If the WWAM community held a talent show, you can guarantee Toni would shine onstage. This native of Alexandria, Virginia is a singer-songwriter who can play piano and the guitar. She also speaks Mandarin Chinese, one of the languages she shares with her fiancé Min, who she met while teaching English in Zhengzhou. Wow!
We sat down with Toni to learn more about everything from how she came to China to what it’s like having a bilingual relationship.
How did you end up in China?
I got to China because my ex-husband and I wanted to travel. However he wanted to marry a Chinese woman once we got there and we divorced. I stayed because my teaching job was awesome. I loved the kids and the school liked me as a teacher. I’m glad I stayed because that is when Jo Bai introduced me to Min.
I’m helping take care of my father in America right now. But I plan to return to China in two years. Hopefully I’ll be able to get Min here on a fiancé visa and get married here.
What did you like about living in Zhengzhou? What drove you crazy about the city?
Zhengzhou is similar in climate to the city I grew up in — Alexandria, Virginia. I see more similarities living in Alexandria again. But what Zhengzhou has that Alexandria doesn’t is of course my fiancé and the easy access to all places in China. You can grab a train or bus or plane to other cities fairly easily. What drives me crazy about the city is the crowds of people on public transportation. Especially in the city center where the population is the most dense.
Tell us about a typical day for you when you were living in China.
I get up around 6:30am make breakfast for me. Maybe fresh fruit, a boiled egg and whatever dinner last night was if anything is leftover. Then I walk quickly to work at 8am. I teach from 8:10 to 12 noon. I stop by a local veggie market and pick up some fresh noodles and veggies for lunch. After lunch, usually my take on fried noodles or a noodle soup, I take a quick nap. Yes, I really like this part of Chinese culture. At first I thought it odd and didn’t take a nap, but lots of places to go are closed between 12 and 2 so I figured why not? After my nap I either go for a walk and shop or go to the gym. We’ll say this is Wednesday. My school has a mandatory English Corner where the students meet with the foreign teachers and speak English. I worked for a vocational college and the second year students would talk more than the first year. With the first year students it often turned into a Chinese corner for me because they were shy to speak English. As nice as that was, my job was to get them speaking English so I’d try to guide the conversation back to English.
After this I’d go to the veggie store and pick up something for dinner. Usually my fiancé would come over for dinner and we’d cook together. Some days it would be Chinese and some days American.
Now that you’re back in America, what do you miss about China?
I miss China because as a composer I wrote much more than living in America. My biggest fear is that I won’t write as much music in America. The relaxed pace of life in China gave me more free time to pursue writing my music. I’ve been back in America for a month and no music has come fourth because life has become much more hectic.
What attracted you to your fiancé?
As I said Jo Bai introduced me to Min. What attracted me to him was his ability to dream. He is creative and has many ideas for how to improve his life and now our life. Since he is good at English it has been his dream to teach English in China. He also wants to see about creating a way for Chinese who want to experience America to do so. We’ll see what happens.
You and your fiancé both can speak each other’s language. What do you like about having a bilingual relationship?
I’d say that 95 percent of the time we converse in English. When we first meet he had a believed that foreigners could not speak Chinese. I’d always studied with a tutor until 2017 when I decided to speak as much as I could when out walking or shopping.
Having a bilingual relationship is nice because when I don’t understand the way he uses English I can ask him to say it in Chinese and usually that helps. He now embraces that I do understand more Chinese than I speak. I’m like my students who are shy about their English. I’m shy with my Chinese. But in this relationship hat is getting better. With me in America and him in China our conversations are on WeChat. There is a delightful mix of spoken and texted messages in English and Chinese.
My father looked over my shoulder one day to see messages from Min — English name Ken — and there was a long message in Chinese. It blew my father’s mind. I’m kind of glad it was in Chinese because it was a private message.
Are you a part of the WWAM (Western women & Asian men) community? Would you like to be featured as our WWAM of the month? We’re always on the lookout for outstanding women and men to feature in this column. If you’d like us to spotlight you through an interview, send us an e-mail at [email protected]