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Book Review – Paper Wife by Laila Ibrahim

Book Review – Paper Wife by Laila Ibrahim

I recently did an interview with Laila Ibrahim, the author of Paper Wife, and she was kind enough to send me a copy of her novel to review. Be sure to check out her interview here!

About the novel:

Southern China, 1923. Desperate to secure her future, Mei Ling’s parents arrange a marriage to a widower in California. To enter the country, she must pretend to be her husband’s first wife—a paper wife.

On the perilous voyage, Mei Ling takes an orphan girl named Siew under her wing. Dreams of a better life in America give Mei Ling the strength to endure the treacherous journey and detainment on Angel Island. But when she finally reaches San Francisco, she’s met with a surprise. Her husband, Chinn Kai Li, is a houseboy, not the successful merchant he led her to believe.

Mei Ling is penniless, pregnant, and bound to a man she doesn’t know. Her fragile marriage is tested further when she discovers that Siew will likely be forced into prostitution. Desperate to rescue Siew, she must convince her husband that an orphan’s life is worth fighting for. Can Mei Ling find a way to make a real family—even if it’s built on a paper foundation?

My Review:

The novel was shorter than I expected. I read it in about two days, which is a rarity for me with my crazy life. But the story, while well-researched and interesting, is also rather simplistic. There are a lot of places the author could have added more information. Mei Ling only receives two letters from home and she never contacts the local shelter for women (in spite of a rather frightening letter she came across about it early in the novel). 

The biggest issue with the novel though is that Mei Ling has no actual conflict in her life. Every “problem” she is faced with, she either solves or it is solved for her within a few pages. The person with the problem is Siew. The novel would have been much more compelling if Siew had been the main character. The largest conflict for Mei Ling comes at the last 10% of the novel, and, again, it is solved quickly and easily – and not under Mei Ling’s own steam. The novel had a lot of potential, but simply wasn’t developed enough for me. 

Have you read Paper Wife? What did you think? Let me know in the comments. 

Film Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Film Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians, starring Constance Wu and Henry Golding, finally opened here in China on Friday, so my husband I saw it for our weekly date night. We loved it! It was so sweet and funny. I haven’t read the book by Kevin Kwan, but I really want to now. I wasn’t sure how much I would really like the movie because I don’t watch many romantic comedies or read much contemporary fiction, but it was really a fantastic movie. Here is a summary in case you aren’t familiar with the film.

When New Yorker Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, she envisions a humble family home and quality time with the man she hopes to marry. But Nick has failed to give his girlfriend a few key details. One, that his childhood home looks like a palace; two, that he grew up riding in more private planes than cars; and three, that he just happens to be the country’s most eligible bachelor. 
On Nick’s arm, Rachel may as well have a target on her back the second she steps off the plane, and soon, her relaxed vacation turns into an obstacle course of old money, new money, nosy relatives, and scheming social climbers.

Even though the movie has an exclusively Chinese cast and is set in Singapore, the plot is a tale as old as time. How can an outsider ever be good enough for one of the richest families in the world? The film definitely has a universal appeal.

I only wish I could have seen the film in a more packed theater. We live in a small town, so there was only one other couple in the theater with us, but they loved the film even more than we did. They were laughing and cheering and kissing and hugging and even crying at the very end. While the film appeals to anyone who loves a feel-good flick, the impact of this movie on not just Chinese-Americans but Chinese youths around the world cannot be overstated. A sequel is already rightfully in the works, and hopefully Hollywood is scrambling for more books about Chinese and Asian characters to adapt in the future.

Did you see Crazy Rich Asians? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.

Interview with Laila Ibrahim, Author of Paper Wife

Interview with Laila Ibrahim, Author of Paper Wife

As soon as I read the description for Paper Wife, I knew it was exactly the kind of book I would love to read. It isn’t going to be released until the end of October, but author Laila Ibrahim was kind enough to do an author interview with me now. Read what she had to say below, and don’t forget to preorder your copy of Paper Wife!

From the bestselling author of Yellow Crocus comes a heart-wrenching story about finding strength in a new world.

Southern China, 1923. Desperate to secure her future, Mei Ling’s parents arrange a marriage to a widower in California. To enter the country, she must pretend to be her husband’s first wife—a paper wife.

On the perilous voyage, Mei Ling takes an orphan girl named Siew under her wing. Dreams of a better life in America give Mei Ling the strength to endure the treacherous journey and detainment on Angel Island. But when she finally reaches San Francisco, she’s met with a surprise. Her husband, Chinn Kai Li, is a houseboy, not the successful merchant he led her to believe.

Mei Ling is penniless, pregnant, and bound to a man she doesn’t know. Her fragile marriage is tested further when she discovers that Siew will likely be forced into prostitution. Desperate to rescue Siew, she must convince her husband that an orphan’s life is worth fighting for. Can Mei Ling find a way to make a real family—even if it’s built on a paper foundation?


Interview with Laila Ibrahim

1) Tell me a little about yourself, personally and as a writer.
My education and career have mostly been centered around families–as a religious educator, a preschool educator and as a birth doula.  I’m still getting used to the idea that I am a professional writer. I’m thrilled that my stories resonate in people’s hearts and souls.  I started writing in 2005 and haven’t looked back–though there were many bumps on the road at the beginning.
I live in Berkeley California in a small co-housing community.  My wife is a public school educator, and it looks like our young adult daughters are following in her footsteps.
2) How did Paper Wife come about?
I have a family friend who once casually mentioned that she was in her mom’s uterus on Angel Island.  I imagined there was an amazing story there but didn’t know I was the one to tell it.  A few years later I visited the immigration detention center museum on Angel Island and I decided I had to tell that story someday. I stored that idea in the background. When I got a two-book deal from Lake Union for a companion to my first novel and then a second novel on anything I wanted I immediately knew Paper Wife would be the second book in that deal.
3) What kind of research was involved in bringing this book to life?
I’m fortunate to live so close to Angel Island and San Francisco Chinatown.  I got to do a lot of research on location which really brought the feel of the experience alive. There are wonderful books that are first-hand accounts from the generation that went through Angel Island.  I’m deeply indebted to the historians who did those interviews before that generation left this planet.  The end of the book has a bibliography of the books and documentaries that I used.
4) What scene was the most difficult to write?
The beginning, when Mai Ling is leaving her family forever, is the most painful.  I can’t fathom saying a forever goodbye to my family. I cried when I wrote it, and a cried each time I edited it.
5) What are you working on next?
I’ve just started a companion to Yellow Crocus and Mustard Seed.  This third novel will follow the lives of characters introduced in those novels as they emigrate to California via the railroads in 1894.  I’m researching the Pullman Porters, the PullmanStrike (which led to the establishment of Labor Day), and the suffrage movement in California. I like to show how historical events affect the lives of specific families.
Saving My Sanity With ASMR

Saving My Sanity With ASMR

A little over a year ago, I was teaching a writing class for an alternative healthcare university and one of my students wrote a paper about ASMR. I didn’t really understand what she was talking about and I had never heard of it before, so I did a quick YouTube search – and I was almost instantly hooked!

ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, and it usually refers to a tingling, relaxing sensation some people feel in response to certain “triggers,” such as having your hair brushed or having someone talk to you in a calming manner. Have you noticed that Bob Ross’s painting videos are suddenly extremely popular again? That’s ASMR! His calm voice and gentle movements are typical ASMR triggers. While the responses to ASMR videos can vary from person to person, the most common use for them is to help people go to sleep.

I have suffered from insomnia most of my life, but it seems to have gotten even worse as I’ve gotten older. Running my own business and having children certainly has not helped lower my stress levels! I’ve tried everything over the years to get more sleep, from medication, herbs, essential oils, masks, white noise, and more. And while some of these things work sometimes, nothing is consistent. But when I started watching ASMR videos, I was able to sleep without any other aids. And I think I finally figured out why.

When I try to sleep, my mind races. It doesn’t matter how physically exhausted I am, my mind just never shuts off. I have to constantly think about all the things I need to do, the books I need to write, worry about money, worry about my kid, worry about things I have zero control over…It’s exhausting. I’ve never been able to “meditate” because who can “empty” their mind? It simply isn’t possible for me. But I recently learned that “emptying one’s mind” isn’t possible for anyone. It’s a myth. Meditation is actually a heightened state of focus and awareness – not nothingness. Usually, meditation is intense focus on one thing instead of a million things.

This is where ASMR comes in for me. By watching a relaxing video, I am able to focus on THAT, instead of the million other things plaguing my mind, which allows my mind to calm enough to go to sleep. It has a similar effect on the mind as exercise. Exercise is often recommended to treat anxiety and depression, but it isn’t simply moving that treats the depression. Just walking won’t help calm your mind. You have to move fast enough that you are concentrating on your movements instead of whatever is on your mind. Basically, if you are able to think about what to make for dinner tonight while you are walking instead of focusing on putting one foot in front of another to keep from tripping, you aren’t running fast enough for the exercise to help with your depression. It’s a form of hypnosis, which is also just another form of heightened awareness and focus. ASMR, meditation, exercise, hypnosis – when it comes to relaxing and healing your mind, it’s all the same thing.

Since I started doing ASMR, I haven’t needed any other sleep aids. It has also significantly helped with my depression and anxiety. I still have some depression and anxiety, but it is far more manageable.

Interested in trying ASMR for yourself? There are countless ASMRtists on Youtube, and it’s important to find voices and experiences that work for you. But here are my top 5 favorite ASMR channels to get you started.

Gentle Whispering ASMR

Maria is the Queen of ASMR. She is a gateway drug. She did the explainer video at the top of the page. If you want to know “what is this ASMR thing all about?” check out her videos. 

Latte ASMR

Latte does videos in English, Korean, and Japanese. She has the sweetest voice. She knocks me right out.

Goodnight Moon

Goodnight Moon has a really fascinating series of medieval characters that I just love. Her sets and stories are really enjoyable to watch. This is more like a TV show than ASMR because you really fall in love with the characters and can’t wait to see what will happen next, but it has the same effect.


The Lune Innate is actually a distance Reiki healing practitioner, but her methods are very ASMR-like in nature. So not only can she help you go to sleep, but she can help heal your chakras as well.

Crystal ASMR

Crystal ASMR uses Reiki principles, but isn’t actually a Reiki master. But I really enjoy how short her videos are. If you just need something quick to get you to sleep, her videos are great to check out.

BONUS: Open Door Hypnosis

Open Door Hypnosis just announced that she is taking a YouTube hiatus, but you can still view her past videos to learn more about hypnosis and use it to fall asleep fast and deep.

What do you think? Have you given any of the above videos a try? Let me know in the comments!

The Blessings and Curses of Working From Home

The Blessings and Curses of Working From Home

Working from home is great. I roll out of bed and can get right to work. I don’t have to worry about wearing “work” clothes, doing my makeup, or even brushing my hair. I have access to my tea, my snacks, and my dog. When my daughter comes home from school, I’m here for a kiss and a “how was your day” before she goes to play. If I need to, I can have a nap. Or I can take a break and watch a new episode of whatever new TV show we are watching. I don’t have to eat out or worry about paying rent on an office or buying gas to get to work.

It’s fantastic!

It’s also the literal worst. I haven’t left my house for five days. I’m not sure when I last showered. I haven’t spoken to a person I’m not related to face to face for weeks. My husband says I need to get out and make friends.

But I love my job! I really enjoy what I do. When I wake up in the morning, I have no problem getting out of bed because I can’t wait to check my book stats from the day before and getting started on hitting my word count goals for the day.

Sometimes I do feel a little lonely and like I’m not getting the most out of living in such a fantastic place. But leaving the house is hard for me. Going out means spending money, and I’m in a saving/get the credit card paid off mode right now. Getting out also means that everything I need to get done isn’t getting done. I’m not just a writer, but a teacher, editor, and publisher. I do have a lot on my plate. I love it, but it can be stressful, and it’s hard to unplug.

I’m trying to find more of a balance, but it’s difficult. I just want to work, work, work!

What about you? If you work from home, how do you find the motivation to “get out”?

100 Things I Love About China

100 Things I Love About China

I usually look forward to the 4th of July, but I don’t think America deserves to be celebrated right now. And while there is plenty to criticize China about, there is a lot to love about this country too. So here is a list of 100 things I love about China – in no particular order.

  1. Adorable babies
  2. The people
  3. dumplingsdumplings
  4. embroidery
  5. calligraphy
  6. ink and wash paintings
  7. shadow puppets
  8. Hong Kong
  9. Hongkongers
  10. Bruce Lee
  11. Jet Li
  12. Ang Lee
  13. 12 Girls Band
  14. the erhu
  15. terracotta warriors
  16. 5,000 years of history (give or take a thousand years)
  17. hotpot
  18. Sichuan food
  19. Yangshuo
  20. Yangshuo’s karst mountains
  21. river cruises
  22. Prince Gong
  23. Empress Cixi
  24. The Forbidden City
  25. The Great Wall
  26. granny dancing
  27. domestic helpers
  28. not needing a car
  29. fast trains
  30. C-trip
  31. not having to tip
  32. taxis on demand
  33. low cost of living
  34. my daughter’s school
  35. wechat
  36. taobao
  37. meituan
  38. Zhang Ziyi
  39. Lang Lang
  40. Donnie Yen
  41. Jackie Chan
  42. Chow Yun-fat
  43. the ability to travel around the rest of Asia cheaply and easily
  44. The Feminist Five
  45. Qing Dynasty-era manor houses
  46. unique architecture
  47. pandas
  48. dragons
  49. phoenixes
  50. Chinese graves
  51. Zhangjiajie
  52. noodles
  53. Muslim food
  54. street food
  55. night markets
  56. ethnic minority cultures
  57. Dafen Artist Colony
  58. traditional artisans
  59. temples
  60. countryside hostels
  61. Jung Chang
  62. Xinran
  63. affordable medical care
  64. a general feeling of safety
  65. Lantern Festival
  66. Chinese New Year
  67. floating lanterns
  68. Singles Day Sales
  69. Lion Dancing
  70. Chinese Weddings
  71. Hongbaos
  72. Traditional Chinese Clothes
  73. watching China change from the inside
  74. watching the rest of the world change from the outside
  75. shops open late and on weekends
  76. local parks
  77. tea
  78. acupuncture
  79. kungfu
  80. Chinese opera
  81. cheap internet/phone service
  82. meeting people from all over the world
  83. endless opportunities
  84. The way Chinese youths are creative and innovative
  85. assigned seats in movie theaters
  86. silk
  87. the Chinese zodiac
  88. fireworks
  89. Ning Zetao
  90. only one time zone that never changes
  91. Shanghai
  92. Chinese acrobats
  93. Zigong Dinosaur Museum
  94. Lhasa
  95. Splendid China
  96. Anything made of jade
  97. KTV
  98. Toys-R-Us (Yup, we still have them over here!)
  99. Chinese Court Dramas
  100. chopsticks

There are many more things I love about China, but that is enough for now.

What do you love about China? Let me know in the comments.

Super Advanced Sneak Peek!

Super Advanced Sneak Peek!

Hi everyone,

I haven’t made a post in a while, and as usual, that means I’ve been deep into a new writing project. Actually, I’m working on several writing projects. I am hoping to have another Qing Dynasty Mystery out soon and finish the Touching Time series this year.

But for those of you who are fans of Threads of Silk, I am planning to release a new stand-alone historical fiction book next year! Woohoo! I don’t want to reveal too much about it right now, but I can tell you that a lot of the setting is inspired by the aesthetics of where we live in Yangshuo.

The mountains, traditional architecture, and many minority groups who live in the area have given me a new view of the country we have called home for almost eight years. The Chinese countryside is a world away from Shenzhen, where we lived for the last four years. Country living has taken some getting used to, but we really love it here. We just never get tired of that view!

As a tribute to Yangshuo, the book cover for this super-secret book will feature original photos by my cover artist, Cherith Vaughan. She recently came to Yangshuo and took a lot of gorgeous pictures she is hoping to find some way to incorporate into her vision that best represents the book.

I can’t share her pictures, but here are a few I took that day, and even my amateur images look pretty amazing. If you ever wonder why we decided to pack up and move to the middle of nowhere, just refer back to this post.


Christmas With Chinese Characteristics

Christmas With Chinese Characteristics

Christmas Tree with HongbaoMulan Mushu Christmas OrnamentLast year at this time, we were only focused on bringing our little girl home, and we’ve never been big Christmas people, so we had just a pitiful little tree and bought some gifts for our little girl at the last minute. So this year I decided to put a lot more effort into the holiday to start making traditions for our growing family.

I’m calling our theme “Christmas with Chinese Characteristics.” For our tree, the main color is red and I included my Mulan and Mushu inspired ornaments that I got at Disney World when we were there this summer.

I have also hidden hongbao in the tree with different amounts of money in them. On Christmas day everyone will pick a hongbao and get either a little bit of money or a lot of bit of money.

I also used hongbao as tags on the gifts. I taped the flap to the boxes so you just flip them up to see who gets the box. I’m not the most crafty person, but I really like the hongbao gift tags. Of course, I buy my hongbao here in China, but You can find lots of hongbao on Amazon.

Hongbao Christmas Gift Tags

The pièce de résistance of the tree, though, is our Monkey King tree topper. He is actually a puppet that I got at Silver Dollar City many years ago. He is the protector of the tree, warding away destructive cats and kids.

Monkey King Christmas Tree Topper

After Christmas, I plan to keep the tree up and convert it into a Chinese New Year tree. I am going to replace a lot of the ornaments with little lanterns and hopefully find some small oranges I can attach to the tree. I’ll have to add a lot more hongbao as well.

So what do you think? Do you try to incorporate Chinese elements into your holiday celebrations? Let me what you do in the comments!

Who Writes History – Conversations With Jung Chang

Who Writes History – Conversations With Jung Chang

jung chang hk lit festAs exciting as it was to meet Amy Tan, I was actually more excited to meet Jung Chang at the Hong Kong Literary Festival. I am obsessed with her book Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. I have been fascinated by Empress Cixi for years, and it was while I was researching for Threads of Silk, that her book was released. Empress Dowager Cixi became my research bible when it came to Cixi. I read many other books about her, including several contemporary accounts, but Jung Chang’s approach, bringing so many sources together in one place, was a godsend. I have read the book several times front to back and then have gone back and read and research certain chapters and passages more times than I can count. I was so happy that she was kind enough to sign my well-loved copy of Empress Dowager Cixi, but she also accepted a copy of Threads of Silk, which really made my heart soar.

I have written and spoken many times about how wonderful her book is, but I am often met with skepticism. Cixi has a reputation, in the East and the West, of being a controlling, manipulative, traditionalist who held China back and is blamed for many of China’s problems during the 19th century. Yet in Empress Dowager Cixi, Jung Chang paints a much more complicated picture of Cixi, one that gives her far more credit for China’s sudden leap into the modern age during her reign.

empress dowager cixi jung chang

She credited Cixi with everything modern that China has today, from the electricity to the railroad, to the iron used to build the buildings. She also talked about Cixi was, in many ways, a feminist. She set up China’s first schools for girls and outlawed footbinding (even though the practice stayed in vogue until the communist era). She was not perfect, but Cixi would be the first person to admit to that. Her role in the Boxer Rebellion is something that she cannot escape, but she never tried to. She apologized, formally, for her role in the rebellion, and did her best to learn from her mistakes. Her reign post-Boxer Rebellion were some of China’s most prosperous and peaceful years. In fact, the foreign powers welcomed her back to the Forbidden City after the Boxer Rebellion. Even though the Boxer Rebellion was specifically a rebellion against foreign influence, the Western powers wanted Cixi back on the throne.

Many have called Jung Chang’s book about Cixi “revisionist,” as if that is a bad thing, so I asked her, “What do you say to critics who call into doubt the version of Cixi that you present in the book?”

“What wrong with revisionism?” she asked. Indeed, if the history we have been fed is wrong, why should it just be accepted because it is old? Why shouldn’t it be revised? She went on to say that, “People who doubt what I have written here should keep an open mind.”

It was truly a joy to meet Jung Chang and get to hear what she personally thought about the empress and her book. She also hinted that her next book will be about China’s first elections, which were also arranged by Empress Cixi before her death, so I can’t wait to read that.

Have you read any of Jung Chang’s books? Let me know what you think of them in the comments.


Where The Past Begins – A Conversation With Amy Tan

Where The Past Begins – A Conversation With Amy Tan

I was so excited for the chance to meet Amy Tan last week at the Hong Kong Literary Festival! It really was a dream come true. She has such an elegant presence. As soon as she walks into a room, you know she is someone worth listening to. The moderator at the gala dinner said, “I think we can all divide our lives into ‘before’ and ‘after’ we read The Joy Luck Club,” and I think she was right. The Joy Luck Club was a turning point in literature, not just a great book. It showed publishers that stories about women and Asians were not only good stories, but profitable because readers were voracious for her book. Many books about Chinese-Americans and Chinese people around the world probably would not exist if The Joy Luck Club had not paved the path for them.

Amy was at the festival to talk about her new book Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir. She talked quite a bit about how her book came to be, how it originally started as a series of emails between her and her editor, and the rigorous writing schedule she committed herself to in order the finish the book. She talked quite a bit about the craft of writing and how it compares and contrasts to drawing, something else she enjoys and is quite good at, but is not the true creative outlet that works for her.

She gave a really good writing tip that I have been using all week. She said that she plays movie soundtracks in the background while she writes. She said classical music also works well (anything without words since you need to writing your own words), but soundtracks are especially useful because they are designed to set the mood. She said that when she goes to her writing space and turns on the music, she is right back to where she left off and it is much easier to get started and keep going. I’ve been doing that myself this week because I had a really grueling writing schedule to catch up on since I took a week off for the festival, and it really works!

I haven’t finished reading Where the Past Begins yet, so I can’t write a complete review for it, but I do have to say that so far I enjoyed her The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life better. Where the Past Begins is more like a series of essays while The Opposite of Fate follows a more traditional memoir style.

For me personally, the highlight of meeting Amy Tan was when she kindly accepted a copy of Threads of Silk that I gave her and agreed to take a picture with it! I in no way think that Threads of Silk is in the same league as anything Amy Tan has written, but she also revealed that she never throws anything away, so I like the idea that it will at least be sitting in her library forever.

Have you ever met a writer you admire? Tell me about it in the comments!