Divorce is never easy for anyone. But when you married someone from a country you came to love — or have always loved — and decide to divorce them, you might wonder: what will happen to your connection to that country?
That’s a question Susan Blumberg-Kason had to grapple with some 13 years ago when she decided to divorce her Chinese husband, who grew up in rural Hubei Province. She loved China and Chinese culture for years, a love that moved her to learn Mandarin Chinese and study abroad twice in Hong Kong. For her, the answer was this: that a divorce from her husband never meant she had to divorce China as well, something she will detail in today’s guest post.
Before we get to that, I also wanted to share Susan’s exciting news. Her memoir Good Chinese Wife was just acquired by the publisher Sourcebooks! Here’s the scoop on the book deal from Publishers Marketplace:
Susan Blumberg-Kason’s GOOD CHINESE WIFE, a look at the author’s tumultuous five-year marriage to a man from central China and the serious cross-cultural issues she faced as she struggled to adapt to traditional Chinese culture and to her husband’s increasingly abusive temperament, to Stephanie Bowen at Sourcebooks, in a pre-empt, for publication in Spring 2014, by Carrie Pestritto at Prospect Agency.
I’m excited for her and look forward to reading her book next year! And now, here’s Susan’s post:
A couple weeks ago I celebrated the thirteenth anniversary of leaving my first marriage. To this day, it was the most difficult decision I’d ever made. It’s heartbreaking to end a marriage, and even more so when there’s a child involved. In leaving Li (who came from Hubei province) and deciding to remain in the US, I feared I would also have to abandon my link to China and Chinese culture.
In the twelve years before my divorce, I had been steeped in Chinese culture in one form or another. A high school trip to China in 1988 led to a Hong Kong college year abroad. Five years of Mandarin lessons culminated in a move back to Hong Kong where I started graduate school and quickly met and married Li.
And then it was gone. Five years after I married Li, I was back in Chicago, the place where I grew up and thought I’d never return to after high school. Everyone in my family spoke English and only English. My neighbors weren’t Chinese and the people I started to meet didn’t know pinyin from Wade-Giles. It seemed like the China chapter of my life was finished.
But I was determined not to let that happen. I am lucky to live in a metropolitan area. And if you’re like me and don’t plan to live in Asia again, there are many ways to stay connected to China even after you leave your Chinese marriage.
My son Jake spent his first year surrounded by his grandparents from China. So the first languages he heard were English and a Hubei dialect, similar to Mandarin. We returned to Chicago a few months before Jake turned two. Within six months I had found a parent-tot Mandarin class that met once a week. From there I reemerged myself—and Jake—into Chinese culture.
With my younger kids (from my new husband), I’ve been teaching them Mandarin through picture books that feature Chinese characters. My 6 year-old daughter recognizes more characters than English words.
When I lived in Hong Kong, I picked up a little Cantonese. About eight years ago, I met up with a group of alumni from my university there. They’ve become some of my closest friends, and now we meet for summer picnics and Chinese New Year banquets. I love this connection to Hong Kong and how my kids are exposed to Cantonese language and culture.
I’ve been fortunate that Chinese music and dance groups have come through Chicago. We also have an annual Hong Kong film fest and an international one that features films from China. Even without these, I rent Chinese movies from Netflix and from our public library. Sometimes our cable company has free on-demand movies from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
The easiest way to stay connected to China is to read. It seems like a dozen new books about China come out each year, not to mention all the fabulous ones that have been published in the past. Between the public library, Kindle, and good old-fashioned bookstores, I know I can stay current on Chinese literature no matter where I live.
Holidays and Festivals
I thought this would be my biggest loss when I left my Chinese family. But as I’ve found out, I’ve been able to celebrate my favorite holidays in my Chicago home. For Mid-Autumn Festival, I buy my kids mooncakes, read to them about this holiday thanks to Grace Lin’s amazing picture book, Thanking the Moon, and buy them lanterns (the Internet is a great resource).
Chinese New Year has become just as important in our home as Hannukah. One of these years I’m determined to cook a Chinese banquet for my family, but in the meantime we’ve been going to restaurants and/or friends’ homes to celebrate the Lunar New Year. My kids not only know all the animals in the Chinese zodiac, but also the animals each of their aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandmas was born under.
When I lived in Hong Kong and often traveled to China, I loved to shop for traditional Chinese-inspired clothes, whether it was a Western dress with frog buttons or a red-padded jacket. Those clothes were lost in one move or another. So over the years I’ve been replenishing my wardrobe. Again, the Internet is a fabulous resource. I finally made it back to Hong Kong last year after a fourteen-year hiatus, and bought qipao style dresses for my daughter and myself. Now when I go to weddings or fancy dinners, I always try to wear a qipao.
This is not to say that there won’t be times when sad memories resurface. I’ve found that to be especially prevalent when I go to Chinatown. The other night I took my family to eat Sichuan-style hotpot. As we entered the warm restaurant, I felt transported back to another time: A muted CCTV newscast droned on a flat screen TV; the waiters spoke to me in Mandarin after I told them in Chinese that we wanted a table for three; and diners all around conversed in Mandarin. Everything about the restaurant reminded me of my days in China when I was a yangxifu.
But it’s all right to remember the past. I’d like to think my past connection to China has helped shape me into the person I am today.
(UPDATE: edited title of this post to “…doesn’t mean you must divorce China” which better reflects that this is a choice and may not be right for everyone.)