Funky Chicken, you wrote Why The Chicken Crossed The World, a book of true stories. Tell us a bit about the book and its aims.
Expats living in China are seeing, living, and breathing an amazing opportunity to see the world’s largest emerging market, while it is still emerging. How cool is that? My aim is to capture this very special moment in history, and arguably one of the most exciting times in our lifetimes. Also, it is a way to remind ourselves of the special experiences that we foreigners can relate to as “only in China.”Though, the book is much, much more than that. I tell my friends from home my book is best described as: Imagine Tina Fey, if she were Chinese and describing her home country. I split the book into three themes and 18 chapters, all which give little snapshots into life in China and what you can learn from it. My book aims to encapsulate the good, bad, and hilarious of living in China, all in a very quick and easy read. It’s hopefully funny, and absolutely honest. I guarantee every expat will completely relate to it.
I’ll give you a few examples. Here is a story about the Marriage Fair, in Shanghai’s People’s Park. If you have not gone yet, you must:
“Chinese parents are infamous for pressuring their kids to get married. They want the grandkid. That is probably life’s most precious achievement in a country with a single-child policy. If this wasn’t overbearing enough, children usually live with their parents until their wedding day. And just when the newlyweds escape into their new home, the parents move right in with them. The rationale is to save money in the expensive Chinese real estate market. Though, for all this pressure to produce a child, one would think a mother-in-law living in the next bedroom would be excellent birth control.
What happens in China if you’re still single? Never fear, Chinese mothers have an answer. Parents gather every weekend in Shanghai’s largest city park and pimp their kids out. There is a job-fair-type of event where parents pass out and collect their kid’s dating resume: age, height, salary, number of homes they own. The resumes also list dating requirements: how old your kid should be, height, what kind of salary/ job your kid should have. Notably, there are no pictures. Was this China’s way of saying: who cares if your kid is ugly when they own property?
Ironically, in a country full of short people, they are very specific about height requirements. That leads me to conclude that it is better to have an ugly grandkid than a short one.”
I also talk about the experiences every expat relates to at some point when they return home:
“Here was the strange part. After a half-year absence, I excitedly returned to America for the weeklong Chinese New Year holiday. I held back tears when the immigration official stamped my US passport and warmly smiled, ‘Welcome home, ma’am.’ Entering SFO airport was a weird mix of déjà vu and loving comfort. I left the airport, entered America, and that’s where it stopped. My thoughts wrote a scathing review of the U.S. Nostalgia messes with the mind—and in my mind, until that moment, the U.S. had been filled with fairy dust and sunshine. Suddenly I was reminded that it was also filled with graffiti. Being that home was San Francisco, the graffiti also came with a bunch of crazies—and the homeless, and crazies who were homeless, and the homeless who were crazy.”
What was it that made you decide to write Why The Chicken Crossed The World?
It was by pure coincidence that I discovered people – from locals to people who had never been in China – really liked reading about an American Born Chinese’s experience in China. I didn’t originally intend to write a book, though that is exactly what happened. The phenomenon was so interesting to me, I even described it in the introduction to the book,”During my four years living in China, I discovered things fabulous, frustrating, and interesting. I promised close friends and family that I would share these China adventures in a blog. However, I didn’t expect anyone besides my mother to read it. So I included all the awkward stories and created a pen name—Funky Chicken—just in case a future employer or prospective hot date happened to stumble upon them. Like the blog post about my Chinese driver accidentally buying me a soaking tub meant for hemorrhoids.
As fate would have it, I pecked at all sorts of topics as the “Funky Chicken” until I realized that China, conveniently enough, is geographically shaped like a chicken. An excited local who learned English out of a textbook (probably outdated a hundred years) introduced his country: ‘China is shaped like a cock!’
Then another strange thing happened. I accidentally left the blog publicly accessible on Google. I was shocked, proud, and embarrassed when fans from countries I had never even heard of subscribed to my personal diary. I even welcomed page-long comments—left by strangers—arguing my description of my life in China was inaccurate in my blog. At least that meant they read it.
And then I had an idea. Why not publish the most popular of the 400 blog posts as a series of books? The objective was simple: a resident’s honest view of the world’s fastest-growing economy that you don’t get to see in the newspapers or textbooks. After all, China is all over the news. Given the wide range of gossip, did people think China was a superpower ready to take over the world, or a polluted wasteland with no more baby girls? I figured a lot of people—beyond my mother—would be curious about what it’s really like to live here.”
You're Chinese-American but now living in Shanghai; what was it like when you first moved abroad?
Oh, an adjustment! Moving to China is interesting and difficult for any foreigner, but I argue it made it even more interesting being American Born Chinese. I was asked so often about that, I even described that in my book, “…white, yellow, black, and brown people ask me what it feels like to be an American-born Chinese living in China. Even the Chinese ask me what it’s like to be an ABC in America. It’s simple. In the US, everything in my head is like everyone else but I look different. In China, everything in my head is different but I look like everyone else.”
This impacted everything! I slipped into China undetected to really observe parts of China my foreign-looking friends never got to see. But being ABC also made my work experience interesting. For example, in my book I discuss how my Chinese work team were both terrified and horrified by seeing a Chinese face who was a newbie to the Chinese culture: “Was it easier as an American-born Chinese (ABC) boss to un-scare my new team? After all, you might think an ABC should hypothetically connect better with the Chinese staff. Yes and no. In certain ways, ABCs have it harder in China than white foreigners. As one fellow ABC veteran put it, ‘A white guy could be 90% clueless but the Chinese expect 100% cluelessness, making him a rock star. An ABC could understand 90% but a local would look at his Chinese face and wonder how he didn’t understand 100%, and think he was a complete idiot.’ Consequently, I walked into my new department knowing my team thought I was both scary, and dumb.”
What challenges did you face when you moved to China, and how did you overcome them?
Ah, much of life is about perspective. I believe that so much, it was the main theme in the first third of the book. The intro to the first section even starts with:
“China Secrets Part 1 – A Happy Life: It’s all in the Mind
To achieve what you want—happiness, success, fulfillment—you need the right perspective. What is perspective? Call it a good attitude, winning spirit, or even luck, your perspective is how you decide to see the world. The next chapters showcase the perspectives necessary for a happy life. However, if you’re feeling lazy (i.e. Part 4, Power of Enjoying Life), the overall summary is this: have a positive spirit, consciously enjoy life, and don’t wash dishes wearing Zip Lock bags.”
Of course, you also have to laugh at yourself, while letting others laugh at you, too! I won’t spoil the ending of this story, but a teaser:
“Story 1: Stop Hitting Yourself
When I first moved to China I had no friends, hobbies, or anything else to do with my ample time alone. It was an intensely lonely time. One punctuated with excited Skype video calls to friends in America. And, one quickly followed by explosive, nostalgic sobbing when I saw familiar faces, and even more familiar backgrounds. My dad called during my first month to eagerly ask how my new adventure was going. By the second month, he said flatly that maybe I should just come back home. My abysmal melancholy wasn’t all bad, though. Some depressives go off to become artists or rock stars. I became a comedian.
On one of my many evenings alone, I saw a live performance of a Mandarin improv comedy group. They were a troupe of very talented Chinese drama university students. I barely spoke Mandarin and certainly had no idea how to improvise. But it seemed like fun. What did I have to lose? I cold emailed the organizer the funniest message I could think of, asking if I could join. He probably read my message as more desperation than humor. But he invited me to join the following weekly practice session, anyway.
My initiation into the group was to do a solo rap in Chinese. I could barely even rap in English. So, I strung together every random Mandarin word I knew and hoped for the best. Luckily, many Chinese words end with an ‘-a,’ so my solo rap routine was the Mandarin equivalent of something like, “I am new, ha! I sing like la! I go rah, rah, rah! Make you go ga, ga, ga!” They looked at me dumbfounded. Then, quickly exclaimed I was great. That really meant they felt sorry for me.”
What happened after that? Oh my, one on my life’s most embarrassing moments!
Do you have any tips for expats who want to write their own books?
Just start writing! A lot of people put pressure on themselves to write the perfect novel. I did the complete opposite: laugh at myself and my experiences, while (hopefully) making my readers laugh too. With this attitude, writing becomes easy and fun. I even added this disclaimer in my book, just in case the Nobel Peace Prize people read my stuff and wondered what sort of nut I was:
“That being said, let me get this out of the way: I’m not a China scholar. There are already tons of academic books about China written by true experts, and even more China statistics you can find on Google for free. If you want to know the real mindset of a Chinese, you could easily ask a local. Many, with their new wealth, have already immigrated to a big city near you. This is not a dramatic novel, either. This book collects a wide range of small snapshots to give you a bigger picture of China, and of life. Just as I couldn’t explain the complexity of human life in just one linear story, I couldn’t encapsulate the intricacies of China in one narrative. Thus, there is no heroine or even deep character development. Even if there were, I’m not writing this book to win the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. Although it would be fun if I did—I would happily show up on the acceptance stage as the humbly honored Funky Chicken, dressed in a chicken suit.”
What are some of the best books you've read by other people who live abroad?
Well, of course the Funky Chicken humbly (and facetiously) notes nobody else in the world can flap her chicken wings on the typewriter like she can! That being said, there have been great New Yorker articles on China that give a wider perspective on the country. There are also a handful of very helpful business books on working in China, and even more on the culture of it. Though, I am sure there are even greater ones I have not read, and don’t want to endorse one without leaving other equally good ones out.
Finally, when you're not writing, what do you like to do in your spare time?
If you can imagine, I wrote over 400 blog posts during four years living in Shanghai. That is one every 3 days! So I do spend a vast majority of my spare time writing. Otherwise, I spent a ton of time in Shanghai just going on long walks, because you see so much of the city you don’t get to see while in a car. I had lived in New York for years before moving to Shanghai. The real reason why I, like many New Yorkers, love to walk is because it’s basically like lazyman exercise. You could eat and drink whatever you wanted – and as long as you walked around all day long, you still wound up skinny. So in Shanghai, I would eat, walk, eat, walk, and then walk some more. That was the official Funkychicken weight-loss program plan, and I fully endorse it.
Funky Chicken is the pen name of a Chinese-American who writes with full honesty and wit about her adventures living in Shanghai. She’s the Clark Kent undercover observer of the real China you never knew. Only, her superhero ability is to slip undetected into a sea of a billion people to capture the Communist China of today—full of Ferraris, smart phones, and ads for plastic surgery—all the while managing to avoid getting arrested. Her day job is being the Chief Strategy Officer for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at one of the largest global companies in the world. When not hiding in a corporate suit, she writes a clever, humorous China blog loved by a worldwide audience. She is a charming (almost) TED speaker, astute observer, and definite random adventure collector. Unlike many other authors, she lives with her zero children in an unquiet non-suburb and owns no dogs.
Find out more about Funky Chicken at findingfunkychicken.com
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