CT.net Interview: Susan Conley on Beijing, surviving cancer & her book "The Foremost Good Fortune"

Travel, Culture | by Aimee Groom
Posted: May 16th, 2011 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
Susan Conley_The foremost good fortune_Beijing With the Olympics just around the corner, 2007 sees Beijing. Her memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune, tells the story of their incredible voyage of discovery in this historic city, perched on the anachronistic knife edge of old and new that defines modern China... but an uninvited visitor has come along for the ride. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, not only must Susan come to terms with the idea of her own mortality, she must also continue to be a wife and a mother living in a strange and faraway land. China Travel caught up with Susan in advance of her China book tour to chat about her story, her China travel experiences and her top tips for travel to Beijing>>> China Travel: Had you ever lived abroad before and what was your initial reaction when your husband was offered the job in China? Susan Conley: Well I write in my book that when I married my husband, Tony, there was a triangulation: me and Tony and China. Tony is passionate about China and had lived there in the eighties and traveled through the border regions. His love for China—its people and its language—had rubbed off on me, so I was excited to move to Beijing. That's not to say I wasn't daunted too. But I knew we were in for the adventure of our lives and I love adventure. China Travel: What most excited you about moving to Beijing, and what was your greatest worry? Susan: The history of the city is what excited me most. The rich culture I got to see every day on the streets. I likened walking certain neighborhoods in Beijing to going back in time. And that turned out to be true. Beijing can be a history lesson but Beijing is also speeding ahead at warp speed, so I now think of it also as a glimpse into the future. My greatest worry proved to be valid. The pollution worries most expats. It's hard to grasp the scale of the air problem until you live in Beijing and even then there were days I thought those government air control ratings had to be wrong they were so high. China Travel: How did pre-Olympics Beijing compare to your preconceptions of China? Susan: The Beijing I saw in 2007 and in the ensuing months leading up to the games was a city on a manic building craze. It now remains a lot harder to find glimpses of the daoist way on the streets of Beijing. So the pre-Olympics Beijing was far more sophisticated than I'd imagined. And yet in other ways, it felt sometimes like living in a prior century. China Travel: Living in China often gives a sense of separation from the "real" world that we've left behind as we go about life in this somewhat surreal universe… How did your being diagnosed with breast cancer here affect your connection to that "real" world and to china? Susan: My diagnosis made the distance between that "real" outside world and the isolated China I was living in seem even more vast. I was forced to try to bridge that gap—to connect the dots—to reach out to the outside world and ask for help from within China. Email was my friend. Email helped me find the right friends in the states who led me to the right doctors there and lessened that feeling of aloneness that I experienced at first. China Travel: China has an extremely low rate of breast cancer in women, though it is now climbing alarmingly quickly—did you find that people reacted here differently to your diagnosis than those back home? Susan: When I was diagnosed three years ago, those occurrence numbers you refer to were even lower. My Chinese surgeon was dismissive of my concerns because I just don't think he had seen that much breast cancer. I do think that is changing now, as you point out. And the numbers now are sadly going up. China Travel: When you went home to Maine for treatment, were you at all tempted not to return to China? Susan: Our decision to return to Beijing after my cancer treatment ended was not an easy one. And it's one I detail in the book. I wasn't ready for that shock of dislocation that I get every time I land in China. It takes time to process a cancer diagnosis, and I wanted to be surrounded by friends as I sorted things out. But my husband had a job in China and we wanted to keep our family together, so we returned to Beijing and in the end, we were the better for that decision. China Travel: As well as the incredible upheaval you went through during your time here, you also had some wonderful experiences. Is there any one moment you can pinpoint as being a real highpoint? Susan: Day three of a six-day trek with our boys over two mountain peaks in the Tibetan plateau in Yunnan. This was the day we made it over the first pass. It was stunningly beautiful and exhilarating and I felt lucky for ever having gotten to come to live in China in the first place. China Travel: What are your top 5 recommends for family traveling to Beijing to get an authentic feel for the city? Susan:
  • Go for tea at the Sanlitun.
  • Eat at the nighttime street food market at Wanfujing.
  • Head into the hutong behind the Drum Tower and just walk for a few hours, taking in the neighborhoods.
  • Go to the Temple of Heaven on a Saturday morning and hang out in the park watching the tai chi and the Chinese yo-yo masters.
  • If it's winter, rent ice skates and try your best figure skating moves on Hou Hai Lake. So lovely on a clear winter day.
China Travel: Now you are based back in Maine, what do you miss most about Beijing? Susan: Everyone in our family misses the dumplings and the knife noodles. So we miss the food. And I miss the flea markets and the crazy bargaining that I never got the hang of. I miss the feeling that maybe we were all living at the epicenter of the world. China Travel: If you could travel anywhere in China, where would it be and why? Susan: We have yet to get to Kashgar as a family. I would love to go there and see the beauty of of the land and the Uighur people. That would be a gift—to get to travel that far west. Susan Conley will be bringing The Foremost Good Fortune back to China with a book tour in June 2011. A number of events are planned throughout the month in Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghaicheck out www.susanconley.com for all the latest information on dates, times and venues in each city.
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