Her Abusive Husband Still Has the Kids; She Fights to See Them Again

Ruth Silbermayr-Song, the author of the blog China Elevator Stories, was separated from her children in 2019. In 2020, all contact to her children was cut off by her ex-husband, as detailed in an interview on this blog.

Ruth asked me to share an update about her situation:

A few days ago, the court in Austria has declined my request for receiving sole custody of my children and has declined my request to see my children in their summer holidays. I have been allowed a call with my children two days a week, which is much less than the daily calls I have requested. (I have appealed the decision on January 23rd).

My children are not being protected from abuse, and in my opinion, the court’s decision is in violation of basic human rights, such as parents being allowed to parent their own children and being allowed to see their children.

Ruth has created a Change.org petition in German, which calls on signers to back the following text:

I support Ms. Ruth Silbermayr-Song, BA, in obtaining sole custody of her children, Emil and Nino Silbermayr-Song. I speak out against the protection of fathers who abuse their (ex-) wives and children mentally, emotionally, and in other ways, and endanger their children’s well-being. I support the victims (the mother and the children), not the perpetrator (the father).

Ruth still needs your support. Please sign her petition here.

She Fights to Regain Contact with Kids After Abusive Husband Cut Her Off: Interview

Blogging has introduced me to a host of original and compelling voices, including Ruth Silbermayr-Song, the Austrian creator behind China Elevator Stories.

Ruth built a following by distilling casual encounters and conversations in her daily life in China into fascinating blog posts, which also offered glimpses into her courtship with and eventual marriage to a local Chinese man. Over the years, readers like me followed the adventures of her seemingly perfect cross-cultural family with two lovely kids.

I never imagined that behind the scenes, a darker story was unfolding — of devastating domestic abuse and deceit by her husband, who eventually cut Ruth off from their two children. She hasn’t seen her kids in person since July 2019, and lost all contact with them in July 2020.

Now Ruth is fighting to regain contact with her children, and recently posted a Change.org petition in German, which calls on signers to back the following text:

I support Ms. Ruth Silbermayr-Song, BA, in obtaining sole custody of her children, Emil and Nino Silbermayr-Song. I speak out against the protection of fathers who abuse their (ex-) wives and children mentally, emotionally, and in other ways, and endanger their children’s well-being. I support the victims (the mother and the children), not the perpetrator (the father).

I’m honored that Ruth offered to do an interview with me, to share her harrowing story. Read on to learn more about her plight.

If you would like to support Ruth, please sign her Change.org petition right now. It’s easy and only takes a minute.

Your blog, China Elevator Stories went offline in 2017. Can you tell us a little about what happened?

My ex took my blog China Elevator Stories from the web in 2017 without prior notice. I put it online again in 2022 after my sister sent me a link to the archived articles. My blog only recently got hacked—I believe by my ex-husband—since he was the one who took it offline in 2017 and I apologize if my blog doesn’t work properly at the moment. I’m currently working on resolving this issue.

Pictured are Ruth (far right), along with her husband, two children, and the kids’ grandparents.

Many of your readers may remember you were happily married to your husband. Could you talk a little about the end of your marriage and what happened in regard to your children?

I didn’t write about the downsides of my marriage on my blog – which were plenty. My marriage was filled with horrific abuse. By the time I had become pregnant with my first son in Shenzhen in 2013, I had heard, not only once, from my Chinese husband, that he’d have me killed if I ever left him, or if he ever found me with another man. In 2018, we agreed we’d move to Austria by the following year. I originally believed him when he said he wanted us to move to Austria so our children could grow up in Austria, which was something I insisted on, considering how bad air pollution is for a child’s health, how much pressure children are under who go through the Chinese public school system, how little play they get, and the fact that health care in China is much worse than it is in Austria.

You then moved to Europe to prepare for his residence permit in the summer of 2019, having to leave your children behind with your husband because he didn’t allow you to take your children with you, is that correct?

Yes, it is. I moved to Europe in July 2019. I had agreed with my husband to reunite with our children within a time frame of 4 months. He never planned to join me in Austria with our children, though, and deceived me into separating from my children forever, only I did not know it at that time. By the time he told me he’d send our children to a Chinese public school and would not come to Austria with them, it was already too late for me to fly back to China. Soon after, COVID started, and foreigners were not allowed to enter the country. By July 2, 2020, he broke off all contact between me and my children and I have not seen them since. I do not know their whereabouts, what school they go to, which documents they are on, how their health is, or how they are doing.

What were some of the problems you ran into trying to re-establish contact?

I have been fighting to re-establish contact with and see my children for almost 3 years now. In these past years, I had to realize that discrimination against women and mothers is just as extreme in Austria as I have experienced it in China. Austria has been regressing in this regard in recent years. It took me years of having to deal with authorities and courts on a regular basis to realize how bad the actual state of discrimination against women in Austria currently is.

In one of your articles,  you write you have been through a lot of victim blaming. Could you share more about it?

I never knew how bad victim blaming could get until I found myself in an abusive marriage and having to deal with one of the worst things that can happen to a mother – having her kids taken from her by deceit, without having done anything wrong and with very little chance of ever seeing them again. The last time really bad victim blaming took place was when I had contact with child protective services in Austria which should have supported me in my fight for sole custody of my children but discriminated against me instead. I have been shocked when I found out that child protective services often act in favor of the abusive, unsafe parent.

Another occurrence was when a public ombudsman I was having contact with sent me various excuses about why they would not help me, including that the Chinese dad now seems to have obtained sole custody, which was not the case, even when it was clear my children were being abused by their Chinese father and that Austrian child protective services were discriminating against me, punishing me for what my children’s dad and his family had done to me and my children. The secondary victimization I have experienced at the hands of authorities, child protective services, and the court has been severe, to say the least.

I find myself having to argue over basic human concepts I consider should be common sense and easy to grasp, simply because people I meet are favoring men and seniority or seek dominance over women. It almost forces you to become a feminist, even if you are not into politics, simply because you were born female.

Have you encountered similar issues in the past in Austria?

Not in the way I do encounter them now. I remember having these problems in China, and in my marriage, but have not encountered them in Austria to such a large extent in the past. Whenever I do speak my mind these days, I usually find myself being punished for it. I find it hard to deal with a society like this and don’t particularly enjoy living in the restrictive country Austria has turned into, within a society that self-censors and oppresses opinions that diverge from the majority opinion that has been indoctrinated into people these past few years.

Please support Ruth’s petition to get her children back. Signing is easy and only takes a few seconds.

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

I’ve often heard that life is what happens when you’re making plans. Never have we had a more salient reminder of that reality than the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ravaged not only our lives but also our best of plans.

For American Apryl Reagan, a singer and actress in Beijing, and Ma Yinliang, that meant facing a wedding in Beijing where, due to the pandemic, Apryl’s family could not attend in person. So she decided to add a little American flair to the special day by inviting some Americans she didn’t know to join in the ceremony, according to a recent report on the Beijinger:

When asked about her decision to invite strangers, Reagan says that the choice was simple.

“Of course, a wedding is a great place to celebrate our love, but it’s also just a great place to celebrate! And judging by the amount of energy these Americans brought to our group chat, they were guaranteed to make it a party,” explains Reagan. “I also really wanted to give my new Chinese family this opportunity to see how Americans party! But even more than that, sometimes I am afraid they see me as ‘America.’ Since they have never met another American, I worry that anything I do will be seen as what ‘all Americans do.’ So, I also wanted them to be able to have a chance to be around Americans other than me, meanwhile experiencing first-hand some of the cultural differences between an American wedding and a Chinese wedding.”

Americans filled two tables at the Beijing venue — the Palace International Hotel — with many of them meeting the newlyweds for the first time as they went around to personally thank all of the attendees. 

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

Despite the year’s Covid fears and border closures, however, Ma and Reagan kept their hearts open to love. At the ceremony, the maid of honor noted in her remarks that their whirlwind romance inspired many friends present who hoped to one day build a partnership on the same foundation of care and respect. 

You can read the full piece and peruse the lively photos from the evening — which included dancing to the Macarena! — at the Beijinger.

I’m in Awe of How My Husband Eats Fish With Bones, Unshelled Sunflower Seeds & More

(Photo by Alpha via https://www.flickr.com/photos/avlxyz/3225213462)

Whenever my husband and I happen to be back at the family home in rural Hangzhou, China, you can almost guarantee there’s fish for dinner, prepared just how my husband likes it. His mom stews the whole fish with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, hot chili peppers and Shaoxing wine, and finishes it with a sprinkle of fragrant green onion.

And if there’s fish on the table, you’ll also find something else next to my husband’s rice bowl – a neat little pile of fish bones. No, he didn’t pull the bones out first and then eat the fish. He sorted the meat from the bones with his mouth, something that amazes me to no end.

Of course, it’s not just fish with bones. I have a similar sense of awe for the way he deftly devours unshelled sunflower seeds. By the time I’ve clumsily cracked open one of them and spilled out the seed, he has easily consumed three or four of them.

I’ve also witnessed his mouth do other extraordinary things at the table, including removing the rough skin from Chinese jujube dates after chewing on them and separating the rough fibers from celery. Every time he does something like this, I’m filled with wonder, thinking, “How does he do it?”

But then again, I feel the same way about the rest of his family, whose dinner table socialization included a how-to on managing some challenging comestibles.

In the America I grew up in, the kind of fish my husband’s family serves up – from head to tail – was never on the menu. I wanted my fish batter fried and served with a heaping side of French fries and hush puppies, just like those greasy fast seafood dinners. No muss, no fuss and no bones. I was so picky on this point that I even shunned my dad’s favorite fish snack – kipper snacks – because of the bones.

This ethos – that food should be as convenient as possible – applied to much of what I ate. It wasn’t just bones I didn’t care for (which turned me off chicken wings and ribs). Unshelled seeds and nuts were a no-go as well. I even got fussy about fruit when it had seeds inside; I would rather pick the watermelon seeds out of my slice first, rather than burden my mouth with the task of spitting them out.

Looking back, though, I now wonder if I missed out on something critical. Would I have enjoyed food much more if someone had schooled me in the many ingenious ways for eating challenging things? Would I have been more adventurous as a child and more willing to try new things?

As an adult, I’ve been playing catch up on that score. I now happily devour watermelon and oranges with seeds. I’ve learned it’s not so hard to eat unshelled nuts and seeds with a little practice (and, sometimes, patience).

But as for bones, I’ll never have the chance to exercise my mouth in that regard. I’m a vegan after all. And as much as I’ll always admire my husband’s ability to process those bones in his mouth, a part of me is relieved I’m exempt. What can I say? I’m still a little picky at heart – and still don’t like bones. 😉

How “Italian Eggplant” Divided Us, and Then United Us in Love

(Photo by Alice Henneman via Flickr.com)
(Photo by Alice Henneman via Flickr.com)

The old saying goes that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. But what of a woman’s heart? I have to wonder if that’s even more true for us, especially after the culinary feat my husband accomplished in the past few months.

In case you didn’t know, my husband is now the chef in our family. He’s the one who toils every evening in the kitchen to put together some of the most scrumptious meals I’ve ever tasted.

That’s quite a feat from a fellow who once shied away from the wok. Whenever people asked him if he could cook, he’d always laugh and reply, “I only know how to add in oil and salt.” He always used to claim I was the one more skilled in this arena, preferring to leave the spatula to me.

But in the past few years, my husband started shouldering more of the cooking responsibilities. Until at some point (I still can’t remember exactly when) he took over preparing all the meals in our home. It was a godsend in many respects, especially when I was in the hospital last year and couldn’t have managed the recovery without his support in the kitchen.

The last thing I expected, however, was for my husband to prepare that infamous eggplant dish, just for me.

Jun and I have a fascinating history with eggplant – specifically, a Chinese-style dish I’ve nicknamed “Italian Eggplant”. It’s one of the first dishes I ever prepared for him when we started dating years ago. It’s also a dish that led to one of our first heated (no pun intended) arguments.

I remember that muggy summer evening in Hangzhou, proudly setting that blue and white porcelain bowl on the dinner table after toiling over the wok. The whole apartment was redolent with the savory aroma of eggplant stir-fried with tomatoes, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, a dash of vinegar, and a touch of sea salt. I inhaled with satisfaction as I thought of all the friends who had tasted the very same dish, heaping on the compliments as big as the second and third helpings they enjoyed at my place.

Surely, Jun was going to love this dish just as much. Or so I thought…until he started eating.

“Too sour. Too much soy sauce. Too much tomato,” he said. Jun grimaced with every bite – and I could feel my anger rising with every complaint. How dare he insult the food I so lovingly prepared for him! Where was his appreciation for my hard work?

I let him have it, as I slammed my chopsticks on the table and asked him what the hell was wrong with him?

Admittedly, I was a little hot-headed at the time. But it had to do with how I’d been raised – to always say thank you to the chef, even if you didn’t like the food. It was a lesson I’d learned well after years of dining at my paternal grandmother’s house. She was a notoriously horrible cook who would entertain us with things like soggy, tasteless macaroni and veggies from a can. Even though I could sometimes barely stomach the stuff on my plate, I would force myself to say how good the food was.

When I told Jun about this, his face turned as red as the tomatoes in the dish. Turns out, he had a completely different experience growing up at the table. Every dinner included a course of blunt feedback about how everything tasted – even if that meant saying the food was unequivocally bad.

I apologized for my outburst, and he apologized for criticizing my food, instead of saying thanks.

Meanwhile, I figured that was the last time we would ever dine on my Italian Eggplant.

Except, it wasn’t.

Over the years, Jun surprised me by actually giving the dish a second chance – and loving it. It gradually became a favorite for us. Yes, a favorite! Who would have thought?

Then, after Jun assumed the role of chef in our home, he surprised me again.

One evening, our house was once again redolent with the aroma of dinner, courtesy of Jun. And it smelled very familiar. Was that eggplant and tomato in the air? And soy sauce? I followed my nose to the table, only to discover that Jun had cooked Italian Eggplant just for me, from scratch.

With one bite, I found myself in ecstasy once again. “Mmmm, this is so delicious!” I exclaimed, unable to contain myself over the delectable flavor. How had he so perfectly replicated the dish I once lovingly crafted for him all those years before?

Jun likes to say he transcended himself in finally learning to make this dish. I like to say he did it for love. But honestly, whenever it’s on the table, we don’t say much at all. We just eat and eat and eat, thankful that the food that we once argued over brought us together in delicious harmony.

Interview with Lita, China’s WeChat Cookie Queen

If you’ve never heard of Lita (also known as China’s cookie queen on WeChat) you’re missing out on some heavenly desserts. Especially her pie cookies.

A native of Atlanta, Georgia, USA, Lita came to China looking for adventure, and found a husband here as well as her groove in the baking business. She opened Sweet Tooth Confections and now sells her delectable cookies across China, with plans to start a “cookie of the month” club. Lita’s pie cookies — the goodness of a homemade pie, baked into a convenient cookie size — are a big reason people keep coming back for more. 

Plus, it’s not hard to love Lita, who shines happiness upon everyone in her friendly little corner of WeChat.

I’m thrilled to introduce you to Lita and Sweet Tooth Confections through this interview. To order Lita’s cookies on WeChat, just scan the QR code below and add her on WeChat (her WeChat ID is “Chocolatasian”). (Note: delivery limited to residents of China.)

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Shalita, but most people just call me Lita. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia. After high school, I moved in with my grandmother and attended Georgia State University. During that time my grandmother developed uterine cancer, and in my senior year passed away. Nine short months later, my mother passed away. I was just turning 21. Maybe my mother knew that she didn’t have much time left because after my grandmother’s funeral, she made me make her two promises if anything was to happen to her. Promise number one was to not let anyone separate us and promise number two was that my brother and sister get an education. At age 21 I became guardian and mother to an 8-year-old and a 13-year-old who had no parents and no grandparents. I dropped out of college and devoted my life raising and loving them. Many years later after the kids had grown and gone, I found that I didn’t have much of a life. I had never even had a boyfriend. They had become my everything. A decision that I have never regretted. What I did regret was that I hadn’t spent enough time building a life for myself. I had been working for the government for 9 plus years. I had a good job with great benefits. I was good at my job, had a nice apartment downtown, but something was missing. So I went back to school, which led me to China and led me to my husband. I always told my brother and sister, we are not defined by the pain and loss we have suffered, but shaped by them to become better people. I never allowed them to feel sorry for themselves, to wallow in self-pity, or to use excuses. Now my brother is married and the proud father of four. He is a very successful military man. He has done very well for himself and family. My sister is a professional chef and mother of three with two degrees. As for me, I am creating and living my dream.

How did you first come to China?

I first came to China in 2006 on a study abroad trip through my university. It was a great experience and I not only made lasting memories, but I also made some great friends. Afterwards, I went back to life as usual, but I knew that I wanted to someday return. In 2009, I reconnected with a friend from that time and she asked me when I was coming back. Long story short, a few months later I was back in China, this time as a teacher instead of a student and embarking on a new adventure.

You reside in Yiwu with your husband, who is Chinese. How did you two meet?

I met my husband at church. I was working in Jinhua at the time, which didn’t have an English church service. A friend told me about services in Yiwu. So, every Sunday I would travel by bus to attend the service. My first Sunday there, the Pastor asked me to teach classes after service. I agreed and started teaching that very same day. My husband was in that class. The topic was about being single and waiting. My husband made a comment about how he had lost faith in love because Chinese women were only concerned about money. I asked him if they were blind, crazy or both, because he was so handsome. He smiled and that was it for me. Love at first smile. Let him tell it, it was the same for him. I continued to visit the church and become quite active. I harbored feelings for him the next years and a half. In 2011 he was moving to another city for a job and the only person alive that knew how I felt about him decided that he should know before he moved away. It turns out that he felt the same way. We were married the following year in 2012.

How did you start your business, Sweet Tooth Confections?

I was always baking and posting pictures on my moments on WeChat. My friends would comment on how delicious it looked and several suggested that I start a business. I had thought about starting a business but I was really having a hard time personally. I hadn’t been back home in over six years and I was constantly battling homesickness. My husband and I were also trying to overcome serious cultural differences that were putting a strain on our marriage. I wanted to start a business but I was not in the right frame of mind. So, I let it go. During that time a good friend, Jo Bai moved to my city and I took a much-needed trip back home. She gave me a well-deserved kick in the butt. My trip home rejuvenated me and gave me clarity and perspective. I came back to China with a new attitude. Months passed and I had no idea how I was going to start. Initially it was going to be a joint venture between myself and Jo, but even that seemed to move slow. Then during the holidays, I promised that I would make her a pie because she was feeling a bit homesick. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances it burned. When I told her about it, she was so disappointed. I knew that I had to make it up to her so I decided to make her something special and surprise her. She loved the pie cookies that I made her and shared pictures in our group and on her moments. Consequently, I also made some for other members of the group as a gift. Right away I was asked, “When can I buy more of these?” That was the beginning.

What is it like behind the scenes, when you’re putting together batches of cookies for your customers? Is there something interesting or surprising that people might not know about your business?

I make every batch of cookies on my own. I usually get up at 5 and start baking by 6. I must have everything organized and laid out before I start. I can be very strict about my tools and area. I have an entire ritual when I am baking. It involves a lot of music and dancing. I believe that whatever attitude or spirit I have at the time of baking inevitably makes its way into my cookies, so I like to fill my kitchen and prep area with lots of joy and love.

How has your husband helped support your business?

My husband handles packaging and shipping, which enables me to focus solely on baking. After I finish a batch, he prepares them for shipping. Because of his help, it allows me to spend more time on what I do best.

What are some of your most popular cookies?

Right now my most popular cookies are pecan pie, lemon pie, sweet potato pie, and salted caramel.

Could you share some of the sweets or desserts that are off the menu — you know, things you like to bake for yourself or people you love?

That’s easy. When I am baking just for us, it’s always carrot cake, chocolate cake, or apple pie.

Thanks so much to Lita for this interview! To order cookies from Sweet Tooth Confections on WeChat, just scan the QR code at the top of this post and add her on WeChat.

Photo Essay: How My Chinese Husband Shows Love in Everyday Moments

Later today after 8pm Beijing time, the new group blog WWAM Bam (Western Women & Asian Men – Breaking All Molds) will be publishing a group post on how our Chinese husbands show their love for us, including a short contribution from me. I wrote:

My husband is the kind of guy who shows his love in those thoughtful everyday moments. You know, the little things he does to tell me — through actions, not words — just how much he cares.

To honor Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d extend that with a photo essay highlighting some of those everyday moments – in no particular order — that remind me just how much he loves me.

#1: Bringing me a steaming hot cup of my favorite dragonwell tea every morning

Jun knows exactly how I love my green tea, and always has it ready just after I wake up. 😉

#2: Putting bandages on my cuts (like when I cut myself shaving)

I’m such a klutz…but Jun is such a sweetie to want to bandage my cuts.

#3: Blow-drying my hair after I shower

Once I step out of the bathroom, Jun is usually ready — blow-dryer in hand — to serve. Thanks Jun!

#4: Tucking the covers around me to help me stay warm

When Jun goes to bed after me or gets up before I do, he often tucks the covers snugly around my shoulders. (He also did it when I was in the hospital last year, which is where this picture was taken.)

#5: Taking the garbage out (and doing other “dirty jobs” around the house)

Ever since we married, Jun has this thing about “dirty jobs” (like taking out the garbage) — he prefers to take care of them. (Did I also mention he loves to help my dad mow the lawn, as he did last year when we went to the US?)

#6: Warming my hands in his when they’re too cold

I love it when Jun holds my hands, especially just to warm them up when it’s cold outside.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Jun. I love you.

Interview with Joke Tummers, Professional Clarinetist and Music Instructor/Entrepreneur in China

IMG_0180Many foreigners come to China hoping for opportunity and a little adventure. But how many can say they joined a symphony orchestra here? Or ended up running a music school in China?

For clarinetist Joke Tummers, China adventures mean making beautiful music with others (including her husband Haiwen, who manages the JT Music Academy along with her). I talked to her to learn more about how China shaped her career as a professional musician and later entrepreneur/instructor.

Here’s her bio translated from the Netherlands group blog China2025.nl:

Joke Tummers has lived in Guangzhou for 8 years. The first five years she served as an associate clarinet in the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. After the birth of her first daughter, motherhood and orchestra proved not to be a good combination. After a short break and the birth of her second daughter, it was time for a new challenge. She and her husband took over a music school. Joke is now the artistic director of the JT Music Academy where she also gives private lessons.

You can follow Joke on her blog, LinkedIn, and WeChat (JT_22_QK).

Joke with her husband Haiwen and one of their daughters.

Tell us about how you and your husband first met.

We met in Holland at my part time job a youth hostel. I was in charge of giving residents an evening snack and doing the dishes afterwards. Haiwen had just arrived at the hostel to start his job in the area. The company had given him the choice between a hotel and the hostel where I worked at. They told him that it would be much easier to make friends and meet people at the hostel. Hahaha, prophetic words!

I was urging the residents to eat a bit faster as I needed to go to a rehearsal of my wind band because we had a concert the next day. Long story short: Haiwen came to listen to the concert and we started dating soon after.

Joke with one of her students.

How did you and your husband come to move to China?

I was finishing up my Master of Music studies in Amsterdam when Haiwen suggested we go to China. He felt he had been abroad for a long time already (he studied in the UK before coming to Holland) and he wanted to return to Guangzhou.

I on the other hand was ready for some adventure as teaching at a local music school where all classes are only 25 min long didn’t sound very appealing. Orchestra jobs were really hard to get in those days and the situation has only deteriorated since then, with a lot of funding for the arts being cut.

Joke along with her orchestra colleagues.

You were the associate principal clarinet for the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra for 5 years. What was it like?

It was an interesting experience for sure. The cultural differences in how to approach and make music were huge. I’m used to showing up to a rehearsal knowing my parts, but my colleagues saw rehearsal time as their personal practice time. Management was very rigid and that is a big problem in the creative arts, where expression and flexibility are very important. It was very hard to communicate with my colleagues about how to play together better because most players were my seniors and they felt that they didn’t have to listen to me anyway. Music is all about communication so it was really hard for me to play in this stifling structure. After the birth of my first daughter I went back for a few months but decided to quit at the end of the season.

Joke with another musician.

How has China influenced your career as a musician?

In China I got the chance to play in a professional symphony orchestra. Of course it wasn’t always a smooth ride but I still had great experiences. I got to play many repertoire pieces and also played in many different concert halls, both in and outside China. We had many guest conductors and soloists and it was fun to get to know them. As one of the few foreigners in the orchestra I felt a bit like an ambassador so I would always go greet them and welcome them to China. With my colleagues I had a woodwind trio. We played at various locations and even did a concert in Taiwan together. That was a lot of fun.

Joke with one of her students.

Tell us about how you came to open your own music school in China, and what it’s like running your own school.

After quitting the orchestra I became pregnant with my second daughter so I was home to take care of her. When she was a few months old my husband and I decided to take over a music school in our area. We didn’t have a specific one in mind but hubby worked his Internet magic and found a school 2 bus stops from our house. We did it this way to avoid having the additional start up costs and also to already have a name and teachers working for us. We added myself into the mix so to say. I teach clarinet, saxophone, flute, piano and music theory. This is a direct result of being in China: in Holland I would have been limited to clarinet only as that was my specialization. I had to get out of this frame of thinking and that was easier once I realized that I would teach the kids more about music and not just the specific techniques of their instruments. The added benefit for me personally is that my teaching days are very varied, just the way I like it.

It is rewarding to run the school and to teach kids at a level they cannot easily get outside of our school. Since woodwind specialists are quite rare over here I’m in a good position to attract eager students. It helps that I speak Mandarin as some kids aren’t comfortable with English. Of course there are also parents that are happy that I can teach their kids in English to improve their language skills as well. With a lot of students I use a mixture of Chinese and English. Once I’m sure that their English is quite good, I switch to English only.

Joke with one of her students.

What do you think it takes to be a successful musician here in China?

As a classical musician I find it a bit hard to say. I usually join an orchestra or play chamber music concerts that my friends organize, I’m very lucky that way. As with every kind of artistic profession in China the problem is the outward fixation of many people. As long as it looks good, it must be amazing, right? The actual skills seem to be of lesser importance.

I think that some not yet established musicians may feel that they need to be very commercial and only play standard repertoire, preferably with Chinese songs mixed in to catch the attention of the audience. I’ve seen some change though as I went to listen to a contemporary music concert a while back. The music was very avant-garde but the hall was full of people. I thought that this was really cool and I hope that people will start listening to more and different kinds of music.

Joke and her daughters
Joke and her daughters


Thanks so much to Joke Tummers for this interview! To learn more, you can follow Joke on her blog, LinkedIn, and WeChat (JT_22_QK).

How China (and My Chinese Husband) Helped Me Love Grapes & Other Fresh Fruit

(Photo by Prerak Patel via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/prerak77/3344428542/)
(Photo by Prerak Patel via Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/prerak77/3344428542/)

It was day five of my hospital stay and I was just beginning to overcome the biggest hurdle of having my appendix removed – eating food again.

The previous day, I had struggled through the bowls of rice porridge delivered to my room. Not even adding a pinch of salt made me excited about them (though, really, rice porridge isn’t exactly the sexiest food to begin with).

Most of the bowls ended up sitting half-eaten (or hardly touched) on my hospital tray, making the nurses worry about whether I was getting enough nutrition.

Honestly, I was just worried about whether I could get anything down my throat.

But on day five, my husband changed the whole game with one question – how about some grapes?

Now let’s talk grapes for a minute. Personally, they’ve never rated in my mind as a luscious, sexy kind of fruit. In fact, they were downright boring to me. Growing up in America, I quickly tired of grape juice as a child and the ubiquitous grape jelly in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. While I did eventually warm up a bit to green seedless grapes, I wanted nothing to do with their red and especially dark purple counterparts. Dark purple reminded me of tasteless grape juice and bland grape jelly…basically, the worst stuff about grapes.

So when my husband mentioned grapes and held up that dark purple cluster, I almost rolled my eyes. He has to be kidding? I’m struggling to spoon up plain rice porridge and he wants me to nibble on one of my least favorite fruits?

But he insisted. “Try one, they’re good.”

My husband got me there. How could I argue with the most basic rule about eating? That you have to give everything a shot at least once – even those dodgy dark purple grapes.

So I picked one up and prepared myself for total fruit mediocrity — and the likelihood that I’d never eat any more grapes in China.

Oh, how wrong I was.

These were not grapes, folks. These were the dictionary definition of ambrosial, the true manna from the heavens that the gods themselves would feast upon. Each grape was bursting with a delightful tart sweetness that in America could probably only be found in the best artisanal grape juice. A flavor so thrilling I couldn’t help saying “mmmmmm” and “ahhhhhhhh” with each bite.

Now this was sexy fruit.

“Oh my god, how have I missed this about grapes my whole life? These are amazing!”

A smile played across my husband’s lips – more out of surprise towards me than the fruit. “These taste a lot like most of the grapes I’ve had.”

Suddenly, I was so shocked I almost dropped the grape in my hand. How was this possible? How had my husband had the “in” on amazing grapes his whole life, while I had been given the sorriest excuses for grapes in America?

While these grapes had been the most dramatic example, the truth is I’ve found a LOT of fruit in season tastes better here in China than the US. Apples. Bananas. Mandarin oranges. Peaches. Pineapples. Mangos. Even kiwi fruit, which grows wild in the mountains in my husband’s hometown and tastes a thousand times better than anything I ever bought in a US supermarket.

And I’m not alone in realizing China’s fruit is so delicious, as Huan Hsu noted in his memoir The Porcelain Thief:

Fruit is China’s apple pie. Dessert in China most commonly takes the form of a plate of fresh-cut fruit. The phrase for “consequently” or “result” in Chinese is jieguo, or “bear fruit.” Even the humblest fruit shack in china offers dragonfruits with flaming petals and pink or bloodied flesh, like a sweeter, milder kiwi; strands of purple grapes, plump as roe and bursting with intense, bubblegum flavor; or crispy, refreshing starfruit. The native kiwis, known as Chinese gooseberries before New Zealand farmers rebranded them, are sweeter and more pungent than their exported counterparts. Bowling-ball-sized pomelos, like meaty fragrant grapefruits, whose rinds my grandmother used to fashion into hats for her children. Mangos of all kinds, from the small champagne varietals to the leathery giants named “elephant horns.” Lychees, grown in southern China and quick to spoil, but the taste so ethereal that one emperor supposedly uprooted an entire tree and had it shuttled back to Beijing in horse carts. Sacks of tiny sha tang ju, aptly named “sugar mandarins,” that I peeled and ate whole, a dozen at a time.

It’s funny that it took moving to another country and marrying into another family to discover just how blissful a good bunch of grapes could be. To make me realize that when grapes are at their freshest and sweetest, they could even be one of my favorite fruits.

Have you rediscovered fruit or other food after moving abroad?

Things I’ve Learned from My Chinese Husband: Not Everyone Does DTR (Defining the Relationship)

Picture 462One of my favorite stories from when John and I started dating is the day when he moved into my apartment without any “should we move in together” conversation.

In America, we all know about the conversation, even if we’ve never had it before. We’ve seen it on TV and in the movies, that pivotal moment when someone says, “Let’s move in together” – a simple question that’s never all that simple. People agonize over this, to the point of proliferating totally conflicting advice (from “You’ve got to move in with him to test things out!” to “If he moves in with you, he’ll never propose!).

Well, we never had that conversation. Instead, I came home one day after work and, lo and behold, there was a duffel bag lying in the guest room of my apartment, filled with a soccer ball, a pair of soccer shoes, and some rather familiar T-shirts. When John returned back later that evening, the conversation went like this:

Me: “Is that your bag?”

John: “Uh, yeah.”

Me: “Oh, okay.”

You might wonder, why did I just answer “okay” and not grill him about furtively depositing his things in my apartment? Well, for starters, I did give him a key to my place and told him to come over whenever he wanted. I figured he just interpreted that more liberally – that “whenever he wanted” could mean all the time. (And, besides, I was under the deep, romantic spell of love, which has a way of clouding your judgment, especially whenever you think of that hot weekend the two of you just enjoyed at your place.)

Years later, when I asked John about this “moving in without a discussion” thing, he had a very simple explanation for it. “Our relationship was already settled. We didn’t need to discuss things like that.”

I discovered that the fact he kissed me beside the West Lake – and later spent the night at my place – qualified as evidence of our relationship as the real deal. We didn’t have to hash out our relationship status over coffee, debating whether we should just “keep it casual” or “make it serious.” In John’s eyes, we were a serious couple.

This was like a revelation to me – that people could actually enter into a relationship, secure in what it was without ever having some big, nervewracking conversation about it.

I’m reminded of a post I saw a few years back on VOA written by a Chinese girl titled Everything You Need to Know about Dating an American and Having the ‘Relationship Talk’:

Why do Americans have these big relationship talks?

Well, there are so many types of relationships in the U.S.: dating, casual dating, relationship, open relationship (this one does not make any sense to me), serious relationship, etc.  It’s easy to see how people could be confused about which stage they are and which stage their partners are….

In China, and I believe in other Asian countries as well, there is only ONE type of relationship.  You are either boyfriend and girlfriend, or pure friends, so there is no chance to be confused.  In other words, when it comes to V-Day [Valentine’s Day], people either have it for sure, or don’t even think of it.  No discussion needed.

It’s fascinating that a relationship could either be really simple and obvious, or incredibly complicated and worthy of long discussions, depending on who you are and the cultural background you grew up with.