Ten years ago on July 26, my husband and I stood before a government representative in Shanghai, promising to spend the rest of our lives together. It’s hard to believe that 10 years have passed since that moment, yet I love John just as much as the first time I stood before him and said, “Wo yuanyi!” (“I do” in Chinese — and yes, like most of us in China, I did it more than once for reasons explained in this post).
To commemorate those 10 incredible years I’ve enjoyed with the love of my life, a guy who still makes me swoon after all this time together, I’m sharing one of our marriage registration photos from 2004 plus 10 photos of us together (one from each year of our marriage)!
This photo was taken just moments after we took our vows in a civil ceremony in Shanghai and signed our official little red marriage books. Can’t you just see that newly-registered glow in our faces? (Or maybe it’s the red we both wore that day!) 😉
We visited friends in Chicago in February 2006 and ended up strolling beside Lake Michigan, despite the freezing winter temperatures. Who needs to worry about cold weather when you have the love of your life beside you to keep you warm? 😉
The summer of 2007, we returned to John’s hometown to make our marriage official (in the eyes of his family and friends) with a big Chinese wedding ceremony.
Late in the summer of 2008, John and I took off for one last camping trip deep in the Rocky Mountains. What views!
When John and I went to China for the summer of 2009, we indulged in a month-long trip across the country to take in all of the sights we never visited years before — from Xi’an and Chengdu to Changsha and Kaifeng.
John and I welcomed the year of the tiger in 2010 as the emcees of a Chinese New Year celebration. What a night!
To commemorate our wedding anniversary in 2012, we enjoyed a relaxing evening of classical music performed by the Cleveland Orchestra. But before heading out, we posed before the flower garden to remember the evening.
For Chinese New Year in 2013, John and I whipped up a traditional Chinese feast for the family — from roast goose and ribs to ginger-garlic green beans and stir-fried matchstick potatoes. We’re smiling, but there’s exhaustion behind those eyes because we spent the entire morning in the kitchen! Still, it was worth the effort.
There’s nothing like finally spending Chinese New Year at the family home in China for the first time in years. In 2014, John and I reunited with his family and the country we love.
Here’s to hoping for 10 more incredible years with my incredible man. Thanks for everything, John.
(Note: I’m excited to be giving away one FREE copy of Good Chinese Wife! Want to enter the giveaway? Scroll down to the end of this post for details!)
Susan Blumberg-Kason’s new memoir Good Chinese Wife comes with a revealing subtitle: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Before you even open the book, you already know what kind of love this is – a marriage between a white American woman and a Chinese man that doesn’t end well.
I’m calling it the AMWF memoir of 2014 and you shouldn’t miss it.
This book has it all. A Chinese love interest with movie-star looks. A romance set in glitzy Hong Kong. A huge red wedding in Wuhan. A fascinating journey across China in the mid-1990s. And a transformative tale of how one shy young woman eventually finds the courage to make a dramatic escape.
But most importantly, Good Chinese Wife is just an incredibly entertaining memoir. It’s the kind of book that you’ll open, thinking you’re only going to read for a little while, and before you know it you’ve devoured the whole story in one sitting.
As someone who has known Susan for several years, I’ve had the privilege to witness the inspiring metamorphosis of Good Chinese Wife from manuscript to published memoir. It is an extraordinary honor to introduce you to Good Chinese Wife and Susan through this interview.
A freelance writer in Chicago, Susan has written for the Chicago Sun Times, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, and Chicago Parent magazine. Her essay “Ninety Minutes in Tsim Sha Tsui” is included in the fabulous new anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit. She also wrote All the Tea in Chicago, the ultimate guidebook to the city for tea enthusiasts.
I talked to Susan to learn more about her memoir – from what inspired her to write it, to her experiences as a yangxifu (the foreign wife of a Chinese man) in the mid-1990s, to what she hopes readers will come away with from her story.
When did you first realize you wanted to turn your story into a memoir? What ultimately inspired you to write it?
I first thought about writing this memoir after my divorce attorney in California asked me to write out everything that went wrong in that marriage. She needed all the details in case we went to trial. It was 14 years ago and I was living with my parents. They didn’t have a laptop connected to a printer and I wasn’t in the mood to camp out in front of the basement desktop—after having felt so isolated for the past five and a half years—so I hand-wrote it over the span of a week in the company of my family. This document was sixty-seven pages! When I proofread it before sending it off to my lawyer, I thought, “Wow! This would make a great book.”
A week later I saw the movie “Not Without My Daughter” for the first time. It was about a woman who almost lost her daughter when her family traveled to Iran to visit her husband’s family. The husband had lived in the US for 20 years, but when he returned to his motherland, he suddenly wanted to stay there and keep his daughter there. I cried because the same thing could have happened to me. I wanted to share my story with others and hoped it would give parents in cross-cultural relationships something to think about if they’re in similar situations.
Your love affair with Cai, a man from Wuhan, China, takes place in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, at a time when you were mainly a graduate student. What are some of your most interesting memories about dating in Hong Kong back then?
Hong Kong was magical back then! I was so happy to be back (I’d lived there for a year in 1990-91) and open to new opportunities, including dating. Maybe it was the thrill of being back and the comfort I felt around Hong Kong people, but I definitely took more chances there than I had back in the US. There was a new confidence in the air as people who had left Hong Kong in the 1980s were returning. One was a friend of a friend who confided some pretty heavy personal history to me on our one and only date. At one point he became violent as he grabbed my arms and squeezed them as if in a vice. I was scared about leaving that bar—we were out in the middle of the New Territories—but in the end he paid for my taxi ride home, which was two hours away. I also went out with a television anchorman who promised a weekend away in Macau, but canceled at the last minute. And then there were the two guys I wrote about in the book, the two I went out with before I met Cai.
How did people react to yangxifu back in the mid-1990s?
It was a novelty for Chinese men to have a foreign wife. In Hidden River, Cai’s hometown in Hubei province, his parents had a friend whose son had married a Japanese woman. She was a legend in that danwei—whether or not people had met her—because she was a foreigner. So my inlaws were very accepting of me and liked to brag about me with their friends. When I walked around Hidden River, people were all very polite, even when they stared and pointed at my curly hair and western nose.
Your wedding in 1995 was special compared to the average wedding banquet in Wuhan. Could you share with us some of the things that made your celebration different?
Well, back then children of Communist Party members had to have modest wedding celebrations. For instance, they could only use a couple of cars in their motorcades and could only have ten tables at their banquets. But because I was a foreigner, those rules didn’t apply to my wedding even though my father-in-law was a Party member. We had twenty tables at our wedding and five or six cars. Traditions were still low key in China then, so weddings were simple and quick. There weren’t tea ceremonies and the like. And women in Hubei didn’t wear red qipaos. It was all big poufy white wedding dresses. I had a difficult time finding a red qipao in Suzhou!
Cai’s parents also play a major role in your story. Give us one of your favorite scenes from the book featuring your inlaws.
I think my favorite scene in the book was when they were leaving San Francisco to return to China. They had lived with us for ten months and after many clashes about childcare, I realized too late, of course, how much I had appreciated their presence at home. Every night we watched Chinese soap operas and news from Beijing while Cai went out. And they were often my only adult interaction at home. As we said goodbye at the airport, I also thought about how difficult it must be for them to leave Jake, their beloved grandson. So this scene is full of contrasts and difficult emotions.
Your book includes many memorable characters, but none more so than “Japanese father” — a rather unconventional father-figure to Cai. Without giving everything away, could you tell us something about this fascinating character?
Japanese Father was a music professor who visited China one summer and met Cai in Wuhan. The two became pen pals and wrote long letters to each other almost every week. The Japanese economy was so far ahead of China’s at the time—it wasn’t even comparable—so the opportunities that Japanese Father could offer Cai, and later his friend Rui, were very attractive to young teachers who had no other way of making more than US$75 a month. Japanese Father had a lot of time to spend on his Chinese protégées because he was estranged from his wife and son. His daughter still spoke to him, though.
As the subtitle explains, your story is “a love affair with China gone wrong.” Some people may see your book as yet another story that casts Asian men in a negative light, as well as AMWF relationships and even China itself. How would you respond to those concerns?
The subtitle refers to my initial attraction to China and how that all changed. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just didn’t go according to plan. As for a negative portrayal of Asian men, I can only see two Asian men who don’t come out looking great. Some reviewers think that Cai is sympathetic, and I can see that, too. But the others—Baba, Cai’s friend Rui, my former brothers-in-law, and even the guys I dated in Hong Kong—are portrayed just as men in any other countries. They have a variety of positive traits and aren’t lumped into one general category. And as one friend pointed out, at the end I go to lengths to protect the Chinese male who matters most to me—my son Jake. As for AMWF relationships, I clearly do everything I can to make mine work. In writing my story, I hope that people will see how not to conduct an AMWF relationship! And as for China, I felt aligned with many young Chinese at that time. Every time Cai and I returned to China, he was heartbroken that it was changing so quickly and wasn’t like the China of his childhood. I echoed his feelings and could see how things were different even from my first trip to China in 1988. To me, that’s not being anti-China, but rather wishing for a smoother transition, for China to have eased into the twentieth century instead of leaping into the twenty-first in one blink!
Could you share some of the lessons you’ve learned from your courtship and marriage to Cai, and what you hope readers take away from your book?
From the courtship, people will probably conclude that I married Cai too quickly. But I think it’s more than that. He told me from the get-go that he had certain conditions for our marriage. Those are things I ignored or thought I could eventually get him to change. That should have been my red flag, not the time in which we became engaged and married. And from the marriage, I hope people can see that it’s not a good idea to justify bad behavior in the name of cultural differences, whatever those may be. (Unless we come from the exact background as our partner, we will have cultural differences. My new husband and I are from different religious backgrounds.) If something doesn’t sit well, it doesn’t sit well and shouldn’t be tolerated. It doesn’t matter if the person is from Asia or the US or wherever. One more thing: just be yourself and you’ll be fine!
You’ll find my essay “Huangshan Honeymoon” included in the anthology, which explores a very different kind of honeymoon my husband and I enjoyed in 2005.
How was it different?
Well, yes, we planned our vacation around the chance to hike all the way up to China’s Huangshan or “Yellow Mountain”, instead of the typical honeymoon of sunny days spent lounging on golden sand beaches sipping tropical drinks and intimate twilit evenings laying in each others’ arms.
And yes, we chose to set out at the height of summer’s most sultry days, and stay in a region where July and August are feared for the ferocious heat of the “Autumn Tiger” that comes around every year.
But ultimately, this is what made our honeymoon so unusual: John’s father came along with us!
I never thought I would share my honeymoon suite with a man who once advised his son not to date foreign women. (Then again, I suppose he never imagined he’d have a foreign daughter-in-law!)
And as if that wasn’t enough, the heavens also brought us some of the lousiest viewing conditions for the mountain, thanks to the remnants of a typhoon that enveloped the scenery in a misty cloud of rain and fog.
(This is the one and only photo that offers a hint to the breathtaking views we should have enjoyed, had the weather cooperated!)
Why did we bring John’s father along? And how did that experience change my relationship with his father forever? You’ll find all the answers (and much more!) when you buy a copy of How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit and read the essay. Don’t miss out on a collection that I can’t stop raving about! (Okay, yes, I am biased but it’s still really an amazing book.)
Sometimes, I think the love of a Chinese family is one of the best kept secrets in the world. And if ever there was an example of that, it’s our upcoming move to Hangzhou. As we trade the countryside for city life, I still can’t believe how my husband’s family has gone out of their way to help us make the transition.
Okay, I know rice cookers, pressure cookers, dishes, woks and bedding don’t appear out of thin air. But when my mother-in-law suddenly pulled out all of these brand-spanking-new things (and more!) from storage in our house, it felt like some magic trick. Or the wedding registry I never imagined I had signed up for.
Because, after all, we never asked them to buy any of these things. But they bought them anyway!
My mother-in-law has continued this apartment hocus-pocus almost every day leading up to the move, trotting out new things during lunch, and has even pulled a few extra-special surprises out of her own proverbial hat (including honey and even veggies from her garden).
Making it an auspicious move
“It’s not superstition. It’s the Book of Change, a Chinese tradition.” Whether or not you agree with my father-in-law, the fact remains that good luck matters to my in-laws in every important aspect of life — including moving house.
So naturally, once we announced the news on Saturday, my father-in-law whipped out that indispensable little red book in his library — the Chinese Farmer’s Almanac, based on China’s Book of Change. It lists every date in the year, recommending what you should and should not do on that date. According to his almanac, the best upcoming date for our move (and preparing our new bedroom) would be this coming Tuesday, May 27.
And believe me, this stuff counts to them. How much? Enough for my mother-in-law to make a second phone call to my husband’s oldest brother (who initially said he couldn’t move us on Tuesday), convincing him to do it earlier in the day!
Money? We didn’t ask for money!
Compared to so many Americans I know, Chinese families seen to operate on a completely different wavelength when it comes to money — and my husband’s family is no exception.
You don’t even need to ask them, “Could you lend us some money?” It’s a given they will, which I still haven’t quite gotten used to (yes, I am a bag of nerves whenever John has to borrow cash from his family — and John always thinks it’s so funny).
And more often than not, you don’t even need to bring up the topic of money with them — because they’ll do it first.
That’s exactly what my father-in-law did the other day when he sauntered over to John and me in the yard. John’s dad had this serious look on his face that made me all nervous inside, as if he was like my dad and about to lecture us on something we messed up in his house. But this “serious talk” turned out to be nothing more than him saying, “You’re going to need some money for your move. How much?” (A question that, of course, I felt too embarrassed to answer. I mean, here’s my father-in-law approaching me with a gesture that seems too generous to be real, and expecting me to give him a number?)
Days later, I discovered a thick stack of crisp, red bills lying in the corner of our room — an amount that turned out to be more than three times more what I expected!
Sometimes it’s not even a question, but an order. Like, yesterday John’s oldest brother phoned him out of the blue just to say “Open an account so I can send you some money” when John hadn’t even asked for it. After my husband recounted this to me, I was shocked (in a good way)…and then almost wanted to pinch myself.
Nope, it wasn’t a daydream.
In the end, it’s all about the love
My Chinese relatives will never hug or kiss us, or say how much they love us the way my American relatives do. But they’ll pony up brand-new apartment essentials and money without us asking them, and make certain we move on the luckiest possible day. It all comes down to one simple idea — this is how they show us their love.
Now if you excuse me, I’ve got a move to get ready for. Hangzhou, here we come!
I have been reading your blog for some time now and the majority of your female readers are independent, intelligent women whom have (some) “feminist” values/ideas such as equality, rights, freedom of choice.
I would like to know has being married to a Chinese man and to the Chinese “extended family” changed your…“feminist” ( independent ) views? Did you have to change your way of thinking and adapt to situations, traditions, culture that may not share your own ideas and beliefs? Do you accept things in China that you wouldn’t accept back in your own country? If so how did/do you handle this? How does it make you feel?
I thought about this question for many weeks and could never seem to come up with the right answer. And then I realized the issue here — the thing is, my marriage to John hasn’t really changed my core feminist/independent views all that much.
See, I married a feminist guy who just happens to come from the countryside of Zhejiang, China, as I’ve written before:
Over the years, from dating through marriage, John continued to blast stereotypes about Chinese men, that they’re so sexist. He loved my larger, curvier body in all of its beautiful imperfections, and never suggested I change a thing. During all those times when I was the family breadwinner, he always felt proud of me and my ability to make a living. He grew up in a household where no one hit women and children, and condemned domestic violence in all of its forms. He kept doing the dishes and his share of the housework, and never assigned a gender role to any household chores.
John has always loved me just as I am and always supported me in my endeavors, even when it comes to writing about him and our marriage together. In fact, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be writing this blog at all!
As for his family, sure, not everyone is as progressive as he is. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve had to somehow change myself to fit their expectations. We can disagree. And if we do, I usually say something to them. It might surprise you, but I find it far easier to speak up in front of his family as opposed to my own in the States. Perhaps it’s because foreigners in China are expected to be a little weird and get a pass when we do things differently. Maybe it’s because I’m speaking to them in a foreign language, which liberates me because it’s not the language I grew up with. And it probably helps that John’s parents (and most of his family) don’t fit those stereotypes of the strict and conservative Chinese family.
Of course, there are things about Chinese culture that, on the surface, seem to clash with feminist/independent views. Take for example the dependency among family members in China and the expectation that children should care for their parents when they’re older. Yet, some families in the US do these things too. My dad invited his father (my grandfather) to spend his final years living together with him, and my aunts and uncles take care of my grandmother so she doesn’t have to stay in a nursing home. As independent and feminist as I am, I still believe these are good values and would want to do the same if John’s parents needed our help.
And ultimately, there’s a difference between understanding a culture and completely overhauling your own views for someone else. It’s important to know and respect your partner’s culture, but that doesn’t mean you have to hide who you are to do it. Otherwise, you’re just dealing with a one-sided relationship and those are usually doomed to fail. Just as I’ve become closer to John’s culture, he’s also become closer to mine — and the whole process has only made our marriage that much stronger. Yet when it comes to our beliefs and our way of thinking, we’re still pretty much the same as we were all those years before when we first met.
Maybe my marriage really is unusual. And maybe to some people I might not seem “independent enough” or even “feminist enough”. But then again, that should tell you that there are no hard or fast rules for cross-cultural marriages in China or even what defines a woman as independent and feminist.
Sometimes, you really can find happily ever after in the most unlikely places in the world. 😉
How about you? How would you respond to this question?
Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China/Chinese culture or Western culture? Send me yours today.
This week, I’ve stumbled upon a number of incredibly unique stories in the blogosphere about Chinese men and Western women in love. While I’m on deadline these days (and need a break from my usual posts) I thought I would share some of these fantastic blogs/posts with you. Enjoy!
A Tibetan-American love story in Qinghai
Earlier this week, a reader tipped me off to a few new AMWF bloggers — and one of them fascinated me the moment I read the short intro in her blog’s sidebar:
I’m Kimberly, an American lady living in western China with my Tibetan husband and our beautiful baby girl
Following my stint in the home of Peking Duck, I went back to the states to get my Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science. (That’s right, I am a certified librarian.) By then I was itching to get back to China and decided to make my home out west, where the air is cleaner, the food is heartier, and the people are diverse.
I used to joke with my parents before I left that I was going to find a nice man there and settle down. To my surprise and delight (and my mother’s disappointment) it really happened. K and I were married on July 28th 2012…
…and on August 2nd 2012. We had two weddings, one western style in the city and one Tibetan style in the village.
Xiao Li was part of a gang of pop-folk musicians that included not just his band mates, all singers, but also their brothers and cousins and mentors and girlfriends and gal pals.
I had gone that night to get my culture on and enjoy some folk music. Awkward but uninhibited, I picked off one of the shy ones to practice my Chinese. We were having a pleasant conversation until his strikingly handsome friend cut in. He said I was really pretty and clinked beers with me. When I replied in Chinese, he slapped his hand on his face – “Wah! I didn’t know you’d understand me!” He then asked for my number, said he wanted to treat me to a meal.
…After a few weeks, I looked up Xiao Li’s band on Baidu. Apparently they had won China’s version of American Idol and were a go-to choice for the Party at official events.
Hannah recounts her time as the girlfriend of a pop star in China with honesty about it all, including her own missteps in the relationship. It’s a long post, but also worth reading and discussing.
What one Chinese man thinks of his foreign girlfriend
It’s no secret the the vast majority of stories about Chinese men and Western women in love are written by the women. And if we do hear from the men, rarely is it about a relationship that blossomed in China — one that, for that matter, is still going strong.
But Marta changed my point of view. She knows what is the real happy life, she prefers traveling to different countries rather than buying a CHANEL, she thinks we do not need to buy a house of our own(sorry but that is still one of my shot-term aims), she prefers walking more than driving a car, she is so kind and so nice to every member of my family, she is always so kind and polite, and she loves music.
While a cold, misty rain hung over Hangzhou that February morning, in my mind there was nothing but sunshine. A feeling of happiness surrounded me as John and I left that building, a jubilant couple bounding down the street hand-in-hand.
“How could it have been so easy?” I wondered.
We recalled the smiles from the woman at the front desk, who helped us rearrange our materials. We remembered the uniformed officer who told my husband how to write up an invitation letter, word by word. And when we left, both of them offered us a warm farewell, with the officer even complimenting my husband on how outstanding he was.
To think that we had just left Hangzhou’s Public Security Bureau (PSB), and felt as if we were VIPs once John introduced me as his foreign wife needing to get a residency permit.
And what about those calls John made in advance to the PSB? The moment John mentioned he was inquiring about residency permits for his foreign wife, that person on the other line transformed instantaneously. They became a friendly and helpful voice on the phone, as if John had just dialed customer service.
All it took was one magic word: yangxifu.
In Chinese, yangxifu (洋媳妇) means foreign daughter-in-law. But people here — including my husband — commonly use the term to refer to any foreign woman (like me) married to a Chinese man. And sometimes it seems like the very mention of a yangxifu can light up some of the toughest people you’ll encounter in China. Meanwhile, my husband’s friends have called him a “legend” from the time he married me, and his cousin even wanted us to find him a yangxifu.
To many Chinese, having a foreign girlfriend or wife is the best bling money can’t buy. Like cruising in a BMW or popping open a bottle of Moet (part of the worship of all things foreign in China, chóngyángmèiwài or 崇洋媚外) , we suggest he’s truly “made it.”
With a foreign woman by his side, that Chinese man casts a powerful aura around the world in China. People crown him as lihai (厉害, awesome), gaping in awe at his good fortune — and his social status soars.
My husband also believes that China’s love of yangxifu has something to do with how his country views marriage. The traditional view is that when a woman marries, she leaves her family to join his for good. So from this perspective, while a yangnǚxu will theoretically take his Chinese wife away from China to his foreign family, a yangxifu marries into a family in China (and thus, it’s a “gain” for China). Yangxifu are also much less common than yangnǚxu (as I’ve written before and a reader recently confirmed during a trip to Hong Kong), making us more of a novelty in China.
But really, when I think about it, the real wonder of being a yangxifu is not in enjoying a little VIP treatment from the PSB or making my husband a “legend” among his friends. To think that I could travel thousands of miles to from the US to China — a country I barely knew most of my life — and find a wonderful husband here, living happily ever after in his rural village. Now that’s magical!
My name is Jocelyn Eikenburg and I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, USA. This summer, I’ll be celebrating 10 years of marriage with my husband John, who is a Chinese national.
Sure, we’ve weathered our share of misunderstandings over the years and had to learn to adapt to each other, both culturally and personally. But I still love him just as much as the day when I said “Wo yuanyi!” (I do) to him in the Shanghai Marriage Registry Office.
And over the years, I’ve discovered a lot to cherish about our relationship.
I was born and raised in a very white and very average suburb of Cleveland, Ohio in the United States. Yet now, I live in the countryside of Zhejiang, China with my Chinese husband and his family, where bamboo and tea bushes grow wild in the mountains, the chickens are always free range, dog leashes are optional, and central heating doesn’t exist.
Nothing in my life before prepared me for this one — and to be sure, the first time I came here I never imagined I would ever feel comfortable in this home or area. But it’s amazing how you can adapt and learn in a new environment. Over time, I’ve found myself feeling extremely at home in this home and this village. And in the process, I’ve experienced and learned things that, when I think about the woman I once was back in the US, really surprise me at times.
1. When you live without central heating, there are ingenious ways to stay warm
No heating in the dining room? No problem! Meet the huǒtǒng (火桶). You just add warm coals to the receptacle in the bottom, then sit and enjoy the warmth underneath while you eat. This is how I survived many a dinner in the wintertime (when I wasn’t bundled under the covers, with the electric blanket cranked up!).
One of the huotongs in our home is even a family heirloom, gifted to my in-laws more than 40 years ago for their wedding. And according to my mother-in-law, it still warms your behind just as well as it did the first time they used it.
2. There’s nothing like the “sunshine scent” of freshly sunned laundry
Growing up, my family and our neighbors never used laundry lines to dry clothing, robbing me of the chance to discover one of the great wonders of sunshine — that alluring “sunshine scent” after sunning clothes for an entire day. The sun-dried laundry smells especially fragrant where I live, thanks to the absence of smog and plenty of glorious blue sky afternoons with lots of fresh air.
If you’ve never experienced the “sunshine scent” from a sheet or towel or shirt left to sun for a golden afternoon, well, you’re missing out on one of life’s wonders.
3. Fire-powered woks truly rock
I’ll admit, the first time I peered into my mother-in-law’s kitchen and found a pile of wood stacked up behind her wok, a part of me felt like I was transported to another era. People still use wood to fire their woks?
But soon I discovered the wonders of a fire-powered wok — namely, that it makes some amazing dishes.
I still can’t get over the jianbing my mother-in-law once made. The flavor and even texture of it was so reminiscent of tandoori-style Indian flatbreads, and even more delicious with the vegetables tucked inside. You could never get the same satisfying taste making the flatbread in a wok heated by gas or even electricity.
Maybe it’s no wonder, then, that when I imagine my future dream home, I envision a fire-powered oven or wok somewhere in the kitchen!
4. How to clean up chicken droppings
My mother-in-law raises a flock of free-range chickens. So from time to time, they meander into the house to forage for scraps and leave behind a little something we’d rather not step on. Well, when I spotted one of these offending “presents” near the front door, I instinctively sought out the remedy my mother-in-law uses time and time again: ashes. Just cover the droppings with ashes, wait a few minutes, then you can easily sweep them up (and out the door) with a broom.
I still can’t believe “cleaning up chicken droppings” is now part of my house-cleaning repertoire.
5. Even the scariest unleashed dogs can fear sticks and clubs
I never thought that “speak softly and carry a stick” could also help protect you from dogs.
Where we live, dogs are the countryside version of home alarm systems — everyone has one. But leashes are optional. So when my husband and I take our hikes through the mountains in the village, well, you can imagine how I’ve felt when we suddenly hear a threatening bark or growl — and have no idea if “Cujo” is even tied up.
The first time this happened, my husband just grabbed a stick beside the trail and waved the stick above his head so the dog could see it. Instantly, the dog backed off from us…and I could breathe again. 😉
I don’t know exactly why this works, but it does. Along with water and a sturdy pair of shoes, “walking stick” has now become one of my must-haves for hiking out here!
6. Hot water from the tap is a precious thing
Our house has a solar-powered water heater. But when there’s no sunshine, there’s also no hot water from the tap.
Still, who says we have to go without? We can always have hot water…provided we boil it and store it up in thermoses, ready to mix with cold or lukewarm water for washing up or a bath. Some evenings, I spent an as much as an hour preparing all of that hot water to bathe.
The experience of preparing my own hot water makes me appreciate the precious hot water from the tap so much more.
7. Irrigation ditches make really awesome hiking trails
I’ll be honest, it’s hard to hike the mountains out here in the countryside, where there’s no such thing as “trail maintenance”. Sometimes we’ll be on a perfect trail tracing a mountain ridge…only to find that the deeper we walk into the woods, the more it descends into a thorny mess of bushes and vines that will slash your clothes and even your tender hands. Don’t even ask me about that time we climbed to the top of that mountain, only to take a different trail down…that landed us in the most odious field of thorns I’ve ever encountered.
So I’ve come to love the irrigation ditches out here that are built into the hillsides. The stone walls reinforcing these ditches repel those noisome thorny bushes and vines. But even better, the wall itself becomes a perfect trail, naturally “maintained” and kept open by the heavy foot traffic beside the ditches (essential for watering the terraced fields in the village).
My most favorite trail in the area includes an extra-long irrigation ditch that passes some of the most beautiful scenery in the area — from a natural river that cuts through a wooded hillside to the brilliant green terraced fields in the villages.
8. You can make a home in some of the most unlikely places
If you had told me years before I would be happily residing in the countryside — in the same home as my in-laws — I might have called you crazy or even laughed at the thought. Yet here I am, living under the same roof as my in-laws…and actually having a pretty good time of it.
Life hasn’t always turned out as I expected it, including the circumstances that have necessitated my current residence. But I feel so incredibly loved and cared for here.
Every meal with the family feels like a small holiday feast, beguiling us with the wonderful aroma of eight or nine different home-cooked dishes on the table — and always with an ample selection of my vegan favorites, from spicy pickled daikon radish to the local smoked tofu stir-fried with peppers or celery. My mother-in-law refuses to let me even lift a finger to do my own laundry, preferring instead to wash it herself by hand and then hang it to dry on the clotheslines that criss-cross the front yard. My father-in-law will slip John an overly generous sum of RMB he withdrew from the bank, refusing to let us return a single note. Our relatives in the village insist on inviting the two of us over to their homes only a short walk away for dinners as lavish as a wedding banquet, telling us to eat, eat, eat. And John and I sleep snugly in our very own private suite in the home, outfitted with every possible comfort we could need — from our soft, warm bed to the TV and Internet — and a view of bamboo fronds and orange trees just outside the window.
Most importantly, I’ve learned that it’s always home to me as long as I have my loving husband, space to read and write, and time for hiking or walks. It’s that simple.
Have you ever lived in a place you never expected to live? Did you learn some surprising things from your experience?
Over the years, I’ve noticed a certain e-mail finds its way into my Ask the Yangxifu inbox. The story usually goes like this: Chinese boy who was born and raised in China meets Western girl, they fall crazy in love and the future seems ripe with possibilities for the two of them…until reality hits in the form of a few simple questions. What about our careers? Where will we live?
So when I receive these questions — which are invariably confidential — it either happens that 1) the couple can’t decide where to live (often China versus her Western country) because each country somehow handicaps one person career-wise, or 2) the relationship ended because one or both of them gave up.
Whenever people talk about Chinese-Western international marriages, you would think that language or culture pose the greatest barriers. But when it comes to Chinese men and Western women in love, this “love, location, career” dilemma more often threatens an otherwise outstanding relationship. Career options aren’t always the same for both people in his home country (China or another Asian country) versus hers. Sometimes, when a couple can’t reach an agreement, they sadly break up — just as my Chinese ex and I did years ago.
At the time, he had moved from China to a European country for university and hoped I would follow him and, in his words, “be his wife.” It sounded glorious at first when he whispered this to in my arms…but not when I discovered the unappealing possibilities for a US national in this European country (not to mention all of the visa headaches for me). It didn’t help that his phone calls, e-mails and other communications dwindled over time, until an entire month passed without a single e-mail from him. So on top of the whole “where to live/work” issue, I also started doubting our very relationship — the foundation of everything we had together. In the end, I had to say, “Enough!” I couldn’t justify all of the headaches of moving to this country when he couldn’t make the time to even write me a simple e-mail or call me.
My face was glazed with tears the day that I called him and said I couldn’t move there. I knew our relationship would collapse and sure enough, we broke things off officially in the weeks that followed. But looking back, I also realize that — in a sense — he determined our fate the moment he put down a deposit for that European university. He was fluent in English and could easily have chosen to study abroad in the US, my home country…but he didn’t, citing a personal distaste for America.
Hence I learned my first lesson in cross-cultural relationships: love isn’t always enough. When you add into the mix each person’s careers and dreams (often linked with a specific country or place in the world, especially if a person only speaks one language) it complicates things in a way that couples from the same country would hardly understand.
I think about my stepsister, for example, who is happily married to her college sweetheart. They both were born and raised in the Cleveland, Ohio region in the US and, naturally, always wanted to settle and build their careers up there as well. There was never any question about what country might offer the two of them the most opportunities and most benefits, no tug-of-war about living here versus there or somewhere else.
Nothing like what I experienced with my ex-boyfriend in China. It was his lifelong dream to reside in this European country, so naturally he wanted to study abroad there. But his dreams clashed completely with mine. Granted, I was still trying to find my way in the world at the time. But the longer I pondered moving there with him, the more I intuitively realized I just didn’t belong in that country — that following him would be a colossal mistake.
With my husband John, though, the choices were a lot easier and, in the end, much more obvious. John had always envisioned getting educated in the US and then bringing his talents back to China to start a business. We had discussed this years before when we started dating, developing a long-term plan together to help him achieve his dreams. But it’s not as if I was putting his needs before mine. In fact, China made sense for me personally and professionally for a variety of reasons…not to mention that I’m fluent in Mandarin Chinese, absolutely love this place, and find endless inspiration here for my writing.
Unfortunately, decisions don’t always come so easy.
For example, I’ve heard from couples where she wants to settle in her home country in the West for career reasons, but he doesn’t for reasons of his own (he can’t speak the language, he has better opportunities in China). I’ve also met couples who decided to live in her country, only to realize even more problems with his career — for example, people don’t value his degree from China. Even gaining an education in her country offers no guarantees of employment, as prospective employers may discriminate against him.
Then there’s the flip side — he says, “Let’s live in China,” and she’s not sure. Maybe she struggles with Mandarin Chinese or can’t even say a word. Or she spent years studying in a certain field — which offers few or no opportunities in China — and doesn’t want to abandon her chosen career.
How should Chinese men and Western women handle a “love, location, career” dilemma? Here are some of my thoughts:
Support, support, support. He’s into pharmacy, she dreams of being a physical therapist. Whatever your partner’s work dreams are, you should say, “More power to you!” In other words, support them.
Think about both of your respective careers first and foremost. Don’t get caught up in finding the ideal for your own career — instead, the question you should be asking is, “What’s good for both of us?”
Don’t fall into the “sacrifice your job for my sake” trap either. I’ve heard of couples, where one person expects the other to quit their careers or jobs for all sorts of reasons — but that should honestly be your last resort, if at all. It breeds resentment (i.e., “How come I have to make the sacrifice and he/she doesn’t?”), and resentment is not a good bedfellow in any relationship.
Compromises sometimes have to be made — but if so, give it an expiration date. For example, my husband washed dishes in a restaurant in the US, but we both agreed he would only do this for half a year. I also know of an American woman considering teaching English in China for a year, which would give her the chance to remain closer to her fiancee while they apply for his US green card from China.
Never choose places over him/her. Preferences and prejudices about where to live and work can sometimes wreck an otherwise awesome international relationship. For example, my Chinese ex could have chosen to go to the US; maybe that wasn’t his dream location, but he would have had no problem finding endless universities with his field of study (a very popular one) and I would have had no problems finding a job. Instead, he prioritized geography over me — and contributed to our eventual breakup.
If you and your partner both agree on where to live (like John and me) you’re fortunate! If not, look for locations that benefit both of you career-wise. It could be your home countries or even a third country or region. For example, one American woman married to a fellow from Northeast China agreed to try living in the US first, with Hong Kong and Singapore as backup options.
Back to school. Sometimes all you or your partner needs is a little education — whether graduate school or business school — and suddenly you end up with a great location for everyone in the relationship. I know several couples of American women and Chinese men who are moving to the US, where both husband and wife will enroll in graduate school. Studying Mandarin Chinese at one of China’s many universities (like Sara Jaaksola) can offer foreign women a wealth of career opportunities in China.
It’s the relationship, stupid. Still butting heads over London versus Shanghai? Sometimes that’s just a symptom and the real issue is your relationship. Look at my Chinese ex — he didn’t e-mail me for an entire month, proving that we had bigger issues going on in our relationship.
If you have a relationship problem and both of you feel motivated to work on it, consider relationship counseling.
What do you think? What advice do you have for couples struggling over where to work and live?
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