Saturday, October 03, 2015

A change in coversation

My parents know a man, let's call him Cal, who occasionally does some work for them. I've heard them talk about Cal here and there for years, but living overseas I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but I finally got the chance the other day. Our encounter was in some ways odd, at least for me, though I fear it may soon become the new normal.

As I had heard of Cal, he had also heard much about me. He knew my history with the PRC, so right after shaking my hand, he started with The China Questions. Note: I am happy to answer questions about China. Don't be afraid to ask! Most people don't bother, so it's nice when someone shows a little interest. However, don't believe that saying, "There are no stupid questions." Trust me, there are. I've been asked all of them, at least twice. I'm sure I'm even guilty of asking them. And so are you. This small talk stupidity is human nature and not nation-specific either. Chinese people like to ask if I can use chopsticks and American people want to know if I eat a lot of rice. (The answers are "yes" and "yes.")

Cal was no exception. His opener was the most common, but most dreaded request. He wanted a parlor trick.

"Speak some Chinese!" he commanded.

I. HATE. THIS. It is incredibly awkward. People get so excited to hear me speak Chinese, often asking me to curse at them. I then turn red, squeak out whatever pops into my head, and feel like a hooligan for telling someone I just met to go screw his mother. The worst part is, people always seem so let down after I do it. I don't know what they are expecting--entertainment? It's not juggling. Maybe the hope they'll magically understand Chinese? This isn't a fairy tale.

After I finished cussing Cal out, my dad walked by, chiming in, "Ching chong chang ching." I think he was being facetious. I hope he was being facetious.

"It really does sound like that, doesn't it?" Cal asked rhetorically.

"No, it really doesn't," I told him.

"They really hate us over there, don't they?" he continued.

"No, they really don't," I replied. I began to explain Chinese attitudes towards the US and Americans, but Cal's eyes started to glaze over. I let my sentence taper off....

"They know they, like, own us, right? That they're going to take over the world, right?" he cut-in enthusiastically.

"I don't know about that,"I replied, already having realized that he wasn't interested in my assessment of Sino-US relations.

The conversation veered into another direction and he told me about his Chinese roommate in college whom he believed to be a spy. It was actually a very convincing story and I was happy to let him do the talking. At that point, I just couldn't take anymore questions.

Now that I'm in the US, the conversation has shifted. I have to grow accustom to a new set of questioning. So what questions do you have for me?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Check out my piece on China Daily

William, 100 days

China Daily recently asked me to write a post describing how I fell in love with a Chinese man and the challenges I have faced being in a cross-cultural relationship. I ended up writing about the struggles I've had raising a baby as an American living in China. You can check out the article on their website here. They are doing a series of opinion pieces on foreigners who fall in love with local Chinese. Jocelyn from Speaking of China wrote a great piece recently as well, in which she reveals how she never expected to marry a Chinese man. You can find her piece here.

What is one of the biggest struggles you've had in a relationship? Were you able to overcome it? How?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Crazy $hit that's happened to me in Asia: India edition

Mahabodhi Temple and bodhi tree
I've been busy lately, so here's another old post that dates back to my trip to India in 2010.

I recently read Aravind Adiga's novel, The White Tiger, a fascinating story that exposes the corruption, violence, and struggle in 'The World's Largest Democracy" (India). Throughout the book, the protagonist refers to a place called "The Darkness," often contrasting it to his life in Delhi. But what is The Darkness? Is it a specific place? A place full of poverty? I interpreted it as a reference to the main character's home state of Bihar, one of India's poorest regions that is severely impeded by corruption.

I had the chance to visit Bihar though notably to one of its cheerier, more peaceful parts, a town called Bodhgaya. While this name may have little meaning to you, to Buddhists it's a sort of Mecca. Bodhgaya is the place, nearly 2500 years ago, where Siddhārtha Gautama (Buddha) reached his enlightenment under a bodhi tree next to a temple. A descendant of that tree still exists today and though rebuilt a few times over, so does the temple. Although not a Buddhist myself, living and having traveled through many predominately Buddhist countries, I felt intrigued by Bodhgaya and was determined to make a stop there on my way from Varanasi to Kolkata. My new traveling companion, Katalin, was interested in it too.

After two days of suffering from a variety of ailments that could not be categorized into one or really even two specific illnesses, the time had come to move on from Varanasi. Securing tickets from Varanasi to Gaya, the nearest station to Bodhgaya, had proved tricky. Katalin and I were left with two Sleeper Class tickets, bottom of the barrel as far as Indian railway tickets are concerned. Furthermore, we no longer had Amy and her height along as an intimidation factor, but I was confident we'd be fine. I had, after all, requested for us to be seating in the 'Ladies Carriage.'

As we boarded the train, we realized our seats were nowhere in the vicinity of the Ladies Carriage, if, in fact, there even was one. The passengers in our carriage were overwhelmingly male, most of them with that familiar gleam of curiosity and horniness in their eyes. I had bigger issues than our fellow passengers to worry about, however, as a sensation of nausea rolled over me. I wiped off a dirty, dusty upper bunk and settled in for a nap while Katalin sat on a lower bunk, chatting away to an elderly Austrian woman who had somehow been seated by us.

I had just overcome my urge to vomit and, in turn, drift off into a much needed sleep, when I awoke to a burst of angry shouting. I begrudgingly turned my body towards the source of this noise and looked down to see a large, middle-aged man screaming in Katalin's face. Simultaneously, I felt the need to puke. I crawled down from my bunk and rushed to the toilet. When I returned a pair of brown uniformed, beret-wearing, rifle-toting policemen had come to interrogate the irrationally irate man. He was clearly not cooperating with them and appeared to be intoxicated. The police led him towards the end of our carriage, which happened to be the last car of the train. He was not seen by us again; he very well could have gotten chucked off.

Mahabodhi Temple offerings
Night had fallen and the policemen returned to sit by us. They, in addition to the surrounding men, looked at us in an overtly sexual manner. I was yet to be unnerved by the situation; Katalin was another matter. She had her theories, which I won't delve into here, regarding what these men had in store for us. This drunken incident, the impish looks, the police--it had her shaken up. I refused to be shaken; that was until the train came to a stop at the next station.

It was a small, single platform station that was nearly pitch dark. People were strewn around, gathered by fires of burning garbage. Stray dogs paced among the people. There was hardly a building or man made structure in sight. The Darkness, this was it. I was scared. What was Gaya going to be like? How small, dark, and unwelcoming could it be? And who might follow us there?

I tried to calm myself--my head was spinning in more ways than one. I was sick and frightened; this had turned into the longest train ride of my life and it was merely five hours. Every minute became a bit of a struggle as I tried to avert my eyes from the stares baring down on us while also trying to ignore the churning in my stomach. The policemen left, which alleviated some of the paranoia. Katalin and I tried to distracted ourselves by watching a movie on my iPod. The train was running late. . . by half an hour. . . by an hour. . . finally, at 10:40pm, nearly an hour and a half after our scheduled arrival time, we stopped in Gaya.

To my immense relief, it was a bonafide city. The station consisted of several platforms and was a flurry of activity. When we made it outside of the station, we were happy to see lit streets full of the usual throngs of people, animals, and vehicles--just like any other place we had visited in India. We made our way, neither harassed or followed, to a nearby hotel to check-in. Sometimes the imagination can be a dangerous thing.

at the Taj Mahal, 2010

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

From the archives: How Ming and I met

view of Shanghai Pudong from the Bund, Feb 2005
I'm leaving China today! I first arrived at the end of February 2005 with CIEE. I spent my initial week doing training (well, it was mostly sightseeing, but I got to practice my Chinese in the markets) in Shanghai before being sent off to Chengde. My first few months in China were the most memorable months of my life. I felt like I was living in a movie. China amazed me and for the first time in a long time I truly felt comfortable in my own skin. It was not long after I arrived that I met Ming, my future husband. I actually kept a diary at that time and posted some of my entries on this blog several years ago. I thought I'd revisit them in a post today. They are pretty embarrassing--I was pretty clueless and maybe kind of a jerk--but I guess that comes with being in your early 20's. Ten years later, it's interesting to look back on my younger self, as well as those days when I first fell in love with both Ming and China.

with Liu Zhi, sweet girl who worked at the gym
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
On Sunday night that guy at the gym (who always attempts to talk to me in English) asked me to wait for him. Of course I didn't because I had to go home and take a shower. Plus, what would we do if we couldn't talk to each other?* But again tonight he pursued. It is actually quite sweet because he gives English his best shot! He told me that I am "a woman good" and that he likes me. Maybe I'll take him out for a beer** with the other foreign teachers sometime. We'll see.

*Don't answer that question.
**Fun fact: Turns out Ming doesn't really drink alcohol.

Wednesday, June 1, 2005
The last couple of days have been amazing. On Monday night my 'friend' was at the gym and friendly as ever. When I finished working out I hung around talking to him and the sweet girl who works there (not sure of her name, but she can speak some English!). My friend went downstairs to shower and I waited around for Nancy*** to finish. Coincidentally, we all ended up leaving the gym at the same time. He, Tao Ming (I now know his name!),**** offered to give me a ride home on his bike. No, not bike as in moped or motorcycle, but bike as in bicycle. Oh shit, I thought. . . I'm going to hang off the back of this thing like all the Chinese girls do.

But, luckily, we just walked. He stopped and bought me a yogurt drink (very popular in China). When we got to my apartment I ran upstairs and grabbed my Lonely Planet phrasebook to help along our conversating. We talked for over an hour. He can read English and is picking it up rather quickly. He asked me about my family and told me about his family and told me he was happy because he was with me. Aww! Oh, and on the walk home we saw some foreigners--which I called "laowai" (which means 'foreigner' but maybe is a little derogatory) and he laughed like crazy. He corrected me, evidently "waiguoren" is a more politically correct term.

Anyways, as we were standing outside, about to say good-bye, it began to rain. So we stood under the doorway of my apartment and he gave me a kiss.

yes, it's me (Chengde, 2005)

***Nancy was the other foreign teacher at the school I worked at and we went to the gym together nightly.
****Ha! No you don't, silly girl. Because his name is actually Zhao Ming! 

More from Wednesday, June 1, 2005
I finished yesterday morning's lesson and guess who was standing outside the door? Tao Ming. He managed to get in the school. I'm not sure how because usually the gate keeper only lets teachers and students in the building. He took me to lunch in a little restaurant by the old outdoor market. He asked me what I wanted, "Chick?" [he asked]. I said chicken was fine. Rice and chicken, after all, sounds safe enough, but in China you never know what you're going to get.

It ended up being every part of the chicken, cut up and cooked in a sauce. I tried picking through it to find the meaty parts (I have a slight aversion to skin and fat, veins and feet.***** Such things don't seem to bother the Chinese). He scolded me for using my hands--a big no-no here. So he picked through the chicken with his chopsticks, finding the meat for me. He told me he would not be at the gym that night because he had to work (he is a train conductor******). I went off to school for my afternoon lessons, disappointed I wouldn't be seeing him again in the evening.

one of my classes at Chengde No. 1 High School, 2005
Shortly after I returned home for the night, there was a knock at the door. . . he took off work to spend the evening with me. He took me to KFC for more chicken. This may sound like a pitiful first date, but KFC is fairly high class dining in Chengde. Then we went to a movie; unfortunately it was in Chinese. Ming went to talk to the manager and the movie was changed. It was also Chinese, "God of Gamblers," but it had English subtitles. I found it to be a typical Chinese film, somewhat crappy, but funny at parts and violent at others. The theater was much different from an American theater. We had our own little cubicle to sit in, very personal! After the movie we walked home and he came up for a little bit.*******

Today he stopped by after lunch and brought me a bag of apples. He walked Nancy and I to the bus. I'm not used to all this attention! Now I am in Beijing. Nancy went off to Qingdao tonight and I am leaving for Guilin tomorrow.

*****I was such a rookie back then. I can now eat a chicken down to the bone.
******He was not and is not a train conductor, but his job does have something to do with trains so I guess. . .
*******Seems like I left out the juciest parts. 

Ming and I, 2006

Friday, September 11, 2015

Finding cheap flights to and around Asia

Koh Tao, Thailand; my first trip to SEA, 2007

I'm heading home in less than a week so perhaps it's fitting to write a post about flights. I've flown between the US and China once a year for the past 10 years. I've also taken a few trips by plane within China and many from China to Southeast Asia. I still wouldn't consider myself anywhere near an expert air traveler, but I still know something about it. Here are my tips for cheap flights:

1. Shop around
If you have some time before your flight, spend a few minutes each day (I usually do it for a week or two) poking around sites like kayak or skyscanner to get an idea of prices, both around the time you plan to depart and maybe a month or so on either side. This will give you a generally idea of price trends on a variety of airlines. I have found that it's better not to book too far in advance for flights on regular carriers (budget carriers are different), unless it's a holiday. If you find a price you are pleased with, you might just want to book right away. Also, if you are flying one way you may also want to take a look at round trip prices as they are sometimes cheaper.

Many websites also do price matching and Expedia will actually match the price you found and give you a US$50 hotel voucher to be used on their site if you found a cheaper flight somewhere other than their website. I did this once before successfully, but I had to call their customer service about which took about 10 minutes of my time.

2. Fly during the off-season
I always visit the US from China in the winter, as it can cut the price of flights nearly in half. For many destinations, you are going to get a better deal if you fly in winter (or monsoon season). If you are okay with a little cold or rainy weather, this can save you a ton on flights, as well as hotels and admission prices.

3. Try out a new credit card
If you are a US citizen and have decent credit, consider opening a credit card when you book your flight. I've gotten $75 off my flight when I've applied for an Expedia Citi card plus "reward points" which can be turned in for gifts such as money on! I've also gotten an American Airlines card which got me $50 off my flight plus one free checked bag on domestic flights and preferred boarding. Be careful with airline credit cards though as they usually have an annual fee. It is often waived the first year so if you cancel the card before the one year mark you can use it without paying the fee (usually US$100). Another great card is the Chase Freedom card which offers between 1-5% cash back and periodically does $200 off your first $500 of purchases (made within 90 days, but that's easy if you are buying a long haul flight!).

4. Use local websites
I haven't booked that many domestic flights in China as I actually really enjoy traveling by train. When I have taken flights, I've usually turned to Chinese websites that offer deals that aren't found on sites like kayak. There is an option for English on these sites which is great if you are unable to read Chinese. The ones I've used in the past are elong and ctrip. Another popular one that I haven't used is qunar. Thanks to these sites, I've gotten some deep discounts on flights that I've booked just days before departure. You can also search for deals on international flights as well as hotels.

5. Try budget airlines
I love, love, LOVE budget airlines (though Spirit Airlines may be an exception). You have to keep your expectations in check, but you can really find some amazing deals, especially if you book in advance! My absolute favorite budget airline is AirAsia, which I've flown about two dozen times. They are based in Malaysia so they serve Southeast Asia very well and they offer direct flights from a number of points in China to Kuala Lumpur (also known as KL, which is Malaysia's capital) as well as a few other destinations. If you are going to be living in Asia, do yourself a favor and get on their email list. They have incredible sales and if you have the flexibility to book your vacation far in advance, you can book tickets for next to nothing. I was able to get a round trip ticket from Beijing to KL for just over US$100, a flight that normally costs about $400. I also got a ticket from Yogyakarta, Indonesia to Singapore for 13 bucks!

6. Hidden city 
Hidden city seems to be the new thing in cheap air travel, though I have a feeling it might be on the way out.  If you are unfamiliar with the concept of hidden city, it uses algorithms to help you find a cheap ticket by using your destination as a stopover. For example, if you are flying from Chicago to Atlanta, hidden city websites such as skipplagged will try to find you a cheaper flight that has Atlanta has a stopover rather than the final destination. I've had friends who have used such sites successfully, but most airlines are not taking too kindly to people trying to beat the system. In fact, skipplagged is being sued by United Airlines for the practice.

One thing I haven't utilized is frequent flier miles. I fly so many different airlines and the thought of keeping track of them all seemed overwhelming.

Do you have any helpful tips for scoring cheap flights or good travel deals?

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Ode to a Chinese Taxi Driver

Today, like many days, I took a taxi. My driver was special in ways that only one who has lived in China awhile can appreciate. He had a mole on his cheek, out of which sprouted several long hairs, which he sported with pride. Stay hairs are auspicious to Chinese men (I know, Ming will never let me pluck one of his). I think my driver had food stuck in his teeth while also suffering from a head cold. He alternated between making odd sucking noises and hacking out the window. It made me realize that in my list of Things I'll Miss about China, I had left something out. I forgot to mention my adoration for China's taxis and their drivers. 

Beijing taxis, photo via
When asked if taxis are safe in China, I answer “yes” without a second's hesitation. Of course, there are times to be weary of them, especially if you know nothing of the country or the language. There are certainly unscrupulous drivers out there, who hatch schemes in hopes of earning a few extra renminbi. In the event that you become a victim of such a plot, try not to panic. It may seem though your driver is taking you out into the middle of nowhere to leave you for dead, but he is, in all likelihood, just taking the scenic route home in an attempt to run-up the meter.

In ten years, I have probably taken hundreds of Chinese taxis, licensed and (occasionally) unlicensed, both alone and with others. The one time I got taken advantage of, I was with my husband. Once we called the driver out on his shenanigans, he quickly became apologetic and lowered the fare. Though at times on alert for being overcharged, I've never felt threatened by a driver. In fact, taking a taxi—if you can catch one—is usually a pleasant experience. The drivers are generally jovial and curious, the perfect traits for those who want to practice their Chinese. I've found that you can learn a lot from local cabbies, depending on how you'd like to expand your Chinese vocabulary. I've learned how to curse out every Zhou (Joe) from here to Shanghai simply by spending a few rides stuck in Beijing's rush hour traffic. My salute to you, Beijing cabbies, for teaching me words that would make even your weird, perverted uncle blush.

In additional to being a learning experience, taking a taxi is very economical, at least by western standards. In Chengde, a typical ride costs between 6-10 RMB (US$1-1.50). In the US, you'd probably have to tip a driver more than that. You don't have to tip Chinese drivers, though sometimes you may have to bribe them to pick you up. Would you expect anything less in the Middle Kingdom? In Chengde, there is an ample fleet of cabs, so passengers still hold the upper hand. The situation in Beijing, however, is problematic for potential passengers. Due to lack of taxis, tech-savvy Beijingers have turned to apps such as Didi Dache to help them grab a cab. Use your smart phone to alert all taxis on the network where you need a pick-up—sounds convenient right? No more standing on the side of the road desperately waving your hand at every approaching car, squinting to see if the vehicle is a taxi and if so, if the stupid “unoccupied” light is on. Sure, you can avoid that indignity. But there's there's a price to pay for that luxury. If you are in serious need of a ride, you better be willing to add cash (call it a tip, but it's really a bribe) to the fare. You can start by adding 10 RMB ($1.50) and try your luck. If it's rush hour, plan on adding 20 RMB or more. My friend told me that many Beijing taxi drivers have conspired to avoid 5-star hotels unless the passenger offers 50 RMB on top of the fare. Those sneaky little buggers. But even with a pick-up bribe, Beijing taxis are affordable compared to the US. On a recent journey, I spent 56 RMB on a 30 minute ride (36 RMB fare + 20 RMB bribe) during Beijing rush hour. That's less than US$10.

So yes, I will miss the built-in language tutor plus the convenience that comes with taking a cab in China. But as my husband reminded me, in the US I'll have my own car. I suppose that will be pretty nice, too.

What type of transportation do you typically use where you live? Do you rely on other types of transportation when on vacation or while abroad?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

No burping or farting in the store!

tourists at the Forbidden City, photo by Kim W
One thing I've noticed during the ten years I've lived in China, Chinese people love to travel. As the economy has grown, allowing more and more people have disposable income, the number of Chinese travelers has risen markedly. Domestic tourism is a huge industry in China, and I find that the Chinese tourist industry does a lot to cater to their countrymen, while surrounding countries go out of their way to cater to foreign travelers. Catering to foreign tourists usually means have English signage, English-speaking tour guides, and pizza on the menu. But in many places, that's changing. More and more countries are implementing tactics to attract Chinese travelers and their money. Hot drinking water, free tea, noodles for breakfast, and luxury shopping excursions along with Chinese-language menus and signs, it's all becoming the new standard in many travel hot spots.

But how do people feel about this new influx of Chinese tourists? The feelings seemed to be mixed. Some welcome them with open arms, as they appreciate the money Chinese tourists spend while on holiday. Others are annoyed, unable or unwilling to understand Chinese habits. I can speak to this firsthand, as I'm often mistaken as a Chinese tourist due to my last name. When I check-in to my accommodation, I am often met with interesting comments. One time, in Indonesia, I arrived at my guesthouse and the owner looked at me.

"Your name's Zhao, but your not Chinese?" she puzzled.

"No, I'm not, but my husband is," I explained.

"Well, I'm glad you're not. Those Chinese, they make such a mess, and sometimes they even bring rice cookers and use them in their rooms," she lamented.

I was a bit offended on behalf of all Chinese, not to mention I had just told her that my husband was Chinese. I realize there was some truth to what she said, after having run a hostel myself, I know that Chinese people generally leave a room messier than guests from many other countries. But I felt torn. How much do we expect foreign guests and tourists to bend to our standard when visiting our city or country? And how much should we cater to them as they spend their hard-earned cash and help fuel our local tourist industry and economy?

I was discussing this with one of my Chinese friends recently. She lives in Germany, so she is used to seeing the world from two different perspective's--as a person who grew up in China, but has spent much of her adult life in the west. I told her about a picture that I saw posted on WeChat. It was taken at a German shop and listed a number of rules, clearly directed at Chinese visitors. I've translated it into English below:
list of rules for Chinese tourists

Please don't eat or drink in the store!
The store is not a rest stop!
Please don't clip your nails in the store!
Please don't use toothpicks in the store!
Please don't spit in the store!
We politely refuse to haggle, but you can have receipt for duty free!
Please don't talk loudly, in order to avoid disrupting other customers shopping.
Please, no burping or farting in the store!

We both agreed that this was over-the-top and a tad offensive. I can understand asking customers not to eat and drink in the shop and I think posting a sign not to spit is, unfortunately, still a needed reminder for many older Chinese tourists. But I so rarely see Chinese people using toothpicks (especially outside of a restaurant) or hear them letting one rip in public (elderly men excluded), I don't think it needs saying. If I were Chinese and saw such a sign, I think I would kindly move on to the next shop.

What do you think? Do you try to adapt your habits to local culture when on vacation? Do you think we should afford some leeway to how foreign guests act when they visit our country?

Monday, August 24, 2015

China: What I'll miss about you

As of last week the date is set and flight is booked, the flight that will take me back to the US. . . permanently. The reality of the situation hasn't fully hit me yet. In truth, I've been desperate to move back to my home country for awhile, since William was born or perhaps even before. It's hard to remember exactly.

I know returning will be challenging. I've read blogs about it. I've had friends who have done it, who shared their stories of reverse culture shock, their struggles to reestablish themselves in a place that is familiar yet. . . yet not. After being away for awhile, the place you once knew so well, the place you may have called home most of your life, seems a bit foreign.

With the exception of my time in college, my entire adult life has been spent in China. Ten years. And now it's quickly coming to a close and I don't know how to feel about it. I want to enjoy my last weeks here, while at the same time just wanting them to be over with. I am ready, so ready, to move on with my life. But I know I will one day, perhaps one day very soon, I will miss China. I once wrote a post detailing the reasons I want to leave, but today I will write about what I will miss, reasons that I may have liked to stay.

always something going on on the sidewalk
1. The hustle and bustle (or what is known in Chinese as rènào) 
Chinese people love rènào and many of those who come to settle in the US lament on how quite and empty it can be. Even when I visit downtown Chicago, I am taken aback by how little is going on during the (work)day. Sometimes I struggle with crowds and noise that comes with living in China, but I think I've come to appreciate it in some ways.

 2. Attitudes toward cross-race marriage and biracial children
Compared to many countries, China is incredibly accepting of mixed race couples and children. That's not to say some people don't take issue with it, especially when it occurs withing their own family, but I think Chinese society as a whole is more open to it than Americans. Thanks to our little "mixed blood" ("hùnxuě" as biracial people are usually called in Chinese), we face a constant barrage of admirers whenever we are out and about. While it can be overwhelming, it is also sweet that people take a positive interest in our cross-culturally family.  P.S. Check out Ruby Ronin, who writes an enlightening post about her experiences as a biracial woman living in both Japan and China.

local small business
3. Endless possibility
If you are business-minded (I'm not, though getting better), China is ripe with opportunity. This is the place where rags to riches stories happen, where a good idea or the right connections can turn you into a millionaire overnight. With the rise of the Chinese middle class, there's also a market for many items and services that could only cater to a niche market a decade ago. In Chengde, western-style cafes and photography studios are popping up everywhere. Locals are taking an interest in foreign foods. Everyone with even the smallest amount of disposable income is planning a vacation. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, this is the place to be. I may have tapped into that side of my personality a little late, but perhaps there could still be another business venture in my future....

4. Language
While I sometimes missing the ease of being surrounded by my native tongue, I have totally fallen in love with Mandarin. Sometimes while looking walking home, I look around and marvel at all the Chinese characters that surround me--a system of writing that once seemed so exotic, so impossible to learn. The fact that I can now read it still surprises me. I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would study Chinese. I don't know if I could have ever succeeded without being totally immersed in the language and I don't know how I will continue (my life long goal of fluency) being away from it.

Jiuzhaigou, China 2013
5. Travel
Of course, my love of travel is what brought me to China in the first place. For those who love adventure, Asia is a great place to be. It's diverse and generally very affordable. I am sad that I may never again visit southeast Asia and disappointed that I never made it to Nepal or Korea. But I did make it to many other wonderful places. Some of my favorites include my fist solo trip within China, to Guilin and Yangshuo in 2005. I also (in hindsight) loved the very intense trip I took to India in 2010 and my crazy adventures in Sumatra a few years ago. Next frontier? North (and one day South) America. This fall I am planning to visit friends in Texas and New Jersey.

6. Safety
Safety means different things to different people. The kind of safety I'm talking about is the ability to walk down the street alone after dusk as a woman. I have that in China. While the ability to cross the street without the fear of getting rundown by an Audi still alludes me, I've long come to terms that I may meet my maker under the wheels of a speeding Chinese motorist. With only three weeks in China left, it seems I may make it out of the country unscathed. Fingers crossed.

7. Food
my m-i-l making dumplings
Chinese people are incredibly proud of their cuisine and tout it as the most diverse in the world. Let me let you in on a little secret: Chinese food is actually not my favorite. While American food holds a lackluster reputation internationally, I swear we are not all Big Macs and hot dogs. You can find a variety of cuisines pretty much anywhere in the US and in larger cities, your options are endless and often very authentic. Unfortunately, I've had pretty crappy luck finding decent Chinese restaurants in my hometown and even the good one (tipping my hat to you Emperor of China) is nothing like what we'd eat in China. I'll miss zongzi and Peking duck. I'll crave shuǐ zhǔ ròupiàn real kungpao chicken. But at least both my husband and I are able to cook many popular Chinese dishes and my mother-in-law makes excellent dumplings.

Have you ever missed the things you left behind when moving from one place to another? How did you cope?


Sunday, August 16, 2015

My Interview on the Love Blender

Chengde, 2014

I follow several blogs, most of them by women who live and date in Asia. One of my favorites is The Love Blender which is written by an Italian woman, Marghini, who is an interior designer (and it shows, her blog is very pleasing to the eye!) who has lived as an expat in a number of country. Marghini's blog chronicles her life and experiences abroad, as well as dating cross-culturally. Recently, she is featuring a series on expat women and asked me to partake in an interview. You can check it out here!

Do you follow many blogs? Which one is your favorite?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Crazy $h!t that's Happened to me in Asia: Vietnam edition

I was looking through my Facebook profile and found some old "notes" (a now defunct feature on the site). This is one such note that made it on Facebook and never on my blog. It dates back to June 2008 and details yet another crazy incident that I experienced while traveling in Asia. I'm not sure if this one is more terrifying or less terrifying than being taking hostage by an orangutan. I'll let you decide!
Ho Chi Minh Statue, downtown Saigon, 2008
In Vietnam, they have this sweet little deal offered by most traveler cafes--the open bus ticket. With this ticket, for a mere US$27, you can get from Saigon in the far south all the way to Hanoi in the far north. In other words, you can travel from Vietnam's bottom to top (or top to bottom, if you prefer), which consists of some 1300 miles. You are also allowed to make stops in cities along the way. This is a fantastic price, but it leaves you at the mercy of the travel cafe and what bus they put you on.

All the way to Hue, my second to last stop, I'd been lucky. All my buses had been comfortable sleeper buses with working air-con. When I went to confirm my departure for Hanoi (my final destination) at the travel cafe in Hue, the agent tried to bully me into upgrading to a sleeper bus. My ticket was only for a sitting bus. This had happened to me once before. I had declined the sleeper bus, not wanting to shell out an extra five bucks for it. Turned out, they still put me on the sleeper bus. I was wise on their tricks. . . I would stick to my sitting bus ticket and wait for my (free) upgrade.

I was told to come back at 5:30 pm the next day and my bus would pick me up at the cafe. When that time rolled around I was feeling pretty confident, just waiting for my big, flashy sleeper bus to pull up. Instead a decrepit looking sitting bus came.

"You go Hanoi? Sitting bus? Here!" The agent motioned to me.

I looked around at the other foreigners waiting in the cafe. None of them moved. I was the only idiot who hadn't upgraded. Ah, well.
Minh Mang Tomb, near Hue, 2008
I boarded the bus, which was air-conditioned. So far, so good. It was already about a third full, but I found a window seat near the back. Window seats are essential. Great for their scenery and their head support. If luck was somehow on my side, the bus wouldn't fill and I'd get two seats to myself. Luck was not on my side though. Surely you could have guessed that much by now. A young Vietnamese woman and her small child ended up sitting next to me. They even gave people little plastic chairs to sit in the aisle. The bus was well past capacity.

By 7pm it was dark and I could no longer enjoy gazing out the window. I listened to my iPod while the young Vietnamese woman rested her head on my shoulder and her little boys legs sprawled across my lap. Personal space. . . not important. I finally drifted off to sleep sometime after ten.

I was awoken, quite suddenly by screams. Everyone on the bus was screaming and our bus was suddenly on a 40 degree angle. Oh my God, I am going to die. I am going to die with a Vietnamese woman and her son. I hugged them. The bus is going to roll over and explode. I am going to die alone in Vietnam. This cannot be happening. With my impeding death predicted, the bus came to a stop--though still at a precarious angle. I was scared to look out the window. Perhaps we were hanging off a cliff. I was at the back of the bus; I'd never make it out before we plunged to our death. I looked out the window. A field. Never have I felt such relief. We were only in a ditch, not dangling over a ledge. 

me at the Citadel, Hue, 2008
I waited for the bus to unload a bit and finally made my way to the front, shaking. The entire windshield was cracked. Did we hit someone? I was really in no mood to see the bloody corpse of a motorbike driver. I turned to exit and found the entire door and steps leading out were mangled. I managed to step through the debris and got out. I surveyed the damage. The bus had managed to go over the guardrail, into the ditch, and then came to the stop with the help of the electric pole we hit. The front tires were now gone, as well as much of the paneling from the side of the bus. What had happened?

Well, there was no one to ask. I was the only foreigner on the bus; the rest of the passengers were Vietnamese. Vietnamese who couldn't speak English. I had to come to my own conclusion on the matter--my guess is that the driver fell asleep.

Now there was the matter of getting my bag and getting to Hanoi. I motioned frantically to people standing around. "I need my bag, it's under the bus!" I pantomimed. People just shook their heads. No, No, No. I had to get my bag. Everything was in my bag. Most of my money (what was I thinking?) and all my clothes. Do you realize how difficult for a girl my size, or anyone over a size 2, to find clothes that fit in Asia? My clothes are nearly priceless! I would not leave the side of the bus until I got my bag. I would camp out all night in rural Vietnam if I had to. I was getting that bag! 

lantern kiosk, Hoian, 2008
I was nearly in tears. But crying in public is incredibly faux pas in Asia. I had to keep it together. I would ask one more time about my bag. I tugged on the sleeve of one man and did my pantomime. I pretending to be carrying a heavy backpack and then frantically pointed to the side of the bus, where the luggage was stowed. The man motioned for me to go to the other side of the bus. I went around to find them unloaded everyone's stuff. Everything was going to be okay! I was going to get my fat-girl clothes. I would get all my money! All the little presents I'd bought people, they would be mine again. I wouldn't have to camp out next to the bus in the middle of nowhere. Life was good!

I saw that a few buses had stopped for us further up the road. They were taking on what passengers they could fit, although most of them were at or over capacity themselves. There must have been nearly 70 of us waiting for a ride. But a Vietnamese man waved me over to the first bus. It was a sleeper bus full of Vietnamese. There were no beds left on the sleeper bus, but no worries, plenty of floor space. I went to lay down on the floor and spent the next 8 hours trying to sleep.

Sleep did not happen. Every bump we hit sent me into a panic. We are going off the road! We are plunging to our deaths! There are way too many bumps in Vietnam. But we did, of course, make it to Hanoi alive. Fourteen and a half hours after leaving Hue we made it. I went to my hotel as quickly as possible. I needed the comfort of a real, stationary bed. 

Have you ever taken a long bus ride? What was it like?

Hanoi street, 2008

Monday, August 10, 2015

Past its prime: Expiration date debate

Awhile ago, one of my friends from back home sparked a great debate on Facebook. The debate over yogurt, specifically, yogurt passed its “eat by” date. Naturally, my friend took to social media to decide what to do—to eat or not to eat? I, ever one to live dangerously, was solidly in the “Eat it!” camp.

“Give it the sniff test,” I encouraged her, “If it passes that, then take a small bite and if it tastes good, go for it!”

Others were vehemently opposed.

“Don't do it! It's not worth the risk! You could get food poisoning!” her best friend warned.

In the end, she ate it. And lived to tell the tale. I'm fairly certain she didn't get food poisoning either.

Many Americans are obsessed with these dates. The problem is, they are confusing. There is “sell by,” “best by,” and “eat by” dates. What's the difference and does it matter? Many reports claim these days are arbitrary, yet lead us into believing we must trash any food passed the marked date. According to this article by National Geographic, over a billion tons of food is wasted globally each year; in other words, roughly a third of food produced annually is thrown away. That's got to be enough food to feed most of the world's hungry.

I didn't think any nation could trump Americans obsession over expiration dates or surmount our food waste (the average American family throws out US$1500 worth of food a year!) but leave it to the Chinese to outshine us, at least on the former front (I'm sure they'll catch up to us in waste soon enough). They have taken expiration labeling to a whole new level. Never mind food, anything is fair game--there are expiration dates on perfume, hand tissues, and printer paper. But it goes deeper. Last week, I realized the full depth of the insanity.

photo via

“When does wine expire?” my Chinese friend asked, in a tone that sounded like I'd be graded on my answer.

“Expire? Wine doesn't expire. But I've heard that after 150 years most wines turn to vinegar,” I told her, almost certain of my answer.

She smiled at me knowingly and replied, “Well, Chinese wines expire. I saw in the supermarket that Great Wall red expires after ten years."

I don't know, but a little part of me died with the knowledge that the Chinese nouveau riche may never experience a good vintage out of fear of expiration. Then my most painful realization occurred, Chinese cheese connoisseurs may bypass a tasty aged cheddar for some seemingly newer, fresher cheese. I hope it isn't so. Some things truly do get better with age.

But the real question is: where is this paranoia coming from? In the case of China, I think expiration dates give consumers a false sense of security. They provide them with a feeling that the food is safe if eaten during a certain time frame, when the reality is food quality is poor due to reasons outside of age and freshness. Anyone living in China knows that food safety scares are unending. This summer it came to light that decades-old meat was being smuggled in China. Talk about being past its expiration date, yuck. Labels mean little. When eating in China, one has to be careful, but also realize you may end up eating something questionable no matter what precautions you take.

Do you check expiration dates carefully? What kind of things do you do to ensure your eating healthily?

Thursday, August 06, 2015

My guest post on Speaking of China

For anyone who reads my blog who doesn't follow Jocelyn's fantastic AMWF (Asian male/Western female) blog, Speaking of China, please check out my recent guest post, Why Did I Assume I'd Never Find a Man to Date in China. I write about a failed blind date with an Asian man and how it affected my perception of Asian men and myself. You can also read another guest post I wrote on Speaking of China about meeting my husband, Ming, Enter Zhao Ming. . . China's Answer to Arnold Swarzenegger.

Banbi Mountain, Chengde, China. 2014

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Tips for China Newbies

My friend M, who I mentioned in an earlier post about our crazy trip to Sumatra, is moving to China! Her husband, who works for a large American company, got offered a two-year position in western China and they plan to make their big move next month. Sadly, they will be arriving around the same time I will be returning to the US, but I am no less excited for them.

If anyone can handle a move abroad, M can. She's traveled and lived in countless places. She even came to visit me in China back in 2006. The trip was plagued with various illnesses, horrendous toilets, and epic bus and train rides, yet she took it all in stride. Though there may be some hiccups along the way, I know she's in for a great time and adventure in China. 

M and me, Yunnan Province, 2006

Inspired by M and also by The Love Blender's excellent posts about living abroad (her advice on improving your social life, beating culture shock and staying healthy is spot on), I thought about what advice I'd give to anyone who is about to move to China. Take it or leave it, here are my two cents:

1. Study the language This one seems so obvious, but once you arrive in China you will quickly find many foreigners, some who have lived here for years, can barely speak the most basic phrases (you'll also meet those who have lived here for a year and can speak like a native). I made hardly any progress in learning the language my first year and even after a decade have not yet achieved fluency. You can absolutely get by knowing very little of the language and locals won't even fault you for it. But you are doing yourself a great disservice. Since improving my Mandarin, my world here has been opened up exponentially. I understand so much more about the culture, the people, and the food because I am able to speak and read Chinese. Don't put off learning, no matter how long you plan on being in country. Try to find a class or tutor as soon as possible so you can get off the ground running and establish good study habits. It is absolutely worth the time and trouble.

with my long-time friend, Apple
2. Make local friends In my experience, locals are very interested in foreigners and many would like to make foreign friends. Making friends with Chinese people isn't hard, but creating a true and lasting friendship may take some time. There can be a number of cultural and language barriers to overcome at first, but with some effort you can learn a lot from each other. I met some of my closest Chinese friends during my first year here. Throughout the years, they have helped me understand everything from Chinese pop culture to traditional medicine. I've taught them things such as English internet slang and how to bake chocolate chip cookies. Best of all, I feel like they know a side of me many of my friends back home don't, my "China side."

3. Network on WeChat I am not much for social media. I try to avoid Facebook and I haven't even dabbled into Snapchat or Twitter or whatever people are using these days. But I do use WeChat, which is probably the most popular way to connect with people in China these days. Connections in China are important, so this is a great way to network and organize all your contacts. WeChat allows you to post short messages with photos or share articles. You can also text or voice message and video chat. And it's free! I definitely recommend downloading it to your phone if you'll be living in China.

4. Learn how to use Taobao I can't believe I survived as long as I did without Taobao in my life. Taobao is a bit like Ebay, without the auctions. You have thousands of "stores" to shop at, most of them specializing in a certain type of product. Prices are very competitive and many sellers offer free shipping. You can find lots of import products too, some of them well-priced. I buy books, art supplies, trinkets, and even food on Taobao. I've had very few problems and usually when I have the seller has given me a refund. Taobao is almost entirely in Chinese and if you have any issues with the product or delivery you're obviously going to have to speak Chinese or find a Chinese friend or co-worker who can help you. I also recommend China's Amazon which is a little bit more foreigner friendly (there is an English language option on the site) and slightly more expensive. As for payment, sometimes cash on delivery is available, otherwise you'll have to have a Chinese bank card and get yourself setup online. Have a Chinese friend help you with this.

made possible by my oven
5. Get a VPN If you want to surf the web freely, get a VPN (virtual private network) BEFORE you arrive (you may not be able to access the site once in China). Most people know Facebook is blocked here, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Many blogs and western news sites are blocked or slow to load. Accessing Gmail will make you want to rip your hair out. The list of sites behind the great (fire) wall is long. Do yourself a favor and purchase a VPN. Yes, purchase. I am a cheapskate, but I've learned the hard way that free VPNs never last and aren't worth the frustration. I have used Atrill VPN for the past few years and they have great customer service and allow users to pick from a variety of servers. There are a number of other VPNs to pick from, but try to do some research into which one is right for you.

6. Make it feel like home This was one thing I failed to do when I first lived here. I figured I wouldn't be in China long, so I didn't want to spend money on anything. Specifically, I longed to have an oven, but it seemed like too frivolous of a purchase. I waited years before finally caving and it was one of the best purchases I ever made. It cost about 400 rmb and was worth every mao. You can't put a price on fresh baked focaccia or Black Magic Cake. Do yourself a favor and splurge on a few things to make your house (apartment) feel more like a home.

7. Get into a routine Your life may feel like it's been turned upside down and shaken when you first arrive, but before long you can establish a routine. While in China, I've always had an odd work schedule so this is one aspect of life I've struggled with. Try to set aside part of the day for exercising or studying Chinese. Try not to binge on too many late night sessions of Netflix (or beer). You'll get so much out of your time here if you get out and explore. Which leads me to. . .

me in Cambodia, 2007
8. Travel I've made it a point to travel as much as possible while living in China. I tried to live simply to save up for such trips, knowing that once I move back to the US my chances of returning to Asia for a vacation would be slim. At first I was nervous to travel on my own, but after a few months in China I took a week long solo trip to Guangxi Province and quickly overcame my fear. I went on to take numerous trips throughout China and neighboring countries. Use your vacation time and put aside some extra cash and JUST DO IT. Travel in China and particularly in Southeast Asia and India is very affordable and in many places tourism is developed enough that transport and accommodation is fairly straight forward.

Do you live abroad? Do you have any advice to add to the list?

Friday, July 31, 2015

Beijing 2022

1194 days to go! Me in Beijing, May 2005
I am super excited about the Olympic committee's decision today. Beijing narrowly beat out Almaty in its bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, becoming the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics. 加油北京!Go Beijing!

When I first moved to China in early 2005, I was struck by how excited Chinese people were about the Olympics. There were "Beijing 2008" signs (and countdowns, see photo) in Beijing, sure, but I remember seeing advertisements everywhere I traveled in China, as far south as Guilin. Being from the US, the Olympics are certainly popular, but hosting them isn't cause for much excitement; in fact, it often creates a lot of grumbling. As costs for hosting rise, the appeal to host has become less and less enticing for some countries, such as my own. But that's certainly not the case for China or Asia (which will be hosting three Olympic Games in a row--Pyeong Chang 2018, Tokyo 2020, and Beijing 2022).

Beijing Paralympics, Sept 2008

I lived in Beijing during the run up to the Olympics and watched the city transform. When I first arrived, Beijing had only three subway lines, but beginning in 2007, a new line seemed to open every few months (and this trend continues today). Ramshackle restaurants soon began to disappear, as did much street food. A small part of me mourned such developments, though I had to concede most changes were probably for the best. Citizens were coached on how to treat foreign guests, with tips posted in various places throughout the city (perhaps the whole country) and red banners urging people to "act civilized." Volunteer attendants strictly guarded bus stops and subway platforms, yelling at anyone who pushed or rushed an opening door. Locals spit less and stood in line more. The feeling of excitement and pride was palpable. It was also contagious. I couldn't help but feel happy for Beijingers and China as 2007 came to a close. I also felt sad to be leaving the country at such a momentous time.

view of the Water Cube from inside the Nest
But due to unforeseen events, Ming and I returned to China in early 2008. The price of rent in Beijing had, by then, skyrocketed. For example, our one bedroom apartment near the student district of Wudaokou had increased from 1700 rmb/month (US$220 at the time) to 2500 rmb. There was really no reason for us to return to the capital, so we decided to settle in Ming's hometown instead. I had my heart set on going to the games, but scoring tickets seemed like a sport in and of itself. From what I remember, it involved signing up on a Chinese website as soon as a certain set of tickets became available. Tickets often sold out quickly, some within minutes. The purchased tickets later had to be picked up at a designated time and place. The whole process seemed beyond my ability or patience level. Moreover, finding a hotel would be impossible or cause bankruptcy. I soon turned to plan B. We'd skip the hassle of the Summer Olympics and attend the Beijing Paralympics in fall.

It turned out to be a brilliant plan. Tickets were relatively easy to obtain by simply purchasing them online. I opted for some basic seats to watch track and field which was held in the famed Bird's Nest stadium--the total for two tickets wasn't much more than 100 rmb. Once our tickets were secured, we had no trouble finding cheap accommodation. On the day of the event, we left our hostel early, but getting to the Nest was pretty time-consuming. I'd rather not imagine what it would have been like during the summer games. The Olympic subway line was packed and we had to wait a considerable amount of time just to board a train. Once we were finally in the stadium's vicinity we stood gobsmacked at the snaking line for security. We decided to take out time outside, as we were already late for the start of the event anyways. We snapped some pictures and eventually made it through the long line.
Ming and I outside the Nest, 2008

The actual event was awesome. The stadium was completely packed with onlookers, which surprised me. But what was truly amazing was the athletes themselves. Though all participants were disabled, most of them physically, though I believe some of them mentally, they were capable of achieving things I couldn't even imagine. I was deeply moved by their ability not only to overcome their disabilities, but also to achieve such difficult feats athletically. Sure, attending the Olympics must be great and something I hope to do at some point in my life, but I think the Paralympics are very special in their own right. I'm really glad I had the chance to experience them, especially in a city I had briefly called my home, Beijing.

Have you ever attended the Olympic Games? Has your country ever hosted them?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Books about China: My Picks and Pans

What I'm glad I read before coming to China
1. Peter Hessler's River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. I fell in love with China (and maybe a little bit with Peter Hessler) while reading this book. Hessler came to China in the 90's as a Peace Corp member stationed in a remote town on the Yangtze River. He captures the everyday intricacies of life in China beautifully and helped me to understand what it would be like to teach English in China before I arrived. For “old China hands” I would probably recommend his book Country Driving, but for those who are less familiar with China, this is a great book to get your feet wet.

2. I knew nothing about Chinese history before my arrival and what I did know came from  Jung Chang's Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. This book makes history accessible to even those who loathe to read about it. Her story includes her mother and grandmother's own stories and nearly brings us through the entire 20th century in China. Wild Swans is never dull, reading more like a novel. It is at times both heartbreaking and rage inducing.

My favorite guilty pleasures
1. I remember the first time I saw Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, sitting on the lower bunk of a fellow traveler when I was staying in a Beijing hostel. “God, I'm glad I've graduated from reading such crap,” I thought to myself, rolling my eyes at the title. It must have been about a year later that I came across Susan Jane Gilman's memoir again and decided to have a quick look. I was immediately engrossed in a tale of two young American women who came to China shortly after its opening. Reading about China in the 1980's was fascinating in itself, but the story of these young women takes a terrifying turn which is sure to keep most readers up late, desperate to know how it all ends.

2. Another fun memoir, Rachel DeWoskin's Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China is a coming-of-age story both for the writer and the city she is living in. I loved reading about Beijing as it was in the 90's. It helps put in perspective how fast the city, and the country as a whole, has changed. DeWoskin also provides the reader into a view that many people don't often get to see. What's it like to star on a Chinese soap opera? Date a Chinese man? Experience local backlash after a terrorist attack? Read to find out!

On a more serious note
1. The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by was a book passed on to me by another expat. Get the tissues out for this one, it's a painful read, but worth it. It's not so much about the author, Beijing journalist Xinran, but of the harrowing tales she encountered over the years working as a talkshow host at Nanjing Radio Station in the 1980's. Though the rights of women in China have improved considerably in recent years, there stories are no less powerful. I have a terrible memory when it comes to novels and movies; most of them I forget as soon as I am finished. But years after reading this book, I still recall some of the women's heartbreaking experiences.
2. Ha Jin's Waiting. I can and do read fiction, though I find true accounts of China more rewarding than their fictional counterparts. Jin's novel is an exception to this rule. His story captures the plight of a man and his lover during a tightly controlled Communist China. After reading the book, I felt grateful to live in a time in place in which I am free to pick my own destiny. It was not so long ago, that most Chinese people's entire lives were mapped out by familial duty and government restrictions.

I was less impressed with
1. I am hesitant to pan this one (and I promise my lack of enthusiasm has no relation to my coveting the author's husband), but I struggled to finish Leslie Chang's Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. It's a book that tops the lists of China “must read” books and one that I thought sounded intriguing. Chang follows the development of China's boom towns and chronicles the lives of the migrant women who go to live there. Doesn't that sound interesting? In the very beginning, I suppose it was, but after awhile the stories grew hard to follow and repetitive. I began confusing the names of the different women Chang follows as she jumped between people and places. She also devotes a large part of the book to her own family's history which has no relation to the subject matter and, unfortunately, is boring. There, I said it.

2. I read Adeline Yen Mah's Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter ten years ago and I still clearly remember my disappointment with it. Another memoir (this list is heavy with memoirs), this one focuses on a young Chinese girl's abuse at the hands of her step-mother. The book has interesting snippets about Chinese history and culture, but it's hard to read about a child being severely mistreated. I continued reading, hoping that the writer would somehow triumph, but I finished the book feeling she would forever remain in her role as victim. 

On my “to-read” list
1. Right now I'm working on Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French. If reading about expat life in China at the end of the 20th century is interesting, reading about early 20th century life is truly fascinating. This true story is about the mysterious death of a young British woman who lived in Beijing with her diplomat father during the lead up to World War Two.
2. Amy Tan's latest novel, The Valley of Amazement. I loved Tan's The Joy Luck Club which beautifully portrays the struggle between mothers and daughters, as well as the cross-cultural conflict between immigrants and their first generation children. It sounds like her new novel revisits those themes through a very different story.
3. My ultimate goal: To read Yu Hua's To Live in Chinese. 

Have you read any books about China? What are your favorites? What's on your summer's "to-read" list?