‘At the Chinese Table’: Memoir Traces Lifelong Love Affair w/ Chinese Cuisine

That first mouthful of authentic mapo tofu, just days after my arrival to the central Chinese provincial capital of Zhengzhou, still shines among the favorite memories of my early years in China. The sauce, seasoned with chile peppers and the numbing Sichuan peppercorns, danced across my tongue in a perfectly spiced symphony of flavors that I had never encountered in any tofu dish at a Chinese restaurant in the US. 

There was a lot at that time I still didn’t understand — I could barely speak Chinese, and was even trying to navigate a very confusing new work situation. But my taste buds had already begun falling for the country through every small but delectable bite, uncovering a whole new world of Chinese cuisine that still entrances me to this day and has shaped my life in countless ways.

For Carolyn Phillips, the author of the new memoir At the Chinese Table, Chinese cuisine did far more by firing up a passion that paved the way for her eventual career an acclaimed food writer. (See previous interviews with Carolyn about her encyclopedic Chinese cookbook All Under Heaven and her Dim Sum Field Guide.)

At the Chinese Table retraces her lifelong love affair with Chinese cuisine, with her Chinese husband JH, a scholar and gourmet, playing a pivotal role in the narrative. Told in striking detail with plenty of self-deprecating humor, the story starts in Taiwan and takes the reader on a very personal journey punctuated by many mouthwatering Chinese dishes. Along the way, a few family secrets get uncovered as well, adding a pinch of mystery to a memoir that makes for a truly appetizing read from start to finish.

It’s my great pleasure and honor to feature Carolyn Phillips, author of the new memoir At the Chinese Table.

Here’s Carolyn’s bio from the publisher’s website:

Carolyn Phillips is a food writer, scholar, artist, fluent Mandarin speaker, and author of the James Beard–nominated All Under Heaven, the first English-language cookbook to examine all thirty-five cuisines of China. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

You can learn more about Carolyn and her memoir at her website Madamehuang.com. Her new memoir At the Chinese Table is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.


What inspired you to write this memoir?

I wrote a short story about my late father-in-law called “Monkey Eve” that was included in Best Food Writing 2015. That was my first suggestion that I might be onto something, and it encouraged me to write another one about my late mother-in-law. That second story, “Good Graces,” in turn became a finalist for the Beards’ M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing award. I felt like I was onto something, so I shaped those two stories around a proposal for my food memoir.

Your husband and his family both have prominent starring roles in the narrative. How did they feel about the book?

My husband has been so wonderful and supportive. He told me to write it the way I wanted, and I interviewed him over many days about what he remembered, who all these people in his family tree were, and then I tried to string everything together in a way that made sense. (Believe me, that’s much harder that it sounds!) I did give J. H. the option of scratching out whatever he didn’t like. But he loved it and was fascinated by all the things I uncovered about his family, especially regarding his beloved maternal grandmother, Laolao. My happiest day was when J. H. told me that the things that had never made sense in the past now fit together like perfect puzzle pieces.

It took a considerable amount of bravery on his part to accept that Laolao had quite possibly been a concubine, rather than a wife. Even now, people want to hide that sort of thing, as if being a concubine were somehow shameful. But it wasn’t. And it wasn’t like she ever had a choice in the matter. Women were treated as chattel back then. They rarely ever had the opportunity to decide who they would marry or what sort of lives they would be allowed to pursue. Laolao’s family broke her will and her feet. They deliberately kept her ignorant and illiterate. Like I wrote in my book, they designed a doll that would not talk back. But then when her life was turned upside-down, Laolao summoned the bravery and cleverness she needed to support her mother, two brothers, daughter, and herself. She was a phenomenal person, and I can only hope that I’ve done her justice.

I also figured out that J. H.’s maternal grandfather was not Han Chinese, but rather Hani, an ethnic minority in Yunnan. That was also a big secret, but when J. H. told one of his sisters about this, she was rather happy about it.

Your memoir begins with your college years in Taiwan in the late 1970s, when the island first tempted your taste buds with its array of delicacies. What was it like to revisit this time in your life through writing this book? 

It was so strange and so wonderful. Many memories had been lost to me, but I found that I could summon them through food. Little details floated up as I thought about things like my host mother’s golden cabbage fritters (page 26 in At the Chinese Table). And then, as I recalled the smell of them, the taste of them, and the feel of them on my lips, I started thinking about what these sorts of foods meant and why Auntie Lee cooked them and why they turned out to be so unforgettable. I mean, we all know how aromas can trigger some of our earliest memories, but I’m such an enthusiastic eater that anything having to do with food does the same thing for me!

As I prepared to write At the Chinese Table, this turned into an enormous sorting process, something like finally getting around to cleaning out the basement and sorting out the tons of boxes that have been gathering dust for decades. People who had been long dead returned to my life, and it was the most wonderful gift ever. 

Being afforded the opportunity to write a memoir is inexplicably beautiful because I got to relive my life and see old acquaintances and dine with beloved friends and try through the perspective of age to make sense of my time here on Earth. I never really set out to learn Chinese or live in Taiwan or marry a Chinese guy or write books about the cuisines of China. It was all happenstance. Especially in my first few decades, I was incredibly passive. Life just sort of happened to me. I was more like a leaf on a river, rather than some stalwart pioneer. It’s only in retrospect that I can see the zigzaggy path I took and where it led me.

Your own drawings — many of food, but also much more — delightfully decorate the pages of the memoir. Why did you choose to include these in the book? 

Why, thank you! Publishers seem to regard my books as sort of package deals nowadays, a combination of writing and illustrations. But I’m not complaining. It’s incredibly nice to have people welcome both my writing and drawings.

This all started with All Under Heaven, which was originally contracted with Dave Eggers’s publishing house, McSweeney’s in San Francisco. They champion artists—especially graphic artists—in their books and periodicals, so I included some sample drawings in my proposal, and it seemed a great fit. They did ask if I wanted photographs, and of course I said yes, but then they said that the cost of producing the book would then go up dramatically (due to the glossy paper, full color printing, etc.), so I had to make a choice: much fewer recipes plus photographs, or lots more recipes with no photographs. That was an easy decision for me to make. I think I considered this choice for all of three seconds!

My next book, The Dim Sum Field Guide, developed out of an illustrated article I had created for the Lucky Peach “Chinatown” issue. Lucky Peach turned that article into a handout for the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen, which was a thrill. Not too long after that, I wrote a proposal for The Dim Sum Field Guide, sent it to Aaron Wehner, Ten Speed Press’s publisher, and he said, “Sounds cool.” I’ve also created illustrations for things like my history of teahouses and dim sum for Gastronomica, so I guess I’ve carved out a strange little niche for myself.

Every chapter in the book ends with two recipes. Could you tell us which one is your favorite and why?

Boy, that’s like asking me which of my children I love best. When it comes to the recipes that I’ve made more times than I can count, that would have to be my Taiwanese fried pork chops (page 24), as well as the garlic chile sauce (page 147) that is created out of fresh red chiles. We devour those chops in mere minutes, and whenever I have that chile sauce around I slather it on everything. They both are definitely addictive.

From an emotional point of view, my most beloved recipe would be the black sesame candy wafers (page 202) because they remind me so much of my late father-in-law. He and I had a very unusual but good relationship because neither of us like to chitchat much, and yet we both love to cook. Because of this, we spent many happy hours shopping in LA’s old Chinatown, which is where he lived, and then creating traditional Hakka dishes in his tiny kitchenette. He taught me so much about the art of cooking, about patience in the kitchen, and about inserting history and culture into the things that you eat. Cooking is such an ephemeral art—many hours of preparation and cooking that then disappear in a matter of minutes. But even so, he made me understand that such transitory pleasures deserve our care and attention.

Could you share with us a culinary memory that didn’t make it into the pages of your book, but still tantalizes you over all these years?

Oh goodness, there are so many. I was limited to 75,000 words, but initially gave my editor 150,000! Plenty was pared away, believe me. I could do a whole book on nothing but Taiwan’s night markets, or its open-air markets, or the amazing restaurants that offered food from all over China in its most stellar incarnations, or meals I ate with famous people, or some of the silliest and/or most awful things I’ve ever been served. (And they’re not what you might imagine…)

One thing that got cut was the delicious Chinese obsession with enjoying every last morsel of a fish. The first time this happened for me was at my host family’s house, when, at the end of the meal, the mother sucked the eyes and brains out of a whole fried pomfret. She was smiling happily the whole time, but she must have noticed my nervousness, so the next time she had me eat the cheeks, which were firm yet delectable little nuggets, and then we slowly worked our way up the skull. It really made me appreciate how much we Americans throw away that is perfectly edible and quite good.

And with J. H. I found that just about any fish served in a sauce would find itself returned to the kitchen halfway through the meal. Not that there was anything wrong with the fish. Rather, he’d ask, say, the chef at a Sichuanese restaurant to debone the fish and then simmer squares of fresh doufu and “red” doufu (coagulated blood) with the rest of the sauce and fish. What a divine way to devour every last drop! And West Lake vinegar fish at a Shanghainese place was also always returned to the kitchen halfway through dinner so that the sauce and remaining shreds of fish could be tossed with a bowl of steaming hot fresh egg noodles and a sprinkling of shredded ginger. I can still taste that to this day.

When I had the McSweeney’s people over for lunch one day—they were sort of test-driving my recipes while they considered my proposal—I served them a whole fried flounder that had been deep-fried until the fins and tail had crisped up into crunchy chip-like frills. Two of my guests were ethnic Chinese, and they actually tussled over the head. I was thrilled. And I knew I was going to finally get a book contract!

What do you hope people take away from reading your memoir? 

I’d love it if non-Chinese came away from this book with a feeling of closeness for Chinese people. It would be so wonderful if they could realize that Chinese and Westerners have so much in common, that we’re just different flavors of the same species. The Chinese people and their cultures and their cuisines have so much to offer to us, and we have so much to learn from them. We should be building bridges and embracing each other and dining at communal tables and swapping jokes and, yes, marrying each other too. 

It’s been my joy to live for the past many decades in a world that is in many ways very Chinese. My husband and I have been together for over 46 years now, and he has magnified my world in more ways than I can ever count. If I could have my way, more Westerners would seek friends and lives that are Chinese. And to do that, they would have to learn Chinese fluently. It wouldn’t be easy. In fact, it would be ridiculously difficult, probably the hardest things you could ever ask someone to do. But with fluency comes understanding. All the things that keep people apart—ignorance, hatred, fear—then disappear. Of that I am certain. 

If all of this sounds intimidating, know that the first and easiest step toward achieving that sort of understanding is learning to appreciate all of China’s cuisines in their many remarkable manifestations. It’s thrilling to sit down with a stranger and share some fresh-baked flatbreads in Xinjiang, or discuss the aromas of fresh oolong teas on the eastern coast of Taiwan over a bowl of perfectly cooked rice, or talk with a bunch of retired Chinese chefs in Chengdu about how foods used to be created. The payoffs for showing even an inkling of curiosity about Chinese culture are remarkable. 


Many thanks to Carolyn Phillips for this interview! You can learn more about Carolyn and her memoir at her website Madamehuang.com. Her new memoir At the Chinese Table is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.

US-China Couple Weds in Beijing with a Little Help from Strangers

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. 

The couple’s romance amid the pandemic actually lifted the hearts of others, as the Beijinger article noted:

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.

Photo Essay: My Guiyang, Nanning Trip in SW China

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?

‘A Single Swallow’: On the Wings of a Resilient Woman Amid WWII in China

A Single Swallow by Zhang Ling

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. A Single Swallow by Zhang Ling

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

It’s my great pleasure and honor to introduce you to Zhang Ling and A Single Swallow through this interview.

Here’s Zhang Ling’s bio from Amazon:

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.

Guiyang Legal Clinic Serves Up Remedy of Justice – pub’d on China Daily

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.”

Head on over to China Daily to read the full piece — and if you like it, share it!

Anti-Asian Hate Has Me Rethinking Overseas Travel to West, and I’m Not Alone

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.

And the thing is, I’m not alone in this. 

I recently came across a report titled ‘Anti-Asian Hate’ Big Obstacle for U.S. Tourism as China Outbound Travel Restarts, which noted that “Friendliness to Chinese Travelers” has surged as the No 1 factor influencing these travelers’ willingness to tour overseas. The report added:

…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?

What do you think?

Why It’s Hard to Leave China to Visit Family Abroad Amid Pandemic – Pub’d on WWAM BAM

The group blog WWAM BAM just published my post titled Why It’s Still Hard to Leave China to Visit Family, Friends Abroad Amid Pandemic. Here’s an excerpt:

“When are you coming home?”

Recently, my family asked if I might return to the US sometime later this year, as the pandemic situation improves.

My heart sank a little at the mention of this, since I already knew my answer would be disappointing — that at least for now, I can’t make any plans to return home during the pandemic.

Obviously, it’s hard enough to make plans with the uncertainties of the pandemic itself — where a sudden surge in case numbers can quickly turn a country or region into a health disaster.

But there are also other issues that come into play — things family and friends might not even be aware of, which add to the challenges of overseas travel amid the pandemic.

Here are 3 other factors, besides health concerns, that make it difficult to leave China to visit family and friends abroad amid the pandemic:

Head on over to WWAM BAM to read the full post — and if you like it, share it!

Staying Single Not Easy: Women Bucking Tradition in China Stand Strong

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.

Titled Staying Single Can Be So Demanding, it highlights several singles, including 38-year-old Feng Xin, “the last single person in her group of friends”:

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!

What do you think?

Despite Tough Year, Guesthouse Still in Business – Pub’d on China Daily

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.

You can read the full piece here — and if you like it, share it!

‘How’s COVID in China?’: Awkward Convos from Different Sides of Pandemic – Pub’d on WWAM BAM

The group blog WWAM BAM just published my post titled ‘How’s COVID in China?’: Awkward Convos from Different Sides of Pandemic. Here’s an excerpt:

How’s the COVID situation in China?

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.

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