A week ago now, footage from a national Chinese television show “妈妈咪呀” was aired in households across this populous nation. I was one of the featured “artists,” or should I say “mamas,” as the show was about mothers first, talent second. Tomorrow, another episode will air and the episode featuring my family and me will be archived.
In Chinese, the expression to rise to fame is to “huo 火” or “(be on) fire.” Whenever anyone predicted that being on this television show would bring such “flames” to my life, I laughed and said, “Yeah, for a week, perhaps!”
That was a fairly accurate prediction.
Filming in Shanghai was an adventure that I quite enjoyed despite my earlier misgivings. It had been several years since I’d been in the city of Shanghai. We were staying in Pudong, which is a newer suburb across the water, but we had two days of down time and were able to check out a few tourist areas, despite the limited pre-nap and/or the pre-bedtime window that having a toddler builds around one’s life.
The performance wasn’t a paid gig, but the flights, accommodations and food were all covered—for the whole family! I figured that turning down a free vacation was silly, let alone the opportunity to perform my own song on national Chinese television. Why not, right?
My song is about “not just being a foreigner, but also being a person” (basic translation of main lyrics), but, ironically, the reason I was asked on the show was specifically because I am a foreigner. Foreigners help with the ratings. My ability to sing and perform was secondary to my ability to speak Chinese. A blond-haired woman speaking and singing in Chinese is still quite novel for the average Chinese person, so the content of my lyrics was secondary if not irrelevant!
Furthermore, each of these performers needs a story. Mine became about my relationship with my mother-in-law and that was fine with me. It was a great opportunity to credit her for basically keeping our family together. Seriously. Without her, I might not have two kids.
That’s not because I don’t love my husband, but he’s not the egalitarian partner in child rearing that any parent (read: mother) needs in order to maintain sanity and selfhood during the baby years. Without my mother-in-law’s presence, I might have already abandoned all hope of this marriage’s survival. Babies need their mothers more during their infancy, I concede, but that doesn’t mean the mothers don’t need the fathers, or, in my case, the help from wherever I can get it.
The truth of how hard it’s been in these past couple of years is hardly visible on this show. My husband was there, but the MC only made a quick reference to his “comfy” position in the dynamic and moved on. I’m slowly learning that it’s not so uncommon, in any culture, for the father to be less present and less involved than the mother. It’s forgivable. Laughable, even.
Or, perhaps, just so common that it’s boring.
I’m grateful that his band didn’t become the focus either. You see, my marriage to a rock star was also considered an interesting point and may have become their “story.” While it would have been good for his band’s profile, I was not mature enough to not be embittered about this possible angle. You see, I was specifically instructed not to mention my own music career history. They didn’t want it to “influence the judges” regarding how they would assess my performance. I later learned that the show isn’t really a competition as no one goes back for round #2, so that was a lame excuse.
The real truth is that there was already a woman on the show who had released many albums twenty years ago and was finally back on stage as a performer after having abandoned her career to raise two children. Her career history combined with her “admirable mothering sacrifice” was the focus, so my story had to be about something else. My mother-in-law and our culture gap became the winning choice. Period. End of story.
I didn’t protest. I’m not one to start listing my credentials on stage in any context or country. I feel quite satisfied with my life’s accomplishments to date and don’t need anyone’s approval, and I likewise have no regrets about coming to China or becoming a mother, regardless of the impact it may or may not have had on my career. But, I did get a bit lock-jawed when I was asked to say, “I’m not just a foreigner, I’m a Shandong province spouse/wife.” Is that all I am now, I thought? Is that how I’m seen here?
The truth is… yes. My husband is the musician and most people don’t ask me what I do. Most people have no idea that my experience in the field is longer and more diverse than his, that my professional releases outnumber his five to one, that my touring experience and management experience run circles around his. He is the rockstar and I am the rockstar’s wife. He is the creator and I am the caregiver of our mutual creations. The man & the mother.
How can a feminist stomach such misunderstandings? How can I (proudly) call myself a feminist and then not stand up and expose the realities to the cameras regardless of whether I’d appear to be bragging or defiant or, worse, the injured and sulky foreign wife with a bone to pick with China?
I suppose that is the grace trained into women all over the world in the face of an unequal daily reality. What do we do? We smile. We make jokes. We get on with it. Gracious and optimistic.
I wore the clothes they wanted me to wear. I said the words they thought would make the story more engaging. I refrained from saying other words they thought would detract from the story. I was the good, well-behaved Chinese wife, despite being a foreign one.
And now I feel burned. So, yes, I am aflame after all.
(Well, for only one week… Now there’s just some residual steam…)
I don’t blame the show. The show didn’t burn me. I flicked the Bic. It was all me. My name is Ember, after all. I mean, I wore a pleather dress with ridiculous flames on it! I have officially burned any illusions that I have an ideal life—that is, by Western standards. I was the agent in the public showcasing of a marital and family dynamic that would not have been my first choice. This is simply how it is. I’m getting on with it.
We have to make the most of things, right? I give extra hugs to my gorgeous kids to help me get through these—the toughtest years. We have to find the good in the hard times, the light in the dark, the “Chinese-from-a-past-life” that lives somewhere inside the foreigner that has transplanted herself into a foreign land. Because, I repeat: it was all me. I chose this. My husband’s relative absence is his loss, my gain. Even if he were more present as a caregiver, I wouldn’t choose to be less so. I want to be here.
People tell me that marriage and co-parenting isn’t ever what we imagine. In that case, why not showcase the good stuff and barely reference the boring? My gratitude for my mother-in-law is paramount, and so the least I could do was make her happy.
Overall, the show was a positive experience. A few more people know about my music and have checked out my social media sites. Shanghai Daily newspaper is running a story on me. Maybe a few more people will come to my gig in Beijing next week. I’ve spent this week politely responding to the Chinese social media messages while balancing changing diapers and feeding kids, all while wondering when I’ll get time to pick up the guitar and prepare for that gig…
These are choices.
Tomorrow, another collection of pliable Chinese mothers will hit the 妈妈咪呀 stage to tell their stories and, secondarily, showcase their talents. My episode will be archived in the annals of internet history.
I just hope that some of them are wearing less flammable clothing.
This post first appeared on Ember Swift’s website on May 10, 2014.
Ember Swift is a Canadian songwriter, musician, writer, cyclist, green thumb, cupcake fan and proud mom living in Beijing with her husband, Guo Jian, and their daughter Echo (born January 2012). They are expecting a second child at the end of 2013. Ember writes professionally for several print and online publications (including beijingkids), as well as three blogs through her own site: www.emberswift.com. She is also an internationally touring musician and performs regularly in China with her all-girl local band. She has released 11 independent musical albums over the years but, these days, prefers to be with her family rather than on the road touring. She continues to release her music online and hopes to have completed her memoir project by the end of 2014.
Photo courtesy of Ember Swift.