This year marks the 60th anniversary of the beloved Chinese concerto Butterfly Lovers, a composition inspired by the Yue Opera Liang Zhu, often thought of as China’s Romeo and Juliet story, where the world also conspires to separate a couple, with tragic results.
Despite the bittersweet nature of the opera, the concerto Butterfly Lovers soars with such a grandiose, joyful melody that I embraced it after coming to live China – so much so that I later set it as the ringtone on my mobile phone.
The story, which has its roots in Zhejiang province, resonated even more with me when I resided in its capital city of Hangzhou and found myself falling in love with one of its citizens – Jun, the man who would become my future husband.
Guess how I knew he had a thing for me? One day I happened to stroll into his side of the office, and discovered that he happened to set the very same ringtone – Butterfly Lovers – on his own mobile phone. This subtle flirtation, along with so many other sweet gestures from Jun, helped him flutter straight into my own heart. We kept the ringtones unchanged on our mobile phones for a very, very long time too.
In a way, it’s funny that we both saw the Butterfly Lovers as a kind of reflection of a relationship, given the fact that things don’t entirely end well for the couple. Still, what inspired us with the undying devotion the two had for one another – so powerful that the two transformed into butterflies, which allowed them to spend the rest of their days together. There’s something beautiful about a love that transcends even a human existence.
And it’s even more beautiful when you can share that with the person you care most for in the world, in a gorgeous melody.
Have you ever heard the Butterfly Lovers before? Do you consider it a romantic composition?
The other night, while staying over at my in-laws’ place in the countryside, my husband and I were just about to get ready for bed when it hit us.
Oh crap, we’d left the laundry in the washing machine all afternoon. We’d forgotten to hang it out to dry.
We bounded downstairs to the laundry room with flashlight in hand, and fully expected to spend 10 to 15 minutes doing what we should have done more than six hours ago.
Except, when I ran over to the washing machine, it was empty. Totally empty. And when I turned my head, sure enough, there was our laundry, neatly hung on clothes hangers on a bamboo rack.
As much as I felt relieved that I’d been saved the trouble of doing that laundry this evening, a slight sense of guilt pricked me.
Once again, my mother-in-law had done housework for me. Housework I could have easily done for myself…and should have done, given it was my laundry.
It’s embarrassing to admit that I’m in my thirties and still enjoy laundry assistance from my mother-in-law whenever we stay at her home in the countryside of Zhejiang Province. But it’s true. This sort of thing happens ALL the time.
So in the spirit of being honest, I’m sharing 4 embarrassing things that I’ve experienced with my Chinese in-laws. Here they are:
#1: My mother-in-law will still do laundry for us
Yes, it’s true. My mother-in-law has been known to hang up my clothing left in the washing machine…and she’s even done entire loads of laundry for us.
To be sure, though, I generally don’t ask her to do it. Even I know it’s embarrassing to be in your 30s and have your parents or in-laws do your laundry. (I mean, come on, anyone who has seen Legally Blonde would remember how Elle and Brooke howled over the fact that Warner still took his laundry home to get it cleaned.)
Here’s what usually happens. Either I put the clothing in the washing machine, but stupidly forget to hang it up on time (like I mentioned in the introduction). Or, my mother-in-law grabs my dirty clothing without telling me, and does the entire load for me (this happened ALL THE TIME when I stayed with my in-laws during the summer of 2011).
Sometimes, though, I do ask for her help. The other day, we were in a hurry to leave their house and I had just thrown a load of laundry into the washing machine. So I asked her if she could hang it and she said, “No problem” with a smile.
So now you know one of my biggest dirty secrets.
#2: My mother-in-law cooks all our meals
When we stay with my in-laws at their home, there’s one thing we can count on – three square meals, all home-cooked by my mother-in-law. Always.
This is the complete opposite of how things work at my parents’ home back in the US. There, the assumption is we’re on our own and have to make our own meals (or buy them). Unless, of course, my dad or mom specifically asks us to join them for a meal (or invites us out).
The difference totally blew my husband’s mind.
Anyhow, here at my in-laws’ home in China there’s never any concern about cooking. Everyone knows that when it’s lunch and dinner, my mother-in-law’s voice will echo through the corridors – time to eat! – and we’ll all come bounding down the stairs.
It’s a strange place for me. I spent so many years handling all my cooking (and enjoying much of it). Now, when I’m staying with my in-laws, I just show up to eat at the table.
I have spent some time with my mother-in-law in the kitchen, learning how to cook from her. (She taught me how to make vegan Chinese-style flatbread, for example.) But in many ways, I feel foreign in her kitchen, a feeling that has nothing to do with my nationality, actually. After all, she uses a fire-powered wok to do the majority of her cooking, and I honestly have no idea how to manage the fire. Given how clumsy I am, I might just burn down the kitchen if I tried!
Now that I think about it, maybe it is better to leave the cooking to a woman who won’t cause a conflagration in the kitchen.
#3: My in-laws give us money more often than you think
When a friend of mine — also a Western woman with a Chinese husband – posted in a private chat about how guilty she felt because her mother-in-law gave her some cash to buy a new laptop (her old one crashed), oh, how I could sympathize.
I thought about the many Chinese New Years that had passed since John and I returned to China in late 2013, and how his parents always gave us heaping hongbao filled with more money than adults in the family should have.
I remembered how my mother-in-law handed over an additional stack of bills last year because my husband was starting his business (and she wanted him to have some “lucky money”).
In America, the ultimate badge of adulthood is having your own place, separate from mom and dad.
Well, the most embarrassing thing I could mention on this list is the fact that we’ve lived in the same house as my in-laws – for long periods of time.
Even now, we divide our time between an apartment in Hangzhou and their home. Heck, they added an entire suite to the house just for my husband and me, which proves how welcoming they are.
It’s worlds away from America. I can guarantee you that if I asked my American friends and classmates, none of them would say that their parents or in-laws renovated their homes so they could live together. It’s just not done there.
As embarrassing as it is to admit this, I have to confess I’m also grateful. This suite they’ve provided us is symbolic of the incredible support they’ve given me and my husband.
Life isn’t always easy for John and me. But knowing that we have a couple of incredibly loving parents behind us – willing to do things that I’m a little embarrassed to talk about – makes the hard times a little more bearable.
If you’re all grown up, is there anything you’re embarrassed that your parents or in-laws still do for you?
As John and I stopped to admire a patch of yellow daisies while hiking through his village in Zhejiang, a voice speaking Chinese reached us from across the creek. “Aren’t those flowers beautiful?”
I looked up to see two smiling yet unfamiliar faces staring at my husband and me, both filled with a friendly curiosity. After all, it’s not everyday they find a white foreigner hiking across from their fields.
The warmth from their gazes made me do something so uncharacteristic in China, something I rarely do with strangers here: I waved at them and smiled.
“Yes, they’re very beautiful,” I said to them in Chinese. “And fragrant!”
Soon, we fell into a brief conversation — about why we were hiking around the creek (for fun), about what they were doing (planting some crops in the fields). Even though it was all just small talk, by the time we left and continued on our way home, I felt as if we just made a couple of new friends. And it’s not the first time this has happened.
A woman in the mountains always invites us in for dinner or a little small talk whenever we hike past her house. While cruising down the hill on our bicycles, one fellow standing outside his house with a bowl of rice and bamboo also asked us to come over for dinner. A farmer picking cherries in the fields suddenly pushed his basket of sweet red bounty in front of me, insisting I must take some home — and even forcing the cherries into my hands when I hadn’t taken enough. And then there are the countless individuals who crack an unexpected smile at my husband whenever he greets them in the local dialect with a question like, “Off work?”
It’s amazing how a simple walk through my husband’s village in rural Zhejiang suddenly opens up unexpected doors and hearts. There’s a brilliant friendliness here that shines upon us like the golden sunshine. Maybe it’s because my husband always called these mountains home — and whenever he speaks the dialect of this region, he announces his hometown roots. Maybe it’s in part that the curious presence of a foreigner in a remote mountain village inevitably opens up even some of the shyest people to a little conversation.
Yet I know we would never enjoy the same friendly welcome in a big city like Hangzhou, Shanghai or even Beijing. After living in big cities in China, I know all too well the watchful distance between strangers on the streets — where there’s no such thing as waving hello or asking someone, “What are you up to?” It’s a world where people worry about helping up a fallen little old grandmother in the streets for fear of getting sued…where you automatically assume “swindler” or even “thief” if someone you don’t know approaches you.
So of course, I assumed the same rules applied to us when we moved to my husband’s hometown in the countryside…and how wrong I was.
I’ve also watched my husband transform from the shy wallflower he once was in the US to the confident social butterfly who could charm almost anyone into a smile, even the most impossible grimacing grandfathers on the streets. Even after all of the hardships we’ve faced in the US, my husband still greets everyone in this village with a cheerful optimism that is so inspiring, especially to me.
My husband reminds me that, no matter what difficulties you’ve encountered in life, there’s still room for a smile, a nod and a little small talk. Sometimes, it’s also the best remedy for those sad and lonely days I experience here in China, where the world seems crazy and unfair and impossible. It’s like slowing down to enjoy a patch of yellow flowers — realizing the beauty and love that’s already around us, but that we’ve forgotten in our daily routines.
Someday, John and I will leave his parents’ home for bigger things. Yet a part of us will undoubtedly remain among these welcoming mountains in the countryside, which have taught us to believe once again in humanity and the power of a smile.
It’s one thing to see history on display behind a museum glass and another to experience it right beneath the soles of your hiking shoes.
My husband has always told me China is a magical place. And among the “magical” things about his native country is, naturally, its amazing 5,000 years of history. Over the years that I’ve been together with John — first as his girlfriend, then as his wife — I’ve heard him gush with pride about how China is one of the world’s oldest civilizations. And why wouldn’t he? If I came from a country with a continuous culture that stretched back thousands of years, I’d be proud of it too.
We’re both history and culture buffs, so naturally we’ve visited lots of museums on our travels across China, often in awe of the beauty and craftmanship of artifacts that are thousands of years old.
But I never believed we would ever find a piece of China’s history right in John’s humble little village in the countryside.
While exploring a ridge trail that cut across patches of bracken ferns, bamboo and satintail grasses on a hilltop, we suddenly came upon a clearing on the hilltop — and a historical marker carved into a slab of marble. That landmark designated the fertile ground beneath our feet the site of an ancient civilization that flourished 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.
That’s right. Four to five thousand years ago!
I couldn’t believe we found this on our hike! I surveyed the clearing around us, covered in mugwort, clover and other small weeds. Nothing about the geography could have told us we would stumble upon an ancient site on this ridgetop. And then I wondered, what was it like back then? How did these people live? Were any of the stones around the area evidence of their civilization as well?
But the other side of the marker provided no introduction or description for the culture, beyond that it was an ancient site dated to China’s Neolithic age.
I also wondered about what it meant for John and his past. Were these people among John’s ancestors? The idea thrilled me for a moment, even if we had no way to confirm it.
Later, when my husband looked up the site online, we learned that archaeologists had discovered a cache of broken pieces of ancient pottery at the site, including the legs of ding vessels, and suggested it was a part of Zhejiang’s Liangzhu culture.
When I saw an online photograph of the site’s scattered pottery fragments, each like a lost puzzle piece, I knew the find would only stand as footnote in China’s ancient history. Since the archaeologists already unearthed the major artifacts on the site, there wasn’t much to see there, apart from the landmark the government left behind. Meanwhile, friends and family in the village didn’t even know about it, and nothing about that hillside nor its trail even suggested that a fantastic find lay hidden beneath the trees and bushes.
Still, it felt magical all the same to know that a small part of China’s ancient history sat right in our backyard.
Have you ever stumbled upon a historical or ancient site?
As a child growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, USA, wild edible plants — especially those we foraged for ourselves — were never on the menu. Sure, we picked blackberries on late summer hikes and a few times I tried harvesting Staghorn sumac berries to make my own tea. But otherwise, the food on our dinner table came straight out of a supermarket.
So it’s hard to believe that, these days, wild edible plants comprise at least half or more of the stir-fried dishes that leave my mother-in-law’s kitchen here in China. Even stranger to me, I’ve actually helped forage for some of these wild edible plants. To think that something I harvested actually became dinner!
Here are three amazing wild edible plants here in Zhejiang, China that have enchanted me and my Chinese family this Spring.
These tender fronds have become a Spring favorite in farmers markets in the US (and among foragers who know and love them). But out here in rural Zhejiang, people have gathered fiddlehead ferns in the mountains for generations. The local variety is the bracken fern and the tender shoots spring up over the mountains in our village.
We only pick the most tender fiddleheads growing in the mountains, with the fronds still curled up. These days, it’s not uncommon for my husband and me to return from a hike through the hills with a huge handful of fresh fiddleheads. I never thought a simple hike could yield so many delicious things! 😉
My mother-in-law washes them thoroughly in her kitchen and then blanches them. Some claim the process reduces the carcinogens in the fern, though my mother-in-law says this simply eliminates the unpleasant sour, “numbing” flavor of the fiddleheads. Finally, she chops them into matchstick-sized pieces and stir-fries them with fragrant garlic, ginger, pickled hot peppers, Shaoxing wine, and salt.
So tasty, you’ll forget all about the alleged cancer claims. Promise!
Spring bamboo shoots
The Chinese saying “like spring bamboo shoots after rain” (yǔhòuchūnsǔn, 雨后春笋) refers to how quickly things can suddenly happen or come up. And trust me, after the rains in late February and March settled over our region of Zhejiang, before I knew it spring bamboo shoots were sprouting all over the hills.
Right now, we’re seeing two varieties in the mountains. One is moso bamboo shoots or maosun (máosǔn, 毛笋); this is the largest variety of bamboo you usually see in the area. If you’ve ever watched any Chinese films that feature bamboo forests, chances are they’re moso bamboo. The other, well, I have no idea what it’s called in English — but it’s small and grows wild all across the mountains, so in the local language they call it “mountain bamboo shoots” or shansun (shānsǔn, 山笋). To harvest either variety, you simply dig up the shoots from the ground.
Whether maosun or shansun, you must first peel away the hard husk of the bamboo shoots to reveal the tender and edible portion.
These days, when it comes to wild bamboo, we’ve mainly seen wild maosun at the table. My mother-in-law usually prepares it one of two ways. For the vegetarians in the family (i.e., me!), she stir-fries it with lots of rapeseed oil, ginger, sugar, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, pickled greens, and salt to taste.
For the carnivores, she stews the maosun along with fatty pork, ginger, sugar, Shaoxing wine and salt to taste.
If you’ve only known bamboo through the lackluster canned versions sold in the West, all you need is one taste some wild bamboo shoots and I promise, you’ll never buy another can again!
This past Saturday (April 5) we just celebrated Qingming Jie (qīngmíngjié, 清明节) or the Tomb-Sweeping Festival where people visit their ancestors graves and remember family and love ones who have passed away. And here in rural Zhejiang Province, there’s no wild plant more beloved during this holiday than the aromatic mugwort, also known as qingmingcao.
It’s hard to believe just how common this variety of mugwort is around here. In fact, it grows like a weed everywhere, even in the dusty pebble lanes that criss-cross the fields in the village. For nearly two weeks, I hiked these lanes, never realizing all that time that mugwort was right under my shoes!
My mother-in-law gathers wild mugwort from the hills well in advance of the holiday, because this lowly little wild green undergoes an extraordinary transformation in the kitchen. After cleaning it, she blanches it and then crushes and grinds it into a paste, infusing the kitchen with an aroma reminiscent of lavender. The paste then goes into a warm wok along with glutinous rice flour, creating a dark green dough.
That dough then gets kneaded and partitioned into small rounds, which after being flattened, become the wrappers for qingming turnovers (stuffed with chopped up bamboo shoots, tofu, and salted greens).
For a sweet version, my mother-in-law adds sugar to taste to the green dough and then shapes the rounds in a small mold made especially for Qingming Jie.
Finally, she steams the turnovers and sweet rounds in her wok until they’re cooked through and turn a deeper shade of green.
Here’s the final product (one turnover, one sweet round) — slightly fragrant, sticky, and oh-so scrumptious. Remembering your ancestors never tasted so good!
Have you ever foraged for wild edible plants? What are your Spring favorites?
When my mother-in-law shouted the news up the stairwell a few weeks ago, I was dumbfounded. It was 4:30pm and we never ate dinner until at least 5:30pm. But more importantly, nobody told John and me we were having dinner out this evening. And we weren’t the only ones surprised, as we learned when we met my mother-in-law downstairs.
“They’ve already made dinner,” she said. She was wearing her favorite blue-and-yellow felt apron, evidence that she had probably been working on dinner for us when someone from big uncle’s home came over with the news. “It’s bad not to go. Just go over there and eat a little.”
A little, however, was not what big uncle had in mind — as John and I discovered when we walked into the dining room. Eight people were already huddled around a dining room table filled with more than 10 different dishes, a delicious assortment of stir-fried meats and vegetables that would have rivaled some of the most lavish banquets I’ve ever attended in China.
I couldn’t help thinking how my family back in the US would never pull off such a huge spread at the last minute. People would need days if not weeks of notice, and even then some people might not be available. Yet here, it just happened one afternoon, all because big uncle wanted to share his generosity with us.
Even though I still equate the word “invitation” with advance notification, I’m also learning to understand that invitations don’t always work like that — especially out here in my husband’s village. Sometimes it’s not an easy thing to accept when, like me, you’re so used to setting your own schedule and being told well in advance of upcoming dinners, meetings or other events. But there’s also beauty in living spontaneously, in not always having every moment and every second planned out…especially when, like big uncle’s dinner, it turns out to be a tasty surprise.
As the wife of a Chinese man, I’m used to attracting attention when I’m out and about in China. The stares, the questions about where I’m from, the way cars slow down to gawk at us — it’s all par for the course.
So during one of our evening walks in the village, I wasn’t surprised when an elderly woman walking in the opposite direction suddenly began asking my husband questions.
“Where are you from?” she inquired in the local dialect.
John mentioned the name of his village, nestled right in the heart of the valley.
“Where is she from?”
“America. She’s my wife.”
The woman grimaced at him in disbelief. “That’s nonsense!” Yes, she refused to believe that someone from John’s little mountain village could have possibly married a woman from America. And she walked away, not to be bamboozled by us.
When John translated the whole conversation for me (I’m still working on my local dialect) I nearly doubled over in laughter. “Are you kidding? She thought you were lying about me?”
It was the first time anyone in China doubted the authenticity of our relationship. But as strange as it sounded, I could understand why. In John’s hometown, it’s not uncommon to meet people who have spent their entire lives, knowing little else beyond these mountains thick with hardy bamboo and fragrant Chinese red pines, and the rice paddies and terraced gardens sculpted into the hillsides. Who could imagine that one of their hometown sons would meet and marry a foreigner, let alone spend years in her country? As rare as it is to find Chinese men and Western women together in China’s urban playgrounds, out here in the Zhejiang countryside such a coupling sounds impossible and even ridiculous.
The Chinese government advises foreigners to carry their passports with them at all times in China. I have to wonder, should I also carry around my Chinese marriage license so I’m prepared for the next time someone calls my marriage “nonsense”?
“The feelings between my wife and I were not so harmonious. So [this past summer] we officially divorced,” wrote Huizhong, one of my husband’s xiongdi — male friends so close to him that he refers to them with the Chinese word for “brothers.” Just like that, Huizhong became a new statistic in the rise of divorce rates in China. Continue reading “Another Friend, Another Divorce in China”
John loves this expression, and has told it to me many times in our relationship. There is truth to it. Huangshan is an impressive mountain, and has a greater scale than China’s Five Sacred Mountains — Songshan, Hengshan, Hengshan, Huashan, and Taishan. But many would argue that the Five Sacred Mountains have their own beauty, and a beauty worth seeing, even if you have visited Huangshan. I don’t mention this to John, because I know his words say more about him than Huangshan. He loves Huangshan, because his relatives lived in the shadow of its enormous spires. His people are mountain people, and come from a mountain that claims to overshadow the rest.
Though he didn’t grow up at the feet of Huangshan, he was born and raised in the mountains just southeast of Huangshan. On the top level of a double-decker bus, on a sultry summer evening in 2002, he turns to me and speaks of the beauty of the mountains in his hometown. “My hometown is a tourist destination,” he says proudly. He tells me it is Tonglu, but I have never heard of it. “We have mountains, rivers, and caves,” he says. And then he smiles gently and adds this: “You’re welcome to visit anytime.”
At my inlaws’ home, I didn’t take much notice of the chicken habitually roosting in the corner of the room next to the kitchen. Chickens have free run of the first floor of the house (which means we have to watch where we walk) and even have their own sleeping corner.
But my Chinese mother-in-law did notice that chicken, and she didn’t like it one bit.
“It keeps sitting there in the corner, but it won’t lay eggs!” she exclaimed in her booming voice — a voice that is pretty normal out here in the countryside, but would border on argumentative if she were speaking in English.
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