In talking to people about my new memoir, Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (Sourcebooks, 2014), I’m often asked if my story is a cautionary tale. My answer is that it is and it isn’t. On the one hand, I don’t want to make general statements. Not all cross-cultural marriages will end up like mine. And not all Chinese husbands are like my ex-husband. But on the other hand, I made some mistakes—all in the name of understanding our cultural differences—that could have been avoided.
Here are six lessons I’ve learned from my cross-cultural marriage:
1. It’s not a good idea to romanticize a person or a culture.
Part of what drew me to Cai, my former husband, was his background. Like Joan Chen and Anchee Min, famous Chinese women who escaped hard labor during the Cultural Revolution because they were recruited to be actresses in propaganda movies, Cai also avoided the fields through the arts.
Right before he was supposed to stop going to school and start learning from the peasants, a Chinese opera troupe came through his small town and auditioned musicians and actors. He was chosen at the age of fourteen to be the opera’s cellist! I thought that was so fascinating and saw Cai more as a figure of history than a normal person who had moved away from his family a young age, never to live with them again. By romanticizing his background, I didn’t think about other, more pertinent issues like what it would be like to be his wife.
2. When your fiancé tells you that he doesn’t want to live in your home country, you should listen.
Before Cai and I married in Hong Kong, he made it clear that he didn’t want to live in the US. If Cai had been an American like I am and had said he didn’t want to live in a certain place, I probably wouldn’t have had any reason to doubt him. But because Cai had never visited the US before we met and because he hadn’t even left greater China at that point, I was convinced that I could get him to change his mind. All he had to do was see the United States, I thought.
But gut instincts are usually pretty accurate, and that was the case with Cai in this instance. He agreed to move to California a few years into our marriage, but neither of us should have been surprised when he didn’t like living there.
3. When you meet your future in-laws for the first time, it’s best to be yourself right away.
I was so anxious to make a good impression when I first met Cai’s parents that I put aside all convictions just so they’d like me. I didn’t normally eat pork or fried food, but when Mama cooked both, I ate with abandon. I wanted to suppress as many differences as possible so his parents would agree to our marriage. Of course, as time went on I stopped caring what they thought of me. If I could do it all over, I would try harder to find a balance in which I could hold on to my customs while respecting theirs.
4. If something doesn’t seem right, it’s best to speak up as soon as possible.
After I married Cai, it didn’t take very long for me to wonder about some of his choices. For instance, he spent a lot of time with various professors—from China, Hong Kong, and Japan—yet wouldn’t include me. At first I excused this as some type of Confucian dictum. But as time went on and things didn’t change, it became more difficult for me to stand up and question Cai. At some point in the book, I write that my marriage had spun out of control and I had no idea how to fix it. The problem was that I didn’t say anything in the beginning.
5. Sometimes tough love is better than unconditional support.
When Cai and I moved to California, I took it upon myself to make sure he adjusted to life in the US. I helped him look for jobs, encouraged him to learn to drive, and didn’t question his many nights out with friends and acquaintances. After two years of this, Cai had not worked a full-time job for more than a month and he felt more lost in America than he had when we first arrived.
I found a job at seven months pregnant and supported our family of three, plus his parents for a year, and never once complained to Cai about this arrangement. I thought by taking on all these responsibilities myself, I was helping him adapt to San Francisco. But after Cai and I split up, I stopped paying the mortgage on our house. Cai suddenly found a decent-paying, full-time job and was able to continue paying our mortgage until we sold the house.
6. Just because you divorce a person, it doesn’t mean you have to divorce his culture.
After my divorce, part of me wanted to run as far away from everything that reminded me of my marriage to Cai. But with a young child who probably wouldn’t see his father much, I started to reevaluate how I wanted Chinese culture to play a part in Jake’s life—and even mine. I found that it was so much easier—and more pleasant—to expose Jake to Chinese culture now that I didn’t have the stresses from my first marriage.
As a new single mother, I quickly found a parent-tot Mandarin class and became friends with other parents who were teaching their children about Chinese culture. A few years after my divorce, I joined an alumni group from my graduate school in Hong Kong. There I made more friends, and through them was able to participate in Chinese New Year banquets and other outings where Jake was always welcome.
By the time I remarried and had two more children, Chinese culture was still such a huge part of my life. For years now, my family goes out for dim sum on a monthly basis and celebrates Chinese New Year. I’ve also been speaking to my kids’ classes about Chinese New Year for the last decade and am always on the lookout for children’s books with Chinese protagonists. My marriage may not have worked out, but that doesn’t mean I have to divorce myself from Chinese culture.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of the upcoming stunning memoir, Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong. The book is now available for pre-order in Amazon.com.
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