3 & 30

I was twelve when my mother turned thirty.

We went to O’Charley’s for her birthday dinner. I had the same thing I always got back then: chicken tenders with extra honey mustard. Someone in our dysfunctional entourage told the hostess it was my mother’s birthday, and at the end of dinner all the waiters and waitresses came marching up with a small cake, clapping and singing Happy Birthday. My mother’s face turned red.

Get ready for the slide, my grandfather told her, making downhill motions with his hand. My mother believed him, back then, in 1998.

Right side of thirty, wrong side, what do they use nowadays, as a measure of terminated youth? But numbers don’t matter; events do.

Whether you like it or not, your youth ends the day your children are born. The downcycle of your life begins and no song is sweeter.

…their replacement. The day was coming (sooner than either of them realized or wanted to admit) when Julia would be a grown woman and both of them would be old, on the wrong wrong side of thirty, what hisgrandfather had called the top of the slide. How Julia acted, what she did, it all depended on how they raised her. Like it or not, the moment your child is born, the downcycle of your life begins, whether you’re high school sweethearts or early thirties professionals.

good-chinese-wife-cover

Book Review: Good Chinese Wife, by Susan Blumberg-Kason

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.

The Review:

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!

A small sample from my new book

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From my new book, The Pale Ancient & the House of Mirrors:

I run down a short hall. There are chalk drawings on the walls, lines, shapes of some kind, and when I step into a massive room of mirrors I see that they’re not shapes but a maze.

Mirrors face each other on top of the walls, on the ceiling, new mirrors that shine and ancient mirrors that are centuries-worn and eggshell-cracked, a legion that reflects nothing but takes everything.

For more on The Pale Ancient & the House of Mirrors, including its real-life inspiration, check out my interview at Ray Hecht’s blog.

Interviewed by Ray Hecht

Author Ray Hecht has interviewed me over on his blog, where I reveal the inspiration behind my new book: odd messages posted all over a small Chinese town:

But once I noticed one message, I noticed all of them; they were all over the place, mysterious, perhaps sinister. And not all these messages were new. Some were barely readable while others looked like they’d been posted yesterday. Someone had been doing this for years. Why?

and in addition to that, we also discuss my life in China and my new book, The Pale Ancient & the House of Mirrors. Read the rest here!

He has written several books, available here. I also did a review of his book, Ghost of the Lotus Mountain Brothel.