Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong is author Susan Blumberg-Kason’s memoir about her experience living as an American expat in Hong Kong and mainland China and her difficult marriage to a Chinese man. The book centers on cultural clashes and misunderstanding amidst a coming-of-age story.
Good Chinese Wife comes out on July 29. Blumberg-Kason answered our questions about her book by email.
In your memoir, Good Chinese Wife, and also in the short story “Ninety Minutes in Tsim Sha Tsui” [Ed: Found in the anthology of expat women’s writing How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?], you talk about your experience as an American living in China, trying to adapt to the different way of life. Was your experience something you have wanted to share for a long time? How did you decide it was something to record and publish?
I first thought about writing Good Chinese Wife a decade ago when my divorce attorney asked me to write out everything that went wrong in that marriage in case we went to trial. It ended up as sixty-seven handwritten pages. As I read through this document, I thought it would make a good book, especially for women and men going through similar experiences. I’ve read many memoirs by Chinese women, but very few by expats living in Asia who were married to local men. And of the latter, those were published before Tiananmen and mainly focused on the men’s experiences during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, but not on the marriage. Marriage takes a lot of work, and in cross-cultural relationships it’s all too easy to justify bad behavior as cultural differences. But if something doesn’t feel right, it shouldn’t be tolerated period.
Your memoir is very honest and straightforward – it progresses linearly and you mention political events (like the Great Leap Forward and the Rape of Nanking) for context. Can you tell me about the process of writing for you? Did you have any specific ways of reconciling memory/feeling with fact in order to reveal the story honestly?
It’s funny because when I started writing the book, I wrote in a linear way, but by the time I had finished it and sold it to my publisher, it used an alternating order. My editor thought it would read better linearly, so that was a last-minute change to revert it back to chronological order. But going back to when I started writing it, I thought at first it would be a typical China memoir but from the point of view of someone who had married a local. So I wrote about China in the 1990s and threw in some historical context for those who weren’t familiar with the country. I was working with a writing coach and this writing coach thought (correctly!) that my story was scattered and lacked a theme. Once I decided to center the story on my marriage, it all seemed to flow naturally.
Probably the biggest question in the story is whether Cai’s behavior can be attributed to his personality or to his upbringing and culture, but of course it can’t be answered. He remains very complex. For instance, you describe him as seeming significantly more cosmopolitan than other mainland Chinese men but he is ultimately steeped in very traditional ideas. What does Cai represent in the story? Is he the typical Chinese husband?
Years ago I e-mailed the writer John Pomfret after I read his memoir, Chinese Lessons. He wrote back a nice reply and said he could have predicted my divorce before I married Cai. His classmates in late 1970s/early 1980s China were of Cai’s generation and all ended up divorced. Pomfret thought—and I agreed with him—that the tumultuous 60s and 70s contributed to a generation of young adults who had no foundation for what it meant to live in a family unit. On the other hand, I have many friends of Cai’s generation who have been married for decades and are still going strong. It’s so hard to know what to think when I see one thing and experience another! But I definitely think Cai is not the typical Chinese husband. He’s probably just like any other person whose parents never disciplined him.
What did context/timing have to do with yours and Cai’s relationship? If you had met today in Hong Kong would circumstances be different? Do you believe Cai would have been less traditional, perhaps more attuned to your needs as his wife and the mother of his child?
I think things would have been different if we had met in present day Hong Kong. For one, the big cities in China are so much more cosmopolitan than they were in the mid-90s. So Cai probably would have been more open to our cultural differences if we’d met now. He lives in Shanghai now, one of the most modern cities in the world, and is happily married to a successful career woman. But he still has distant relationships with his children, so environment isn’t the only factor!
You talk about your love for China as a young girl and your developing interest as you lived there and married. Then, at the end of your memoir and in your short story you mention traveling to Hong Kong more recently, years after your marriage to Cai. How has your perception of China and its culture changed for you through your experiences and over the years?
I’m much more realistic about China now. When I married Cai, I viewed China through the same rose-tinted glasses I had when I first visited China in 1988 as a recent high school graduate. Once we were married, I saw that it had as many flaws as any other country. I think my biggest revelation was that old habits did not die so quickly in post-1949 China, contrary to what I’d been taught in school in the mid-80s. Women may hold up half the sky, but they are far from equal. This is a universal problem, and just because China has more female engineers than the US, it doesn’t mean that gender equality is any better in China than in the US. I’m not sure if I’m just more in tune with my feminist side now or if my views of China have changed because of my experience there. Maybe both!
Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong comes out on July 29.
The anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia is out now.
By Samantha Nelson