Jocelyn Eikenburg of Speaking of China

This week’s author interview is with Jocelyn Eikenburg, of SpeakingofChina.com fame, her successful blog focusing on relationship dynamics across the world. As an American woman married to a Chinese man and living in Hangzhou, she has experienced a lot and writes well about the expat perspectives.

She also submitted to the anthology book How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? which I happened to review. Do give it a read.

Without further ado…

 

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First question, of course: What brought you to China?

I was about to graduate from Marshall University and, like a lot of young people, had no clue about what I wanted to do with my future apart from one thing – travel. I couldn’t get enough of international travel after a semester studying abroad in Spain. I figured I would snag a job in a Spanish-speaking country somewhere in the world, and continue my international adventures like that.

Except, I couldn’t find a job that really appealed to me.

So one day I walked into the International Affairs office at my university for guidance. That’s when the director asked me, “How about teaching in China?” As it turned out, Marshall University had run a successful teach in China program for years (Appalachians Abroad).

I remember thinking at the time, China? He’s got to be kidding. Nothing about my life suggested all roads lead to China.

But later on, as I pondered his suggestion, I realized that, deep down, I was quietly fascinated by a number of things connected to China – from Taoism and green tea to tofu and traditional Chinese medicine.

Of course, spending an entire year in a country where you can’t speak the language and know little about the culture is a scary proposition. But I was even more frightened of having nothing to do after graduation and the opportunity to travel ultimately won out over all my fears. So I signed on to teach English in Zhengzhou, China.

Who’d have thought that one chance decision would end up setting the course for my future?

 

What was your biggest challenge?

Initially, not knowing Chinese at all created some stressful and even embarrassing situations for me when I first arrived in China. I hated going out to run even the simplest errands, like mailing a letter, because I’d have to spend an hour trying to memorize a few phrases and then still end up understanding almost nothing they would say to me. Or I’d have these moments in small stores where I would turn as red as the little Chinese dictionary in my hands, paging through it in an often futile effort to express myself. I’m confident I entertained quite a few shopkeepers during my first few months in China.

 

How did you get involved in the anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?

Through Susan Blumberg-Kason, I learned of Shannon Young’s call for submissions for a new expat women’s anthology focused on Asia. I thought it might be fun to write about the time my husband and I used our honeymoon vacation in China to take his dad to visit Huangshan, so I sent Shannon an essay about that. Then, of course, I crossed my fingers and hoped I might actually make the cut!

I feel really fortunate to have been chosen for the anthology, as I share the pages with some incredibly talented writers.

 

Any China-centric authors you enjoy?

Pearl Buck definitely stands out as one of my favorites. I read The House of Earth (The Good Earth, Sons, A House Divided) many years ago when I was in Shanghai, and just fell completely in love with her style, not to mention how she wrote so compassionately about the Chinese and their culture. Not surprisingly, I ended up checking out every single Pearl Buck book in the local library after my husband and I moved back to the US for some time.

There’s this one quote from her book Kinfolk that has stayed with me over the years:

“It takes a certain kind of person to live in China now….Someone who can see true meanings, someone who does not only want the world better but believes it can be made better, and gets angry because it is not done, someone who is not willing to hide himself in one of the few good places left in the world–someone who is tough!”

China has changed much since the 1930s and 1940s, when Buck was writing most of her books, and yet there’s truth in this quote even today.

 

Is it difficult to find new subject matter for Speaking of China?

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Book Review: Year of the Fire Dragons

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https://thenanfang.com/year-fire-dragons-memoir-documents-expat-life-hong-kong/

 

Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong is a new memoir by Hong Kong-based American writer Shannon Young, who is also editor of the anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?

In Year of the Fire Dragons, Young gets very personal, and begins with the romantic story of meeting a Hong Konger named Ben in London. The long distance relationship continues while she intimately explores the Special Administrative Region.

The book details Young’s time as a NET teacher (Native English Teacher) in her first year in Hong Kong as she figures out how to maneuver the city. With an outsider’s perspective, she gives vivid descriptions of shopping markets, embraces the glamour of Central, learns about tensions with the mainland, discovers cultural differences in teaching, and travels the world.

The prose is often fanciful, with lines such as, “The humidity surrounded me like steam pouring out of a broken dumpling,” and, “As the sun dipped toward the horizon, we fell silent, watching the way it reflected through the quiet ripples marking our passage.”

Young is a talented writer. Her knowledge of food in particular truly gets to the core of Hong Kong culture. However, she can get lost in details at times, with scattered chapters ranging from Cantonese classes to clubbing in Lan Kwai Fong. She repeatedly introduces various friends over drinks and then we never see them again in the course of the book. Of course, it is a memoir and real life often doesn’t translate into novel-style story structure. Still, one of the most intriguing and consistent subplots is about her sister’s expat romance and wedding, which contrasts with Young’s own relationship.

The main bulk of the narrative concerns the challenges of having a long-distance partner, focusing on the tragic irony that her boyfriend Ben is from Hong Kong yet she lives there and he doesn’t. As the book progresses, Young finds it harder and harder to defend the two-year plus relationship to her coworkers and friends. No spoilers how it all turns out, but rest assured Young’s perspective is always optimistic despite tough times.

One of the most interesting parts comes in the midpoint when Young reveals her roots: her father was born in Hong Kong (though not raised there). Quotes from the letters of her Asia-traveling grandparents are included.

From 1955: Actually, Hong Kong is a wonderful place to live—we think. Of course there are many things one could complain about, as there are wherever you go, but we think there are far more things to enjoy and be thankful for.

Truly an amazing find, to see the similarities between expats of that era and those of today!

The book as a whole may not be particularly interesting for old China hands. Experienced expats and English teachers probably won’t learn many new things. But for readers less familiar with Hong Kong and life abroad, this memoir can make the perfect introduction.

Recommended both for Hong Kong newcomers and as a good gift for China-based readers to share with friends back home in order to explain what life is like for expats.

Year of Fire Dragons is published by Blacksmith Books, available in Hong Kong and on Amazon.

 

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Author Shannon Young