Double Happiness: Xi’an native introduces Kiwi fiancee to his hometown

Jo and Kane in Xi'an.
Jo and Kane in Xi’an.

A few weeks ago, Kane Gu graciously regaled us with the story of how one “foreign student-turned-party boy” found the love of his life in New Zealand. It’s a beautiful love story and worth a read.

But what happens when Kane finally introduces his fiancee to China and his hometown of Xi’an for the first time? A fiancee that has never stepped foot in the Middle Kingdom and doesn’t speak of word of Chinese? It’s one big cross-cultural adventure that the two of them will never forget. 

If you want to be like Kane and have your words published on Speaking of China, check out my submit a post page for details.

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In August 2012, almost 2 years after Jo and I first met, we became engaged to be married on a cool Autumn night by the beach at Maraetai. There, Jo whispered in my ear, “I will.” We both knew we were in for an adventure of a lifetime together.

My adventure first began when I crossed the Pacific and found Jo. Then one day, we decided to trace my steps back to visit my hometown of Xi’an, China. This is my place of origin, the land that nourished me as a child, the great Northwest and the Loess Plateau dotted with cave dwellings, the voice of Qin and of a people born tough but pure of heart.

Southern comfort, Northern discomfort

We arrived in late August, expecting the weather to cool down as Autumn approached. I had been away from home so long that I had forgotten just how vicious the sun was during the Xi’an summers. While I was born and bred in Xi’an, I had suggested that we should bring warm clothing, only to be assaulted by scorching temperatures above 38C upon our arrival. There we were, each carrying a thick coat as we stepped off the plane while quickly realising how big of a mistake we had made. Needless to say, suddenly I felt even more foreign than the white guy we saw at the airport dressed in a t-shirt and shorts.

Since we arrived at lunchtime, my parents decided we should grab a quick bite to eat before we get to their apartment. My heart yearned for some roujiamo and cold noodles — typical Xi’an street food — from a typical Xi’an roadside restaurant. As we walked in, I was reunited with all the familiar and delicious aromas of pickled garlic, slow cooked pork for the roujiamos, vinegar and chilli oil. With the noisy atmosphere and the scattered tables full of people, all these memories suddenly came pouring out and I felt home again.

I couldn’t say the same for Jo, however. She was the only white person in the entire restaurant. The moment she walked into the room, all the chattering and clinking of utensils ceased abruptly with her presence as 50 heads turned her way — some amused, some bewildered, and some just amazed. As we searched around and found a table to sit down, everyone gradually returned to their own business and the noise resumed. Our dishes arrived quickly to the table one by one and so did some curious gazes. Jo quietly said to me she felt uncomfortable with the amount of staring and attention she was receiving, which didn’t surprise me. Even I felt a little uneasy about it. But I had to reassure her that people are simply curious about why a foreigner would visit a humble local eatery, and what she was doing with a Chinese family. To many, an East-West relationship is still a novelty and when the man happens to be a local, he gets to become the “translator” and the “tour guide”, as I had been referred to on multiple occasions.

Lost in translation

Even with a translator on standby 24/7 (me), life still became difficult for my non-Mandarin-speaking fiancee.

A lack of English signage made outings impossible without me accompanying her. She had limited abilities to converse with anyone else but me and translations were not always easy with cultural and social contexts were thrown in. Once a minor mistake caused a major misunderstanding between Jo and my mother. Ever since Jo had some dental work done on her teeth, she was advised to avoid foods that are “hard to eat”. In English it would generally be intepreted as items that are hard or chewy, but in Chinese, if directly translated it becomes “nanchi”, which means “unpalatable”. This, unfortunately, was how I translated Jo’s English when she was discussing a particular dish with my mom — and you can imagine my mom wasn’t happy about her dish being regarded as “nan chi”. I finally explained to her that it was indeed an error on my behalf rather than because of her cooking.

Of course, while we were out exploring the countless heritage sites Xi’an and its surrounding areas had to offer, we were solicited by one hawker after another, attempting to offer us their goods and services at vastly inflated prices. A refusal from me in the local dialect however would normally suffice in stopping the harassment, even against the very persistent ones.

Jo in Xi'an.
Jo in Xi’an.

Shopping woes

While globalisation draw nations closer to each other than ever, you would think people around the world now would have more in common. But when it comes to fashion, this isn’t always the case.

What Jo, a young Kiwi woman, would consider as fashionable and attractive was almost never the same as her Chinese counterparts and vice versa. And on the rare occasions when she actually liked something, it was never in a size or style that would actually fit her. Jo had trouble shopping for almost everything in Xi’an. The biggest shoes we could find were always half a size too small. Not much luck with clothing either, as she is considered a big girl in China while her size is quite normal in New Zealand.

However, having a Chinese MIL shop with you could be a huge advantage. First, she knows where to go. Second, you end up saving hundreds as a result of her expertise in bargaining. And third, if she likes her daughter-in-law enough she might even offer to foot the bill as a gift. The drawbacks? Besides the aforementioned difference in taste, you will get taken to some very “Chinese” shopping complexes. Forget the modern, glitzy and smoke-free malls with all the creature comforts you can afford. Some hidden jewels and good bargains can be found in those sweaty, overcrowded, and sometimes gritty looking suburban shopping centers (if you knew how to find them in the first place).

For the love of food

To many expats out there, nothing reminds them more of home than the food they grew up on. It could be something simple like a burger or pizza, or in my case, cold noodles, roujiamo, and street snacks like barbecued lamb on skewers. Coming home brought me back to food paradise, but for Jo, it was a shock to the system, literally. All these new delicacies and spices just didn’t agree with her stomach.

When my mom suggested that we should go to Pizza Hut one day for lunch, I could almost hear the excitement in Jo’s voice as she said, “Please, that sounds great!” Just like back home? Perhaps it tasted even better than the Pizza Hut we remembered from back home, or perhaps I had cravings as well. So in the following days, we had sampled all the Western foods in the area — first KFC, followed by McDonald’s and Papa John’s pizza. It was like festival time for Jo and her poor shell-shocked Western stomach.

It all ended when Jo discovered Haidilao, that extremely popular hotpot chain across the country. Despite the unspeakable aftermath of each hotpot session, we kept coming back for more. Maybe Jo had found the perfect comfort food in China? It might not have reminded her of home, but it made her feel at home: a family sitting around a table, cooking and eating at the same time while laughing and chatting away. You’d never find this kind of family atmosphere in New Zealand!

Conclusion

That trip to China was a homecoming for me, and it was an eye-opening experience for Jo. She felt frightened at first, but then I witnessed her transformation as the days progressed. She established a mutual friendship with my parents as they readily accepted her into our family with open arms. She faithfully accompanied me halfway around the globe into a world of unknowns just to experience my homeland with me. What more could I ask for in a woman? My parents loved her as well. They already consider her a xifu or daughter-in-law despite the fact that we weren’t married yet.

Eventually, that inevitable day came when we had to say goodbye. As my parents watched us walk through the departure gate, that familiar feeling erupted in my chest again just as it did 10 years before when I left home for the first time. I tried to hold back my emotions and turned around to glance at Jo. But the moment I gazed upon her, she turned away. In the corner of her eye, I saw something flickering and eventually running down her cheek. Maybe I wasn’t the only one that had come home after all.

Kane Gu found his true love in Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud.

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Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts and love stories! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

On my first funeral in China, and the loss of my first close Chinese family member

When you’re married to a Chinese national, you’re privilege to a lot of things the average expat in China would never experience. The opportunity to be a Chinese bride or groom in an incredibly big, red wedding celebration (emphasis on the “big” and “red”). Spending that explosive holiday of Chinese New Year’s in the family home (where you get to see exactly how folks light those fireworks or learn how to make his mother’s homemade tofu). Watching your sister-in-law raise her only months-old infant and all of the pomp and circumstance this new addition to the family brings with her (such as the 100 days old celebration for my niece).

But then, there are the experiences you get to be privilege to — and wish you weren’t. Like a funeral in China.

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How could I have been married to John for nearly 10 years (yes, that’s right, nearly a decade) and never experienced a funeral in China? Luck, perhaps. Or great genes. Sometimes, after seeing many of my close relatives pass away earlier before his — like my paternal grandfather in 2003, and my maternal grandfather in 2011 —  and remembering how I lost my own mother at the tender age of 17, I would think of his family somehow like a giant, extended version of the Energizer Bunny that just kept going and going. Of course they would always be there when we returned. Of course everyone would be fine. John’s family was somehow different. (Or at least, I wanted to kid myself into believing that was true.)

But then this morning, our smartphone rang and on the other end was John’s oldest brother, with the news that would usher in my unwanted invitation to this one experience I had never had before (or wanted).

John’s maternal grandfather — his only remaining grandfather — just passed away.

Grandpa at far right, along with Grandma and a cousin.

But shouldn’t we have seen this coming? Once the 2014 horse year galloped into our lives, grandfather kept trotting in and out of hospitals month after month. First it was that Chinese traditional medicine hospital near one of his daughters’ homes. Then it was the hospital in the county seat, where John’s grandmother — who has a heart condition — also joined him for a week or two. Then both of them once again went back into the hospital in the county seat for several weeks in May, only to return to their home the very afternoon before we moved to Hangzhou.

I remember squeezing in that last minute visit only two weeks before to Grandma’s house (Grandma was always the more talkative one, cracking jokes and her lovable grin, so we aways associated the place with her). It was just like any other visit in the past few months, where we found Grandpa lying in his bed in the far corner, looking a little beaten down from his many health concerns (heart, lungs, even his stomach) but still kicking and having survived yet another stay in the hospital. He only flashed us a weak smile from beneath the covers, with his leg akimbo. I told him, “Don’t worry, Hangzhou is so close to here. We’ll be able to visit you often!” Did I see relief in his eyes? A sense of comfort knowing we cared about him? Or maybe just the exhaustion from his time in the hospital? I couldn’t tell. But more importantly, I never realized that this would be the very last thing I would ever say to him, and the very last time I would ever see him alive.

Deep down, a sense of dread surrounds me with each passing moment. A part of me wants to believe it’s my fear of the funeral itself — that I’ve never before experienced a funeral in China, in the custom of my husband’s hometown. That my husband has only shared tidbits and small anecdotes that never even began to paint a picture of what it means to participate in a funeral. But I know that truthfully, what I fear the most is what that funeral signifies — that Grandpa is officially no longer with us.

Grandpa and Grandma, knitting hats one summer (a local industry) to earn some money.

And even though I’ve never felt as close to him as Grandma, I worry about her as well. We’ve all watched her health falter throughout the year and breathed a sigh of relief every time she returned home with the same grin and the same unexpected quips and jokes in her local dialect. But what now? How will she cope with an empty home? Will this be the experience that breaks her as well?

I remember how she told us earlier in the year, “I don’t want to die this year.” She’s 81 and for whatever reason, passing away at this age is somehow inauspicious. Personally, I think any passing is inauspicious and especially the people closest to us, the people we love most.

Grandpa’s passing has summoned us back once again to John’s hometown, just at the very moment when he and I seemed to be settling into life here in Hangzhou. And now I’m on the verge of experiencing a Chinese funeral and the loss that comes along with it.

But I’m also married to John and have the support of his family through this all — people who have experienced many a funeral in their lives. While I can’t say it’s a privilege to go through all of this, it is a relief and comfort to know I’m not alone in this process.

Eating a Grandma and Grandpa’s home during Chinese New Year.

 

As we move to Hangzhou, we’re feeling the love (and support) from family in China

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Sometimes, I think the love of a Chinese family is one of the best kept secrets in the world. And if ever there was an example of that, it’s our upcoming move to Hangzhou. As we trade the countryside for city life, I still can’t believe how my husband’s family has gone out of their way to help us make the transition.

Secretly buying our brand-new apartment essentials

Okay, I know rice cookers, pressure cookers, dishes, woks and bedding don’t appear out of thin air. But when my mother-in-law suddenly pulled out all of these brand-spanking-new things (and more!) from storage in our house, it felt like some magic trick. Or the wedding registry I never imagined I had signed up for.

Because, after all, we never asked them to buy any of these things. But they bought them anyway!

My mother-in-law has continued this apartment hocus-pocus almost every day leading up to the move, trotting out new things during lunch, and has even pulled a few extra-special surprises out of her own proverbial hat (including honey and even veggies from her garden).

Making it an auspicious move

“It’s not superstition. It’s the Book of Change, a Chinese tradition.” Whether or not you agree with my father-in-law, the fact remains that good luck matters to my in-laws in every important aspect of life — including moving house.

So naturally, once we announced the news on Saturday, my father-in-law whipped out that indispensable little red book in his library — the Chinese Farmer’s Almanac, based on China’s Book of Change. It lists every date in the year, recommending what you should and should not do on that date. According to his almanac, the best upcoming date for our move (and preparing our new bedroom) would be this coming Tuesday, May 27.

And believe me, this stuff counts to them. How much? Enough for my mother-in-law to make a second phone call to my husband’s oldest brother (who initially said he couldn’t move us on Tuesday), convincing him to do it earlier in the day!

Money? We didn’t ask for money!

Compared to so many Americans I know, Chinese families seen to operate on a completely different wavelength when it comes to money — and my husband’s family is no exception.

You don’t even need to ask them, “Could you lend us some money?” It’s a given they will, which I still haven’t quite gotten used to (yes, I am a bag of nerves whenever John has to borrow cash from his family — and John always thinks it’s so funny).

And more often than not, you don’t even need to bring up the topic of money with them — because they’ll do it first.

That’s exactly what my father-in-law did the other day when he sauntered over to John and me in the yard. John’s dad had this serious look on his face that made me all nervous inside, as if he was like my dad and about to lecture us on something we messed up in his house. But this “serious talk” turned out to be nothing more than him saying, “You’re going to need some money for your move. How much?” (A question that, of course, I felt too embarrassed to answer. I mean, here’s my father-in-law approaching me with a gesture that seems too generous to be real, and expecting me to give him a number?)

Days later, I discovered a thick stack of crisp, red bills lying in the corner of our room — an amount that turned out to be more than three times more what I expected!

Sometimes it’s not even a question, but an order. Like, yesterday John’s oldest brother phoned him out of the blue just to say “Open an account so I can send you some money” when John hadn’t even asked for it. After my husband recounted this to me, I was shocked (in a good way)…and then almost wanted to pinch myself.

Nope, it wasn’t a daydream.

In the end, it’s all about the love

My Chinese relatives will never hug or kiss us, or say how much they love us the way my American relatives do. But they’ll pony up brand-new apartment essentials and money without us asking them, and make certain we move on the luckiest possible day. It all comes down to one simple idea — this is how they show us their love.

Now if you excuse me, I’ve got a move to get ready for. Hangzhou, here we come!

In Hangzhou, the city where John and I fell in love — and love with all our hearts!

Ask the Yangxifu: Has marriage to a Chinese man changed your feminist views?

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M asks:

I have been reading your blog for some time now and the majority of your female readers are independent, intelligent women whom have (some) “feminist” values/ideas such as equality, rights, freedom of choice.

I would like to know has being married to a Chinese man and to the Chinese “extended family” changed your…“feminist” ( independent ) views? Did you have to change your way of thinking and adapt to situations, traditions, culture that may not share your own ideas and beliefs? Do you accept things in China that you wouldn’t accept back in your own country? If so how did/do you handle this? How does it make you feel?

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I thought about this question for many weeks and could never seem to come up with the right answer. And then I realized the issue here — the thing is, my marriage to John hasn’t really changed my core feminist/independent views all that much.

See, I married a feminist guy who just happens to come from the countryside of Zhejiang, China, as I’ve written before:

Over the years, from dating through marriage, John continued to blast stereotypes about Chinese men, that they’re so sexist. He loved my larger, curvier body in all of its beautiful imperfections, and never suggested I change a thing. During all those times when I was the family breadwinner, he always felt proud of me and my ability to make a living. He grew up in a household where no one hit women and children, and condemned domestic violence in all of its forms. He kept doing the dishes and his share of the housework, and never assigned a gender role to any household chores.

John has always loved me just as I am and always supported me in my endeavors, even when it comes to writing about him and our marriage together. In fact, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be writing this blog at all!

As for his family, sure, not everyone is as progressive as he is. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve had to somehow change myself to fit their expectations. We can disagree. And if we do, I usually say something to them. It might surprise you, but I find it far easier to speak up in front of his family as opposed to my own in the States. Perhaps it’s because foreigners in China are expected to be a little weird and get a pass when we do things differently. Maybe it’s because I’m speaking to them in a foreign language, which liberates me because it’s not the language I grew up with. And it probably helps that John’s parents (and most of his family) don’t fit those stereotypes of the strict and conservative Chinese family.

Of course, there are things about Chinese culture that, on the surface, seem to clash with feminist/independent views. Take for example the dependency among family members in China and the expectation that children should care for their parents when they’re older. Yet, some families in the US do these things too. My dad invited his father (my grandfather) to spend his final years living together with him, and my aunts and uncles take care of my grandmother so she doesn’t have to stay in a nursing home. As independent and feminist as I am, I still believe these are good values and would want to do the same if John’s parents needed our help.

And ultimately, there’s a difference between understanding a culture and completely overhauling your own views for someone else. It’s important to know and respect your partner’s culture, but that doesn’t mean you have to hide who you are to do it. Otherwise, you’re just dealing with a one-sided relationship and those are usually doomed to fail. Just as I’ve become closer to John’s culture, he’s also become closer to mine — and the whole process has only made our marriage that much stronger. Yet when it comes to our beliefs and our way of thinking, we’re still pretty much the same as we were all those years before when we first met.

Maybe my marriage really is unusual. And maybe to some people I might not seem “independent enough” or even “feminist enough”. But then again, that should tell you that there are no hard or fast rules for cross-cultural marriages in China or even what defines a woman as independent and feminist.

Sometimes, you really can find happily ever after in the most unlikely places in the world. 😉

How about you? How would you respond to this question?

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

Things I’ve Learned from My Chinese Family: 3 Amazing Wild Edible Plants

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As a child growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, wild edible plants — especially those we foraged for ourselves — were never on the menu. Sure, we picked blackberries on late summer hikes and a few times I tried harvesting Staghorn sumac berries to make my own tea. But otherwise, the food on our dinner table came straight out of a supermarket.

So it’s hard to believe that, these days, wild edible plants comprise at least half or more of the stir-fried dishes that leave my mother-in-law’s kitchen here in China. Even stranger to me, I’ve actually helped forage for some of these wild edible plants. To think that something I harvested actually became dinner!

Now that I’ve discovered the joys of harvesting and dining on wild edible plants, I can’t imagine life — or lunch — without them. Call it yet another one of those surprising things I’ve learned from living with a Chinese family in the countryside.

Here are three amazing wild edible plants here in Zhejiang, China that have enchanted me and my Chinese family this Spring.

Fiddlehead ferns

These tender fronds have become a Spring favorite in farmers markets in the US (and among foragers who know and love them). But out here in rural Zhejiang, people have gathered fiddlehead ferns in the mountains for generations. The local variety is the bracken fern and the tender shoots spring up over the mountains in our village.

Some claim bracken fern is carcinogenic, though there’s really no absolute evidence proving that the consumption of bracken fern fiddleheads will definitely give you cancer. When I posed this “do bracken fern fiddleheads cause cancer?” question to my mother-in-law, she dismissed it as unscientific and ridiculous. “People here have been eating this for generations, even grandma, and they’re not getting cancer.” Well, even if you disagree, remember that some popular foods (red meat and hot dogs, anyone?) are considered carcinogenic. Personally, I think I’ll take the risk.

We only pick the most tender fiddleheads growing in the mountains, with the fronds still curled up. These days, it’s not uncommon for my husband and me to return from a hike through the hills with a huge handful of fresh fiddleheads. I never thought a simple hike could yield so many delicious things! 😉

My mother-in-law washes them thoroughly in her kitchen and then blanches them. Some claim the process reduces the carcinogens in the fern, though my mother-in-law says this simply eliminates the unpleasant sour, “numbing” flavor of the fiddleheads. Finally, she chops them into matchstick-sized pieces and stir-fries them with fragrant garlic, ginger, pickled hot peppers, Shaoxing wine, and salt.

So tasty, you’ll forget all about the alleged cancer claims. Promise!

Spring bamboo shoots

Spring maosun found in the wild

The Chinese saying “like spring bamboo shoots after rain” (yǔhòuchūnsǔn, 雨后春笋) refers to how quickly things can suddenly happen or come up. And trust me, after the rains in late February and March settled over our region of Zhejiang, before I knew it spring bamboo shoots were sprouting all over the hills.

Notice the bamboo shoots sprouting up from the ground?

Right now, we’re seeing two varieties in the mountains. One is moso bamboo shoots or maosun (máosǔn, 毛笋); this is the largest variety of bamboo you usually see in the area. If you’ve ever watched any Chinese films that feature bamboo forests, chances are they’re moso bamboo. The other, well, I have no idea what it’s called in English — but it’s small and grows wild all across the mountains, so in the local language they call it “mountain bamboo shoots” or shansun (shānsǔn, 山笋). To harvest either variety, you simply dig up the shoots from the ground.

My mother-in-law, harvesting shansun from the mountains.

Whether maosun or shansun, you must first peel away the hard husk of the bamboo shoots to reveal the tender and edible portion.

Peeling the bamboo shoots to reveal the tender and edible part of the shoots.

These days, when it comes to wild bamboo, we’ve mainly seen wild maosun at the table. My mother-in-law usually prepares it one of two ways. For the vegetarians in the family (i.e., me!), she stir-fries it with lots of rapeseed oil, ginger, sugar, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, pickled greens, and salt to taste.

Maosun with pickled greens

For the carnivores, she stews the maosun along with fatty pork, ginger, sugar, Shaoxing wine and salt to taste.

Maosun with pork

If you’ve only known bamboo through the lackluster canned versions sold in the West, all you need is one taste some wild bamboo shoots and I promise, you’ll never buy another can again!

Mugwort (Qingmingcao)

This past Saturday (April 5) we just celebrated Qingming Jie (qīngmíngjié, 清明节) or the Tomb-Sweeping Festival where people visit their ancestors graves and remember family and love ones who have passed away. And here in rural Zhejiang Province, there’s no wild plant more beloved during this holiday than the aromatic mugwort, also known as qingmingcao.

It’s hard to believe just how common this variety of mugwort is around here. In fact, it grows like a weed everywhere, even in the dusty pebble lanes that criss-cross the fields in the village. For nearly two weeks, I hiked these lanes, never realizing all that time that mugwort was right under my shoes!

My mother-in-law gathers wild mugwort from the hills well in advance of the holiday, because this lowly little wild green undergoes an extraordinary transformation in the kitchen. After cleaning it, she blanches it and then crushes and grinds it into a paste, infusing the kitchen with an aroma reminiscent of lavender. The paste then goes into a warm wok along with glutinous rice flour, creating a dark green dough.

That dough then gets kneaded and partitioned into small rounds, which after being flattened, become the wrappers for qingming turnovers (stuffed with chopped up bamboo shoots, tofu, and salted greens).

Making the qingming turnovers (flattening the rounds, then filling them with vegetable filling).
The finished qingming turnover up close.

For a sweet version, my mother-in-law adds sugar to taste to the green dough and then shapes the rounds in a small mold made especially for Qingming Jie.

Finally, she steams the turnovers and sweet rounds in her wok until they’re cooked through and turn a deeper shade of green.

Here’s the final product (one turnover, one sweet round) — slightly fragrant, sticky, and oh-so scrumptious. Remembering your ancestors never tasted so good!

Have you ever foraged for wild edible plants? What are your Spring favorites?

8 Surprising Things I’ve Learned from Living in China’s Countryside

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I was born and raised in a very white and very average suburb of Cleveland, Ohio in the United States. Yet now, I live in the countryside of Zhejiang, China with my Chinese husband and his family, where bamboo and tea bushes grow wild in the mountains, the chickens are always free range, dog leashes are optional, and central heating doesn’t exist.

Nothing in my life before prepared me for this one — and to be sure, the first time I came here I never imagined I would ever feel comfortable in this home or area. But it’s amazing how you can adapt and learn in a new environment. Over time, I’ve found myself feeling extremely at home in this home and this village. And in the process, I’ve experienced and learned things that, when I think about the woman I once was back in the US, really surprise me at times.

1. When you live without central heating, there are ingenious ways to stay warm

No heating in the dining room? No problem! Meet the huǒtǒng (火桶). You just add warm coals to the receptacle in the bottom, then sit and enjoy the warmth underneath while you eat. This is how I survived many a dinner in the wintertime (when I wasn’t bundled under the covers, with the electric blanket cranked up!).

One of the huotongs in our home is even a family heirloom, gifted to my in-laws more than 40 years ago for their wedding. And according to my mother-in-law, it still warms your behind just as well as it did the first time they used it.

2. There’s nothing like the “sunshine scent” of freshly sunned laundry

Growing up, my family and our neighbors never used laundry lines to dry clothing, robbing me of the chance to discover one of the great wonders of sunshine — that alluring “sunshine scent” after sunning clothes for an entire day. The sun-dried laundry smells especially fragrant where I live, thanks to the absence of smog and plenty of glorious blue sky afternoons with lots of fresh air.

If you’ve never experienced the “sunshine scent” from a sheet or towel or shirt left to sun for a golden afternoon, well, you’re missing out on one of life’s wonders.

3. Fire-powered woks truly rock

I’ll admit, the first time I peered into my mother-in-law’s kitchen and found a pile of wood stacked up behind her wok, a part of me felt like I was transported to another era. People still use wood to fire their woks?

But soon I discovered the wonders of a fire-powered wok — namely, that it makes some amazing dishes.

I still can’t get over the jianbing my mother-in-law once made. The flavor and even texture of it was so reminiscent of tandoori-style Indian flatbreads, and even more delicious with the vegetables tucked inside. You could never get the same satisfying taste making the flatbread in a wok heated by gas or even electricity.

My mother-in-law’s jianbing fresh from her fire-powered wok — so delicious!

Maybe it’s no wonder, then, that when I imagine my future dream home, I envision a fire-powered oven or wok somewhere in the kitchen!

4. How to clean up chicken droppings

My mother-in-law raises a flock of free-range chickens. So from time to time, they meander into the house to forage for scraps and leave behind a little something we’d rather not step on. Well, when I spotted one of these offending “presents” near the front door, I instinctively sought out the remedy my mother-in-law uses time and time again: ashes. Just cover the droppings with ashes, wait a few minutes, then you can easily sweep them up (and out the door) with a broom.

I still can’t believe “cleaning up chicken droppings” is now part of my house-cleaning repertoire.

5. Even the scariest unleashed dogs can fear sticks and clubs

I never thought that “speak softly and carry a stick” could also help protect you from dogs.

Where we live, dogs are the countryside version of home alarm systems — everyone has one. But leashes are optional. So when my husband and I take our hikes through the mountains in the village, well, you can imagine how I’ve felt when we suddenly hear a threatening bark or growl — and have no idea if “Cujo” is even tied up.

The first time this happened, my husband just grabbed a stick beside the trail and waved the stick above his head so the dog could see it. Instantly, the dog backed off from us…and I could breathe again. 😉

I don’t know exactly why this works, but it does. Along with water and a sturdy pair of shoes, “walking stick” has now become one of my must-haves for hiking out here!

6. Hot water from the tap is a precious thing

When there’s no hot water from the tap, we turn to boiled water, which we usually store in a thermos like this.

Our house has a solar-powered water heater. But when there’s no sunshine, there’s also no hot water from the tap.

Still, who says we have to go without? We can always have hot water…provided we boil it and store it up in thermoses, ready to mix with cold or lukewarm water for washing up or a bath. Some evenings, I spent an as much as an hour preparing all of that hot water to bathe.

The experience of preparing my own hot water makes me appreciate the precious hot water from the tap so much more.

7. Irrigation ditches make really awesome hiking trails

I’ll be honest, it’s hard to hike the mountains out here in the countryside, where there’s no such thing as “trail maintenance”. Sometimes we’ll be on a perfect trail tracing a mountain ridge…only to find that the deeper we walk into the woods, the more it descends into a thorny mess of bushes and vines that will slash your clothes and even your tender hands. Don’t even ask me about that time we climbed to the top of that mountain, only to take a different trail down…that landed us in the most odious field of thorns I’ve ever encountered.

So I’ve come to love the irrigation ditches out here that are built into the hillsides. The stone walls reinforcing these ditches repel those noisome thorny bushes and vines. But even better, the wall itself becomes a perfect trail, naturally “maintained” and kept open by the heavy foot traffic beside the ditches (essential for watering the terraced fields in the village).

My most favorite trail in the area includes an extra-long irrigation ditch that passes some of the most beautiful scenery in the area — from a natural river that cuts through a wooded hillside to the brilliant green terraced fields in the villages.

8. You can make a home in some of the most unlikely places

If you had told me years before I would be happily residing in the countryside — in the same home as my in-laws — I might have called you crazy or even laughed at the thought. Yet here I am, living under the same roof as my in-laws…and actually having a pretty good time of it.

Life hasn’t always turned out as I expected it, including the circumstances that have necessitated my current residence. But I feel so incredibly loved and cared for here.

Every meal with the family feels like a small holiday feast, beguiling us with the wonderful aroma of eight or nine different home-cooked dishes on the table — and always with an ample selection of my vegan favorites, from spicy pickled daikon radish to the local smoked tofu stir-fried with peppers or celery. My mother-in-law refuses to let me even lift a finger to do my own laundry, preferring instead to wash it herself by hand and then hang it to dry on the clotheslines that criss-cross the front yard. My father-in-law will slip John an overly generous sum of RMB he withdrew from the bank, refusing to let us return a single note. Our relatives in the village insist on inviting the two of us over to their homes only a short walk away for dinners as lavish as a wedding banquet, telling us to eat, eat, eat. And John and I sleep snugly in our very own private suite in the home, outfitted with every possible comfort we could need — from our soft, warm bed to the TV and Internet — and a view of bamboo fronds and orange trees just outside the window.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that it’s always home to me as long as I have my loving husband, space to read and write, and time for hiking or walks. It’s that simple.

Have you ever lived in a place you never expected to live? Did you learn some surprising things from your experience?

Why my Chinese family wants the foreign daughter-in-law around home + village photos!

I'm the good foreign daughter-in-law...because I stay around home.
I’m the good foreign daughter-in-law…because I stay around home.

Whenever my husband calls me his nèirén (内人), we both erupt in laughter — and for a good reason. Nèirén, a traditional Chinese term for “wife”, also literally means “inside person” — a perfect catchphrase for my current situation. After all, I spent my days either inside our home or inside our village, almost never venturing into the nearby town or beyond.

I have to confess, it’s a little strange to admit that my life remains pretty much confined to this rural mountainous village in Zhejiang Province and, specifically, to the family home.

You might wonder, why don’t you and the husband travel? You could go to Shanghai or some other nearby city? You could visit friends in China or see the country? Well, we have our reasons for sticking around here instead — reasons I’m unable to share here on the blog.

Still, here’s the really odd part for me — I no longer even run errands, things I used to do many years before when John and I lived in Shanghai. Back then, I used to go shopping on the weekends, mail things at the post office, and more. But here? Nothing.

In a sense, that reflects the fact that I’m living under one roof with my husband, his parents and other family members. My father-in-law handles pretty much all of the shopping for our home and does all of the post office runs — so if anyone needs something, we just let him know and he takes care of it.

But what if I wanted to go shopping in town on my own? Maybe I’m curious about what that local Falian Supermarket actually has on the shelves? Every time I’ve suggested anything like this to the family, I’m always met with a resounding “no”! Usually they say, with a grimace on their faces, “Don’t go, it’s too much trouble!”

Yet it’s more than just a matter of trouble, as my husband has told me. “It’s about safety,” he once said to me while we were walking through the mountains. “It’s better if people in town don’t see you.”

How could my simple stroll into town create a safety problem?

According to my husband, it works like this. If I head into town for shopping or other errands, invariably I’ll turn a lot of heads. People will stare, giggle, and talk about me — and if I’m unlucky, the wrong kind of person might notice me. You know, a thief.

Among this beautiful mountain village hides the ugly specter of theft. Every year, someone in the village is robbed, especially just before Chinese New Year, and past victims include my husband’s uncle and aunt who live just next door to us. My mother-in-law cited all kinds of shocking tales — of people who were at home while the robberies happened, of thieves who pried open the bars on windows to enter, of homeowners fast asleep as the criminals tip-toed into their rooms and bedrooms to steal valuables. As crazy as the stories sound, I believe them. Every evening I tune into the local Zhejiang news, reporting the latest batch of outrageous robberies in the province — and every small tragedy reminds me that the whole family must be careful, especially me.

The problem is, most Chinese think foreigners are wealthy, making my home an especially tempting one for any would-be burglar. Since it’s such a small town, it wouldn’t take long for anyone to ask around about where I live. In China, people love to talk — particularly when you have a yangxifu (foreign wife of a Chinese man) in town, the only one around for miles.

And if people came to rob my suite, they’d probably rob from the rest of the family too I would feel horribly guilty if my selfish desires to explore the town — a town that, when it comes right down to it, doesn’t have anything really special to offer — ended up harming the entire family.

Hence, being an “inside person” has become my life.

Sometimes I’ve wondered, how long can we keep this up before the wrong person discovers where I live? Well, as my husband and family sees it, the problem people would be in town, not in this village. Here in the village, only locals — folks who grew up in this area their entire lives — reside (it’s still against the law to buy or sell property in the countryside). But in the town a 15 minute walk away from us, you’ll find restaurants, rooms for rent, and all the other signs that outsiders (Chinese from other areas) and migrants pass through. Most Chinese believe that outsiders tend to commit crimes — and even though it’s a stereotype, it sort of makes sense. Everyone in China returns to their hometown for Chinese New Year, so why would you spoil it (or worse, increase your chances of being caught) by, say, robbing your neighbor there?

Still, please don’t feel sorry for me. I may be a good daughter-in-law who sticks to home and the village…but what a heck of a playground it is!

Yes, now that I think about it….I could get used to this whole “inside person” life here in China. 😉

To learn dialect or not? When your Chinese family doesn’t speak Mandarin Chinese

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My Chinese Grandma is a lovely woman…who doesn’t speak Mandarin Chinese at all.

“Learn some Mandarin Chinese” is a suggestion I offer any foreigner dating someone Chinese, especially if they want to make a great first impression with the family. Even just knowing a handful of phrases makes a difference.

But what happens if you’re like me, someone now fluent in Mandarin Chinese after years of study…with a Chinese family whose local dialect is a completely different language.

My husband John hails from Western Zhejiang Province and his local language is one of China’s Wu Dialects (a family of languages that includes the dialects of Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Ningbo and Wenzhou). There are literally thousands of dialects within this family. Even here in the Hangzhou region, which includes the county where my husband was born and raised, his local dialect differs from the county seat’s local dialect which also differs from the Hangzhou dialect. When John and I visited a friend in Yiwu, a city in Central Zhejiang Province, the local dialect there was completely different as well — and tough for both of us to understand. Still, nothing can beat Wenzhou dialect, considered one of China’s most difficult local languages to comprehend (supposedly, it was used for communications in China during World War II to ensure no enemies — especially Japan — could intercept wartime messages).

How is John’s local language different from Mandarin Chinese? Here are few examples:

Grandmother
– Mandarin Chinese: Waipo
– John’s local dialect: Abu

Child
– Mandarin Chinese: xiao haizi
– John’s local dialect: xia ninguo

Play/have a good time
– Mandarin Chinese: wan
– John’s local dialect: xi

Shoe
– Mandarin Chinese: xie
– John’s local dialect: a

Oneself
– Mandarin Chinese: ziji
– John’s local dialect: xiguo

Hour
– Mandarin Chinese: xiaoshi
– John’s local dialect: zhongtou

You get the idea…it’s an entirely different language!

But unlike Cantonese or Shanghainese, which are local languages in some of China’s biggest business/financial centers (Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shanghai), my husband’s local dialect is only spoken in John’s hometown, a mountainous rural backwater. You won’t see foreign language students flocking to study John’s dialect, nor will doing so boost my resume.

So why bother learning at all?

That was my initial feeling when I first spent time at my husband’s home in the village. I had invested so much of my language study on Mandarin Chinese…and besides, we never stayed at his hometown for more than a few days or a week, providing me few opportunities to learn or practice.

But over the years, I started to find myself hitting a wall — and that wall was named Grandma (Waipo to you Mandarin speakers, Abu out here). See, Grandma doesn’t speak a word of Mandarin Chinese. And to make matters worse, she was born in the Wenzhou area…so her local dialect is clouded with a Wenzhou accent, making it even more of a challenge to understand her. During the summer of 2011, when John left me here at the family home, I passed many uncomfortable moments at Grandma’s house, trying to decipher what she was trying to say — missing out on opportunities to get to know her as person.

That’s the thing: this is the language of people I care about.

Yet it’s more than that, as this author reminded me in an article praising the importance of local dialects in China:

I don’t know where the tipping point was when dialects turned from a communication obstacle to a cherished heritage for Chinese culture. But when I stumbled upon children in my hometown talking to each other in Mandarin while playing on the street, it dawned on me that the days for most dialects are doomed. They would disappear within one generation or two. Possibly within my lifetime, most dialects would go down the road of calligraphy, or worse the abacus, where they would be under academic scrutiny and government protection, but out of the daily use of the common folk.

By learning John’s local dialect, even if it isn’t obviously “useful” or “practical”, I could actually help preserve part of China’s cultural heritage.

Of course, that’s if I ever actually master the language. For now, it’s just a phrase here, a phrase there, and a smattering of words.

But you should have seen the way John’s Grandma beamed at me when I opened her door and finally called her “Abu!” It warmed my soul to know that we were finally communicating for the first time in years. And though I have a long way to go (John still does most of the talking with her) I know in my heart I made the right decision to learn.

Have you ever considered learning an uncommon Chinese dialect? Why or why not?

Update: scratched out the entries under “Hour” above, thanks to the commenters who noted that Mandarin Chinese speakers may use both. Good catch!

Photo Essay: The First Days of Chinese New Year with the Family

So long snake and hello horse! We’ve all been busy welcoming the new year these past few days. Much like the firecrackers and fireworks that boom across the village in the evenings, the holiday has been both exciting and overwhelming.

I’ve already attended four huge dinners with family, where the dining tables often become a cacophony of laughing and shouting (often because of those drinking games involving baijiu). I’ve learned to steel myself for the inevitable topic of children — which used to be a question (“When will you have kids?”) and has now become a command (“This year, you must have a kid!”). And strangest of all, I actually witnessed a grown man slumped unconscious in a bamboo chair before our doorway because he drank too much baijiu (sorry guys, no photo of that!).

Still, amidst all of the drama of these past days, I can’t help but feel incredibly loved and appreciated by our family here. Just this evening, the mother of one of John’s cousins stroked my arm lovingly, saying how much she liked us and how she hoped we would return for another dinner soon.

While I relax and recover during those few and precious quiet moments in the day, I’m offering you a peek into the start of our year of the horse through photographs. Again, wishing you a successful horse year! 马到成功!

My father-in-law opens the gates to the family home just before midnight when the new year comes.
The family sets off firecrackers and fireworks just outside the gate to welcome the new year.
According to the tradition, we always start the new year off with new clothes! Here, John and I have laid out our never-before-worn outfits for the first day of the year.
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John and I show off our new outfits for the new year outside the front door of the family home.
During Chinese New Year, you can always be sure to have lots of visitors at your home! Some of our first visitors in the new year include a cousin and grandparents.
The number one activity during Chinese New Year? Eating! These past few days have felt like a dining marathon with one huge meal after another. We ate… (lunch at the grandparents’ home prepared by John’s oldest brother — it’s tradition for the men to do the cooking on the first day of the new year).
…and ate… (dinner at little uncle’s home just next door)
…and ate…(a huge and raucous lunch at our home which led to at least two people becoming so drunk they had to go to the hospital)
…and ate! (dinner at an aunt’s home)
But most of all, we felt so loved and appreciated! Here, John poses with an aunt and cousin — this was the aunt who couldn’t stop doting on both of us. It’s so nice to be back home.

On Invitations and the Dinner We Never Expected

IMG_1979“Time for dinner! Go to big uncle’s home!”

When my mother-in-law shouted the news up the stairwell a few weeks ago, I was dumbfounded. It was 4:30pm and we never ate dinner until at least 5:30pm. But more importantly, nobody told John and me we were having dinner out this evening. And we weren’t the only ones surprised, as we learned when we met my mother-in-law downstairs.

“They’ve already made dinner,” she said. She was wearing her favorite blue-and-yellow felt apron, evidence that she had probably been working on dinner for us when someone from big uncle’s home came over with the news. “It’s bad not to go. Just go over there and eat a little.”

A little, however, was not what big uncle had in mind — as John and I discovered when we walked into the dining room. Eight people were already huddled around a dining room table filled with more than 10 different dishes, a delicious assortment of stir-fried meats and vegetables that would have rivaled some of the most lavish banquets I’ve ever attended in China.

I couldn’t help thinking how my family back in the US would never pull off such a huge spread at the last minute. People would need days if not weeks of notice, and even then some people might not be available. Yet here, it just happened one afternoon, all because big uncle wanted to share his generosity with us.

Even though I still equate the word “invitation” with advance notification, I’m also learning to understand that invitations don’t always work like that — especially out here in my husband’s village. Sometimes it’s not an easy thing to accept when, like me, you’re so used to setting your own schedule and being told well in advance of upcoming dinners, meetings or other events. But there’s also beauty in living spontaneously, in not always having every moment and every second planned out…especially when, like big uncle’s dinner, it turns out to be a tasty surprise.