A few weeks ago, I made a business trip to Xi’an to participate in a conference discussing the China-initiated Belt and Road Initiative, with a special focus on the China-Europe freight trains that have helped power some of the newest projects on this revival of the ancient Silk Road routes. I ended up making news twice during the journey, and forged connections with leading academics and people in the media. Here’s a photo essay detailing everything from what we did and saw to even some of what we ate.
We first arrived at the Xinzhu station in Xi’an, a major inland port for China-Europe trains, and gathered for an opening ceremony, which took place right beside one of the trains set to travel to Hamburg, Germany. I’m standing in the front row before the stage, wearing a powder blue down jacket.
Then, after hearing a few other leaders speak, it was my turn to take the stage and deliver a speech in Mandarin Chinese for the opening ceremony.
This marked my first time to ever give a public speech in Mandarin Chinese!
Afterwards, we took a group photo. I stood in the front row, next to the former ambassador to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the Ukraine, and a professor at one of China’s top universities.
We then had the opportunity to tour the expansive grounds at the China-Europe train station.
Next door, a “shopping festival” featured a number of goods shipped on the China-Europe trains, including this flour made from wheat grown in Kazakhstan.
That picture later made front-page news for a paper in Xi’an.
The following day, we visited Fucha town, which has developed an entire industry founded on a variety of locally produced brick tea, which is also shipped on the China-Europe freight trains.
We learned more about the local tea and tea culture at the museum.
That afternoon, we gathered for a conference to share ideas and perspectives on the Belt and Road Initiative over five years, and I was one of the featured speakers, sharing stories from China Daily reporting.
A few hours after this publishes, I’ll be boarding a plane bound for Xi’an, one of my favorite cities in China! This trip is mainly for business — I’ll have the chance to visit some of the China-Europe trains, a logistics park and more, and will deliver a couple of speeches. But I’m also looking forward to the opportunity to enjoy some of my favorite snacks in Xi’an (such as liangpi — yum!).
Since this trip has kept me quite busy, I’m taking a break from blogging. But don’t worry, I’ll be back next week!
P.S.: That photo is from a visit Jun and I made to Xi’an a number of years ago, at Beilin, or the Stone Steeles Forest.
Every year, there’s always a new bunch of Western women married to Chinese men who announce their plans to move to her country. But what happens after the plane ride is over, the luggage unpacked, and the honeymoon excitement of the move a distant memory?
“Why ever did you move home?” said a doctor I saw at a clinic last October. It is a question I am still grappling to answer.
I repatriated just over a year ago, saddling my husband into the whole affair.
Much has not changed since divulging our Double Happiness story. We live with my parents and youngest sister, both working in retail.
I also freelance write for an online hyperlocal, and do a particularly terrible job of keeping up on Xiananigans.
With the cons, come pros. Partaking in road trips, day trips to the beach, exploring New York City, Jersey City where a good friend lives, brunching, driving two hours for the sole purpose of purchasing ingredients for a home-cooked Chinese meal, pestering my father during his weekly grocery shopping trips, hiking and basking in summer’s glorious weather in local parks, a 散步 in the evenings, indulging in ice cream on a far too regular basis, getting outdoors by playing basketball, badminton, bike riding, going to the gym and building tolerance for intolerance.
So if you repatriated or plan to do so in the immediate future, I advise:
Starting your search before arriving, line up a job or consider industries outside your field. There are industries experiencing growth, particularly healthcare, education, and retail. There is a need for postsecondary teachers, office clerks, registered nurses, personal care aids, and customer service representatives, to name a few. I can say most, if not all, do not appeal to me, in the slightest, yet I am currently employed in one of the previously mentioned fields, freeing you to pursue other career interests, think moonlighting or freelance gigs, or perhaps work on your side hustle.
Living with your family, for the interim. If at all possible to reside with your parents, or extended family members, as my husband and I have done, then do so. Although not always ideal, we spend less, share evening meals, and cooking responsibilities, whether we put together Chinese or Western dinners, several times a week. Those who did not cook, help out by cleaning up. In hindsight, I suggest creating a written agreement of duties, including both parties’ expectations.
Staying connected to China, however you see fit. I read Chinese several times a week, picking up children’s books, written in Chinese, from the public library. The librarian bequeathed a stack of books to me, saying the library had no room or real need for them. Among them was Eric CarIe’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a children’s story I had a copy of and had my sister purchased for one of my nephews. I also read literature by Chinese authors, in translation of course, or books, fiction and nonfiction alike, interweaving China into their narratives. Keeping up with your spoken Chinese, even if, like me, you are merely conversational, proves as yet another way to stay connected. Talk to your in-laws, even if saying hello, how are you, and wishing them good health is all you can muster. Nag your husband to keep in touch with his family, friends, and acquaintances; it is easy and free to connect on WeChat. Watch Chinese films and TV shows together (we fawned over Jia Zhangke films and Hunan TV’s 爸爸去哪儿第三季…kudos to readers who uncover why 😉 ), partake in Chinese chess 象棋, mahjong 麻将, and Chinese card games. Find your area’s most authentic Chinese restaurant, frequent it, making sure to use the visit as a chance to practice Chinese with people other than your spouse.
Making new friends, but reconnecting with the “old.” Reach out to people you have not heard from in ages, believe me, they will be happy to hear from you. Finding new friends, particularly other repatriated individuals, helps build a stronger support system where you have those you can share your overseas experience with, and not nag the friends who do not wish to hear every minute detail recounted to them for the third time.
Be prepared to discuss politics, the weather, and make small talk. No one will ask you have you eaten “你吃了没有？／你吃了吗？” when you run into them, instead asking after your day, discussing the latest in political affairs, and complaining about today’s humidity, or lack thereof, peppers conversations here.
Ensure you can defend China, or deal with the inaccurate ramblings and representations smattered in the American media. China is a hot topic as of late in the American media (when is it not?), covering the explosion in Tianjin, the devaluing of the renminbi, the fluctuating stock markets in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong, and President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US slated for September. Inaccuracies, biases regarding China are too easy to find in print and online, leading even the most informed of Americans to rattle off their “informed” thoughts, telling you what China is like, even though they never lived, let alone visited there. When words like “backwards,” “Communist” accompany the phrases “I know, I read” there is no hope for that conversation to progress. Resort to jumping ship, neutralizing the topic, and return to domestic politics, where they can rant up a storm, and you can pretend to listen intently.
Patience, patience, and more patience. Embracing the mantra “Good things come to those who wait” will serve you well. Similarly, remaining optimistic in your search for a career and supporting each other, in all your endeavors, helps envisioning the light at the end of that proverbial tunnel. Do not forget to exude patience with your partner, as acculturating is far harder for them. In my case, ZJ proves thick skinned and unphased by intolerance. Stick up for your partner, regardless if the hate comes from relatives or strangers. And, slightly unrelated, be patient with your spouse’s language acquisition. I lucked out, as ZJ has very few language-related barriers, flaunting a unique blend of dry humor laced with sarcasm, snide (yet always polite!) commentary in the face of rude, intolerant, or unsavory proclamations. He does pick up some rather intriguing phrases from coworkers, “Oh my ‘lanta” replacing “OMG” until, thankfully, he retired it! 😉
And apologies for sounding too positive…let me return to my good old chastising self in the final piece of advice.
If you managed to internalize the friendly, complimentary offerings Chinese friends, students, and maybe even strangers bequeathed on you, perhaps commenting on your impeccable Chinese langauge skills, appearance, personality or competencies, then brace yourself to be labeled as “too sensitive.” Simply put, you may have received compliments, flattery of some kind, or even the opposite. Chinese people told you exactly how it is, as was the case with students who did not shy away from telling me I was a little fat, but not as fat as most Americans! I disliked this approach at first but eventually learned to appreciate this type of honesty. Americans tend to speak ill of an individual behind their back, and provide empty means of flattery when facing the person. Although well aware the compliments and flattery I received in China may have been as equally fake, the honesty I received from students, friends and acquaintances helped me project and blame others less, giving me a thick skin, but one thick enough for dealing with the Chinese way of bluntness. This so-called “thick skin” is thin here, where relatives perceived me as such. Moving back to America means readjusting the way you internalize the comments others make, so reinvest in learning to not care what people think. Easier said than done, but you can do it (is better said in Chinese 加油!)!
Marissa Kluger married her Chinese husband ZJ almost two years ago. They live in New Jersey. She occasionally reminisces about Xi’an and muses about life in the US at Xiananigans.
“I’d never dated or been attracted to Chinese men before,” writes Marissa Kluger — not until she met ZJ in Xi’an, a city that stole her heart away.
Marissa’s blog Xiananigans has been a pleasure to follow over the years (right down to her “explosive” Chinese wedding, where she dons the most gorgeous red wedding gown I’ve ever seen). Here’s the story behind it all, from how she discovered Xi’an and ZJ to how they eventually moved it to her hometown in New Jersey.
My first trip to China, in 2007, happened to be a three week intensive course abroad, a general education requirement instituted by Goucher College, my alma mater. Xi’an ended up being one of our destinations. Besides inspecting the soldiers at the Terracotta Warriors, bicycling around the Xi’an City Wall, and navigating the alleys of the Muslim Quarter, we met with an alumnus teaching at Xi’an International Studies University.
The city of Xi’an compelled me to return four years later to teach at Xi’an International Studies University. I’m a fairly indecisive person but I had made up my mind after listening to the alumnus’ anecdotes about his job, travels, and experiences. Meeting his students further cemented my longing to come back; they were inquisitive, interested in cultural exchange, American politics and exposing me to as much Chinese culture as several hours would allow.
Although I knew they would show us around their dorms, the campus, and give us small gifts, I was overwhelmed by their warmth, affection, and extroverted personalities. In many ways, they toppled every notion, or better yet, stereotype I read about Chinese students. We met students from universities in other cities during our travels, but XISU students left the deepest indent.
I also saw it as a one-year opportunity to do something outside-of-the-box before starting a career, although at that time I had little idea about what I’d be doing; I hadn’t even declared a major, still opting for that looming “Undecided” title. My parents thought I’d give up on the idea as I still had three years of schooling. They were supportive of the decision, also seeing it as a good opportunity, hoping I’d pick up the language and gain other valuable experiences that could propel whatever career path I chose forward.
In 2009-10, my final year at Goucher, I applied for a position at the university. Three months went by without a word, so I began applying for jobs in my chosen field in the Greater New York City area. A ray of sunshine appeared just a week before commencement…I had received an email from the university offering me a teaching position for the next academic year! When my college girlfriends offered their congratulatory sentiments, they also foreshadowed that 缘分, or fate would lead me to at least date, perhaps even settle down in China. I dismissed this as I didn’t really put much stock in fate.
I arrived in Xi’an in late August 2010, and luckily I had the first month of September free, as I had been assigned freshman. Freshman have mandatory military training, and four years ago, this lasted an entire month. I took this chance to meet up with a very good friend of my former private drum instructor and his Chinese wife. Lu Min Lu, I called her Daphney, helped me settle in and introduced me to the nightlife Xi’an offered. She took me to Park Qin, a bar frequented by Xi’an expats. ZJ worked at Park Qin.
The first time ZJ and I met, I insisted on getting his phone number on behalf of a British girl. I initially cut in for several reasons: I was looking for Chinese acquaintances who might become friends, most of my college friends were guys, he was easy to talk to and charming. I, of course, did all of this not knowing anything about Chinese dating culture, or that ZJ considered himself “traditional.”
After getting his phone number and exchanging texts, we agreed to meet up on his next day off. Shortly after that first meeting, I went back to Park Qin and spent hours talking to ZJ about movies, music, college, culture and more. We had a lot in common, he spoke directly, didn’t seem shy or introverted, much like the students I met in 2007, but I didn’t see this going in a romantic direction. The American girlfriends I emailed back home were elated: “I told you.”
It was about a month later that ZJ and I began dating. In the early stages of our relationship, we looked more like friends. We weren’t affectionate in public and our relationship remained a secret. In February 2011, I met ZJ’s parents during our Chinese New Year visit to his hometown. He prepared me very well for that first visit, explaining that to his parents, bringing a girl home, let alone a foreign one, meant to them we were serious.
I met his best friend from high school as well as extended family from both his mother’s and father’s side; I felt more comfortable than I initially thought in an environment so different from Xi’an and New Jersey. ZJ cared, translated and interpreted for me; his way to show affection manifested itself unlike any previous relationships. I liked the nuances, subtlety of it all, and more importantly, started to fall for him, and so upon returning to Xi’an, ZJ moved in with me.
When the holiday season approached, ZJ fostered my homesickness by taking me out for Peking duck on Christmas, a tradition commonly observed by Jewish-Americans. I went home for three weeks in January 2013; I wished he could have traveled with me, to meet my family and friends. I missed him when I went home for two months in 2011, staying in touch via Skype, however, those three weeks felt utterly painful. I enjoyed my time at home, but a sense of relief washed over me when I touched down in Xi’an a week or so before heading to his 老家 for Chinese New Year.
We had already started discussing getting engaged and this discussion was met with approval by 老爸, 老妈, 大哥和二哥. ZJ proposed to me on June 8, 2013. The timing of the ceremony, the set-up, and the ring were all a surprise to me. He told me we were celebrating his birthday; I saw this as slightly suspicious, but didn’t give it a second thought when he shot me down over WeChat when I asked if he planned to propose.
I wore an ankle-length red gown, one of three dresses purchased on Taobao for the ceremony held in the countryside. I opted for a red princess-poofy gown, complete with fur-like trim, flowers, taffeta-like mesh, all in red. I changed into a red lace qipao in order to toast the guests, wearing it with a qipao-style top as a jacket in hopes of keeping out the cold. I even wore all red undergarments. My youngest sister made the trip from the US, served as pseudo-maid of honor, taking on my hair and makeup. We also had a few foreign colleagues from the university attend. 爸爸和妈妈 Zhang, my brothers and sisters-in-law ensured the shindig, a once-in-a-lifetime affair, could be watched over and over again (there’s a video!). We had a honeymoon of sorts, to Lijiang and Dali, and I say of sorts, because my sister and friends of ours tagged along.
We had traveled to Guangzhou for the petition in January and a couple of months after all the wedding excitement died down, we traveled back again for the medical and interview portions. ZJ didn’t pass on the spot, as we had to send additional documents. A week or two later, we had ZJ’s passport with the appropriate visa in hand. I couldn’t believe how relatively quickly and pain-free the process had been! More foreshadowing…
We’ve now been in the US for two and a half months. We live with my parents in the house I grew up in. I work part-time for Starbucks while I pursue other avenues. This is the first encounter ZJ’s had with my parents and friends, with the exception of my youngest sister, who also lives at home. He just received his social security number last week. When we went to the department of motor vehicles earlier in the week, they weren’t able to verify his status, meaning we have to wait before he can obtain his driver’s license. In other words, the ease we experienced during the DCF process meant more obstacles after landing stateside.
It’s not all bad news, though. I never imagined I’d be a 26 year-old “we”, returning from four years in Xi’an, and struggling to figure out what comes next. I would never take it back, or trade it in for an “easier life.” Much like the processes we’ve gone through in the last year: getting our red books, preparing for our Chinese ceremony, navigating the DCF process, prepared us for the ups and downs of a new life. I underestimated the adjustment moving to the US would be, but my husband never did.
This is why I love him. When I’m losing it, he remains calm, rational, and thoughtful. When I’m overly emotional, which is pretty much all of the time, he’s calculated and prepared to counteract my moodiness by jokes, sarcasm, or a story. He knows exactly when I need solitude, a hug or a kiss, encourages me to not only pursue my dreams, but to do so independently.
His sense of humor is infectious, and he’s grown into a more talkative, outwardly affectionate individual. He supports me in all my endeavors. Our marriage and relationship may not be conventional in the eyes of some, and we may be opposites, but I always foresaw, if I did marry, ending up with my “other half.” You see, I didn’t think I would marry, especially in my mid-20s, not because I don’t believe in the institution of marriage, but after a failed serious relationship in college, preferred to bask in dating solitude.
It’s laughable that there are Western women in China who write off Chinese men. I’d never dated or been attracted to Chinese men before, but I’m very attracted to my husband: appearance, intelligence, and personality-wise. If I had written them off, the handsome, caring man sitting to my right reading the local paper wouldn’t be in my life.
Marissa Kluger married her Chinese husband ZJ a year ago. They live in New Jersey. She reminisces about Xi’an and muses about life in the US at Xiananigans.
But what happens when Kane finally introduces his fiancee to China and his hometown of Xi’an for the first time? A fiancee that has never stepped foot in the Middle Kingdom and doesn’t speak of word of Chinese? It’s one big cross-cultural adventure that the two of them will never forget.
In August 2012, almost 2 years after Jo and I first met, we became engaged to be married on a cool Autumn night by the beach at Maraetai. There, Jo whispered in my ear, “I will.” We both knew we were in for an adventure of a lifetime together.
My adventure first began when I crossed the Pacific and found Jo. Then one day, we decided to trace my steps back to visit my hometown of Xi’an, China. This is my place of origin, the land that nourished me as a child, the great Northwest and the Loess Plateau dotted with cave dwellings, the voice of Qin and of a people born tough but pure of heart.
Southern comfort, Northern discomfort
We arrived in late August, expecting the weather to cool down as Autumn approached. I had been away from home so long that I had forgotten just how vicious the sun was during the Xi’an summers. While I was born and bred in Xi’an, I had suggested that we should bring warm clothing, only to be assaulted by scorching temperatures above 38C upon our arrival. There we were, each carrying a thick coat as we stepped off the plane while quickly realising how big of a mistake we had made. Needless to say, suddenly I felt even more foreign than the white guy we saw at the airport dressed in a t-shirt and shorts.
Since we arrived at lunchtime, my parents decided we should grab a quick bite to eat before we get to their apartment. My heart yearned for some roujiamo and cold noodles — typical Xi’an street food — from a typical Xi’an roadside restaurant. As we walked in, I was reunited with all the familiar and delicious aromas of pickled garlic, slow cooked pork for the roujiamos, vinegar and chilli oil. With the noisy atmosphere and the scattered tables full of people, all these memories suddenly came pouring out and I felt home again.
I couldn’t say the same for Jo, however. She was the only white person in the entire restaurant. The moment she walked into the room, all the chattering and clinking of utensils ceased abruptly with her presence as 50 heads turned her way — some amused, some bewildered, and some just amazed. As we searched around and found a table to sit down, everyone gradually returned to their own business and the noise resumed. Our dishes arrived quickly to the table one by one and so did some curious gazes. Jo quietly said to me she felt uncomfortable with the amount of staring and attention she was receiving, which didn’t surprise me. Even I felt a little uneasy about it. But I had to reassure her that people are simply curious about why a foreigner would visit a humble local eatery, and what she was doing with a Chinese family. To many, an East-West relationship is still a novelty and when the man happens to be a local, he gets to become the “translator” and the “tour guide”, as I had been referred to on multiple occasions.
Lost in translation
Even with a translator on standby 24/7 (me), life still became difficult for my non-Mandarin-speaking fiancee.
A lack of English signage made outings impossible without me accompanying her. She had limited abilities to converse with anyone else but me and translations were not always easy with cultural and social contexts were thrown in. Once a minor mistake caused a major misunderstanding between Jo and my mother. Ever since Jo had some dental work done on her teeth, she was advised to avoid foods that are “hard to eat”. In English it would generally be intepreted as items that are hard or chewy, but in Chinese, if directly translated it becomes “nanchi”, which means “unpalatable”. This, unfortunately, was how I translated Jo’s English when she was discussing a particular dish with my mom — and you can imagine my mom wasn’t happy about her dish being regarded as “nan chi”. I finally explained to her that it was indeed an error on my behalf rather than because of her cooking.
Of course, while we were out exploring the countless heritage sites Xi’an and its surrounding areas had to offer, we were solicited by one hawker after another, attempting to offer us their goods and services at vastly inflated prices. A refusal from me in the local dialect however would normally suffice in stopping the harassment, even against the very persistent ones.
While globalisation draw nations closer to each other than ever, you would think people around the world now would have more in common. But when it comes to fashion, this isn’t always the case.
What Jo, a young Kiwi woman, would consider as fashionable and attractive was almost never the same as her Chinese counterparts and vice versa. And on the rare occasions when she actually liked something, it was never in a size or style that would actually fit her. Jo had trouble shopping for almost everything in Xi’an. The biggest shoes we could find were always half a size too small. Not much luck with clothing either, as she is considered a big girl in China while her size is quite normal in New Zealand.
However, having a Chinese MIL shop with you could be a huge advantage. First, she knows where to go. Second, you end up saving hundreds as a result of her expertise in bargaining. And third, if she likes her daughter-in-law enough she might even offer to foot the bill as a gift. The drawbacks? Besides the aforementioned difference in taste, you will get taken to some very “Chinese” shopping complexes. Forget the modern, glitzy and smoke-free malls with all the creature comforts you can afford. Some hidden jewels and good bargains can be found in those sweaty, overcrowded, and sometimes gritty looking suburban shopping centers (if you knew how to find them in the first place).
For the love of food
To many expats out there, nothing reminds them more of home than the food they grew up on. It could be something simple like a burger or pizza, or in my case, cold noodles, roujiamo, and street snacks like barbecued lamb on skewers. Coming home brought me back to food paradise, but for Jo, it was a shock to the system, literally. All these new delicacies and spices just didn’t agree with her stomach.
When my mom suggested that we should go to Pizza Hut one day for lunch, I could almost hear the excitement in Jo’s voice as she said, “Please, that sounds great!” Just like back home? Perhaps it tasted even better than the Pizza Hut we remembered from back home, or perhaps I had cravings as well. So in the following days, we had sampled all the Western foods in the area — first KFC, followed by McDonald’s and Papa John’s pizza. It was like festival time for Jo and her poor shell-shocked Western stomach.
It all ended when Jo discovered Haidilao, that extremely popular hotpot chain across the country. Despite the unspeakable aftermath of each hotpot session, we kept coming back for more. Maybe Jo had found the perfect comfort food in China? It might not have reminded her of home, but it made her feel at home: a family sitting around a table, cooking and eating at the same time while laughing and chatting away. You’d never find this kind of family atmosphere in New Zealand!
That trip to China was a homecoming for me, and it was an eye-opening experience for Jo. She felt frightened at first, but then I witnessed her transformation as the days progressed. She established a mutual friendship with my parents as they readily accepted her into our family with open arms. She faithfully accompanied me halfway around the globe into a world of unknowns just to experience my homeland with me. What more could I ask for in a woman? My parents loved her as well. They already consider her a xifu or daughter-in-law despite the fact that we weren’t married yet.
Eventually, that inevitable day came when we had to say goodbye. As my parents watched us walk through the departure gate, that familiar feeling erupted in my chest again just as it did 10 years before when I left home for the first time. I tried to hold back my emotions and turned around to glance at Jo. But the moment I gazed upon her, she turned away. In the corner of her eye, I saw something flickering and eventually running down her cheek. Maybe I wasn’t the only one that had come home after all.
Kane Gu found his true love in Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud.
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