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. 😉
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.
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.
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.
Many 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
One 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.
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.
It’s amazing how the smallest decisions in our lives can change everything. A few years ago, American Anne stepped into a Western restaurant in Taiwan, never expecting that evening’s dinner would come with an introduction to her future husband.
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A little over two years ago, I exchanged rings, bows and hearts with my amazing Taiwanese husband. It’s incredible to think about all the changes and twists our lives have taken since our fateful meeting over three years ago in a small city in Taiwan.
I had been teaching English in Taiwan for about four months when one evening I decided I really wanted some western food from one of the only western restaurants/bars in the city. It was a 45 minute walk away. The only people I knew at the time were simply interested in going if we shared a taxi, and on that particular evening everyone opted to just stay home. Whatever. I was going to order a freaking quesadilla! I enjoyed a nice walk to the restaurant and as my dinner was delivered on my table by the foreign restaurant owner (also an American) he introduced himself and we exchanged pleasantries. Maybe because I was a random and uncommonly lone western girl outside Taipei or maybe because he was just that good at reading my character he called someone into the restaurant that was walking by the entry door. That person would someday become my husband. He just happened to live in the apartment complex above the restaurant and had slowly development a friendship with Ernie, the restaurant owner. Ernie made some introductions. I think we were both a bit hesitant with the introduction but we were secretly happy to have chance to meet someone, even if it was just a friend in a safe environment.
He was introduced as Aitch (like the letter H) and told me later he never would have talked to me that night if it wasn’t for the fact that a third party introduced us. He believed it would have been quite rude if he had just started talking to me while I was at the restaurant by myself in the middle of eating my dinner. I’ve had some uncomfortable or just awkward first meetings with Asian men in Asia (having also lived in South Korea for nearly two years) so we were both a bit grateful for some common ground to start off with. We are a strange and unique combination of traditional and independent in each of our separate cultural norms, so the blender of that night worked.
He was still in the military when we met so we decided to officially date after his retirement from the military. We soon realized we shared true feelings and connected with real morals and integrity. If we forgot, we took turns stepping up for our values showing we respect ourselves as individual people just as much as a couple. I think what really set us apart from a failed relationship was our wiliness to communicate and make compromises from our old lifestyles, and to feel that those changes could be positive and not just a necessary evil.
Almost exactly a year after we started dating we were back at our favorite restaurant where we met. He proposed to me just like in all the Hollywood movies by secretly placing a ring at the bottom of my glass. The night we met he ordered me a strawberry margarita, and I guess I should have thought something was up when I saw the same drink placed on our table because I don’t order it that often. In addition, I really had no clue this night would be special because I was developing a cold and we decided we would take a visit to the doctors after we finished dinner — so romantic. I’m a notoriously slow eater and I remember swishing the straw around because all the berries would quickly collect at the bottom. I’m sure watching that was pure torture for him. As I finished my drink I promptly stated “ok, let’s go” not realizing the important contents still in the glass. As I got up he quickly declared “wait, I think you forgot something” and he proceeded to pull the ring out himself and bend down on one knee.
We married at the Shilin court house in Taipei September 28th, 2013. We were both happy and thankful we had a small wedding as I’ve always dreaded the stress of the wedding day and the stress mountain of coordinating and planning for it. We were sure lucky our parents understood and supported a small wedding. Honestly, we decided four days before the date that that was the day to do it. Only enough time to get the witness registration paperwork ready. It was thankfully so relaxed we even took a nap after lunch when we got home!
I would say marriage to someone outside my cultural group was one of the hardest and one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. We’ve both learned so much about ourselves, the world, and what we find the hardest to accept about our past conditioning and what is truly important for our future. Communication is crucial, and it will always be a challenge- we have very different communication styles! I consider myself fairly indirect via American standards, but I’m utterly outspoken to him, and he’s ok with that.
We’ve often talked about how many subtle events had to line up in order for us to meet, and I feel so honored and lucky to have snagged this one. Had I not, I most definitely would have returned back to Michigan after completing my first year contract. He appreciates my personality, values and simplicity, while I in turn love his loyalty, drive and compassion. He makes me feel valued for who I am- not who I was or who I’ll be tomorrow. Though we don’t know where we will plant our feet in the future, we have very recently moved to Singapore and are in the process of learning more and more about ourselves and our relationship in a global community. Happy anniversary, I continue to look forward to walking this path with you!
When July rolls around, I’m guaranteed two things – plenty of sultry summer weather (especially here in Hangzhou, considered one of China’s “furnace” cities) and the yearly round of congratulations from American friends and family on another wedding anniversary with Jun. Nowadays it comes virtually through e-mails and Facebook messages; when we used to live in the US, it would arrive via greeting cards with silver-embossed print and sentimental prose neatly tucked into pale pink envelopes.
As a child and adolescent, I watched my parents mark their yearly wedding anniversaries with the appropriate festivities – fancy dinners out, weekend getaways, and of course gifts like jewelry. I also grew up in a culture so invested in the idea of celebrating wedding anniversaries that there’s an entire etiquette surrounding the appropriate gifts to mark wedding anniversaries. (Did you know, for example, that you’re supposed to give silverware on your fifth wedding anniversary?)
So it might surprise you to learn that whenever someone congratulations me on our wedding anniversary, sometimes it feels strange.
Why would something I was raised on now seem foreign to me? Well, there’s a personal reason for that – namely, my Chinese husband John. He doesn’t celebrate wedding anniversaries, which is how people are in China. And after years of being married to him, the idea that wedding anniversaries demand celebrations has fallen off my radar.
Why is it that people here don’t celebrate wedding anniversaries? Well, given that people in China hardly celebrate their own birthdays (or, for that matter, birthdays of family/friends), is it any shock that wedding anniversaries don’t count as a significant event? I wonder if it has to do with attitudes towards love and marriage here. In China, love is something implied, inherent in any marital relationship. It doesn’t need to be restated again and again (the way Americans and other Westerners can’t stop saying “I love you” to their spouses or partners). By that rationale, maybe it doesn’t need to be celebrated in some obvious, Hallmark kind of way either.
The thing is, as blasphemous as it might sound, I like the simplicity of this all. I like the fact that a wedding anniversary doesn’t require the cards, dinners out, getaways or gifts. I like knowing that, here in China, my anniversary isn’t something in the spotlight. It’s something that’s private and personal. Something that John and I can celebrate however we want to.
John and I may never mark our anniversary the same way my parents used to – and that’s okay in my book. The most important thing is that we’re still together as a couple, still married for over 11 years (yes!) and still crazy in love.
When an intercultural relationship ends – a relationship that deeply impacted who you are – what does it mean for your identity?
Serina Huang (a fantastic writer, blogger, mother and frugalista many of us know as the Taiwanxifu) writes, “Now that I am no longer with my Taiwanese husband, I am beginning to rediscover and question who I am. Will I keep my Asian surname? Am I Asian? Am I Western?”
Do you have a story you’d like to share on Speaking of China? Have a look at the submit a post page to learn more about how to become a guest poster.
“Is he Australian?” my friend Rose asked.
I knew what she meant, but still the question surprised me. I paused for a minute, before replying, “no, actually, he’s English.”
Her eyebrows went up slightly, and she gave a slight giggle. “Oh, Serina!”
For seventeen years I had shared my life with a Taiwanese man, with whom I bore two dual-cultural children. We were introduced while I was studying Mandarin Chinese at University: he had been my language partner, and – quite unexpectedly to all concerned, myself included – morphed into my partner with whom I hoped I would spend my life.
I have spent over twenty years being immersed in Chinese (and Taiwanese) culture. This isn’t something faddish, but rather something was essential in my role as a Taiwanese xifu or daughter-in-law. Before we were married, my Taiwanese mother-in-law told me that once I became a xifu I must become Taiwanese rather than a foreigner. (She also made it clear she expected to live with us and for me to care for her in her old age.) I laughed a little about this as it seemed absurd not to live like an Australian in my own country.
But somehow, bit by bit, I changed. I became an egg: outwardly white, yet inwardly Asian yellow. I would go to work and act out my work existence, but somehow felt different and apart, unsure about how to behave in the oddly open Australian office environment. I didn’t spend my evenings and weekends the way that other people seemed to; I rarely went out for after work drinks, rarely went to the movies, hardly ever watched commercial TV.
Instead I went home to cook for a house full of Asian people – for six years we had home-stay students and invariably they were Chinese, broken up occasionally by Japanese or Korean students. I bought rice in 10kg bags (only ever high-grade Japonica rice, which I cooked in a special Ta-tung electric cooker we had imported from Taiwan). I only purchased the proper brand of naturally brewed soy sauce. I learned through trial and error to cook meals that tasted the way a Chinese mother would have made them. I still remember the night my husband nodded with appreciation because I had stir-fried a simple meal of Hokkien chicken noodles just right “That tastes like it was cooked by someone Chinese, not like a lao wai,” he said, scooping up mouthfuls of the noodles with relish in his shiny metal chopsticks.
We were always saving money to invest in properties that would help build a better future for us and for the children I eventually produced. One of my work colleagues laughed at this and told me I was ‘so boring and so Chinese.’ Unlike him, I didn’t have cool or expensive hobbies, and we rarely travelled. When we were invited to noisy dinner gatherings with Chinese friends, invariably the discussion would drift to money and investing in property. Even people who were not working had investments. We were held up as models of the successful Taiwanese immigrant life. My husband was an investment guru and financial star and held court dispensing advice for those looking to emulate our experience.
We rarely dined out and instead spent evenings sitting on the sofa watching Japanese soap-operas with Chinese subtitles. My favourite mega-series, which I have watched at least four times, is called ‘Diamond Girl’. Kind of like a Japanese version of Legally Blonde, it follows the journey of a privileged and spoiled young woman (with her endless wardrobe of brand name clothing) who worked as a secretary in law firm in an impossible quest to win back her fiancé. In the beginning of the series she studies (or rather socializes) in Sydney, and I loved seeing my own country through the eyes of a Japanese fashion princess. I so wanted to be Diamond Girl: she was cute and sassy, and I aspired to wear her bright and sexy clothes.
Later, I became madly addicted to a Taiwanese soap Inborn Pair. It is an odd title, and a better translation is Love Looking for Trouble. I lusted over the clean-cut Burberry overcoat clad actor who played the lead in the series, Chris Wang. I discovered that he spent his early years studying/working in Australia, and I used to daydream about meeting him and casually asking about his experiences Downunder. I imagined him as a younger and more romantic version of my husband. In my dreams I was transported back to an idealized vision of when we first met, before xifu responsibilities and cross-cultural misunderstandings got in the way.
Of course these were hardly tales that you could talk about in the kitchenette at work while filling up my thermos to make a cup of Taiwanese gaoshan high mountain green tea.
“You know, last night I cooked Chinese kongxincai greens with fermented beancurd, stewed fatty pork belly with star anise and hard boiled eggs, and served it over perfectly steamed rice. And then I watched Diamond Girl pretend to be a hostess in a bar in order to win back a client whom she accidentally insulted at the law firm she worked at. Oh, and her boss really likes the tea that she makes for him – you can tell because he grunted.” This wasn’t something most ‘Aussies’ could relate to.
Now that I am no longer with my Taiwanese husband, I am beginning to rediscover and question who I am. Will I keep my Asian surname? Am I Asian? Am I Western? What does the ‘West’ even mean? What bits of my ‘egg’ identity to I want to keep? Are there bits that I want to separate out, like a yolk being separated from the whites?
Above all, how to explain to New Man, whom I started dating in a strange yuan fen coincidence of destiny that only Chinese people could fully understand, that I might look like outwardly a plump middle-aged Anglo-Saxon mother, but my head and my heart operate quite differently.
Some things are easy: I tell him my favourite band is the Taiwanese rock group Mayday (aka wu yue tian), and I love singing karaoke classics by Teresa Teng and Ah-mei, and more recent songs by the lovely Della Ting and breathless Jia Jia. He nods but I know that Mando-pop will probably never appeal. At least my Taiwanese-Australian girlfriend gets it; over Easter we spend an afternoon belting out karaoke classics on my computer while my kids are with their father. She introduces me to Leehom and Kimberly; I fall in love with Leehom youtube videos and he becomes my new Asian pin-up model.
I talk about my student days in Beijing, with toilets that stank so much I could smell them from my room down the hallway. About my first frightened night in student accommodation and the drunken Kazakhstanis who kick-boxed down the door opposite mine in a quest for beer from the xiaomaibu store. Surviving that to spend a year partying and flirting with abandon. Naively backpacking through China. About living in Taiwan, about the dumplings, vegetarian buffets with fake meat and vegetables grown in the mountains, hidden hipster cafes in the back laneways and how sad I was to say goodbye to the royal blue LED-lit tiers of Taipei 101 as our chauffeured car swung past it in the light winter rain. I joke about travelling back to Taiwan with my mother-in-law on my honeymoon, and (having left her in Taipei) reminisce about clutching my new husband on a scooter while we travelled along the fiercely beautiful coastal region near Taitung. I tell New Man that Taiwan is a clean, green city in Asia, that the subways (jieyun) and High Speed Rail (gaotie) are amazing. I get excited about the emerging art scene in Taiwan, the way that ancient and modern cultures are converging to form a new identity.
He has been to Hong Kong but never really travelled through Asia; Asia to him is a night at a Thai restaurant eating laksa. (That prompted a whole explanation of Singapore’s nyonya cuisine, and regional differences in Chinese cuisines, which I think again went over his head.)
I tell him I can speak Mandarin. “You clever thing,” he says. He starts sending me sexy messages on Facebook messenger with the help of Google Translate. They make me laugh.
But it is difficult to explain that my brain doesn’t just translate from English into Mandarin, like a tap that I can turn on and off. I might not be a native speaker, but I think, I live, I dream in Chinese. I am often at my happiest prattling on in imperfect Mandarin, so happy to meet Taiwanese Mums on a playdate and to bitch light-heartedly about the frustrations of navigating the Australian dream – many are married to Australian men and experience what I did in reverse. My children’s English is littered with Chinglish phrases. “Mummy, bao bao,” my toddler pleads when he wants a cuddle. My preschooler, who seems to perpetually have his hands in his undies, refers to his genitalia as ‘xiao niaoniao’ and this seems an easier term to use when chiding him about it in public.
In the early days of dating, I had to stop myself from speaking to New Man in Chinese. “Ni xian shuo ba! – you speak first,” I have nearly said on the phone countless times. Chinese was the secret language of courtship and intimacy with my husband, a language I intuitively retreat to when thinking emotively. “Talking about love – tan lian ai’ , is how they refer to this stage of dating someone in Chinese.
I argue best in Chinese. It is only in Mandarin that I feel that I can truly express my anger, my indignation about things, especially injustices right or wrong in my marriage. When I get truly worked up, I make my point more shrilly and cruelly than in English. Perhaps it is best that I am not able to tap into this, as it would probably tear New Man’s soft vulnerability to shreds.
I explain to New Man that I feel uncomfortable when people split bills. (Thankfully that has never come up on a date.) I talk a bit about the importance of face (mianzi), and gloss over the importance of cultivating networks or guanxi. I explain about how I plan to help my kids maintain their Chinese language skills. We take our children out together to a Chinese lantern festival. He likes the lion dance and tells me it is fun but that he doesn’t like yum cha (yuk cha, he calls it).
How to explain the deep yearning within me to return to Asia, how I constantly miss living in Taiwan? How a part of me feels this quest to explore, to discover, to connect with Chinese culture as if I was born into it in a past life? That despite my Caucasian appearance, that I feel a sense of belonging and normalcy when I glance out the taxi window and read glaring neon signs in Chinese? That sometimes I feel lost and lonely just being normal in suburban Canberra? How I am a temple junkie, and pray with unadvisable regularity to Guanyin for relationships, Matsu for safe passage, Guan Gong for courage and wisdom, Cai Shen for money and Wen Chang for a promotion in my public service career? What it truly means to express gan en – appreciation – when you receive your hearts desire? How feng shui matters to my life and defines where and how I live? How my children’s Chinese names were chosen by a fortune teller, and mine has layers of meaning that takes five minutes to explain?
“But you are not even Chinese,” I tell New Man on a picnic date shortly after meeting him, as we discuss how inexplicable that it was that we should have hooked up.
With his blond hair and blue eyes, this is fairly obvious. Nor do I wish he was anything other than what he is. The attraction took me by surprise, powerful and unexpected, making me as giddy as a teenager. He is unaware how very English he is. I went to Beijing rather than do the usual pulling a beer in a pub gap year that many Aussies do and so I know nothing about England, nothing about his culture or the landscape that shaped him. To me, being with him is the new foreign, the new exotic.
And through it I am inventing my new life as a mixed-up scrambled egg, choosing how I want to flavour my omelette.
Serina Huang is a writer, blogger, mother and frugalista. She blogs about Taiwanese culture and food at www.taiwanxifu.com, and about parenting and being frugal at www.weekendparent.co. She is currently working on a book about her experiences of doing Chinese postpartum confinement (zuo yuezi).
—– Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.
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