How I Learned to Read Chinese, Published on Matador

Reading Chinese characters
I detail my pathway to Chinese literacy in "How I Learned to Read Chinese," published on Matador.

Great news! Matador just published my article titled “How I Learned to Read Chinese.”

For those of you dying to know about my path to fluency, this piece tracks how I left illiteracy in Chinese behind. Curious? Here’s a snippet:

When I came to Hangzhou, China in August 2001 as a writer – and to work on Mandarin fluency – I faced a great, embarrassing wall: I was illiterate.

Sure, I could speak and understand basic conversational Chinese, because I’d studied while teaching English in China from 1999 to 2000. Then, as a beginner, speaking and listening in a tonal language was so challenging that I didn’t want to deal with the characters.

But in Hangzhou, my ignorance was a big deal. Even though I could chat with locals, order food and ask directions, I was baffled by business cards, menus, and even store signs. I needed to read so I could build vocabulary and truly be fluent. But how?

For the “thrilling conclusion” — and to discover the Meteor Garden connection in all of this — read the full piece at Matador. And if you like it, share it. And thanks! 😉

UPDATE: Got this in an e-mail from Matador:

I wanted to let you know that your article was featured in this week’s Traverse newsletter, which means it was picked out by senior editor David Miller as one of the strongest pieces published during the week.

That made my day!

Ask the Yangxifu: Movies with Chinese Men and Western Women in Love

Yes, sometimes the Chinese man does get the Western woman in the movies -- such as in "For All Eternity."
Yes, sometimes the Chinese man does get the Western woman in the movies -- such as in "For All Eternity." (image from

B asks:

I was wondering because you often mention about Hollywood and the lack of Chinese men getting the girl. Can you think of any other movies to recommend where a foreign girl gets together with a Chinese or even an Asian male. All I can think of is Shanghai Kiss, Mao’s Last Dancer and the other one Ramen Girl is in Japan so it’s kind of not the same.

My friend told me about a movie aired on CCTV in Chinese about a rich American woman who falls for a peasant Chinese man but she forgets the name of it. Do you happen to know it? Continue reading “Ask the Yangxifu: Movies with Chinese Men and Western Women in Love”

Ask the Yangxifu: Western Women Can’t Wear Qipaos?

Love Qipaos asks:

I have been taught Mandarin by a Chinese girl living abroad for a year now and sometimes she gives me some comments, that let me think. Mostly, this applies for clothes. I must say, my taste in clothes is not the average kind, and I especially like Asian style clothes, but the traditional kind. I own a qipao and also fisherman pants from Thailand, and when I wear those kind of clothes she asks me stuff like: “Why are you wearing this? You’re not Asian!” or she says “Nobody in China even wears this anymore!” I then ask her why she’s wearing blue jeans and western style clothes, when she is not from the west, but t seems like this doesn’t matter at all. I kinda get the feeling that when a western girl wears eastern clothes it gives off the impresion, that she’s trying to be Asian, but if it’s the other way around, no one seems to really care, even though all the Chinese girls that I know wear western clothes and some even dye their hair blond and such. So is this just the impression that I get or a general trend? Or is it just because there are so few western girls who are even interested in wearing traditional eastern clothes, that makes us stand out so much? Continue reading “Ask the Yangxifu: Western Women Can’t Wear Qipaos?”

Chinese Men Are Sexy

In October, 1999, it was as if I’d finally met my long lost locker pinup guy in the flesh. A sullen, James Dean type in a black leather jacket with a perfect ass. The kind of guy that made cliches like “tall, dark and handsome” drip from your mouth. It didn’t matter that he was spoken for, with a modelesque girlfriend that seemed worlds (and heavens) away from the mortal girl I was. He drove me so crazy, I spent weeks taking cold showers and long bicycle rides just to cool down.

He was a Chinese man.

And so sexy, as I reminded him one evening over the phone, after he left his girlfriend to get together with me. “But I’m a Chinese!” he whispered to me, echoing the ruthless stereotype that somehow infected the modern world — that Chinese men can’t turn Western women on.

It’s no wonder we ended up here, given what Sheridan Prasso wrote in The Asian Mystique:

For the most part, what we see of Asian male sexuality is the assertion of a stronger Western virility at the expense of Asian masculinity. In short, the imagery takes Asian men lightly, as less-serious competitors for women, and less-competent fighters.

Outside the theater, we transfer these perceptions of Asian men to Asian countries. If Asian men on screen are to be easily vanquished, so are Asian male leaders in real state-to-state relations. Even as Fortune columnist Stanley Bing writes in the title of his book, Sun Tzu is “a sissy.” This “lightness of being portrayed” can be seen historically in the descriptions of Asian male leaders such as Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong, and now even of Kim Jong Il. It seeks to minimize the Asian male as a threat — and, I argue, quite possibly leads to serious repercussions.

The thing is, despite the best laid schemes of Hollywood and the rest, Western women went to China (and other Asian countries), or started looking at the Asian (and Chinese) men in their own countries. And, then, we discovered some serious studs — who, in my case, just happened to be Chinese — that slid their way into our hearts (and pants). We even shared it with the world, from books such as Foreign Babes in Beijing, Lost in Translation, and The Last Chinese Chef, to blogging about it.

By the time I met my James Dean heartthrob, suddenly all of those stereotypes felt as out-of-date (and trash-worthy) as yesterday’s newspaper.

Jet-black hair and bronzed skin, I love you! Chinese may or may not have the “tall” (my husband doesn’t, but let’s not forget Yao Ming). But there’s plenty of “dark and handsome” to go around. As Priscilla wrote, “…once the blinkers are lifted, ladies, you’ll discover that you are actually surrounded by attractive [Chinese] men.” Add to that Ericka’s post, that Laowai girls like Asian boys (including the many hot Chinese guys).

Mystery is uber-sexy. In the “wham, bam, thank-you ma’am” era of American Pie, it’s almost as if we’ve forgotten that, sometimes, less is more. With many Chinese men I dated, I didn’t know what he was thinking or feeling — and that upped the volume on every flirtation and glance.

Chinese men have also surprised me with sexiness, where I never would have expected it. One guy once invited me to lunch at our favorite restaurant, and ended up hoisting my legs onto his lap (it’s still one of the hottest lunches I’ve ever had). Another time, I balanced on a bicycle frame between him and his handlebars, as he peddled all the way to our restaurant, with his arms tightly around me.

But what about sex itself?

First, let’s get a few things out of the way:

I don’t buy into Philip Rushton’s racist bullshit about the inverse relationship between brain power and penis size. How, exactly, did he carry out his oh-so-scientific research? It must be annoying to hear people who don’t know you (and have most certainly never looked in your pants, and quite possibly never into the pants of any Asian man) comment on the size of your penis. “I heard Asian men have small dicks.” Yeah? Well I’ve heard that Asian men have big dicks. What’s it to you?

Anti-miscegenation laws tried to keep Asian dicks from White vaginas. They were so scared of your sexiness that they had to create laws to assuage their own foolish fears. And after it became painfully obvious that these laws were racist, these nasty little rumors began to spread about the kind of package you were packing. (We won’t even get into the hypersexualized Black man; that’s a story for another day.)

All sorts of different men have all sorts of different penis sizes, but some people act as though a man’s penis size says something about him. Does it make him any more or less of a man? Please. It’s not so much the size of the boat as it is the motion of the ocean, and Asian boats are no different in size than any other boats.

…Stop being so presumptuous. Rule 1: Don’t knock it ’till you rock it. Rule 2: Even after you rock it, do remember that a lady/gentleman never kisses and tells. Didn’t your momma teach you not to believe everything you hear?

That’s right, don’t knock it ‘till you rock it. And, yes Virginia, you can rock it in bed with a Chinese man — horizontally, vertically, a la the Position Of The Day Playbook, loud enough to wake up the neighbors, you name it. That blissful, “the night after” smile you might have seen on my face? Let’s just say it was “sponsored by” a certain Chinese man my Chinese husband, John (sigh).

And I’m not the only one. The thing is, many of us have discovered our ultimate pinup guys just happen to be Chinese, like this reader who posted a comment here:

…I’m so in love with this [Chinese] man, because he’s so good, and strong (in character). He’s fun, and funny, and loving. He’s also very sexy!…

Now, if only Hollywood got that message more often.

Do you find Chinese men or Asian men sexy? Or, Chinese and Asian men, have you discovered and embraced your own sexiness? What do you think?

Photo credits:
Models: Justin Zhang, fitness coach and Youtuber (IG: NoobStrength) and
Angelina Bower, beautiful fashion model (IG: musicloveandlies)
Photographer: Ana Hudson (WhiteChocolatePlayer)

“It’s Just a Storm”: The Ebb and Flow of Yangtze River Delta Weather

storm clouds
I never imagined “harmless” weather could look so horrible -- but China’s Yangtze River Delta, where I lived for more than four years, forever changed my perspective on storms.

One late summer afternoon at the office in Shanghai, I happened to glance out the window, only to find the summer sun engulfed in a dark blanket of clouds covering the city. The sky soon became so dark, it looked as if the sun had almost gone down — the kind of darkness that, for this US Midwesterner who grew up with tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings, foreshadowed destruction and danger.

I ran through the office in panic, pounding at the HR manager’s door. “Did you see how dark it is outside? Shouldn’t we evacuate?”

But the manager, after looking away from her computer, smiled the kind of comforting smile a kindergarten teacher might before a worried child, as she leaned back in her chair with her hands calmly laying in her lap. “Oh, there’s nothing wrong. It’s just a storm. You can go back to work.”

Her words seemed so dissonant, spoken before the tumultuous sky framed in the window behind her. I retreated to my cubicle, my mind a cacophony of thoughts — as her reassurances thundered against my experiences with severe weather in Ohio. But, in the end, just as she told me, there was nothing wrong — no building damage, no heavy rain or winds. It was just a storm, a little thunder and lightening that passed harmlessly by.

Continue reading ““It’s Just a Storm”: The Ebb and Flow of Yangtze River Delta Weather”

Learning Patience in China

Finding patience
Has China helped you learn patience?

One Saturday morning in Spring 2005, about 10 minutes before crawling from bed, I heard it — a screeching sound akin to scratching a blackboard with your fingernails, but magnified more than 100 times over. Yes, just a little good old welding and drilling in the name of redecorating yet another apartment in my neighborhood, a process that happened seven days a week, from morning to evening, for as long as two to three months.

Sounds like this used to bring out my worst side (a side that, regretfully, I’d even bring outdoors on occasion to shout something I’d regret later).

But not this time. I yawned, rolled over, and then slept the rest of that 10 minutes (with a clear conscience). And when I did finally rise, I didn’t even have any residual hangover of rage when I finally rose from bed.

What a milestone — but it wasn’t the only one. Continue reading “Learning Patience in China”

Chapter 83: Salad, But Not Safe

Salad with lettuce
When John, my Chinese boyfriend, refused to eat my salad, that moment was a window into one major difference between our culinary cultures.

One Saturday evening in Shanghai, I holed up in the kitchen with some long lost culinary acquaintances — angel hair pasta, ripe red tomatoes, and mesculin mix, with flavors that ranged from the bitter, toothy mizuna to the sweet baby lettuces. I wasn’t even close to being purebred Italian, yet for years, an Italian meal on the weekends was as important a ritual as evening mass at the Catholic church. It just wasn’t a week without our spaghetti and salad.

Well, in China, I had spent many a week without spaghetti or salad. And after discovering the foreign foods market just blocks away — the tawny olive oils, the deep balsamic vinegars, pasta, and even salad greens in a rainbow of colors and shapes — I schemed to dazzle my Chinese boyfriend with a taste of my childhood, and feed my thirst for something beyond the usual Chinese fare. Continue reading “Chapter 83: Salad, But Not Safe”

Chapter 82: Late to the Perfect Shanghai Apartment

Late clock
When the real estate agent in Shanghai arrived late for yet another apartment visit, I wondered -- will I be late in finding a good place before in Shanghai, before the month is up? (photo by Julia Freeman-Woolpert)

We arranged to see yet another apartment in Shanghai, one dreary Friday at noon in late November. John and I stood at the intersection of two streets just blocks from Xintiandi, the very intersection the real estate agent had designated as our meeting place, and stared at our watch as the minutes ticked past noon, with no sign of an agent.

The agent is late. People arrive late in China all the time. But this followed a string of disappointing apartment visits, with Taoyuan Xincun the nadir. This wasn’t a late agent, but a foreshadowing of failure — our failure to find a good place to live.

After 10 minutes past the hour, a harried, lanky Chinese man in a long trench coat stepped out of a taxi and approached us. “Sorry I’m late. But, don’t worry, this will be fast. The place is just down the street there, that entrance next to the bicycle store.”

I peered down the road at where he had motioned, and groaned within. Continue reading “Chapter 82: Late to the Perfect Shanghai Apartment”

Chapter 81: Shanghai Apartment Hunting Angst

Housing complex in China
John and I go on a dead-end visit to an unsavory apartment building in China -- in an effort to find a new place to live -- and make the landlord angry with our disinterest.

In late November, 2003, John and I stood before this shadowed, six-story housing complex that looked more of a Gotham City glum than Shanghai, with a soundtrack of scooters, motorcycles, car horns, and bar hoppers playing all around us in the streets. A fifty-something man with a greased Elvis-style do and dull gray button-down shirt, exuding overconfidence like bad breath, led us towards this urban planning nightmare. The whole scene felt more like a trap — the kind you don’t survive — out of a Hong Kong kungfu movie.

I looked at John with one of my desperate, please-can-we-get-out-of-here glances. The thing is, we both knew this was a dead-end. Not the killing kind of dead-end — but the apartment-hunting kind.

“Now, Taoyuan Xincun,” Elvis said, referring to this glum complex, “used to be a residence for high-level officials.” He smirked proudly about the pedigree of the place, but used to be was the operative word here. The blemishes on the wall, dirty air, and the scream of traffic out the window made it clear that no high-level official would ever live here, even if he got the apartment for nothing. Continue reading “Chapter 81: Shanghai Apartment Hunting Angst”

Chapter 80: The Foreign Foreigners

Bar street with a neon light-up "bar" sign
When you’re abroad, your brethren foreigners can sometimes be just as foreign to you as the locals, just as John and I discovered one night while dining on a bar street.

One Saturday in Shanghai, John and I eschewed our usual date-night standby — the Tianran Vegetarian restaurant — for a Mexican joint my coworker recommended. The place hovered over a bar street in Shanghai that I’d heard of — from heavy ads in all the foreigner mags in Shanghai — but never visited. I maybe had a beer or glass of wine once a month, and couldn’t even remember the last time I’d been in a bar. Still, in a country where avocados were more foreign than I was, I missed Mexican food desperately — desperate enough to go to a neighborhood I’d never gone to before.

With all of the bar ads for this street — and all of those “happy hour” promos — I expected the patrons and music to be overflowing as much as the alcohol. But instead, I could barely hear the music, and saw only a handful of patrons here and there lurking in the shadows, as if this was the Prohibition era and no one wanted to be caught. And even stranger, the restaurant, perched on the second floor, had the same lascivious glow of a red-light district brothel in Amsterdam. Was this really the Mexican food dinner my friend, a girl at that, had recommended? Continue reading “Chapter 80: The Foreign Foreigners”