From American Expatriate in China To Hollywood Movie Deal – With Alan Paul, Author of Big In China

Moving to China with a job waiting for you around the corner is one of the more familiar routes to take as a newly arrived expatriate, but what happens when you leave home with not so much of a salary guarantee but a sense of adventure? And what kind of willpower does it take to start a cross-cultural blues band that tours China, and later honored as 2008’s Best Band in Beijing?

Author Alan Paul heeded the call of a lifetime when his spouse was appointed China bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, an event that sent his New Jersey family of five packing and heading for China’s capital. The freelance journalist seized the overseas opportunity to play music with local Chinese musicians, write an award-winning column for the online Wall Street Journal, all the while raising his three children to be culturally aware global citizens.

When Paul returned home to pen one of the best, if not the most entertaining memoirs of expatriate life in China in recent memory, he didn’t just leave a lasting impression on his readers. Hollywood director Ivan Reitman of Ghostbusters fame picked up on Paul’s story and purchased the rights to the memoir, currently in movie pre-production. With regards to the movie, Paul explained, “I want China to be captured, as accurately as possible, and the experience of living as a Westerner in China, and the experience of living abroad… and that it’s all true to the complicated realities of life.” In an interview with AsianTalks, Paul recounts not just three years of magical thinking, but also plenty of doing that involved reaching across the aisle and befriending his Chinese counterparts. Here’s our conversation with a man of action.

AT: Alan, since you’ve published, you’ve also become something of an American expatriate ambassador to China. Do you feel you have played a bridge role?

(Laughs) Well thanks! There’s maybe a bridge role in two different respects. One is just for the expat world to the non-expat world. I think I helped demystify the whole concept of living abroad, and I think there’s obviously plenty of us who have had similar experiences. I feel that first through the column, and more so through the book and the subsequent publicity from the book, I was able to demystify that concept of who we are and what that whole experience is like.

And I think to a certain extent I was able to do the same thing for China. My column was translated into Chinese and I’m now completing some rewrites for the Chinese translation of the book, which I’m really excited about. I do think that with the column being translated, and now hopefully with my book next, I was able to break down some barriers of Chinese perceptions, misperceptions, and confusion about Americans.

AT: So your street runs both ways. You’re not just interpreting China for an American audience, you’re actually doing the reverse as well.

Yes I am! I certainly was doing that throughout with my column, and I’m really, really excited about the book coming out in Chinese to continue and further that. The Wall Street Journal has a great Chinese-language website, which has a large and growing readership, and obviously people in China who are reading the Journal are a select group. I mean it’s a large group, but obviously it’s educated people who are interested in Western things, and in many cases work with Westerners, or even with American or other Western companies, and didn’t always understand, you know, what made us tick, so to speak. So (via the column) they sort of understood Western life. There had been a lot of mystery – and a lot of confusion – about what we were really thinking, and what we were doing, and how we felt about China, so I provided some insight into that. I’ve always taken that role seriously, and try to do justice to it, going both ways.

AT: One of the highlights of your book is about reaching across the aisle to your Chinese counterparts. How did you take that proactive step? Do you have any advice for expats in your situation looking to make Chinese friends?

Well, I think in terms of advice, it really depends where you are in life, and where you are living, if you have kids. I think if you are a single person it’s a lot easier because you’re in control of your life and you can go out and do things, and maybe live in a more Chinese area and what not.

If you have kids, and you’re committed to them adapting, you have to make maybe more of an adjustment towards just helping them, so we lived the lifestyle a little bit differently, or definitely a bit differently than we would have if we hadn’t had kids. And so if you are in that kind of setting like you are starting out in the expat bubble, I think the first step towards not remaining in it, is to really, when you arrive somewhere, doesn’t have to be China, or wherever you are, to seek out friends in a social circle of people who are not living in that bubble.

I found that one of the interesting things about expat life to me is that it’s a lot like college, and so when you arrive an expat, you are like a freshman in college! Who you associate with has a huge impact, and I think it’s the same in college. So if you’re talking specifically about China, and some of the stuff has really gotten easier, and it had gotten easier by the time I left, compared to when I arrived, and it just continues to be more so, but you know there are certain people who would just always be complaining, because the Internet connection was slow, or it took a long time to get something fixed, and you know, I would sort of be more of the attitude like, “Hey you’re in China. You have Internet. That’s pretty cool.”

AT: So armed with a positive attitude about life in China, you began making inroads into involving yourself more in Chinese life. Could you tell us about the circumstances that brought you together with your Chinese band members, some of your closest friends? And what bonded you together across cultures?

It all happened when I met Woodie (Wu), because I had this broken guitar. At that point I had been in Beijing for a year, and I hadn’t made that key relationship that started opening it up, but I had been open to meeting other people, I was already quite close with my Chinese teacher, and I was getting out and about into Chinese life as much as I could, so that when I met the right person who turned out to be my good friend, I was sort of ready. I was open to it. So I think that’s really the key: it’s to be open to it, and not to limit yourself, because sometimes people put limits on themselves that don’t have to be there.

In terms of what brought us together, humor can have a lot of cultural barriers, and part of my humor is, it’s more subtle, and just kind of laughing at the absurdities of situations. And I don’t think my band members always totally got that. But I think the more time I spent with them the more they understood that, and you know, the more we would engage in just this normal kind of goofy humor, and even pranks that any group of friends or bands would do, like putting a ‘Kick Me’ sticker on someone’s back. (Laughs) That type of broad, silly stuff we did do. Things like that.

AT: Your Chinese band members are obviously some of your closest friends, but now with the book, and your column, you now have a global Chinese audience who’s learning about Americans through your life experience. What have they said about your book, and your story?

I think what a lot of people responded to in the book wasn’t necessarily what I anticipated that people would. And it was a lot about family, and my dedication to my family, to my children and my wife, and also to my father, who was a character in the book, and gets ill. That struck a chord with a lot of Chinese readers.

Traditionally for the Chinese the family is very front and center, in life there, and that’s been under attack a bit for various reasons. But I think there’s still a very heartfelt love of family. So a lot of people responded to my reaction to my father being ill. I mean, that was really important for me to have in there, but I didn’t necessarily expect that to have quite as much resonance as it did.