Thursday, August 7, 2014

Review and Guest Post: Good Chinese Wife by Susan Blumberg-Kason

Title: Good Chinese Wife
Author: Susan Blumberg-Kason
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publish Date: July 29, 2014
Source: I received a copy from the publisher; however, this did not affect my review.

Why You're Reading This Book:

  • You like memoirs.
  • You don't mind tough subjects.
  • You like stories about resilience.
What's the Story?:

From "When Susan, a shy Midwesterner in love with Chinese culture, started graduate school in Hong Kong, she quickly fell for Cai, the Chinese man of her dreams. As they exchanged vows, Susan thought she'd stumbled into an exotic fairy tale, until she realized Cai--and his culture--where not what she thought.

In her riveting memoir, Susan recounts her struggle to be the perfect traditional "Chinese" wife to her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. With keen insight and heart-wrenching candor, she confronts the hopes and hazards of intercultural marriage, including dismissing her own values and needs to save her relationship and protect her newborn son, Jake. But when Cai threatens to take Jake back to China for good, Susan must find the courage to stand up for herself, her son, and her future.

Moving between rural China and the bustling cities of Hong Kong and San Francisco, Good Chinese Wife is an eye-opening look at marriage and family in contemporary China and America and an inspiring testament to the resilience of a mother's love--across any border."

My Two Cents:

"Good Chinese Wife" is the memoir of Susan, who goes to study in Hong Kong and China as a young woman. She is fascinated with the people and the culture. She meets a man who is much older than she is, Cai. He is worldly and debonair and she falls for him. They get married quickly in order to sightsee around China and almost immediately, they begin having problems. Cai becomes very controlling of everything Susan does. Cai also seems to be hiding a lot of big secrets of his own. When the couple have a child, the stakes are even higher. This memoir is about one woman's struggle with trying to break away from an abusive relationship and how hard it is to do the right thing.

Blumberg-Kason recounts her relationship with Cai from the very beginning. He seems very different from a lot of the other men that she met in China. She sees him as worldly and smart. She can't help but to be attracted to him. I really felt for her. Yes, there were some warning signs but as the author shows us, it was really hard to see those warning signs at first. In fact, any of the signs that she noticed, she made up excuses for (it is so easy to think that things are going to get better and that you shouldn't worry about whatever is going on. This is definitely a classic case of someone being too scared to do what they know that they need to do. It really takes until Susan has her son for her to realize that she needs to do something to make the situation better for her child and her. You really feel for her in this book!

The writing of the book is good. This book gives the reader an unflinching look at how someone can be drawn and really paralyzed by the fear of leaving an abuser. We get a first row seat to see how the author stayed for so long. I think that she really captured her helplessness in a clear cut way. This memoir was often hard to read at times because of the subject matter but I really think that it would be a good pick for those who don't mind hard subjects who really want to understand more about why it is so difficult for people to get out of abusive relationships!

Author Guest Post:

I am very excited to have Susan here to A Bookish Affair!

Culture vs. Personality in Cross-Cultural Relationship

In my memoir, Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong, I try to figure out if my problems with my then-husband Cai stemmed from culture or personality discrepancies. On the one hand, we came from such different backgrounds: he’s from rural China and I’m from middle-class suburban Chicago.

When Cai and I met, I thought I knew all about his culture from the five years of Mandarin I had studied, as well as from the Chinese history and politics classes I had taken in high school and college. Because China had been a part of my life before I met Cai (I had traveled there a few times and had already lived in Hong Kong for a year at that point), I thought our cultural differences would be minimal. And our personality differences nil. I was an easy-going person, after all.

But these are some of the problems we encountered. And they’re the ones I tried to analyze to figure if they stemmed from personality or culture.

Confucian customs

As a student, I learned about Confucianism and how relationships in Asian countries adhere to certain hierarchies. For one, in the teacher/student relationship, students must always be respectful of their teachers. There’s no calling the teacher by his first name, and often it’s unacceptable for the student to say no to the teacher.

From the beginning of my marriage, Cai deferred to his professors so much that it seemed like he was putting them before me. I excused it as a teacher/student Confucian custom. On our wedding day in Hong Kong, we only had a one-night honeymoon because Cai kept his weekly meeting with his PhD advisor the next day. Surely he could have asked to skip that week or postpone it. But I figured Cai was just a dedicated student. So was this really cultural or was it more of a personality discrepancy? I would conclude that it was personality. I think most newlyweds would ask for the day off, even if they don’t tell their professors about their wedding for another few months, as Cai did.

Pregnancy and Post-Partum Customs

Although it should have been a given that we would have different customs when it came to carrying a baby and raising a newborn, Cai was pretty easy-going during my pregnancy. He never questioned anything I ate during that time. So I was completely taken by surprise after our son Jake was born and Cai suddenly ordered me to adhere to traditional Chinese post-partum customs, called manyue.  

What did this entail? First, there would be no showers or washing my hair for a month. Second, I couldn’t go outside for a month. There were also special foods like pig’s feet soup and fish head soup he insisted on preparing for me. I opted for the second because I don’t eat pork. For the baby, it’s much of the same. He didn’t want to take Jake outside for his first month. And Jake’s bellybutton had to be covered at all times. Surely these were all cultural differences, I thought. After all, they were rooted in Chinese tradition and it seemed like our neighbors were well-versed in these customs (they’re the ones who told Cai about the food, belly button, etc.).

But personality did play a role, too. If Cai had been more understanding of my background and had listened to my Chinese doctor who had explained that the no-washing-hair custom dated back to the time when women were responsible for collecting water from wells and needed a break after childbirth. But, he assured us, it was perfectly safe for me to take a shower and wash my hair in California where we had indoor plumbing. If Cai’s personality had been more laid back and less tyrannical, it may have been easier to get out of some of these customs.


Cai’s parents moved in with us for ten months to care for Jake. It was the Chinese custom for grandparents to take care of their grandchildren, even if it meant leaving China for the first time and living in a strange country without any friends. That’s definitely a cultural thing. I went along with it (although I had some misgivings before they arrived) because my own parents convinced me that no one could take better care of Jake than a close relative, like a grandmother and grandfather.

Mama and I clashed over Jake’s eating, clothing, and sleeping, which looking back seemed to be a combination of personality and culture. I see plenty of mothers and in-laws clash over childcare issues and they all come from the same culture.

The largest problem for me was that Mama had offered from the start to raise our future children in her small town in central China. At first Cai supported me and told his mother to drop it. So that’s a case in which personality trumped culture. Cai was a supportive fiancĂ© and stood up to his mother. But years later when Jake was born and we had to think about childcare, Cai suddenly changed and took his mother’s side. So was that personality or culture? I think some of each.

Now that I’ve been remarried for almost a decade to a man from a different religion (which is another type of cultural difference), I can see how personality compatibilities are more important than cultural ones. My husband and I can respectfully discuss our differences and calmly make decisions that work best for our family.


1 comment:

  1. Wow -- intense! Glad you enjoyed this one, although sadly, I would not be able to read this -- I'd get too angry!


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