Ember Swift Interview Part 2 – How China Changed Her Life

Ember Swift and Guo Jian, during one of their wedding ceremonies (photo courtesy of Ember Swift)

Last week, I introduced you to Canadian artist Ember Swift’s professional career — from how China changed her sound to what’s next for her as a musician/singer-songwriter and a writer. If you missed it, check out Part 1 of my Ember Swift interview. Also, you can purchase her music at iTunes and her website, peruse her must-read blogs, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Sina Weibo.

But when it comes to her writing, Ember isn’t afraid to get personal. She has written about her marriage to Guo Jian — the lead singer/bassist of Long Shen Dao — from the unique perspective of a queer woman. She has also shared her experience of being pregnant, giving birth and raising a baby in China, including navigating life with a Chinese mother-in-law who assists with child care.

In Part 2 of our interview, I asked Ember about her personal life — from how she met Guo Jian to what it’s like raising a baby in a Chinese family. 


You and Guo Jian met each other at a music venue. Could you tell us more about that first meeting?

Guo Jian (photo courtesy of Ember Swift)

The very first meeting was very short. He was the cute boy across the room that I originally thought was a woman. He is particularly beautiful–soft skin, high cheekbones, dimples–and I was immediately attracted to him. He also noticed me that night but he didn’t give that away. We only exchanged a few stunted words as a result of my terrible Chinese (at the time) and his absentee English. I wasn’t even sure I’d ever see him again. I called him “Dimple Boy” because I hadn’t retained his name. On my second trip to China, I ran into “Dimple Boy” on the third day of my journey. We remembered each other. The rest is history. In China, they’d call that second meeting 缘分 [yuánfèn]!

When did you realize that you were falling in love with Guo Jian? And given that your past relationships were primarily with women, how did that make you feel?

Guo Jian and Ember Swift (photo courtesy of Ember Swift)

I realized I was falling in love with him after we’d been hanging out for a month or more. I just really enjoyed his company and never wanted the time to end and this began to really freak me out. I didn’t know how to be with a man, really, having never had any adult romantic relationships with them. Also, he was Chinese and didn’t speak English! My first instinct was just to run back home to Canada and the comfort of my established life. It was Guo Jian who really pushed me to just listen to my heart and stay open to what was happening between us. I’ll always be grateful to him for that. Of course, that was to his advantage too!

You had two separate weddings, one in his hometown of Zibo, and another in Beijing. A lot of women who marry Chinese men — myself included — often struggle with balancing our wedding dreams with what the family wants for the wedding. What was your experience with Guo Jian? Did you feel you were able to find a good balance between your desires and his family’s desires, or did you also struggle at times?

Ember Swift and Guo Jian, during one of their wedding ceremonies (photo courtesy of Ember Swift)

I actually had three weddings. I’m not sure I’ll ever finish telling the first wedding story, though! 😉 There are so many parts to it! The second was in Beijing and the third was a “post-wedding party” in Canada a couple of months after the first two ceremonies. In Canada, we basically re-enacted a few parts of the wedding for the attendees and served finger foods. Anyway, I had never planned to get married. It wasn’t on my agenda at all; in fact, I was anti-wedding and anti-marriage for years because it wasn’t something that was granted, legally, to the gay community. When it became legal in Canada, I was still bitter about it. Imagine the confusion when my first real relationship with a man quickly turned into an engagement? I originally only agreed to marry Guo Jian because it was really important to him. In the process, though, I learned to see the beauty of a marriage: the commitment, the display of that faith in front of friends and family, the bonds it creates between families, etc. And, for someone who never wanted a wedding, I can’t believe I had to have THREE of them! In terms of family desires, though, they were all over the place. I let my MIL [mother-in-law] organize the first event, I let Guo Jian really organize the second and then the third event came along and when my Canadian family wanted to take it over, I had a complete meltdown and wouldn’t let anyone do anything. As a result, I was exhausted, but the Canadian event was finally something that reflected my style and approach to gatherings and so I felt compensated. I realized that the bride and groom are often just the leading characters in a play that other people have pre-written for you. A wedding is really rarely about the bride and groom, sadly!

Since you’re also a vegan like myself, and you’re part of a Chinese family (who is probably not vegan, I would imagine), I have to ask you the question that others have posed to me — how has it been for you?

(photo courtesy of Ember Swift)

I am mostly vegan but not 100% anymore. I eat organic eggs and some organic dairy, but not all the time. I was vegan for 7 years and was a strong vegan advocate with my music, as well, which is why many people still assume that I’m vegan. When I first went to China, I was still vegan and also wheat-free and I found it really hard with my remedial Chinese. Now, I can navigate a Chinese menu for vegan yummies and I think the cuisine in China is really among the most delicious on earth. I do eat wheat again, though, because what would life be without jiaozi and baozi? And during my pregnancy, I craved egg so much that I reintroduced it into my diet. I have been vegetarian, though, for 23 years now. Echo, my daughter, is also vegetarian.

My in-laws are accepting and respectful of my diet choices. They also respect our decision to raise Echo vegetarian, at least until she decides she wants to try meat and that will only be something I’d consent to (enabling her to be an autonomous individual) after she’s aware of the fact that it’s an animal that she’s eating, and which one. Then, if she really wants to try it, I also won’t be the mother who purchases or prepares it for her, so she’ll have to be really industrious and ask her grandma and grandpa!! Secretly, though, I hope she doesn’t desire it. I hope I can instill the ethic sooner than later. My in-laws have started eating more and more vegetarian food since knowing me, as well, and they feel better for it. All in all, I feel supported.

Guo Jian eats seafood and fish but no other meats. He usually does that when I’m not around!

You’ve written so much about your pregnancy in China — it could easily be a primer for anyone considering giving birth in the country! What surprised you most about managing a pregnancy in China?

Ember Swift and her newborn daughter Echo (photo courtesy of Ember Swift)

What surprised me most was how much advocacy I needed to do on my behalf regarding having a natural, drug-free birth. In Canada, midwives are more and more popular and natural birthing is still encouraged. C-section rates in China are so ridiculously high and so what I was advocating for was uncommon rather than the norm. Many other subtle practices throughout the process of pre-natal and delivery in China were also contrary to Western ones, so I suppose the other thing that surprised me was how prepared I had to be. The research seemed endless and the surprises kept coming. If I ever have another child, the birth will happen in Canada.

You did zuò yuèzi (坐月子,”the moon month” or “sitting the month”), after giving birth, which you’ve also written about (and even landed you a mention in a Christian Science Monitor article). Would you recommend it to other new moms — why or why not?

Ember Swift and Echo (photo by Sue Raposo)

The modern “zuò yuèzi” is not as strict as the traditional one, so, yes, I’d recommend it to new moms. In the West, some new moms think they need to jump right back into life and work after delivering a child; they’re too hard on themselves. I think the practice is primarily about rest and recovery, not to mention establishing those early bonds with your child and as a family unit. The connection to TCM in the rules related to cold, wind, water (etc) all make logical sense, but some of the stricter requirements like not bathing (yikes!) are just not realistic in this day and age when we have access to hot water in the wintertime and when our homes are (mostly) free from drafts. What’s more, how wonderful is it to have someone making your meals and taking care of your home while you just get used to being a mom? It’s hard to turn down such a beautiful offer of caregiving.

Congratulations on giving birth to your baby daughter Echo in 2012! As I read in your blog, Guo Jian’s mother moved in the same apartment complex to be close to you two, so she could help with child care. What has it been like having your mother-in-law involved in the raising of your child?

Ember’s mother-in-law and Echo (photo courtesy of Ember Swift)

I think I could write a blog just about the mother-in-law trials. It’s been a real challenge, to say the least. We have butted heads several times and have had to really learn new forms of communication and relationship management. On the other hand, having her around has been a god send. She is so helpful and dedicated to her grandchild. She is a fantastic cook. Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to do those shows out of town (she came with us as a caregiver to Echo as I was still breastfeeding) and I wouldn’t be able to get the writing jobs done, let alone rehearsals. So, even though we have had many clashes, I think I’m luckier than I am burdened by the tradition of having the MIL so underfoot in a young family’s life. She already compromised by renting an apartment and sleeping elsewhere, so at least we have some privacy at night. It’s tough, though, as privacy is a completely Western concept that I can never explain to her. Oiy, I could really write many paragraphs about this topic…

But, to end on a positive note, I apologize for taking so long to get these answers to you but, since I’m far away from my MIL, I haven’t been able to get these done all at once. I’ve been regularly interrupted by my daughter or her needs, which has really made me aware of how hard it is to be a single parent! I am looking forward to getting back to China where I have a partner and mother-in-law waiting and eager to be with the baby…

Clearly, with Guo Jian and family in China, you’ve put down some deep roots in the country. Could you talk about how that feels, especially after spending most of your adult life living in Canada?

Ember Swift at the Forbidden City in Beijing (photo courtesy of Ember Swift)

My home is Beijing now, although Toronto is a close second. Sometimes when I’m there, I’m homesick for Canada in deep and aching ways that are about culture and family and long term friendships. Right now, I’m homesick for China in more superficial ways, like for my pillow or my cats or the aforementioned built-in childcare! I think of myself as straddling two homes now—a bit dislocated, if you will. I never really feel 100% settled in either place.

I do imagine we’ll be there for a good ten years more, though, but the plans are in place to move back to Canada when Echo is about ten or eleven years old. We want to establish her Chinese literacy first before having her placed in an English school system in Canada. Chinese is the harder of the two languages, at least to read and write, and we worry for her future if she never really learns the characters properly. That being said, the Canadian education system is among the best in the world (particularly Ontario’s) and it’s FREE here. It’s hard to turn that down. So, even though my roots in China will be even deeper in ten year’s time, I’ll still be looking forward to a life in Canada again in the future. After all, it’ll always be my most natural home base. I want Echo to know the other half of her cultural heritage as well!


Thanks to Ember Swift for doing these interviews! And don’t forget to visit Ember’s website, where you can learn more about her music (available for purchase in her store or on iTunes) and read her fabulous blogs

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15 Replies to “Ember Swift Interview Part 2 – How China Changed Her Life”

  1. Beautiful story.
    Toronto is much better place to raise a kid. I think the idea of having your kid to read and write Chinese is not so important. Cultural exposure and verbal communication is enough for her well being. She can decide to pick up the language more later in life. Toronto also provides access to anything Chinese. Moving back to Canada at 10 is also a little late. I would avoid any formal schooling in China all together. Her husband will have some tough time in Canada. But it is a good price to pay for such relationship.

  2. Ember, I hope you’re reading responses to this article — kudos to you for giving birth to and raising a baby in China. The stress of the new born, language, MIL, food, diapers, formula, education etc., etc., when I try to picture what you are going through the last ten minutes of “2001 A Space Odyssey ” comes to mind.

    You’re now connected to China by blood, and that changes the perspective of a lot of things — you’re no longer a lao wai, you’re the mother of a child who will identify herself to be Chinese (and Canadian). Try to speak English exclusively to her — it would be a wonderful gift when she grows up.

  3. The Chinese population in Toronto is so large that continuing Echo’s Chinese education there should be quite “doable”, albeit requiring some extra effort. If she already possess grade school level literacy, she’ll be way ahead of the Canadian Born Chinese kids. Getting comfortable with English and French, that’s a different matter.

  4. I saw a white girl on subway reading a Chinese novel with traditional characters. Man, I can’t even do that. I guess you can master a second language in English speaking environment after all.

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