Photo Essay: 2016 Chinese New Year’s Eve at the Family Home

We’re busy celebrating Chinese New Year, the biggest holiday of the year here in China, at John’s family home in rural Hangzhou. I thought I’d share a few photos from Chinese New Year’s Eve.

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It was a lovely day to celebrate Chinese New Year’s Eve, with some of the most gorgeous blue skies of the winter.

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My brother-in-law took his daughter to pay her respects to the spirits in an old camphor tree beside the river, as he does every year on this day.

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On Chinese New Year’s Eve, ancestors come first. Here we pay our respects to the ancestors at their table, filled with dishes fresh from my mother-in-law’s kitchen.

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Let’s eat! It’s the most wonderful dinner of all the year, the table loaded with delicious dishes made by my amazing mother-in-law. (I consider her kitchen one of my favorite “restaurants” in China… 😉 )

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As usual, John is one of the last to leave the table — he loves to eat, and takes his time. Here he’s enjoying some free-range chicken raised by my mother-in-law (his favorite dish of the evening).

Wishing you all a very auspicious and prosperous year of the monkey! Happy Chinese New Year!

Interview with Kelli Estes on Her Novel “The Girl Who Wrote in Silk”

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes

Some books are so captivating that I even cherish the memories of scrolling through the pages with my e-reader in hand. The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes is that kind of book.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli EstesI’m surrounded by bookish friends and bloggers who get really excited whenever they hear about interracial love stories (especially AMWF pairings) and this was one of those books everyone seemed to be talking about the summer of 2015.

I finally got my hands on a copy from the library sometime in August, which is coincidentally one of the most dreadful months weather-wise in Hangzhou. It’s so humid you feel like you’re wrapped up in a steaming wet towel wherever you walk. Normally it’s a month that doesn’t register much in my mind, as I usually spend most of it shut up indoors with the A/C cranked on high.

But I vividly remember the August days when I read The Girl Who Wrote in Silk, as though the book itself provided a much-needed vacation from the oppressive heat. Granted, the novel takes place in the gorgeous San Juan Islands (which allowed me to imagine myself into this refreshingly cool summer destination), but it’s much more than just the setting.

Kelli has woven together the lives of Inara and Mei Lien – two women separated by over 100 years, but bound together by an embroidered silk sleeve with secrets of its own – into an enchanting story filled with love, courage and humanity. There’s interracial love in the past and present (Inara catches the eye of a handsome young Chinese American professor in her quest to understand the story behind that silk sleeve; Mei Lien falls for Joseph, a man whose kindness and generosity seem as endless as the oceans that surround their island). The story spotlights atrocities against the Chinese in America, exposing history that never should have been forgotten. And did I mention it’s all so beautifully written, a real page-turner that will keep you engaged from the beginning to the end?

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk even made the USA Today Bestseller’s List in December 2015. Wow.

I’m thrilled and honored to interview Kelli Estes about her debut novel The Girl Who Wrote in Silk.

Kelli EstesHere’s Kelli Estes’ bio from Goodreads:

Kelli Estes grew up in the apple country of Eastern Washington before attending Arizona State University where she learned she’d be happiest living near the water, so she moved to Seattle after graduation. Today she lives in a Seattle suburb with her husband and two sons. When not writing, Kelli loves volunteering at her kids’ schools, reading (of course!), traveling (or playing tourist in Seattle), dining out, exercising (because of all the dining), and learning about health and nutrition.

You can follow Kelli at her website www.kelliestes.com, on her Facebook page, and Twitter. Her debut novel The Girl Who Wrote in Silk is available at Amazon.com, where your purchase helps support this blog.

In this interview, I asked Kelli about everything from how she approached her research to what it felt like to learn her book was a USA Today Bestseller:

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You’ve written before that you knew nothing about Chinese culture prior to beginning this book, and yet your book does a good job of portraying Chinese culture. How did you approach your research to ensure your portrayal was as authentic as possible?

You’re right, before this book I knew very little about Chinese culture. When the idea for The Girl Who Wrote in Silk came to me, I really wanted to write the story, but I was completely overwhelmed with the belief that I wasn’t qualified to write it. I’m not Chinese, I don’t have any Chinese family members, I’ve never studied Chinese culture, etc. And yet, I realized that this story needed to be written because so few people knew about the anti-Chinese riots and ethnic cleansing through all Western states in the last half of the nineteenth century. No one else was writing the story, so it was up to me. I started my research by reading everything I could get my hands on…from non-fiction books on Chinese traditions, symbolism, and customs, to all kinds of fiction books with a Chinese protagonist to help me get into the point-of-view of my Chinese character. In Seattle there is a museum called the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience and they were a wealth of information for me in both their exhibits and their archives. The Wing Luke also happened to host a dinner I attended that was presented by a food and cultural anthropologist discussing and sharing food eaten by “Chinese settlers in the 1880’s.” Basically, I soaked up as much knowledge and culture as I could until I felt confident enough to write.

You were first inspired to write this story in part because of a horrifying account of a smuggler in the San Juan Islands who killed his illegal Chinese passengers rather than risk getting caught with them. And in the process of researching the novel, you went on to discover more of the darker side of American history. What surprised or shocked you most in the process of researching the story?

So much of what I learned about how Chinese people were treated shocked me, but probably what stands out the most was that other victimized cultures at the time (Native Americans, Irish immigrants, etc.) were sometimes the perpetrators of violence against Chinese. I would have liked to think that these groups would feel compassion toward one another and aid one another, but the reality is that the nation was so filled with an “Us against them” mentality, that very little compassion existed. We’ve learned some in the years since, but our nation still has a long way to go in this regard.

Your story features two cross-cultural/interracial relationships — Inara and Daniel in the present, and Mei Lien and Joseph in the past. Which couple was your favorite to write and why?

If you asked me which time period was my favorite to write I would answer the historical because I loved being able to sprinkle in the bits of information I learned in my research and I loved bringing the period to life. When you ask which was my favorite couple, however, it’s more difficult to answer. I loved Mei Lien and Joseph because Joseph’s love for Mei Lien did not see their differences that others couldn’t see past. I loved that he gave up the life he thought he wanted for a life with Mei Lien. However, when I think about Inara and Daniel, I also love them. Their cultural differences weren’t an issue at all, which I hope reflects interracial couples of today and certainly reflects my own belief that at the heart and soul level, we are all the same. When taking a look at both couples together, I loved showing that in this area, at least, our nation has grown and matured. Most of us can see that love is what matters; not skin color, eye color, speech patterns, or even gender.

Your novel uses scenes from the present and the past to tell the story. Was it challenging weaving these two storylines together?

It wasn’t as challenging as you might think. I wrote the entire historical story first. Then I wrote the whole contemporary story. When it was time I wove the two stories together in a way that made the most sense to me. My agent then suggested we weave in a slightly different way…and then my editors suggested yet another way. So, in a way, I guess it did get a little challenging trying to figure out the best way to weave (i.e. should we “see” the event happening in the historical story before the contemporary characters discover it in their research or vice versa?). I think how we landed was the best way and it took several people to get there!

In the novel, there’s a stunning silk sleeve embroidered with a story that ties the past and present together. How did you decide to have a story hidden within that embroidered silk sleeve?

I chose a silk sleeve because my plotting partner, Carol, showed me a framed and embroidered silk sleeve she had purchased as a souvenir in China. I thought it was beautiful and unique so I started researching Chinese embroidery. I fell in love with the artistry and meaning revealed through the symbols on the embroideries. They seemed to me to be communicating something that I would never truly know without intensive research into symbolism, fables, and cultural beliefs. I loved that.

Your novel landed on the USA Today Bestsellers list in December 2015. How did you respond to the news that The Girl Who Wrote in Silk has been so well-received among readers?

I still can’t believe it! This is a dream come true that I truly didn’t think could happen with my debut novel. My first response was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude because so many people had a hand in making this happen: my agent, editors, publicist, marketing team, sales team, everyone at Sourcebooks; all the independent bookstore owners who voted for my book so that it appeared on the Indie Next list, which directly led to readers learning about my book who otherwise wouldn’t have. And then there are the booksellers who read my story and hand sold it to customers; readers who wrote reviews online and told their friends about the book; other authors who told their readers about my story… Truly, so many people had a hand in this achievement and I am so grateful for each and every one.

What do you hope people gain from reading your novel?

I hope people find the story entertaining and thought-provoking. I hope they think about racial issues and how racism is still very much a problem, which I hope leads them to thinking how they might individually make a difference in their own community. I hope readers learn that there are fascinating stories in our history that still impact us today. Most of all, I hope my novel helps readers look at the people around them and see not the color of their skin nor their cultural trappings, but a fellow human with the need for love, joy, and connection.

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Thanks so much to Kelli Estes for this interview! You can follow Kelli at her website www.kelliestes.com, on her Facebook page, and Twitter. Her debut novel The Girl Who Wrote in Silk is available at Amazon.com, where your purchase helps support this blog.

4 Favorite Chinese New Year Foods from My Mother-In-Law’s Kitchen

One of the greatest pleasures of Chinese New Year is the food itself. But there’s more than just the delectable dishes that line the family table Chinese New Year’s Eve and throughout the holiday itself.

My Chinese mother-in-law traditionally prepares a number of foods in the days leading up to the Lunar New Year. It’s like a parade of delicacies that lends as much of an excitement to the season as fireworks.

Here are four of my favorite Chinese New Year Foods from my Chinese mother-in-law’s kitchen:

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#1: Laba Porridge (腊八粥, làbāzhōu)

The Laba Festival (January 17, 2016 this year) falls on the eighth day of the final month of the lunar year and the official start to the Chinese New Year season.

Every year, my mother-in-law commemorates the day by dishing up the traditional laba porridge for breakfast. This sugary sweet glutinous rice porridge is studded with lots of tasty “treasures” – including goji berries, red beans, mung beans and Chinese jujubes.

It’s lovely to look at, and a delicious way to start the holidays.

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#2: Dongmitang (冻米糖, dòngmǐtáng)

At my in-laws’ home, no Chinese New Year is complete without a heaping bag of dongmitang sitting in the corner of our bedroom, ready for snacking at a moment’s notice.

Dongmitang are so reminiscent of the rice krispies treats I grew up with as a child in the US. But I think of them as a tastier, natural version without the marshmallows.

My mother-in-law makes her own puffed rice from scratch, adds rice syrup, pours the mixture into a mold to set, and then cuts it into bite-sized squares. Cool, huh? Sometimes she adds a little black sesame for extra nutrition during the coldest days of the winter. And sometimes, she lets us get in on the fun and help her, like my husband did last year.

But however my mother-in-law makes them, you can be sure she’ll bag them up and insist we take more of them upstairs with us. Even if we tell her we already have three bags of dongmitang in the corner of the room! Sigh…the love of a Chinese mother knows no end when it comes to food. 😉

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#3: Savory Turnovers (Migu)

Who doesn’t love sitting around with family during the holidays to make something traditional? Well in our home, that’s savory turnovers that we refer to in the local dialect as migu.

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Migu are these scrumptious turnovers handmade from rice-flour dough and stuffed with either veggies (salted bamboo, pickled greens and tofu) or veggies and pork.

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We prepare tons of them together, refrigerate (or freeze) for later, and then they become the most incredible snack or dish in a pinch during the holidays. Especially when they’re fried…yum!

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#4: Homemade Tofu

I’ve purchased hundreds, even thousands, of packages of creamy white bean curd in the supermarket, floating in water. But I never truly knew tofu until I watched my mother-in-law prepare it from scratch during Chinese New Year, a yearly tradition in the family.

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Making homemade fried tofu.

I wish I could describe all of the intricate steps involved in the process, but I’m still learning! Here’s what I do know:

One, it’s complicated enough to require the majority of my mother-in-law’s kitchen.

Two, the whole process produces a tasty by-product I happen to love on its own – soymilk!

And, three, you haven’t lived until you’ve bit into my mother-in-law’s homemade fried tofu fresh from the wok, dipped in soy sauce.

IMG_2007Trust me, if you’re as much of a tofu aficionado as I am, you’ve got to see this in action sometime. Or, if you’re really brave (and talented in the kitchen) try making tofu at home and experience the magic for yourself.

What Chinese New Year foods are your favorites?

Guest Post: Six Questions Chinese-Foreigner Couples Should Discuss Before Having Kids in China

While I’m married without children in China, many foreigners — like American Charlotte, a freelance writer in small town China who blogs at Chinese Potpourri — have chosen to start a family here. (Longtime readers might remember Charlotte from her unforgettable love story titled “I Want To Be Your Slave For The Rest of My Life”.) But as Charlotte has learned, having kids in China with your Chinese spouse involves a lot more than just “basics like a starry night themed nursery versus a jungle one.” 

Would you like to share your wisdom with the readers of Speaking of China through a personal guest post? Check out the submit a post page to learn more about how to have your writing featured here.

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(Photo by Andre Laubner via Flickr.com)
(Photo by Andre Laubner via Flickr.com)

Most Chinese couples want a child, if only to make their parents happy. My husband was no exception, though he was in more of a hurry than I was due to his old-by-Chinese-standards age of 32 at the time of our marriage. And he did truly want kids. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that our son was born just four days after we celebrated our first anniversary.

One thing I didn’t anticipate is all of the decisions that we’d have to make. I’m not talking basics like a starry night themed nursery versus a jungle one. That’s ridiculous, Chinese typically co-sleep with the baby. Nor am I talking about the never ending debate of breast feeding versus formula (news of the formula scandal broke when my son was less than a week old and I was glad that I’d chosen to breastfeed; for those who choose formula, please do due diligence and find a reputable brand).

No, these questions are a bit more serious than that. Once you and your Chinese husband decide to start a family, a few more things need to be discussed. In a perfect world, you’d sort out all these questions as you dated. In reality, we rarely get past the decision to have or not have children before we say “I do.” Here are six questions that are worthy of some serious talk time as you ponder the joys and challenges of parenthood:

1. Which maternity and post-partum customs will you follow?

This goes from quitting your job and not having sex once you know you’re pregnant (first and third trimesters are a “no-no” when it comes to being intimate) to wearing a radiation smock for the duration of the pregnancy and eating dumplings made from insects your mother-in-law picked out of a pile of manure from a farmer’s barnyard to improve your milk production. Nope, not kidding on that. Luckily it was my sister-in-law that got those delicacies; I’m quite the milk producer.

Sometimes it pays to insist on your traditions. But sometimes you need to know when to give in to win. I’ve finally figured out that sometimes I just have to humor my Chinese family. They don’t have as much knowledge about the world as I do and just aren’t capable of understanding some things. Like the fact that rollerskating did not cause my miscarriage. Really, they simply don’t get it. I also assured them that I will not blame them for any ailments I have in old age. Once I came to the realization that I can’t change what my mother-in-law knows and understands, life became easier.

2. Which nationality will the kids be?

I attended school with several military kids and they’d talk about their dual citizenship because they were born abroad and when they were 18 they could choose which nationality to keep. This was interesting to me, and when I found out we were expecting, I looked up the requirements of getting that for our kids. The friendly person at the American embassy informed me that China doesn’t recognize dual citizenship and that all babies born here are Chinese citizens. So these half-Chinese kids are in a sort of nationality purgatory; they can get a passport from their own country but China will still want to count them as one of their own.

3. Who and how will you name the baby?

When I taught English at a local college I always did a unit on names with the students. It was a chance for me to learn more characters and for them to explain something pretty basic in English. I was surprised to find that most students were not named by their parents. Grandparents seemed to be the most common person giving names, but fortune tellers and aunts and uncles were also named as the origin of their moniker.

Once we decided that our kids would get American citizenship, we felt it best that they had a Western sounding name as their given name, their Chinese name makes up their middle and family names. So their names are something like this: Andrew Lingfeng Wang. It helps that both sides of the family can call the kids by names that they understand, even if their Chinese birth certificates are quite a mess due to their strange names. Fortunately, when it was time to get their citizenship changed at the embassy, I wrote up an explanation of why my son’s name is partially illegible and tried to offer some reasoning as to why my daughter’s names start with lowercase letters and have periods at the end of each one and their paperwork was processed easily.

4. How many kids will we have?

Coming from three-child families, my husband and I knew that we wanted more than one. But there are so many questions that come up when having a second child while the one-child policy is still in place for the majority of the population. The authorities consider my son Chinese, so we went to the other hospital (only two hospitals, of a dozen, in our town have maternity departments). Technically it’s illegal, though I was told that giving birth in a foreign hospital is never a problem for couples having subsequent children in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Actually, any child born in China is Chinese regardless of whether one or both parents are Chinese or not.

5. Will you return to work or will one parent stay home with the child?

I returned to work when my son was 34 days old. The basic laws for foreigners don’t allow for maternity leave like our Chinese counterparts, but I have heard of foreign women successfully negotiating maternity leave into their contracts if they’re planning to have kids. Chinese women get six months to three years, depending on their job and desire to take advantage of it. I wanted to stay home, but as in many situations, we needed both incomes. My in-laws are very traditional and watched my son on days that I worked.

Since my last job ended, I’m home everyday. I frequently hear comments about how I’m lazy and don’t work or don’t care about my family enough to go find a job. That seems to be the general consensus about women in my town who don’t work: they’re lazy, they don’t care or they’re rich. It’s true I won’t move to a bigger city to find foreigner-friendly job, but they don’t see that I’m up at the crack of dawn and burning the midnight oil freelancing.

6. Where will they go to school?

I can count on one hand the number of Western families, whom I know personally or through someone, whose kids go to Chinese schools. The easiest way to explain it is that Chinese schools produce robots who aim to be number-one. Everything, starting from first grade, is about being the top student. Parents go to school on weekends to clean to earn points for their kids which puts them in better standing with the teachers. Teachers teach to the top of the class and shame the parents of kids who are at the bottom, since their salary is in jeopardy if the class scores aren’t high enough.

I’m not implying that other types of education are flawless, and the Chinese style of education does have it’s good points, but kids in Chinese school have little free time. Every weekend and holiday is packed with extra homework to “make up” for the days away from school. Overseeing nightly homework is like a part-time job.

What other questions would you add to the list?

Charlotte — a wife, mom and freelance writer in small town China — blogs about her life at Chinese Potpourri.
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Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

Guest Post: Will I keep my Asian surname? Am I Asian? Am I Western?

When an intercultural relationship ends – a relationship that deeply impacted who you are – what does it mean for your identity?

Serina Huang (a fantastic writer, blogger, mother and frugalista many of us know as the Taiwanxifu) writes, “Now that I am no longer with my Taiwanese husband, I am beginning to rediscover and question who I am. Will I keep my Asian surname? Am I Asian? Am I Western?”

Do you have a story you’d like to share on Speaking of China? Have a look at the submit a post page to learn more about how to become a guest poster.

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“Is he Australian?” my friend Rose asked.

I knew what she meant, but still the question surprised me. I paused for a minute, before replying, “no, actually, he’s English.”

Her eyebrows went up slightly, and she gave a slight giggle. “Oh, Serina!”

For seventeen years I had shared my life with a Taiwanese man, with whom I bore two dual-cultural children. We were introduced while I was studying Mandarin Chinese at University: he had been my language partner, and – quite unexpectedly to all concerned, myself included – morphed into my partner with whom I hoped I would spend my life.

I have spent over twenty years being immersed in Chinese (and Taiwanese) culture. This isn’t something faddish, but rather something was essential in my role as a Taiwanese xifu or daughter-in-law. Before we were married, my Taiwanese mother-in-law told me that once I became a xifu I must become Taiwanese rather than a foreigner. (She also made it clear she expected to live with us and for me to care for her in her old age.) I laughed a little about this as it seemed absurd not to live like an Australian in my own country.

But somehow, bit by bit, I changed. I became an egg: outwardly white, yet inwardly Asian yellow. I would go to work and act out my work existence, but somehow felt different and apart, unsure about how to behave in the oddly open Australian office environment. I didn’t spend my evenings and weekends the way that other people seemed to; I rarely went out for after work drinks, rarely went to the movies, hardly ever watched commercial TV.

Instead I went home to cook for a house full of Asian people – for six years we had home-stay students and invariably they were Chinese, broken up occasionally by Japanese or Korean students. I bought rice in 10kg bags (only ever high-grade Japonica rice, which I cooked in a special Ta-tung electric cooker we had imported from Taiwan). I only purchased the proper brand of naturally brewed soy sauce. I learned through trial and error to cook meals that tasted the way a Chinese mother would have made them. I still remember the night my husband nodded with appreciation because I had stir-fried a simple meal of Hokkien chicken noodles just right “That tastes like it was cooked by someone Chinese, not like a lao wai,” he said, scooping up mouthfuls of the noodles with relish in his shiny metal chopsticks.

We were always saving money to invest in properties that would help build a better future for us and for the children I eventually produced. One of my work colleagues laughed at this and told me I was ‘so boring and so Chinese.’ Unlike him, I didn’t have cool or expensive hobbies, and we rarely travelled. When we were invited to noisy dinner gatherings with Chinese friends, invariably the discussion would drift to money and investing in property. Even people who were not working had investments. We were held up as models of the successful Taiwanese immigrant life. My husband was an investment guru and financial star and held court dispensing advice for those looking to emulate our experience.

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We rarely dined out and instead spent evenings sitting on the sofa watching Japanese soap-operas with Chinese subtitles. My favourite mega-series, which I have watched at least four times, is called ‘Diamond Girl’. Kind of like a Japanese version of Legally Blonde, it follows the journey of a privileged and spoiled young woman (with her endless wardrobe of brand name clothing) who worked as a secretary in law firm in an impossible quest to win back her fiancé. In the beginning of the series she studies (or rather socializes) in Sydney, and I loved seeing my own country through the eyes of a Japanese fashion princess. I so wanted to be Diamond Girl: she was cute and sassy, and I aspired to wear her bright and sexy clothes.

Later, I became madly addicted to a Taiwanese soap Inborn Pair. It is an odd title, and a better translation is Love Looking for Trouble. I lusted over the clean-cut Burberry overcoat clad actor who played the lead in the series, Chris Wang. I discovered that he spent his early years studying/working in Australia, and I used to daydream about meeting him and casually asking about his experiences Downunder. I imagined him as a younger and more romantic version of my husband. In my dreams I was transported back to an idealized vision of when we first met, before xifu responsibilities and cross-cultural misunderstandings got in the way.

Of course these were hardly tales that you could talk about in the kitchenette at work while filling up my thermos to make a cup of Taiwanese gaoshan high mountain green tea.

“You know, last night I cooked Chinese kongxincai greens with fermented beancurd, stewed fatty pork belly with star anise and hard boiled eggs, and served it over perfectly steamed rice. And then I watched Diamond Girl pretend to be a hostess in a bar in order to win back a client whom she accidentally insulted at the law firm she worked at. Oh, and her boss really likes the tea that she makes for him – you can tell because he grunted.” This wasn’t something most ‘Aussies’ could relate to.

Now that I am no longer with my Taiwanese husband, I am beginning to rediscover and question who I am. Will I keep my Asian surname? Am I Asian? Am I Western? What does the ‘West’ even mean? What bits of my ‘egg’ identity to I want to keep? Are there bits that I want to separate out, like a yolk being separated from the whites?

Above all, how to explain to New Man, whom I started dating in a strange yuan fen coincidence of destiny that only Chinese people could fully understand, that I might look like outwardly a plump middle-aged Anglo-Saxon mother, but my head and my heart operate quite differently.

Some things are easy: I tell him my favourite band is the Taiwanese rock group Mayday (aka wu yue tian), and I love singing karaoke classics by Teresa Teng and Ah-mei, and more recent songs by the lovely Della Ting and breathless Jia Jia. He nods but I know that Mando-pop will probably never appeal. At least my Taiwanese-Australian girlfriend gets it; over Easter we spend an afternoon belting out karaoke classics on my computer while my kids are with their father. She introduces me to Leehom and Kimberly; I fall in love with Leehom youtube videos and he becomes my new Asian pin-up model.

I talk about my student days in Beijing, with toilets that stank so much I could smell them from my room down the hallway. About my first frightened night in student accommodation and the drunken Kazakhstanis who kick-boxed down the door opposite mine in a quest for beer from the xiaomaibu store. Surviving that to spend a year partying and flirting with abandon. Naively backpacking through China. About living in Taiwan, about the dumplings, vegetarian buffets with fake meat and vegetables grown in the mountains, hidden hipster cafes in the back laneways and how sad I was to say goodbye to the royal blue LED-lit tiers of Taipei 101 as our chauffeured car swung past it in the light winter rain. I joke about travelling back to Taiwan with my mother-in-law on my honeymoon, and (having left her in Taipei) reminisce about clutching my new husband on a scooter while we travelled along the fiercely beautiful coastal region near Taitung. I tell New Man that Taiwan is a clean, green city in Asia, that the subways (jieyun) and High Speed Rail (gaotie) are amazing. I get excited about the emerging art scene in Taiwan, the way that ancient and modern cultures are converging to form a new identity.

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He has been to Hong Kong but never really travelled through Asia; Asia to him is a night at a Thai restaurant eating laksa. (That prompted a whole explanation of Singapore’s nyonya cuisine, and regional differences in Chinese cuisines, which I think again went over his head.)

I tell him I can speak Mandarin. “You clever thing,” he says. He starts sending me sexy messages on Facebook messenger with the help of Google Translate. They make me laugh.

But it is difficult to explain that my brain doesn’t just translate from English into Mandarin, like a tap that I can turn on and off. I might not be a native speaker, but I think, I live, I dream in Chinese. I am often at my happiest prattling on in imperfect Mandarin, so happy to meet Taiwanese Mums on a playdate and to bitch light-heartedly about the frustrations of navigating the Australian dream – many are married to Australian men and experience what I did in reverse. My children’s English is littered with Chinglish phrases. “Mummy, bao bao,” my toddler pleads when he wants a cuddle. My preschooler, who seems to perpetually have his hands in his undies, refers to his genitalia as ‘xiao niaoniao’ and this seems an easier term to use when chiding him about it in public.

In the early days of dating, I had to stop myself from speaking to New Man in Chinese. “Ni xian shuo ba! – you speak first,” I have nearly said on the phone countless times. Chinese was the secret language of courtship and intimacy with my husband, a language I intuitively retreat to when thinking emotively. “Talking about love – tan lian ai’ , is how they refer to this stage of dating someone in Chinese.

I argue best in Chinese. It is only in Mandarin that I feel that I can truly express my anger, my indignation about things, especially injustices right or wrong in my marriage. When I get truly worked up, I make my point more shrilly and cruelly than in English. Perhaps it is best that I am not able to tap into this, as it would probably tear New Man’s soft vulnerability to shreds.

I explain to New Man that I feel uncomfortable when people split bills. (Thankfully that has never come up on a date.) I talk a bit about the importance of face (mianzi), and gloss over the importance of cultivating networks or guanxi. I explain about how I plan to help my kids maintain their Chinese language skills. We take our children out together to a Chinese lantern festival. He likes the lion dance and tells me it is fun but that he doesn’t like yum cha (yuk cha, he calls it).

How to explain the deep yearning within me to return to Asia, how I constantly miss living in Taiwan? How a part of me feels this quest to explore, to discover, to connect with Chinese culture as if I was born into it in a past life? That despite my Caucasian appearance, that I feel a sense of belonging and normalcy when I glance out the taxi window and read glaring neon signs in Chinese? That sometimes I feel lost and lonely just being normal in suburban Canberra? How I am a temple junkie, and pray with unadvisable regularity to Guanyin for relationships, Matsu for safe passage, Guan Gong for courage and wisdom, Cai Shen for money and Wen Chang for a promotion in my public service career? What it truly means to express gan en – appreciation – when you receive your hearts desire? How feng shui matters to my life and defines where and how I live? How my children’s Chinese names were chosen by a fortune teller, and mine has layers of meaning that takes five minutes to explain?

“But you are not even Chinese,” I tell New Man on a picnic date shortly after meeting him, as we discuss how inexplicable that it was that we should have hooked up.

With his blond hair and blue eyes, this is fairly obvious. Nor do I wish he was anything other than what he is. The attraction took me by surprise, powerful and unexpected, making me as giddy as a teenager. He is unaware how very English he is. I went to Beijing rather than do the usual pulling a beer in a pub gap year that many Aussies do and so I know nothing about England, nothing about his culture or the landscape that shaped him. To me, being with him is the new foreign, the new exotic.

And through it I am inventing my new life as a mixed-up scrambled egg, choosing how I want to flavour my omelette.

Serina Huang is a writer, blogger, mother and frugalista. She blogs about Taiwanese culture and food at www.taiwanxifu.com, and about parenting and being frugal at www.weekendparent.co. She is currently working on a book about her experiences of doing Chinese postpartum confinement (zuo yuezi).
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Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

Interview with Huan Hsu on His Memoir “The Porcelain Thief”

The Porcelain Thief

Journalist Huan Hsu has one of the most original reasons for going to China that I’ve ever heard – to find buried treasure. Or, more specifically, buried porcelain.

A visit to the porcelain collection at the Seattle Art Museum leads him to a conversation with his mother, who explains that Huan’s great-great grandfather Liu left a cache of highly valuable china buried deep in the ground decades ago in Xingang, Jiangxi. That ultimately inspires Huan to journey to China to discover more about this buried treasure by talking to family there. Starting with his grandmother in Shanghai, Huan meets more relatives and sees more of China than he ever expected – and in the process, collects valuable family stories and learns more about himself. Read all about it in his new memoir The Porcelain Thief.

The Porcelain Thief

The Porcelain Thief deftly combines Huan Hsu’s personal experiences, the family stories (which span the late Qing Dynasty up through the Chairman Mao era), and his quest for buried porcelain into one incredibly enlightening book. You’ll learn about Chinese history and culture, porcelain, and what it’s like to be Chinese American in China (one of my favorite quotes is “ABCs [American Born Chinese] got the Chinese treatment at foreigner prices.”), making this an exceptional and much-needed entry among China books.

I’m honored to feature Huan Hsu and The Porcelain Thief on Speaking of China through this interview.

Huan Hsu credit Martijn Van Nieuwenhuyzen
Huan Hsu (Photo credit: Martijn Van Nieuwenhuyzen)

Here’s Huan Hsu’s official bio from his publisher, Penguin Random House:

HUAN HSU, born in the Bay Area and raised in Salt Lake City, is a former staff writer for the Washington City Paper in Washington, DC, and the Seattle Weekly. He is the recipient of two Society of Professional Journalists awards and has received recognition from the Casey Foundation for Meritorious Journalism. His essays and fiction have also appeared in SlateThe Literary Review, and Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts. He currently lives in Amsterdam and teaches creative writing at Amsterdam University College.

I asked Huan about what it takes to gather family stories, his experiences as a Chinese American in China, why there are so few Chinese Americans (and other overseas Chinese) writing about China, and more about The Porcelain Thief.

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Your search for buried treasure ends up taking you not only to Shanghai, but also Taiwan as well as Beijing, Shandong and Jiangxi. Did you ever expect to cover so much territory in a quest for family stories and porcelain?

I did and I didn’t. I was extremely naïve about what my so-called quest would entail, but that was also somewhat by design, so that it could remain open-ended. I wanted to be able to indulge curiosities and get sidetracked and wander around and experience an authentic sense of discovery. When I first arrived in Shanghai, I didn’t even have a grasp of how many members of my grandmother’s generation there were, who was still alive, or where they lived. So other than Shanghai and Jiangxi, I had no idea where I would be going. And of course once I began to find my footing in China, I wanted to go everywhere. As I like to tell people, there is nothing not interesting about China. Every place in China seemed to promise a fascinating local history or connection to my family or porcelain. This was both reassuring, in that once I got a basic understanding of Chinese history and my family history, it provided an entry point into me to orient myself and contextualize new places (as well as a way of interacting with both the place and its people–I could just play the curious, amateur historian American-born Chinese, which is a pretty unimpeachable character for local Chinese), and also extremely frustrating. As an obsessive collector and a maximalist, I still feel that not being able to go everywhere, talk to everyone, and learn everything is something of a failure on my part. Anyway, I’m glad I was able to cover as much territory as I did, which offered a glimpse of China that, while terribly incomplete, was still more thorough and more unalloyed than many people get, even those who do visit China.

While you’re ostensibly searching for the family’s porcelain in your book, some of the greatest treasures you uncover are your family’s stories, which span the Qing Dynasty, Republican-era China, and Chairman Mao’s reign. I was impressed by how you managed to get so many of the family elders to share their experiences with you; I haven’t had much success coaxing my husband’s relatives to speak about the past and I speak fluent Chinese myself! Besides learning the language, what do you think was the key to getting family members to talk to you?

Haha, well, I’m pretty sure your Chinese is better than mine ever was. I’d like to think that my family members spoke freely with me (well, most of them–my grandmother remained reticent to the end) thanks to my skills as an interviewer. But it was probably mostly timing, both where they were in their lives and also where China was in its history. For example, my father helped transcribe most of my interviews with Fang Zhen Zhi. Though they had met in Beijing in the early 1990s, and despite being a fellow physicist and materials scientist, my father and Fang Zhen Zhi had never spoken about Fang’s work on the nuclear program or his persecution during the Cultural Revolution. My father remarked to me that even if he had asked, he doubted Fang would have talked about it because of the cultural and political climate in China at the time.

It also probably helped that I was often the first of my generation to pay them a visit, a demonstration of filial piety that was probably appreciated by these relatives. Of course, I couldn’t just show up and immediately ask them about the porcelain right away, so I naturally had to first get to know them. Once they got going about their lives, I often got so wrapped up in those stories that the porcelain seemed kind of inconsequential, and there wasn’t always a convenient way to slip questions about it into the conversation. But I did always ask, and made sure to bring it more than once to see what I might elicit.

Other than felicitous timing and a degree of persistence, I don’t know if there was any trick to getting family members to talk. I showed up for the porcelain, so learning about their experiences was already somewhat ancillary, and maybe that created an atmosphere where those ancillary experiences could be shared. And as I said, much of the family history was just part of the warm-up–my priority wasn’t what they talked about, just that they kept talking and got comfortable with me listening. And maybe because I was ostensibly pursuing the porcelain and also my grandmother’s story, who was a well-respected figure in the family, they felt that their stories weren’t the center of the conversation and those things could come up more naturally and by the time I pressed them about those stories it would have felt odd not to share. But in the end, they were the ones who had to decide they wanted to talk, and I don’t know their motivations. Maybe because they were all well advanced in age, and no one in the family had ever tried to get these family stories, they felt an urge to have them recorded. As Fang Zhen Zhi said, they had suffered but had lived honorable lives. They had little more to strive for, nothing to fear, and had accepted their histories. They were content. So why hold back?

One of the fascinating things about your story is it offers readers insight into the experience of being Chinese American in China. What surprised you most about your own experience as an American-born Chinese in China?

Probably how angry it could make me! I think of myself as a pretty relaxed person, and I think most people who meet me perceive me that way, but there was something about China that could just get under my skin so quickly. China can be confrontational no matter where you’re from, but with overseas Chinese it can feel very personal. Intellectually, I knew that it wasn’t personal, but it wasn’t until the end of my stay in China that I really accepted it. Until then, I found myself acting far more pugnacious than I ever thought I could be.

Maybe this is just how we deal with the dysphoria of being in a place that is at once very familiar and extremely foreign, hostile even. I think for me, I had spent basically my entire life establishing my American-ness and assimilating to a degree that my parents never did. I didn’t just think of myself as American, or feel American, I was American, plain and simple. And to my frustration, that was completely unacknowledged in China because of the way I looked–the Chinese still think of American as an ethnicity, not a nationality. That double standard drove me crazy. For a while, I seemed to be trying to civilize China one pedestrian or driver at a time and would almost go out of my way to create these confrontations.

I expended so much psychic energy trying not to get swallowed up or lost in the sea of other black-haired people. I didn’t even realize how much of a burden that was on me until I didn’t have to deal with it anymore. Many of my ABC friends have also since returned to the States, and I think they leave China with a similar sense of relief.

I guess there aren’t a lot of analogues for this situation in the United States. Maybe children of overseas missionaries who move back after many years abroad? I got to know an older guy in Shanghai who was born in China to missionary parents, then grew up in Taiwan after the civil war. He went back to the States as an adolescent and found it bizarre. He went to college in America, but for the past few decades has been back in China. That might not be an accident.

There was a soccer player here in the Netherlands recently, his parents are Dutch but he was born in Japan and grew up there. He’s a Japanese citizen, his friends are all Japanese, he plays for the Japanese national team. Dutch is his third language. His mannerisms are completely Japanese. He prefers Japanese food and Japanese women; his wife is Japanese. He even looks Japanese. You get the idea. After spending his whole life in Japan, he was signed by a Dutch team in 2011, when he was 24. Most of the news stories around that time covered the culture shock he experienced: how disrespectful and brash Dutch players were to coaches and each other, things like that. He recalled thinking these people–technically his people–were all crazy. He lasted three seasons in the Netherlands before going to a team in Portugal, where, I suppose, he could just be a regular expat.

(I’ve since heard from other expats that I was not the only one who used his umbrella as an excuse to “accidentally” hit people in China.)

I loved that one of your great-great-grandfather’s best legacies is educating women in the family (starting with his granddaughters, who he sent to Western schools) and ultimately being ahead of the times. One of your relatives in Jiangxi even owed their good fortune (they always received the latest appliances before everyone else) to this legacy, passed down to them through Si Yi Po, one of these educated granddaughters of Liu Fengshu. How did it feel to discover this about your family?

My great-great-grandfather sending his youngest daugther and then my grandmother’s generation to Western schools really resonated with me. But I think much of that resonance stemmed from some latent chong yang mei wai on my part. It initially mattered to me that my grandmother attended a sister school of Smith College not because it meant she was the rare Chinese woman with a college education, but because she had an American college education supervised by Americans, which, of course, meant she was properly schooled and civilized. I probably would not felt the same way if she had attended an all-Chinese institution. I know I was more impressed with my great grand uncle who graduated from St. John’s University in Shanghai than his brothers who graduated from some Chinese railroad school in Jiangxi.

Once I had a little distance, I appreciated my great-great-grandfather’s progressivism more on its own terms. It served to bridge the past in a way that made it feel much closer and comprehensible. But I’m not sure how progressive my great-great-grandfather really was about educating women at the moment my grandmother was going to school. I feel like that iconoclasm is largely appended in hindsight, a narrative propagated by my living relatives. My sense is that it was actually my great grandfather, Liu Ting Zan, who felt strongly about educating women, and that my great-great-grandfather was mostly an agnostic. It probably wasn’t until the war, during which he and his family depended on my grandmother and San Gu for financial and material support, that he gained an appreciation for educated women and women in general. But this might also be a narrative of my creation.

(Not that it matters, but the relative who talked about getting the latest appliances was in Shandong.)

You’ve written that few China books are authored by Chinese Americans. Why do you think this is the case? And what do you think it will take to get more books published about China from Chinese American (or other Overseas Chinese) authors?

I’m not sure, but it continues to puzzle me. You might have seen this story in the Washington Post recently. My first reaction was: yes, so true. My second reaction was: why didn’t a Chinese American write this? Why is China still usually interpreted through a white guy’s perspective (and it’s usually a guy)?

I should probably point out that there are Chinese Americans and overseas Chinese writing about China. If you look at the acknowledgments page of Evan Osnos’ new book, for example, you see plenty of overseas Chinese writers that he thanks. But of course these names are vastly outnumbered by non-Chinese writers. Much of it is probably due to raw numbers–Chinese Americans are still a fairly small minority, after all. It’s also hard to speculate on possible reasons without trafficking in stereotypes, but Chinese parents tend not to encourage their kids to pursue writing. (Chinese parents are not the only ones.)

Most of the ABCs I know are the children of the wave of immigration from Taiwan in the 60s and 70s, often with Kuomintang family ties and often with Christian backgrounds. So the parents already had an estrangement with the mainland, and while I think they valued staying connected to Chinese culture, that didn’t necessarily mean staying connected to China the country. The way da lu ren was used around me made me think the term referred to some lower caste of Chinese people, and it must have been somewhat bewildering when my generation of ABCs told our parents that we were moving to China. Like, wait a minute, we spent our whole lives working and saving and eating bitter so you wouldn’t have to live there! The religiosity might also mean they’re too preoccupied with the afterlife to give much weight to earthly pursuits like writing. Plus, America’s a big place and China’s far away and it’s probably natural that Chinese Americans are more concerned with issues closer to home.

Even without the religious component, it takes a certain degree of individualism (and narcissism, and probably stupidity) to believe you have something to say about something and to want to share it with strangers. And this is not a very Chinese impulse, nor is it in line with the expectations put on model minorities in America. My mother has a Chinese friend who married a Jewish guy, and this friend often ponders her identity vis a vis her husband’s and their son’s. After she read The Porcelain Thief, she remarked to my mother that the book highlighted just how American her son will be, because she could not fathom writing about family members with such honesty for public consumption. And China as a subject for writing might be considered familiar enough be be influenced by that cultural attitude.

I also have to acknowledge my own disinterest in China before starting on The Porcelain Thief. I know that for a long time, I would have aggressively rejected any insinuations to write about China. I would have thought, why should I write about China any more than any other person? There’s a certain level of denial that comes with believing in (or wanting to believe in) a post-racial world.

I have no idea what it will take to get more Chinese American voices in books about China. A friend of mine in the foreign service pointed out to me that the absence applies to foreign policy, too. The discussion of Chinese geopolitics is almost always the same cast of white guys commenting, and he thinks it’s a major reason why U.S. foreign policy towards China tends to be confrontational–there remains an inability to view China as a collection of individuals with varying motivations. The lack of empathy creates a simplistic understanding of “the other”–classic Ed Said-style Orientalism. And I think that strain of Orientalism is to some degree present in many stories about China that don’t come from people with Chinese ancestry, however enlightened and well-intentioned they might be. Maybe more Chinese Americans have to first come to see, as I did, that their hyphenated identity is a privilege rather than a burden.

What do you hope people come away with from reading The Porcelain Thief?

In general, probably the same thing that I hope to come away with when I read a book: some combination of being informed, entertained, and transported. Specifically, maybe to have gained a better understanding of a country that everyone knows about but remains something of a mystery for many, and the diversity of its people and history. China is a huge, complex, and real place made up of real individuals who all have his and her own desires and dreams and beliefs. I also hope readers laugh at the funny parts. And that they don’t fixate too much on the treasure. From the beginning, I intended this book to be a journey, so I hope people find a way to enjoy that part of it, too.

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Thank you so much to Huan Hsu for this interview! You can find The Porcelain Thief on Amazon.com, where your purchase helps support this blog.

 

Guest Post: How Asian Will My Future Husband Be?

Over a year ago, I wrote a post titled What’s the big deal about Asian men and bags? Even though it’s not a custom in the America where I grew up, after coming to China I came to love how men (including my husband) would gladly hold my bags for me when we’re out and about.

Lena, a Danish woman currently studying in Beijing, feels exactly the same way. She has dated the men here — and in the process, she has come to love some of those cultural differences in dating (including carrying bags for women). But the thing is, her foreign friends don’t always understand.

Do you have a story about how coming to China has changed your views about dating? Or another guest post that fits the scope of this blog? Check out the submit a post page to learn how to have your writing featured here!
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https://instagram.com/p/3V0bEJQye8/
(Photo by lenaelsxx at https://instagram.com/p/3V0bEJQye8/)

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

This is an old saying that makes perfect sense. When going to another country, it’s important to associate with the culture and the people. I don’t mean it’s necessary to change the way you are personally. But when you’re placed in another culture, there are some differences. And some of them, I do think, are important to recognize and follow so you won’t make trouble every time you walk out the door.

I’m in China right now and the dating rules here are a bit different from my home country of Denmark. Because of this, my friends and I love to discuss how “Chinese” or “Western” a boy can be. Races are also a big topic. It has nothing to do with racism towards anyone, but just about what is more attractive to us — in this case, my friends from South Africa and Italy, and me. And yes, most of my friends have different preferences.

https://instagram.com/p/3NtWl8QyfY/
(Photo by lenaelsxx at https://instagram.com/p/3NtWl8QyfY/)

So intercultural dating is a hot topic these days. Many people traveling abroad meet a handsome boy or beautiful girl who they fall in love with. But when reality hits them, they realize that dating between different cultures isn’t always that easy. Love is one thing but culture is another, and our own culture and behavior are very difficult to change. Furthermore, I don’t think we should try to change, but we also need to accept the other person as well and realized that they don’t necessarily need to change, even if their habits annoy us sometimes.

So last night at dinner when discussing the Chinese dating culture with my friends, we ended up talking about the classic “carrying-the-bag” issue. What is that about? Let me explain. Chinese guys are supposed to carry their girlfriend’s bag. This is the rule no matter how small, purple or bling-bling it is. My friends in this discussion are all foreigners (both boys and girls) and none of them like this. I wasn’t sure I agreed because I realized that I actually do expect the boy to carry my bag. I carry my own small fake Gucci purse but if I carry something just a bit bigger without bling, I would expect my male friend to ask if he should carry it for me. Maybe I’ll give it to him, maybe I won’t. It depends.

My friends were laughing at me when I told them the story of me and a male friend out shopping. I was carrying my bag and he had bought something. Because he didn’t have a bag, he asked if he could put his stuff in mine. I took his things and suddenly my bag was quite full. He didn’t notice. I tried to tell him, and still no reaction. I even told him that he wasn’t a real gentleman, way too Western (my other way of saying he wasn’t a gentleman) and not caring at all. He laughed at me as well and I realized that I was actually annoyed by this English guy who obviously didn’t know anything about Chinese culture. (How could he? He had just arrived and my face is pale and Scandinavian. How would he know that I expect this from every man I meet these days? It came as a surprise to me as well).

https://instagram.com/p/3OnMy0wyWh/
(Photo by lenaelsxx via https://instagram.com/p/3OnMy0wyWh/)

Another day, my stomach wasn’t quite well, and my Chinese male friend automatically took my little fake Gucci out of my hand immediately and carried it for me the rest of the day. I tried to take it back a few times but he was afraid of me being in too much pain. I don’t think the little purse would have made any difference but I liked his way of thinking.

After listening to these two stories, my Western friends told me that I was way too Chinese. I thought about this afterwards and I know that I am, but is it that bad then? I’ve been in the middle for a while because I know that there are some Chinese cultural behaviors that I’ll never associate with. But there are also others that I haven’t even realized I’ve already taken on my shoulders a long time ago. One reason is the fact that I actually hang out with Chinese people for fun, while many of my foreign friends don’t. It’s interesting to see this difference in our discussions. Things I never would’ve done before suddenly come so naturally now.

I’m not sure how Asian my future husband will be. But I know that if he won’t ask for my bag, I’ll probably teach him to. Not because he has to carry it around, but because it makes me feel like he’s thinking about my well-being.

https://instagram.com/p/3Fz7XQQyVn/
(Photo by lenaelsxx via https://instagram.com/p/3Fz7XQQyVn/)

Lena is a 20-something Danish girl currently studying for a semester at Renmin University in Beijing while writing about China, travel and love at http://www.lenakina.tumblr.com/.
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Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

Guest Post: “The F-Word” – Body Image in China

Have you heard someone call you fat (pàng/胖) in China? Then you’ll definitely relate to this fantastic guest post from Laura, a British-German editor and journalist in Nanjing who also writes the new blog “Our Chinese Wedding“, a lighthearted look at her intercultural relationship with a guy from Inner Mongolia. 

If you’d like to follow in Laura’s footsteps and have your writing published here, I’m always on the lookout for great guest posts. Check out the submit a post page to learn more about what I’m running here.

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Who can compete with backsides like that? Not me!
Who can compete with backsides like that? Not me!

“Oh my god, look at that foreigner. Her bum is so big!”

I was so shocked at what I just heard, I was simply unable to think of any good comeback. I wanted to turn around and say something sarky in Chinese; I had the language ability, yet I felt so ashamed at what they had just said while walking only three steps behind me, that I simply did not want to acknowledge I had understood their comment about my behind.

It was my first memorable experience with body image in China. Where in the West we would only mention the F-word in hushed tones while our girlfriends encouragingly told us “No, you haven’t put on weight. No, you don’t look fat at all”, in China people from your boss to your mother will just blatantly tell you that you have gained a few pounds or, as Bridget Jones would say, “have [a] bum the size of Brazil.”

What made the whole thing worse was that when I had been going out with my boyfriend Mr. Li in the UK, he had rarely said anything about my bum. However, after we moved to China, suddenly it seemed to come up a lot more. While he assured me that the reason he mentioned it was simply because he liked it, incidence such as the above instantly turned me into an emotional wreck at any mention of my rear end.

Still struggling to come to terms with the fact that random strangers will comment on my most blatant feature, and often to my face, I could not help but ask myself; why is it that in China it is culturally acceptable to talk about body weight in such a fashion? How come it is not uncommon for people with a boxier body build to be nicknamed “Fatty” by close friends, even irrespective of whether they are male or female? Many of my Chinese friends have brushed it off as not offensive, when people are called fat or teased about their kilos. Yet, that is truly not accurate, since I have witnessed first-hand how many of my Chinese friends would get very upset about hearing about their weight, and with good reason.

More likely, I believe weight-related honesty is meant as a warning, a way for friends and family to watch out for their beloved because in China being overweight can have serious ramifications. On a personal level, especially women will struggle to find a man if they are not of average build. Considering the importance placed on family and marriage in China, failing to tie the knot as a woman even today for a majority pretty much equates to failing at life.

One could argue that obsession with appearance and being thin is just as present in the West, and it is probably true that many overweight women back home struggle considerably to find their other halves.

However, in China the consequences of being curvy are even farther reaching than one’s love life. In the professional realm being overweight can mean unemployment; and no, not just for models and movie stars, also for jobs as seemingly unrelated as kindergarten teaching.

To my complete and utter disbelief, I learned that overweight teachers tend to be unable to find jobs in China, as Mr. Li told me after we met a comparatively big girl who used to be a childhood friend of his. He explained to me Chinese parent’s logic in relation to a teacher’s weight. As a teacher you are taking care of their precious children, yet if you cannot even “take care of yourself”, how can you be a good teacher?

“Taking care of oneself” is really what is at the heart of the weight issue. While in the past it was mainly the women who saw themselves under immense pressure to remain slim, now increasingly men are expected to watch their weight. Anything else is perceived as laziness on their part and frowned upon. The days when having a beer belly was just another sign of how thick one’s wallet was as a male are slowly coming to an end as chiselled Korean pop stars and Hong Kong martial arts actors are propagating an increasingly unrealistic body image.

All this talk about staying thin causes a major dilemma; with Western food becoming more and more fashionable and available, the Chinese diet is evolving into a considerably more calorific one. This is making it harder for young women and men to stay thin. At the same time, local women can often be heard commenting that they are not having any rice with their Chinese meal, since they are on a diet.

Is all this frenzy about looks leading China into an eating crisis? Are food-related disorders as present in Chinese culture as they are in Western ones?

Dr. Robert Portnoy told the Nanjinger magazine in November 2014 that he had witnessed strong evidence of the early stages of eating disorders during his year in Nanjing. Yet he observed that “whenever I raised the issue of eating disorders, I was told that this was not of concern in China.” The Fulbright scholar believes that the Middle Kindom is not yet recognising what will soon become a growing epidemic.

The example of Fan Bingbing, “China’s Fattest Star” as she recently nicknamed herself when her weight was revealed on the talent show 出彩中国人 (chūcǎi zhōngguórén), certainly is cause for concern.

Fan Bingbing (Photo by hto2008 of www.HuaTongOversea.com/blog
Fan Bingbing (Photo by hto2008 of www.HuaTongOversea.com/blog

At 1m68 tall, she weighs not even 60 kilos. To put this in perspective, that equals a BMI of 21.26. People whose BMI lies within 18.5 to 24.9 possess the ideal amount of body weight, and Fan Bingbing is right in the middle of these two values, even a little closer to the underweight scale. Yet, Chinese media had a field day with the revelation that “Little Fat Fan”, as she has been referred to by publications many times in the past, is so “heavy”.

On the other hand research by Amy Pan-Shing conducted in 2000 suggests that, while of the different racial groups analysed in the study, Chinese were reported to have the highest dissatisfaction with their weight, they were also exhibiting the least signs of eating disorders. Anyone who has been to dinner at a Chinese family will know instantly why that is the case. It is difficult to become dangerously underweight while grandma, aunty or mother are tirelessly shoving food and snacks and more food in your face, no matter how many times you insist that you are full. They are walking the tight rope; trying on the one hand to not make you too fat, as this would also reflect badly on them, suggesting that they don’t care for you enough to gamble away your future with your extra pounds, while simultaneously worrying that you are too thin.

The concern that you might eat too little will stem from a number of external factors, though I personally believe that two specific cultural characteristics might be involved in ensuring China’s women do stray onto the path to anorexia. On the one hand, the older generation has been through the hardships of famines, Cultural Revolution and in many cases even civil war. With food shortage being a daily reality, it has surely become a natural reflex to encourage the younger generations to eat whatever they could get their hands on to ensure their survival.

With relation to the women in particular, I would not be surprised if a major concern working against anorexia becoming a more serious phenomenonin the Middle Kingdom is its negative influence on child-bearing capabilities. After all, aside from getting married, the most important task for a Chinese couple is to reproduce in order to be filial and pay respect to their own parents. A woman who is barren in China cannot fulfill her destiny and hence will have immense difficulties finding a husband. So, it is the duty of the family to make sure she is in a healthy enough state to produce heirs. Hence, the obsessive feeding and worry over whether one is getting too thin.

While this is not a problem I will ever face in my life, since I love cheese and alcohol way too much, the numerous remarks about my weight and physique have left their mark on me. In the best case they have made me a lot more resilient.

I am happy to say that Mr. Li is now my husband, and while he still likes to mention my bum on the most random occasions, all I have to do now is give him the stern teacher look and he will immediately and most enthusiastically declare: “I LOVE IT!”

If life gives you a big bum, drink that lemonade anyway, ladies.

Laura is a British-German editor and journalist based in Nanjing. In her personal blog “Our Chinese Wedding“, she writes about the intercultural relationship with her Chinese husband from Inner Mongolia, who currently lives in Beijing, and all the funny anecdotes of planning a wedding with her seriously superstitious Chinese family.
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Ask the Yangxifu: Dealing with “When Will You Get Married?” & Other Awkward Chinese Family Questions

(Photo by Davi Ozolin via Flickr.com)
(Photo by Davi Ozolin via Flickr.com)

Vickie” asks:

So I’m living in China with my boyfriend. We have lived in China for the majority of our relationship, and I am learning Chinese full time. His little sister is getting married next week and as a consequence his Mom takes every opportunity to ask me when we are going to get married. There are some reasons this sits uncomfortably with me:

1. It is assumed that we are getting married but we haven’t really talked about it openly.
2. I would kind of like the surprise proposal if we ever did get married, and being constantly asked about this completely spoils that.
3. His mother obviously assumes that because I have lived here for a few years now I’m going to stay here forever (which I’m more and more certain that I don’t want to do).

His mother’s questions are so direct that it’s impossible to answer vaguely, and so I’m at risk of stepping on some cultural sensitive points, when really, she’s the last person I want to be talking about it with (before me and my boyfriend have even talked about it properly).

She thinks that I should stay in China and teach English and that’s the end of the story – so I had to tell her that I don’t necessarily want to stay in China for the rest of my life. How can I put this message across to her more politely without offending her, and giving her the idea that actually, me and my boyfriend need to talk about it without family pressure bothering us?

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I hate to say this, but welcome to Chinese culture — where everyone is in your face about things that we consider highly personal and private. Like marriage and having babies and even where you plan to live. (See my past Ask the Yangxifu column on Dealing With “How Come You Aren’t Married Yet?”)

Every time I go back home to John’s hometown we always get asked, “When are you having kids?” There’s nothing we can do or say to stop people (mostly family) from inquiring about it. They will ask! Trying to explain or tell them not to will create misunderstandings or even put a dent in our relationship. It’s just not worth it.

Instead, here’s my suggestion — don’t take it too seriously. Really. As personal and and imposing as the questions might feel, the reality is that people often ask as a way to show care or concern (not unlike asking about someone’s health).

Sometimes I’m even convinced my family members ask us about having kids because it gives them something to talk about!

Next time his mom asks when you’re getting married, the best way to answer is “Soon!” (快了,快了! Kuài le,kuài le!). Chances are that will satisfy her and she won’t trouble you anymore.

My husband and I always say “soon” whenever someone asks when we’re going to have kids. But guess what? We’re NOT having kids any time soon. And yet, every time we answer like this, it really works. They stop asking about it!

So just smile and say “Soon!”

You could take a similar approach to all of the questions about staying in China. Just tell her, “Okay, we will think it over.” (好的,我们考虑考虑。Hǎo de,wǒmen kǎolǜ kǎolǜ.) It’s not a lie because you have thought it over (or are thinking it over). And again, chances are she’ll feel happy about your answer and change the subject.

Maybe this isn’t the answer you hoped for. But I’ve just found that you’re better off responding to questions like these with a positive and vague response. The positive part makes them happy, the vague part means you’re not actually promising anything. And here’s the thing – in Chinese culture, people are comfortable with vagueness and uncertainty. In all likelihood, nobody’s going to follow up and ask “How soon?” or “When?”

Instead, they’ll probably just move on to something else and you’ll be safe. (Until the next conversation, at least!)

What do you think? What advice do you have?

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Do you have a question about love, dating, marriage or family in Chinese or Western culture? Send me yours today.

5 Awkward Things for a Longtime Married Couple in China with No Kids

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I’ve got a secret to share with you.

Remember how a couple of weeks ago I mentioned John and I just celebrated our 10th marriage anniversary? And remember how we subsequently met with our friends at a nice Hangzhou restaurant on said anniversary?

Our friends who dined with us that evening had no idea it was our 10th anniversary. (We actually told them it was a dinner to celebrate my birthday – which was true, in part.)

It’s crazy, I know. And you might be wondering, Why would they hide such an important anniversary from their friends in China?

Because in China, it’s incredibly awkward to be married for 10 years and not have any kids. So awkward, that my husband just doesn’t want to mention it to his friends or even talk about it with people we know (like a friend’s mom we walked through the park with the other night). It’s funny how something that made me feel so proud could actually make me feel embarrassed at the same time.

For those of you wondering what that awkwardness is like, here are 5 things that reflect the challenges of being a married couple of 10 years in China with no children:

1. You will need a coping mechanism for the many times people ask you, “Why don’t you have children?”

In the US where I grew up, this sort of question is mostly off-limits (unless you have one of those really nosy relatives who doesn’t know the meaning of the term “off-limits”). In China, it’s par for the course. After all, this is a country where “Are you married?” and “Do you have children?” are a Chinese equivalent of asking “Are you well?” – ways to show your care and concern for someone else.

Well, believe me, when people find out we’re married but have zero children, they look INCREDIBLY concerned.

This is a culture that believes marriage and children are as inseparable as Beijing duck and those tasty little pancakes – you just cannot have one without the other. Chalk it up to Confucian values, particularly filial piety. In fact, of the three unfilial actions, the worst of all is never having kids (which are the next generation to care for the elders and worship the ancestors).

When I hear this question – “Why don’t you have children?” — the flippant side of me desperately wants to say, “Mind your own business!” But that doesn’t go over too well with most people, as you can imagine.

Sometimes I just say, “Because we don’t.” Sometimes I tell people, “Because we can’t,” and leave it up to them to figure out what that means. Sometimes I just change the subject. But more often, if my husband is with me, I just leave the answering to him!

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Me and my mother-in-law.

 2. You will need to find your inner courage whenever your mother-in-law suggests you’re an “old maid”.

I love my mother-in-law to pieces, but whenever we return back to the family home after a long hiatus, she immediately brings up having kids and then tells me I’m “too old”. After all, we’ve been married for a decade and I’m over 30 (30 is the official “expiration date” in China for having kids).

I know what you’re thinking, it’s just her opinion and it’s just a bunch of words. But things like that have a way of wiggling into your subconscious and tugging on your insecurities. Before you know it, you’re wondering, “Am I too old?” Or worse, you follow this whole train of thought to its depressing end – often something involving you curled up on your bed crying away a perfectly good afternoon.

It takes a LOT of courage to fight through these awkward moments and find your inner confidence. I still don’t have a magic bullet to deal with suggestions that I’m too old. What I have found, though, is that moments of just being present – taking a walk through the park, or focusing on my breathing – can help me feel more comfortable with where I am right at this moment.

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 3. You will dread going home for holidays like Chinese New Year, when all of your husband’s peers from school come over to visit – with their school-age children.

Unlike us, my husband’s peers jumped on the baby bandwagon almost immediately into their marriages (including a friend whose wife was famously pregnant and showing at their wedding – a bridal bump I had the chance to witness with my own eyes).

So whenever Chinese New Year comes around, they come around to visit as well – with, well, their young and even school-age kids.

Actually, for the most part, his friends and peers don’t give us pressure. It’s their parents that do – parents who will compare us to John’s peers and then pelt us with all sorts of uncomfortable questions or comments (usually of the “Why don’t you have children” or “You’re too old” variety) when they notice we have no little ones in tow. The whole situation completely strips all of that sepia-toned nostalgia from the idea of “home for the holidays”.

We were able to dodge a lot of these questions this year, because most people were just glad to see us back in China. But next year? I don’t really know what’s going to happen. Deep down a part of me is secretly saying, “Help!”

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 4. You’ll feel isolated from your friends with kids – and instead gravitate to friendships with other people who “don’t belong”.

Don’t get me wrong, we love our friends with kids. But sometimes being around them can feel a little uncomfortable, particularly when they – with well intentions – bring up the topic of us having kids. Sometimes we feel like we don’t entirely belong to the same club, if you know what I mean. So of course, we inevitably gravitate to our other friends who feel as if they “don’t belong” in Chinese society.

In particular, one of our best friends in China is Caroline, who happens to be what people call a “leftover woman.” “Leftover women” and “leftover men” describe people of a certain age in China (over 27 for women, 30 for men) who haven’t married yet. They also feel as out of step with China’s society as we do, because it’s just not normal in China for adults to be single.

We’ve always loved Caroline, our mutual friend who introduced the two of us years ago. But maybe we feel even closer to her because she’s like the ultimate safe space where we can vent about the awkwardness of our situations – hers not being married, ours being childless.

I feel like I’ve come to understand Caroline’s pain every time someone else pelts her with that unwelcome question: “Why aren’t you married yet?” She’s even shared with us some of her less-than-pleasant encounters with the question, encounters that make her angry and frustrated, and I feel her. Because to me, the question isn’t all that different from “Why don’t you have kids yet?” It’s a question that also singles you out, that divides you from the world, that reminds you of something you lack or something that perhaps you even desire but cannot have.

The other night, she told John and me about this one ridiculous girl she used to work with (“ridiculous” was her description) who kept interrogating Caroline about things that could easily have been ripped from a list of the “10 most cringeworthy questions in China”: Why aren’t you married? Why don’t you own an apartment? Why don’t you have a car?

“What do you want to hear from me?” Caroline said to this girl (surely in a voice that was getting dangerously close to angry). “That I’m unable to find someone? That I have no money?” Somehow, just hearing about Caroline’s courageous, “take no crap” response to this girl made the three of us erupt in a cathartic burst of laughter. In these moments, we always feel a little less alone and isolated.

 5. “Being married for 10 years with no kids and living in China” will become one of the scariest things you write about.

For the longest time, I never wanted to go public with this topic. It scares me because it’s such a personal thing – and one that weighs on me on a regular basis (for many of the reasons I mentioned above). Why put it out there and risk having more people tell me either 1) You’re too old for kids or 2) What’s wrong with you?

But one of the things I’ve learned from my husband is the importance of self-acceptance. This is who I am – a woman who has been married to her Chinese husband for 10 years, lives in China, and has no children. Will I be like this forever? Honestly, I really don’t know for a lot of reasons I can’t share on this blog. But regardless, I must face my reality and embrace it – in all of its awkwardness. And for the moment, maybe that’s enough.

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This is who I am, red-starred hat and all!

What do you think?