Reviews / December 2014 (Issue 26)

Love Gone Wrong: Susan Blumberg-Kason’s Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

by Karen Ma


Susan Blumberg-Kason, Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong, Sourcebooks, 2014. 352 pgs.


Reading Susan Blumberg-Kason's very intense and intimate memoir, Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong, is a bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion—the trip-ups in her intercultural marriage with a Chinese man are numerous, and things keep getting worse. Before you're a third of the way through the book, you know there's only one possible ending to the story.

When Susan, a shy, young Midwestern student attending graduate school in Hong Kong, meets a handsome Mainland Chinese man by the name of Cai on campus, she's awe-struck and believes him to be the man of her dreams. And when he proposes marriage shortly after they start dating, she immediately says yes. But things are not what they seem, and Susan soon realises Cai has a temper and is very controlling, not to mention the huge cultural gap and rural-urban divide that they're juggling. As much as Susan tries to save the marriage, hopping from Cai's hometown, the rural village of Hidden River in Hubei, to Hong Kong and later to San Francisco, she doesn't confront Cai or speak her mind. In the end, it's the fear that Cai may take their newborn son Jake to China for good that propels Susan to summon her courage and stand up for herself, Jake and their future.

In this very honest account—sometimes painfully so—of a marriage gone bad, Blumberg-Kason gives readers a view of the many places where her relationship went wrong. Even when young Susan and Cai start to date, there are warning signs, including when the two first discuss their future together. Cai makes it clear he doesn't want to move to the United States and doesn't see himself working in Hong Kong because of visa restrictions. Susan is keen for both of them to stay in relatively neutral Hong Kong. It is clear Cai is proposing a shared future in China, which would have been a good time for Susan to question the feasibility of this relationship, given her concern that life in rural China in the 1990s could be quite arduous. Instead of raising a red flag, however, she chooses to focus on Cai's marriage proposal, crowding out her initial reservations. "This was all moving so quickly for me," Blumberg-Kason writes. "And it seemed so impulsive. Yet I worried I would lose him if I turned him down."

On another occasion, when Cai invites Susan to Hidden River to meet with his parents, she finds there's no hot water or heating in the dilapidated house, and she needs to wear all her clothing to stay warm. Again, this should have been a warning of the huge gaps in wealth, expectation and culture that existed between her American urban background and his Chinese rural upbringing. Once again, however, a young Susan is too eager and fixated on the idea of marriage to notice.

In the ensuing chapters, Blumberg-Kason details how the combination of Cai's increasing misogyny—no doubt in part buoyed by her own demure demeanor towards him—his insensitivity to her needs and his own desperate struggle to fit into American society conspire to erode their marriage. Some of his unruly behaviours include calling Susan "dirty" in his freezing Chinese village apartment and forcing her to take a cold shower using a plastic tub; his infidelity and obsession with watching adult videos and his threats to hit their infant son when he won't stop crying.

What Blumberg-Kason doesn't offer in the book is some more in-depth reflection and explanation of what really went wrong in her cross-cultural marriage. In particular, she never answers the crucial question of what, in the end, fundamentally doomed the relationship—culture or irreconcilable differences between two individuals. Also unanswered is whether the marriage could have stood a better chance if the circumstances were different.

What if, for example, Cai had come from Beijing or Shanghai and not from a dusty village several hours from a third-tier Chinese city—a situation which no doubt would have significantly reduced the stress and conflict between the couple brought on by a yawning urban-rural gap. And what if Cai, or Susan, for that matter, visited each other's hometowns before agreeing to marriage, giving them both a better sense of what to expect, instead of rushing to the altar with little thought to how they might negotiate their differences? Likewise, what if, as Blumberg-Kason suggests at one point, the two had settled in the more neutral ground of Hong Kong instead of San Francisco, or if Cai had been more proactive in his US job search, instead of complaining incessantly about how depressed he was?

Then again, none of these factors may have mattered if the young Susan wasn't able to summon the courage to stand up to Cai and demand more of a voice in the marriage. After all, for any union to last, there must be a relatively even power-balance, or at least a willingness by both parties to accept the status quo. Either way, for a book attempting to offer insights on East-West cross-cultural relationships, this lack of a fuller, more meaningful analysis is a shortcoming.

Having said that, the book has its strengths. Blumberg-Kason does a good job highlighting aspects of Chinese culture that are not readily appreciated by many in the West. These include the huge cultural difference between Hong Kong and Mainland China, the fact that Hong Kong locals speak Cantonese, not Mandarin and the fact that the two languages, while not mutually intelligible, do have slightly different written scripts. (These cultural and linguistic differences are among the reasons why the people of Hong Kong claim a separate identity from the Mainland, and this continues to be a struggle even till today.) For a young Susan, these linguistic differences mean that she finds it easier to communicate with and date Cai, a Mandarin speaker, rather than with Hong Kong students, since she'd studied Mandarin at college. Still, one reason Cai and Susan enjoyed their time in Hong Kong better than Mainland China or the US was because the city in the 1990s was much wealthier and more advanced than China—a fact not fully understood by many outside of the region.

Even as Blumberg-Kason exposes Cai's many unflattering personal traits, she balances the narrative by detailing how much of a struggle her Chinese husband faces living in San Francisco. In so doing, she provides readers with a better understanding of what life is like for modern-day immigrants in what many believe to be the "land of opportunity." These include the efficiency of public transport, which pales for Cai compared with Hong Kong, and how the central heating in American apartments can be uncomfortable for a person used to living in unheated housing. These points reinforce the fact that there's no universal "better"—that what's good for you is not necessarily good for me—and that giving the other person some leeway is important in any cross-cultural relationship.

Perhaps the best part of the book is its deft portrayal of Chinese life and marriage in modern day China and what it was like to be a foreigner living in a Chinese village in the 1990s. Readers can almost feel the air and smell the food in Blumberg-Kasons' descriptions without having to step foot in China. For those who are looking to better understand the nuances of modern day Chinese life and delve a little deeper into the many subtleties of Chinese culture, The Good Chinese Wife will not disappoint.

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