Interview with Joke Tummers, Professional Clarinetist and Music Instructor/Entrepreneur in China

IMG_0180Many foreigners come to China hoping for opportunity and a little adventure. But how many can say they joined a symphony orchestra here? Or ended up running a music school in China?

For clarinetist Joke Tummers, China adventures mean making beautiful music with others (including her husband Haiwen, who manages the JT Music Academy along with her). I talked to her to learn more about how China shaped her career as a professional musician and later entrepreneur/instructor.

Here’s her bio translated from the Netherlands group blog

Joke Tummers has lived in Guangzhou for 8 years. The first five years she served as an associate clarinet in the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra. After the birth of her first daughter, motherhood and orchestra proved not to be a good combination. After a short break and the birth of her second daughter, it was time for a new challenge. She and her husband took over a music school. Joke is now the artistic director of the JT Music Academy where she also gives private lessons.

You can follow Joke on her blog, LinkedIn, and WeChat (JT_22_QK).

Joke with her husband Haiwen and one of their daughters.

Tell us about how you and your husband first met.

We met in Holland at my part time job a youth hostel. I was in charge of giving residents an evening snack and doing the dishes afterwards. Haiwen had just arrived at the hostel to start his job in the area. The company had given him the choice between a hotel and the hostel where I worked at. They told him that it would be much easier to make friends and meet people at the hostel. Hahaha, prophetic words!

I was urging the residents to eat a bit faster as I needed to go to a rehearsal of my wind band because we had a concert the next day. Long story short: Haiwen came to listen to the concert and we started dating soon after.

Joke with one of her students.

How did you and your husband come to move to China?

I was finishing up my Master of Music studies in Amsterdam when Haiwen suggested we go to China. He felt he had been abroad for a long time already (he studied in the UK before coming to Holland) and he wanted to return to Guangzhou.

I on the other hand was ready for some adventure as teaching at a local music school where all classes are only 25 min long didn’t sound very appealing. Orchestra jobs were really hard to get in those days and the situation has only deteriorated since then, with a lot of funding for the arts being cut.

Joke along with her orchestra colleagues.

You were the associate principal clarinet for the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra for 5 years. What was it like?

It was an interesting experience for sure. The cultural differences in how to approach and make music were huge. I’m used to showing up to a rehearsal knowing my parts, but my colleagues saw rehearsal time as their personal practice time. Management was very rigid and that is a big problem in the creative arts, where expression and flexibility are very important. It was very hard to communicate with my colleagues about how to play together better because most players were my seniors and they felt that they didn’t have to listen to me anyway. Music is all about communication so it was really hard for me to play in this stifling structure. After the birth of my first daughter I went back for a few months but decided to quit at the end of the season.

Joke with another musician.

How has China influenced your career as a musician?

In China I got the chance to play in a professional symphony orchestra. Of course it wasn’t always a smooth ride but I still had great experiences. I got to play many repertoire pieces and also played in many different concert halls, both in and outside China. We had many guest conductors and soloists and it was fun to get to know them. As one of the few foreigners in the orchestra I felt a bit like an ambassador so I would always go greet them and welcome them to China. With my colleagues I had a woodwind trio. We played at various locations and even did a concert in Taiwan together. That was a lot of fun.

Joke with one of her students.

Tell us about how you came to open your own music school in China, and what it’s like running your own school.

After quitting the orchestra I became pregnant with my second daughter so I was home to take care of her. When she was a few months old my husband and I decided to take over a music school in our area. We didn’t have a specific one in mind but hubby worked his Internet magic and found a school 2 bus stops from our house. We did it this way to avoid having the additional start up costs and also to already have a name and teachers working for us. We added myself into the mix so to say. I teach clarinet, saxophone, flute, piano and music theory. This is a direct result of being in China: in Holland I would have been limited to clarinet only as that was my specialization. I had to get out of this frame of thinking and that was easier once I realized that I would teach the kids more about music and not just the specific techniques of their instruments. The added benefit for me personally is that my teaching days are very varied, just the way I like it.

It is rewarding to run the school and to teach kids at a level they cannot easily get outside of our school. Since woodwind specialists are quite rare over here I’m in a good position to attract eager students. It helps that I speak Mandarin as some kids aren’t comfortable with English. Of course there are also parents that are happy that I can teach their kids in English to improve their language skills as well. With a lot of students I use a mixture of Chinese and English. Once I’m sure that their English is quite good, I switch to English only.

Joke with one of her students.

What do you think it takes to be a successful musician here in China?

As a classical musician I find it a bit hard to say. I usually join an orchestra or play chamber music concerts that my friends organize, I’m very lucky that way. As with every kind of artistic profession in China the problem is the outward fixation of many people. As long as it looks good, it must be amazing, right? The actual skills seem to be of lesser importance.

I think that some not yet established musicians may feel that they need to be very commercial and only play standard repertoire, preferably with Chinese songs mixed in to catch the attention of the audience. I’ve seen some change though as I went to listen to a contemporary music concert a while back. The music was very avant-garde but the hall was full of people. I thought that this was really cool and I hope that people will start listening to more and different kinds of music.

Joke and her daughters
Joke and her daughters


Thanks so much to Joke Tummers for this interview! To learn more, you can follow Joke on her blog, LinkedIn, and WeChat (JT_22_QK).

Photo Essay: I’m Going to Be on CCTV (China Central Television)!

mmexport1433086245275I still can’t believe I’m writing these words — I’m going to be on CCTV (that’s China Central Television)! Specifically, the CCTV English language show called “Crossover” (it’s a cross-cultural talk show — our episode is titled “foreign wives in China”) which will air sometime in August or September of this year. (I’ll let you know when.)

Back in March, Zhou Lei (the show’s director) introduced herself to me after my appearance at the Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival. She told me she was a fan of my blog and asked if I might be interested in being on CCTV.

Zhou Lei and me.
Zhou Lei and me.


Having spent so many years in China, I know CCTV — and have loved many of their shows. Plus, it’s CCTV! The thought of being on China’s biggest and most important television network sent waves of excitement through my body. So I didn’t hesitate — I said, “Yes, I’d love to!”

In May, I took part in a pre-interview session via Skype with Zhou Lei and Eyee Hsu, the co-host of “Crossover”. Later that week, Zhou Lei sent me an e-mail officially inviting me to Beijing to film a show on May 27 — and offering to cover my travel and hotel costs. (Double wow!) Who could say no to that?

With the invitation in hand, I started thinking about one of the most basic questions — what to wear? Since I didn’t have anything good for TV (and I live in a country where my size, while typical in America, is impossible to buy) I decided to find a tailor who could create the perfect dress for me. With the help of my one of my husband’s close college friends, we discovered this brilliant tailor in the Hangzhou area — she created this lovely little qipao that I dubbed “the magic dress”! I gasped the moment I first laid eyes on it — I just knew it would give me extra confidence in front of the cameras.

The perfect dress!
The perfect dress!

Zhou Lei also sent me an outline about a week ahead of taping the show. That’s when I discovered I would be sharing the spotlight with two incredibly talented young foreign women with Chinese husbands — Jess Meider (an amazing musician, performer, composer and teacher who has made her mark in Beijing as an outstanding jazz vocalist and singer-songwriter) and Marie Smurthwaite (a talented performer and member of a girl group called “5 Spice”). Even better, we were able to connect on WeChat before the program, so I got the chance to know them a little before going on stage.

I was thrilled to be on stage with two talented young women with Chinese husbands -- Jess Meider (left) and Marie Smurthwaite.
I was thrilled to be on stage with two talented young women with Chinese husbands — Jess Meider (left) and Marie Smurthwaite.

Finally, this past Tuesday, I boarded an Air China flight bound for Beijing — feeling thrilled and a little nervous at the same time! (It was my first time on TV, can you blame me?)

I arrived in Beijing Tuesday afternoon and it was dark by the time I emerged from the subway station closest to my hotel. When I walked out, the CCTV Headquarters stretched across the sky, shining like a promise of great things to come.


Zhou Lei had generously checked me into my hotel, the Chaoyang Hotel, ahead of time (thank you so much!) so it was a breeze getting into my room for the night. I spent most of the evening reading through the outline and thinking about how I might answer the questions during our conversation.


The following day, I arrived at the South Gate of CCTV Headquarters at 1pm. The building glinted in the sunshine while I tried not to sweat too much (it was a hot, balmy day — 35 degrees Celsius or 95 degrees Fahrenheit)!


They run tight security at CCTV — and why wouldn’t they? It’s one of the most important buildings in Beijing, if not China. Everyone needs an escort inside and must pass through more than one screening. Fortunately, I ran into Jess Meider at the entrance so the two of us could walk inside together (along with our escort, Jeff Lau). I loved Jess instantly!

The staff brought us into the makeup room, where we were joined by Marie (who I also loved!). I was so grateful that the show’s makeup artists were able to help us with our makeup (I’ve never been skilled in that department!) and hair. Marie also graciously lent me her extra pair of high-heeled shoes, which matched my dress far better than my own pair. Thank you, Marie!

The fabulous makeup artists who made us all look beautiful!
The fabulous makeup artists who made us all look beautiful!

Then it was time to get dressed and enter the “Crossover” TV set. And it’s a funny thing — when I finally marched onto the set and sat myself down on the creamy white couches on set, my nerves were suddenly replaced with this overwhelming sense of excitement.


Having Eyee Hsu as our host made the show. She is so down-to-earth and fun to be around, not to mention incredibly generous. When everyone noticed I didn’t have any earrings to wear (yeah, forgot that one), she immediately took hers out and lent them to me for the show. Thank you, Eyee!

Before the cameras started running, the staff had us adjust our positions (and, in my case, my dress) to look good for the show.

Then before I knew it, the cameras were rolling and Eyee began introducing the show as well as the three of us. We discussed everything from how we met our husbands and cultural differences we’ve experienced to our wedding stories and the differences between dating Western guys versus Chinese guys. During the show, Marie and her husband King sang a beautiful song in Chinese, and later Jess performed an incredible song of her own with her band Chinatown. I was truly blown away with their talent!

Jess performing on stage with her husband, Gao Fang.
Jess performing on stage with her husband (to her right)

Around 5:30pm, we all left the CCTV building together — with my heart dancing from the amazing experience of being filmed for a show. I wished I could have spent more time with Jess and Marie, who were truly delightful company on stage and off. I also wished I had more time to see my friends in Beijing. But I had things to do back in Hangzhou and knew it would all have to wait for another trip to Beijing and another time.

Thank you to everyone at CCTV for an amazing time and I can’t wait to see the episode when it officially airs later this year!

Double Happiness: From a UK Half-Marathon to a Romantic Dalian Proposal

SoC running 2
Sarah and her husband.

You never know where love’s going to find you — and where it might take you. Sarah (a native of Birmingham, England and the woman behind Diaries of a Yangxifu) had just finished the Half-Marathon in Birmingham, all sweaty and exhausted, when lo and behold, she discovered an incredibly handsome Chinese man right beside her. A man who would propose to her less than a year later in his hometown of Dalian, China. 

Have an unusual love story or thrilling guest post you’d love to see published on Speaking of China? Learn how you can do it (just Sarah did) at the submit a post page.



I never felt quite the same after that year of teaching English in Nanjing in 2010. When I returned to the UK, I found I had a little thing for Chinese men, who reminded me of my year in China and shared my love of 饮茶 (drinking tea) and 烤鱼 (roasted fish). However after about two years, I had got back in to the swing of things back home and was really enjoying living in a multicultural city with a big Chinatown and occasional trips to KTV.

I had been training for the Half Marathon for over four months, including a three-week holiday in China where I managed to sneak in a few runs on the banks of the Pearl River in Guangzhou and along Victoria Harbour in HK. I was feeling incredibly proud of myself when I had completed the 13.1 mile run and felt on top of the world as I walked from the finish line to my home 10 minutes away. Still, I was a bit achey and was trying to decide whether to take a little rest or just get home and have a nice shower. I saw a free bit of wall in the square and decided to take a little rest.

SoC running 1

I soon noticed the handsome Chinese man sitting on the wall next to me and was deciding how to make conversation, a habit of mine since returning from China. Then he turned to me and congratulated me on finishing the run. (Let’s hope it was the medal round my neck rather than the bright red face and disgusting hair that gave me away!)

We got to chatting for a while, exchanged snacks (they put some strange things in race finish bags) and chatted about sport. I had not met such a sporty Chinese person before, or one with freckles. Some time into the conversation I asked whether he was Chinese, and he replied, “Yes, but don’t be scared.” (I’m not sure what kind of experience he’d had of British people!). I answered (in Chinese) that I wasn’t afraid and actually I could speak a little Chinese myself, much to his surprise!


We spent the rest of that day together, and I think it was the best day of my life. I had not only met not only the most handsome man I’ve ever known. I also met the man who 10 months later proposed to me “movie-style” at the top of Dalian’s sightseeing tower observation deck, right in his hometown where we had moved a couple of months before. I feel so lucky to have met a man with such integrity and intelligence, someone who always strives to be better — just like me.

That day, sitting on a wall in the Birmingham city centre, marks the start of my greatest adventure: of marriage, of a new family, of living a taste of real Chinese life.


Sarah is currently studying Mandarin Chinese in Guilin, China, where she lives with her husband, and documents the challenges and the joys of her adventure at Diaries of a Yangxifu.


Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts and love stories! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.


4 Really Bad Reasons for Marrying Western Women in China

As I’ve written before, people in China are just crazy about yangxifu (the foreign wives of Chinese men).  We’ve inspired two popular forums on Baidu devoted to discussing yangxifu (Yangxifu Ba and Waiguoxifu Ba), while yangxifu regularly make headlines in China news.

So of course, many Chinese men would love to marry a Western woman just like me. For some, it’s even their life’s dream.

But just because a guy would love to marry us doesn’t mean he’s always doing it with love in mind. Unfortunately, some Chinese men approach us with the wrong ideas altogether — things that would surprise and totally shock you.

If you really want to wed a Western woman in China, please – PLEASE — don’t do it for one of these four incredibly bad reasons:

1. To show off

In today’s China, everyone yearns for status symbols like BMWs, Louis Vuitton purses and Burberry scarves. They want to tell the world they’re powerful, wealthy and successful. But for some men, the ultimate status symbol – the proof that they’ve truly “made it” – is a Western wife.

I’ve got news for you, guys. We don’t take well to being treated as nothing more than your accessory. We’re not just some Coach purse, content to swing around your arm in front of your friends and colleagues. And believe me, we’re usually smart enough to figure out that that’s exactly what you’re doing (especially if you seem intent on parading us in front of as many people as possible every time we go out).

If you really want to show off, do us a favor and get a Porsche or something instead.

(P.S.: for a personal take on this issue, read about how my husband’s cousin wanted a Western wife to brag about.)


 2. To immigrate to her Western country

Have you been “California dreaming” or hoping to live out a permanent “Roman holiday” in a Western country? Perhaps you’ve imagined a highly questionable solution to your problem – just marry a Western woman. With her by your side, a coveted foreign passport, the rights to work or study in her country just like a local, and tons of enviable visa-free travel destinations are all yours for the taking, right?

Except…what happens when your wife discovers she’s nothing more than your personal passport machine?

I once knew of an American woman I’ll call “Sally” who was smitten with a Beijinger. For Sally, a plus-sized woman in her forties used to being invisible to the vast majority of men, finding a guy who actually wanted to marry her and come to live with her in the US was nothing short of a miracle. So they tied the knot and then her Beijing husband came to Seattle. That’s also the city where he abandoned Sally by disappearing from her life, just after he nabbed his US green card. It’s not hard to tell who (or rather, what) he was really in love with.

She posted the whole harrowing story on an online forum. While it broke my heart to read it, I can only imagine the state of Sally’s heart when she discovered her so-called husband had essentially punk’d her in the most despicable way.

Do you want to be that kind of guy? Do you want your immigration rights at the expense of her happiness? Do want to shatter her trust in men forever (including men from China)? We’re talking about a Faustian bargain that could haunt you for the rest of your life (that is, if you actually have morals).

Besides, living abroad isn’t all champagne and English roses. The moment you set foot in a Western country, you’ve just traded in one set of challenges for another. And let me tell you, some of those challenges will surprise and shock you (like discrimination).

Still gotta “Go West”? Just don’t use a Western woman who you never really loved in the first place to do it.

(photo by Susan Sermoneta via

 3. To improve your English

“So you only speak English to her!”

God, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this from Chinese people, who wrongly assume my husband only communicates with my in English. Even worse, some jump to the conclusion that his English is so awesome because he married me.

Sometimes, I just want to cringe because of what they’re implying — a Western wife who speaks English equals your own private English teacher.

I want to be appreciated for who I really am, not because I happen to be a native English speaker. Who wouldn’t feel the same?

It’s bad enough that a lot of Western women in China – women just like me – end up teaching English here, an occupation that sometimes makes you feel like an “English machine” when seemingly everyone and their brother demands a piece of you to boost their English studies. We don’t want that kind of exhausting mess in our marriage.

That doesn’t mean we can’t support your language studies at all. Actually, my husband John and I have enjoyed a bilingual relationship from the moment we started flirting years ago. It’s one of the things that makes our marriage a lot of fun.

But if you’re only looking for love with us for English, believe me, we’ll catch on. After all, we’ve probably all taught English at one time or another – and we can tell if you belong in our bedroom or our classroom. And if you’re only looking for “private lessons”, we’ll dump you and your crazy English ideas.

(photo by bandita via

 4. Because you’re racist

To the Chinese guys who exclude all other women in pursuit of a pale-skinned Western beauty with golden hair, I’m talking to you. You know, someone who thinks that mixed-race kids are so much more “beautiful” and “clever”, and therefore must have, for example, a white Western wife.

I get that people have preferences in the dating world. But if you’re dating a certain group of people because of their race (or characteristics only unique to a certain race) to the exclusion of people from other racial groups…that’s racist. I wouldn’t want a guy who loves me solely for my white skin – or the fact that I could provide him with a mixed-race baby. That’s just creepy!

What do you think of these reasons? What did I miss?