I’m excited to have “virtually” sat down with Jocelyn, the writer, blogger, and creator behind Speaking of China. She’s inspired me to pursue topics that haven’t always been the easiest to put pen to paper.
We discussed how she ended up in China, learned the language, the places and foods that delight her, also sneaking in an inquiry about Xi’an, her AMWF marriage, juggling the blogging-work-life balance, and what she’s been working on recently.
Want to say or share something on Xiananigans? Head over to the guidelines for submitting a guest post.
Xiananigans: What first brought you to China? Besides John, what led you to stay?
Jocelyn: It was complete serendipity because I never intended to come here. While searching for a post-graduation job opportunity overseas, I discovered that my university (Marshall University) happened to run a teach in China program. I was an environmental biology major and Spanish happened to be my foreign language, not Mandarin Chinese. But the opportunity actually intrigued me – and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I actually had this quiet fascination with many things from China (from Taoism to tea culture to even tofu and soy milk, two of China’s greatest culinary inventions). Admittedly, I also just couldn’t find another offer in a Spanish-speaking city that sounded more appealing than this opportunity to teach in China. It was kind of a situation where the end of my last semester at college was looming and I needed to choose something, anything, to do for the next year. So I chose teaching in China, thinking it would be that sort of post-graduation year abroad where I would get some distance and perspective on life, and finally figure out what I wanted to do. I never thought my future would become so intimately intertwined with this country.
It might surprise you to know this but initially I didn’t stay. I fulfilled my year’s contract with the college they assigned me to in Zhengzhou, but decided teaching English wasn’t for me. Plus a part of me wanted to return to the US so I could finally put that environmental biology degree to good use. But the longer I stayed away from China, the more I yearned to return and continue learning Mandarin Chinese. In fact, I simply realized that I had never felt more alive and energized than during that year in Zhengzhou. That ultimately motivated me to find another job in China (as a writer in Hangzhou, the city where I would eventually meet John). While many years have passed since then, that thrill of living in this country hasn’t really changed. That’s what keeps me here!
X: How did you learn and continue to learn Chinese?
J: I really started out learning a lot like kids do – because I was so intimidated by Chinese characters, I initially only focused on speaking and listening. That first year in China, I hired a tutor (recommended through a friend) and we worked together through a conversational Chinese book. It was total immersion – he taught me solely in Chinese, and had me repeat and memorize these helpful everyday phrases. It helped a ton and by the end of that year, I could finally get around well enough on my own. But when I returned to China to work in Hangzhou and felt the pain of not recognizing characters pretty much every time I went out to eat or to run an errand, guess what I decided to start learning? It wasn’t easy at first to add characters to my study routine (which still included having a tutor who taught me primarily in Chinese). I bought a bunch of flashcards and shuffling through them just left me with a headache most days. But then things started to click into place once I started using things like TV shows and music to study (the subtitles were a great way to practice reading and recognizing characters, among other things), a process I detailed in this article titled “How I Learned to Read Chinese”.
You might be surprised, but these days I still learn much of my Chinese through watching TV news (especially the ones with those hilarious and/or shocking videos). If nothing else, it’s such compelling TV you want to pay attention and figure out what’s going on!
X: You mentioned you’ve visited Xi’an. What are your fondest memories of Xi’an?
J: One of my favorite memories is strolling through the Steele Forest our first full day in Xi’an. Besides being astounded by wandering through this incredibly ancient (and heavy!) library, it was just such a relaxing and beautiful place. The elegant curved rooftops on the buildings and entrances, the pleasant shade of the trees, the fact it was perfectly tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It was a wonderful start to our visit!
X: Do you have a favorite Chinese dish, regional cuisine, or snack?
J: As a vegan, there’s no doubt that tofu tops my list of favorite foods. But my favorite kind of tofu is this smoked tofu from my husband’s hometown. A lot of smoked tofu styles here in the Jiangnan region turn out a little too sweet or overpowered by soy sauce. Not this. It’s just a lovely snack, savory and with just a hint of sugar and five-spice flavoring. The perfect smoked tofu, if you ask me. (Just writing about it makes me hungry – can’t wait to stock up on some next time we head back to my husband’s hometown!)
X: You’ve done your share of traveling in China. What’s your favorite city, sight, or trip you’ve taken?
J: I love Putuoshan here in Zhejiang Province, a magical little island dotted with lovely temples and some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen in China. Of course, the majestic Huangshan is also a personal favorite, even if my first trip was during a rather unorthodox honeymoon vacation with my father-in-law!
X: What’s the best part of an AMWF marriage?
J: I think every AMWF couple would have a very personal answer to this question. For me, I honestly love having a relationship that straddles two countries, cultures and languages. Even though John and I have been married for 10 years, we’re still learning new things from one another. As I’ve written before, we engage in mutual “wordplay” in our respective languages all the time and it’s so much fun!
X: What proclamations are you tired of hearing about your AMWF marriage?
J: I don’t know about proclamations, but I’m definitely tired of people asking us when we’re going to have kids. Thank god my husband usually does the talking!
X: You published a response to my post in which you discuss the obstacles you and John faced living in the US. It’s very poignant. What’s the best piece of advice you’d offer to AMWF couples moving stateside?
J: I think the biggest shock for both of us was the discrimination my husband encountered in the US. If I had to do things all over again, I would say prepare yourself for this above all else – because it’s not a question of if it’s going to happen, but a question of when. After all, discrimination still threatens Asian Americans today; you can imagine, then, it’ll be even harder for an Asian foreigner. Of course, you should read up on it – but it’s just as important, if not more, to become friends with people of color who will understand what it’s like.
X: You’ve created an inspiring and expansive AMWF network, been published in other publications including How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit and run The Wu Way. What does your day look like? How do you manage it all?
J: When I read this question, I had to chuckle…if only she could see the utter disarray in my “home office” (and I put it in quotation marks because we have such a small apartment that I actually do all of my writing, as well as this blog, from my bedroom).
The answer to “what does your day look like” really depends on what’s on my plate. For example, this summer I had two consecutive paying projects that basically consumed practically all of my time and energies up until about mid-August. If you had looked at my “typical day” then, it’s nothing like my days right now, where I’m in-between projects and actually have time to catch up on revisions on my manuscript (I’m working on a memoir), draft up more blog posts and even work on articles for publication in other venues. I think that’s the reality for freelancers like me – you have to be flexible about organizing your time and be able to adjust depending on the paying opportunities you have at the moment.
That said, I write something almost every single day, because it’s such an important thing in my life. Whether it’s revising my manuscript or working on blog posts or articles, I try to make time for this. Another thing I do every day is walk. We live right next to a huge park in Hangzhou and it’s so invigorating (and therapeutic) to get outside and get some fresh air for an hour or so. It’s one of the best parts of my day! I also love to read and often am curled up in the evenings with a nice e-book (you might be surprised to know this but I devour a lot of YA fiction – including dystopian novels — besides the sort of books I feature on my site).
As for managing things, gosh, I doubt I have any amazing secrets to share with you! For one thing, I hardly do it all in one day. It has taken me time to build these things up – years even. I will say all of what you mentioned in the question is connected to my own passions. Because I’m passionate about these things, I’m that much more motivated to want to work on them and improve myself. It also helps to have supporters behind you too! I feel lucky to have the most amazing husband who has always wanted to see me succeed as a writer, as well as a close group of writers I turn to for guidance and encouragement.
X: What’s the most satisfying part of blogging? The biggest downside?
J: The immediacy of blogging is incredibly satisfying – being able to press the “publish” button and voila, your work is out there for the world to read and share.
But it does come at a price. It is incredibly scary putting yourself out there – and then allowing other people to leave comments on your work (invariably, you will come across those negative comments from time to time). I remember a few years back when I was just starting out, sometimes I would be so anxious about the post I had just scheduled to run for the following day that I could hardly sleep at night! (Even nowadays, on occasion, I feel nervous about what I’ve scheduled to run.) It’s not easy to manage that emotional toll and sometimes it gets the best of you. Finding the inner strength and courage to continue blogging despite these worries is not an easy thing.
X: What are you working on right now?
J: I’m currently revising a manuscript for the memoir I’ve titled Red All Over. It’s the story of how China helped me find true love, my direction (including the backstory to my blog) and the courage and confidence to finally be the person I was meant to be. I anchor the memoir with vignettes from my wedding ceremony in China, which symbolizes my own transformation over the course of the book. It’s something I’ve been working on in earnest since 2010, so it has been – and continues to be – a labor of love (and patience)!
Bio: Jocelyn Eikenburg is the creator of Speaking of China, a blog about love, family and relationships in China (including AMWF love), and has also written for The Huffington Post. She lives with her husband John in his hometown of Hangzhou, China, where she writes and blogs from the “home office” in her bedroom.