My Chinese Husband Calls Me Laopo

White letters jumbled up on a black background
What’s in a name? I may be Jocelyn, but I prefer my Chinese husband to call me “Laopo” or wife in Chinese. (photo by Josep Altarriba)

There’s nothing I love more than when my Chinese husband comes bursts into our apartment after a long day, and calls my name.

Laopo!” he’ll sing out, as he stomps his feet on the mat by the door.

Well, Laopo (老婆, [lǎopó]), which is another word for “wife” in Chinese, isn’t really my name. But the sound of it is as soothing as a cup of Jasmine-scented green tea.

I never thought that I would rather be called “wife” over Jocelyn.

When I was young, my parents never called each other “wife” or “husband,” instead peppering their evening adult conversations with their real names, “Claudia” and “Bob.” The whole idea of using “wife” or “husband” between a wife and husband was the verbal equivalent of turning a marriage into a form letter.

But when I started dating John in Hangzhou many years ago, he began using that “L” word — Laopo — in reference to me. Continue reading “My Chinese Husband Calls Me Laopo”

How to Spend Chinese New Year Overseas, For Busy People

A Chinese man stands all alone on stage for Chinese New Year
Feeling all alone in celebrating Chinese New Year, because you're living abroad, and you're busy? Try these ideas to get into the holiday spirit, for the person on the go.

Saturday night, the rum-ta-da-rum-tum-tum drumbeats echoed out of the ballroom on campus, as that red lion — looking lavish as a Liberace suit — bust through the doors, bobbing up and down, and wagging its tail all the way to the stage. This was the beginning of Chinese Night at our campus, the local version of Chinese New Year. And my Chinese husband John and I, exiled to the tables in the food court area outside the door, could only imagine what was really going on.

Of course, we didn’t get a chance to see that kickoff to that great show for a very simple reason. We arrived late, finding a “people mountain, people sea” of a ballroom, with no seats at the tables, nor the overflow rows of seating added to the back.

Yet, in a way, it’s almost a metaphor to the millions of Chinese — and their loved ones — who pass Chinese New Year in a foreign country. Once you squeezed your way into China’s ballroom, and watched the holiday explode before you in all of its red firecracker excitement. But now you’re seated so far away, you don’t even notice the stage. Continue reading “How to Spend Chinese New Year Overseas, For Busy People”

The Personal Side of Solving Personal Problems in China

My Chinese friend, Caroline
When I asked my Chinese friend, Caroline, about her "personal problem," it wasn't a problem to her, but my way of showing I cared.

Last night, I asked my Chinese friend Caroline about her “personal problem” (个人问题 or, gèrénwèntí).

This wasn’t some euphemism for her latest gynecological issue, or a death in the family, or some neurosis that sent her running to the counseling center.

Caroline bust out in an embarrassed laughter. “No, I haven’t solved my personal problem yet,” she sighed. This “personal problem” was about solving the “problem” of being single.

Sometimes, I feel weird even asking friends like Caroline about their status like that. Continue reading “The Personal Side of Solving Personal Problems in China”

My Chinese Husband, Almost Switched at Birth

Some old dolls packed together
When my Chinese husband was born, the neighbors wanted to swap him for their baby daughter (photo by Onclebob)

When someone gives birth to a baby boy, you wouldn’t say “can we switch babies?” Unless, of course, you happened to be neighbors to my Chinese husband’s family.

As the third son in the family, John dashed his mother’s hopes of finally giving birth to a girl. Their neighbors had the opposite problem — they had just birthed another girl, the third in their family. So the neighbors came to John’s parents, with a different kind of indecent proposal.

The way my mother-in-law and father-in-law tell it, there was no question what they would do. “He’s our son, we could never give him away,” my mother-in-law declared emphatically at lunch one day, as my father-in-law nodded his head, adding how the neighbors “had a crazy idea.”

But what about the neighbors themselves? Continue reading “My Chinese Husband, Almost Switched at Birth”

Sushi is Not Chinese Food: Of China Misunderstandings

Sushi is not Chinese food — and it’s not the only way Americans sometimes misunderstand China.

“These girls gave me panda earrings!” laughed this Chinese girl, who came over to my home for the holidays. “I mean, seriously, panda earrings? I can buy those in China anytime.” These girls were her American classmates. And even though pandas are pretty much the national symbol of China — and even one of the mascots for the Beijing Olympics — these Americans somehow thought this gift would truly be something special.

It was like how one of my relatives gave John — who comes from Hangzhou, the home of Dragonwell, one of the most famous and prized green teas in all of the world — a box of Celestial Seasonings green tea.

So it’s not surprising that, as I giggled at my friend’s tale of gifting gone wrong, I couldn’t help but think of many similar misunderstandings here in the US of A.

Like when people say this to John, after hearing he is from China: “Oh, I love sushi.” This culinary faux pas would usually make me cough uncomfortably. Sometimes, I would step in, reminding them politely, “Uh, you know, sushi is Japanese.

Then there are the so-called “Chinese” things that don’t even really exist in China. Like General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies. When my husband first heard about chop suey from my Grandpa, I had to explain to him, later on, that this was a dish created by Chinese immigrants to the US, as a way to make Chinese food into something a little more American.

As long as people continue to learn about countries from afar — through the media, movies, TV and reading — there will always be misunderstandings. Which is why I’m sure this won’t be the last time an American gives a Chinese girl panda earrings.

What China misunderstandings have you experienced?

How To Make It A Very Chinese Christmas

A Very Chinese Christmas Stocking
There are many ways you can make this a very Chinese Christmas, such as putting your name in Chinese (and English) on your Christmas stocking (like mine).

When you straddle two different cultures, sometimes, you wish your holidays did too. Holidays like Christmas.

I still love and embrace the traditions of my childhood, growing up in a Catholic home with a fresh-cut spruce trimmed with tinsel, and lights and an Angel. We hung our stockings, exchanged presents by the tree, hung wreaths, shared Christmas carols, baked Christmas cookies, and decorated our doors with pictures of Santa and the Reindeer and Elves.

But now, with my Chinese husband John, I’ve enjoyed creating a few new traditions and twists on the old, to make the holiday reflect the international, cross-cultural couple we are.

So how can you make this a very Chinese Christmas? Start with these five tips. Continue reading “How To Make It A Very Chinese Christmas”

Who Is My Chinese Husband?

Starry night sky
Under the indigo unknown of night, my Chinese husband and I had a surprising conversation, about just who we are.

There’s something about the indigo unknown of a dark winter night. Because, for John and I, it turned a compliment into a conversation bordering on metaphysics.

We were driving home on Thursday evening, when the veil of clouds had turned the sky above into a huge, nebulous tunnel dyed in india ink. And I just happened to turn to John, over a broadcast of Hanukkah songs, to say what I often say to him. “You’re outstanding.”

“But why am I outstanding?” he asked. Which is not unusual. He’s asked me many times before, to elucidate every aspect of what makes him so outstanding. And I always oblige with a parade of compliments, that range from the physical (“Handsome”) to the more abstract (“Talented”). But I’d just told him why the other day, marching out the very same compliments. So I didn’t understand why he needed to hear all over again.

John looked down at the floor. “Sorry, I have trouble remembering.” And then as we both looked into the earthly cosmos stretched out before us, a more nebulous admission arose. “I really don’t have a clear idea of who I am.” Continue reading “Who Is My Chinese Husband?”

Travel China with the Yangxifu: Getting Beyond the “Postcard China”

John and I cooking Chinese food during Chinese New Year
Sometimes, it's the ordinary moments in travel that can make China come alive. Here are a few ideas to help you get beyond the glossy "postcard China"

Last week, someone asked me the China travel question. “What’s your favorite place to visit in China?”

Faster than she could say “Terracotta Warriors,” I had just the place in mind: “My husband’s family home in the countryside.”

Okay, yeah, it’s easy for me say that. I’ve bounced around Beijing, sashayed my way through Shanghai, and chilled out in Chengdu. And while I love the allure of the road, I still find myself yearning for those small moments at the family home — whether it’s making dumplings with my mother-in-law or reading my father-in-law’s story about his ancestral village.

The thing is, sometimes it’s the most ordinary things and places that make travel extraordinary — and China is no exception. So, for my last article of the year for “Travel China with the Yangxifu,” I thought I’d help you find more small moments in your own travel — and you don’t need a family home in China to do it. Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Getting Beyond the “Postcard China””