Welcome to the BAP Blog’s interview with Susan Blumberg-Kason, author of the memoir Good Chinese Wife (Nook, Paperback, Kindle), released in 2014. I met Susan online recently while doing some research of my own on the connection between Ancient Jewish and Chinese civilizations (something I hope to bring to readers here in the future).
She was kind enough to send me a copy of her book without expectations. It’s quite a good read. I later suggested to her the possibility of an interview and she accepted. As it turns out, she is a reader and fan of this blog!
BAP: Susan, hi, thank you so much for the your time and agreeing to be interviewed. How are you, and how is your family doing?
Susan: Thank you so much for reading the book and for wanting to do this interview! I love talking about this stuff. We’re all fine here, braving the brutal Chicago winter.
BAP: Of course, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I saw that your book has earned excellent reviews and ratings. I believe holds 4.5 stars out of 5.0 on Amazon.com with over 100 people rating it. That’s not easy. So first, congratulations on that. I think it’s well deserved; your writing and the memoir are first rate.
Could you tell me… has much changed in your life since the publication of the book? Is life different in terms of knowing this important and personal story of yours is just out there in the public arena? I mean, you write in a direct and honest way to the point where it’s almost like having naked selfies leaked but, you know, indexed by an ISBN and saved in the Library of Congress.
Susan: Thank you! I’ve been so thrilled with the response of the book. Great question! The thing that has changed the most since the book came out is that I’ve gotten to meet hundreds of new people, many of whom have had similar things happen to them or know people who have.
I’ve visited about 20 book groups, both near where I live in Chicago and around the world via Skype. I never would have had that opportunity had I not written this book. I’ve also traveled to the New York area, Washington, DC, and Hong Kong for book events, which have been great fun.
Some friends and acquaintances have told me that they feel like they need to share their innermost secrets after reading my book because they now know such personal things about me and think it’s one-sided! That’s a joke, but I’m always opening to listening!
BAP: Yes, I recall while I was partway through it, I traded a few messages with you in which you described the personal emotional process involved. I think that the vulnerabilities you reveal contribute to discussion and healing – likely in more lives than you will personally know about.
So, I’m wondering now whether the folks you’ve met reveal anything about the commonality of exploitation of cultural unfamiliarity upon the partner just coming into it. I noticed at a few points, circumstances were represented to you as how things were done when in fact that could have been debatable.
Susan: That made me laugh! An old friend from Shanghai invited me to her house last year, along with half a dozen or more Shanghai friends. This friend wanted to introduce her friends to my book, and they all bought a copy. Super nice!
Anyway, we got talking and I told them that Cai stated early on that mainland folks date with the intention of marrying. These Shanghai women said that’s not true and that he was just trying to convince me to marry him. I’ve since read some academic books about Chinese marriages and family life and it seems that the custom Cai talks about was in fact true in China until the late 90s, but now people there date and breakup just like Americans. Maybe things in Shanghai have always been different? That is certainly feasible.
BAP: The book is replete with instances of Cai, your then-husband, acting like an ass and seemingly expecting you to either accept it or to chalk it up to a cultural difference… about which you were expected to defer. When it was the latter, did you feel that your different background left you without real leverage to disagree? Apart from the presence of you in-laws, did the country setting change this dynamic at all, and if so, how?
Susan: Whenever things didn’t go well, I thought it was more a cultural difference than a personality one. I guess I didn’t want to accept that I had married someone who could treat me that way on purpose, so I convinced myself that it was just a cultural difference and something I needed to understand better.
Cai told me that, too. That I just needed to understand Chinese culture better. I didn’t want to impose my culture on him because I didn’t want to be one of those Americans who thinks everything American is superior. I was very conscientious about that. Being in China with him was very difficult.
Up until a few years ago, I always marveled at friends who spent winters in China without heat and how it didn’t bother them. Of course, they weren’t there with husband who treated them terribly. Cai was the meanest in China during the first few years of our marriage, so I started to dread going to China with him.
My former in-laws were very accepting of me and when I had a good day in Hidden River, it was because of them. Baba would peel me an apple after every lunch and dinner because he knew I liked to end a meal with something sweet, just like he liked to finish with a cigarette!
BAP: I, at first, had some hesitation about the book potentially being another narrative with a moral about Asian men being a poor choice for relationship or marriage material. However, as it turned out, the story appeared to me as more of a personal one and centering around you finding your voice, identity, and will… all within the particular challenges of navigating a set of cultural expectations foreign to you back then.
Perhaps my one gripe is with the reviewers who really seem to focus on the “land mines” and “perils” of dating someone not demographically close to oneself. They seem to really play up Cai’s Chinese ethnicity and not what appeared to be personality and psychiatric issues as the root of his behavior.
Perhaps we could end on any message you could give to my readers who might also share that hesitation I had?
Susan: Yes! Let’s put an end to that immediately! My biggest fear in publishing this book was promoting the very thing you were concerned about going into it.
I talked to my agent and editor about this in length and how I was worried the book might come across as bashing Chinese men. They both said it’s a very personal story about one Asian man and that I wasn’t generalizing. Well, maybe two if you include Japanese Father.
Until the book was published, I was worried that people might misinterpret that. As it turns out, it’s magically been quite the opposite. I’ve had such lovely feedback from Chinese male readers. I think they like that I tried so hard and really wanted to make it work.
A friend years later told me a Chinese term–大男人–or big man, which has a chauvinistic meaning. Those guys exist in every culture. But I don’t respond to reviews because that’s not really kosher. If I could, I would like to remind reviewers who jump to those conclusions that I have a teenage son who is part Chinese. I obviously did all I could to ensure that he would have a stable and happy upbringing, so that should say a lot.
BAP: Right, I’m familiar with that term. It’s a totally different kind of big man at the Big Asian Package Blog. So there you have it folks – straight from the author.
Susan, thanks again for your time and insights. Stay warm out there and have a wonderful 2016!
Susan: Thanks so much!