About a year ago I first heard about a book called Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong, by Susan Blumberg-Kason. I saw Facebook posts about it, checked out the author’s blog and after reading the description on Amazon, I added it to my Wish List.
My Wish List is more like my To Be Read pile. It’s huge. Several months later as I was going through it, deciding which books to buy, I bought Good Chinese Wife.
All I knew about it was the description, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that she got married in Hubei province too; my wife is from Hubei. I saw a lot of familiar details in Good Chinese Wife, both from living in China and readjusting to life in the States, and Susan writes unflinchingly about her experiences.
Susan has a relationship with China that spans nearly two decades, and she was kind enough to answer some questions about her first trip to China, her recent visit, her relationship with her ex-husband and much more.
Could you describe your first trip to China?
Sure! I was seventeen and had just graduated high school. As chance would have it, one of my mother’s best friends was my English teacher that year. Mary had lived in Shanghai in 1980-81 and had been trying to bring a group of American students to China ever since she returned to the Chicago area. She finally got approval in 1988, which was the year I graduated high school.
Pictured: Susan (right) in Nanjing on her first trip to China in 1988.
We left in mid-June for sixteen days in Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuxi, and Shanghai. We were supposed to go to Hong Kong, too, but that would have made the trip prohibitively expensive. It was already $2000, which was a ton of money back then and thus made it difficult to find enough students to make the trip work. We ended up having nine adults and six students. Fortunately, I had saved $2000 from babysitting over seven years.
What impressions did you have about China prior to going there? Anything proven right? Proven wrong?
I had studied China during my sophomore year of high school and it seemed pretty utopic. Mao was still viewed as having done more good than harm. We learned that men and women were equal, people all made the same salary, and the environment was decent because there were few cars and most people rode bicycles everywhere. Back then, the only airline to fly from the US to China was CAAC. It didn’t have the best reputation, so we flew Canadian Pacific (now Air Canada) via Toronto and Vancouver to Beijing. I can still picture peering down at the green fields and dusty runways as we landed in Beijing. Apart from an old Soviet hotel there, we stayed in college and university dormitories in the other cities and were able to meet quite a few students. They were curious about the US, but seemed very happy in China. We ballroom-danced with the students and talked in the dorms’ common rooms. It seemed like men and women were equal and that people were fine with making the same salary. No one spoke badly about Mao or the Party. This was a year before Tiananmen and people seemed pretty content.
China was everything I had imagined and more. I went home and thought people there enjoyed life more than we did in the US.
You first went right before Tiananmen Square. When you returned after the protests, did you feel like China was a drastically changed place?
The next time I visited China was two years after Tiananmen. The atmosphere there was gloomier. I stayed in Nanjing with the tour guide from my first trip and still remember how difficult it was to call them from Hong Kong. I couldn’t use just any phone, but had to find a professor on my Hong Kong campus that had a phone that would connect to China. And when I called my tour guide in Nanjing, I had to dial an operator in China first, who didn’t speak any English. I had a year and a half of Mandarin by then and knew numbers and could understand when the operator repeated the numbers back to me.
Once in Nanjing, I stayed with Mr. Chen, his wife, and daughter in their small apartment. They also brought me to the countryside and to a smaller town to visit relatives over the New Year. On my first day, they took me to the public security bureau. If their neighbors saw a foreigner in their building and I wasn’t registered with public security, my friends could have gotten into trouble.
The students I met in Nanjing were all very nice and friendly, but there wasn’t that idealism and hope I’d seen in the students from 1988. In the 1990s when I went to China, most of the young people I met asked me to help them get out. In 1991, my dad and I spent an afternoon in Shanghai going to the US Consulate to talk to the visa officers about a friend’s cousin whose visa was denied. My parents also helped a young man in my first husband’s hometown to study in Chicago.
A couple months ago, you returned to the mainland for the first time in almost twenty years. What were your feelings leading up to the trip?
I had stayed away from Hong Kong for fourteen years after I left in 1998 and for a long time thought I would never go back because I wanted to keep my impressions in tact from my years of living there.
I had the same thoughts about China. I had spent quite a bit time there from 1988 to 1998 and I knew it had changed beyond recognition in many places. I wanted to remember the old times and thought that would all be erased if I went back. I can be very stubborn and sentimental sometimes! But when I learned about the World Congress on Art Deco that was to be held in Shanghai this past November, I thought that would be a perfect way to return! I would be surrounded by old buildings and would be learning about the past.
Twenty years later things have come full circle. Susan in Shanghai. November, 2015
I went with my mom and her friend Mary, my high school English teacher who took me to China the first time back in 1988.
It goes without saying that there were changes. Did it stand out to you, how much has changed?
Shanghai has changed beyond recognition in many places, but because I spent 90% of my week there with the World Congress on Art Deco, I was fortunate to see some of the old buildings I knew from my earlier trips there. We stayed at the Peace Hotel, which was beautiful. I had been there twenty years ago, but it was a dump back then. So that change was something very positive.
Pudong was still under construction when I was last in Shanghai twenty years ago, and it’s nice to look at across the river, but I didn’t go to that area this time except when I traveled by taxi from the airport. Nanjing Road was ritzier this time around and it was fun to be a part of the crowds. Shanghai was always more developed than other Chinese cities back in the late 80s and the 90s, so I don’t think I really got to see the real changes in China since I didn’t go anywhere else on the mainland this time apart from Shanghai.
On my last trip, I went back to Wuhan University, where I used to work. The experience was bittersweet. On one hand, I felt at home. On the other, all my students have graduated. No one knows me, and I know I have left that life behind forever. Did you have a similar feeling, either on your return trip to China or your trips to Hong Kong?
I’m sure if I went back to Wuhan, I would feel the same way! I can’t imagine how much that has changed and I know that people I once knew at the Wuhan Conservatory of Music would probably be gone and no one would remember me there now.
Hong Kong is different because I’m in touch with most of the local friends I made 20-25 years ago. And I have lots of expat friends there, so whenever I go back I usually see 15-20 friends over a span of 3-4 days. And in Shanghai, I met up with a friend I knew in Hong Kong two decades ago. We hadn’t seen each other since 1995 or 1996. The wildest part of my Shanghai trip was sitting at a dinner one evening and talking to a woman at my table about our time in Hong Kong and China. It turned out we were friends 25 years ago and didn’t know it until we exchanged cards!
Changing the topic, when I read Good Chinese Wife, I didn’t know anything about it other than the basic plot. I hadn’t read a single review. I was pleasantly surprised to see that you also got married in a small Hubei town. Do you think you might return to Hidden River one day?
I never thought I would before I returned to China this fall. It seemed like that was from another lifetime. But this trip went really well, and I get along very well with my ex-husband and his new wife. So it wouldn’t be out of the question for me to go to Hidden River sometime with my son Jake. He hasn’t been to China yet, but is planning on it either this summer or in a few years when he’s in college. So that’s not out of the question. I would like to show Jake Hong Kong, too!
Do you think living in a small Chinese town has advantages over living in a big city? For instance, the foreign teacher recruiter at my first school sold us Wuhan as a “real Chinese city”. Do you agree that the less developed areas represent some kind of tourist-backpacker Shangri-La that is “real China”?
Definitely! I think you get to see a part of China that’s not prevalent in the mega-cities. In Hidden River, people stopped me on the street to talk or stared at me while I purchased fruit or something small like stamps or camera batteries. That happened in the large cities, too, but there was more curiosity in the smaller ones. I didn’t always like that, but it was something that always happened in the smaller cities and towns. I think it’s kind of the same with Hong Kong. Visitors can stay in Central, which is the main financial district, and never venture beyond the familiar. But are they really seeing the real Hong Kong? I don’t think so!
You’ve spent time in Hong Kong and the mainland. What stereotypes (if any) have you seen Hong Kong people express about mainlanders? Would you say they overall have a positive view of the mainland? Do they see their identity as distinct from the mainland?
I think people in Hong Kong are more upset with their government when it makes laws that whittle away at the Basic Law than with mainlanders.
Susan in Hong Kong. 1996
When I lived in Hong Kong and studied political science, it seemed like most Hong Kong people didn’t really pay attention to politics. That has all changed since the Handover and people are now very much in tune with political affairs there. The Occupy movement is a good example. That would never have happened when I lived in Hong Kong. So I think because they speak out so much now, they might come across as critical of mainlanders. But I still think it’s mostly focused on the governments in Hong Kong and in China. There are some cases where Hong Kong people have focused their frustration against mainlanders. This is directed against daytrippers, or crowds of mainland shoppers that go into Hong Kong for a day to shop. But I think the real frustration is with the government that allows daytripping. (It has subsided in recent months and I didn’t see a ton of it when I was in Hong Kong in October and November.) Some people in Hong Kong post videos of mainlanders behaving badly in Hong Kong, but those cases are still pretty rare. When I go out with local friends in Hong Kong, they rarely, if ever, talk about mainlanders when we discuss local issues.
In Good Chinese Wife, your ex-husband complains that life in America is too boring compared to life in China. When you returned, did you feel that your life as missing a certain excitement that comes with living abroad? How did you cope?
It took ten years to get over my reverse culture shock! I had to be strong for Cai because he had such a difficult time with culture shock in the US, but it was hard on me, too. I think moving to a place like San Francisco helped because we could still live in a Chinese community, buy Chinese produce, and somewhat easily make friends who were from China or who had lived there or in Hong Kong.
Once I moved back to Chicago, I sought the same things: a home near a Chinese community, a place where my son could learn Mandarin, and Chinese movies and other cultural events. I’m trying to write a new memoir about raising my kids with Chinese culture. I think it’s important for my son Jake to know about his Chinese background. I have two small kids with my new husband and want them to know about their older brother’s culture, too.
Your ex-husband did not treat you kindly at times. Yet you stayed in the relationship. Why do you think people try to make abusive relationships work?
Abusive relationships are tricky because they are not horrible all the time. There’s a cycle of good treatment and bad treatment, so the person on the other end never knows when one or the other will happen. And there’s always a hope that if we just act a certain way, the treatment will turn good all the time and the bad treatment will go away. It never gets better, but that’s difficult to see when you’re in the middle of it. When children are involved, I think people feel they have to try to make it work for the sake of the children. I did that for a couple of years, but ultimately felt that Jake would be better off with one strong parent than with two parents who didn’t get along.
Have you had any contact with Cai’s parents since the divorce?
Not much. We’ve had a few Skype calls and I’ve sent them photo albums of Jake. I gave them my parents’ address in Chicago once many years ago so they could write to Jake and just stick the address on the envelope, but they only did that once. When Cai visits every 2-3 years, he takes videos of Jake and lots of photos to show his parents. It’s not ideal, but Jake will probably go to see them in the next few years.
You and Cai divorced when your son was little. Did you ever have a moment where you felt like you’d made a mistake and that you should give Cai another chance?
At first I did all the time. That was during the first six months after we split up. As contentious as our marriage was, as soon as I left him, he went back to being the nice, agreeable person I met twenty years ago. So it was hard to reconcile that with the person I was married to. But I’ve never felt that I’ve made a mistake. Cai and I are very happy in our new marriages and we can be better parents to Jake this way. Jake is now seventeen and is well-adjusted, happy, confident, and is a good student. I wouldn’t have been able to give him a calm home environment if I had stayed in that marriage.
Do you feel you’re a better person for having gone through that?
Yes. It’s made me a much stronger person and has given me courage to speak up when people around me are mistreated. I’m taking on my school district to get them to open up to other cultures. I also stood up against bullying at my son’s old middle school some years ago. In most of these cases, I’m speaking up for people who feel they cannot stand up. In some cultures, it’s not the custom to speak up. But that doesn’t mean people don’t want to be acknowledged and appreciated. And when kids are involved, they need adults to stand up for them. I think my experiences in China and Hong Kong have given me the strength and courage to do that.
In closing, is there anything you’d like to talk about that I didn’t cover above?
I think that’s it! Thank you so much for interviewing me. Your questions are different from many of the others I’ve answered in previous interviews, so it’s been great fun!
Big thanks to Susan for doing this interview. To learn more about Susan, check out her blog. You can also follow her on Twitter.
Her amazing memoir, Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong, is available at Amazon. You can read my full review here.