We tend to focus on the bright side. It’s in our nature. But life is not always a joyride and Susan Blumberg-Kason experienced this first hand in China. However comforting it is to hear about expats who made it and made the best out of their stay in China, the truth is that cultural differences, gender inequalities, clashing habits and incompatible traditions can easily stand in the way and turn one’s Chinese dream of immersion into a nightmare. Good Chinese Wife is Blumberg-Kason’s autobiographical account of how an attempt to live in an intercultural marriage with a Chinese man went entirely wrong. For the occasion of the book’s release on July 29th, we contacted Susan and had a great discussion with her about love, China, failure, strength and literature. Here is what she has to say.
Hi Susan! Congratulations and good luck with your book! When did you feel the urge to write something about the difficult experience you had?
Thank you so much for that wonderful introduction! I first thought about writing Good Chinese Wife when my divorce attorney asked me to document everything that had gone wrong in my first marriage. When I was finished, this document was sixty-seven handwritten pages! I read through it and thought it would make a good book. But I didn’t start writing the book for another six years after my divorce.
Do you think that exposing your personal story can be a remedy? Have you had reservations regarding the exposure?
Yes, I’ve had many reservations about telling such a personal story. Even though I changed most of the names, it’s still scary to know that my story is out there. I didn’t write it to feel better about my choices or to justify some of the things I did to protect my oldest son. I had come to terms with that part of my life a long time ago. The reason I was so determined to publish this book is because I often looked for a similar one when I was married to Cai, my ex-husband. I wanted to know that I wasn’t alone, that others were experiencing the same. But I never found a book that addressed all of these issues. So it’s my hope that I can help other men and women see that they aren’t alone when it comes to sorting out cultural and personality differences.
What brought you to China? How long did you stay there for? Where did you live?
I visited China a few times in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a student before I moved to Hong Kong, first for a year as an exchange student and later for what I thought would be for good. It was in Hong Kong that I met Cai, who came from central China. So I never lived in China, although Cai and I often traveled to his family’s hometown in Hubei province, about two hours from Wuhan. I lived in Hong Kong for a total of five years.
Do you ever feel nostalgic about China, or has your relationship with your former husband overshadowed all the positive aspects of your China experience?
I often feel nostalgic for the China I knew in the 80s and first part of the 90s. It was a simpler time back then, even though I went through some rough times there. But I was on the same page with Cai about China. Every time we went there, he would feel upset and frustrated with the many changes he’d seen in China. I understood that and felt the same. My marriage to Cai hasn’t damaged my love of Chinese culture. I have three kids and am constantly exposing them to Chinese holidays, food, and books. And my marriage to Cai has done nothing to taint my love of Hong Kong. I think about Hong Kong every day!
Can you give us a general description of what is expected of a married woman in China?
In China, women are expected to marry early. Women are also expected to get pregnant before the age of thirty. I was desperate to have a baby at twenty-six and felt so much pressure, both from myself and from Cai. It took me a year to get pregnant because of this stress. On the other hand, married women in China are still expected to work. Also, when I was living in Hong Kong and traveling often to China, it was quite common for husbands and wives to live in different cities and even different countries. On the one hand, women are expected to marry early. But on the other hand, marriage isn’t supposed to disrupt their careers. Motherhood isn’t even supposed to disrupt their careers.
What do you think the hardest thing for a western woman married to a Chinese man is?
I think it all depends on the husband and how comfortable he is with modern customs. Cai seemed progressive when I met him, but he turned out to be very traditional. Women, no matter their nationality, are usually the ones to adapt to their husbands’ cultures or home countries. So it can be frustrating if the husband isn’t meeting his wife halfway when it comes compromises in a marriage.
So, can a cross-cultural marriage have a chance?
Oh, yes! I know many cross-cultural couples that have been very happily married for forty to fifty years. In all of these cases, the husbands are Asian and seem to adapt very well to western culture. And the wives have also gone out of their way to understand their husbands’ culture. I had many wonderful role models when I was married to Cai, and I think that’s what kept me trying to make it work for so long.
What are your plans for the future? Will we be reading more of your work?
I am working on a new memoir set mostly in Shanghai. I like to call it my love letter to Shanghai. Not one to shy away from sad subjects, I’m writing about my recent discovery of a relative on my mom’s side who fled Nazi Germany for Shanghai. This cousin lived in Shanghai for eight years—alone—while his mother and brother stayed back in Germany and eventually perished in the concentration camps. Before I knew about this relative, I had visited many of the landmarks in Jewish Shanghai and was completely unaware of this history. It’s only been after my divorce that I started learning about the Jews in Shanghai. So this book will weave my trips to Shanghai with my discovery years later of my grandfather’s cousin who sailed to Shanghai in 1939. It will continue where Good Chinese Wife leaves off.