Realise – a review and a commitment

I have written in recent weeks, about my three words for the year. That has surprised me a little, as I usually revisit them later in the year to take the pulse on how they are working. But this year, there has been an unexpected nudge to check in early in the year.

Perhaps there is a greater need than ever for me to be guided by my words, and this is why prompts have come my way. And a lunar eclipse is a pretty impressive prompt!

It is especially timely for me to talk about my third word, realise. And I need to muster a little courage for this.

I have been writing this in my hideaway in the Laos hills, in the space where I found peace, inspiration and healing over the New Year. We have a week of leave over the Thingyan Water Festival and New Year, in Myannar, and I knew that I needed an escape from the intensity of recent weeks and months, and from the watery mayhem which takes over much of the region. As soon as the medical checks were over and Dr W2 and his flowery Songkran shirt had given me welcome news, I moved to firm up arrangements for a break I eagerly sought back in the hills near Luang Prabang.

LP April 1

The perfect creative space.

LP April 2

This is a very special space, not for everyone. If you are seeking entertainment and sophistication, gala dinners and spectacle then this is probably not for you. Entertainment is largely self made – there are treks to nearby villages, waterfalls and hillsides, a swimming pool and surroundings which draw serious numbers of butterflies which need to be watched as they go about their butterfly work. There are games such as scrabble, and puzzles. The food menu does not span a large number of pages, but the food is fresh, delicious and the vegetables grown in the organisc farm which is part of the project. Here there is no television, but there is a small library with books in a number of languages. Here there are no selfie sticks and gadgets are rare. People chat instead of gazing into smartphones while their thumbs do aerobics. In fact there is not even any wifi here so it is truly disconnected from the buzz of the outside and online world. And I find that enormously refreshing.

LP April 3

This is a truly tranquil space, and I occupy my time by walking, swimming (the temperatures are much warmer now and the water welcoming), photographing butterflies, reading and writing. I have especially been writing, and writing in such an inspiring place, where the distractions are mainly in the form of butterflies.

And that is where realise comes in. I have promised to myself that I will deliver on my main writing project by the end of the year. This is where I need courage because if I share here what my plan is, then I have an additional responsibility to make it real and deliver.

So here goes. Deep breath………

I have alluded in passing to my writing goal. Publication of Dragonfruit last year was a major life achievement for me, in having some of my writing appear in a proper book. This has pushed me to take this a stage further and produce a book with my name on the front and that is what I have been working on in the Laos hills, in tea shops in Yangon and green and inspiring spaces such as Bago.

Now I want to share a little more detail as the work takes shape.

There are two key aspects to this memoir. Firstly, insights and accounts of life and work in the 2009/10 Myanmar when none of us had any inkling of the changes ahead are told through my first year there and accounts of ways of life which have evaporated and disappeared. And of course, the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer in this setting.

My aim is to produce a memoir of (a little over) my first year in Myanmar. It will span from June 2009 when we were waiting for our paperwork, through settling in Myanmar when things were very different, travelling extensively through the country in my first three months before being diagnosed with breast cancer. The work then charts the experience of single-breasted, bald, wheelchair-using, frequent flier commuting between Yangon and Bangkok for treatment, in an environment where I did not speak the language, and there were considerable practical, logistical and paperwork challenges. The memoir takes us through to November 2010 and my first visit to Bangkok following treatment which is not for medical reasons, as the world watches the Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi being released from house arrest following the first elections in two decades in Myanmar.

Back when I was diagnosed in October 2009, I don’t think that anyone had any idea of the changes ahead either personally or contextually. This is a combined account of a country facing unexpected and enormous change, and that of an individual woman facing an unexpected journey. In addition to sharing the detail of the disease and the treatment, this memoir will delve into the emotional and psychological facets of a cancer diagnosis and the unexpected elements – special friendships formed through a common cancer experience, the world of internet cancer and social media and its role in 21st century cancer yet in an environment which was closed and enigmatic to the outside world. A real example of tropical cancer, and in fact cancer in the unknown and mysterious Myanmar/Burma.

Living in Myanmar (Burma) and being treated in Bangkok provided a background ranging from the amusing – (such as trying to find a prosthesis when the market is focused on perky boobs which are perhaps more targeted for Thai Lady Boys, or a wig when the colour options are black or black making a chemo pale foreigner look like a Goth or aging rock star) – to the heart rending (being on the other side of the planet from family, the shock and disbelief upon hearing the cancer word), and to the bizarre (undergoing radiation therapy while Bangkok was on the international stage during the “Red Shirt” protests in May 2010) when Bangkok erupted in violence and flames which caused additional stress and uncertainty and added an unexpected perspective to those days.

I have a working title for the memoir, which needs a little refining before I can share, but here is a clue…

LP butterflies 1

The commitment I have made to myself to realise, is to produce a draft manuscript for the end of the year. To be a maor step forward in making this real. 

LP butterflies 2The Laos hills and their butterflies have provided a particularly inspirational space to take this forward considerably away from the distractions of the outside world.

Interview with Susan Blumberg-Kason – author of “Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong”

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.

Susan Blumberg-Kason

Susan Blumberg-Kason

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.

sbk 3My 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.

Susan and her mother in Kowloon (Hong Kong)

Susan and her mother in Kowloon (Hong Kong)

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.

Susan with her son, Jake, on State St
Susan with her son, Jake

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.

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I hope that you enjoy Good Chinese Wife as much as I did!

Life in the old blog yet!

Jack

There may have been some silence here on the blog, but that doesn’t reflect inactivity on the part of the gecko! There are a number of posts in the pipeline, some more written than others, but at least well formed in the head! There is plenty of life in the old blog, for sure!

So here is a quick preview of some upcoming posts with their teasingly enigmatic titles:

Is there a Doctor on board this flight?

Labyrinthine

Blog Tourist

Trains and transformation

and……………….

on Friday (29 August) I will feature an interview with a fellow contributor of How Does one dress to buy Dragonfruit – Susan Blumberg-Kason.  Susan’s memoir  Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong has just been published.  I am delighted to bring our conversation to this space, with insights and reflections into her experience and the writing of her memoir.

good Chinese wife

So there is a lot in the pipeline – stay tuned, as they say and find out what is behind the headlines!