Intercultural relationships can be a wonderful or contentious part of living overseas, and sometimes both. Often it works out, but occasionally it fails, even after years of marriage.
Susan Blumberg-Kason looks at her own failed marriage in Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong. Describing herself as a “painfully shy Midwestern wallflower,” she met her future husband, Cai Jun, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the mid-1990s. Studying Mandarin gave the two an instant bond in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong and their relationship flourished quickly. The pair were engaged within a year of their first encounter, when the author was 24. Their rush to marriage and the author’s rose-colored view of Chinese culture at the time make the reader wonder if many of the issues that emerge later in the book might have been avoided if the two had had a longer courtship.
Their differences began to emerge as early as the first night of their honeymoon, with examples that will resonate with many readers who have been involved in intercultural relationships in China, highlighting what makes both sides uncomfortable with the other.
“Cai entered the bathroom to take a shower but soon returned fully dressed, holding a plush white hand towel. ‘Susan, is this okay?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Aizibing.’ ‘AIDS?’ He nodded. ‘Do you think this towel is clean?’ ‘Of course. You think you can get AIDS from a towel?’ ‘Foreigners have AIDS, and they stay at this hotel.’ What? How could Cai, who was studying for a PhD (albeit not in a scientific field), believe that AIDS could be contracted from a hotel towel and that AIDS cases originated from foreigners? What about me, his foreign wife?”
The contrast between Blumberg-Kason and her husband is magnified when they spend the summer with his parents in rural Hubei province. And things take a more difficult turn when their son, Jake, is born. Cai expects her to zuo yuezi, a traditional Chinese postnatal period of limited activity for new mothers. The tables are turned when Cai objects, after the fact, to Jake’s circumcision as part of Jewish custom.
Their relationship deteriorates, although as expected from a first-person memoir, we only hear Blumberg-Kason’s side of the story. Eventually they move to San Francisco, along with her husband’s in-laws, and Blumberg-Kason struggles to support all five people while working as a secretary.
Good Chinese Wife is guaranteed to make the reader uncomfortable for the unflinching way in which it examines first-hand the prejudices and stereotypes of both sides of a Chinese-Western relationship. Readers who have been in or are considering entering into one may squirm at moments when the culture clash resonates.
This post first appeared on thebeijinger.com on August 5, 2014.
Photos: The Beijinger