The coronavirus has not only ravaged countries around the world with an alarming death toll and economic hardship, but also through heightening anxieties and igniting hatred and discrimination. These are dark times for us.
But some have responded by lighting the way forward to spread a little more love and understanding, like Sara Jaaksola, a Finnish woman in Guangzhou who runs a Chinese language teaching business and is married to a local man. Here’s what she said:
I’ve been living in Guangzhou for 10 years, probably will stay here for the next 10 years as well. I feel this is my city, this is the place where I feel like home. So when fear and hate spreads faster than the virus, I feel responsible for doing something about it.
So she created a social media campaign, sharing her love for Guangzhou and asking others to do the same. And she got 80 other residents to join in, posting their own uplifting photos declaring their affection for the city. She shared the backstory behind it all:
To share a little personal story. My local sister-in-law sent a message in our family WeChat group: “Check out this news and be careful when being in touch with foreigners”. I felt my heart broke.
All my years in Guangzhou I’ve been trying to work as a bridge between the Chinese and foreigners. I moved here because I love the language and the culture. I’ve been married to my local husband for 6 years and our daughter is 4.
After all of this, she sent me this message. Not just a stranger on the street, but my family member. Telling me I should be careful when seeing my students and friends. That other should be careful when seeing me and my daughter.
I decided then, that I can’t stop when I feel hurt or sad, that is exactly the time to show everyone that we all can live together in Guangzhou. That we don’t need to be afraid of each other, instead we should learn to understand each other.
Head on over to Sara’s blog to read the whole story and also view all of the touching personal photos from other Guangzhou residents. She proves that, while fear may be contagious, so is love. Pass it on.
Girl sees boy performing at a concert, longs to meet him, and somehow destiny helps kickstart a lifelong duet. That’s the heart of this story from a US woman living in Guangzhou.
Do you have a love story or other guest post you’d like to see published on Speaking of China? Have a look at the submit a post page, where you can learn more about writing for this blog.
September 3, 2017: The Day We Met
What a summer it had been. I had just decided to become a full-time Chinese language student at South China University of Technology, so I was finishing up the last few days at my full-time job, had just moved to an apartment near campus, and was feeling both stressed and clueless about how to get a student visa.
Besides those recent life changes, that summer had also had its ups and downs in regards to dating. I had gone on a few dates with different Chinese guys, but nothing was working out at all. While visiting my family in America, I re-centered my focus and realized my identity was not based on my relationship status. Although I was only 23 years old, I knew I had grown up since moving to Guangzhou the year before. Little did I know what would happen during my second year in the Middle Kingdom.
The morning of Sunday, September 3, started out a little more hectic than usual because after just moving in, my room was a mess with clothes and belongings scattered everywhere.
Guangzhou was hot and sticky that time of year, and lately I had only been wearing T-shirts and shorts, as digging through boxes to find cuter clothes felt like too much work. Fortunately, that morning I put in the effort of wearing a skirt and minimal makeup. It was my first time going to church from my new location, so I rushed through the unfamiliar metro route and luckily made it on time. To my surprise, my best friend Jasmine was waiting for me at the bus station. “Today is the concert! I’m so excited!” she said. Unknown to her, I had totally forgotten the promise I had made weeks ago to attend the symphony concert with her that afternoon.
Flash forward to a few hours later, and I’m with three friends, talking about my lack of success in the dating department. “Don’t worry! You can find another shuai ge (cute boy),” they assured me.
As it was time for the concert to begin, we found seats together in the left-hand section. We continued to giggle and chat as the band entered the stage. “Look! There’s a shuai ge!” my friend said.
I looked up, and low and behold, was an extremely handsome Chinese man, carrying a giant cello called a double bass. He was tall, well-built, and had a perfectly styled Cantonese haircut that I liked so much.
Later, there was an introduction for each member of the band, and as I heard more about him, I knew I had to meet him. But how?
At least I had the whole concert to think of a plan! I took photos and videos during the concert, focusing on him only. Towards the end of the performance, I rushed to the bathroom to apply lipstick and touch up my hair, thankful that I chose to wear a skirt that morning! Now that the concert had ended, I knew I had to act quickly. My friends gathered around me and pitched their ideas. We knew one other boy in the band; maybe we could ask him to introduce us?
Suddenly, Jasmine started running up to the stage! What on earth was she doing? In my anxiety I part of me wanted to tackle her and part of me wanted to run out the back door! We couldn’t just run up and talk to guys as cute as him! These things had to be planned! When I saw her talking to the shuai ge, my heart pounded and face burned.
However, in that moment, I knew I had a choice. The concert was over and this shuai ge would soon leave, and if I ran away without meeting him, I might not ever see him again.
I weighed the risk of staying and asking for his WeChat. Worst case scenario, he would not be interested and I would be a little embarrassed. Best case scenario, he would be interested, one thing could lead to another, and one day he could even end up becoming my husband. I knew that risk of losing my face was a small price to pay for taking a shot at the best case scenario. Chances are that nothing would come of it, but I would never know if I didn’t try.
Jasmine then came back to our group and told me that she had asked the shuai ge if I could take a picture withhim, and he had said, “yes.” My heart still pounding, my friends took me to the stage and I walked shyly towards him. I smiled brightly, while also trying to contain my excitement to avoid scaring him off.
“Hello! Can you speak English?” I asked him in Chinese.
“No, I can’t.”
“No problem, what’s your name?”
“I’m Timothy,” he said with no expression on his face. I knew that girls must approach him
all the time, as it seemed he didn’t care in the least.
“It’s so nice to meet you. Where are you from?”
“Shantou. Stand to the right.” He pointed for me to stand behind the double bass for the
photo that our friend, Jianwei, was taking with his professional camera. I smiled happily and nervously.
“Can you send me the picture?” Timothy asked Jianwei.
“You two should add each other on Wechat, and I’ll send the picture soon,” Jianwei replied smoothly.
Wow! Jianwei was a genius! Thanks to him, we added each other’s WeChats so naturally. Timothy then said he needed to put away his instrument and get going.
My friends and I exited the stage and the girls immediately grabbed my phone to start searching Timothy’s WeChat Moments. We saw there was a girl in many of his photos. My heart started to sink, and my friends scrolled even more frantically.
Finally, we found a caption saying the girl was his younger sister! “Mei Mei! Mei Mei!” My friends cheered as they jumped up and down! Since he appeared to be single, maybe, just maybe, I had a chance.
The rest of the day was extremely busy, but at some point that evening, Timothy messaged me. I waited a little while to reply, because I wanted to make sure I could really commit to the conversation. He said sorry for rushing off so quickly that afternoon, and thought Jasmine had told him that I wanted to learn music from him.
“Oh no,” I thought to my nonmusical self. “If I pretend to be interested in taking double-bass lessons, I don’t think this relationship will get very far.” I don’t remember how I responded, but probably something about how I was not looking for a teacher, but did really enjoy his performance.
We kept messaging back and forth until my mom called me. My mom and I talked on and on for a long time, covering everything there was to say about my recent life changes. Finally she asked me, “Well, is there anything else to tell me?” I thought for a moment, and then said, “Oh! Today I met a shuai ge!” I told her a little bit, but then said, “He probably won’t like me because my Chinese is not very good and he doesn’t speak English.” My mom was still excited to hear my “latest news” and told me to keep her updated.
Timothy and I kept messaging into the night; I had so many questions to ask and could not wait to know more about him! I had to translate his every message and think for a long time about how to reply back in Chinese. While I was typing one message, character by character, Timothy kept sending more and more messages. I worried that he would think I was uninterested since I was replying so slowly. It was almost midnight, and normally I would cut off conversations to go to bed, but this time I decided to stay up longer and keep messaging.
Finally, Timothy said it was time to say goodnight, but that he really enjoyed chatting with me. I knew that after this conversation ended, he may not message me again. However, if he did, it would definitely be a good sign that he is interested. Reluctantly, I said good night and drifted off to sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, there on my phone, was already a message from — you guessed it — the shuai ge!
Well, now it’s July of 2019, and a lot has happened since September 3, 2017. It turns out that despite my imperfect Mandarin, the shuai ge really did like me. We have been married for a little over a month now. Our wedding was held at our church in Guangzhou, the same place where we first met. We recreated that first photo, which brought us together. Thank you to my friends who made it happen!
Mei Quong Tart may have married a white woman (Margaret Scarlett) in the late 1800s, a time when few dared to cross racial lines in the name of love. But he’s known less for his interracial marriage and more as one of the most beloved Chinese public figures in late Victorian Sydney, Australia.
He was educated by Mrs. Simpson, who took a lively interest in his welfare during the years he remained on the field, and, on leaving, Mr. Simpson gave him a big interest in an important gold claim, which the fortunate young protege turned to the best advantage. Mr. Tart employed about two hundred Chinese and Europeans, and in the course of a few years his mining speculations made him a comparatively wealthy man.
He could sing Scotch songs with singular pathos, recite Burns’ poems with a genuine accent, play Scotch airs on the piano, and jokingly alluded to himself as being a native of Aberdeen.
People would come to think of him as a regular English gentleman.
So it’s not surprising that when he resolved to marry, he chose to marry a Western woman. “…Quong’s good sense asserted itself, for he told his mother that when he did marry, it would be a European, for a Chinese woman in Australia would be but little help for him in carrying out the good works he intended doing.”
…Quong asked Margaret’s father, George Scarlett, for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Even though he was a friend of Quong’s, George refused. Quong Tart and Margaret waited until the day after her twenty-first birthday, on 30 August 1886, and married anyway. Quong was then thirty-six. The appearance of grandchildren eventually reconciled Margaret’s parents to their daughter’s marriage.
His employees were ordered to treat all alike, whether they wore silk dresses or cheap prints, for Quong Tart had long learned that the silk dress did not make the lady, nor the fine black coat the gentleman.
Mei Quong Tart also became a well known philanthropist of his time, including building schools, caring for the poor, and supporting the local arts scene. He campaigned against the scourge of opium addiction in Sydney’s Chinatown.
…a well-known labour man was speaking in public and was pouring out his vials of wrath on “the wretched Chinese,” “everyone of whom,” he said, “he would, if he had his way, drive out of the State.” “Would you do that to Quong Tart,” cried out one from the crowd. “No, certainly not,” replied the Labour orator. “If they were all as good as Tart, I would let them stay here and come here, as they would be sure to be good citizens.”
Mei Quong Tart’s prominence in Sydney and his interest in the welfare of others, including his fellow Chinese, led to his involvement in some of Australia’s tragic anti-Chinese episodes.
For example, consider the case of the Afghan, a steamer carrying a large number of Chinese immigrants bound for Sydney in 1888. While the ship was en route to Australia, anti-Chinese groups successfully lobbied the government to pass a drastic Chinese Restriction Bill that made it impossible for anyone Chinese to land. It didn’t matter if they had all the lawful paperwork – if you were Chinese, you were denied entry. (Just replace “Chinese” with “a citizen of one of seven Muslim majority countries” and it sounds an awful lot like the US immigration brouhaha after Trump abruptly enacted his Muslim Ban 1.0 in early 2017.)
[Quong Tart] says that we can form little idea of the anger that was manifested by the masses in Hong Kong and Canton upon the return of the ships with the rejected immigrants on board. Many of the unfortunate people were landed in their native country in a state of utter destitution….when they landed after their enforced trip back they formed a rather striking illustration of the manner in which Australia had come to regard the question of Chinese immigration. Their want and destitution appealed to the sympathies of their countrymen and their stories of imprisonment on board the ships in Sydney Harbour inflamed the popular anger.
Mei Quong Tart’s service to the Chinese in Australia didn’t go unnoticed by the Chinese government, who named him acting Consular official to China and later conferred the title of Mandarin upon him.
Sometimes the family you discover in China isn’t the family you married into. It’s the family you create through meaningful connections. That’s the story Josh and Liz of Career China have to share in this guest post.
Do you have a story about your Chinese family or other guest post you’d like to share on Speaking of China? Visit the submit a post page to learn how to have your words featured here.
Swirling my chopsticks around in the giant pot of boiling oil and spices, I make a feeble attempt to snag a piece of thinly sliced beef floating about. Finally I catch one, but that’s the easy part. Now I must have confidence in my shaky chopstick skills to get it out of the pot and into my bowl of sauce, then into my mouth without dropping it on the table…or my shirt. After my success in this seemingly minor act, my husband and our Chinese hosts, CJ and Gigi, cheer and hold up their glasses of wine for a toast. “To good friends from around the world, China and the USA!” our new friend CJ proclaims. But for us, the relationship is more than just friends, it feels more like we have a Chinese family.
How Did We End Up In China?
My husband and I arrived in Guangzhou, China back in 2014. The previous year we had decided that we weren’t satisfied with our old lives in the United States, even though we had good jobs and a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. The two of us always had a passion for exploring the world, not just traveling and seeing the sights, but interacting with the local people and learning about the culture.
We realized that we weren’t fulfilling this passion with only a few weeks of vacation each year, so we made a plan to save up some money and then sell everything to hit the road for a while. Setting off in August 2014, we spent time in South East Asia as well as New Zealand before ending up back in Thailand for TEFL training (teaching English as a foreign language). Our plan was to be able to stay longer in a country by working as English teachers, that way we could really experience the culture more closely and for a longer period of time.
Shortly after finishing our month-long program, we began searching for teaching opportunities. Knowing that China has such a massive market for English learning, and such an interesting ancient culture, we set our sights on finding a job in China. And we were surprised how quickly it all happened — within a matter of weeks, we were flying to China!
Our “Chinese Family”
When we decided to move to China, we had absolutely no idea what to expect. And now as we look back on our time here, we can’t imagine not having our “Chinese family” in our lives. We were really fortunate to make good friends during our time in China, including Gigi and CJ, who are a Chinese couple that run an English school and have a little daughter. We also became great friends with another expat, Stephen, who is from England and had been living and working in China for many years; he has a Chinese wife, Wendy.
One of our fears about living in China was that we would feel isolated or lonely without close friends and family. But we’ve discovered that it has been the opposite. Our social calendars seem to always be full. And while we also had some other expat friends who were teaching in China also, we spent a significant part of our time with CJ, Gigi, Stephen and Wendy.
But it wasn’t only for fun. Our “Chinese Family” was there for us when we needed them. Whether it was helping to solve problems with our bank account, getting our internet upgraded in our apartment, or talking to the landlord to fix a wall. They would help translate and take us through the process. If we were sick, they brought us medicine and even food. And when I broke my foot, they were there to take me to the hospital for check-ups. They have been like family to us in just about every way!
Alike, But So Different…
Whenever we travel and meet people from around the world, it’s interesting to note the similarities and differences. In many ways, our “Chinese family” was just like us. Young couples who talked a lot about their futures and their dreams. They discussed their apartments and what they loved about them, and what they wished they could remodel. We all spoke fondly of our childhood and families, but also vented about frustrations with our parents.
But at the same time, we also came from very different backgrounds and had quite different family situations. With my husband and I both being from the States, we discovered just how fortunate we were to have fun-loving childhoods with minimal pressure. We also began to appreciate how we were able to choose on our own who we wanted to marry, without much input from our parents. But in Chinese culture, the parents are quite involved in match-making. And for our Chinese friends growing up, there was a lot more pressure on the children to do well in school and get good jobs.
Another area that we discovered a difference was in our desire to travel freely and not worry about having children. In fact, whenever people in China found out I was married, they would immediately ask about children. Not that they were intending to be rude, they were just curious how I could travel if I had kids. And when they found out I didn’t, they wanted to know why.
In China, children are expected almost immediately after marriage — and in the States, many people are happy to enjoy themselves with their new spouse for some time before they consider having kids. It’s also perfectly acceptable if people choose not to have children in the States, while that’s not really the case in China. If a couple is married for some time and don’t have kids, people will start to think something is wrong.
It was definitely eye-opening to chat with our Chinese friends about the subject of family structure and children. We could see that they wanted to make their parents happy, and that there were expectations of them when it came to having kids. While we didn’t feel like they were unhappy with these expectations, we could feel that there was maybe some pressure on them. Gigi and CJ were happy to have their daughter, but they were also planning to have a second child — and Gigi kept saying how she really was praying for a son, so she could make her husband happy. Personally, we know CJ would be happy with either a son or a daughter – he is a great father. But but deep down, we knew that there was a cultural aspect to this pressure to have a son too.
Oh the Memories!
Because of our “Chinese family” we were able to experience so many things that many other expats may not have been able to experience. For example, during Chinese holidays we felt like we got an inside scoop about the holiday from our friends, and were even be able to participate in special family activities. In fact, one of our best memories of our time China was during the Spring Festival holiday (Chinese New Year). We were invited over to Gigi & CJ’s apartment to cook homemade dumplings, which is an important tradition during the festival.
We made everything from scratch together, even mincing the meat with big cleavers! While the men chopped the meat with lighting speed, Gigi, Wendy and I were out on the large patio rolling the dough and chopping vegetables. Then we all handmade what seemed like hundreds of pork stuffed dumplings!
I discovered quickly that making dumplings is not as easy as it looks…in fact, mine were downright ugly! Our friends also told us how we needed to put little “surprises” in some of the dumplings for good luck, such as a big garlic clove or a pepper. Then if a person bites into it, they should have good luck in the next year!
It sounds like a fun little game, until later when you are eating them and somehow manage to be the only person not to find a “surprise” until you’ve eating about 15 dumplings and your stomach is about to explode! “Come on Lizzie,” Gigi told me “you have to eat another until you find one so you can have good luck next year!”
In addition to spending time with our friends over other holidays like the Dragon Boat Festival or Mid-Autumn festival, we also enjoyed having fun with them at sporting events. CJ was a huge football (soccer in the States) fan, and the local professional team, the Guangzhou Dragons, was actually one of the best in the country. So they purchased us tickets to go to a couple local games, where we all wore our jerseys and cheered loudly for the local team. We also enjoyed sporting our jerseys and playing football together in the park on pleasant evenings, or going to a local bar to watch the team play while having a few drinks.
Being a huge sports fan, my husband was really excited to have a local friend here in China who enjoyed sports just as much as him. And he was really excited to learn more about football and have a team to cheer for. Growing up in the US, he was more into American football, so he has definitely developed a new appreciation for the international football game that is so popular everywhere else in the world.
Bringing the World Together, With Open Hearts
We really couldn’t imagine our experience in China without our lovely local friends. From sharing their special holidays with us and letting us experience it with them, to making us feel at home, and even taking care of us when we needed them. It has been the ultimate cultural exchange, and something we never could have experienced if we didn’t take a risk to move to China to live for a while.
China has been great to us, and it’s not just our “Chinese family” — we’ve made so many other friends and met many other people who have touched our hearts. Never again will we see this country the same way. And that’s the point. To bring the world together by opening our hearts to each other and learning about one another.
Liz and her husband Josh have been living and traveling around Asia since 2014. Currently they split their time between the USA and China, working on their travel blog and assisting those who are interested in living and working in China through their project Career China.
Many foreigners come to China hoping for opportunity and a little adventure. But how many can say they joined a symphony orchestra here? Or ended up running a music school in China?
For clarinetist Joke Tummers, China adventures mean making beautiful music with others (including her husband Haiwen, who manages the JT Music Academy along with her). I talked to her to learn more about how China shaped her career as a professional musician and later entrepreneur/instructor.
Joke Tummers has lived in Guangzhou for 8 years. The first five years she served as an associate clarinet in the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. After the birth of her first daughter, motherhood and orchestra proved not to be a good combination. After a short break and the birth of her second daughter, it was time for a new challenge. She and her husband took over a music school. Joke is now the artistic director of the JT Music Academy where she also gives private lessons.
We met in Holland at my part time job a youth hostel. I was in charge of giving residents an evening snack and doing the dishes afterwards. Haiwen had just arrived at the hostel to start his job in the area. The company had given him the choice between a hotel and the hostel where I worked at. They told him that it would be much easier to make friends and meet people at the hostel. Hahaha, prophetic words!
I was urging the residents to eat a bit faster as I needed to go to a rehearsal of my wind band because we had a concert the next day. Long story short: Haiwen came to listen to the concert and we started dating soon after.
How did you and your husband come to move to China?
I was finishing up my Master of Music studies in Amsterdam when Haiwen suggested we go to China. He felt he had been abroad for a long time already (he studied in the UK before coming to Holland) and he wanted to return to Guangzhou.
I on the other hand was ready for some adventure as teaching at a local music school where all classes are only 25 min long didn’t sound very appealing. Orchestra jobs were really hard to get in those days and the situation has only deteriorated since then, with a lot of funding for the arts being cut.
You were the associate principal clarinet for the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra for 5 years. What was it like?
It was an interesting experience for sure. The cultural differences in how to approach and make music were huge. I’m used to showing up to a rehearsal knowing my parts, but my colleagues saw rehearsal time as their personal practice time. Management was very rigid and that is a big problem in the creative arts, where expression and flexibility are very important. It was very hard to communicate with my colleagues about how to play together better because most players were my seniors and they felt that they didn’t have to listen to me anyway. Music is all about communication so it was really hard for me to play in this stifling structure. After the birth of my first daughter I went back for a few months but decided to quit at the end of the season.
How has China influenced your career as a musician?
In China I got the chance to play in a professional symphony orchestra. Of course it wasn’t always a smooth ride but I still had great experiences. I got to play many repertoire pieces and also played in many different concert halls, both in and outside China. We had many guest conductors and soloists and it was fun to get to know them. As one of the few foreigners in the orchestra I felt a bit like an ambassador so I would always go greet them and welcome them to China. With my colleagues I had a woodwind trio. We played at various locations and even did a concert in Taiwan together. That was a lot of fun.
Tell us about how you came to open your own music school in China, and what it’s like running your own school.
After quitting the orchestra I became pregnant with my second daughter so I was home to take care of her. When she was a few months old my husband and I decided to take over a music school in our area. We didn’t have a specific one in mind but hubby worked his Internet magic and found a school 2 bus stops from our house. We did it this way to avoid having the additional start up costs and also to already have a name and teachers working for us. We added myself into the mix so to say. I teach clarinet, saxophone, flute, piano and music theory. This is a direct result of being in China: in Holland I would have been limited to clarinet only as that was my specialization. I had to get out of this frame of thinking and that was easier once I realized that I would teach the kids more about music and not just the specific techniques of their instruments. The added benefit for me personally is that my teaching days are very varied, just the way I like it.
It is rewarding to run the school and to teach kids at a level they cannot easily get outside of our school. Since woodwind specialists are quite rare over here I’m in a good position to attract eager students. It helps that I speak Mandarin as some kids aren’t comfortable with English. Of course there are also parents that are happy that I can teach their kids in English to improve their language skills as well. With a lot of students I use a mixture of Chinese and English. Once I’m sure that their English is quite good, I switch to English only.
What do you think it takes to be a successful musician here in China?
As a classical musician I find it a bit hard to say. I usually join an orchestra or play chamber music concerts that my friends organize, I’m very lucky that way. As with every kind of artistic profession in China the problem is the outward fixation of many people. As long as it looks good, it must be amazing, right? The actual skills seem to be of lesser importance.
I think that some not yet established musicians may feel that they need to be very commercial and only play standard repertoire, preferably with Chinese songs mixed in to catch the attention of the audience. I’ve seen some change though as I went to listen to a contemporary music concert a while back. The music was very avant-garde but the hall was full of people. I thought that this was really cool and I hope that people will start listening to more and different kinds of music.
Thanks so much to Joke Tummers for this interview! To learn more, you can follow Joke on her blog, LinkedIn, and WeChat (JT_22_QK).
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