Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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My Old Man: an unexpected love story

In Chinese, “My Old Man” or Lao-Gung, means husband. It’s Cantonese, but is used all over China colloquially today.

My Lao-Gung and I have lived in many places, and have often lived apart. Many have said we wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, make it. But after the better part of a decade, in a country that’s famous for its difficult language, food scandals and pollution, we’re having a better time together than ever before.

This is how I met my old man, and how we’ve managed to stay together, even when far apart:

lantern fest

Somewhere near our beginnings in Busan in 2003

One late afternoon nine years ago, I sat down in a cafe in a South Korean city, far from where I had grown up (and far from where I am now). It was the only part of town where you could get an Americano and avoid Starbucks at the same time.

I was lonely, though wouldn’t admit it to anyone, least of all myself.
Several months before, I’d moved to Busan from Boston, the choice of city a wild card, chosen after a good friend left Osaka, where I’d originally planned to start life in Asia.

My job? Teaching english and art to kids. My only foreign colleague (and roommate) was a drunkard old enough to be my grandfather, but this job was a vehicle for other goals. I’d wanted to explore Asia on my own – the best continent for a western girl to remain boyfriend-free – and save up enough for a house in Morocco before age 35. Then I’d sit in my riyadh somewhere near the sea and, I dunno, have a Moroccan boyfriend or Moroccan cats. Or maybe one of each, if they got along.

I had goals, you see, and didn’t want any distractions from them.

Then I heard an English voice on the other side of the room: cultivated but not pretentious, kind but confident. It was a voice, I thought, that I wouldn’t mind hearing for a long time.

I looked over.

A devastatingly attractive guy sat across the table from a foreign female companion whom, it appeared, wasn’t his girlfriend. This guy was my type: dark-haired and pale, with a quirky nose.

He was a rare creature in Asia: a straight man who could actually speak to a western woman as if she were a real person.

But he was leaving Korea soon, he said, for a life of leisure. A university job awaited on the tropical island of Hainan, China.

Oh well, I thought, it might’ve been nice to know you.


Several nights later I was at a dive bar nearby, chatting to a woman I’d just met. Her phone rang. It was a colleague.
- You coming down? We’ve got to talk about your going-away party! she said, and hung up.
- Where’s your colleague moving? I asked, not allowing myself to hope.

- To Hainan.

For the first time in my life, I decided to wait for someone.
I ordered another beer.
Halfway through it, he strode down the stairs.
Our eyes locked.

And we’ve been together ever since, barring a brief breakup toward the beginning. What I hoped might be a three-week stand before he left for China and I for Cambodia has now lasted for nine years, for better, for worse, and in many places between.
(Nine things that have kept us together, after the photos)

in seoul 04

2004: On the streets of Seoul

diy wedding 05

2005:married on the beach in Thailand

in cambodia 06

2006: into the clouds of Cambodia as I photographed Bokor in Blue

in Macau 07

2007: Butter wouldn’t melt – Roy visiting with my Mom while I painted at the Macau Venetian

in saigon

2008: In Saigon during my (unsuccessful) journey looking for Vietnamese artists & images for a Vietanamese cyanotype series

on minsk

2009: On a Minsk, looking for fresh papermaking ingredients for Paper Pilgrimage in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Ingredients we didn’t find till we returned to Hanoi.

chinese opera stars 10

2010: with a Chinese opera star from Fujian in Penang, Malaysia

in thailand 11

2011: On a bicycle made for three in Cha-Am, Thailand

r and cake

2012: In Beijing with a Sichuanese sesame cake, from my travels searching for paintbrushes

So what’s kept us going for this long, and hopefully, for a while longer? I’ve come up with nine things that have seen us through nine years so far.

1. Respect for the other’s passions
I made it clear from the beginning that travel for projects was, and would always, be part of the deal from my end. It’s meant an average of 3-4 months apart every year. These aren’t solo holidays, but stressful journeys, expensive financially and often physically. He’s traveled to take courses in martial and healing arts in Hong Kong and Thailand, and his interest in these disciplines is what brought him to Asia in the first place.

While it’s never easy remaining at home, he’s always been the number one fan of my work, and understands that travel’s part of the process. For my part, I’ve become extra careful to gauge his feelings before planning any project.

2. Trust
Being apart when there are temptations everywhere isn’t easy, especially at the beginning of a relationship. He spent a month in Thailand doing T’ai Chi shortly after we met, and every western male friend gave him the wink-nudge treatment. I knew his take on women-for-hire as an old-fashioned guy (not interested, even if they could hold a conversation), but it took time for me to relax. For his part, he was long worried I’d run into a louche Frenchman while on the road and give in (ha).

A partner can and will find someone else if they wish – whether in your backyard or elsewhere, it’s easy enough to do. Trust takes work and assurance and patience and lots of attention. And a bit of flattery goes a long way (something I learned from ladies in SE Asia).

3. Multifaceted Attraction
He has eccentric taste, and claims to enjoy things like the lines and strength of my solid bones. I like his crooked smile and wicked wit. We communicate in many forms. It helps that he’s a much better writer than I am. When apart, we share photos and videos of what we’re up to, chat on the phone and online, and make even more of an effort to stay in touch than when in the same city.

Sexy is a state of mind and state of being; you don’t always have to be in the same room to share a tantalizing connection with the person you love.

4. Equal expectations
Years of to-ing and fro-ing have left us in a kind of equilibrium. Financially and otherwise. Sure, what he does professionally (in the water industry) when he’s doing it, is much more lucrative than what I do (sell art sometimes, make it often, write often, sell my books now and then, teach art sometimes, English at others, get occasional grants), but I expect, and am expected, to pay my own way. The only stretch of time I didn’t – when we were based in Sydney for 2.5 years for his job, and I was bouncing back and forth part-time from Bangkok – strained our relationship in ways I’m only understanding years later.

This extends to visas: this year he’s sponsoring our visa to China via his job, and next year it’s my turn. We hold up our own end of what we want out of life, and the other person does their bit too.

5. Compromise: between our dreams, our careers, and what’s possible
Every place we’ve chosen to live together has required compromises from both of us. We met in a country we each wanted to leave, but decided to stay there for a year while working on our relationship (trying it on for size to see if it would last). Then he accompanied me to Cambodia for the first time, a land I’d already fallen in love with, but which, it turned out, wasn’t for him. So after we married he moved to Taiwan, a country (sic) that at the time I didn’t consider a possibility for a home, and later he found a job in Hong Kong. Eventually, after a visit to HK I was ready to move there: for the possibilities the art and publishing industries there offered, for the lifestyle of the island where we lived, for the gentle introduction it provided to China.

Hong Kong may have started out a compromise but ended up being, so far, the place we enjoyed the most overall.

6. Technology: together, apart
There are times when I’d swear it was tech that kept us going. From early MSN e-fights that have thankfully vanished into lost email archives, to more recent, image-heavy communication as bandwidth has improved, it’s part of our days and keeps us connected. An SMS from him brought a smile last week as I spent a bleak 31 hours on an east-bound train from Sichuan to Beijing, with neighbors who smoked in the passageways during the day and snored next to me at night. He’d be at the station by 5:30 the next morning to meet me, with a fresh pot of coffee waiting at our apartment-hotel.

Favorite text from him during recent time apart: “I miss you like a pocket, I have nowhere to put my hands.”

7. Common interests and ideas
We love art and travel. And wine and chocolate. Boats in calm seas or deep rivers, and cycling in flat places. The old man and I have a lot in common. Like many long-term expats, we didn’t come from terribly self-important cities in our home countries, like New York or London. Our backgrounds were, in some ways, surprisingly similar, an ocean and continent apart. We share a lot of fundamental beliefs, and a lack of faith in religion, political parties, or flags. The barebones life we’ve led has been a tightrope walk at times, and an easy downhill coast at others. Not so different from most people’s, really.

Bottom line: once I learned he hit the bookstores and galleries in every town he visited, he was the right one for me.

8. Complementary personalities
They say as you grow older, you become more yourself. Your personality becomes more unique or, in some cases, extreme. He’s the yin to my yang, or whatever. This keeps me from becoming quite as maniacal as some “creative” people I’ve met. I get intensely worked up over…well, on some days, most anything. He claims it keeps him interested and stimulated and amused, and, now and then, it’s too much. He, on the other hand, gives me perspective and a steadying influence and helps me laugh at things when I most need it. The flip side are times when I’ve wished he’d kick his motivation into higher gear, and he does eventually. It just takes time.

And there’s the rub: patience will make anyone come round.

9. Global eye for opportunities
We keep a close eye on the currencies and situations of a dozen countries, staying in touch with friends and contacts there. Our future lies between the UK and greater China.

After years of living in different places and sharing experiences only the other person has had, everywhere that had the other person in it, has become home – for a while.

It’s funny how life turns out. As it happens, I did buy a house by age 35 with savings I earned in Asia, and it wasn’t too far from Morocco or the sea. But instead of a boyfriend or a cat, when I’m there, my Old Man keeps me company instead.

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