I Never Intended To Marry a Chinese Man

John and I on the day of our wedding ceremony“Did you always want to marry an Asian guy?” That’s what a friend of mine asked me the other night, a question that surprised me.

It’s not that I didn’t know what to say. “No, I never really even thought about it until going to China,” I told her. Then I landed in Zhengzhou, and met a super-sexy, sullen James Dean of a guy who just happened to be Chinese. And while I didn’t end up marrying him, he opened my eyes to a new reality — that I could find love with a Chinese man — that eventually led me to John.

Maybe her words shocked me because yellow fever, Asian fetishes — whatever you want to call it — just never entered into my own equation, and I know I’m not alone. Continue reading “I Never Intended To Marry a Chinese Man”

The Sands, and Teahouses, of Time

When love bubbled over with my first Chinese boyfriend in a Taiwanese teahouse, I tried to hold on to that sweetness through the teahouse he left behind (image from Wikimedia Commons)

That Taiwanese teahouse in Zhengzhou, with its weather-beaten wooden facade and rickety sign, faded away beside the signs and storefronts splashed in reds and yellows and blues on the Western end of Weiwu Road.

It didn’t sparkle like the clothing stores on Huayuan Road, where beautiful apparel and even more beautiful salespeople glimmered across the pearl white floors, to a technopop soundtrack. It never shook with crowds like the outdoor vegetable market, where stacks of caged pigeons squawked right opposite the tractors filled with the freshest watermelons in the city. It couldn’t even out-class the luxury of those Beijing-style fabric slippers sold just down the street, in silky pinks and reds and blues fit for an Empress.

But I loved that teahouse more than any other place in Zhengzhou for one simple reason — I fell in love there in 1999. Continue reading “The Sands, and Teahouses, of Time”

How China Made My Clothing Cuter

Cute clothing from China
Before I went to China, I never believed in wearing cute pastels. But after living in the Middle Kingdom, adorable outfits slowly creeped into my wardrobe, and changed forever just how I saw clothing (photo by marco microbi reckmann)

Before I went to China, I couldn’t even remember the last time I wore a pastel. I’d exorcised everything pale pink and peach from my closet, instead preferring the deep, scruffy olives and maroons and blacks of my thrift-store wardrobe. No one would mistake me for some prep princess, ever.

But over the years, pastels started creeping into my wardrobe. It started with a T-shirt here, a tank top there. And before you know it, I’m wearing an outfit — just as I did yesterday — that would leave the old me screaming in horror: a cheerful pastel striped knit tank with blinding white cargo shorts (ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!).

China changed me.

I’ll never forget my first full day in the Middle Kingdom. I dressed in my usual, defiant clothes — a military green knit top, and don’t-mess-with-me khaki shorts, baggy (just to make me look even more dominant) — as I flitted from one famous Beijing site to another: the Forbidden City, Beihai Park, Tian’anmen Square.

But as I wandered around town, I couldn’t help but notice the young Chinese women — and what they wore. Continue reading “How China Made My Clothing Cuter”

My Hairstyling Nirvana in China

Once upon a time, I feared China's foreign scissors -- until I discovered the delight of a haircut in the Middle Kingdom.

Just this past Tuesday, I visited my local US hair salon to tidy up my ‘do (an unruly mess of wavy, fickle brown hair). She snipped, she clipped and had me out the door within 10 minutes. It looked fine, but it was like the hairdressing equivalent of “wham, bam, thank you ma’am.” And the experience left me yearning for those hair salons I used to know in China.

Of course, when I first moved to China, as an English teacher, I yearned for the hair salons back in the US. Like every woman, I’d done the “dating around” with many a hair salon, until I discovered the perfect stylist, a woman who absolutely “got it” about my hair. I didn’t even need to give her directions, beyond “just make me look good.” And she did, every time.

When you have this almost spiritual connection with a stylist, you just don’t want to let go, and suddenly risk the unthinkable — a bad haircut, something powerful enough to spiral your day into a horrible abyss, and even make you think twice about stepping outside (for several days, even). Continue reading “My Hairstyling Nirvana in China”

Travel China with the Yangxifu: Longmen Grottoes, Luoyang, Henan Province

The 10,000 Buddha cave
Longmen Grottoes, Luoyang, Henan Province
The Longmen Grottoes are Buddhist art on a grand scale

When we think of China’s great statuesque artwork, the Terracotta Warriors come to mind. They’ve become the awe-inducing, must-see of China, second only to the Forbidden City.

Yet, just East of Xi’an, four hours up the railway line to Beijing, is another grand cache of art that stands in the Warriors’ shadows, but delivers almost as many “wow” moments. I’m talking Luoyang’s Longmen Grottoes — a string of over 100,000 Buddhist images and statues carved into a hillside during China’s Wei and Tang Dynasties.

Luoyang’s Longmen Grottoes are one of several sites in China for viewing ancient Buddhist cave art — besides the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, the Yungang Grottoes near Datong, and Bingling Si near Lanzhou. Mogao and Yungang are more famous (and, arguably, colorful), and Bingling Si, with its sheer cliffs by the reservoir and a huge 27-meter-high Buddha, more breathtaking. But Luoyang is just four hours from Xi’an, right on that train line from Beijing, so you can easily take in a little ancient cave art before heading to that more famous tourist attraction.

And, believe me, even if they’re not number one, the Longmen Grottoes are worth the visit. Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Longmen Grottoes, Luoyang, Henan Province”

Travel China with the Yangxifu: Shang Dynasty Wall Ruins, Zhengzhou, China

Walking next to the mounds that mark the Shang Dynasty Wall Ruins
Men sitting on the Shang Dynasty
It's not just a mound -- it marks the spot where the walls of an ancient Shang Dynasty town once stood...in a place that doubles as a park and, for the men featured, a place to squat and talk.

It’s one thing to see China’s history in a museum, and another to walk on it.

In Zhengzhou’s Eastern city outskirts, you’ll find a curious mound of earth that runs through a park — the kind of park in China filled with Tai Chi practitioners, grandparents tending children in crotchless pants, inflatable play areas, and neat tiled squares and walkways. But you shouldn’t let the surroundings fool you. This is not just another park, and that’s not just another grass-covered mound. That mound marks the the site of where walls around a Shang Dynasty city once stood. Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Shang Dynasty Wall Ruins, Zhengzhou, China”

Travel China with the Yangxifu: Po Pagoda (繁塔), Kaifeng, China

Po Pagoda in Kaifeng, Henan Province
Po Pagoda, a Northern Song pagoda blanketed in tiles with Buddhist images, towers above the traditional courtyard homes and alleys that surround it.

Just outside of the center of Kaifeng, there’s an unusual neighborhood of old one-story, brick courtyard homes, trees and labyrinthine streets that just barely fit the taxi we rode in that afternoon. It’s a marvel, because most of these neighborhoods have been consumed by the high-rise reality of China’s real estate. Even my friend from Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province that sits just one hour East of Kaifeng, lamented the loss of his own boyhood courtyard home, surrounded by trees — just like the ones we pass by.

But we’re not here to visit traditional Chinese homes. This maze of architecture that once was is a visual preamble to our final destination — one even more unusual than the surrounding homes. Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: Po Pagoda (繁塔), Kaifeng, China”

Travel China with the Yangxifu: The Henan Museum, Zhengzhou, China

The Henan Museum
The Henan Museum offers extraordinary stories and relics, in one of China’s most overlooked cities — Zhengzhou. (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

“The museum is under construction, so there are only two rooms open,” the woman behind the information desk told us in a droll voice in Mandarin. She probably had to say this same thing hundreds of times a day, every day.

But while this was just another day for her, this was the only day for John, my Chinese husband, and I to visit the the Henan Museum in Zhengzhou, Henan Province.

We just shrugged our shoulders in disappointment, and walked to the room to our right. It was painted in a forgettable beige — nearly the same color as the loess of the loess plains, where Zhengzhou is located — and seemed to hold, on first glance, an equally forgettable collection of artifacts that couldn’t match what we’d seen in Beijing, Shanghai and Changsha.

Yet, forgettable is hardly how we would describe our visit. That’s because the Henan Museum, opened to the public in 1998, is one of the few museums in China where you don’t feel as if you’ve seen this bronze or that porcelain 100 times before. Invest a little time, be curious, and you will be rewarded with extraordinary stories and unusual relics. Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: The Henan Museum, Zhengzhou, China”

Travel China with the Yangxifu: the Kaifeng Night Market

Travel China with the Yangxifu takes you to the Kaifeng Night Market. Here, I’m trying fried bean-starch, or chao liangpi.

Foreign women are not available at the Kaifeng Night Market — even if there’s a demand.

“Wow, you have a foreign girl — you’re really sharp!” The almond tea vendors, wearing white coats and kufi — the traditional Muslim caps for men — reveled in the fact that my Chinese husband, John, had a foreign wife. But their revelry was more than just a casual curiosity.

“I’d like a foreign wife,” one of the vendors declared in a rough Henan accent. “How do you get one?”

You don’t get one at the Kaifeng Night Market.

But you will find so much more, from fantastic xiaochi (小吃), which means

snacks), to quirky people (including the aforementioned foreign-babe obsessed vendors) and a uniquely boisterous atmosphere. The Kaifeng Night Market is a living relic, a reminder of the forte volume and flavorful delicacies of night markets that once blanketed the country, but are now disappearing because of city beautification or cleanup projects. (Interestingly, my friend Frank G, who works as a judge in Kaifeng, said that the city cannot shut the market down, because they’re afraid the sellers would protest.) But, most of all, it is relaxing, fun and leaves you with none of the touristy aftertaste associated with China’s major attractions.

Continue reading “Travel China with the Yangxifu: the Kaifeng Night Market”

China, the Renovation Nation

I wrote this piece about five years ago. It’s a dark piece, and came out of a dark time in my life — when I experienced a lot of renovation around the place I lived in Shanghai, and was grappling with what to do with my future. If you’re having some dark days (from weather, life, or even holiday blues), this is for you.


Across the street from my gym, there is a clothing store for infants and toddlers. I know it well because I always park my generic, cement-gray bicycle right next to its display window, lit up with the tender image of some darling baobei sporting the latest in baby fashion – an odd foil to my ugly wheels.

I began to notice how the windows became plastered by screaming yellow signs promising deep bargains. Fifty, 60, 70, 80 percent off! Like lichen covering a rock, they even obscured the front showroom and finally that trusty display window. Inside the store, free-for-all bins sloppily loaded with clothes had replaced the racks and models.

There they were – all of the telltale signs of store renovation.

And sure enough, for weeks afterwards I parked right next to a work-in-progress. I saw the team of workers, night after night, navigate the noxious fumes and the symphony of drills, saws and chains in what I feared might foretell the end of retailing of infant and toddler clothes on Danshui Road as I knew it.

One night, I saw those workers in the middle of the half-finished store. The décor captured that feeling of newborn innocence. Whitewashed walls, floors and shelves; a pastel painting of imaginary elephants with a poem about the joys of being a child. The men stood there smoking cigarettes, as though they were in a bar, and sullied the floor with ashes and spit. Well, I suppose if babies are born with original sin, then stores for babies are no different.

I never really saw renovation like this, in all of its glory, mystery and (in some cases) malevolence, until I came to China. Continue reading “China, the Renovation Nation”