
Chances are, I’ll have to travel there to get the full story from the locals.
Anna has so many talents and fascinating stories to share, it’s no wonder she has caught the attention of China Central Television, who will be broadcasting a documentary about her life in rural Anhui Province this weekend for the program “Foreigners in China” on CCTV Channel 4.
It’s my great pleasure to feature Anna Zech through this interview.
Anna is a freelance illustrator and portrait artist in her late 20s, with a passion for Martial Arts and Chinese culture. She was born in Russia, grew up in Germany and studied in the UK. She is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and graduated with a masters degree in China and International Relations from London University in 2014.
Following the slogan Home is where the heart is, she joined her husband Jinlong, a Chinese national from Anhui province in his hometown, after living in Boading (Hebei) and Shanghai. Currently they both reside in Bozhou, a city in Anhui province. Being the center of Chinese Medicine and boosting thousands of years of history, Bozhou makes a great place for inspiration….
Aside from her passion for Chinese culture, Anna is spends her free time working on new drawings. Because art and Chinese culture hold such an important place in her life, she has fused her China blog with her art hobby, blogging about her new creations, sharing tips and tricks for beginner artists and gives free tutorials in traditional art, eg. pencil portraits, pastel or marker paintings.
I have always been fascinated with martial arts. When I was 13, a friend introduced me to a Kungfu School in Germany. I was hooked from the first day. All my teachers were Chinese nationals from the Shaolin temple, and when they invited a small group to go to China to visit their home town and train in Shaolin, I was the first one to sign up. After this first experience in China I fell in love with not only Chinese martial arts, but also China’s culture, its people and, of course, the food.
How did you end up meeting your husband?
Since my first visit to China to train in Kungfu, I have been coming and going whenever the time allowed me to travel. I remember it clearly. It was 2010, and I was on a university exchange studying in Shanghai. During my university studies I had actually more or less given up on my Kungfu training. But, some strange thing happened that winter. All of a sudden I decided to pack my stuff and go visit my old Trainer. He had opened a new Kungfu school, and I thought I had to check it out. Who would have thought that this decision would change my whole life? I met my husband in that school. He was a good friend of my trainer, and back then teaching a few foreigners Chinese Kickboxing. Even though he was very shy, he still managed to win me over. In the end it wasn’t me who made the first move. And within a month we were a couple. It was never a question for me. I just felt it was right and meant to be. For me, everything that had happened up to that moment was meant to be. It was fate.
The day I started learning Chinese, I have always wanted to one day take part in the Chinese Bridge Competition. I almost gave up on the idea, until last year when my Chinese teacher in London decided to push me to take part. When I won the finals in the UK and was invited to take part in the finals in China, I was actually really surprised.
The most memorable experience was the friends I made with people from all over the world. But, except that, I found the experience quite exhausting. I am fluent in Chinese, but I only speak a local Chinese dialect (blame my husband), and so the competition was my own little hell. We had special Standard Chinese teachers who tried to make sure we only speak Standard Chinese Putonghua. Every time I opened my mouth people started laughing at me. I got very self-conscious and even stopped talking Chinese for a while after the competition. I have now come to terms with my Chinese dialect. After all, where I live, everyone speaks it, and no one looks weird at me for speaking it as well. On the contrary, they accept me as one of them.
Many of us know you through your blogs — first, the Mandarin Duck and later the Lost Panda. How did you decide to start blogging?
I have always been writing a diary. I find it helps to structure thoughts. Since my first adventures in China, people had been suggesting I should share my stories with the world. It was 2013 when I finally had the courage (and a little push by my husband) that I decided to enter the blog world. I chose The Mandarin Duck at first because I thought they were really fitting. After all the male and female Mandarin duck look very different, but they still are together; a bit like our intercultural relationship with all its differences. But after blogging for a few months and moving to China for good, I realized it’s not just only about our relationship. Living in China, especially living in rural China has its own obstacles, and problems you have to overcome. And sometimes I just feel lost in this Chinese world of old traditions and superstitions. So, I became the Lost Panda. Who doesn’t love a panda? Now I am sharing the real life in rural China. It’s very different from the big Chinese cities, but it gives a glimpse into an old traditional side of living in China. The good and the bad.
I have never formally learned art. Actually, I just learned by watching my mother painting when I was a child. She gave up on art altogether, which is a pity. And to be honest I was on the same path over a year ago. It was my husband who encouraged me to pick up pencil and paper and do something with the gift that was given to me. I have found over the past months what I enjoy most are portraits. I have always been fascinated with eyes. When I was in school, I would draw little eyes all over my homework (creepy yeah). I am still a work in progress. Art is something you never stop improving in. I feel that during the past few months my portrait art has changed a lot. I have found my favourite medium to draw with and am now striving for realism. I want to capture the true character of every person I draw and make the portrait look as life like as possible. I hope I will get more opportunities in the future to practice these skills and share my knowledge I gain on the way with everyone else who is interested. Occasionally I also enjoy the freer art. I do many illustrations for my Lost Panda Blog and I have self-published a small children’s book called Maomao and the Nian Monster. I have so many more ideas and projects I am working on at the moment. Since moving to China, and finally being with my husband every day, I feel like my creativity has reached its peak, and every day I am excited to keep on working hard.
Being the only female foreigner here in the city it wasn’t that difficult to be noticed. I had been doing a few documentaries with Anhui International TV and through them got introduced to our local TV station. We’ve done a few small shows, like filming me and my Chinese family spending Chinese New Year. Naturally, I am a very introverted person, and it took me quite a bit of convincing to enter the world of a News presenter. The first day they invited me to the TV station, it was supposed to be a simple “Meet and Greet”, where we could get to know each other and slowly get a feeling for what it could be like. As is usual in China, things never are as they say they will be. That Saturday, they put me into new clothes, put on make-up and sat me in front of the camera. I thought they were just testing, and so I complied, reading the lines running in front of me. But when the nice lady said, “Ok, we are done,” I found I out that what we just had filmed would be broadcasted later that day! To the whole of Anhui province! Chinese TV can be chaotic and very exhausting. I have already given up on the News host gig. Without the right support from the TV station, it is impossible for a non-native speaker to read out an unknown Chinese script right off the screen without preparation.
China Central Television Channel 4 will be broadcasting a documentary about your life in rural Anhui Province. What was it like being filmed for China’s biggest TV network?
I think my husband had different feelings. He hates the camera and always forgets how to speak as soon as the camera is facing him. This, combined with a funny director, made for a memorable experience. They followed us for five days, which was the longest I have ever worked on a TV production. In the beginning I wasn’t sure what there is to film about our life again. We don’t do anything spectacular at the moment. So, I am really curious how they have structured the documentary. Also, they did interview my Chinese parents-in-law and my sister-in-law and my husband separately, so I have no idea what they said and I am very curious to know. It is definitely something you should think about before agreeing to. A film crew will come to your home and film everything from you waking up in the morning, cleaning the house, cooking to how you are with your husband and family. It’s very personal, but I made the decision to join. I think it’s a great way to capture a moment of your life and share it with the world. Maybe even our simple life can inspire someone.
I’m thrilled to report the show will finally be broadcast in China on Saturday, September 26 at 10:15pm Beijing Time on the CCTV News channel. (Not to be confused with the CCTV 13 channel — the CCTV News channel is in English and it’s listed simply as “CCTV News” without a number.)
Now, I know a whole lot of you out there aren’t in China, but are still dying to see the show. No problem! Just head on over to the “Crossover” website on CCTV, where you’ll find the full episode available to watch online. (I’ll also make sure to post a link to that episode after it’s up on the website.)
To all of you who plan to tune in, thanks in advance for watching! 🙂
One of the best things about it? Meeting some other amazingly talented yangxifu (foreign wives of Chinese men) on the set, including Jess Meider. She performed an original song in the studio with her husband, Gao Fang, and I was just astounded by her voice and the music.
Jess has resided in Beijing since moving there from NYC in 1997. A songwriting graduate of Berklee College of Music, she has been gracing stages all over China with her amazing voice in various musical projects. If you’ve lived for any length of time in Beijing, you’ve likely seen Jess perform in her jazz quartet or in her singer-songwriter act. Most recently she has been performing in the electronic duo Jess Meider featuring Chinatown. Jess is one of China’s best jazz vocalists, and has spent almost half of her life practicing the art of performance in music festivals, and in Beijing and Shanghai’s most popular live music venues.
Here’s a short list of cool things about Jess:
She performed jazz in the VIP Beijing Olympics venue for the Olympians
She ‘starred’ in a movie with Andy Lau and Gong Li, and two of her jazz original tracks are featured in the movie (“Kiss” and “Now is the time”) “What Women Want” 2010
She was featured on a track for Cui Jian’s movie “Blue Sky Bones”
Her voice has been aired all over China in ads for Audi, in Japan for Godiva, and most recently, will be worldwide for Durex Condoms
She has sung for VIP Events all over China
She has performed with Gong Lin Na (famous Chinese singer) at the Forbidden City Concert Hall
You can purchase her music on iTunes and Amazon.com, follow her on Youtube and Facebook, and learn more about her at Jessmeider.com. If you’re in Beijing, you can check out Jess Meider’s Birthday Show at DDC Club on September 17 at 9pm:
In this interview, I asked Jess about everything from her path to China to her music to how she and her husband Gao Fang collaborate together.
How did you end up in China?
Fate. (YUAN) there is just no other explanation. I had never expressed any interest or wishes to travel to China. In 1997, I was living and working in NYC, and a guy I was seeing went off to Beijing. I immediately took interest and had to go have a look. I was stunned by the differences; I felt as though I’d landed on the moon. China is sensational – the smells, the tastes, the language, the history, the culture. I spent two months there and was hooked. It was the first time I’d ever left the country. I moved back in early 1998. It was incredibly inspiring and challenging on all levels.
You once told me that China helped you realize your career as a singer and musician. Could you talk more about that?
Of course! I graduated from Berklee College of Music, and upon moving to Beijing in 1997, I had privy to live stages to perform my singer-songwriter music. NYC is packed with amazing musicians, so gigging there requires a lot of persistence to get on stage, and if you’re unpracticed, as I was back then, the chance to get back on the stage after a show was much more challenging. Beijing’s music scene was brand new; it offered me countless opportunities to practice the art of performing. As one could imagine, the jazz scene was teeny tiny, and there were practically no jazz vocalists. Any jazz musician knows how much practice is involved before you can really get up on a stage. I was able to practice singing jazz for modest earnings. It was really a great experience (and still is, eighteen years later). I remember my first jazz performance…my friend took me to the San Wei Bookstore, which hosted music almost every night. David Moser, a pianist, asked me if I could sing “Night and Day.” At the time, I was quite nervous that I wouldn’t be able to remember the lyrics. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Look at the audience, Jessica…Do you think they’ll even notice if the lyrics are wrong?” I smiled, relaxed, and sang.
I recently read that I am “known as one of China’s best jazz vocalists,” which is a nice thing to read…and fortunately for China, I am not the only jazz vocalist in China.
I was also privy to the stage at the Keep In Touch. The owner let me get on stage every week to play my original material. This was a great gift to my performance confidence. Even when I was fucking up, people were forgiving, and I would talk my way back to the beginning of a verse when I forgot a lyric (I’m rolling my eyes now, but then, it really was entertaining to the half Chinese, half foreign audiences).
Your husband is also a musician. Talk about how you met each other, and how you’ve collaborated on music over the years.
I first met my husband, Gao Fang in 2004, in another lifetime. It was brief and my Mandarin was limited, so we couldn’t really connect. In 2009 I needed a bassist for the release of my 4th album, Divine. Someone suggested him. It wasn’t until I formed my rock trio, The Heavenly Stems in 2011, that I found out that Gao Fang (pronounced F-ahng) was a talented guitarist and brilliant composer.
After a few months, we were together, engaged, married, and now have an almost 3 year old daughter.
We now have a new electronic-ish project, billed under my name, Jess Meider. The album “Chinatown” will be coming out at the end of September. Soon after the birth of our daughter, Gao Fang began composing well-crafted electronic pieces. I wrote the lyrics based on the stages of raising our daughter, from birth to present. Last year in 2014, we began performing the material. It’s just him and I on stage, which is a real treat, because the focus of the audience is more on the music; my vocals and Gao Fang’s layers of guitars. You can have a sneak peak selfie video of a song entitled “Light” and our wonderful song, “Cozy,” shot by the brilliant Maysha Lin.
How would you describe your music?
I think just to be complete, I’ll describe a few of the projects that I’ve done:
My songwriter material is very auto-biographical. Lately, I have not been performing this music. I have always felt comfortable sharing my life experiences, as we all are in this life together, and every little bit helps. My songwriter music is helpful. I have received much feedback about these two albums, Jess Meider Songwriter and Divine, saying it’s very cathartic, healing, soothing. Fans play it to lull their babies to sleep. Friends listen and feel comforted.
My jazz is jazzy. It’s listenable and interesting. My favorite track off of Dao is “Now is the Time,” a piece I wrote based on the Hafiz poem “Now is the Time.” The title track, “Dao” was written by Moreno Donadel, the Italian jazz pianist I’ve been playing with since 1998. I wrote the lyrics and the song is just a wonderful walk through the steps of the practice of the “Dao.”
This electronic music we’re producing now is intelligent and very comfortable (舒服SHOO-FOO) on the ears; all of the lyrics are positive and fun. It’s danceable. Kids and adults love it. I highly recommend it.
You’ve released 4 albums in China and are releasing your latest one this fall. How does your upcoming album compare to your past work?
I’ve self-released 4 albums. Candy (2000), Songwriter (2008), Dao (2009) and Divine (2009). Chinatown will be released in the fall of this year (2015). The new stuff is exactly the kind of music I’ve always wanted to write, but didn’t have the programming savvy to write it. Because Gao Fang composed, arranged and programmed all of the new material, it has the groove of electronic but the allure of a intelligent musical composition. It has deliberate melodies carved into really comfortable beats. Gao Fang’s layers of guitars are memorable, and my vocals are like a hip icing on a cake.
Are there any other exciting music-related projects you’re working on that you’d like to share with us?
Other plans include making videos for the Chinatown album, applying for music festivals abroad, and of course, writing new material. I would really like to travel using Chinatown as a vehicle!
In terms of the future, you’ve said you plan to remain with your family in Beijing. Why?
Well, aside from the sometimes acute pollution, I love Beijing. The culture, the language, the history, the food, oh god, the food…Chinese really know what they’re doing culinarily. It’s been my home for 18 years, and my husband is a Beijinger. I can’t possibly imagine leaving Beijing to live somewhere else, and believe me, on bad pollution days, I’ve tried. My Chinese Medicine Doctor (TCM) actually said to me once, “Jess, you can’t leave Beijing, it’s already been so long; your “life artery” (ren mai人脉）is here.
I am also fascinated with Chinese Medicine and the motto “Shun Qi Zi Ran,” which means, “follow the natural path.” I’ve been regularly seeing a Chinese Medicine doctor for 4 years now, and have recovered from most of my “chronic” ailments because I’m repairing my “qi” roadways (meridians). I’ve been keeping a blog about my experiences. I compare Western ‘health’ culture/mindset with the reality of Chinese Medicine. It’s really incredible. I feel like there is so much that I can write about, that at times, I just don’t have the power to voice it all. I continue to try.
Beijing and I are long term…I do think that there are possibilities in the future to have real estate in other parts of the world, but I will always have a home in Beijing.
Thanks so much to Jess Meider for this interview! Remember, you can purchase her music on iTunes and Amazon.com, follow her on Youtube and Facebook, and learn more about her at Jessmeider.com (where you’ll find her bio, music, videos, and blogs about traditional Chinese medicine, yoga and having a child). And if you’re in Beijing, check out Jess Meider’s Birthday Show on September 17 at 9pm at the DDC Club (50 RMB cover charge).
I still can’t believe I’m writing these words — I’m going to be on CCTV (that’s China Central Television)! Specifically, the CCTV English language show called “Crossover” (it’s a cross-cultural talk show — our episode is titled “foreign wives in China”) which will air sometime in August or September of this year. (I’ll let you know when.)
Having spent so many years in China, I know CCTV — and have loved many of their shows. Plus, it’s CCTV! The thought of being on China’s biggest and most important television network sent waves of excitement through my body. So I didn’t hesitate — I said, “Yes, I’d love to!”
In May, I took part in a pre-interview session via Skype with Zhou Lei and Eyee Hsu, the co-host of “Crossover”. Later that week, Zhou Lei sent me an e-mail officially inviting me to Beijing to film a show on May 27 — and offering to cover my travel and hotel costs. (Double wow!) Who could say no to that?
With the invitation in hand, I started thinking about one of the most basic questions — what to wear? Since I didn’t have anything good for TV (and I live in a country where my size, while typical in America, is impossible to buy) I decided to find a tailor who could create the perfect dress for me. With the help of my one of my husband’s close college friends, we discovered this brilliant tailor in the Hangzhou area — she created this lovely little qipao that I dubbed “the magic dress”! I gasped the moment I first laid eyes on it — I just knew it would give me extra confidence in front of the cameras.
Zhou Lei also sent me an outline about a week ahead of taping the show. That’s when I discovered I would be sharing the spotlight with two incredibly talented young foreign women with Chinese husbands — Jess Meider (an amazing musician, performer, composer and teacher who has made her mark in Beijing as an outstanding jazz vocalist and singer-songwriter) and Marie Smurthwaite (a talented performer and member of a girl group called “5 Spice”). Even better, we were able to connect on WeChat before the program, so I got the chance to know them a little before going on stage.
Finally, this past Tuesday, I boarded an Air China flight bound for Beijing — feeling thrilled and a little nervous at the same time! (It was my first time on TV, can you blame me?)
I arrived in Beijing Tuesday afternoon and it was dark by the time I emerged from the subway station closest to my hotel. When I walked out, the CCTV Headquarters stretched across the sky, shining like a promise of great things to come.
Zhou Lei had generously checked me into my hotel, the Chaoyang Hotel, ahead of time (thank you so much!) so it was a breeze getting into my room for the night. I spent most of the evening reading through the outline and thinking about how I might answer the questions during our conversation.
The following day, I arrived at the South Gate of CCTV Headquarters at 1pm. The building glinted in the sunshine while I tried not to sweat too much (it was a hot, balmy day — 35 degrees Celsius or 95 degrees Fahrenheit)!
They run tight security at CCTV — and why wouldn’t they? It’s one of the most important buildings in Beijing, if not China. Everyone needs an escort inside and must pass through more than one screening. Fortunately, I ran into Jess Meider at the entrance so the two of us could walk inside together (along with our escort, Jeff Lau). I loved Jess instantly!
The staff brought us into the makeup room, where we were joined by Marie (who I also loved!). I was so grateful that the show’s makeup artists were able to help us with our makeup (I’ve never been skilled in that department!) and hair. Marie also graciously lent me her extra pair of high-heeled shoes, which matched my dress far better than my own pair. Thank you, Marie!
Then it was time to get dressed and enter the “Crossover” TV set. And it’s a funny thing — when I finally marched onto the set and sat myself down on the creamy white couches on set, my nerves were suddenly replaced with this overwhelming sense of excitement.
Having Eyee Hsu as our host made the show. She is so down-to-earth and fun to be around, not to mention incredibly generous. When everyone noticed I didn’t have any earrings to wear (yeah, forgot that one), she immediately took hers out and lent them to me for the show. Thank you, Eyee!
Before the cameras started running, the staff had us adjust our positions (and, in my case, my dress) to look good for the show.
Then before I knew it, the cameras were rolling and Eyee began introducing the show as well as the three of us. We discussed everything from how we met our husbands and cultural differences we’ve experienced to our wedding stories and the differences between dating Western guys versus Chinese guys. During the show, Marie and her husband King sang a beautiful song in Chinese, and later Jess performed an incredible song of her own with her band Chinatown. I was truly blown away with their talent!
Around 5:30pm, we all left the CCTV building together — with my heart dancing from the amazing experience of being filmed for a show. I wished I could have spent more time with Jess and Marie, who were truly delightful company on stage and off. I also wished I had more time to see my friends in Beijing. But I had things to do back in Hangzhou and knew it would all have to wait for another trip to Beijing and another time.
Thank you to everyone at CCTV for an amazing time and I can’t wait to see the episode when it officially airs later this year!
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