Interview with Ray Hecht on “Pearl River Drama: Dating in China”

Reinventing yourself abroad is practically an expat tradition. Whenever I sit down with foreigners here in China, more often than not they have a story about how the Middle Kingdom unexpectedly transformed their lives, forging them into the fascinating person they are today.

Writer Ray Hecht, who hails from my home state of Ohio (he’s from Cincinnati and I’m from Cleveland), is no exception. But he has a different kind of story to share. After all, how many have you met who took the “go to China” plunge in a psychedelic haze in the Nevada desert (Burning Man)? Ray does have an easier time meeting Chinese and foreign women for dates, but he never turns into another “charisma man” (or worse, Chinabounder) because of it.

Even better, you can read all about his experiences in an honest and compelling new memoir titled Pearl River Drama: Dating in China.

Pearl River Drama: Dating in China

From the girls he could have loved forever to the “just sex” moments to the one who stalked him (yikes!), Ray doesn’t shy away from letting you into his utterly imperfect love life. He’s refreshingly self-deprecating about it all and ultimately comes across as a genuinely nice foreign guy just looking for love in China. (Note that, besides graphic descriptions of sex, this story does include a lot of recreational drug use, so reader discretion is advised.)

Pearl River Drama: Dating in China is a fast and entertaining read (I devoured it on the bullet train from Beijing to Hangzhou). I’m honored to introduce you to Ray Hecht and his new memoir through this interview.

Ray Hecht

Here’s Ray’s bio from Goodreads:

Ray Hecht was raised in America, from the Midwest to the West Coast, on a starchy diet of movies and comics and science fiction paperbacks. Mostly writing about such states as California and Ohio, and such provinces as Guangdong. Lived in Shenzhen, China since 2008, that Special Economic Zone & Hong Kong-bordering chaotic city of the future, occasionally partaking in freelance journalism for various local publications.

You can learn more about Ray and Pearl River Drama: Dating in China at his website.

I asked Ray about what it felt to have such personal stories out there for people to read, how he ended up with such a fascinating mix of women, what regrets he has (if any) and much more:

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What inspired you to write this memoir?

I went through a lot of drama back in 2013. While my writing career was going up, my love life suddenly exploded. I briefly thought I met a perfect girl abroad, one Chinese woman I dated basically turned out to be a stalker and caused me incredible stress, and then it culminated in having my heart broken.

I often write private journals. It helps me process.

This time, I thought it would help if I put it all out there as a blog. It may have been a rash decision. But it did give me some inspiration to further write, and a lot of the conversation it ensued really helped me think about things. I found a lot of supportive people in the WordPress blog scene, and I’m glad I did it.

I finished the blog at a certain point, because I didn’t want people who personally knew me in Shenzhen to know all of my business. I share a lot, but I do have limits. However, at least making it an eBook seemed the thing to do, and for that project it wouldn’t be freely on my blog. It would cost just a few dollars, and I could share even more…

I don’t know if this is was a bad idea or not, perhaps putting these revelations out there will come back to haunt me one day, but too late now.

Your stories get incredibly personal and intimate at times, sharing details that would make many of us blush! How does it feel to have these stories out there for anyone to read (including your former girlfriends/lovers)?

As said, the blog was less blush-worthy than the finished product memoir. I’m fine with acquaintances and stranger readers out in the world reading about my personal life. I’m much more hesitant about people I personally know well — especially if they were there in some of those experiences!

Surprisingly, I haven’t had any negative feedback from ex-girlfriends. A few said they liked reading. I even pointed it out, in the name of honesty. There’s really just the one girl I hope doesn’t read it…

You described yourself as “a nerdy American boy from Ohio” who wasn’t “particularly good with girls” and yet your dating life was transformed in China, where you ended up dating many women and found your stride. Still, you write that “I was lucky to date anyone who would have me.” How were you able to keep such a humble perspective about it all?

I don’t know if humble is the word. Self-loathing at times? Realistic?

I try my best not to be one of those obnoxious expats who think they god’s gift to (Chinese) women. And I have been rejected so many times. I have to have a real perspective. It’s not like I’m the one-night stand kind of guy, but I was persistent for a while there and I kept trying no matter how many bad relationships I was in. More than half were due to online dating, I admit, which is easier than the confidence it takes to pick up women in bars and that sort of thing I’ve never been good at.

Mainly, racking up all these stories shows there’s something wrong with me in that my long-term relationships were so seldom.

Over the course of the book, you write about being with a variety of women — from those you could imagine spending the rest of your life with to someone who actually stalked you for months. I was so surprised by the wide range of personalities and the drama of course! Why do you think you ended up with such a diverse (and fascinating) bunch of women?

Hey, diversity is the spice of life. I’ve always been open to having friends from different backgrounds, why not give anyone a chance no matter where they’re from? That’s one of the opportunities that comes from the expat lifestyle, I suppose. Ultimately I learned through trial and error that Chinese women may not be my type. No offense meant to any great Chinese people out there!

It has been just my luck that I got to meet so many fascinating people in the world.

Looking back on your dating experiences in China, do you have any regrets? Anything you would have done differently?

I have so many regrets. I don’t want to get too specific, sorry. I guess I basically wished I knew what I was doing. I could have been more honest about the relationships that were to be short-term. I could have treated women a lot better when I wanted something deeper but couldn’t get that to happen.

But it’s not good to have too many regrets. Life is a series of harshly learned lessons, and I hope to move forward.

Social skills take a while to learn for someone like me.

What do you hope people come away with after reading your memoir?

I don’t know what people should think when they read my work. Feel some empathy with me? Simply be entertained by the more wild parts? It’s hard to say. I emphatically do not want to be giving out any pickup advice. I do hope that people who might like Chinese/Asian girls can read it and see that women are individuals and cannot be stereotyped. If anyone is an expat, I hope they can relate. If anyone is interested in becoming an expat, especially in first-tier cities in China, I hope they can see what they would be getting into with the social scenes.

Mostly, it but is what it is and if you like reading that kind of thing then more power to you.

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Thanks so much to Ray Hecht for this interview! To learn more about Pearl River Drama: Dating in China and other writings by Ray, visit his website today.

4 Things You Should Never Say to a Western Woman in China You Just Met

Some of the most bizarre first encounters I’ve had with people happened right here in China. When you’re a Western woman in this country, it’s amazing – and even shocking – what some people (especially Chinese men) will say to you in the very first moments you meet.

Want to make that great first impression with a Western woman in China? Don’t ever say any of the following things to her on that first meeting:

1. Will you be my friend?

"Will you be my friend?"
“Will you be my friend?”

I’ll never forget that one morning when I attended an English corner in Zhengzhou, China all those years back. Once I arrived at the appointed place, I was completely mobbed by a crowd of English enthusiasts, all hovering around me as though I was a Hollywood movie star who had magically descended into the park. Of the many questions that they rained upon me that day, one stunned me above all.

Will you be my friend?

It wasn’t just one person who asked me this – it was several of them. And to be honest, it was kind of a scary question. I think I flashed back to some safety town movie I watched as a little girl, where I was taught to be weary whenever some stranger approached me and offered to be my friend.

Even worse, I didn’t know what to say. It’s not exactly the kind of question you want to answer “Yes” to, because who could know they want to be friends with a total stranger? On the other hand, nobody likes to tell someone – who ostensibly offers a friendly hand out to you – to go away.

The thing is, most Western women will hear this question a LOT. It’s troubling to us for the reasons I mentioned above. And it’s totally improbable. After all, if we’ve just met, you don’t know us and we don’t know you. How can either of us know we ought to be friends?

If you’re a Chinese man, it’s even more critical that you exercise caution. When you ask for our friendship without even really knowing us, we might wonder in the back of our minds if your idea of “friendship” is really just a euphemism for something totally inappropriate.

Instead, if you want to be friends with us, don’t ask for it directly (especially the first time you’ve met us!) – behave like a friend. Listen to us, instead of talking over us. Show genuine concern for who we are. Take your time in getting to know us. Only time will tell if we will finally be friends.

2. Can I have your phone number?

(photo by Vanessa Berry via Flickr.com)

One lazy late summer afternoon many years ago, I was strolling beside Hangzhou’s West Lake by myself, basking in the beauty of the willow fronds swaying in the wind and the delicate stone bridges of Su Causeway. And it was a perfect moment, up until this middle aged Chinese man suddenly stopped in front of me and began asking the usual number of questions in rapid-fire sequence (from “Where are you from?” to “What do you think of China?”). I felt a little restless, mostly because he was disturbing the solitude I had hoped to enjoy that afternoon, and offered up vague, short answers that were polite all the same – but that I also hoped would send him the subtle message that I wasn’t really interested in conversation.

Instead, he threw a bomb of a question my way: Can I have your phone number?

It startled me completely. Here’s a guy who I had never met until this moment, and he expected to have a direct, personal line to me? Once again, I was totally put on the spot!

This sort of thing happens a lot to Western women in China, where people we’ve just met are suddenly asking for very personal contact information – which we’re not sure they merit, and we don’t really feel comfortable providing. Especially because, as women, we’ve spent some portion of our lives fending off unwanted attention from weirdo guys, and become very protective of our privacy before strangers.

Now, this middle-aged man could have avoided all of this weirdness of the situation by simply doing a very different thing. He could have handed me a business card of his – or a piece of paper with his contact information – and simply invited me to contact him if I was interested. And if he had done that, I might have been impressed – that here was a man in China who, for once, didn’t press me for personal information I might not have been willing to give him.

 3. You’re so beautiful.

(photo by haylee via Flickr.com)
(photo by haylee via Flickr.com)

A few years back, I wrote about an encounter I had in a beauty salon:

“Beauty” could barely describe the two girls hovering over me for a makeup session two weekends ago. Both had smooth black hair reminiscent of a calligraphy brush dipped in black ink, eyes the color of pu-er tea and lips more brilliant than the fiery red pomegranate blossoms. Their smiles illuminated the entire room.

But in their minds, they weren’t the real beauty. I was.

“Look at her eyes! So big!” one of the women squealed, after powdering my face.

“Her nose is so straight,” the other sighed. She then squeezed it gently a couple of times, giggling like a schoolgirl.

But when they moved to my eyes – and specifically, my mascara – the excitement waved over the room in sudden tsunami fashion. “Her eyelashes are curved. Can you believe that?” Several women from outside rushed in to take a peek. A makeup artist next to me and even her client pulled the curtains back and lunged their heads to admire my lashes. “She doesn’t even need an eyelash curler!”

Laying there on the table, I felt like some sort of model woman from another world on display – and given my sweltering palms and the way I kept crossing my feet, it wasn’t an easy job. If anything, I didn’t understand them at all, or the way they told me “you’re so beautiful” the moment I sat down next to them, before going over to the makeup room.

It was a reminder of how China values someone with my looks: the pale white skin, large round eyes, and a straight foreign nose. While back in America people thought of me as a plain Jane, many of the people I’ve encountered here will dote upon my looks as though I were a beauty queen.

It’s strange at times, but it definitely feels even stranger when it comes from Chinese men you don’t even know, as Emma, a girl from London, reported in a guest post for Linda Living in China titled “Blonde and Alone in China: Language Learning the Awkward Way”:

Being a white foreigner, with long blond hair, I was prepared to receive some attention. Every foreign visitor to China should be prepared for the not so subtle stares and sneaky – or sometimes blatant – pictures of you being snapped without permission. I was not prepared, however, for all the attention I was to receive from the young Chinese guys.

Travelling on my own clearly gave them the courage to approach me. I was constantly being told how piao liang (漂亮: beautiful) I was. As much as this flattered my ego, I was well aware that this was more due to the lad points they would score for getting lucky with an ‘exotic’ blonde, than it was down to my actual appearance. This was clear to me after being hit on having just cycled 20k on a rented bicycle in the heat of the South China sun. I was pink faced and dripping in sweat, in stark contrast to immaculately made-up pretty Chinese girls (I still haven’t figured out how to stop the makeup from simply melting off my face when it’s so hot and humid).

Men in China who she had never met before in her life were suddenly calling her beautiful, and in the back of her mind, she wondered just what these men REALLY wanted with her.

That’s why it’s incredibly dangerous to walk up to a Western woman you’ve just met and suddenly praise her as beautiful. Because we’re going to wonder, are our looks the only thing that’s really on your mind? Are you just another one of those Chinese men who thinks Western women are sluts?

Instead, if you’re thinking “She’s beautiful” the first time you meet us, the most beautiful thing you can do is to wait until we’re friends before you would even think of telling us.

 4. A creepy version of “Hello!”

That "hello" is just creepy! (photo by Keenan Pepper via Flickr.com)
That “hello” is just creepy! (photo by Keenan Pepper via Flickr.com)

When I first came to China in 1999 and roamed the streets of Zhengzhou, I soon discovered that my wanderings in the city didn’t go unnoticed. Of course, every foreigner reading their trusty China travel guide usually discovers that it’s not uncommon to hear the term “Laowai!” (one of the Chinese term for “foreigner”) shouted when you’re around. But what the guides often don’t mention is that you’re also subject to something I like to call the “creepy Hello”.

“Creepy Hello” is when someone yells out “Hello!” to you in a voice that sounds completely unworldly for what is supposed to be a friendly greeting. Sometimes it’s like hearing someone do a horrible impression of a cartoonish voice. But the reason it’s usually horrible for us is that it sounds frighteningly like a catcall – as in, those loud whistles or comments of a sexual nature that we were forced to endure in our home countries, and rather wished we didn’t have to be reminded of while we’re in China.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re smart enough to know that no woman – especially us – would want to be greeted in this way. Still, it happens on occasion in China, where Chinese men we’ve never met will give you a “creepy Hello” in passing. So guys, if you actually want to get past “Hello”, don’t even think about making it a creepy one!

What do you think? What other things should Chinese men never say to Western women in China they just met? 

5 Fascinating Stereotypes of Western Women in China

After years of living in China, there’s one thing I’ve learned – many of the locals, including the local men, have some rather fascinating ideas about Western women. What stereotypes come into their minds when they look upon a face like mine? Here are 5 stereotypes about Western women that I’ve personally encountered during my time in China.

Stereotype #1: Western women are sluts and like to sleep around.

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(photo by Joel Gillman via Flickr.com)

Many moons ago when I first set foot in China, I went with an American female colleague I’ll call Sheila to a nightclub just around the corner from the school where we taught. The plan was to relax over a few beers, maybe dance, and just try to unwind after the end of an exhausting semester.

What I didn’t count on, however, was all of the leering we were subjected to in that club – especially when we decided to dance. There was even a guy who kept purposely trying to touch me in ways that, well, were completely out of bounds for a stranger. I remember storming into the bathroom, where I took refuge for part of the night (before deciding to ditch the place…something I should have done earlier). All the while I kept wondering, just who do they think I am?

A slut, as it turns out. Or even a Russian prostitute. (See my post on Stereotypes About Couples of Chinese Men-Western Women for more on this.)

It took me years to learn that some Chinese men automatically assume Western women love to sleep around or are simply easy sex for the taking.

I blame it in part on the ubiquitous Hollywood movies and TV you’ll find in China at the local DVD vendor or online, where Western women’s sex lives often turn into a revolving door of one-night stands and disposable boyfriends.

Of course, we’re not all sluts. As I’ve written before in the post Western women in China are NOT all sluts:

…the majority of Western women are just looking for that ONE guy we can settle down with. A soulmate. That best friend we can fall in love with. Or, to borrow from Jerry Maguire, someone to whom we can say “you complete me.” And that takes time — as in, getting to know someone as a friend first, and then upgrading to “dating” that person. But sorry, that usually doesn’t happen in one date, or even one week.

But it’ll take some time before everyone in China gets that message.

Unfortunately, I personally knew a Western woman who was almost raped by a taxi driver in Shenyang. I was also once sexually assaulted in China.

So, to all the foreign ladies out there in China, please be careful whenever you’re out and about.

Stereotype #2: Western women don’t care about family as much as Chinese women do.

That amazing Winter Solstice dinner you had at the family home in China? Nobody gives a damn about it.

I’ve faced my share of rejections and breakups with Chinese men in China. And there’s a particular one that I’ve encountered on a couple of occasions – the guy who tells you his family could never accept a Western woman.

There could be a lot of reasons why the family would be against us. Certainly if they buy into the above-mentioned slut stereotype, that wouldn’t exactly make us your number one choice for a new daughter-in-law. Sometimes it’s just a matter of worrying about those cultural differences (i.e.: how will we raise the future children?). But I believe sometimes Chinese families don’t want Western women coming into their lives because of another stereotype – that, supposedly, we don’t care enough about family. Not like the Chinese do.

Well, it’s not hard to imagine where people would get this idea. The same aforementioned Hollywood movies and TV – promoting “the Western woman as slut” stereotype – do us no favors in this department. Add to that the popular belief that Westerners toss their elderly into cold, impersonal nursing homes instead of caring for them in the family. Plus, the Chinese people often see Westerners — including women like me — as more independent. Surely, the independent young woman who left her family back in America to come to China couldn’t care that much about them?

The fact is, most of us are just like the Chinese – we care about our families too…sometimes, even, in ways that seem very Chinese. For example, my paternal grandfather lived with my father and stepmother for the last years of his life, and my maternal grandmother still enjoys care at home from her children. My dad and stepmom also provide day care for their granddaughter during the weekdays, echoing the way Yeye and Nainai often take care of the grandchildren here in China. And there have been times in my life when family members helped me in times of need with a little money.

Nowadays, though I live far away from my family, they still remain close to my heart. I regularly Skype with my dad and stepmom. I send gifts and greetings back home to my relatives, and e-mail with them from time to time. Though I wouldn’t easily admit it, I do look forward to the day when I can return to Cleveland, Ohio once again and see them all.

I’d like to think there’s a deeply filial side to my personality. Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that during our wedding ceremony, John’s father actually called me “filial” in a speech welcoming me into the family.

Stereotype #3: Western women don’t care that much about material things (like having a home, car and lots of money upon marriage), so you don’t have to work as hard.

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No house? No problem…we can just live in the wilderness! 😉

Several years ago, I shared the financial and material realities of my marriage to John in post titled, Marriage in China is Home, Car, Money?:

We faced “Money” all the time — hadn’t we survived summer 2006, when some months I never knew when the checks from my new business would come in, and wondered what bills to pay and what to leave aside? Hadn’t we just managed to scrounge the cash together for plane tickets? When it came to “Car,” we were just grateful that our secondhand 1991 Toyota station wagon — teeter-tottering with every bump on its barely-there shocks — still ran after some 170,000-plus miles. And as for “Home,” we felt lucky to manage the rent on our place — owning just wasn’t in the cards for us yet.

Even today, we still don’t own our own apartment. We’re far from wealthy. We sold our car before moving to China and still haven’t the means to purchase one yet.

People who know of all this often say my husband is so lucky to have me as his wife. After all, they believe my story proves what they’ve thought about Western women — that we don’t care about all those material things.

That if you’re a guy like John, you don’t have to work nearly as hard as you would for a Chinese woman.

(It’s totally nuts!)

Maybe I am different from many Chinese women, who expect their men to have a home, car and enough money before marriage. But that doesn’t mean I never want a home, car or money. I’m just willing work with my husband to get there — because he has always wanted to work hard for our future together.

In other words, I wouldn’t be pleased to be with a guy who just wanted to freeload on me.

Plus, it’s not as if Western women don’t care about these things. Just consider what Ember Swift wrote about her own husband:

When I first met Guo Jian, he was one of the few Chinese people I’d come across who had a car—young people, that is. Especially in the world of musicians who make so little per gig, cars are rare here. He was working with a famous Chinese rock star at the time, though, and he had become pretty famous himself as a result of that initial association, so I figured he just made a fair bit of money and that he was able to afford it. It wasn’t a new car, but it was his.

I also discovered early on that the apartment he lived in was also his. He owned it, he told me, when he first invited me for tea and I had a glimpse at his spotless abode. (Oh, how he tricked me into thinking he was a neat freak!) And, about his possessing property, I am a bit ashamed to say that I was impressed. I knew even then that housing is very expensive in Beijing, particularly compared to the average wage. I immediately viewed him as stable, mature, and financially secure.

There you go.

So to all the would-be bums out there, sorry – we’re not interested!

Stereotype #4: Chinese men will never be able to sexually satisfy Western women.

(photo by Mario Izquierdo via Flickr.com)
(photo by Mario Izquierdo via Flickr.com)

A driver in Beijing once told me about how he broke it off years ago with his Russian girlfriend. When I asked why, he provided a shocking reason – her supposedly insatiable libido. He even told me that Chinese men could never possibly satisfy Western women in THAT department, so why even try?

Ridiculous, I know.

It’s bad enough that Westerners promote that incredibly offensive sexless/dickless stereotype of Asian men. Men in Asia don’t need to pile it on by essentially shooting themselves in the genitals.

Trust me guys, judging by my experiences and those I’ve heard about through the hundreds of Western women with Chinese men I’ve connected with, your member can rock our world just fine.

Stereotype #5: Western women are stronger than Chinese women.

696px-We_Can_Do_It!

A Chinese female friend once said to me, “Western women don’t need to do zuo yuezi because you’re much stronger than us.”

Zuo yuezi, for those of you who don’t know about this, is the month-long confinement that new mothers generally observe in China after birthing their child. During that time, they rest, eat nourishing foods, and usually have assistance with the new baby (often from their mother or mother-in-law). It’s an extremely important recuperation custom for new mothers in China.

Now, zuo yuezi is not a tradition in most Western countries. But it’s not because the women are so strong they don’t need a rest! According to Taiwanxifu, it’s mainly a matter of money and priorities:

When I first began writing about zuo yuezi, some readers were aghast at the cost. One friend, with whom I shared my post about the cost of postpartum confinement centers, thought that the hotel-like accommodation was only for the extremely wealthy.  Actually, while the per night tariff is not cheap, many people I know have stayed at them for a month or longer after having a baby.  Others have spent between US$1,000 and US$2,000 a month on special home delivered postpartum meals.

Why is there instead a perception in Western cultures that it is wrong to spend money (and time) on a woman’s recovery?  If a husband loves his wife, why wouldn’t he want her to have the best care?  And if she loves herself, why doesn’t she demand it?

….getting someone to come in and help the mother with cooking, cleaning and looking after baby so that she can get some sleep?  What extravagance!  Why, people would think she was lazy, or that she was a negligent mother who could not perform her duties.  Real mothers prove themselves by feeding through the night, changing dirty nappies, cleaning up vomit and doing several loads of washing.  Then they put on some lipstick and try to look glamorous as they entertain guests.

Unfortunately, most supermums fizzle out eventually.  In my case, it took less than a month with first baby before I began to get worn out and very cranky.

Taiwanxifu, who is Australian, clearly wasn’t some “supermum” who could just power through things after giving birth (which is why she did a modified zuo yuezi for her second baby). Canadian Ember Swift also did modified zuo yuezi after giving birth both times.

It’s kind of crazy that the absence of zuo yuezi in Western countries could lead people to conclude Western women must be stronger – though it’s not the first time I’ve heard this sort of thing.

People in China also claim Westerners are tough because we’re taller and larger than a part of the population here in China — with some even attributing this physical difference to diet (that Westerners supposedly consume loads of dairy and red meat). Naturally, this leads to bizarre conversations among friends. For example, one of our friends here in China proudly announced she planned to feed her toddler lots of cheese, because it’s supposedly the “food of champions” for foreigners. All the while I kept thinking to myself, where did she learn this nonsense?

Trust me guys, we’re not superwomen…though we can be “super women” to date and marry! 😉

What do you think? What stereotypes have you heard about Western women when you’ve been in China? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Is “yangxifu” (foreign daughter-in-law) a magic word in China?

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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.

And if you turn to the Internet, there’s even more evidence of the popularity of yangxifu. For example, Baidu has two entire forums devoted to discussing yangxifu: Yangxifu Ba (洋媳妇吧), with over 5,000 followers and over 180,000 threads, and Waiguoxifu Ba (外国媳妇吧), with over 1,500 followers and over 40,000 threads. A Baidu forum devoted to yangnǚxu (洋女婿, foreign sons-in-law), however, has only 3 followers and 42 threads.

What is it about yangxifu that makes us popular in China? As I’ve written before:

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.

Still, it’s not like being a yangxifu will guarantee you a “magical life” in China all the time. I’m reminded of what fellow yangxifu Charlotte once wrote in a comment on this site:

No, being married to a Chinese gives me nearly no benefits when it comes to living here….

And after all, nothing — not even a marriage — can shield you from every sorrow in life. I should know, because my husband and I have experienced a lifetime of them together!

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!

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.