Happy Thanksgiving! I hope your weekend was as full of food and love (and dance!) as mine was. I was lucky enough to enjoy the So You Think You Can Dance live tour with my husband. I’m looking forward to getting back in the studio soon.
As I mentioned previously in the A Reminder Why I Write post, I am a strong proponent of diversity in literature, and believe it’s important for all stories to be represented. I also believe that each story is exactly that–one story of a diverse character or family, not meant to represent every possible viewpoint and everyone’s experiences.
I recently read GOOD CHINESE WIFE: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (2014), a memoir by Susan Blumberg-Kason, which resonated with me while also giving me insight into a different part of Chinese culture. As you might already know, I am a second-generation Taiwanese-American who grew up with very traditional parents, and despite my familiarity with the culture, GOOD CHINESE WIFE taught me how different life in Hong Kong and rural China were from the Taiwan I saw through my parents’ eyes. There were so many laws and customs in China I was unaware of: couples date only if they plan to marry, no cohabitation even in hotel rooms without a marriage license, the practice of wujiao (afternoon naps), professions and places of employment were assigned by the government, hospitals in China weren’t allowed to reveal the gender of the baby. I enjoyed seeing the culture through Susan’s husband’s eyes (a mainlander temporarily in Hong Kong) and Susan’s (a Jewish mid-Westerner studying in Hong Kong). As someone who grew up feeling caught between two cultures, I felt a kinship with Susan from the start.
I also enjoyed the familiar in her book: the lowly place of the daughter-in-law, the desire for sons over daughters, the tendency of people to stick with others with similar backgrounds (as demonstrated by the husband’s desire to send their child to an unsafe daycare for the sole reason that it was run by a Chinese woman), the ancient beliefs in not showering a month after giving birth, and the Mandarin sprinkled in that adds color. So many cultural struggles depicted in such a way that I felt Susan’s desperation through the pages and rooted for her.
The writing was also lovely. The descriptions of the food—bitter melon, congee, dim sum—were well-done, and I felt like I could taste, see, and smell each dish. The description of music, which came up because the husband was studying Taoist music, and instruments were also vivid, a task I know is difficult from my own writing experiences. There were also great turns of phrases, and I highlighted many sentences and passages to come back to.
I believe I enjoyed the book as much as I did because of Susan’s honesty in her portrayal of the culture as well as herself and her husband, Cai. Her situation was an impossible one (details left out to prevent spoilers), and the stakes extremely high, which provided a gripping read. Once I read about Japanese Father (Cai’s past professor who had odd demands such as sleeping in the same bed to save time while working on their book), Cai’s other professors playing cards with him in their underwear late at night, and Cai’s X-rated habits and his excuse of writing an article about porn, I couldn’t put it down. I was also captivated by the legal struggles at the end, and felt Susan’s stress trying to maneuvering California and Illinois law. All the obstacles that continually appeared made me sweat about Susan’s future.
I was already impressed in the beginning at Susan’s courage to make a life for herself in a foreign country far from home with a different language and customs, but was even more awestruck by the end of the book. She was able to confront her feelings, put herself and her family first, and find herself (again, vague language to prevent spoilers). As someone who has also lost a part of herself to culture at one point, Susan’s story felt hauntingly similar but her situation much more desperate than mine, which is unfortunate but a captivating read.
I also shared many passages with my husband, who is non-Chinese but familiar with the culture through me and his interactions with my family, and he felt many parts of the story resonated with him too.
On a separate note, Susan’s blog is a fun read with plenty of tastes of Chinese culture and worth a follow!