The book, Big in China, chronicles what happened when Alan Paul’s wife was offered a job in Beijing that required the entire family of five to relocate from Maplewood N.J. to China for three years. In the book, Paul narrates what it’s like to move to a culture that on the surface seems very different from the one he left behind and on being the ‘trailing spouse’. Paul, a writer for both SLAM and Guitar World magazines, started a personal blog and eventually a column, The Expat Life for the Wall Street Journal, on the everyday challenges anyone would face when moving to a place where you don’t speak the language. But somewhere along the line, he stumbles into a grand adventure that ended up with him forming a band, Woodie Alan with guitarist Woodie Wu, that was named the Best Band in Beijing and toured China.
Baristanet contributor, Joy Yagid, spoke with Alan Paul about the writing the book, the band and his family’s experience in China.
When did you get the idea of writing this book? You were blogging while there. Was that where you got the idea? Was it challenging going from short format writing to that of writing a book?
I definitely didn’t go over there with the idea of writing the book. At some point I started writing the column and when I started the blog…as it turned out the stuff in the blog was extremely helpful in filling out details in the book. But I made a conscious decision while writing the first draft not to read the blog. I wanted the book to be it’s own thing…I wanted it to have it’s own voice. I’ve read a couple of books that were strung together from blog posts and they kind of feel like it and I didn’t want it to be that way at all. I wanted to stay out of my own way and try to write it. There were a few things where I really had holes and I couldn’t quite remember and I had to go back and look at things. I did use my columns.
After I did the first draft and I went back to the blog and looking it over and…I found mistakes I had made in my own story (laughing)…sometimes in the order in how things happened…because memory is a funny thing. But what I really used the blog for more than that was to get a lot of details.
I had the idea pretty early. I had no big ambitions for the blog. When I started it in 2005, it was strictly to me at the start a bulletin board for friends and family back home. Occasionally I would get emails or comments from strangers and it would surprise me. I did think of couple times early on of putting on password protection because I was putting pictures of my kids and stuff. And I probably wouldn’t have done it if I was living here…I would have been more careful of my kids. I never worried about personal safety while in China, other than for cars, in terms of stuff that people worry about here.
I was liberated writing on the blog by the fact the blogspot was banned pretty consistently in China and occasionally it would be unbanned and I would surprise myself by seeing it. I never looked back at the blog, it’s riddled, especially the early stuff, with typos, I would just write in a blur and post it and rarely would fix it unless there was an error. I couldn’t see it and the people I saw every day couldn’t see it. And that just liberated me and what lead to the column inadvertently. I had an idea to do the column from before I left but it was very vague and I’m not sure I ever would have done had I not been keeping the blog and doing that writing. Then people were responding to the columns and I realized maybe I have something there and I thought very early about doing a book…then I just thought I just don’t have enough to say yet.
I don’t think I thought about it very actively for a couple of years and then in the spring of 2008, my column had been running and gaining steam and was pretty popular and I started feeling that I had something to write about.
You seem the adventurous type, yet your bout of food poisoning during the ‘look see’ visit knocked you for a loop and made you question the decision to go to China. Was this adventure turning out to be that you bit off more than you could chew?
Ultimately no and by the time we moved there I didn’t feel that way. I guess that’s exactly what the food poisoning made me worry about and maybe if I could had a one or two more days there to recover I would have been OK. The worse thing was flying back. When I stumbled off the plane and said we had to reconsider… I was so worn out I was literally stumbled off the plane…I could barely walk. I think it was the experience of the travel. And that doubt really didn’t last that long but it was quite profound while it was happening.
You mention that what happened in China, the band and the success, couldn’t have happened here in the U.S. Why do you believe that?
On a practical level there were more places to play there – I had two gigs lined up before I really had a band. If you want play with more serious musicians you kinda have to have gigs. Second the economics were such that once we really got moving and get more serious…those guys (the band mates) upped the ante a lot. They were both professional musicians who didn’t have day jobs it really just inconceivable to get guys of that caliber to play with me here. Maybe now I could cause I’ve gotten better and I have been playing with some great people…but at that point…in a few months, I was able to book us gig in one of the two big rock clubs in Beijing. I can’t see any way I would have stood out enough for me to form a band, to get musicians of that caliber to play with me that quickly and then that quickly be playing at a top club. There are so great musicians in Maplewood and South Orange it’s hard to stand out and then all of us don’t have that many places to play.
Does it amaze you that some things transcend cultures? The music? The kids? Was Anna and her blonde curls an ambassador of sorts?
It didn’t amaze me intellectually but to see it in action did sort of amaze me and the extent to which the kids…did draw people to us and open up so many doors. The power of Anna and the kids and just having three kids also was as a powerful thing.
You ran into a peasant that was amazed that you had three kids that asked you how much did you have to pay (a fine) for having more than one child.
That was a couple at the market I used to go all the time and they had a couple of kids and I was asking them how they did that. Basically, for most peasants if they have second kid, the kid doesn’t exist – they don’t have a social security number. I’m not really sure what happens to them as they grow up. They asked how many kids I had. I told them three. They asked how much I had to pay…I said nothing and they said why didn’t you have at least five?
The kids were a great equalizer and the music was as well. I believed that music could transcend culture but to be in the middle of it and feel it was powerful. People ask me all the time how Chinese people reacted to blues music and they reacted great but it was hard for me to separate how much was how they liked blues music and how much they liked us. Because one, we really pretty good and two we had such an unusual thing happening with the Chinese and American mix.
When you and your family were planning departure from China, your wife, realizing the band was very important, made a comment that’s ‘it’s just a plane ride away’. Had your entire perspective shifted? Had you have not gone to China in the first place, would you have even thought that ‘hey I’m going to go play with the band’ and the band happens to be in China…
(Laughs) No and I still don’t really think of it that way. I’m trying to work out a date to go back and do some book stuff. It does seem feasible. You meet people that do all kinds of crazy things…if you want to punish your body with the flights.
Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top is quoted on the back of the CD, “Best Chinese blues band I ever heard. Who knew?” There are several ways to take that quote…like a left handed compliment…
I wouldn’t think of it as a left handed compliment. I thought of it as a joke. It is a joke. I think there’s a lot humor in the way I approach things and there’s certainly a lot of humor in Billy Gibbons and in ZZ Top. So I understand how someone would look it and think its a left handed compliment – I just thought it was funny.