Interview with "Big In China" Author Alan Paul

Alan Paul with kidsI was fortunate enough to meet dad, author, columnist, and famous Beijing band frontman Alan Paul via email a few months ago. He’s a seemingly normal enough guy who just happens to be famous. When we began our email chats, he told me he had a book coming out soon and thought the ProActiveDads audience might be interested. When he told me about the book, I thought he was right.

A copy of the book was sent to me for review and I had a great time turning those pages as I became more and more interested with each adventure in his story. A stay-at-home dad who wrote for Guitar World and Slam magazines choosing to support his wife’s blossoming career and move their entire family to Beijing. Interesting enough, but it is enhanced by his process of self-discovery, commitment to his family, and the eventual honor of being Beijing’s most popular band! All-in-all, not a shabby list of accomplishments for a guy with three kids living in a foreign country and still learning the language.

From Buddhist monks, dumpling recipes, dads with cancer, a busy wife, and interviews with the rich and famous, the book was entertaining from start to finish. Upon finishing, I took a few moments to interview Alan and can now share those insights with you.

Nathan Greenberg: The book has been out just over a month. With all due sarcasm, “anything interesting happen lately”?

Alan Paul: The book came out March 1 and it has been a roller coaster. I was ready to really get busy promoting the book, but I did not anticipate getting a movie deal so quickly and that would involve or becoming Panda Dad and all that would entail.

It’s all good and no complaints whatsoever, but this stuff took a lot of time and energy and I am really exhausted and have not had much time to process it all. I have, however, tried my best to enjoy the ride. I am looking forward to spending a lot of time with my kids next week. They are out of school and I am off the road. 

NG: Getting into the book: You talk about your idyllic life in Maplewood, but we don’t get the big picture of how your routine as a stay-at-home dad changed in China. Tell us more about being a stay-at-home dad BEFORE Beijing.

AP: Well, I have been a master juggler for years because I have always worked, but have done so on a freelance basis since before my kids were born. With my wife’s job always being demanding and requiring a lot of hours, I have been on the frontline of parenting. It has always been great and I have certainly never regretted my decisions, but as I went from one kid to three it became pretty difficult at times to juggle. I always had help, with the kids in day care or preschool and sometimes a nanny, which allowed me to keep working, but I did a lot of driving, homework, volunteering, coaching…

NG: (Personal note: you had my COMPLETE attention when you mentioned James Hetfield early in the book. I’m a Metallica fan.) Your writing contracts were with Guitar World and Slam. Did you ever discuss fatherhood with your interview subjects and what reactions/answers did you receive?

AP: Not in a really regular way, but sometimes there were openings to do that. I think it’s more like, becoming a parent and going through that life cycle allows you to complete your emotional journey and understand the world better, and in different ways and that impacts how you evaluate everything, including any art or music. And I have interviewed James and Kirk a bunch of times.

NG: Your life in China seemed almost like a fairy tale and you described it with similar terminology multiple times. Having a staff makes a huge difference in convenience. How did this new lifestyle effect your actions as a stay-at-home dad? How did it effect your perceptions of stay-at-home parenting?

AP: It’s not even fair to say. Having more help allows you to take a lot of the drudgery out of parenting, to do more fun stuff with your kids, to enjoy it all the time, because you don’t feel stuck. Honestly, it’s a beautiful thing.

But we always wanted to stay connected to our old life and to maintain strong bonds with our kids, so we did not have help on weekends or after 6 at night I know this sounds like nothing, but I know a lot of people who never put their kid to bed or did things together on weekends. We didn’t do that. 

NG: Descriptions of your father make him seem like a great guy and a positive influence on much of your development as a man. He comes from a generation of single-income males and a different sense of patriarchy. Did your SAHD status ever get discussed between the two of you?

AP: We have discussed it a bit over the years. My father is a pretty progressive guy in a lot of ways, but he has definitely struggled with our arrangement sometimes.  He can be a little old school and I think years ago it bothered him that I was home so much and not working as much as he would have liked.

I think that when I got to China and started writing my column and then all the other things fell into place, he understood it was sort of a payoff of my years of manning the fort. And really I had a creative awakening over there that began in large part because of my freedom to not work. To me, it felt like a reward and blessing accrued for being supportive of Rebecca’s career. But I was running around China having fun and reinventing myself while she worked 10-12 hours day, so who was doing the sacrificing? 

NG: China can present many challenges to Americans for religious, economic, political, health, and communication reasons. A few times you mention the difficulties that crossed your own mind before Rebecca took the job and during your time there. How have you addressed (if at all) the political and cultural differences with your kids, especially such hot topics as Tibetan oppression, no freedom of the press, one-party rule, wages, pollution, etc.

AP: We have tried to discuss a lot of these things with our kids in age-appropriate ways as they have gotten older. Other than the pollution, we didn’t discuss this stuff with them too much while we were there, mostly because they were too young. 

NG: Towards the end of the book you mention Rebecca’s discomfort at having her life chronicled by Alan Paul, the columnist and blogger. Have the two of you found greater comfort and reward as parents with the documentation of your lives or do you still struggle with a lack of privacy?

AP: She has had to adapt and is mostly fine with it. I do try to be sensitive to this, most importantly with her, of course, but really with anyone in my life. I never write about anyone without discussing it with them. The biggest hurdle for her was when I started writing my column for the WSJ.com and it was partly because everyone she worked with was reading it. She has always kept her professional and personal lives pretty separate. 

NG: How did you find time to be a stay-at-home dad while still taking bike rides, visiting monks, and covering the Olympics, and fronting “Beijing’s Best Blues Band”?

AP: Well, it’s not really fair to a fulltime SAHD to say I was doing the same thing. First of all, all of my kids were in school. Even the youngest, who was just two and half when we moved, went to preschool until about 2:30. I did a lot of the stuff, like the bike rides, temple visits, etc during the day while they were in school. Second of all, we did have a lot of help. I stayed very hands on and picked up the kids myself most days, but I had fallback options.

Also, the band really took off and became a more serious pursuit during my third year in Beijing, when everyone was pretty settled and the kids were two years older. I couldn’t have comfortably done it during my first and probably second years there. 

NG: Is there anything you would have done differently as a dad between 2005 and 2009?

AP: Wow. If I went back and revisited every day, I’m sure there are lots of little things. I think I would push Chinese study on my kids more aggressively if I could have a do-over. And I probably would have dragged them out to even more Beijing events.

NG: You are obviously a proud parent, but that is combined with an extensive media experience. Do media portrayals of fatherhood matter to you? Matter to your family? Is there anything you wish would change?

AP: Sort of. I am more concerned with the messages my kids receive, so it bothers me if they watch shows that portray parents as bumbling idiots and kids as sassy smart alecks. I see that dynamic all the time and I don’t like it and try to really reign in how much media they consume. I don’t get too worked up about how I see fathers being portrayed specifically, but it is annoying. If I had a little more free time to give this brain space, I could easily work up a head of steam.

NG: Do you have any updates on Yechen, your dad, Tom Davis, Woodie (and the band), and are you still practicing your Chinese?

AP: My dad is doing great. He has had no recurrences. I was in Pittsburgh on my book tour and we rode bikes to the Pirates home opener. That’s about six miles and I could barely keep up with him. Yechen and I are in regular but sporadic touch he has moved to Xi’an and is going back and forth to Huashan, the holy mountain. Tom Davis and his girls are doing great in Montana. We met up in Pittsburgh for a Steelers game last December and I hope to bring my family out to visit him this summer. Woodie has left Beijing and is back in his hometown of Langfang, so the band is no longer playing, but we are all in touch.

I have not had a Chinese lesson in a year, but Jacob., my eldest, and I are going to resume this fall. I have forgotten a lot, but it’s not all gone.

Alan Paul is the author Big In China (Harper) a memoir about raising three American children in Beijing and forming Woodie Alan, an award-winning blues band with three Chinese musicians. Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Pictures has optioned the film rights. He also penned the “Panda Dad” blog essay on WSJ.com. His book has been added to the exclusive ProActiveDads “Dad Books” list and is available for purchase at Amazon.com or any major bookstore. He recently posted a guest blog for ProActiveDads titled, “Embrace the Chaos: Keeping a Sense of Yourself”.

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