7 Things That Make Living in China Better Than America

Why would you want to go to China?

An American actually asked me this very question years ago when I confessed my plans to move back to the Middle Kingdom. It didn’t matter how many good reasons I gave her – she stared at me with incredulity, as if I had just proposed rocketing straight to Mars and not a country on this very planet.

Of course, she’s not the only one guilty of being down on China. “Bad China Days” are a phenomenon for every expat who lives here, even me. In the worst moments, it can be easy to forget why we’re here or even why we love this place so much, warts and all.

But the truth is, there are actually some pretty incredible things about living in China. Things that, on balance, are better than America. Here are 7 of my favorites:

#1: Doing your entire grocery shopping online, with fast home delivery and no shipping charges

When I was back in America last year, I happened to tell my uncle about how I was doing my grocery shopping in China online, courtesy of Taobao’s Tmall online supermarket. “They deliver straight to your door the next day. You can order almost anything from them – even fresh fruits and vegetables.”

He was astonished, as if I was speaking of some magical Shangri-La of online shopping.

No, I didn’t need to be a VIP. And no, I hadn’t joined their paid premium club. All I had to do was order at least 88 RMB (~$13) worth of groceries for free one-day shipping.

Not even Amazon Prime or Walmart (which both offer two-day shipping in the US) can beat that.

And did I mention the delivery guys for Taobao’s Tmall always place the boxes inside our apartment (never leaving them tossed outside the door) and offer to take the garbage out too, for no extra charge?

#2: You don’t need to own a car to conveniently get around

As much as I love the freedom to drive around, sometimes you’d like to leave the driving to someone else.

But in America, outside the biggest cities, you don’t have a lot of options. Want to get around town without a car? Good luck catching the public bus with its limited hours and stops. Want to travel to another city or across the country? If you’re not flying, the only options are those grimy Greyhound buses (which make lots of stops at often dodgy stations) or Amtrak trains (which, apart from the East Coast, are really inconvenient and slow).

In China, you always have plenty of public transport options everywhere you go – even smaller cities. Public buses are frequent and convenient, and so are long distance buses too. High-speed trains can zoom you across most of China and they always leave on time (unlike flights). Bicycles you can rent with your smartphone have popped up all over major cities in China too (including Hangzhou), as well as docked bicycles you can rent out with your bus pass.

It’s gotten to the point that, when I want to visit Hangzhou’s legendary West Lake, it’s usually easier (and more fun) to bicycle or just take the bus.

#3: Authentic Chinese food

I know this is so obvious you must be wondering, why would she even bother pointing it out? Simple – if you are an aficionado of Chinese cuisine, as I am, you feel a sense of deprivation whenever you’re away from authentic food for too long.

When my husband and I used to live in America, I can’t tell you how many times we would reminisce about all of our favorite Chinese dishes that we just couldn’t find in America. Like that secret-recipe smoked tofu from Jun’s hometown, or the slender Asian eggplant deliciously stir-fried with green peppers, or even Jun’s mother’s homemade fried flatbread (it’s like Chinese pizza…mmmmm). You can’t walk up to your American “Panda Express” and find this kind of stuff among the deep fried “General Tso’s Chicken” (a dish that doesn’t even exist in China) and fortune cookies.

Even when we attempt to recreate authentic dishes from China, it never tastes the same. In America, we don’t have the fragrant rapeseed oil that my Chinese mother-in-law harvests and cold-presses herself. The soy sauce is different, too. And good luck trying to find those local ingredients like fresh bamboo shoots, winter melon, and red bean paste. (Even when we do find them, they’re often not fresh enough to justify the purchase.)

So if you’re as addicted to authentic Chinese food as I am, why live anywhere else but the country that does it best?

#4: More authentic food from other Asian countries

Whenever I visit my family back in the US, you can guarantee we’ll be going out for Thai food at least once. There’s a wonderful little spot right up the street from my parents’ home, where a dinner of pad thai and fragrant green curries makes for one delicious meal.

But as much as I love the food, I have to say it – it’s not that authentic.

I should I know. My husband and I visited Thailand years ago, where the succulent red, green, yellow and Massaman curries we had were as much of an attraction as the temples, ancient ruins, and azure blue shores. The food in Thailand is so incredible you could tell people you were traveling there just for the dining experience and they would believe it.

While I can’t travel to Thailand every time a curry craving strikes, living in China means I have the next best thing – authentic Thai restaurants. Here in Hangzhou, there’s nothing better than an evening at Sawasdee in the five-star Wyndham Hotel. You can enjoy an elegant and surprisingly affordable night out of delectable Thai curries, transporting you right back to Bangkok and the beaches.

#5: You can pay by mobile phone almost anywhere

In the US, a mobile wallet is still a dream for most consumers. And every time I’m back in America, I still have to lug around my credit cards.

But here in China, we pay almost exclusively by phone almost everywhere we go – from shopping at Wal-Mart to buying clothes at our favorite clothing retailers to going to out to eat to even getting our hair cut. It’s so ubiquitous that my husband once ran into a street peddler selling rice cakes who could offer pay by mobile phone.

I love the freedom and convenience – just grab your mobile phone and shop!

By bjornfalkevik – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50948551

#6: It’s easy to get everyday things repaired and improved

In the community where we live, there’s a guy who goes around singing out his knife-sharpening services. For the equivalent of a few US dollars this guy can magically transform your lackluster kitchen knives, making them slice and dice like new.

There’s also a guy who sits around the gate offering to repair umbrellas, and someone else out there who repairs bicycles. Around the fresh market, there’s even someone who repairs your shoes.

In America, it’s tough to find someone who offers these simple – but very useful – repair and improvement services. If you want sharper knives, you probably have to buy a grinding tool (which, trust me, won’t do nearly the job this guy did with our knives). There’s no such thing as umbrella repair over there. And if you want someone to fix your bicycle or your shoes, you’ll have to venture out to a professional store for that (assuming such a store even exists in your town).

Besides, even if America had them, I doubt you’d ever hear someone advertising with such a beautiful song as the professional knife-sharpening guy. (Here’s an example of the melody our guy sings when he canvasses the community.)

When I was in the hospital last year, they offered me some traditional Chinese medical treatments.

#7: Traditional Chinese medicine is always available and can be affordable

In America, traditional Chinese medicine providers are out there. But good luck finding a convenient one – or even someone affordable who accepts your insurance.

Not here in China, where you’ll find traditional Chinese medicine options at the average hospital or even your local pharmacy. I’ve often found them to be reasonably priced, by and large. And if you have insurance, traditional Chinese medicine is usually covered by the plan. How great is that?

What do you like better about living in China?

Guest Post: Six Questions Chinese-Foreigner Couples Should Discuss Before Having Kids in China

While I’m married without children in China, many foreigners — like American Charlotte, a freelance writer in small town China who blogs at Chinese Potpourri — have chosen to start a family here. (Longtime readers might remember Charlotte from her unforgettable love story titled “I Want To Be Your Slave For The Rest of My Life”.) But as Charlotte has learned, having kids in China with your Chinese spouse involves a lot more than just “basics like a starry night themed nursery versus a jungle one.” 

Would you like to share your wisdom with the readers of Speaking of China through a personal guest post? Check out the submit a post page to learn more about how to have your writing featured here.

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(Photo by Andre Laubner via Flickr.com)
(Photo by Andre Laubner via Flickr.com)

Most Chinese couples want a child, if only to make their parents happy. My husband was no exception, though he was in more of a hurry than I was due to his old-by-Chinese-standards age of 32 at the time of our marriage. And he did truly want kids. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that our son was born just four days after we celebrated our first anniversary.

One thing I didn’t anticipate is all of the decisions that we’d have to make. I’m not talking basics like a starry night themed nursery versus a jungle one. That’s ridiculous, Chinese typically co-sleep with the baby. Nor am I talking about the never ending debate of breast feeding versus formula (news of the formula scandal broke when my son was less than a week old and I was glad that I’d chosen to breastfeed; for those who choose formula, please do due diligence and find a reputable brand).

No, these questions are a bit more serious than that. Once you and your Chinese husband decide to start a family, a few more things need to be discussed. In a perfect world, you’d sort out all these questions as you dated. In reality, we rarely get past the decision to have or not have children before we say “I do.” Here are six questions that are worthy of some serious talk time as you ponder the joys and challenges of parenthood:

1. Which maternity and post-partum customs will you follow?

This goes from quitting your job and not having sex once you know you’re pregnant (first and third trimesters are a “no-no” when it comes to being intimate) to wearing a radiation smock for the duration of the pregnancy and eating dumplings made from insects your mother-in-law picked out of a pile of manure from a farmer’s barnyard to improve your milk production. Nope, not kidding on that. Luckily it was my sister-in-law that got those delicacies; I’m quite the milk producer.

Sometimes it pays to insist on your traditions. But sometimes you need to know when to give in to win. I’ve finally figured out that sometimes I just have to humor my Chinese family. They don’t have as much knowledge about the world as I do and just aren’t capable of understanding some things. Like the fact that rollerskating did not cause my miscarriage. Really, they simply don’t get it. I also assured them that I will not blame them for any ailments I have in old age. Once I came to the realization that I can’t change what my mother-in-law knows and understands, life became easier.

2. Which nationality will the kids be?

I attended school with several military kids and they’d talk about their dual citizenship because they were born abroad and when they were 18 they could choose which nationality to keep. This was interesting to me, and when I found out we were expecting, I looked up the requirements of getting that for our kids. The friendly person at the American embassy informed me that China doesn’t recognize dual citizenship and that all babies born here are Chinese citizens. So these half-Chinese kids are in a sort of nationality purgatory; they can get a passport from their own country but China will still want to count them as one of their own.

3. Who and how will you name the baby?

When I taught English at a local college I always did a unit on names with the students. It was a chance for me to learn more characters and for them to explain something pretty basic in English. I was surprised to find that most students were not named by their parents. Grandparents seemed to be the most common person giving names, but fortune tellers and aunts and uncles were also named as the origin of their moniker.

Once we decided that our kids would get American citizenship, we felt it best that they had a Western sounding name as their given name, their Chinese name makes up their middle and family names. So their names are something like this: Andrew Lingfeng Wang. It helps that both sides of the family can call the kids by names that they understand, even if their Chinese birth certificates are quite a mess due to their strange names. Fortunately, when it was time to get their citizenship changed at the embassy, I wrote up an explanation of why my son’s name is partially illegible and tried to offer some reasoning as to why my daughter’s names start with lowercase letters and have periods at the end of each one and their paperwork was processed easily.

4. How many kids will we have?

Coming from three-child families, my husband and I knew that we wanted more than one. But there are so many questions that come up when having a second child while the one-child policy is still in place for the majority of the population. The authorities consider my son Chinese, so we went to the other hospital (only two hospitals, of a dozen, in our town have maternity departments). Technically it’s illegal, though I was told that giving birth in a foreign hospital is never a problem for couples having subsequent children in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Actually, any child born in China is Chinese regardless of whether one or both parents are Chinese or not.

5. Will you return to work or will one parent stay home with the child?

I returned to work when my son was 34 days old. The basic laws for foreigners don’t allow for maternity leave like our Chinese counterparts, but I have heard of foreign women successfully negotiating maternity leave into their contracts if they’re planning to have kids. Chinese women get six months to three years, depending on their job and desire to take advantage of it. I wanted to stay home, but as in many situations, we needed both incomes. My in-laws are very traditional and watched my son on days that I worked.

Since my last job ended, I’m home everyday. I frequently hear comments about how I’m lazy and don’t work or don’t care about my family enough to go find a job. That seems to be the general consensus about women in my town who don’t work: they’re lazy, they don’t care or they’re rich. It’s true I won’t move to a bigger city to find foreigner-friendly job, but they don’t see that I’m up at the crack of dawn and burning the midnight oil freelancing.

6. Where will they go to school?

I can count on one hand the number of Western families, whom I know personally or through someone, whose kids go to Chinese schools. The easiest way to explain it is that Chinese schools produce robots who aim to be number-one. Everything, starting from first grade, is about being the top student. Parents go to school on weekends to clean to earn points for their kids which puts them in better standing with the teachers. Teachers teach to the top of the class and shame the parents of kids who are at the bottom, since their salary is in jeopardy if the class scores aren’t high enough.

I’m not implying that other types of education are flawless, and the Chinese style of education does have it’s good points, but kids in Chinese school have little free time. Every weekend and holiday is packed with extra homework to “make up” for the days away from school. Overseeing nightly homework is like a part-time job.

What other questions would you add to the list?

Charlotte — a wife, mom and freelance writer in small town China — blogs about her life at Chinese Potpourri.
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Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

Things I’ve Learned from My Chinese Family: 3 Amazing Wild Edible Plants

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As a child growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, wild edible plants — especially those we foraged for ourselves — were never on the menu. Sure, we picked blackberries on late summer hikes and a few times I tried harvesting Staghorn sumac berries to make my own tea. But otherwise, the food on our dinner table came straight out of a supermarket.

So it’s hard to believe that, these days, wild edible plants comprise at least half or more of the stir-fried dishes that leave my mother-in-law’s kitchen here in China. Even stranger to me, I’ve actually helped forage for some of these wild edible plants. To think that something I harvested actually became dinner!

Now that I’ve discovered the joys of harvesting and dining on wild edible plants, I can’t imagine life — or lunch — without them. Call it yet another one of those surprising things I’ve learned from living with a Chinese family in the countryside.

Here are three amazing wild edible plants here in Zhejiang, China that have enchanted me and my Chinese family this Spring.

Fiddlehead ferns

These tender fronds have become a Spring favorite in farmers markets in the US (and among foragers who know and love them). But out here in rural Zhejiang, people have gathered fiddlehead ferns in the mountains for generations. The local variety is the bracken fern and the tender shoots spring up over the mountains in our village.

Some claim bracken fern is carcinogenic, though there’s really no absolute evidence proving that the consumption of bracken fern fiddleheads will definitely give you cancer. When I posed this “do bracken fern fiddleheads cause cancer?” question to my mother-in-law, she dismissed it as unscientific and ridiculous. “People here have been eating this for generations, even grandma, and they’re not getting cancer.” Well, even if you disagree, remember that some popular foods (red meat and hot dogs, anyone?) are considered carcinogenic. Personally, I think I’ll take the risk.

We only pick the most tender fiddleheads growing in the mountains, with the fronds still curled up. These days, it’s not uncommon for my husband and me to return from a hike through the hills with a huge handful of fresh fiddleheads. I never thought a simple hike could yield so many delicious things! 😉

My mother-in-law washes them thoroughly in her kitchen and then blanches them. Some claim the process reduces the carcinogens in the fern, though my mother-in-law says this simply eliminates the unpleasant sour, “numbing” flavor of the fiddleheads. Finally, she chops them into matchstick-sized pieces and stir-fries them with fragrant garlic, ginger, pickled hot peppers, Shaoxing wine, and salt.

So tasty, you’ll forget all about the alleged cancer claims. Promise!

Spring bamboo shoots

Spring maosun found in the wild

The Chinese saying “like spring bamboo shoots after rain” (yǔhòuchūnsǔn, 雨后春笋) refers to how quickly things can suddenly happen or come up. And trust me, after the rains in late February and March settled over our region of Zhejiang, before I knew it spring bamboo shoots were sprouting all over the hills.

Notice the bamboo shoots sprouting up from the ground?

Right now, we’re seeing two varieties in the mountains. One is moso bamboo shoots or maosun (máosǔn, 毛笋); this is the largest variety of bamboo you usually see in the area. If you’ve ever watched any Chinese films that feature bamboo forests, chances are they’re moso bamboo. The other, well, I have no idea what it’s called in English — but it’s small and grows wild all across the mountains, so in the local language they call it “mountain bamboo shoots” or shansun (shānsǔn, 山笋). To harvest either variety, you simply dig up the shoots from the ground.

My mother-in-law, harvesting shansun from the mountains.

Whether maosun or shansun, you must first peel away the hard husk of the bamboo shoots to reveal the tender and edible portion.

Peeling the bamboo shoots to reveal the tender and edible part of the shoots.

These days, when it comes to wild bamboo, we’ve mainly seen wild maosun at the table. My mother-in-law usually prepares it one of two ways. For the vegetarians in the family (i.e., me!), she stir-fries it with lots of rapeseed oil, ginger, sugar, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, pickled greens, and salt to taste.

Maosun with pickled greens

For the carnivores, she stews the maosun along with fatty pork, ginger, sugar, Shaoxing wine and salt to taste.

Maosun with pork

If you’ve only known bamboo through the lackluster canned versions sold in the West, all you need is one taste some wild bamboo shoots and I promise, you’ll never buy another can again!

Mugwort (Qingmingcao)

This past Saturday (April 5) we just celebrated Qingming Jie (qīngmíngjié, 清明节) or the Tomb-Sweeping Festival where people visit their ancestors graves and remember family and love ones who have passed away. And here in rural Zhejiang Province, there’s no wild plant more beloved during this holiday than the aromatic mugwort, also known as qingmingcao.

It’s hard to believe just how common this variety of mugwort is around here. In fact, it grows like a weed everywhere, even in the dusty pebble lanes that criss-cross the fields in the village. For nearly two weeks, I hiked these lanes, never realizing all that time that mugwort was right under my shoes!

My mother-in-law gathers wild mugwort from the hills well in advance of the holiday, because this lowly little wild green undergoes an extraordinary transformation in the kitchen. After cleaning it, she blanches it and then crushes and grinds it into a paste, infusing the kitchen with an aroma reminiscent of lavender. The paste then goes into a warm wok along with glutinous rice flour, creating a dark green dough.

That dough then gets kneaded and partitioned into small rounds, which after being flattened, become the wrappers for qingming turnovers (stuffed with chopped up bamboo shoots, tofu, and salted greens).

Making the qingming turnovers (flattening the rounds, then filling them with vegetable filling).
The finished qingming turnover up close.

For a sweet version, my mother-in-law adds sugar to taste to the green dough and then shapes the rounds in a small mold made especially for Qingming Jie.

Finally, she steams the turnovers and sweet rounds in her wok until they’re cooked through and turn a deeper shade of green.

Here’s the final product (one turnover, one sweet round) — slightly fragrant, sticky, and oh-so scrumptious. Remembering your ancestors never tasted so good!

Have you ever foraged for wild edible plants? What are your Spring favorites?

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.

Does Peer Pressure Ever Discourage Dating Differently?

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

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

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

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

On Int’l Women’s Day: Celebrated in China, Forgotten in America

(photo by Y.C Li, via Flickr.com)

“I told them about International Women’s Day and none of them even heard of it. Not one!”

That’s what my husband John said of this past Friday, when he happened to mention the holiday to his female coworkers here in the US.

But I just smiled and shrugged my shoulders, because none of it surprised me. “Of course they didn’t. Even I had never heard of it until I went to China.”

I’m sure I must have raised an eyebrow sometime back in March 2000 when the college in China worked for back then called us in for an impromptu meeting regarding Women’s Day — and then announced that all of the women would enjoy time off from work on March 8. Time off? Just for being a woman? And when I discovered it was in fact an international holiday, I couldn’t help but wonder, Where had this holiday been all my life? Continue reading “On Int’l Women’s Day: Celebrated in China, Forgotten in America”

2013 Blogs by Western Women Who Love Chinese Men

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

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

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