Let me be honest: Good Chinese Wife , a memoir by Susan Blumberg-Kason published in July of this year, is not something I would normally read.
Blumberg-Kason’s ex-husband is Chinese; my wife is Korean. Her relationship goes from friends to engaged in less than two minutes; we lived together for years and had lots of wild sex before I proposed. Their marriage rapidly turned sour; we just celebrated our tenth anniversary. They married, had a child and divorced way back in the 1990s; I’m really only interested in Chinese attitudes towards dating, sex and marriage in the 2010s. And so on.
I’m still grateful for receiving a reviewer’s copy, organized by Jocelyn Eikenburg of the Speaking of China blog. But first impressions? I expected it to be very outdated, and that it would have little to offer readers with Korean partners.
I was dead wrong on both counts.
Good Chinese Wife begins in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, where Blumberg-Kason is pursuing a graduate degree (she previously spent a year there as an exchange student in 1990). Then, in her early twenties, she soon becomes smitten with Cai Jun, an older mainlander from Wuhan. She starts teaching him English in her dorm room; unbeknownst to her, other students consider them already dating. This prompts him to open up and explain that he’s already been married and has a child, revealing all as a prelude to showing he is now interested in dating Blumberg-Kason. Because in China, Cai explains, “couples traditionally only date if they plan to marry.”
This sounded very antiquated. But as it turns out, dating in China today is still not at all like in the West, or even in Korea. In Behind the Red Door: Sex in China (2012), Richard Burger explains that even in the big cities “serial dating” is frowned upon as immoral or promiscuous. Instead, “most Chinese women still believe it is best to date only one man and to marry him. Once the man invites her on a second or third date, he is indicating that he’s serious, that he is hoping for an exclusive relationship, and that marriage might be in the cards.” Whereas for women, inviting him to meet her parents “means she expects to marry him, and Chinese men understand this arrangement.” What’s more, the average age of marriage for Chinese men was only 24 in 2010; for women, 22 (in Korea, 31.8 and 28.9, respectively).
So, I understood Cai. And, being head over heels ever since they met and how Blumberg-Kason quickly accepted his proposal before so much as a kiss — it sounded sweet. Her frankness about her feelings and mistakes is a definite charm, especially for someone who also fell very easily in love at that age.
But for Blumberg-Kason, that was only page 36. For the remaining 300, sympathy turns to constant frustration and exasperation with her rushing into marriage, then her frequent acquiescence toward her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. These feelings are only amplified by knowing that this strategy is doomed to fail.
In an interview, Blumberg-Kason said her problems were more because “he told me from the get-go that he had certain conditions for our marriage. Those are things I ignored or thought I could eventually get him to change. That should have been my red flag, not the [6 months] in which we became engaged and married.” (Likewise, many happily married Koreans, for whom such whirlwind courtships are also common, would surely bristle at the suggestion that they should have taken things slower.)
I disagree. Take Cai’s belief that women are especially “dirty” in the summer, for instance, once all but physically forcing an exhausted Blumberg-Kason to bathe in a rat-infested bathroom. Or how on their first night together — their wedding night — he would be more interested in porn than her, presaging a later (slight) addiction. Or his bizarre, surprisingly submissive relationship with eccentric professor friend ‘Japanese Father’ (“He thinks it’s not good [for us] to have sex relations more than once a week”), whom he clearly had much more respect for. Not just relationship issues, but surely relationship breakers for most women, Blumberg-Kason could have been alerted to all these problems and more if she’d just spent a little more time with Cai before the wedding.
Still, it does make for a good page turner. There is also merit in studying a bad relationship to learn what to avoid, and much about this one will already be familiar to those with Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese partners. New and expecting parents in Korea, for example, will sympathize with Blumberg-Kason’s expectations to conform to man yue — the belief that mothers shouldn’t bathe or go outdoors in their first month after giving birth — which mirrors the Korean one of sanhoojori. Also, for those couples planning to move to a Western country, her discussion of Cai’s difficulties with adjusting to life in San Francisco will be very beneficial. The avoidance of tiresome Orientalist stereotypes is especially welcome, with her ex-parents-in-law coming across as old-fashioned but lovely, and Chinese men portrayed no better or worse than Western ones.
That said, I am reminded of a book for couples I once flicked through, which encouraged them to discuss their expectations of marriage in great detail before committing. With checklists ranging from beliefs about circumcision and determining which cities were best for both partners’ careers to dividing the housework and setting dating policies for potential teenage children, that approach would be much too calculating for most couples. Marriage, after all, is ultimately about making a scary but exciting leap of faith with someone. But when partners come from wildly different backgrounds and bring such different expectations into marriage, for international couples in particular, perhaps they really should learn the answers to those questions sooner rather than later.
One minor quibble was all the hyperbole. Not to diminish Blumberg-Kason’s genuine fears for herself and her son at times, but it did lead me to expect a story involving forged passports and bribed border guards(!). Also, I disliked the format of numerous short chapters, with so little happening in some that they felt like diary entries. But that is just a personal preference.
The verdict? Well worth the 14.99 USD cover price and a definite eye opener about the value of reading more about relationships in this part of the world, especially with such limited options to read about Korean ones specifically.