In How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit, many of the accounts are written by “white” or “western” women married to or in a relationship with Asian Men – AMWF is the term coined, so I learned. I also discovered that there is a strong online community of AMWF people, keen to reach out to others in a similar situation. Realising that I am one of this AMWF number myself, a Scottish woman married to an Indian man of Nepali ethnicity, this was a dimension which I find very interesting.
I am very keenly aware of the challenges in relationships where there are deep differences. I understand the importance of understanding and respecting family values and dynamics which are very different to those we grew up around. I know how hard we work to fit in and be the wife or daughter –in-law that we are expected to be. I know how enriching and exciting it can be, a whole new world opening up to us and a precious and privileged insight into a very different culture and life. I know how tough it can also feel, when you come up against a belief or expectation that you don’t know about or understand.
So, I am delighted to bring you today, an interview with Susan Blumberg-Kason, one of the contributing writers in How Does one Dress to Buy Dragonfruit. Susan’s memoir is exactly about that very challenge. Susan is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong, a memoir of her five year marriage to a musician from central China and how she tried to adapt to Chinese family life as a wife, daughter-in-law and mother.
Good Chinese Wife was published one month ago, and is a very honest and open account of Susan’s marriage. Amazon describes the book as follows:
“A stunning memoir of an intercultural marriage gone wrong”
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.
Nowadays, She is also the books editor of Asian Jewish Life magazine and can be found online at www.susanbkason.com Remarried, Susan lives in suburban Chicago with her husband, three children and a clingy cat.
I was fortunate to be able to ask Susan about her memoir, her writing and her experience in the following interview.
FBG: I was fascinated by your writing process, and how you remembered such details when writing your memoir. You talk about this being a cathartic process which started when you were asked to document your marriage and the difficulties you had encountered. How did you develop this documentation into an eventual manuscript? What kind of process did you follow and how long did this take?
Susan Blumberg-Kason: It took six years from when I first started to write the manuscript until I held the book in my hands. For the first couple of years, I tried to find a literary agent with fifty pages of the manuscript and a proposal. That was how things used to be done. But somewhere along the way, the rules changed and agents could no longer sell first-time authors with just fifty pages. I’m sure it’s still done, but I think most agents prefer to shop a manuscript that’s complete and as ready to go as possible. So I completed the manuscript and about two more years of revisions and rewrites, I signed with my fabulous agent, Carrie Pestritto at Prospect Agency in New York. Carrie and I worked on more revisions for half a year. She sent my manuscript to editors at publishing houses and we met with rejections. The editors felt like I was holding back. So I rewrote the manuscript again and let it all out! After one more round and a few more revisions, Carried submitted it again to eight editors. We had a deal ten days later!
FBG: When you first met Cai, you talk about the very different way in which relationships work and expectations. A couple who date are expected to get married. Courtship is very short and commitment to the longer term is a given. Looking back to your whirlwind courtship how did the “rules” of courting and relationships differ from your expectations and experience as a young American woman? Now that you are remarried, did that experience influence or shape your later relationship?
Susan Blumberg-Kason: When Cai proposed, we thought we would get married eighteen months later. That didn’t happen and we were married in less than four months. It all happened so quickly—the decision was made at his parents’ home in China—that I thought I should be respectful of Cai’s culture. I placed more importance on doing what I thought was right (according to other people’s rules) than what people usually did in the US.
My experience and rushed marriage to Cai definitely affected my relationship with my new husband, Tom. We dated for a full year before I asked him where he saw our relationship. I was a single mother and if Tom had no interest in a future with us, I had to know. But he was in it for the long-term and proposed half a year later. We had talked about marriage before that, though. By the time Tom and I got married, we had been together for two and a half years. That’s pretty normal for Americans in their thirties.
FBG: You talk very openly about factors which contributed to the breakdown of the marriage and in particular the great cultural differences, and Cai’s own personality and depression. In addition to this, you were living in China in a time when the country was very different, before the economic prosperity which we see today and the affordability of possessions and access to communication and technology. What did you find particularly difficult to deal with, living in a very traditional setting back in the 90s? If you had both been born a decade later, how different do you think your experience might have been?
Susan Blumberg-Kason: The biggest difference between now and then is that I felt completely cut off from what was familiar. Besides written letters and prohibitively expensive phone calls, I had no other ways to stay in touch with friends in Hong Kong (where I was living when I met Cai) and friends and family back in the US. That’s not to say that expats in Asia have it easy today, because all the emails and Facebook messages won’t fix a relationship that’s already broken. I think my experience may have been different if it happened now because people in China are used to the huge changes that have take place there over the last decade and a half: the money, the material items, the modernity. Cai didn’t know what to think about the changes in China 15-20 years ago. Things were moving so quickly and no one knew what would happen with jobs, health benefits, and housing, all things provided by the state back when I met Cai. That was a huge source of his stress. He didn’t know where he belonged: China, Hong Kong, or overseas. I think he’s used to the changes in China now.
FBG: I know that there are perceptions that life in developed countries is one of privilege and friends and family can place very high expectations on a daughter in law from the “west”. Cai found that life in the west was in fact much more complicated and subtle than he had expected and expressed distress and disillusionment. As the years have passed, how has this changed?
Susan Blumberg-Kason: Cai moved back to China more than a decade ago, but stayed in the US long enough to acquire a US passport. This allows him to travel easily wherever he needs to go for work or for his wife’s job. In fact, he just phoned us from Denmark a couple days ago. He’s also at home in high-tech Shanghai. So I think he feels more comfortable at home and abroad.
FBG: Your son is now sixteen and you have always ensured that he maintained a relationship with his father. How have you managed this at such a distance and keeping contact with his grandparents in China? How is this changing now that he is gaining his independence?
Susan Blumberg-Kason: I have always encouraged a relationship with his father, no matter how intermittent that has turned out. Since we’ve divorced, Cai has visited every year or two. Now it’s been more than three years since his last visit, but he continues to Skype or FaceTime Jake every few weeks to months. It’s what we’re used to. Sadly, Jake hasn’t seen his grandparents since they left San Francisco many years ago. I used to send them photos and gave them my parents’ address written in English that they just needed to photocopy and paste onto an envelope. They sent one letter this way more than a decade ago. But there hasn’t been any contact from them since then. Sometimes when Cai is at their place, he Skypes Jake, but the grandparents don’t always come onto the line. I can’t force people to change.
FBG: Good Chinese Wife is a very open and frank memoir. What were your motivations for sharing such a level of personal detail? How do you plan to follow this and what are you working on now?
Susan Blumberg-Kason: It didn’t start out this open, but as I was trying to get it published, a tell-all was what agents and publishers seemed to want. So I decided I had to either open up or perhaps never publish the book. But the reason I was able to eventually be so open was that I knew I wasn’t the only one who has had a relationship like this. Everyone has different experiences, but bad relationships are a global phenomenon. I thought this book could help someone who has also excused bad behavior because she felt like she had to better understand cultural differences. Or perhaps someone has had in-law issues and feels hopeless. Or a parent is feeling wary about her child rushing into a marriage with someone he or she hasn’t known for very long. People might not change because of the book, but they will know they aren’t alone.
I’m working on another memoir set in Shanghai. It will include some scenes from Good Chinese Wife that I had to cut out due to space limitations. In the 1980s and 90s, I travelled to Shanghai a few times and later learned that tens of thousands of Jewish refugees lived there during WWII. Unbeknownst to me, I visited many of the landmarks in the Jewish community during the war. Added to that, a couple years ago I learned that my grandfather’s cousin was one of these refugees. My working title is Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, but I’m open to other ideas!
Thank you Susan, for sharing these insights and experience so candidly. These certainly enriched my reading of the memoir. Check Susan’s website for details about how to get your own copy.