Going into Susan Blumberg-Kason’s Good Chinese Wife, I’ll confess to wanting to do a little armchair traveling. During a busy summer in which I’ve rarely crossed state lines, the idea of visiting exotic Hong Kong, lovely San Francisco and bustling China was too alluring to deny.
Nevermind that this is, of course, a memoir of a difficult intercultural marriage . . . not exactly light reading.
But powerful reading? Absolutely.
When Susan, a shy Midwesterner in love with Chinese culture, started graduate school in Hong Kong, she quickly fell for Cai, the Chinese man of her dreams. As they exchanged vows, Susan thought she’d stumbled into an exotic fairy tale, until she realized Cai — and his culture — were not what she thought.
In her riveting memoir, Susan recounts her struggle to be the perfect traditional “Chinese” wife to her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. With keen insight and heart-wrenching candor, she confronts the hopes and hazards of intercultural marriage, including dismissing her own values and needs to save her relationship and protect her newborn son, Jake. But when Cai threatens to take Jake back to China for good, Susan must find the courage to stand up for herself, her son, and her future.
Moving between rural China and the bustling cities of Hong Kong and San Francisco, Good Chinese Wife is an eye-opening look at marriage and family in contemporary China and America and an inspiring testament to the resilience of a mother’s love — across any border.
(Summary from Goodreads)
When first we meet Susan, a young American woman studying in Hong Kong, we see her as eager and inexperienced — a lover of Chinese culture who is quickly romanced by fellow student Cai, so handsome and sure. Through innocent, intellectual evening chats and patience, Cai courts Susan — and proposes very quickly. Susan, entranced and bewitched by him, agrees.
From there, it unravels.
Questionable relationships. Porn addiction. Extramarital issues. Abandonment, “peep shows,” detachment. Coldness. Threats. Unemployment. Fear.
Here’s what really works about Good Chinese Wife: Susan gets it. She gets that we may be reading her deeply personal story of a trouble marriage with a critical eye. She knows we may judge, we may disagree, we may shake our hands and wag our fingers. Maybe we’ll say “you should have known.” Susan understands we will not accept all of her choices. Why does she stay when it’s obvious she should run, run, run?
But this Susan — our narrator — is older, wiser, accepting. She’s gazing back at her tumultuous first marriage with a new understanding, and she’s not apologetic about her past. In a matter-of-fact but warm tone, Susan recounts her time with Cai in a way that isn’t truly detached — but makes it clear she’s moved beyond their pain and differences.
At its core, Good Chinese Wife is about a woman who loves a man — one who doesn’t respect or support her. Though she is Jewish-American and he is Chinese, the fault lines in their marriage aren’t entirely due to “cultural differences,” as she once rationalizes. Yes, they hail from separate nations . . . and have entirely different traditions, different values. But as a new wife, Susan works hard to empathize and learn from her husband, accepting his quirks (if you could call a porn addiction a “quirk” . . .) and chooses to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Cai can’t say the same.
Good Chinese Wife is riveting. As outsiders, it may be easy to wonder Why? why? why? Susan would choose to stay with a man who repeatedly and blatantly disrespects her, both through his questionable relationships with others — male and female — and his verbal abuse at home. Cold, silent and brooding, Cai comes across as a dangerously unpleasant man . . . one subject to wild mood swings and threats.
But I got it. I got it. For better or worse, Susan fell in love with him — this tempestuous, mysterious person — and tried to make a life with him, but Cai proved to be someone on whom she could not depend. As they welcomed a son, I cringed at the stunts Cai would pull . . . and the detached, harmful way in which he interacted with his child.
For all the sad, angry moments, this isn’t a negative story — and there were times Good Chinese Wife really sparkled. Susan is incredibly endearing, and I loved the electricity in her voice when she talks about her beloved Hong Kong. Her love for her family is very clear, and she’s incredibly kind — and treated very kindly — by Cai’s parents in Hidden River, who love her and their grandchild as well.
Is Good Chinese Wife about an interracial, intercultural marriage? Yes . . . and no. Though some of Susan and Cai’s issues stem from cultural misunderstandings, of course, it’s far deeper than that. And this isn’t a cautionary tale. By the close, we know Susan bears no malice toward Cai — and having found happiness herself (not a spoiler — in the author bio!), she reflects on their time together in the 1990s very differently these days.
Absorbing, calm and wise, Good Chinese Wife was a memoir I devoured in just a few hours. I felt Susan’s all-encompassing love for her family — and often wanted to simultaneously hug and shake her. Though readers may question her decisions (sometimes I did, too), Susan bravely shares her story in the hope, I think, of inspiring others to stand up for themselves and their families. It’s a thought-provoking memoir, and one I recommend.
4 out of 5!