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From At-Home Dad to Rock Star: Alan Paul Gets Big in China

Wendy Sachs
April 21, 2011

Alan Paul's new memoir Big in China is the inspirational and improbable tale of a father of three who transforms his life from freelance journalist and at-home dad to rock star in China.  This unlikely journey begins when Alan's wife, Rebecca Blumenstein, gets promoted to the "Wall Street Journal's" Beijing bureau chief.  Leaving behind the leafy suburbs of Maplewood, NJ, with their children Anna, 2, Eli, 4, and Jacob, 6, Alan embraces his Asian adventure and re-invents himself.

Along with coaching his kids' soccer teams and learning Mandarin, Alan forms a band with Chinese musician Woodie Wu and gives it the ironic name, the Woodie Alan.  Less than two years later, Woodie Alan now named "Best Band in Beijing," is touring the country and performing in front of thousands.   

Now back home in New Jersey, I recently talked with Alan about finding his passion, supporting his wife's career, working mom guilt, the role of dads in society today, and the differences between parenting in China and in America.   

Are you living the dream?

In a way I feel like I've been living the dream ever since we moved to China.  For me it was completely unpredictable that I would find myself over there and so comfortable among Chinese people.  And then part of the dream was to form a band.  I never really had a big picture in mind of any of this stuff except for enjoying it while it was happening.  I feel like if I had actively thought to live that dream, it would never have happened.

You moved for your wife's job.  How did you feel about that?

People credit me with sacrificing for my wife's career - but it's shallow and it shows so much sexism.  I have done all this cool stuff and Becky really has been the one slogging away.

Does your wife ever resent that you have the less conventional career?  And have you ever resented her career momentum and success?

When our kids were little, it was tough.  In that era I felt like my career was stalled.  I didn't have the energy or time to chase down the writing stuff.  I was home trying to do homework with Jacob and Anna was 18 months old and she was running across the kitchen table.  During that period Becky had to work late and it could be annoying.  But overall, it's really never been an issue with us.  It's a decision that we felt worked best for our family.   

I think that working moms can feel really guilty and I think its incumbent upon you as a husband to proceed with caution.  I really tried to protect Becky from feeling guilty or that she was missing something.  In China whenever Becky left the country, something bad seemed to happen with the kids - they would get sick, or break an arm.  I was always torn between telling her and protecting her.  I think that is what's illustrative of the double standard.  If she had been the father, no one would think the dad would feel guilty for not being there.  

Many people want to reinvent themselves and are too afraid to even try - or frankly it's just not realistic.  Are there small ways everyone can do this?

You have to be a little thoughtful about what is bugging you about your life and what you might do differently.  I was lucky in a lot of ways - but once I got to China, I had no plan.  The first step if you want to change yourself is being open to thinking outside of the box a bit.  You definitely won't get it if you're sitting around at home.  The more you do, the easier it is to make something happen. 

You actually had more childcare and household help in Beijing than at home in New Jersey.  Was that liberating?  Did it make your musical career possible?

You just have more time and you feel calmer because your house is more orderly.  It took a little while to get used to it.  In China we had an Ayi, which means auntie or nanny in China.  She is the person who cleans, cooks and takes care of the kids.  They treat the kids like the boss.  We had to adapt and our kids had to adapt to that. 

What kind of inspiration or impact do you think you are having on your kids now?

I hope that the kids get the message from my success and the roles Becky and I have played that anything is possible.  I hope that Anna looks at her mom and realizes she can be anything and if she gets married to expect something from her husband.  And I want my boys to see that it's ok to have a thriving career and be a father first.  And if you do put being a dad first it doesn't mean that nothing else is ever going to happen professionally.  I would hope that they would see for me that they are respectful towards women.  That's really important to me.

You recently wrote a piece for the WSJ online about being a "Panda Dad" - taking on the whole Chinese Tiger Mom ferocity.  What did your experience in China teach you?

I think fathers' voices have been absent in this whole thing.  Overall, I think fathers can take a little more chaos.  My feeling is that we want our kids to become independent, free thinking people and find their own way in life.  We need to give them space and let them roam.  I saw some of the tiger parenting in china and it's not so pretty.

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