‘When in Vanuatu’ Finds Paradise in Healing Ties that Bind

Globetrotting through the pages of books has long been a favorite pastime for many. And with post-pandemic restrictions, more of us have turned to vicarious travel, often via novels, to satisfy our wanderlust and curiosity about the world.

So you might say I made my first “trip” to a certain South Pacific destination, thanks to reading Nicki Chen’s latest novel When in Vanuatu.

Inspired by the time she and her husband lived in the Philippines and Vanuatu, the story follows Diana, a trailing spouse troubled by infertility after years of living abroad. When in Vanuatu dispels the notion that moving to a warmer, tropical climate promises an idyllic existence. But it also stands as a reminder of the redemptive and healing power of friendships, wherever we are in the world.

Armchair sojourners will delight in the details, from delicious specialties at the dinner table to divine beaches, and find much to ponder in its narrative as well.

It’s my pleasure and honor to introduce you to When in Vanuatu through this interview with Nicki Chen.

Here’s Nicki’s bio on Amazon:

Nicki Chen was born in Sedro-Woolley, WA, in 1943. While studying at Seattle University, she met her future husband, a Chinese engineer. They lived for a time in her hometown, but before their third daughter was a month old, his new job took them to a new home in the Philippines. They didn’t return to the United States to stay for another twenty-two years. While abroad, Ms. Chen earned an MFA in Creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, a feat that required nearly round-the-world travel twice every year. In 1983 she visited Xiamen, China, her husband’s birthplace and the setting for her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup.

Ms. Chen has been an accomplished Chinese brush painter and a batik artist. Currently she lives in Edmonds, WA, and spends her time writing and traveling to visit her far-flung children and grandchildren.

You can learn more about Nicki and her writing at her website Nicki Chen Writes. The novel When in Vanuatu is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.

What was the inspiration for your novel?

Before we moved to Vanuatu, I knew next to nothing about it—which, I suspect, is the case with most people in the world. But I was charmed by the country, by its beauty, its land and people. I thought it deserved to have a novel written about it. And I went from there.

The protagonist of your novel is a trailing spouse named Diana who is grappling with infertility. Why did you decide to explore infertility through your narrative? 

Of the expatriate women I knew in Vanuatu, most had no particular reason for wanting to be there. They were simply trailing spouses. I wanted a character who chose to live in Vanuatu for herself and for the peace and beauty of the country.

On a side note, the phrase “trailing spouses” was never used as far as I know during the time we were overseas (1971-1993). We were simply “Embassy wives” or “WHO wives” or “Bank of America wives,” etc. In my case: “an ADB wife.” But “trailing spouse” is apt.

In writing this novel, you’ve drawn from the time you and your husband spent living in Asia and the South Pacific. What are some favorite memories from that time that also made their way into your novel?

The first thing that comes to mind is the weekend beach trips we took in the Philippines. My favorite was to Hundred Islands. It was mentioned in the novel, but, sadly, it didn’t work out for Diana and Jay and their friends. In Vanuatu, snorkeling at Hideaway Island was a favorite. I still remember the underwater landscape there, which came in handy when I wrote Diana’s snorkeling scene.

Food I’ve eaten also made its way into the novel — the excellent churros y chocolate at Dulcineas in Makati, Clarita’s guinataang, halo halo especial. The restaurants and cafés in Port Vila are all based on places where I’ve eaten, although not necessarily the dishes Diana ordered. Manila has many wonderful restaurants. Diana and Jay made their own choices, though.

Your book marks the first time I’ve ever read a story set in Vanuatu. Could you share with us something about Vanuatu that has surprised or fascinated you?

First of all: the people. Before we thought about moving to Vanuatu, I imagined all Pacific islanders as Polynesians. But the ni-Vanuatu, as they call themselves, are Melanesians, more closely related to the people in Papua New Guinea than those in Hawaii.

Remnants of the colonial period. In the days when European sailing ships were exploring and colonizing the rest of the world, Vanuatu became the colony of two countries simultaneously, England and France. They called the result a condominium. (Some called it a pandemonium.) The colonizers set up two of everything: two flags, two police forces, two currencies, and two school systems. Vanuatu became independent in 1980, so they no longer have two flags, but they still have separate schools for English and French speakers.

Language: Vanuatu has the highest density of languages per capita in the world with an average of only 1,760 speakers for each of the 113 indigenous languages.

The official language, though, is Bislama, a creole language derived from English. It was developed during the period of “blackbirding” in the 1870s and ‘80s when ni-Vanuatu and other Pacific islanders were kidnapped or signed on as indentured laborers to work on plantations in Australia or Fiji. The men were thrown together with workers who spoke a variety of languages, so they developed a lingua franca based on English. Later they brought that language home with them. 

The language used in schools, however, is either English or French.

Seeking one’s identity emerges as a theme in this story. Do you think searching for one’s identity is more challenging while living abroad, and if so, why?

At various times in our lives, we might feel a need to better understand or clarify our identity, or even to reinvent ourselves. That could happen at home or when living abroad.

But yes, I do think it’s more difficult when living abroad. First, there’s the added question of deciding how much of one’s identity is tied up with the home country and all that implies. Am I an American (or Frenchman or Pakistani) who just happens to be residing in this foreign country? Or am I more interested in fitting in in that country? Or do I want to find my identity as a member of the international community, a cosmopolitan?

The more difficult problem for a trailing spouse is her career. Her former career and a big part of her identity is unlikely to be available to her where she lives now, and the opportunities to create a new career are limited, especially in a developing country or a place where work permits for non-citizens are tightly restricted.

What do you hope people gain from reading your novel?

First of all, I hope readers will enjoy reading it. After all the lockdowns and quarantines during COVID, I hope they will enjoy some vicarious travel to a couple of interesting and beautiful Pacific island countries. And I hope the reader will benefit from the experience of living for a few hours in the characters’ skins, that they will laugh and cry with them and better understand the hopes and struggles of people like Diana and Jay and their expat friends.

Many thanks to Nicki Chen for this interview! You can learn more about Nicki and her writing at her website Nicki Chen Writes. The novel When in Vanuatu is available at Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.

Need a Good Summer Read? Try These 28 Books Featured on the Blog

Today Hangzhou, China will reach a sizzling 36 degrees Celsius (that’s 97 degrees Fahrenheit). When the weather heats up, I love nothing better than curling up with a good book during the summer.

I’ve featured so many great books over the years, and many of them could be the perfect companion to your summer this year.

So whether you’re chilling out on the beach or cooling down indoors, here’s my list of recommended summer reads I’ve featured here on the blog, listed in alphabetical order according to the author’s last name. (P.S.: These titles are linked to Amazon, where your purchases help support this blog.)

#1: “There’s Something I Want to Tell You: True Stories of Mixed Dating in Japan” by Yuta Aoki

Yuta Aoki’s book shares the stories of 15 different people spanning 8 nationalities who dated Japanese locals, and explores the cultural dynamics. Learn more through my interview with Yuta.

#2: “Good Chinese Wife” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

When it comes to the success of a cross-cultural relationship, does culture or personality matter more? Susan Blumberg-Kason’s gripping memoir “Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong” offers a very personal answer to that question. Learn more through my interview with Susan.

#3: “Tone Deaf in Bangkok” by Janet Brown

It’s never too late to follow your heart to Asia. Just ask writer Janet Brown, who went to Thailand at age 45 and fell in love with the people and places. Learn more through my interview with Janet.


Quincy Carroll#4: “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside” by Quincy Carroll

This novel explores the clash between two Americans (a deadbeat and an idealist) teaching English in China, and the student who comes between them. Learn more through my interview with Quincy.

#5: “The Reluctant Brides of Lily Court Lane” by Susan Chan

“The Reluctant Brides of Lily Court Lane” is an easy breezy love story that reads like one of my favorite romantic comedies on the screen. Learn more through my interview with Susan.

#6: “Tiger Tail Soup” by Nicki Chen

In “Tiger Tail Soup”, Nicki Chen transports us to a place you don’t often find in wartime China literature – Fujian Province’s Gulangyu Island. Learn more through my interview with Nicki.

#7: “A Bollywood Affair” by Sonali Dev

“A Bollywood Affair” is such a unique and enchanting book that, even if you’ve sworn off the romance genre, you must read it. Learn more through my interview with Sonali.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes#8: “The Girl Who Wrote in Silk” by Kelli Estes

“The Girl Who Wrote in Silk” by Kelli Estes links two women across centuries to a silk embroidered sleeve in a story of love, courage and humanity. Learn more through my interview with Kelli.

#9: “Love Me Anyway” by Tiffany Hawk

Tiffany Hawk offers an inside look into being a flight attendant — along with some AMWF romance — in her coming-of-age debut novel, “Love Me Anyway.” Learn more through my interview with Tiffany.


#10: “Pearl River Drama: Dating in China” by Ray Hecht

Ray doesn’t shy away from letting you into his utterly imperfect love life, and ultimately he comes across as a genuinely nice foreign guy just looking for love in China. Learn more through my interview with Ray.

#11: “South China Morning Blues” by Ray Hecht

Through 12 viewpoints, South China Morning Blues takes readers on a tour of the underside of the expat scene in China. It’s a fresh take on modern China. Learn more through my interview with Ray.

The Porcelain Thief#12: “The Porcelain Thief” by Huan Hsu

“The Porcelain Thief” deftly combines Huan Hsu’s personal experiences as a Chinese American in China, family stories, and his quest for buried porcelain. Learn more through my interview with Huan.

#13: “A Field Guide to Happiness” by Linda Leaming

Linda Leaming’s new book “A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan about Living, Loving, and Waking Up” reads like a love letter to Bhutan. Learn more through my interview with Linda.

Here Comes the Sun by Leza Lowitz#14: “Here Comes the Sun: A Journey to Adoption in 8 Chakras” by Leza Lowitz

Leza Lowitz shares her emotional journey towards marriage and motherhood in Japan (as well as opening a yoga studio in Tokyo) in “Here Comes the Sun”. Learn more through my interview with Leza.

#15: “My Japanese Husband Thinks I’m Crazy” & #16: “My Japanese Husband (Still) Thinks I’m Crazy” by Grace Mineta

If you’re a fan of graphic novels and you’re curious about Japan, you don’t want to miss these charming comics by Grace Mineta. Learn more through my interviews (here and here) with Grace.

#17: “Parsley & Coriander” by Antonella Moretti

“Parsley & Coriander” is a delightful novel that captures the spirit of finding your own path in China, especially as an expat woman. Learn more through my interview with Antonella.

#18: “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng

“Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng is a dark, powerful tale of an AMWF family in America facing a tragedy. Learn more through my interview with Celeste.

#19: “The Empress of Bright Moon” by Weina Dai Randel

Weina Randel has crafted a beautifully written, engaging and suspenseful tale of how one of the greatest rulers in China came to rise. You can learn more about this second chapter of the duology by reading Weina’s guest post on sex education during Tang Dynasty China.

The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel#20: “The Moon in the Palace” by Weina Dai Randel

“The Moon in the Palace” by Weina Dai Randel, about the rise of China’s young Empress Wu, truly reads like a Tang Dynasty-era Cinderella story. Learn more through my interview with Weina.

#21: “The Secret of the Nightingale Palace” by Dana Sachs

The romance at the heart of this novel — which relates to its intriguing title — just stole my heart away. Plus, the book explores a side of World War II that we all too often forget — the US internment of Japanese Americans. Learn more through my interview with Dana.

The Good Shufu#22: “The Good Shufu” by Tracy Slater

“The Good Shufu” by Tracy Slater is a heartfelt story about love & life abroad that proves sometimes those unexpected detours lead us to incredible joy. Learn more through my interview with Tracy.


#23: “Empire of Glass” by Kaitlin Solimine

“Empire of Glass” is stunning for its lyrical prose and unique in that it’s presented as a “translation” of the story of Li-Ming and her husband Wang. Learn more through my interview with Kaitlin.

Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self#24: “Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self” by Alex Tizon

Alex Tizon’s memoir “Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self” offers a personal view on Asian masculinity in the West — and is a book you must read. Learn more through my interview with Alex.

Atom Yang Red Envelope#25: “Red Envelope” by Atom Yang

Thanks to Atom Yang’s exceptional writing and sense of humor, Red Envelope is a fun, romantic romp through the most wonderful time of the year for Chinese. Learn more through my interview with Atom.

#26: “Ferry Tale: A Hong Kong Love Story” by Shannon Young

It’s as enchanting as any big-screen rom com – but better, thanks to the Hong Kong setting and charming AMWF couple. Learn more through this post on Ferry Tale.

#27: “How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia” edited by Shannon Young

For me, this is the rarest of all anthologies. I actually devoured it from cover to cover in record time, and found something to love in all the essays — regardless of the story. You’ll also find my essay “Huangshan Honeymoon” featured in this collection. Learn more about my essay and 12 other essays you’ll want to read.

Year of Fire Dragons#28: “Year of Fire Dragons” by Shannon Young

“Year of Fire Dragons” details the life-changing year Shannon Young spent in Hong Kong while in a long-distance relationship with her Eurasian boyfriend. Learn more through my interview with Shannon.

Guest Post: Translating “Tiger Tail Soup” into Chinese

It’s my delight to feature this guest post from author Nicki Chen. Many of you already know her through her lovely blog, Behind the Story, or her novel Tiger Tail Soup (see my interview with Nicki on her book to learn more). Today she shares the behind-the-scenes tale of how she had her novel translated into Chinese — read on!

Do you have a behind-the-scenes story or other guest post that you’d like to see featured here? Check out the submit a post page to learn more about how to have your writing published on the blog.

NickiPainting-001It’s springtime. The author and the translator are sipping cappuccinos or red wine at a sidewalk café. The translator flips through his dog-eared copy of the author’s book and stops. When the author to finds the same page in his own copy of the novel, they discuss the meaning and intent of a certain phrase. The translator takes notes, and they move on to another page, and then another.

They order more drinks and some snacks. Hours pass. With the sun low in the sky and falling fast, they make plans to meet again. There is much to discuss. Or maybe they go off together to eat at a restaurant they already know well.

I’m not sure where I picked up that rather romantic image of translation. But that’s not the way it works. At least it didn’t for me.

In fact, I wasn’t planning to have Tiger Tail Soup translated.

Cover, 9781457526756cvr-204x300My publisher doesn’t do translations, so I’d put the idea out of my mind. Then one day Siobhan Daiko, who interviewed me on Asian Books Blog, suggested I check out Fiberead.

Fiberead is a translation and publishing company based in Beijing. It’s quite new, but I think they have a good model. The author pays no upfront costs, and the profits are shared—30% for the author, 30% for the translators, and 5-10 % for the editor. The rest goes to Fiberead. Fair enough, don’t you think?

The whole process, from submitting my document and being accepted all the way through publication, took a little over six months. Recruiting and choosing the translators and editor took six weeks. Thirty eight translators applied. Three were chosen: Ethan, Yang, and Echo (who served also as editor). Sadly, I never had the opportunity to sip wine or coffee with them. Our discussions took place online.

So how do three people translate one book? Well, they simply start at the beginning. (I take chapter one; you take chapter two; you take chapter three.) When they get to the end, they start over again, proofreading their own chapters and the chapters of the other translators. By the time they finish, everything has been gone through by each of the translators at least once.

51JiBUDRJAL._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_The translators were great! I really enjoyed working with them, discussing names and places and the feelings and intentions of my characters. Echo, the translator/editor, studied at Xiamen University, so he was familiar with Xiamen and Gulangyu where my novel was set. Ethan talked about spending a week on Gulangyu Island before he left for England to get a Masters in Translation. All three of them had excellent English skills and were unfailingly professional and courteous.

In China, the translation of Tiger Tail Soup is available on Amazon.cn and on DouBan. It’s also available in the United States on Amazon.com. It’s only being sold in digital form, but who knows? If it sells well, I might put out a paperback edition in Chinese.

Tiger Tail Soup is available in English in both digital and paperback editions on Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, Apple iBooks, and in bookstores. It can also be purchased on Amazon.co.uk.

I appreciate this opportunity to tell you about the translation of my novel. Thank you so much to Jocelyn for her friendship and support.

reading in MonroeNicki Chen is the author of Tiger Tail Soup, and blogs about her writing and more at Behind The Story.

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.

Gift Recommendations For Books Featured On This Blog

Does your holiday shopping list include book lovers? Over the years, I’ve featured a lot of fantastic books on this blog (including AMWF titles); they could also make amazing gifts for that special someone in your life.

I’ve listed them in alphabetical order according to the author’s last name, along with a recommendation for who would love it and a link to my interview with the author and/or other post. Happy holidays! (Note: titles are linked to Amazon.com, where your purchase helps support this blog.)

For fans of love stories with lots of drama:

Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong by Susan Blumberg-Kason (Read my interview with Susan)

For the armchair traveler fascinated by Asia:

Almost Home by Janet Brown

Almost Home: The Asian Search of a Geographic Trollop by Janet Brown


Tone Deaf in Bangkok (And Other Places) by Janet Brown (Read my interview with Janet)

For fans of Pearl Buck’s wartime China stories:


Tiger Tail Soup: A Novel of China at War by Nicki Chen (Read my interview with Nicki)

For anyone interested in interracial relationships:


Kissing Outside the Lines: A True Story of Love and Race and Happily Ever After by Diane Farr (Read my post about Kissing Outside the Lines)

For chick lit fans:


Love Me Anyway by Tiffany Hawk (Read my interview with Tiffany)

For the person who wants to be happier, but hates self-help books:

A Field Guide to Happiness revised

A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan about Living, Loving, and Waking Up by Linda Leaming (Read my interview with Linda)

For anyone who loves comics and stories about the ups and downs of living abroad:

My Japanese Husband Thinks I'm Crazy

My Japanese Husband Thinks I’m Crazy by Grace Buchele Mineta (Read my interview with Grace)

For fans of mysteries and thrillers:


Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Read my interview with Celeste)

For people who like reading about road trips and love stories:


Secret of the Nightingale Palace by Dana Sachs (Read my interview with Dana)

For readers interested in the Asian American experience:

Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self

Big Little Man: In Search Of My Asian Self by Alex Tizon (Read my interview with Alex)

For readers who love coming-of-age stories:


Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong by Shannon Young (Read Shannon’s guest post here)

For fans of travel stories with a little heart and soul:


How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia edited by Shannon Young (See my post on favorite essays from the anthology and a post about my own essay “Huangshan Honeymoon”)

What books do you think would make great Christmas gifts?

Interview with Nicki Chen about her Novel “Tiger Tail Soup”

9781457526756cvr.inddIn her new book Tiger Tail Soup, Nicki Chen transports us to a corner of China you don’t often find in wartime China literature – Fujian Province’s Gulangyu Island, an international settlement near Xiamen. But what makes this book even more fascinating is that it was inspired by stories from her Chinese husband, who was actually born on Gulangyu following the Japanese invasion.

Anyone who has read Nicki Chen’s blog – cleverly titled Behind the Story – knows she has some incredible tales to spin (thanks in part to her marriage). This novel about An Lee, a young mother who shows extraordinary courage, resilience and patriotism in the face of danger, is also a lovely story. Tiger Tail Soup offers a touching and poetic tale that ultimately speaks to the enduring power of love.

It’s my pleasure to introduce you to Tiger Tail Soup through this interview with Nicki Chen. A native of Sedro-Wooley, Washington, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College and has lived in some of the most beautiful places on earth, from the Seattle area to the Philippines and Vanuatu. Nicki also married her husband Eugene during the extraordinary year of 1967 (yes, the very same year that interracial marriage was finally deemed legal across the US). You can learn more about her writing at NickiChenWrites.com.

Nicki Chen
Nicki Chen


Your husband and his family’s stories were the major inspiration for this novel. Could you tell us briefly about some of your favorite stories behind Tiger Tail Soup?

The title of the novel is taken from one of my favorite stories. My late husband was born soon after the Japanese invaded Fujian Province. During his early years, his family seldom had enough food. Meat was especially hard to come by. One day they heard that the Japanese had killed a tiger, so they sent their maid out, hoping she’d be able to buy some tiger meat. As expected, the Japanese commander claimed the heart and liver and the other officers and soldiers took most of the meat. But in the end, there were some scraps left over to sell to the Chinese. My husband’s maid stood in line all morning, and that afternoon she returned with a small piece of the tiger’s tail. A grand prize under the circumstances. In the days to come, they made soup, boiling the tail over and over until every last bit of nourishment and taste was extracted.

Another favorite tale involved my husband’s grandmother. She was a cigarette smoker, but she didn’t want people to know. Unfortunately, her bound feet were too tiny and crippled for her to run to the store. So when my husband was old enough, she sent him. One day after buying her cigarettes, he fooled around so long, playing and talking to the shopkeepers that he had to rush home. Even as the sun set, he took a shortcut through the cemetery. And that’s where he saw the ghost: a Western woman in a long white dress floating above the gravestones. When he told his grandmother, her advice to him was simple. “Don’t worry,” she said. “If you didn’t mistreat the person when he or she was alive, the ghost will not harm you.”

At the heart of this novel is An Lee, who you have described as “a young woman who longs for a life of patriotic heroism” even as she stays at home to take care of her family. You created a very fascinating character in An Lee—a woman who on the surface seems much like a typical housewife, but who in fact demonstrates incredible courage and strength throughout the story. Could you talk about what it was like creating this character? Was she inspired by real-life individuals or by fictional characters you’ve come across in your own reading?

The Chinese women I’ve known, friends and family, are without exception more strong and independent-minded than the old American stereotype of the submissive Asian woman. In that sense, the character of An Lee was inspired by all the Chinese women I’ve ever known and read about. When I was researching the novel, though, I was struck by accounts of the patriotic fervor of the Chinese men and women as they coped with the invasion of their country. I knew that An Lee would be caught up in that fervor, but, like every other human being, she would have her ups and downs—her struggles to keep fighting to survive.

The story is set during the Japanese invasion and occupation on Fujian’s Gulangyu Island, which was where your husband grew up and a place rarely featured in historical fiction about China. How did the Japanese invasion and World War II impact Gulangyu differently from other parts of China?

When the Japanese began their invasion of China in 1937, they weren’t ready to go to war with the Western Powers. And since Gulangyu was an International Settlement that housed many consulates, they stayed off the island, in the beginning at least. It was surrounded by the enemy, though, flooded with refugees, and cut off from shipments of food, fuel and medicine. People in the international sections of Shanghai experienced similar circumstances. Then, in 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and marched into Shanghai and Gulangyu. They remained under occupation until the war’s end in 1945.

It’s too bad that Gulangyu and Xiamen are rarely featured in historical fiction about China since they’re the ancestral homeland of most Chinese in Southeast Asia.

What message or messages do you hope readers will come away with after reading Tiger Tail Soup?

I hope the reader will take away a sense of possibility and hopefulness. We all face challenges and pain; we make mistakes and feel like giving up. But, like An Lee, we can survive and succeed. In a more general sense, I hope Tiger Tail Soup increases the reader’s empathy and understanding of other people. When we read a novel and imagine ourselves alive in another time and place, we escape the narrow confines of our own lives and become someone new.


A big thanks to Nicki Chen for this interview! You can learn more about Tiger Tail Soup and her writing at NickiChenWrites.com, where you’ll also find an excerpt from the novel.