I’ve often heard that life is what happens when you’re making plans. Never have we had a more salient reminder of that reality than the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ravaged not only our lives but also our best of plans.
For American Apryl Reagan, a singer and actress in Beijing, and Ma Yinliang, that meant facing a wedding in Beijing where, due to the pandemic, Apryl’s family could not attend in person. So she decided to add a little American flair to the special day by inviting some Americans she didn’t know to join in the ceremony, according to a recent report on the Beijinger:
When asked about her decision to invite strangers, Reagan says that the choice was simple.
“Of course, a wedding is a great place to celebrate our love, but it’s also just a great place to celebrate! And judging by the amount of energy these Americans brought to our group chat, they were guaranteed to make it a party,” explains Reagan. “I also really wanted to give my new Chinese family this opportunity to see how Americans party! But even more than that, sometimes I am afraid they see me as ‘America.’ Since they have never met another American, I worry that anything I do will be seen as what ‘all Americans do.’ So, I also wanted them to be able to have a chance to be around Americans other than me, meanwhile experiencing first-hand some of the cultural differences between an American wedding and a Chinese wedding.”
Americans filled two tables at the Beijing venue — the Palace International Hotel — with many of them meeting the newlyweds for the first time as they went around to personally thank all of the attendees.
Despite the year’s Covid fears and border closures, however, Ma and Reagan kept their hearts open to love. At the ceremony, the maid of honor noted in her remarks that their whirlwind romance inspired many friends present who hoped to one day build a partnership on the same foundation of care and respect.
You can read the full piece and peruse the lively photos from the evening — which included dancing to the Macarena! — at the Beijinger.
At the end of April I made a brief trip to Southwest China’s Guiyang (capital of Guizhou province) and Nanning (a major inland city in Guangxi province). I wanted to take the chance to share are some of my favorite photos from that week:
We visited an ancient town in Guiyang, with hundreds of years of history and minority traditions in its rambling stone alleyways. Here I am having a conversation there while sampling some local green tea.
Guiyang is also a city on the move, with many emerging industries, from big data to even electric vehicles and buses. This factory we visited there produces electric buses. I also had my first ride on a self-driving bus, which took us for a short drive on the factory grounds.
I was surprised to discover a legal aid clinic nestled within a community center in Guiyang, and had the chance to meet and interview the head lawyer, Liu Yuanhe, who inspired my most recent column.
At the same community center in Guiyang, I tried my hand at Chinese calligraphy, with the help of a very patient volunteer instructor!
Nothing quite like tasting the “fruits” of agricultural labor firsthand — especially at this agricultural demonstration base in Nanning. The cherry tomatoes I sampled were organic and delicious!
In Nanning, we also visited a Zhuang minority brocade base, where the staff schooled me in the intricate art of weaving silk brocade into stunning designs.
I also had the opportunity there to try on some ethnic minority clothing, including this colorful outfit from the Miao ethnic group.
We visited a dragonfruit agricultural base as well, where we had the chance to visit the fields during the day…
And night as well. The lamps aren’t for show, but are actually used to stimulate the dragonfruit plants to stay in “production mode” 24 hours a day, boosting the productivity of the fields.
What an “enlightening” weeklong journey (sorry, couldn’t resist with the pun).
Have you ever been to Guiyang or Nanning in Southwest China?
China and the US actually fought as allies during World War II?
I had spent so much of my young life secure in the idea of China as the enemy or competitor or otherwise, that the discovery of Chinese and Americans joining hands in the Pacific theater to fight against the Japanese astounded me.
I’m embarrassed to admit I learned this not from my high school or even college history courses, but rather from some historical novels by Pearl S. Buck.
Indeed, historical fiction has frequently served as an indispensable window into the past, filling in the gaps from my own education through realistic narratives that add a human perspective to devastating events from generations ago, such as World War II.
Award-winning author Zhang Ling, in the highly anticipated English translation of her novel A Single Swallow, transports the reader to a small village in eastern China during and after World War II, where one woman deeply touches the lives of others, including the three men who loved her — one Chinese soldier, one American soldier and one American missionary.
The ghosts of these three men, who each knew her by a different name, manifest her into the pages through their recollections of her life — recounting everything from the chilling brutality and suffering she endures to the light she shines upon them and the world with her determination and resilience. Despite not having a direct voice, this woman speaks powerfully through her actions in what is ultimately a feminist tale.
Fans of historical fiction who prefer a story that takes its time, unwinding the narrative with lyrical prose and rich, evocative descriptions, will savor A Single Swallow.
Zhang Ling is the award-winning author of nine novels and numerous collections of novellas and short stories. Born in China, she moved to Canada in 1986. In the mid-1990s, she began to write and publish fiction in Chinese while working as a clinical audiologist. Since then she has won the Chinese Media Literature Award for Author of the Year, the Grand Prize of Overseas Chinese Literary Award, and Taiwan’s Open Book Award. Among Zhang Ling’s work are Gold Mountain Blues and Aftershock, adapted into China’s first IMAX movie with unprecedented box-office success at the time.
The novel A Single Swallow is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.
What was the inspiration for your novel?
Compared with the attention Europe has received in the World War II narrative, the Asian portion of the war is little known to the rest of the world. For years I brooded over the idea of a Chinese war story, but the idea remained vague. Then I found, through my reading, there was a small, secretive American naval group specializing in spy and guerrilla warfare active in China during the war. This group, working together with the Chinese, established thirteen camps along the coastline, to gather meteorological data for potential air raids on Tokyo, and to train local guerrilla forces using the latest technology at the time. The 8th camp was located in a place called Yuhu, under the jurisdiction of Wenzhou, my hometown in southeastern China. An American presence more than 70 years ago in a poor and isolated village immediately roused my curiosity, and it became clear that I wanted to write a war fiction set in my hometown, about the Chinese and the Americans fighting together against their common foe.
Your novel centers on Ah Yan, the woman loved by three different men, who in telling their own tales allow the reader to know her story. Why did you choose to narrate her life mainly through other characters?
This novel begins in the early 40s in a poor Chinese village. Women then typically didn’t have much of a say in any issues, which accounts largely for my decision not to adopt Ah Yan’s voice as a dominant one.
Ah Yan is a very complex character, and each of the three men who come to her life draw out a different part of her. I find it harder to write from Ah Yan’s perspective, i.e. to create multiple versions of “her” while using her own voice as “me” speaking. A third person narrative seems to offer me more freedom and ease. However, her actions, revealed through other characters’ voices, speak louder than her suppressed voice. In the end, she is the one who sustains and survives the three men who, each in their different ways, have tried to “save” her.
The novel is set during and after World War II, and touches on the human costs of the war. What research did you do in preparing this story?
My research mainly falls in two categories, library reading and field trips. Through the help of a local volunteer group, I was able to visit the training camp site which miraculously survived the Cultural Revolution. Vivid details emerged from my meetings with the surviving trainees and local residents who have clear memories of their wartime experiences.
While my library research has helped me to gain a historical perspective of the war, the field trips made me understand the poverty and sufferings of China as a war-torn country, the initial distrust of the local people towards the “foreigners” forced upon them by war, and the displacement and loneliness the Americans felt in a country so far away from home. These elements have been reflected in my description of the bond that eventually established between these people.
The resilience of Ah Yan, despite her brutal life experiences, stands out in the novel. Without giving away too much, could you share with us a favorite moment from the book showing Ah Yan’s strength?
One section has stayed with me for a long time after the book is finished — that is when Ah Yan decides to lay bare her past in front of the entire training camp, just to stop, once and for all, the gossip that has haunted her wherever she goes. It breaks my heart to write about the trauma inflicted upon her by the war as well as the oppressive social norms that associated the loss of virginity with such a degree of shame. Her brave decision to speak out brings a light of humanity to the darkness of brutality and ignorance.
You first published this novel in Chinese, and later released this English translation. How have readers of the English version responded, compared to those reading the original Chinese version?
Readers in general are intrigued by the American naval presence in China and the training camp stories during the war. Ah Yan’s traumatic experience, her incredible resilience, her innate ability to forgive and love, and her power to neutralize the most trying crises seem to stir up a universal feeling of empathy, understanding and admiration. However, the Chinese readers seem to focus more on the historical events of the war, whereas the English readers tend to pay more attention to the feministic aspects in the narrative.
What do you hope people gain from reading your novel?
I’d like to present WWII in a different light through Swallow, so that the readers can, hopefully, gain another perspective from the Asian war experience. I also hope to bring more awareness to the sexual brutality women suffer during the war and its long-term traumatic effects on their lives.
Many thanks to Ling for this interview! The novel A Single Swallow is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.
China Daily just published my latest column titled Guiyang Legal Clinic Serves Up Remedy of Justice, detailing my encounter with a legal aid clinic nestled within a community in Guiyang, Southwest China’s Guizhou province. Here’s an excerpt:
On a tour of the comprehensive service center for the Jinyuan community in Guiyang, the capital of Southwest China’s Guizhou province, the last thing I ever expected our guide to say was, “This is our legal clinic.”
A red sign with the Chinese characters for “legal clinic “hung just above the door, and inside, behind a desk, sat a middle-aged man wearing a military green button-down shirt. As I peered inside, I noted the curious smile on his face, as if he were just as surprised to find a foreigner observing him from the hallway as I was to discover this clinic. Never before had I seen a lawyer within the walls of a community service center anywhere in the world.
“Pardon me, but could I ask you a few questions?” I said to him, as I stepped into the clinic with an outstretched hand and my fascination.
He introduced himself as Liu Yuanhe, the head of the clinic’s legal team and a retired soldier from the People’s Liberation Army. While his career as a lawyer dated back to 1996, when he passed exams to become certified in the profession, he had been involved in legal aid service in the community over the past year. Liu said the clinic, which had officially opened its doors in January, helped people free of charge with anything at all involving the law. While typical cases involved matters like contract disputes and recovering unpaid wages, he emphasized they handled any legal problem and would even file lawsuits, if needed, at no cost. In his view, the work he did at the clinic was part of a selfless dedication to give back to society.
Moreover, he stressed the importance of justice to people’s well-being. “What do people want? They want some form of happiness. What is the essence of happiness? I think it is a kind of social fairness and justice.”
It was over a week after the tragic shooting in Atlanta that left eight dead, including six Asian women, and yet Georgia was still on my mind as my husband Jun and I prepared dinner.
“You remember our dream of doing a road trip around the US?” I mentioned to him while chopping veggies. “It’s hard to imagine doing that now.”
I felt a wave of anxiety as I recalled our cross-country drive in the US in the summer of 2016, which involved camping at small state parks scattered across the nation’s heartland, and even a night of sleeping in our car during a rainstorm. The idea of spending the night outside in a flimsy tent in a space where other people could see us — and, especially, my obviously Asian husband — suddenly appeared risky, in light of the rise in anti-Asian hate incidents.
I’d already had this concern long before the incident in Atlanta, having followed the reports from Stop AAPI Hate and news of the most extreme violence, including Asian elders pushed to the ground and even dying from related injuries. Atlanta only heightened my apprehension.
This doesn’t mean I won’t eventually travel back to the US to see family and friends. Eventually, once the pandemic is fully controlled and there aren’t the many other barriers that make travel impossible or impractical, I’ll make plans for a visit. But the idea of embarking on a pleasure trip for two — just my husband and me — doesn’t appeal as much now. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to appreciate the majesty of, say, the Grand Canyon when you’re worried that your spouse might get assaulted because of his race and national origin.
…this need not necessarily be sentiments held only by mainland Chinese but Asians elsewhere, particularly those who are Chinese-looking. A Booking.com survey finds that nearly 70 percent of Asian travelers said friendliness of locals would factor into their decision-making process, with 84 percent saying “personal safety” would influence their choice of destination.
The report also said travelers ranked Asia as their most preferred overseas destination, followed by Europe and then North America.
I wonder, how many people in cross-cultural and interracial relationships here in Asia, like me, have also been rethinking the ways in which they might travel overseas with their Asian families in the West. How many more of us will put on hold those “dream travel” plans over safety concerns, opting for destinations within Asia or closer to home?
As International Women’s Day is coming up on March 8, stories of women who stand strong, particularly when it comes to the headwinds of societal expectations on romance, have been on my mind. Not that long ago, China Daily published a story highlighting the challenges that Chinese women in their 30s and even late 20s face when they’re single — and the courage it takes for them to live their lives.
In China, where conformity and traditional family values have always been highly prized, her solo lifestyle is still considered unconventional. ….
…after dinner a few days ago with colleagues, most of whom are in their 20s and early 30s, Feng came across a phrase she had never heard before－mu tai solo. This combination of the Chinese words “mu tai” and the English word “solo” refers to people who have never been in a romantic relationship. “Unfortunately, I am one of them.
When I told my colleagues I had been mu tai solo for nearly 40 years, they looked shocked and sympathized with me,” Feng said. “It was very embarrassing. I just made fun of myself, saying that my new year wish is to find my first love and then experience my first heartbreak.
“There has always been a phrase for single women－sheng nyu, or ‘leftover women’. Now, there is this new one, mu tai solo, which is disparaging. It’s not my fault that I’m mu tai solo, because when love happens, it happens. You cannot force it.”
When she told her mother about this experience, her 67-year-old parent sighed and said, “See, this is why you need a boyfriend to help get you out of this situation.”
Feng said: “But I really don’t think so. I don’t need a relationship to prove that I am one of ‘them’. I don’t want to get married under any kind of pressure. Finding what makes you happy is the most important thing.”
While not single, I can relate to the pressure felt when bucking societal expectations (such as the fact that I have no children). Not everyone ends up living in a way that follows convention — but, as Feng points out astutely in the piece, you don’t have to prove yourself that way. You just have to seek your own happiness, and be content in that.
You can read the full story here. And to all the women out there who read this blog (and the people who love them) wishing you a happy International Women’s Day on March 8!
China Daily published a column of mine detailing the story of a guesthouse in Zhejiang province that managed to open and thrive in a tough year. Here’s an excerpt:
“In 2020, the most important thing is not what you’ve already lost, nor what you’ve yet to achieve, but rather what you have now. Let go of the past, and laugh for the rest of your life.”
Yu Jianping, who wrote these words in a post on his WeChat page, might just have been imagining his recent entrepreneurial venture. He and his wife, Huang Li, opened a guesthouse and restaurant in Tonglu county, Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, during the star-crossed year of 2020, but still survived and thrived.
I hesitated to type a response to my friend back in the US, as the latest media reports of the virus situation over there — over 250,000 deaths and over 12 million confirmed cases — still circulate through my head. When I eventually type out that “Things are nearly back to normal”, a part of me flinches within, wondering if I just sent her the message equivalent of a gut punch. Is it ever polite to tell someone living in a bonafide disaster zone that it’s no longer a problem where you live? Even if it’s the truth?
I breathe a sigh of relief as she responds without any apparent annoyance, and I do my best to quickly shift topics to something else. But my guilt remains tenacious — the guilt that comes from living in a country that has nearly restored life to the new “normal”, as friends and family in the US, my home country, face a frightening surge of cases and deaths.
I wish my family and friends didn’t have to live with the threat of COVID-19 stalking them so close to home.
I just returned from a weeklong trip to Ningxia to do a video shoot, where I learned more about how the province is doing poverty relief, with the help of the internet.
Prior to heading to Ningxia, the greatest impression I had of the province was through one of its most renowned agricultural products — goji berries or wolfberries (枸杞,gǒuqǐ).
And, yes, I did get a chance to get up close and personal with goji berries, even enjoying the rare opportunity to pick fresh goji berries right from the plant. (Goji berries only stay fresh for about two to three days after being harvested, so they are generally sun dried into the wrinkly red-orange berries that end up in your kitchen pantry.)
But I discovered Ningxia offers so much more, in terms of specialty agricultural products — and also in terms of how those products have helped power poverty relief by the internet.
First stop — Minning Hemei Factory, which packages and sells direct a variety of local specialty products (including goji berries) which mainly come from Ningxia. All the products are natural with no preservatives, and purchasing them helps support efforts to relieve poverty — including at the businesses that make the products as well as the factory itself.
The factory, built right beside a Hui minority community, hires only Hui people to work for it, and 99.9 percent of the workers there are women.
Hai Yan is the young woman at the factory I got to know. She’s been working there for a year. Before coming to the factory, she was a housewife. And the working opportunity there completely changed her life.
She invited me to experience the factory, which meant getting suited up to dress just like her and the rest of the workers. Love the flowered gloves!
Initially, Hai Yan (standing beside me) worked on the lines in the factory, assisting with sorting and packaging. Here I’m experiencing what it’s like to package goji berries while talking to another woman who works at the factory.
But then, when COVID-19 emerged, the factory changed strategy and decided to train these women to do livestreaming. Most of the women, like Hai Yan, haven’t received education beyond primary school. But they were eager to learn and work hard. Through this training, the factory chose the six best women in livestreaming skills and created a team they dubbed the 巧媳妇 (qiăo xífù), which means skillful wives. And these women take turns doing livestreams throughout the week, where they promote the factory’s products. This is a screenshot from the livestream I did together with Hai Yan.
Hai Yan (standing at front) gave me a quick lesson in how to do livestreaming. Before, she used to be very nervous about livestreams — and now she’s teaching me how to do it!
We did a livestream for over 30 minutes together, where we promoted a number of the products at the factory, including goji berries and black goji berries.
Through the experience, I feel like I made a new friend!
She also showed me around her charming community, with its neat rows of brick houses. Her home is just a five-minute walk from the factory, and so are the schools for her kids. It’s incredibly convenient, and that’s a big reason why so many of the young women love working there.
We also had a conversation at her home, sitting under an apple tree. In my hand I’m holding an apple picked from her tree — so crisp, sweet and just a little tart, which is exactly how I love my apples.
Hai Yan wore her favorite hat. She told me that Hui women, after marrying, should cover their head. Traditionally they would wear a kind of hijab — but nowadays they may also wear fashionable hats too.
Then we ventured out to the beautiful big sky country of Ningxia in Yanchi county, where we visited the Ningxin sheep ranch run by Feng Huan (the man in the white jacket). He raises organic mutton that also helps support poverty relief.
The ranch has a specific flock of sheep raised to support impoverished families, where the proceeds help to pay for school tuition, health care or more nutritious food. And the sheep are sold online through an app, which allows customers to see what the sheep are doing 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the cameras set up all around the ranch.
The sheep are given high-quality feed and daily exercise to maintain an optimal weight, and listen to music each day. All of this care ensures the sheep are happier, which in turn leads to better mutton.
I got the chance to meet a sheep named Princess, who is a pet sheep around the ranch. Given the darling outfit of overalls and red striped shirt, Princess clearly gets the royal treatment around the ranch. She follows the senior man, Feng’s grandfather, around the ranch like a puppy and lives a charmed life (without, of course, worry of slaughter).
I have to admit, I have a soft spot for animals and had so much fun playing with Princess.
I even made friends with a bunch of other sheep, which astonished everyone, including Feng. The sheep usually fear strangers, but they warmed up to me and soon I had an entire crowd of sheep nuzzling my hand. Feng joked that the sheep “gave me good face”.
The landscape, covered in brush and hundreds of different herbs, such as the gorgeous purple huangqi (黄芪, huángqí) or Astragalus membranaceus, brought back memories of some of my favorite trips out in the western US, cruising through the prairie lands of states such as Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana.
I couldn’t help snapping a few shots of the huangqi flowers, which looked dazzling in my favorite shade of purple.
Then we made our way to Xiamaguan village in Tongxin county, home to a factory producing a variety of grains, from oats to buckwheat and more. There I met the factory owner Wang Dejun, who quizzed me on the different grains they produce. I had to guess which name went with which product on the table. (I guessed right!)
And if you’re wondering why I’m still wearing that same purple jacket, it was really chilly that day — and even raining a bit in this very scene.
This factory employs people from impoverished households to help them improve their lives, and also assists poor families by raising crops for them and then giving them the proceeds. The grains they produce get sold directly on the internet through a variety of platforms, including my favorite of Taobao.
Wang took me out to the buckwheat fields, which were so beautiful and vast, surrounded by mountains, that I was inspired to belt out a rendition of the song the “Sound of Music”.
The fields actually sit on a high plateau nourished by the rain, and have never been developed, so they are unspoiled and produce high-quality grains.
Overall, I discovered Ningxia offers so much more than just goji berries, and is also making great efforts to help more people live better lives, thanks in part to the internet.
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