Book review: Good Chinese Wife – A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong by Susan Blumberg-Kason

This post is part of the official Good Chinese Wife blog tour. For more reviews of the book, interviews with and guest posts by Susan Blumberg-Kason, click this link.

Description: When Susan, a shy Midwesterner in love with Chinese culture, started grad school in Hong Kong, she quickly fell for Cai, the man of her dreams. As they exchanged vows, Susan was sure her life was perfect…until things took a sinister turn. In her eye-opening memoir, Susan recounts her struggle to be the perfect “Chinese” wife to her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. At first, she dismisses her own values to save the marriage. But when Cai threatens to take their son, Jake, back to China for good, Susan must find the courage to stand up for herself, her son, and her future.

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I’ve been looking forward to reading Good Chinese Wife – A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong by Susan Blumberg-Kason* ever since I first heard about it. As an Austrian woman married to a Chinese man, I’ve been wondering how the book treads the line between personal and cultural differences.

A mistake many of us make when first dating a person from a completely different cultural background is to blame personal differences on culture. After Susan falls in love with Cai in Hong Kong, she does exactly that. All throughout their time of being together, she tries to tread the line between individuality and culture. How much influence does culture have on an individual? How accepting of another culture should we be? Trying to understand her husband’s culture with an open-mind, Susan finds herself juggling one after another situation that just doesn’t feel right after the initial honeymoon phase.

As the story develops and the two of them get married, Susan wonders if Cai has ever been with prostitutes, if there’s more to the close relationship between Cai and his Japanese professor than meets the eye and if Cai is loyal to her on his nightly outings in San Francisco.

The main issue is not if Cai is being loyal or not. The main issue is that Susan can’t trust him fully and that they do have communication problems that make it impossible for her to get through to him. Taking in mind the silent treatment Cai has given her in the past, Susan decides not to confront him on sensible topics like his loyalty to her. But not confronting him doesn’t make these issues go away, rather, it just widens the gap between them. What a marriage needs to work is not only love, but also trust. In an intercultural marriage, finding a way to communicate is the most important step to making the relationship work. And just like in any other marriage, both partners need to compromise. It won’t work if one compromises too much, while the other doesn’t compromise enough (just like in Susan and Cai’s case) and it won’t work if no one compromises.

After having their son, Cai and Susan’s differences seem to become even more irreconcilable. With every page the reader turns, it becomes more apparent: Susan and Cai’s relationship is unequal. Is this aspect of their marriage based on Chinese relationship dynamics? Is Cai’s making decisions without consulting with Susan first a trait that stems from growing up in a patriarchal society? I couldn’t help asking myself. My answer is no. Every relationship, no matter if it’s between two Americans, an American and a Chinese or two Chinese, has their own dynamics. Inequality is not synonymous with Chinese relationships. There are relationships in China where the man makes the major decisions and there are relationships where the woman makes the major decisions. And then there’s the ideal: Relationships where both partners make decisions together.

What can you take away from this book if you’re in a cross-cultural relationship yourself? If you have problems in your relationship, it might be easy to blame them on culture initially. But just like Susan concludes after trying to figure out if her and Cai’s differences were cultural or personal: “… the answer was finally clear to me: it didn’t matter.”

I agree. It doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

Once I started reading Good Chinese Wife, it was hard to stop. I was drawn into the story from the beginning. At the beginning of the book, I discovered some uncanny similarities to my own relationship. Just like Susan, I married a Chinese guy after knowing him for only a very short period of time. And just like her, I got pregnant soon after getting married (I just gave birth to a baby boy). But reading on, these uncanny similarities soon gave way to pronounced differences. Since this article is already pretty long, I won’t go into further detail here. Let me just state: I really enjoyed reading Good Chinese Wife and learning about Susan’s personal journey, and I’m sure you’ll do too.

Good Chinese Wife will be out next week and is available for pre-orders on Amazon.

Have you ever thought about the dynamics of cultural versus personal differences in intercultural relationships? I’d love to read your opinions.

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*Susan Blumberg-Kason is a freelance journalist in Chicago. Her work has appeared in an affiliate of the Chicago Sun Times, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, and Chicago Parent magazine. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and three children. Check out her blog here.

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About

Hi, I'm Ruth, welcome to China Elevator Stories! I have been living in Kunming and Shenzhen in the past and am now staying in Northeast China with my Chinese husband and our baby and toddler son. Join us on our journey bridging worlds!

12 comments

  1. I enjoyed this round of the blog tour. A well thought-out review.

    A lot of good advice on relationships in there.

    And that is one of the major questions isn’t it, when in a cross-cultural relationship. Are the problems due to those differences, or are the people just not in synch? Perhaps the excuse of cultural differences makes people who shouldn’t be together try even longer.

    I could mention something… My parents divorced when I was young. My dad is American, and my mom is a Russian immigrant. They fought like crazy when I was young, and were obviously not meant to be together. I’m not sure what I learned through growing up in that environment, probably some not-so-good habits. Well, we all hope not to make the mistake of our parents don’t we, although we tend to repeat the cycle.

    Anyway, that’s life. A learning process with a steep and profound learning curve.

    • chinaelevatorstories
      Author

      Thanks for sharing your personal thoughts on this. My parents fought a lot when I was growing up too, and they have the same cultural background. There are many other things than culture that are in play when it comes to relationships.

  2. Fantastic review R! I especially appreciated your comment that “Inequality is not synonymous with Chinese relationships”. I think many people have that assumption, which is unfortunate. My husband has always been about equality in our relationship and from what I’ve read about Y here on your blog, he seems to be about equality as well. Anyhow, glad you enjoyed the book!

  3. Thank you for the well written review. I myself had some misadventures dating Chinese men and I often found myself excusing poor behaviour on account of “cultural differences.” I love your blog, btw.

    • chinaelevatorstories
      Author

      Thanks! I did the same in the past, luckily the experience helped me realise that we should not take up with certain things just because we think they are cultural.

  4. An excellent review. I liked the personal point of view you brought to the subject. You made some wise comments. Here’s my favorite: “What a marriage needs to work is not only love, but also trust. In an intercultural marriage, finding a way to communicate is the most important step to making the relationship work.” As I was reading Good Chinese Wife, I kept thinking how much Susan and Cai needed to communicate effectively.

    • chinaelevatorstories
      Author

      Thanks! Yes, communication seemed to be one of the big problems, but it also seemed like it wasn’t possible for them to find better ways to communicate.

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