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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Fire-powered woks truly rock

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

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

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

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

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

4. How to clean up chicken droppings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Hot water from the tap is a precious thing

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

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

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

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

7. Irrigation ditches make really awesome hiking trails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Invitations and the Dinner We Never Expected

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Chinese Grandma, Frying Up Rice Noodles — And Lots of Love

11776026213_2e785c1720_nThe other day, John’s grandma invited the two us over all of a sudden for dinner at her house. When I say “all of a sudden”, I mean that she interrupted us in the midst of preparing handmade dumplings and told John and me we were dining on fried rice noodles instead.

As much as I love fried rice noodles, her invitation arrived on an evening when I had been craving the very handmade dumplings we were preparing with John’s father. But what could we do? Here was grandma, who had been hospitalized for two months in fall of 2013, standing at the door and asking us to dine on the noodles she had already finished preparing. It was the kind of situation with “just go with it” written all over it. Besides, my mother-in-law said we only had to eat a little, just to be polite. So I hid my dumpling disappointment behind a smile, hooked my arm in grandma’s arm, and strolled out the door with John beside us.

Once at grandma’s home, she immediately plunked heaping bowls of rice noodles in front of us — each bowl easily three times larger than her own. When she said dinner, boy did she mean it.

“Aiya, too much!” John said in protest, which I repeated in turn. What happened to just eat a “little bit”, like my mother-in-law said?

“Not too much!” Grandma said in a gruff voice, followed by nagging us to “Eat, eat!” as if we had to finish our bowls of rice…or else.

So we tucked into the rice noodles with our chopsticks and discovered that, if this was indeed a “responsibility”, it was the most delicious kind. I couldn’t help savoring the baby bok choy perfectly seasoned with garlic and dark aged soy sauce. It wasn’t too salty or overdone, and arguably it was the finest rice noodles she had ever fried up for us. So as I cleared the last of the noodles in my bowl, I couldn’t help but tell her, “So delicious!”

For grandma, that wasn’t praise but rather a cue to provide seconds. Before we could utter “bu yao!” grandma was on her feet, trying to shovel more rice noodles into our bowls. We each shielded the bowls with our hands, pleading to her not to add more. And when that failed, we simply rose from our stools and headed for the door itself.

Grandma chased after us with mandarin oranges, trying to press the fruits into our hands with far more strength than you might expect from a recently hospitalized woman over 80. But we pushed them back into her hands and then trotted outside, saying “Save them for next visit!”

Grandma, interrupting our “regularly scheduled” dumplings for a spot of fried rice noodles at her place.

“You know, she shouldn’t have made us those rice noodles,” I said to John on the way back home, shaking my head. “She’s still recovering from her heart condition.”

John shrugged and smiled. “That’s how she shows her love for us.” His words echoed what my mother-in-law would say after we returned home: “She shouldn’t do it, but she wants to do it because she likes you.” You could say the same about the black striped polyester pants I never asked her to buy for me (and which I could barely squeeze into) or the hulking bag of puffed rice sweets she delivered to us one afternoon.

Grandma has never hugged or kissed me, nor told me she loves me. But these days — and especially after this impromptu dinner — I’ve never felt closer to her.

Foreigners Who Think They’re Entitled To Date The Hottest Chinese?

If you couldn’t get a “Brad Pitt” to date you in your home country, why do you think you somehow deserve nothing less than his standard of men because you’re in China? (photo by Juanky Pamies Alcubilla via Flickr)

Recently, a reader wrote the following to me:

I remember when I was back in [city in China] I was with a large group of Westerners for our orientation and a lot of us got to talking about potentially starting relationships in China. There was one American girl, who was very pleasant but kind of heavyset and nothing special to look at, who said she wouldn’t settle for anything less than Jay Chou or a local Chinese rapper we knew who was modelesque stunning. Another man on our orientation, who is fifty years old though not bad looking, also said he would only go for girls between the ages of 25-30 who were “drop dead gorgeous.” Continue reading “Foreigners Who Think They’re Entitled To Date The Hottest Chinese?”

Double Happiness: How One Chinese American Woman Married a Chinese National

Alex and Michelle Guo visiting San Diego, California, USA (photo courtesy of Michelle Guo)

Chinese American Michelle Guo — a fellow blogger and personal friend — shares her story of how she went to China and ended up marrying Alex, a man from Henan Province.

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Four years ago when I first came to Beijing, locals asked me what brought me back to China. The question always threw me off, since I was born in Portland, spent most of my life in California, and had never been to China before. I’m Chinese-American and was raised by my mom, who is anything BUT a traditional Chinese parent. My values, thinking, and culture are very Western, which is why I assumed that whoever I married, no matter what ethnicity, would also be American, or at the very least a Westerner.

Sometimes it’s really, really nice to make the wrong assumption. Continue reading “Double Happiness: How One Chinese American Woman Married a Chinese National”

Fenshou: “I Was Once Engaged to a Chinese Man”

(photo by Eternal Vagabond via Flickr)

When I called for submissions a couple of weeks ago, never did I imagine the overwhelming response from readers. Literally within days of posting, the submissions started rolling in.

The first I received was this piece from a woman with the nickname “Smallsquirrel”. It is a poignant and thoughtfully penned story of how her engagement to a Chinese man from a prominent Beijing family eventually ended. I’m honored to kick off my new series — which I’m calling “Fenshou” from the pinyin for the Chinese word for breakup — with what I’ve titled “I Was Once Engaged to a Chinese Man.” Continue reading “Fenshou: “I Was Once Engaged to a Chinese Man””

Does Peer Pressure Ever Discourage Dating Differently?

(“Peer Pressure” by Hannah Nino via Flickr.com)

Just last week, a review of the anthology Unsavory Elements appeared in the Global Times, and had this to say about my contribution:

Jocelyn Eikenburg gives insight into the seldom spoken of (or seen) relationships between foreign women and Chinese men in “Red Couplets.” She writes, “From the first time I started to love a Chinese man, hiding became part of my life.” As she watches droves of Western men couple up with Chinese women, she feels alienated by her expat girlfriends, too, who openly express their romantic disdain for all Chinese men.

She’s referring to this portion of my essay: Continue reading “Does Peer Pressure Ever Discourage Dating Differently?”

2013 Blogs by Western Women Who Love Chinese Men

It’s March 8 — International Women’s Day — and time for an update to my list of blogs by Western women who love Chinese men!

Last year, I had a little over 40 on my list. Now we’re up to over 50, so the community keeps growing! I’ve still grouped the blogs loosely according to their focus, and I also added a *NEW* tag to denote all new additions to the list.

And here they are: Continue reading “2013 Blogs by Western Women Who Love Chinese Men”