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Susan Conley, her husband, and their two young sons say good-bye to their friends, family, and house in Maine for a two-year stint in a high-rise apartment in Beijing, prepared to embrace the inevitable onslaught of new experiences that such a move entails. But Susan can’t predict just how much their lives will change.
While her husband is consumed with his job, Susan works on finishing her novel and confronting the challenges of day-to-day life in an utterly foreign country: determining the proper way to buy apples at a Chinese megamarket; bribing her little boys to ride the school bus; fielding invitations to mysterious “sweater parties” and tracking down the faux-purse empire of the infamous Bag Lady; and getting stuck in an elevator, unable to call for help in Mandarin.
Despite the distractions, there are many occasions for joy. From road trips to the Great Wall and bartering for a “starter Buddha” at the raucous flea market to lighting fireworks in the streets for the Chinese New Year and feasting on the world’s best dumplings in back-alley restaurants, they gradually turn their unfamiliar environs into a true home.
Then Susan learns she has cancer. After undergoing treatment in Boston, she returns to Beijing, again as a foreigner—but this time, it’s her own body in which she feels a stranger. Set against the eternally fascinating backdrop of modern China and full of insight into the trickiest questions of motherhood—How do you talk to children about death? When is it okay to lie?—this wry and poignant memoir is a celebration of family and a candid exploration of mortality and belonging.
"China sat in the rooms of our house like a question," begins Conley in this luminous memoir of moving her family from Portland, Maine, to Beijing on the eve of the 2008 Olympics. Conley's husband had accepted a dream job in Beijing, and they had decided to say "yes to all the unknowns that will now rain down on us" including common difficulties faced by many families moving to a new city: a new school for her two young sons, finding new friends, and adjusting to a new apartment all compounded by the intensity of learning a difficult new language and adapting to a new culture. Conley's writing is at once spare and strong, and her description of having to present an unflappable front to her children while being hit "with a rolling wave of homesickness" pulls the reader into her world like a close friend. As Conley starts to hit her stride in her adopted city, she discovers lumps in her breast and finds herself on a different kind of journey, which she describes as "an essential aloneness that cancer has woven into my days." She explains in this engaging memoir that after her treatment in the U.S. was over, she returned to Beijing, where she searched for the perfect Chinese talisman to "ward off the leftover cancer juju" and hoping to help her boys move past their own fears of their mother's mortality.