When I was approached to write a review about Susan Blumberg-Kason’s memoir about her failed marriage to a Chinese man, ‘Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong‘, I was a little scared. Would reading about someone else’s marital struggles expose flaws in my own marriage? Would it be too confronting and close to home?
Yet I accepted the challenge, and I am glad I did because the account of Susan’s ill-fated marriage was an absorbing read. Perhaps it reveals voyeuristic tendencies in me, but I always find it fascinating to read about how other people live, and how they deal with conflict and the same sorts of communication and parenting issues I deal with at home on a daily basis. Perhaps I am not so unusual, if the graviation towards reality portals such as the Mommy blogs and reality television is any indication.
I love being a Taiwanxifu — a ‘daughter-in-law’ of Taiwan, in the sense of having willingly embraced a second culture. But there are times when I want to scream, to step outside the parameters of an imposed new cultural value system, to just be out and proud Aussie girl. Such as when mother-in-law chided me for wanting to give my kids a cold drink on a hot summer’s day (no cold food or drink under any circumstances in Chinese culture). Or when nosy (Chinese) strangers give me unwanted advice about my parenting (your child isn’t wearing enough clothes!), then proceed to stuff choke-hazard sized lollies into their little fists without first asking.
I am not seeking to characterize my mother-in-law as a wicked witch (nor to condemn anyone who talks to my kids and I in the street), but just to note that there is often a much less romantic side to making a cross-cultural relationship work, even in loving marriages. The problems don’t always manifest until culture shock, or geographical displacement, sets in. And there is nothing like having a child to make you revert to deeply held cultural and familial values.
A few months ago I attended the funeral of a work colleague’s Japanese wife. Theirs had been a happy marriage, and he was quietly fussing throughout the ceremony to hide his obvious grief. A close friend delivered a eulogy. “We were so young, and we thought that love could conquer all,” she said about the group of Japanese brides who gathered together over cups of green tea and rice crackers. “We were so naive.”
Perhaps we are all naive when we are young and in love. But the young Susan was especially naive. She describes herself as shy, but I think there was a deeper underlying insecurity compounded by a significant rejection by someone who had, perhaps unwittingly, led her on. So she was especially vulnerable, trusting and desperately craving love and affection. And not attuned to danger signals.
So when she met Cai Jun, a charismatic and engaging Chinese PhD student, she was instantly drawn to him and grateful for his attentions. Knowing from the synopsis and the tone of the book that the relationship would turn pear-shaped, part of me wanted to reach out and shake Susan and scream “no, don’t do it!” Her close girlfriend and nightclubbing buddy probably wanted to do the same (she wouldn’t even attend the wedding).
But as they say, love is blind. While we don’t have photographs of Cai (and for legal reasons it is probably not his real name either), he clearly was a handsome and attractive man. (Yes, Asian men can be sexy.) There are several references to his film-star good looks, about the fact that he looked and acted much different to most fashion-unaware mainland Chinese of the 1990s, and how she thought at first he must be Taiwanese or a Hong Konger rather than mainland Chinese. Hong Kong in the 90s, before the economy tumbled after the handover in 1997, was ultra cool with a racy vibe and distinct culture that was hip and compelling. Perhaps the young Susan fell in love as much for the whole Chinese-Hong Kong neon-lit excitement, as for the man himself.
Certainly things moved quickly. After weeks of willingly sacrificing her evenings (for free) to tutor Cai in English (she counted herself lucky that he asked her), suddenly they were engaged before they had even started dating. Then during a Chinese New Year visit to his home town, her future in-laws decided they should get married as soon as possible. So after a few months they did, with a low-key registry marriage in Hong Kong (after months of keeping their relationship secret) followed by a Chinese-style banquet back in China.
When asked to review this book, Jocelyn Eikenburg from the Speaking of China blog told me that there were some ‘unique aspects’ to Susan and Cai’s marriage. The speed at which they hooked up seems to be one of them. But I won’t spoil the plot by revealing some of the other problems that would have had many people running for cover. Susan tried to hold things together. And in a cross-cultural context, you can sense that Susan was always wondering whether this was just (Chinese) culture, whether the things she found odd, inexplicable or morally questionable were just the result of her own narrow cultural framework.
And then there is a cultural expectation of fitting into your husband’s culture, of being a good Chinese wife. In traditional Chinese culture, a woman marries out of her biological family and into husband’s family. In Taiwan, they symbolise this change during weddings by the mother tossing out a basin of dirty dishwater as the bride leaves home with her new husband. There are certain obligations of being a Chinese wife, of fitting into her new family culture and serving their needs. Susan was largely spared from many traditional expectations, but still there was an underlying assumption that in marrying someone Chinese she has to an extent accepted many aspects of Chinese culture along with it. Including how she would raise her child.
There has been a large amount of discourse and literature about the problems that second generation migrant children experience in reconciling their parents’ cultures with their new Western cultures. But there is far less awareness of what it is like to marry into another culture while residing in your own culture. Moving to America, Susan and Cai live in a Chinese-speaking housing estate, have Chinese in-laws with them for an extended period, eat Chinese food every day and speak Mandarin. While working full-time during the day and caring for a baby at night, she has little time for socialising outside this cultural framework.
Susan is bombarded with well-meaning Chinese-centric advice and expectations about how to care for her baby, much of which is contrary to her own experiences. This includes over-dressing baby in multiple layers (I could so relate to this, after years of being criticised for not dressing my kids properly), what to feed him, and rocking them to sleep rather than letting them self-settle (yep, I’m a bad mother because I also occasionally let my kids cry to sleep). I felt sorry for her being coerced into doing Chinese postpartum confinement (zuo yuezi) without knowing what it was. For someone who is Jewish, the prospect of being force-fed stewed pigs trotters on the advice of well-meaning little old Chinese ladies must have been daunting.
And as deeper ructions in her marriage manifest, she begins to worry that Cai will take their son to China for good. Nor are her fears unfounded: there is a cultural expectation that paternal grandparents have ownership of their grandchildren, and grandparents often willingly assume primary caring responsibilities. When I took my son in for three-monthly immunizations, my doctor in Australia told me that many of his clients sent their babies back to China to be cared for. And my own mother-in-law has hinted on several occasions that she would like us to entrust our eldest son to her to raise. Thankfully, Mr Taiwanxifu shares my desire to raise our children ourselves. But what if your marriage was so strained that your husband reverted to listening only to his parents, based on an idolized memory of his own childhood and familiar ways?
Although Susan tries to be measured in her account, it is by definition a one-sided account and it is easy to infer that Cai has sinister or even deviant qualities. (You will have to read the book to find out more.) Yet he also seems to be profoundly culture-shocked, out of his comfort zone and struggling to find identity and purpose in a new country. This doesn’t excuse his behaviour, but it is a poignant and cautionary tale about how things can go sour after two people from radically different backgrounds meet and fall in love.