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!

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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.

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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”

A Chinese boyfriend/Chinese husband and foreign woman 30 years ago, through “Son of the Revolution”


As I’ve written before, Chinese men and foreign women — dating or marrying — are a rarity. But when Liang Heng and Judy Shapiro fell in love in China in 1979, they weren’t just a rarity — they were pioneers at a time when the idea of marriages between foreigners and Chinese were still questionable.

Most people read the 1983 book Son of the Revolution — written by the couple — to learn more about the experience of living through Chairman Mao’s rule and the Cultural Revolution. I, however, was anxious to know about the challenges they faced in their relationship, and how they overcame the odds to marry in a China that had barely opened up.

Liang Heng, studying to be a Chinese language teacher at Hunan Teacher’s College, first met Judy Shapiro, the resident English teacher and foreign expert, when he needed help with a translation. But pretty soon, the two made more than just beautiful prose together. This relationship — a Chinese man and an American woman — was something that not even the two of them could keep secret forever. Continue reading “A Chinese boyfriend/Chinese husband and foreign woman 30 years ago, through “Son of the Revolution””

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.

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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”

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!

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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”