Although I’m an avid reader, there are very few books that I can read within the time span of one weekend. Good Chinese Wife, however, was one of those books. I started Susan Blumberg-Kason’s memoir on a Friday afternoon and did not stop reading until I finished Sunday evening.
Here’s the gist of the story: Susan, a shy Midwesterner in love with Chinese culture, started graduate school in Hong Kong and 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. 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.
Susan’s story was fascinating! And while many of us may not have the same experience of navigating multi-cultural relationships, I’m sure most of us can relate to Susan’s struggles with trying to make a relationship work and the feelings of hope versus reality.
I am very excited to welcome Susan to the blog for a few questions about Good Chinese Wife.
1. You grew up in Chicago, but always dreamed of going to Hong Kong. What about China fascinated you so much? Why did you want to be a part of Chinese culture?
I had several exposures to Chinese culture at a young age. My grandparents—thanks to my uncle’s airline employee discount—traveled to Hong Kong eight times in two decades. I was the delighted recipient of silk padded jackets, satin dragon slippers, and faux-ivory jewelry boxes. Who wouldn’t be intrigued? My mother’s dear friend also brought me goodies from her year in Shanghai at the start of the 1980s, a time when very few Americans traveled there.
But the most important influences were my father’s chemistry students in the mid-1980s who came from Shanghai and Beijing to study in Chicago. These students were women married to men who left everything behind in China (which admittedly wasn’t much back then). They and their families would come to my house for Thanksgiving and the 4th of July, and were like the older sisters I never had. I went to China in college and stayed with their families in Shanghai and Beijing. They would joke around and say that I should find a nice Chinese boyfriend.
2. Do you think it was the cultural differences or the relationship/man you married that made it so difficult to be a “good Chinese wife?” Why?
I’m sure it mostly had to do with a personality clash. Although I went along with most of Cai’s behavior for the duration of our marriage, I realized pretty early on that it was going to be difficult for me to have an equal relationship. But because I was non-confrontational, I thought it would be easier to keep the peace than to start an argument. That obviously didn’t work. But had it just been about the culture, I probably could have dealt with that. As long as two people are willing to compromise, they can have a successful marriage.
3. Tell us about your writing process. You are a freelance writer for various publications. But this is your first book. How long did it take you to write your memoir? How did you decide to write your story? Was it a difficult decision to write the book and reveal so much about your life, and the lives of your ex-husband and son?
Writing a book is so different from writing and editing feature-length articles. And I had no idea how to start writing this book when I first started embarking on this project. Because of this huge learning curve, it took me four years to write a legible manuscript and find an agent, and another year to sign with a publisher. The idea to write this book hit me when my divorce attorney asked me to write down everything that went wrong in the marriage in case we went to trial (we didn’t). When I proofread this 67-page document, I thought it would make a good book! But for a long time I never thought the book would ever be published.
I started writing it in 2008, just as the economy tanked. The publishing industry was also going through big changes with e-publications. As for the people I write about in this book, my son was much younger when I started writing it and was all for it, not knowing all of the content. Now that he’s a teenager, it’s a lot more awkward, but he’s so laid back and mature for his age that I’m not too worried. My ex-husband knows about the book because I was interviewed in the Wall Street Journal last month and the reporter asked to get his side of the story. Cai graciously declined to go into details and gave the journalist a generic quote about how all relationships take two.
4. How has being a mother affected you as a writer?
Well, it affects my schedule, but I’m not complaining. I write when the kids are asleep and in school. My youngest is still in school only half days, so I don’t have much time to myself during the day. Luckily my little ones go to sleep very early, so I have large chunks of time to write at night. I also feel like I’m more cautious about what I write because I know someday my kids might read it. Although Good Chinese Wife is raw and gritty at times, it’s nothing I am ashamed about and wouldn’t want them to read about when they’re older. I also think it could be a good lesson for them when they’re making big decisions like dating and becoming engaged.
5. What advice do you have for a writer who wants to write a very personal story?
I would say it’s essential to develop a thick skin. I started doing that early on when I was querying agents. After four years of rejections, I no longer viewed them as personal affronts. I could look at my story more objectively and not as something that was a direct reflection on the person I am today. If I hadn’t gone through those rejections, I’m not so sure I’d be able to talk about the book so openly today.
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Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of Good Chinese Wife to review for this blog post. All opinions are my own and I only endorse books that I am proud to recommend to others.