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Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing: Alan Paul
Alan Paul

Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and
Becoming a Star in Beijing

Alan Paul

Suburban dad Alan Paul was supposed to be moving to China for his wife's once-in-a-lifetime adventure – she had been offered the job of Wall Street Journal China Bureau Chief. He ended up with an adventure of his own, founding and fronting a Chinese blues band that would be named "Beijing's Best Band" and become a national touring sensation. He also became an award-winning columnist, as he sought to capture the exciting vibrancy of his new home in the capital of the world's largest and most rapidly developing nation.

We recently welcomed the opportunity to talk to our friend Alan Paul about his newly released book, Big in China, which recounts his life-changing years playing music and raising three American children in Beijing.

Alan is the first male accompanying partner we have interviewed, and what an inspirational guy with whom to start. As the Panda Dad, Alan has courageously spoken out in recent press articles about what many others were scared to say about the parenting tactics of Amy Chua, the Tiger Mom. In addition, the film rights for Alan's memoir have already been acquired by Ivan Reitman and Tom Pollock's Montecito Pictures! Reitman has signed on as director.

Expat Women's Interview with Alan

Expat Women: Alan, your time in China seems like a whirlwind of unexpected adventure. How does it compare to what you first expected when you moved, did if feel surreal to have lived it, and how does it feel now that it is all over?

Alan: First, let me say thank you for having me here. I'm proud to lead the way for male accompanying spouses.

I went to China with almost no expectations, which was a big key to everything I did. I had very few preconceived notions and was sort of ready for anything. I was wide open for adventure and to take any promising looking path that opened up in front of me. I didn't want to leave anything on the table and return with regrets about not taking full advantage of this limited time in Beijing.

A lot of it felt very surreal to live, but it was one step after another. Good things just kept happening, but they all built on one another, so at the time it seemed somewhat natural. As I said in the book, I repeated a line from a B.B. King over and over to myself: "You better not look down if you want to keep on flying." Everything was moving so fast that I really had a sense that I shouldn't stop and analyse it too much, or question how and why everything was happening.

It certainly does feel wilder and more surreal now, with some distance. I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to work it all out and explore my experiences in Big in China.
Expat Women: In your book, you struggled with the term "trailing spouse". How do you believe this label affected your experiences and perspective in China? Did you meet many other expatriate men in China who were accompanying their partners abroad?
Alan: I was so naïve and ill-informed about expat life before I moved to Beijing. I had never heard the term trailing spouse and when I did, I was appalled. As I wrote in the book, it's a term that's demeaning to anyone and downright emasculating for a man. Every couple has a balance and hopefully an understanding of what will work, and if one spouse is taking the lead career-wise and the other is taking the lead with the kids, that doesn't mean one is leading and one is trailing. I just absolutely reject that. It's not how Becky and I have ever viewed it.

My rejection of the label was so complete that I really don't think it impacted my experiences at all. I just did my thing. Being over there without work obligations did, however, impact my experience in many positive ways – it gave me freedom to run around Beijing, explore, find myself more deeply as a writer and ultimately as a musician and bandleader as well. None of that would have happened if I weren't a "trailing spouse."

I did meet a few other men in my situation, one of whom, Tom Davis, became a very close friend, though his stay there ended in tragedy when his wife took ill. I explore the very sad story at length in Big in China. We are still close friends.
Expat Women: What gave you the courage to pursue your passion for music and co-create the successful Chinese blues band, Woodie Alan?
Alan: For the most part, the only regrets I've had in life are over things I haven't done, or tried to do. There's absolutely no shame in swinging and missing, so that's how I had the courage – nothing ventured, nothing gained. Having said that, it happened organically, really one step at a time. I really don't think that I could have made the whole thing happen if I were trying to do so.

The band started towards the end of my second year in Beijing and by then I had overcome a lot of inhibitions and gained a lot of confidence from the experience of making my way through China for, learning to speak the language and writing a successful column for the Wall street Journal. All of that liberated me. I met Woodie Wu when I brought a broken guitar to his shop and he fixed it. He invited me to sit in with a band he was playing with and I thought he was a fantastic guitarist. After I sang three songs with them, overcoming a lot of insecurity and fear in doing so, he said he was interested in working together. I was surprised and a bit intimidated, but I knew I had to explore that and see where we might take it – which ended up being a lot further than I ever dreamed.
Expat Women: Your father talked to you about "getting back to reality," in regards to your family returning to the United States. What do you think about this line of thinking?
Alan: I was really angry with that. I think it took a little bit of time to sink in and then I just got really upset at the implication that what we were living was a fantasy. One of my big takeaways of expat life is that there are a million different realities that any one person might live at any one time and all of them may be equally valid. I also really thought that my father should know better. I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, towards the end of my parents' own several-year adventure. My dad was in the service there and when they decided to extend and he took a job there, all of my grandparents stopped talking to them for a while.

He should have been more sensitive – but he was only saying what many others say to expats they know and love. I wrote a column relating the conversation and my reaction and I was flooded by expats and ex-expats all over the world saying they had heard the same thing. One of the reasons I think my column resonated so much with expats was simply that I was telling our story and doing so in a way that helped friends and family "back home" understand our lives and our choices. I really hope that the book does the same, and I have been told by quite a few expats that they have given it to family for that very reason. I'm really honored to serve that role.

Expat Women: While you were in China, your father was diagnosed with bladder cancer and subsequently underwent surgery. How did you cope with this difficult situation, being so far away?
Alan: It was difficult. There really was no simple way to cope with it. I spoke to my parents and my brother and sister often – modern communication certainly makes the situation more bearable. I went home twice to visit him, including shortly after his surgery. He kept saying, "Don't worry about me. Enjoy your time there." That was nice, but not so easy to pull off. Thankfully, he had good results, so after his surgery it became a lot easier. And when he came to Beijing six months later, it was one of the greatest visits anyone could ask for. He's doing great now, five years later.
Expat Women: Alan, can you tell us a bit more about how your wife and children have reacted to your new book, film rights deal, Panda Dad exposure and more?
Alan: My wife has had to adapt to being a public figure, with her family life exposed to the public. She is by nature more private than me so that hasn't always been easy, but her biggest adjustment really came years ago when I started writing the column. She has been wonderfully supportive.

The kids are sort of tickled by the whole thing. They are excited about the movie and proud of the Panda Dad. For Jacob's bar mitzvah last month, he designed T shirts that said "Hear the Panda Cub Roar" so it's safe to say he's embraced it. The only part they didn't like was how much travelling I did right after the book came out. They like having me around.
Expat Women: What is next for Alan Paul? Do you have any details to share about your memoir's movie deal, or perhaps a new book about being a Panda Dad?
Alan: I am working on a Panda Dad book proposal and wrestling with a few parts of it. The movie thing is moving forward, but it can be a bit glacial. They have hired a writer and he and I will be speaking soon and starting the screenwriting process, for which I will be a consultant. Ivan Reitman is directing and he's really excited about the project; it is slated to be his next film, so I'm hopeful that progress will continue.
Expat Women: Alan, thank you very much for sharing your experiences with us. We congratulate you on your excellent memoir, Big in China, and wish you and your book every success!
Alan: Thank you. (If any readers want me to send an email or column link – or autographed book – to anyone, they can just drop me a line. Thanks.)
Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming A Star in Beijing – Alan Paul
Buy This Book on Amazon.com
August 2011
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