The Grass is Greener?: when the romance ends, and China’s reality begins

I am so far behind on my Christmas preparations, so I’m running another classic entry week, from the original Speaking of China. This is also pretty dark (am I dreaming of a “dark Christmas”?). After living with John for more than two years in Shanghai — and marrying him — I experienced the difficulties of an average Chinese through him. I was shocked. And so, I wrote this article. Enjoy!


They say the grass is greener on the other side. Or sometimes, on the other side of “the pond.” An odd repulsion to the familiar moves us to board planes for hours and battle fierce jetlag, all to experience a life different from our upbringing.

For some of us, it’s more than an occasional “flirt” with another country. We’re not interested in a one-night or one-week stand — we want the whole relationship. We want to dig deeper. We want to get to know what’s really under those covers.

That’s why I returned to China in 2001 — to get cozy with this ancient land across the Pacific. I learned from my many Chinese friends. I became fluent in Chinese.

Most of all, I fell in love and married a Chinese man — which made me closer to this country than I ever imagined. But with closeness comes a new understanding — one that made the greenery on this side of the pond start to wilt. Continue reading “The Grass is Greener?: when the romance ends, and China’s reality begins”

Meet Ailin, my identity in China — guest posting on ExpatHarem

I just did a guest post on ExpatHarem about expat identity, through my own identity in China, Ailin:

Ailin sings a fierce karaoke song, loves pink pastel T-shirts, paints squiggly green snakes, and isn’t afraid to argue with a bus driver. I know her well — because Ailin is me, when I’m in China.

I encourage you to visit ExpatHarem to read the full post, and others like it, and comment!

If you’ve never visited before, the site supports globally minded women writers — especially those who have lived in Asia. Thanks to Anastasia Ashman’s editorial direction, it’s like reading a fine magazine.

China, the Renovation Nation

I wrote this piece about five years ago. It’s a dark piece, and came out of a dark time in my life — when I experienced a lot of renovation around the place I lived in Shanghai, and was grappling with what to do with my future. If you’re having some dark days (from weather, life, or even holiday blues), this is for you.


Across the street from my gym, there is a clothing store for infants and toddlers. I know it well because I always park my generic, cement-gray bicycle right next to its display window, lit up with the tender image of some darling baobei sporting the latest in baby fashion – an odd foil to my ugly wheels.

I began to notice how the windows became plastered by screaming yellow signs promising deep bargains. Fifty, 60, 70, 80 percent off! Like lichen covering a rock, they even obscured the front showroom and finally that trusty display window. Inside the store, free-for-all bins sloppily loaded with clothes had replaced the racks and models.

There they were – all of the telltale signs of store renovation.

And sure enough, for weeks afterwards I parked right next to a work-in-progress. I saw the team of workers, night after night, navigate the noxious fumes and the symphony of drills, saws and chains in what I feared might foretell the end of retailing of infant and toddler clothes on Danshui Road as I knew it.

One night, I saw those workers in the middle of the half-finished store. The décor captured that feeling of newborn innocence. Whitewashed walls, floors and shelves; a pastel painting of imaginary elephants with a poem about the joys of being a child. The men stood there smoking cigarettes, as though they were in a bar, and sullied the floor with ashes and spit. Well, I suppose if babies are born with original sin, then stores for babies are no different.

I never really saw renovation like this, in all of its glory, mystery and (in some cases) malevolence, until I came to China. Continue reading “China, the Renovation Nation”

Giving Gifts to Your Chinese family – A Modest Guide

(NOTE: This is NOT my only post on giving gifts. Before making your final purchase, I recommend visiting my Holiday Gift Roundup Post, where I’ve collected all the links to my gift-giving advice in one place.)

I thought I couldn’t go wrong with the American ginseng root. My coworker Grace — a Chinese girl who doted over me like a mother, despite the fact that she was a few years younger than me — had helped me pick it out. “Her parents will love this,” said Grace as she handed the package to me. The ginseng was displayed in red and gold foil packaging with a matching bag. It was elegant and auspicious — surely the perfect gift for the parents of Mandy, my Chinese tutor who invited me to her home to spend the Chinese New Year in 2002.

But then, days after my arrival at Mandy’s house, I went with her family to visit her grandma and grandpa. There was Mandy’s mother carrying a surprisingly family ginseng package. Wow, they have the same ginseng here in her city, I thought. Until it hit me — Mandy’s mother was re-gifting my gift to her in-laws, right before my eyes. It turns out, the ginseng made them feel too old.


Gift giving has been a lot less painful since I married a Chinese man. I know the basics (avoid white, don’t give clocks, etc.). And I’ve bought more business gifts (think pens and bookmarks) than I’d care to write about.

But knowing what not to get doesn’t get the shopping for your Chinese family done.

So, I’d like to share how I get my shopping done — with recommendations for gifts for the Chinese family.

(NOTE: I call this a “Modest Guide” because I couldn’t begin to cover every single gift possibility — or, for that matter, every single region of China! But if I can help you, then this post was worth it.)

Any adult in your Chinese family:

Fruit baskets. This is my go-to choice whenever I have NO idea what to get! In China, fruit baskets are always sure to please, whoever you’re buying for. Almost any large supermarket in China will have fruit baskets on sale. See my post 4 Tips for Giving Gift Baskets in China for guidance on fruit baskets and other gift baskets.

(P.S.: If you’d like to send one to China from overseas, make it easy by purchasing from Gift Baskets Overseas. Disclosure — I’m an affiliate for this company.)

Snacks: Western-style pastries, such as sweet rolls or sweet croissants, are a nice treat. Don’t bother bringing them from overseas if you’re coming in to visit; I have an easier time finding these in China than traditional Chinese pastries. Visit vendors in the food court of a major shopping center (Bread Talk is one to try), or try supermarkets such as Carrefour, Wumei and Hualian.

Most Chinese love local specialty foods (土特产) — especially if you’re visiting them after travels around China, or live in a Chinese city far from them. For example, my husband’s hometown makes a great smoked tofu, and I give this gift to people of all ages, all over China. Many come in gift boxes available in the supermarkets, or from specialty food vendors (often located in the basements of malls or shopping centers)

You can also bring local specialty foods from your country too, provided they don’t give you too many headaches with airport security. Just don’t bring them your country’s chocolate in the summer — unless you want to present them with puddles instead of presents.

Remember, if your recipient is more elderly: keep it soft. Grandma and grandpa may have a lot of love for you, but (at least for mine) not so many teeth.

For the younger set, reach for some more sophisticated — and crunchier — choices, from Starbucks products to specialty chocolates.

(If you’re interesting in sending a sweet gift basket over to China, head over to Gift Baskets Overseas. And, as a disclosure, I’m an affiliate.)

Chinese tea: Premium teas — especially those from outside the recipient’s hometown — make great gifts for people of all ages. They often come in gorgeous containers, with matching bags. Best place to buy is a teahouse or tea store in China, such as Tenfu’s tea or the Huangshan tea company.

Chinese Grandparents (外婆,外公,爷爷,奶奶)

Chinese traditional herbal medicines: Deep in every Chinese supermarket is an aisle almost as fascinating as a trip to the carnival. Lamb’s placenta. Spirulina. Royal jelly. Swallow spit. Nutritional wines. All packaged in boxes too beautiful to throw away — a forest scene from a scroll painting in red and gold foil; a Qing-dynasty emperor perched silently on his throne; traditional Chinese script from a classic book.

There’s nothing that says “filial” quite like these nutritious herbal medicines and supplements. Just make sure you’re choose a healthful and effective one, instead of the fake supplements my father-in-law took. Buy from a large, established supermarket such as Carrefour, Wumei or Hualian.

Multivitamins and supplements: These score high on the “filial” meter. They also usually come with names in English — helpful for any foreigner dazed and confused by Lamb’s placenta or royal jelly. You don’t even need to buy them in your home country either. My preferred choice of vitamins in China comes from the brand By-Health (汤臣倍健) — you can purchase them online on Taobao and also find them in most major supermarkets.

(Avoid): Clothing: This summer, my husband and I made the mistake of buying bright orange college T-shirts and sweatshirts for grandma and grandpa. “Why did you waste your money?” said grandma. While she usually says that when we give her any gift, we probably did waste our money on these shirts.

Seniors in China don’t wear clothing outside of the indigo-gray-black-brown spectrum. Clothing might work if you stick to super-drab colors. But why bother? Chances are, grandma and grandpa will find the clothing’s style too strange for them anyway.

Chinese Parents (老爸,老妈 )/Chinese Brother-in-Law or Chinese Sister-in-Law

Gifts for Chinese parents depend on their age. Are they retired? Over 55? See my recommendations for Chinese Grandparents.

For younger Chinese parents (or a Chinese brother-in-law/Chinese sister-in-law), here are some ideas:

Bath and body products: Luxurious lotions and perfumes for her; cologne for him. Either way, you can’t go wrong with these gifts. Many are available in China — Watson’s or duty-free stores — but your family may love something special from abroad. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law loved the Bath and Body Works cologne and perfume we bought them a few years ago.

Clothing: T-shirts, sweatshirts and baseball caps from your local university or sports team work great for men, and just about any color is fine. But don’t bother for the ladies. I’ve yet to find the same ultra-feminine fashions in the US.

Books: Foreign language learners will love a good read. The choice depends on their interests and language level. Two I might recommend for advanced English learners are The English Fluency Formula and English the American Way: A Fun ESL Guide to Language and Culture in the U.S.

Young Chinese Children

I only have one 8-year-old nephew, and very little experience giving gifts to Chinese children for the holidays. But I stick to one of three choices: toys, a special sweet snack or pastry, or a hongbao. The hongbao is a red envelope filled with an auspicious amount of money, given to Chinese children during Chinese New Year.

What about you? What gifts do you usually give to your Chinese family? What gifts have been a hit — or a miss?

P.S.: Don’t forget — please also see my Holiday Gifts Roundup Post for more advice on gift-giving. In particular, have a look at 7 Great Chinese New Year Gifts Sure to Impress Friends, Family and Coworkers as well as Gifts to Buy Abroad for Chinese Family and Relatives.

P.P.S: Still stumped? I’ve created a hand-picked selection below of gift baskets to China from Gift Baskets Overseas sure to please most any Chinese friend, family member or colleague. Just click, buy and let Gift Baskets Overseas take care of the rest! (Disclosure — I’m an affiliate for Gift Baskets Overseas.)

Cookie Country to China

Price: 99.95

Unique Treasures to China

Price: 99.95

Holiday Chocolate Tower to China

Price: 99.95

The Love for Chocolate Holiday Tower to China

Price: 119.95

The Tower of Happiness to China

Price: 149.95

Wine Sophistication to China

Price: 149.95

Fruity Poinsettia and Chocolates to China

Price: 164.95

Fruits and gourmet basket to China

Price: 184.95

The emotional yin-yang: Of one calm Chinese husband, and a sensitive American wife

“你的情绪波动太可怕了!” Your emotional ups and downs are too frightening.
I found the text message in my mobile phone a day after a wrenching encounter with Frank. Frank had been my Chinese boyfriend for nearly a month. But now, after nearly a week of uncertainty, it was clear — our relationship was over.
Weeks later, when I met Frank for dinner, just as friends, it was worse than I expected. Not only was our relationship over, but Frank was over love, forever. He told me “it is more important to focus on a career and family, than to deal with emotions, or love.”
As I tried to autopsy our past month together and understand what sent our relationship to the grave, I began to shudder. Could a Chinese guy ever love an American girl who is emotional, and isn’t afraid to cry?
The worry followed me later that summer, as I began dating John, who would eventually become my Chinese husband. When John didn’t take me home to meet his parents in late August, just before starting graduate school, I wondered if I was too melancholy about our separation. When he left me alone on an entire Saturday — our usual date night — just to be with his friends, I had flashbacks of Frank, who, by the end of our relationship, used outings with the boys to avoid seeing me on the weekends.
It’s true. In our first six months together, I did a lot more crying, and showed a lot more excitement than John ever did. And that wasn’t just because I had some major life events, including severely spraining my foot (and missing a trip to Hong Kong) and losing my job. I’m a sensitive girl, and I’ve always been that way. But not John. Good or bad, John usually responded with a smile or laugh, and never yelled, or raised his voice, or showed anger, or really even cried. He was always so calm and steady. Just like Frank.
But over time, I realized that “calm and steady” Chinese boyfriend plus “emotional” American girlfriend doesn’t equal breakup. At least, not for John and I. He became the lighthouse of reason in my emotional storms, someone who could show me the way to a more peaceful state of mind. And as a psychology student, he helped me work with my emotions — what he called his “emotional management program” — so I could learn to save that good cry for when it mattered.
And, while it still surprises me, I taught John about emotional awareness. Before, he didn’t even realize his emotions were a vague mixture he couldn’t understand — many times, he confessed “I don’t really know what emotions I’m feeling.” My hypersensitivity actually inspired him to get in touch with his emotions, to be more aware of what he is feeling, and to let it out. Of course, letting it out is relative. I’ve only seen him cry about five times, but every time has been an honor, and an opportunity to help him through hardships.
When it comes to emotional expression, we’ve built a yin-yang balance together over the years. Of course, we still have our ups and downs. We had a lot when we moved to the US, and struggled to get John into graduate school. But one thing is for certain — it’s never been frightening.

Your emotional fluctuations are too frightening.

I found the text message in my mobile phone a day after a wrenching encounter with Frank. Frank had been my Chinese boyfriend for nearly a month. But now, after nearly a week of uncertainty, it was clear — our relationship was over.

Weeks later, when I met Frank for dinner, just as friends, it was worse than I expected. Not only was our relationship over, but Frank was over love, forever. He told me “it is more important to focus on a career and family, than to deal with emotions, or love.”

As I tried to autopsy our past month together and understand what sent our relationship to the grave, I began to shudder. Could a Chinese guy ever love an American girl who is emotional, and isn’t afraid to cry? Continue reading “The emotional yin-yang: Of one calm Chinese husband, and a sensitive American wife”

The sensitive foreigner’s guide to staying healthy in China

Forward: I wrote this article many years ago, but was reminded of it by my recent trip to China, where I caught the flu twice — including having the interesting experience of getting in-home IV service. After all of these years, I am still a sensitive girl when it comes to getting ill in China. If you are too, you’ll enjoy this classic piece.


Have you ever had such a severe case of the flu that it took away your voice? Have you experienced months of annoyingly frequent respiratory infections? Did you ever have cases of…er…diarrhea so horrible that you had to leave the room mid-sentence? Do you yearn for the days in your home country, when you only got ill once or twice a year?

If you’re a foreigner in China, you just might understand this. Getting up close and personal with a lot of odd colds, flus, and…yes, diarrhea…is all part and parcel of committing yourself to living in China.

But, for some of us foreigners, China’s illnesses have a wrathful hold. Look into our gentle, tired eyes, and you’ll see the tell-tale signs of multitudinous trips to hospitals, pharmacies, and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. Look in our homes, and you’ll find several Chinese traditional remedies hiding in the refrigerator, and boxes of prepared cold medicines strewn about the sitting room.
However, I discovered that surviving China’s illnesses goes beyond mere medicines, treatments, or therapy. Surviving demands that you take a holistic approach to your body and lifestyle.

With this “holistic”, common sense approach in mind, I’ll share what I’ve learned from my experiences, plus all of that good motherly advice from my Chinese friends. [see disclaimer at bottom] Continue reading “The sensitive foreigner’s guide to staying healthy in China”

It’s Henan College of Education, but not as we know it — looking back on 10 years of China

I first came to China in 1999, so 2009 is a big year for me, just as the Chinese government is gearing up to celebrate its 60th anniversary. So here’s one of my articles looking back on those 10 years, and considering how things have changed, and impacted my life. Enjoy!

Henan College of Education — located in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China — has a certain nostalgic pull for me. It was the place where I began learning Chinese, thanks to Wang Bin. It was where I first kissed Christian, my first Chinese boyfriend, and, from my perspective, first real love. It was where China schooled me in its rhythms and ways — always something new, always a learning experience. Even long after I left Zhengzhou, my mind often returned to Henan College of Education, and I even felt a certain allegiance to the people of Henan Province (some of whom would even call me a townsman, or  老乡).

But all of that is changing because, at the end of this year, Henan College of Education will not be the same. Oh, the institution will still survive, but it won’t be the Henan College of Education that we knew.

I discovered the shocking news when I casually wandered onto the campus in early July. It was 5pm and I had agreed to meet with Shelly and Lisa, two of the Foreign Affairs Office employees who remembered me when I was an English teacher there 10 years ago.

Shelly and Lisa had hardly changed. Shelly, the senior of the two who was planning on retiring at the end of the year, still had the same stout face, short permed hair, dyed black with an almost carefree flyaway pinned down with a bobby pin, and air of correctitude right down to her perfectly folded hands. Lisa, the younger and more warm of the two, had the same cap of short straight hair around her head, a smart gray belted dress that reached to her knees, and the same friendly sparkle in her eyes behind her glasses.

“You came just in time,” said Shelly as she sat behind her mahogany desk, a reminder of the authority she had accumulated over the years. “Henan College of Education will be closed for good at the end of this year — and moved to the new campus.”

Indeed I came just in time. Over all of these years, I had lost contact with these people, never knowing that the school in its present form would no longer exist at the end of 2009.

But why? It all comes down to two Chinese characters: 改制, which essentially stands for “change form.” Continue reading “It’s Henan College of Education, but not as we know it — looking back on 10 years of China”

Foreigner’s Guide to Bicycling in China: everything you ever (and in some cases perhaps never) wanted to know about bicycling in the Middle Kingdom

Foreward: I wrote this several years ago and, just recently, one of the members of my writer’s group mentioned how much she loved it. So, I’m kicking off the “new version” of Speaking of China with this classic article. Enjoy!


When in China, do as the Chinese do: bicycle. Of all the transportation possibilities available, it perhaps offers you the some of the most freedom and flexibility. No more traffic jams. No more catching the latest flu or virus in crowded buses and subways. No more fighting for a taxi during rush hour. No more being a moving target on the sidewalks.

Sounds great, right?

Yet, your enthusiasm may not find a home with your foreign colleagues. Many people shun bicycling for a variety of reasons: safety, inconvenience and even fear. Talk to a few folks and you might even hear some disconcerting tales of woe. Things such as hitting an elderly Chinese man – resulting in the poor fellow’s death – and then having to fork out $10,000 for your little oversight (a true story from a former coworker of mine).

Is cycling worth the price? I can’t tell you any feel-good-miraculous-Lance-Armstrong tale. Heck, I once had a little fender bender and handed over 100 RMB for damages. But I do know one thing – I could have avoided this and many other troubles if I’d known a little more before hitting the road.

With that in mind, I bring you the official “Foreigner’s Guide to Bicycling in China”: everything you ever (and in some cases perhaps never) wanted to know about bicycling in the Middle Kingdom. Continue reading “Foreigner’s Guide to Bicycling in China: everything you ever (and in some cases perhaps never) wanted to know about bicycling in the Middle Kingdom”