Susan lived in China for fifteen years, teaching the performing arts in international schools. Her provocative memoir, SCANDALON, includes fascinating stories of people and life in China. Susan has an important story to share about disappointment, abuse, shame, and God’s love.
Susan grew up in California, where her preacher father pastored several churches, and where she now lives and works in the field of education.
Susan is the author of the Cladach memoir, SCANDALON: Running from Shame and Finding God’s Scandalous Love.
A Conversation with Susan
First, what are some of the things in your life that give you joy?
Susan: Teaching music and drama to international students was fun and kept me in a perpetual state of learning. I also got to lead worship from time to time in churches here in China. Maybe someday I can tell about that.
Much of Scandalon came from your journal writings through the years?
Susan: Yes. When I was experiencing the scandals I tell about in Scandalon, I kept journals that were for my eyes only. The idea of sharing these stories was inconceivable. Then a friend from the UK convinced me to begin a blog. As time went by, I got to know my readers. Little by little, I began to open up the pages of my journals to them, interspersed with a few of the details of daily life in Asia. To my surprise, my online friends began commenting and sending me private letters filled with their own pain. I wanted to let them know that there really is healing and light ahead, that the promise from God really is authentic: He is a God who heals.
Music has been a big part of your life, and you teach music. Do you enjoy listening to music while you write?
Susan: Often I listen to praise songs . . . and I particularly love the old hymns and gospel songs from my past. Their words have become part of me. No matter where I am on this planet, I can sing them and they bring huge comfort.
What did you like best about living in China?
Susan: My career in China took me into the hearts and lives of many unforgettable students. And, though I became a seasoned foreign expatriate, the daily adventures of living in Asia continued to surprise me. China is progressing rapidly, which reminds me that I’m a developing person living in a developing society. I loved studying and speaking Mandarin. I loved my students and my school.
When I arrived in 1997, much of what I experienced was a village lifestyle; everything is completely different now. I think it is accurate to say that a hunger for material possessions is now driving the personal behavior of many Chinese. When I think about trying to understand China, though, I think of peeling an onion. There are layers upon layers of complexities to the Chinese culture and living there I was always aware of the fact that I really didn’t know much about it—even after fourteen years of living here.
What one place in China did you make sure to visit before you moved back to the U.S.?
Susan: The panda bears in Chengdu. I can’t believe I put that off until just before I left China! If one gives a “donation” of a 1,000 rmb, it is possible to pose with a panda. That makes a great Facebook profile picture! (laughing)
With all your work as a teacher, educator, and author, do you have much time to read? If so, what books have been notable lately?
Susan: I’ve devoured all the Peter Hessler books about China. My favorite novel of all time is Pillars of the Earth. For Christian reading, I turn to John Eldredge’s books time and time again, especially Waking the Dead. Phillip Yancey’s books stir me and cause me to think and see the world differently. I think Annie Dillard is brilliant. And for a combination of godly wisdom and wonderful hints for the kitchen, nothing beats Dennis Ellingson’s God’s Wild Herbs and God’s Healing Herbs.
We understand you enjoy cooking. What can you tell us about your experience with the cuisine of China?
Susan: I enjoy experimenting with different tastes from all over the world. The food in China varies widely from region to region, so the dishes I learned to make during my seven years in Guangzhou (what used to be called Canton) are new taste sensations for my Chinese friends where I later lived near the sea. There, I learned how to prepare such dishes as octopus, sea urchin and soft-shelled crabs. Shrimp was inexpensive, so I prepared prawn dinners often. I like this recipe (below) because I can just throw anything and everything in the pan. If I don’t have asparagus, I can use green beans. The black cloud ear fungus may not be available in a typical American supermarket; but any mushrooms will work.
The key to cooking this is to get everything ready ahead of time. I set out the measured and chopped ingredients in bowls on the kitchen counter before I begin. Once I start stir-frying, it happens so quickly and there isn’t time for measuring. So don’t start this until all your guests have arrived and everything else is ready to go. In China I encouraged my friends to join me in the kitchen so that we could chat while I cook. (I call it Cooking Evangelism!)
Stir-Fried Prawns with Green Asparagus and Baby Corn
400 g king prawns
4 spears fresh green asparagus
¼ cup peanut oil (I use olive oil)
1 T. fresh ginger julienned
4 spears fresh baby corn (I use canned baby corn as a substitute if fresh is not available)
some green snow peas (or julienned carrot sticks)
2 T. cooking wine (Chinese rice wine)
¼ t. white sugar
1 T. light soy sauce
¼ t. sesame oil
¼ cup chicken stock (or chicken broth or even water)
½ cup finely sliced fresh black cloud ear fungus
½ cup finely sliced button mushrooms (or any other mushroom substitute)
¼ t. black vinegar
1 T. roughly chopped cilantro (or coriander or parsley)
Peel and de-vein the prawns, but leave the tail intact. Trim woody ends from asparagus spears and slice into 5 cm lengths on the diagonal. Trim green snow peas. If using carrots, slice into thin 5 cm lengths.
Heat oil in a hot wok and stir-fry prawns for 1 minute. Add ginger, asparagus, baby corn, snow peas and carrots and stir-fry for 1 minute. Pour in cooking wine and simmer for 10 seconds. Add sugar, soy sauce and sesame oil and stir-fry for 20 seconds. Add stock, then simmer for 2 minutes or until prawns are just tender. Finally, add cloud ear fungus and/or other mushrooms, vinegar and cilantro (or parsley). Stir to combine, then serve immediately over noodles.
Sounds delicious. Thank you! Nice talking with you, Susan.