Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong

by Susan Blumberg-Kason


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

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781402293344
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 07/29/2014
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Susan Blumberg-Kason is a freelance journalist in Chicago. As a child growing up in suburban Chicago, she dreamed of traveling to China and the then-British colony of Hong Kong. She went on to study Mandarin and complete a master's degree in political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Susan now lives in the Chicago area with her husband, three kids, and a surly cat. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Sun Times, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, and Chicago Parent magazine. She blogs at about travel, books, and teaching her kids about Chinese culture. You can also follow her on Twitter at Susan_BK, on Facebook at Susan Blumberg-Kason, and on Instagram at susanbkason.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

A Chance Meeting in Hong Kong

The Chinese University of Hong Kong sits atop a mountain, north of Hong Kong Island and twenty minutes south of the mainland China border. When I arrived on campus in 1990 for a college exchange year, I had imagined Hong Kong would be a city of skyscrapers and neon. But the only lights around the campus came from the occasional barge or leisure boat in otherwise quiet Tolo Harbour. On the weekends, the campus was almost deserted. Local students returned home to their families, and the few overseas students studying abroad left for the bustling expat areas of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.

Upon my return for graduate school years later, new residential skyscrapers had popped up across the harbor. The campus was beginning to look like what I'd first imagined. But the most significant change on campus was that the mainland Chinese population had blossomed from a handful of people to about two hundred graduate students. I was fascinated by these newcomers and their alluringly mysterious culture, so utterly different from my own.

On one of those still-quiet Saturday nights, a month after I started graduate school, I locked myself out of my dorm room. I was on my way to call a friend, using the hall phone around the corner, and as soon as I closed my door, I knew I had left my key on my desk. My roommate, Na Wei, hailed from Harbin in northeast China, but she slept in her boyfriend's single room most nights and only returned to our room during the day when she needed a change of clothes or a short nap. So no luck there.

Then it hit me. The guard downstairs kept spare keys. I could borrow one from him.

My stomach fell when the elevator opened on the ground floor. The lobby was empty. I inched over to the guard's desk to read a tattered white sign perched upon it. Although I couldn't speak the local Cantonese dialect, I had studied Mandarin, the official language in mainland China. With five years of Mandarin behind me, I could almost make out the meaning of the Chinese characters on the sign: if, need, something, and return. But one character came up as a blank. If you need something, I will return blank.

If only I could read the one character describing when the guard would return. I usually got around Hong Kong without having to resort to my little, red Chinese-English dictionary. Now, the one time I needed it, it was locked away in my room, not far from my coveted key.

I decided to take a seat on a vinyl bench near the front door in case someone came by who could translate that mysterious character. Worst case, I would have to stay up all night until the daytime guard arrived.

And that would indeed be the worst case for me. Other than on long international flights, I had never pulled an all-nighter. I was the type of college student who worked ahead to avoid cramming all night before exams or writing a paper the night before its deadline. Thinking about the daunting prospect of a lobby all-nighter, I looked up, startled, as two men and a woman suddenly entered the building.

Cai immediately caught my attention. Like a movie star, he stood six feet tall with confident eyes and an infectious smile. His hair was cut in the popular Hong Kong men's wedge of the early 1990s-longish on top, tapering down to almost a crew cut a few inches above the neck. He carried himself with the self-assurance of someone used to drawing admiring glances. He looked striking in his stylish brown corduroy pants, short-sleeved shirt, and hunting vest, but I couldn't place his nationality. Based on his more sophisticated appearance, I figured he was from Taiwan, or maybe an overseas Chinese from Japan or another developed country.

His friends, however, weren't so hard to identify. The shorter man wore an olive business suit with the white label still stitched to the cuff, and the woman was dressed in a long, striped polyester skirt and a mismatched floral blouse. Definitely mainland Chinese.

On my first trip to China in 1988 with a group from high school, I had noticed this eclectic fashion trend. Up until the late 1970s, fashion in China consisted of simple "peasant pajamas" or "Mao suits." In the years after the Chairman's death, people started to experiment with colors and patterns, including bright stripes and flowers. So this distinct mainlander fashion was easy to recognize in stylish Hong Kong.

Once Cai's friends turned toward the elevator, I knew I had to act quickly before he left the lobby and I had to face my all-nighter again. "Excuse me, can you read this sign?" I hurried after Cai, speaking in English. No answer. Oh God, what if he only knows Cantonese? I thought. But I was determined not to sit on that bench all night, so I repeated my question in Mandarin as I felt a pearl of sweat trickle down my neck.

Cai glanced at the sign and said nonchalantly in Mandarin, "T? jiù mashàng huílái." He will be back soon. His Mandarin was clear and articulate, without the slurring of the northern Chinese accents.

"Oh, thank goodness! I locked myself out and need a key," I explained to this attractive, well-spoken stranger, stumbling in choppy Mandarin. The relief I felt, knowing that I wouldn't have to camp out in the dorm lobby all night, seemed insignificant compared with my sudden desire to know everything about him. I needed to find a way to prolong our conversation.

"Méi wèntí." Don't worry. He nodded slightly, as if locking oneself out happened all the time. "Actually, I need to buy a phone card from the guard." He went to sit on the bench I had just occupied. I couldn't believe my luck.

Without speaking, I joined him, leaving a full arm's length between us. Although I wanted to sit closer to Cai, I knew from my junior year in Hong Kong and the few times I'd visited mainland China that people in Asia often viewed Western women as loud and loose.

Up until three weeks earlier, I wouldn't have allowed the silly stereotype to cause me any worry. But I had jumped into two consecutive flings with men on campus soon after I moved into the dorm. Now seated next to Cai, I felt sensitive and ashamed that I'd allowed myself to become intimate with people I had no intention of dating seriously.

Doing something like that was so out of character for me. In high school, I didn't date at all. When I moved to Baltimore to attend Goucher College, a few guys asked me out for first dates, but there were never follow-up phone calls. I wasn't too bothered because the feeling was mutual. Conversation with them seemed forced, and our common interests were minimal.

Finally, eighteen months before I returned to Hong Kong for graduate school, I decided I wanted a serious boyfriend. After college, I had found a job in an academic library in Washington, DC. I immediately enrolled in a Mandarin course at the university and became friendly with a Japanese student named Jin. A couple of months into the semester-his last-Jin asked for my number. He wondered if I'd like to join him for dinner one Saturday night during midterms. I wasn't interested in him romantically but didn't think any harm would come of it.

On the evening of our dinner, Jin met me at the library and led me several blocks to his apartment, a low-rise on a side street covered with fallen ginkgo leaves. From afar, the ground appeared to have a light coating of snow. Inside, we spoke about travel, music, and art while he cooked Chinese food and poured me a glass of wine. It was the first time I felt comfortable talking to a man my age. Jin didn't hug or kiss me that night. When I left his place by cab after dinner, I wished he had.

With limited dating experience, I didn't want to tell him that I was starting to have feelings for him for fear of scaring him off. But I had enough chutzpah to phone him most evenings. We would talk for hours about identity, stereotypes, movies, books, travel, and whatever else was on his mind that day. I mainly listened. During those phone conversations, he never mentioned keeping in touch after he left Washington at the end of the semester. So I finally decided to find out what he was feeling.

Our last Chinese class concluded in mid-December. Jin walked me back to the library, like he did after each class. As we started to cross Massachusetts Avenue, I laced my fingers just above his elbow. Keeping my eyes on the ground in front of us, I could feel his arm tense up. Suddenly he tore away from me and raced across the street. Stunned, I froze in utter shame. Had I completely misjudged Jin?

This part of DuPont Circle was full of students I knew from the library, so I continued across the street and didn't dare look around to see who had just witnessed my most humiliating and foolish moment. The walk back to work seemed like miles, although the library was only halfway down the street.

The following afternoon when Jin arrived at the library and settled into a carrel near the circulation desk, I hid among the reserve shelves. But there was only one exit, so I couldn't avoid him when my shift finished an hour later. As I made my way to the elevator, Jin followed me in silence. I prayed that other people would leave the library at the same time, but no one else budged. On the ride to the ground floor, he tried to apologize-complete with the cliché, "It's not you, it's me"-and said he would call. Shaking my head, I didn't want to talk about it. I couldn't stop replaying his mad dash across the street.

I called Jin days later when I did feel like talking. All he said about us was that it would never work out. My shame still raw, I didn't ask him to elaborate. But I mulled it over. Was I too common for his upper-crust family, or was it because I wasn't Japanese? Or did he just not like me that way?

We kept in touch over the phone after he moved, and although the hurt from that December day was still fresh, I hadn't thought there would be any harm in maintaining a connection to him. But eventually, I realized my self-esteem had suffered so much that I severed ties with him and vowed to never put myself in that position again.

Ever since my junior year in Hong Kong, I'd been pining to return there, not as a tourist but as an expat. So after the fiasco with Jin, I decided to leave America for Hong Kong, a place I knew and loved. A place where I felt more accepted and comfortable, and where I better understood the customs than I did Jin's Japanese culture.

I wouldn't admit it at the time, but I also needed proof that I was attractive and desirable. So without ever having experienced a rebound relationship, I jumped into consecutive flings with the first two men I met on campus in Hong Kong. Guo was a PhD student from mainland China who stated up front that he wasn't interested in a relationship, but was rather curious about being with a Western woman.

I convinced myself that if a man could want that, there was nothing wrong with a woman wanting the same. I had never been intimate with anyone before Guo. Unlike most students in the dorm, he had a single room, so we had more privacy than most. At first Guo was charming and spoke about his work back in China. "I'm a poet, a playwright," he crooned as I sat in his lap on his solitary desk chair.

But after our friendship was no longer platonic, I noticed that he bridled the next time I knocked on his door, as if he was impatient for me to leave. I could feel my self-esteem slipping to where it had fallen in Washington, DC. When Guo came to see me the following week, I turned him away, explaining that I needed a committed relationship. Later when we passed each other in the dorm lobby or in the cafeterias, I nodded as I would to any casual acquaintance.

The second fling involved a local Cantonese lifeguard at the university pool where I swam laps most mornings. A week after I'd ended things with Guo, the lifeguard, Yeung, crouched near the edge of the pool as I completed a lap, motioning with his hand for me to stop. I took in his mirrored sunglasses, silky straight hair, and skin darkened from months in the sun. When he asked me out to dinner that night, I agreed without hesitation.

Space is tight in Hong Kong, and like many unmarried adults, Yeung still lived at home. He couldn't bear to tell his mother that he was seeing a foreigner, so for the next couple of weeks, we could meet only when he found time to sneak away. On his day off, he would drive me around the verdant mountains of the New Territories or to the secluded park at the nearby racetrack, where we would stroll, holding hands, our fingers entwined.

Yeung carried keys to the lifeguard hut behind the pool, so we mostly met late at night after his mother had fallen asleep. We would hole up in there until six in the morning, before the campus came to life and we could still return to our respective homes unnoticed.

Those nights with Yeung constituted the bulk of my "Cantonese lessons," meaning I learned almost nothing. Despite having no common mother language, we managed to communicate with bits of Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. After a few weeks, I panicked: I liked him but wasn't in love. And to be honest, I couldn't picture taking him home to my parents. Although they were open-minded about most things, I knew they would worry about the disparity in our education.

Since this was my first semblance of a relationship, I didn't know how to break it off. But I couldn't hurt him the way Jin had disgraced me in Washington. So I started to feign deadlines on papers and exams. By the time I met Cai, I had stopped seeing Yeung late at night.

• • •

With these experiences still fresh in my mind, I was determined not to develop a reputation for being an easy American, especially with Cai. When he looked away from me, I stole a quick glance at his face. I couldn't tell his age, but the crow's feet sprouting from the outer corners of his eyes indicated he was older than my twenty-four years. I marveled at his composure in this heat-not a drop of sweat or a hair out of place.

As for me, the humidity wreaked havoc on my frizzy hair, the same hair kids in school teased me about back home in Evanston, Illinois. A tight rubber band couldn't contain my rebellious curls now that I had grown them longer. I wiped the beads of sweat from my forehead and longed for a cool shower, even in my mildew-ridden bathroom upstairs.

As we waited in silence, I wondered whom he would need to call at such an hour. Someone who lived overseas where the sun was still up? Maybe he was like many of the mainland students and had a spouse back home. Resolved to act natural around Cai, I focused on a stream of ants crossing the worn linoleum floor as I tried to think of something to start a conversation. Before I could, the sound of footsteps broke the lobby's heavy stillness. The guard had arrived.

Cai and I sprang from the bench as if on cue and followed the older man to his desk. I thanked the guard in Cantonese (one of the few words I knew in that dialect) as he handed me a replacement key. It felt cool and soothing in my hand. But Cai wasn't so lucky. The guard didn't sell phone cards.

I still knew nothing about Cai but cringed at the thought of seeing him walk away without an introduction or a casual "See you soon." Anything so I could find out more about this attractive, enigmatic man. Then I thought of something. I offered to lend him my calling card.

He smiled gratefully but shook his head. "I can just call tomorrow. It's okay."

"Really, it's no problem." I knew I was taking a risk, trusting a complete stranger with what was essentially a credit card. In America, I never would have lent my calling card to someone I didn't know. But I was lonely and had an inexplicable and irrepressible desire to get to know him-to forge some sort of connection, even if it was just neighborly. Cai clearly lived in the same building, and it would be easy to locate him once I received my phone bill. That way I might be able to find out if he was married or had a girlfriend.

"Are you sure?"

I nodded and noticed Cai reaching for his wallet to pay me.

"Don't worry about that now," I said. "I won't know how much it costs until I get the bill."

As we waited for the elevator, he opened his wallet and handed me his business card. I was thrilled. The purple and gold embossed printing read Cai Jun, PhD candidate, Department of Music. (Men in China are often called by their family names, which is what we could call a last name. In China, family names come first.)

"Ni cóng nali lái de?" I still knew very little about him, including where he came from, so I boldly asked him.

"Zh?ngguó, Wuhàn," he answered.

He was from China after all. That surprised me because Cai Jun didn't match what I thought of as someone from Wuhan, an industrial city in the center of the country, somewhat like Chicago, near where I came from. As we continued chatting more and more enthusiastically both on the elevator and after he gave me his card, I wondered if maybe this was what the Chinese like to call yuánfèn. Fate had brought two people from the middle of their countries together in a third setting.

Back on my floor, I called my friend Janice from the hall phone. We had become close after Jin left Washington and I realized I hadn't made many friends apart from a few coworkers at the library. Janice and I bonded when we confided in each other one night at happy hour that we both aspired to uproot to Hong Kong. Shortly before I started graduate school, she moved into her relatives' rent-free, sixth-story walk-up in congested Kowloon City and obtained her work visa through a job at her uncle's textile company.

"Susan, you're crazy. You don't even know this guy. He's going to give your access number to everyone in China. You know how my parents lecture me about crossing the border only after I've removed all my gold jewelry. Mainlanders will steal anything."

I could picture her taking a drag on a cigarette and trying to keep cool next to the only fan in her sparsely furnished living room with its original heavy 1960s curtains. Shifting the phone from one ear to the other, I shrugged off Janice's warning. Her parents had emigrated from Taiwan and were wary of everything mainland Chinese. I appreciated where they were coming from, but surely that didn't apply to me.

Without warning, the elevator door opened. Out stepped Cai.

"Can you hang on a second? It's him," I hissed. I felt blood rush to my face as I held the receiver away from my ear.

Cai shrugged as he handed back my card. He had removed his vest back in his room and now wore indoor plastic sandals. "I didn't use it. My English is not very good."

"It's hard to understand those phone operators anyway." I tried to sound lighthearted. Remembering the easy, sleazy reputation of Western women, I remained on the phone with Janice so I wouldn't appear overly eager to talk with him. Now that we had made this first connection, I felt confident that I would run into him in the dorm and around campus, and perhaps we could become friends. Cai stepped back into the elevator and waved good-bye.

"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."

Table of Contents

Author's Note viii

Prologue ix

Chapter 1 A Chance Meeting in Hong Kong 3

Chapter 2 An Introduction to Chinese Culture 13

Chapter 3 Entering a Chinese Fairy Tale 17

Chapter 4 Learning the Chinese Rules of Dating 27

Chapter 5 Sharing Secrets 33

Chapter 6 "China Is My Home" 39

Chapter 7 Chinese New Year in Hidden River 43

Chapter 8 A Hong Kong Wedding 55

Chapter 9 Honeymoon in Hong Kong 61

Chapter 10 Summer Vacation in Hidden River 67

Chapter 11 Sojourn in Shanghai 73

Chapter 12 The Train to Suzhou 81

Chapter 13 A Chinese Wedding Banquet 93

Chapter 14 Visit from "Japanese Father" 99

Chapter 15 Women Are Dirty 109

Chapter 16 The Foreign Stepmother 117

Chapter 17 America, My Exotic Home 121

Chapter 18 Another Chinese New Year in Hidden River 133

Chapter 19 The Mysterious Yoshimoto 139

Chapter 20 At Home in Hong Kong 147

Chapter 21 Red Alert! 159

Chapter 22 A Chinese Conception 167

Chapter 23 Spring in San Francisco 171

Chapter 24 A Surprise Guest 175

Chapter 25 A Good Chinese Wife 181

Chapter 26 The Ex-Wife 185

Chapter 27 Quiet in Kowloon 191

Chapter 28 Settling into San Francisco 197

Chapter 29 At Home in America 207

Chapter 30 The New Arrival 211

Chapter 31 The Neighbors 217

Chapter 32 Trying Traditions 227

Chapter 33 A Parental Invasion 231

Chapter 34 Battling the Tiger Mother 235

Chapter 35 A Letter from Yoshimoto 245

Chapter 36 "Why Do You Need Mother's Day?" 249

Chapter 37 Peace at Last 253

Chapter 38 To Day Care or Not to Day Care? 257

Chapter 39 Indian Summer 265

Chapter 40 The Plan 269

Chapter 41 A Storm Is Brewing 277

Chapter 42 A "Casual" Visit to China 285

Chapter 43 Now or Never 291

Chapter 44 Planning to Leave 305

Chapter 45 The Morning of Departure 309

Chapter 49 Delayed in San Francisco 315

Chapter 47 Sweet Home Chicago 321

Epilogue 329

Acknowledgments 339

About the Author 341

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Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
BebeBright More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating story of how cultural differences can make for a bumpy marriage. The author is a great storyteller and I kept wanting to turn the pages to learn more about these vastly different people. There are heartbreaking moments, nerve-racking moments and enlightening moments where you learn a good deal about Chinese culture. I applaud this author for writing this honest and heartfelt story and for her incredible courage. Its a true page turner. 
Kate677 More than 1 year ago
This was a beautifully written book which told the story of a young girls life from being a post graduate student studying in Hong Kong to being a mother who leaves her marriage because her Chinese husband isn’t being supportive, which is why I would give it 5 stars & recommend it to other people. It was a fascinating book because it enabled you to learn about Chinese culture and beliefs and how they can sometimes not mesh very  well with western beliefs and customs. Although even taking that into account Cai did do so really nasty things even to their baby son, including threatening to send him back to China for his mother to raise him. I also loved how Susan finally made the decision to Leave Cai finally when she got some legal advice about what would happen if Jacob was taken back to China against her wishes and found out that she likely wouldn’t be able to get him back. It was fantastic to see the light to ignite in her and made her make the decision to not to just leave Cai but to leave him that weekend, along with her son and with her mothers help to do it. It was also very interesting to see how Cai reacted to the letter and the fact that Susan had left him because rather than getting really angry and detached as he usually would have done he actually was really upset, & heartbroken. But then following her leaving and their Divorce he rarely saw their son, no more than twice a year. However that was still more regular than how often he saw his daughter from his first Marriage. I loved the fact that a chance meeting between two young people at University led to a marriage and the birth of a much wanted child, then to a separation and divorce.
DebSimon More than 1 year ago
In need of of serious slash and burn editing. Lacks much substance regarding Chinese culture as title suggests, in fact more than half of the book takes place in the US. Reads like a souped up diary of a forlorn woman with poor self esteem and a serious case of denial who allowed herself to used by mostly absentee husband. It dragged along for 275 pages until reaching a very brief crest of any interest, then returned to a bore for the remainder of the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An abusive husband if that culture supports an abusive husband one usually knows before marriage. It would take a very naive international student to think otherwise. abusive husbands are not unique in any culture and getting away from them difficult not the first by anymeans