“I roll out of bed and crash to the floor in severe pain at 11 p.m. I cannot stand. Hobbling to the bathroom, I open the faucet and splash cold water on my face. A deep, sharp pain erupts in my side and my back breaks out in a sheen of sweat. I hover over the toilet, not sure what is about to happen. A ripple of pain drops me to my knees just as I hurl the contents of my stomach into the basin. Again and again.
Tears mix with sweat and six words become a mantra in my mind: I’m going to die in China.”
Read the rest of this at Verge Magazine’s website –
It used to be that at least twice a month I fought off assaults from the undead as soon as I closed my eyes. Trapped in my apartment building, locked in a crowded bus, sprinting through the streets as a horde stumbled, limped and lumbered after me.
Any psychoanalyst worth his salt can tell you why I had the dreams; I live in China.
From a numbers approach, China can easily overwhelm. People Mountain, People Sea, the first Chinese idiom I learned—”ren shan ren hai”—basically means there are people as far as the eye can see everywhere you go. After five and a half years, though, I’ve mostly figured out how to make things work between me and the 1.3 billion people who became my neighbours.”
This is an excerpt from a recent blog post I wrote for Verge Magazine, a site dedicated to what they call “travel for change.” The magazine helps people study, travel, and work abroad, and their message of “Travel with purpose” is extremely appealing for those who like to get out in the wide open world for more than just photo ops.
China is a country full of tradition. China is also full of people that have no time for tradition.
But most of those folks fall in line during the Chinese Spring Festival. They save up, fight for their tickets home, stuff Red Envelopes with their hard-earned cash (many of them giving up meals to do so), and spend the first week of the Lunar January with their family eating dish after dish of homemade grub. Most families pull out all the stops. Preparing the New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day meals are endeavors they labor over, choreograph, and take pride in. For days before the event, Xiao Ming’s family blew up the family WeChat Group with instructions for preparing and making the food. You’d have thought they expected Xi Jinping himself to show up.
The celebratory atmosphere lasts until Lantern Festival which is the fifteenth day of the first Lunar Month, this year that’s February 11. It’s really just the first week of the New Year that gets most of the attention, though. Once the family is all together they eat, play mahjong, watch the Spring Fesitval Gala, and some, you know, like fireworks a little bit. Starting at eleven pm you hear the crack and pop and explosive bursts all throughout the city. This goes on for about a week with minor slowdowns throughout the daytime.
For most foreigners celebrating Spring Festival in China they learn about the importance of red, fireworks, and Red Envelopes first. Those are the shiny parts of the holiday and integral to the celebrations, but another tradition is all the visiting of relatives that’s expected. The Chinese call it chuan menr – 串门儿. Just like many Americans on New Year’s Day, the Chinese pay visits to family members at this time of year.
Luckily for Xiao Ming and me, most of the family lives here in Kai Fa Qu. We headed over to the oldest male cousin’s house. He lives in the same complex as Xiao Ming’s parents and aunts. There’s like eight family members in that one complex. We used to live there, too, but it was before everyone decided it was the best place in the world to live. Now we have at least a ten-minute walk separating us!
As usual when there is a family dinner, only about half the food was ready by the designated time of 4 pm. Everyone fretted over something. Chairs for the guests, enough cups, chop sticks, who wore too little, who was too thin, who was too fat. The spread looked great. Tasted better.
After the food we all just chilled. The aunts played mahjong in the back, couple of the uncles smoked and talked about nonsense, and Xiao Ming and I watched some of the Spring Festival Gala. Every year this program takes over Chinese TV and heralds the New Year with performances from all over the country. Dances, songs, Kung Fu performances, Chinese skits of Crosstalk (Xiang Sheng), and of course over-the-top patriotic interviews with men and women in service jobs and military posts.
Then Jackie Chan leads everyone in a song of “My Home is in My Heart” while simultaneously performing Chinese Sign Language. Yeah, seriously. Here’s a better link to it.
Like Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve, there’s the same host for decades, a countdown, and even a Midnight Meal. Back home we ate Sour Kraut and Pork. Here they eat…
Surprised by this, anyone?
I noticed the fireworks the most my first year in China. The noise, smoke, colors. It was the Year of the Dragon. Aside from what I read online or was told at my work, I didn’t take part in much celebrating that first year, at least not Chinese celebrations. With each year that passes that changes. Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, and now the Rooster. Being a part of a Chinese family has changed the way I view and experience China. How could it not?
I’ve passed the booths and tables many times. Always a young girl sitting and playing on her phone while before her, laid out on the table, are booklets, posters, and framed photos of newlyweds in all sorts of poses.
In the spring and summer couples flock to the local parks for their outdoor shoots, and descend on the foreign-looking buildings because it’s fashionable to take photos in front of them, and even schedule elaborate trips in order to capture on-site images instead of using green screens or poster backdrops. When Xiao Ming and I were in Nice a few years ago we saw two photography groups following Chinese couples around!
We talked about taking the pictures ourselves around the time we got married two years ago, but neither of us wanted to really commit to it. We’re not picture-takers. But after Xiao Ming’s cousin got her photos a few months ago we decided to just get it over with. So, on November 6th we spent NINE hours dressed like what felt like fools in a few of the outfits, and, yes, even got some shots of us in front of foreign looking buildings out in the middle of nowhere about forty minutes away.
Not going through that again.
LiYing Wedding Photography is a two-floor shop down a side street beside iMall (No connection to Apple products whatsoever). The mall used to be the only competition for Ansheng Shopping Center across the intersection, but now that a Wanda Shopping Center opened just up the street Kai Fa Qu consumers have plenty of places to spend their money. We arrive before 8 am, and Xiao Ming is ushered into the back where her make-up is applied by women with questionable cosmetic choices themselves.
A Chinese girl so small I could probably toss her across the room comes up to me and says she’ll be putting make-up on me and doing my hair. I laugh.
I make it clear to her that my hair is the way I want it, and there’s no way in hell I’m getting any make-up put on me. Shit, my mom and aunts had to hold me down as a toddler just to apply sunscreen!
So then after Xiao Ming is dolled up enough that I might mistake her for someone else, we put on our first outfits. We’d gone in two weeks before to select our clothing and decided on at least a few shots wearing the traditional red Chinese gowns (I also insisted on having shots done with us wearing our normal clothes and leather jackets!). We donned them and then traipsed upstairs for the first round of pics. It’s no good. Babies are everywhere being asked to smile and say “eggplant.” Qiezi, the Chinese for eggplant, is basically their “Cheese” for photos. Saying it makes them grimace just like saying “cheese” does for us Americans.
So our entourage packs up for a place they call the “basement” that’s in Jinzhou, about thirty minutes or so away. Sure, whatever. Just let me change back into my normal clothes first. Nope! We both walk outside in our flashy red gowns for all the Sunday morning busybodies to see.
Along the way we stop for some Chinese breakfast – still my least favorite of the Chinese meals. After the food everyone dozes as we drive toward Jinzhou, the county to the west of Kai Fa Qu. When we get to the “basement” it’s pretty clear the name is a euphemism.
Tian Lai Wan is a mostly abandoned complex that looks like something you’d see in England or parts of France. Pale stone slabs for the exterior, statues, and columns. Close to the coast and eerily quiet, you could almost forget you’re in China.
The facility is shared by seven photography companies, and they’ve all put money into the place. Sets – that’s the only way to think of them – are everywhere. Castle, Bar, Pool Hall, Library, Wine Cellar, Park, Bridge, Nondescript Rustic Foreign Place, etc.
Once there, we begin.
NINE hours and a lunch break later, we finish.
The day is done and we’re wiped out. Xiao Ming is just swearing up and down in our pidgin Chinese-English mix we’ve developed as a couple together (we’re so cultured! Haha). I’m half asleep and hungry sitting next to her. But we’re done.
It’s about a month before we get a call that says we can come in and see the digital copies and make our final selections. Apprehensive and skeptical, we go in and look through the 200 pics. We were nervous because the dresses Xiao Ming wore were a bit too big on her, the make-up was way more than she ever wears (which is none), and I have a notorious habit for making monkey faces in my pictures.
After pouring over the photos for about half an hour, we narrow our selections down to 44. There are some decisions about sizes and layout, and then we’re told it’ll be another half month. We wait. Three weeks later we’re called. Yay! Picture pick up!
Except not. We get there and are shown the digital book pages that will become the printed hardcopy books. It took three weeks to put this together, I ask. The woman nods hesitantly. I straight up ask her what they’ve done in three weeks. I tell her that if I’d had the digital copies I could have arranged them just like what she’s shown us in one day. There’s nothing she can do, I know, but sometimes bitching about nonsense feels good.
She tells us it’ll be another half month before we can pick up the books!
And so a few days ago we got the call and went to retrieve the pictures we’d taken in the Autumn.
Being married to a Chinese woman isn’t exactly like those melodramatic TV shows or the ridiculously formulaic Korean dramas that people can’t seem to get enough of here.
Ever watch one?
Turn on the tube and chances are you’ll catch one of five types of show:
Dynastic China with subtle, watered-down undertones of political commentary, a World War II series that usually makes the Kuomintang out to be insufferable fools and the Japanese as subhuman monsters while the Communists are righteously wielding inferior weapons and still coming out on top, a medical drama with absurdly handsome and young people staring very sternly at one another, a game show where people just straight up do stupid shit for really nothing but the audience’s applause, or the Korean family drama.
Korean dramas usually follow the boy meets girl story, and then they throw a wammy of boy meets girl’s family and must win over the overbearing parents. Follow that up with boy marries girl. Then girl must win over the overbearing mother of the boy. Once they all like each other there is usually an issue with the pregnancy or stress put on the girl for a boy (the more desired). And in the midst of it all someone gets themselves tossed into the hospital because of a sickness or some stupid behavior that in the end brings to light that they all just love each other and want good things for the family. Yay – happily ever after.
I may have sidetracked myself.
My point is that being married to a Chinese woman isn’t always like that, but dealing with parents in this culture does require some flexibility. Xiao Ming’s mom and dad have always welcomed me, but man can they push my buttons, too.
I come home one day a few weeks back and ol’ mom and pop are there hanging out with Xiao Ming. Her dad motions for me to follow him into my office, so I do. We stand in front of the dresser and he points to it, saying that he fixed it. I open the drawers and sure enough they slide open and shut seamlessly. The flimsy bottoms had begun to bow and made those motions difficult. Great! Fixed. Thanks, Dad.
Except the second thing I noticed was that everything in the drawers were now somehow reorganized. I don’t just have a dresser of clothes. I use three drawers for other things like nik-naks, notebooks, etc. Nothing too crazy personal, but still, personal. To fix the dresser he had to take everything out and then to put it back the way he did, he had to carefully think about how to put items where. So he just went through all my stuff.
If you’re thinking to yourself, Jordan, he fixed the dresser. You’re right. Absolutely. If I were a better person, I’d see that and stop there. I’m not, and I didn’t.
I pulled Xiao Ming to the side, told her I appreciated the help. I didn’t ask for it, but, sure, thanks.
Side note – I grew up working on most weekends helping my stepdad maintain our rentals. I know how to do home maintenance. And, yes, it does bother me to have someone in my home doing things I can do myself. That make me a small man? Fine. I own that.
So I tell Xiao Ming that I’m uncomfortable with the way it all went down. They pop over all the time unannounced, and even come in and fiddle around when we’re not home from time to time. Whatever. No issues. But going through my dresser, even to fix it, was something I’m not okay with.
Xiao Ming gets it. She even admits that she told her father not to do it because I wouldn’t like it. Love her. She knows me. But I’m still seeing red. I have to say something, I tell her. To him. Right now. No, no, she says, but I don’t give in.
I greet him in the living room – damn he’s a small guy – and I very politely thank him for helping with the dresser. But, I add, next time – oh no, he senses my tone and is bowing his head with that uncomfortable smile – I’d like to fix something like that myself. He nods and I walk back to my office like a horrible troll that’s collected a tax for walking over his bridge. Immediately I feel crappy. He does, too, and I can hear him talking to Xiao Ming about it.
What should I have done? That was my line.
In the end, it blows over. After all, we’re family!
And today I come home to a house with a few lights on that I know I turned off. Strange. I go into the bathroom to wash my face and get a shower since I’m sweaty from the gym. Can’t do that. The handle for the bathroom sink is missing.
And the drawers under the sink are sitting oddly. I pull on one and it falls out. The tracks it’s supposed to be on are sticking out of the trash, all rusted and old looking. Obviously Xiao Ming’s father has been here.
So apparently he plans to fix the bathroom sink and the drawers. True, both are due for an upgrade, but they were manageable. A call to Xiao Ming to see if she knows anything. Nope. Her dad has just pulled one of his ninja moves. So now instead of having a sink that works and one that I can fix on the weekend, I have no sink and I have to wait until he feels like finishing what he’s started in case I upset him like I did last time when I asked him to stop fixing things.
As I typed this he sent a message to Xiao Ming –
Tell Jordan, the bathroom’s sink head is broken.
I’ll buy a new one and put it on tomorrow.
Yup, I’m a rotten person.
Xiao Ming has her own battles with her mother, though. She gets on Xiao Ming for everything from our habit of getting delivery most nights to driving habits. She’s always giving Xiao Ming grief about not cooking a lot, about how the apartment could be cleaner (It’s pretty damn clean!), and making Xiao Ming call her everyday just so her mother knows she made it home from work. We eat with them usually once every two weeks, sometimes less. I don’t know, but for me that seems like a good amount for most adult children. Of course her mother makes her feel bad that we don’t eat over there most nights like her cousins eat with their parents. The fact that the cousins still live with their parents and don’t work the same hours as we do doesn’t seem to affect this sentiment at all.
I couldn’t imagine life here without the whole Liu Clan. Everyone from the quiet, meddling father and nagging but caring mother to the fussy aunts and noisy uncles makes life here richer and more meaningful.
If you happened to anchor in one of China’s ports during the 19th century often enough to pick up the language, or manned posts on Chinese soil while working as a Foreign Service Officer during the ridiculously complicated years surrounding the Chinese Civil War, then you may have been a China Hand—中国通.
As a foreigner, being called or recognized as a bona fide China Hand by a Chinese person is about the highest compliment there is. Doing business here, teaching English, or even marrying a national doesn’t qualify you as one. Reciting Tang Dynasty poets like Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, or Wang Wei won’t get you the moniker, either.
As with any term steeped in culture and history, it changes and evolves with the times. Just like the common address for a young man today in China, Handsome Guy, shuai ge—帅哥. It’s the modern watered-down distillation of a word with a very different original meaning. Yuan Shuai used to refer to a military position of some rank. A soldier at this rank undoubtedly possessed some stellar qualities—probably admirable and honorable to boot. It’s not too hard to see how the title got commandeered and repurposed to describe particularly handsome guys. Knowing the history doesn’t make it any less annoying when people flit around calling everyone shuai ge.
I digress—China Hands! This distinguished nickname now gets toted out and tossed around whenever a witty comment or an insight into Chinese history is made. In a culture where exaggeration of worth and value is expected toward strangers and acquaintances but nit-picking and denigration is par for the course within families or tight circles mixed signals abound for those new to China.
Any expat making even the flimsiest attempts at Mandarin will be complimented as soon as they utter Ni Hao. Mention Mao Zedong, throw out an idiom, or even talk about any one of the two dozen holidays on the calendar (lunar, of course), and someone will call you a China Hand. That seem contradictory to what I already wrote? It’s not-ish. Because you probably don’t really know the person you’re talking to when you hear it. They may be a merchant, a co-worker, a prospective business contact, or even your weekly A Yi. What I’m saying is that chances are, they don’t view you as a family member or even as one of their inner circle. Those expats that are fortunate enough to make it into these close-knit relationships can get the honest answers, the honest compliments. And 99% of expats here are not China Hands.
I don’t know any of the merchants from two hundred years back, but I know a little about the guys that hung around China seventy years ago. John S. Service, Owen Lattimore, John K. Fairbank, John Paton Davies, Jr, and my father-in-law’s favorite that he likes to bring up whenever we talk about modern Chinese history, journalist Edgar Snow—these are the 中国通 that got caught up in one of the most pivotal times in Chinese history.
If anyone deserves to be called 中国通 it’s them. They mingled with the top brass in China—both sides. Chiang Kai-Shek and his beautiful wife Soong Mei-Ling, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai…These China Hands saw history unfold and often influenced its outcomes in various ways, sometimes not always for the best. China Hands like these folks just don’t come around all that often because they are frequently a product of tumultuous times themselves, thrust into positions because of necessity and duty. Thankfully, things are a lot more stable these days, but the idea of the China Hand is still very present among the people.
Why am I bringing any of this up? Well, it’s because I just had my Five Year China Anniversary. I say that like it’s a thing, I know. For me it is. All of this was originally supposed to be a One Year Stint. And then it became more.
My father-in-law constantly brings up the idea of me being a China Hand. He wants me to study Mandarin and modern history without pause. Xiao Ming is more practical about it all. She’s flat out told me that no one can become a 中国通 in less than 10 years. So, I’ve got time. No rush. Who knows if I’ll ever actually make it…
Regardless, it’s a hell of a life. That’s the big thing for this year, that realization. China was an experiment for me. It was something that I’d check out. Spend a year looking around and then go home. Move on. If I’d gone home after a year, two years, maybe even if I went home at the three-year mark, that’s all it would have remained—an experience. But now that it’s five years and a day, and with all that’s changed and happened, it’s clear that the China Experiment is over and the China Life is what it’s become. My China Life. Life.
Maybe my wife is right, she usually is, and I have five more years and a day before I can be counted among the China Hands. It’s not like one day you wake up and they give you a card or anything. But how cool would that be?
Speaking of official documents, a Time Out Shanghai article recently shed light on a topic I’ve heard rumors about. The visa hurdles here in place are not to be taken lightly, but China has a plan. A new ABC ranking system where they categorize foreigners working here as either top talent (A), professional talent (B), or unskilled worker (C) is being implemented.
As the roll out date is this April, I wonder how this will affect me and others like me. Are they going to actually test expats with Mandarin exams? Will they give preference to those that have been here for a long time? Married into a family? They promise to provide “helpful guides” to foreigners, so I guess I’ll wait in line for those?
Anyway—Five Years has been great.
I do, in fact, know a bit about one of the merchants from way back. John O’Donnell was the first merchant to ship China-made goods to Baltimore. After amassing a fortune from this trade business and becoming one of the big names in Baltimore, he named his plantation Canton. This name comes from Guangzhou, China and is how it appeared on maps for many years. Well, I’m from Canton, the one in Ohio, not Maryland. Turns out that the surveyor (of the Ohio Canton) admired O’Donnell so much that he borrowed the O’Donnell plantation name for my hometown. It’s random. It’s true. Look it up.
I guess sometime soon I should write about Malaysia, Singapore, going back home, DC, SC, Xinjiang, Gansu, and getting back into the swing of school again. Maybe later.
If it’s possible to be nostalgic for the future, as a teenager, I managed it.
For about five years, on December 31st, I would round up the four or five closest people in my life and force them (on more than one occasion threaten them) to pen an epistle to their future selves. Each year the “To be Opened” date was randomly selected. I think the first time around was when I was 16. Patience wasn’t a strong virtue of mine then (nor is it one I champion now), so I think we wrote to two years into the future. The next time around was maybe three. And so on.
The first group to be strong-armed into this included my brother, best friend, girlfriend, girlfriend’s cousin (my neighbor), and girlfriend’s cousin’s boyfriend. And me.
Madly in love with my girlfriend, I wrote largely about her. I threw in some obligatory concessions to family and friends, but mostly, it was to her. I don’t know what the others wrote about because I delivered their letters to them without prying.
The deal was that they’d write the letters and I’d seal them in envelopes and make sure they got them at the appointed time. Because we had planned to write them each year, burying them like time capsules didn’t seem practical. Instead, I placed them (alongside other childhood treasures like cards, middle school notes, an old pocket knife, and oddly enough, those Jaw-Dropper Magic infomercial VHS tapes) in an army tin and slid the thing under my bed.
True to my word, I never looked at the letters and I got them to their writers each time. Even after I broke up with the girl I had written about, I got her letter to her (and her cousin with whom I was not on speaking terms). The years went by a few more times, and the letter writing continued. The group changed, with a few of us staying and others going. In 2010 I got a group together for the last time and we wrote letters.
The group consisted of my best friend, mother, brother-in-law, my wife, and me.
I just found these letters today, lying at the bottom of the tin, under the Jaw-Dropper videos. They were to be opened on January First, 2013. That didn’t happen because I was in China.
Considering the changes that have taken place in all of our lives since their writing, these letters make me apprehensive. I’m no longer married, I’ve been out of the country for more than two years, and I haven’t seen my best friend yet since I’ve been home for a little more than a week. The rest of the group had a crazy last couple of years, too, so as I stare at the envelopes setting atop the desk I used to complete homework on in high school, I’m hesitant to read mine. I have no clue how to get the letters to the two others that I don’t see, and I’m not sure if my friend even wants his. I can hand my mother’s to her, but then what about mine?
In 2010 I had a life trajectory that I could see ahead into for years. By the end of 2013 that path has been demolished and built over so that now, I’ve got visibility for about a few months out or so. Not only is it a new path, it’s a route that wasn’t even on the damn map before.
As I wrote before: I count myself among the truly blessed to be living the life I want to be living. Even if it comes to an end sooner than I want, I have been able to lead the very life I have always wanted to lead. How many people can say that?
That being sad, there have been plenty of mistakes on my part. I’ve hurt people, and I’ve let others down. I’ve gone through pain and no small amount of stress due to the things I’ve done or haven’t done right.
And every time my eye catches the corner of the envelope hanging half off the desk, I’m reminded of these failures. I truly have no idea what I wrote about, but one thing is certain: I had no way of knowing the Jordan who would be reading the words written.
On this day, though, as is the heart of the holiday, I’m looking ahead as well as at what is in my past. I will read the letter, and I will let the words do whatever they plan to do, but then I will fold up the paper, tuck it back into the envelope, and put it back in the tin where it will stay. The tin will get slid back under the bed that is no longer mine, and I will go about my life.
I’ve got so much yet to learn from life that I can’t be consumed by the lessons of yesterday. Forgetting them would be equally foolish, but then again, I’ve never been one to let go of the past anyways. Instead, I’ll learn from the experiences and just simply let go of the baggage. I recently read a fantastic quote on a friend’s Facebook.
“Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” — Aldous Huxley
This is my motto for the coming year. Just decided it, and I feel good about the decision.
Where ever you are and whoever you’re with, take your experiences and do something crazy. Learn, Love, and Live in 2014!
*And because I won’t be able to get the song out of my head until Chinese Spring Festival, here’s a classic.*
Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind ? Should old acquaintance be forgot, and old lang syne ?
For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
And surely you’ll buy your pint cup ! and surely I’ll buy mine ! And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.
We two have run about the slopes, and picked the daisies fine ; But we’ve wandered many a weary foot, since auld lang syne.
We two have paddled in the stream, from morning sun till dine† ; But seas between us broad have roared since auld lang syne.
And there’s a hand my trusty friend ! And give me a hand o’ thine ! And we’ll take a right good-will draught, for auld lang syne.