The Book: Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong, by Susan Blumberg-Kason
The Quick & Dirty: An awful marriage built on a foundation with the strength of whipped cream.
A self-described wallflower, Susan wants to leave behind her mundane upbringing in suburban Chicago. China, the place for expat reinvention since 1979, provides her with a way: Cai Jun, a graduate student in Music from Hubei province.
The night Susan meets him she’s locked out of her dorm room, and after he returns her phone card, she talks to her friend Janice about this attractive exotic guy:
“He couldn’t understand the English instructions, so he didn’t even use the card,” I told Janice.
“I heard. Still, I don’t think you should’ve given it to him.”
“He seems honest.”
“You don’t know him.”
Good Chinese Wife is Susan Blumberg-Kason’s memoir of her failed marriage to a Chinese man named Cai Jun. Her marriage was an extension of her own interest in China. On a 1988 high school trip to Nanjing:
That trip showed me I could be popular in ways I never experienced at school in the United States. China seemed like a place where I could start over and shed my inhibitions with new people who would never know I had been a wallflower all of my life.
It’s tempting to say she fell in love with China first, but in reality she fell in love with her own idea of China: the possibility of personal reinvention, that in the Middle Kingdom you can become the idealized version of yourself that you will never be back home. Cai represents this idea. From their first dance:
…dancing with him seemed so different than it had with the other men in the room. Suddenly I felt coordinated, even graceful. … I also felt comfortable in his arms, as if he could whisk me away from my past inhibitions and humiliations.
It’s hard to know what else she sees in Cai. When justifying her pending marriage, she writes, “He listens, he understands, he cares”…but how? If he ever listened, understood or cared, it is not shown in the book.
Susan is very much lost in a Chinese fairy tale and she describes their courtship as such, from their first dance to their first kiss to Cai’s own description of his life in the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps mundane for Cai, it comes off to Susan as something out of a movie.
The fairy tale ends in Shanghai, where the defining moment in their relationship occurs. After a long boat ride down the Yangtze from Wuhan, where Susan’s copy of Beijingers in New York provided what little company it could, Cai gives her the cold shoulder. He had promised Susan that he would take her to a book store to buy her an English book, but after buying train tickets, he abruptly changes his mind. When she brings this up, he won’t talk to her the whole train ride. When the a stewardess comes by offering lunch, he deliberately orders one.
Cai doesn’t improve from there. After a week of traveling, he tells her she needs to bathe because “women are dirty”, and has Susan bathe in a dirty bathroom, using the bowl and rag method. When she hesitates to wash herself with a rag above a squat toilet that serves as a haven for sewer rats, he decides she needs a lesson in how to bathe:
Cai squatted next to the basin and pantomimed splashing water upward onto his crotch. “Like this.” He glared at me while he continued his miming. “Chinese peasant women take baths like this.” And then he repeated, with a snarl, how women were dirty, especially in the summer.
It didn’t surprise me to learn that Cai was already divorced. We’re given his perspective on what happened, but the way he treats Susan helps you draw your conclusions. He has a daughter with his ex-wife. Susan encourages him to be part of her life, just as later when she encourages him to be part of her son’s life.
But some people just aren’t meant to be parents or spouses, just as some people aren’t meant to live abroad. From the forced bath, Cai and Susan visit America, live in China and finally move to America.
Cai has a hard time adjusting to life in a new place. He handles it about as well as you’d expect. A new job doesn’t help. Neither do new friends (with whom he spends more time than his wife and son), and then there’s the circumcision.
Per Jewish custom, Susan wants her son ceremonially circumcised:
“In the Jewish tradition, baby boys have a circumcision ceremony.” Careful not to preach, I explained the tradition and why Jewish people subscribe to it.
Either she didn’t fully explain it or her words went over Cai’s head. Regardless, Cai thought it was an innocuous tradition; he likes tradition and he doesn’t understand what circumcision entails until he hears his newborn son scream. Cai comforts the boy, the glimmers of sympathy fading as he leaves the boy in a car seat and stomps off to his room.
Numb, I continued to stand there and wonder if our cultural differences were greater than I could handle. … Was it China, or was I the one at fault?
Their marriage was built on an awful foundation, doomed to failure from the first kiss to Susan’s flight from San Francisco. But it’s important to separate individual behavior from culture influences. It’s not cultural differences that ended their marriage; it’s not cultural differences that made Cai give Susan an STD, nor was it the root of his insinuation that “women are dirty” and their trouble at conceiving must have been her fault. No, it’s the behavior of a child lost in a world of adults; someone who has no control over the events around him and never will.
There is a basic way people should treat each other, especially in a marriage. Cai wanted a doormat. Unfortunately, for the first few years of marriage, he got one. After Susan finally has enough, we have to wonder, What took you so long? Why didn’t you just leave him before?
If he divorced me, what would I tell my parents and my friends? It never crossed my mind to threaten Cai with divorce if he didn’t start treating me better. But even if I’d been stronger, I wouldn’t have given up after just three months of marriage. Surely everyone needed time to get used to living with another person.
I lived through two divorces growing up, so I’ve seen it firsthand: it’s not that easy. Not when you’re invested emotionally and perhaps financially in someone, not when there’s a child in your life. Babies often save marriages, and that’s rarely a good thing.
And in the end, we realize that’s it’s a difference not of culture, but rather, of character. Some people know how to treat others.
Others simply don’t.
Available at Amazon!