What would you say to the next person who fell in love with your ex? Here’s a letter from an anonymous woman to the Chinese girl who fell for a guy she calls her “Black Ken Doll”.
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Was it his contagious smile that got you? Or did you fall for his tall and lean muscular black frame? For me it was his smile. I met him in my friend’s living room when I was nineteen and I couldn’t get his smile out of my mind that entire day. If it were his body, I don’t blame you, I fell for that as well. You should have seen him when he use to run track and field in his early college years. I swear his feet were on fire! So I don’t need to paint the imaginary picture of his figure since you’ve already seen him naked. He looked like a black Greek God. He always looked like that. We became best friends instantly.
You see, we have more in common than you may think: We have great taste in Men.
When we became friends he was in a relationship as well, and he praised his current girlfriend every chance he got. I remember thinking I would love more than anything for a man to love me unconditionally and put me first like that. Years later, that dream came true. My black Ken Doll went from being best friend to becoming my lover. He was my first everything.
I can’t really blame you for falling for my Black Ken. It was probably uncontrollable. It was like this for me. Thank you for taking care of him when I couldn’t. I was oblivious to how much he needed me to adjust to the culture of China. Thank you for listening to his worries and problems when my ears were closed. Thank you for seeing the lonesomeness in his eyes for a woman’s touch when my eyes were closed.
I don’t know what the future holds since he may now be yours or another’s.
If he does become yours, you will be a very lucky girl.
You should know that he guards his heart like a hawk and hides behind his sense of humor.
When he pushes you away, push forward even harder.
You should know he’s not into glamour so a simple dress with a ponytail and flats will due for him.
He loves running his hands through long straight hair. Although he would never admit that to me. I always wear my hair in braids so he didn’t get to do much of that in our five years relationship.
Do not try to make him jealous with other men! You will push him away.
When he gets angry do not try to confront or calm him down. It will get worse.
When he calms down he’ll come to you I promise.
I wish I could tell you more about my Black Ken Doll. But some things are better left unsaid. For you will see them as you get to know him.
My only wish as I finish this letter is for him to be happy. Thus if you’re prepared to take over after me, you should know that I raised that bar high and I wish you the best of luck trying to erase me out of his heart. —–
I’ll never forget the way friends and family questioned me back in 1999 when I announced my decision to spend a year teaching English in Zhengzhou, China after my graduation that year. And who could blame them? Nothing about my life suggested all roads lead to China.
I studied environmental biology in college, minored in Spanish and chemistry, and the only foreign country I had ever lived in was Spain (when I studied abroad in Granada for a semester). I hadn’t spent my childhood dreaming of visits to the Great Wall or the Terracotta Warriors. I couldn’t even speak a word of Mandarin Chinese and hadn’t read much about Chinese history since my sophomore year in high school.
It was one of the craziest decisions I had ever made – a total detour from everything I had planned before.
When July rolls around, I’m guaranteed two things – plenty of sultry summer weather (especially here in Hangzhou, considered one of China’s “furnace” cities) and the yearly round of congratulations from American friends and family on another wedding anniversary with Jun. Nowadays it comes virtually through e-mails and Facebook messages; when we used to live in the US, it would arrive via greeting cards with silver-embossed print and sentimental prose neatly tucked into pale pink envelopes.
As a child and adolescent, I watched my parents mark their yearly wedding anniversaries with the appropriate festivities – fancy dinners out, weekend getaways, and of course gifts like jewelry. I also grew up in a culture so invested in the idea of celebrating wedding anniversaries that there’s an entire etiquette surrounding the appropriate gifts to mark wedding anniversaries. (Did you know, for example, that you’re supposed to give silverware on your fifth wedding anniversary?)
So it might surprise you to learn that whenever someone congratulations me on our wedding anniversary, sometimes it feels strange.
Why would something I was raised on now seem foreign to me? Well, there’s a personal reason for that – namely, my Chinese husband John. He doesn’t celebrate wedding anniversaries, which is how people are in China. And after years of being married to him, the idea that wedding anniversaries demand celebrations has fallen off my radar.
Why is it that people here don’t celebrate wedding anniversaries? Well, given that people in China hardly celebrate their own birthdays (or, for that matter, birthdays of family/friends), is it any shock that wedding anniversaries don’t count as a significant event? I wonder if it has to do with attitudes towards love and marriage here. In China, love is something implied, inherent in any marital relationship. It doesn’t need to be restated again and again (the way Americans and other Westerners can’t stop saying “I love you” to their spouses or partners). By that rationale, maybe it doesn’t need to be celebrated in some obvious, Hallmark kind of way either.
The thing is, as blasphemous as it might sound, I like the simplicity of this all. I like the fact that a wedding anniversary doesn’t require the cards, dinners out, getaways or gifts. I like knowing that, here in China, my anniversary isn’t something in the spotlight. It’s something that’s private and personal. Something that John and I can celebrate however we want to.
John and I may never mark our anniversary the same way my parents used to – and that’s okay in my book. The most important thing is that we’re still together as a couple, still married for over 11 years (yes!) and still crazy in love.
Over a year ago, I wrote a post titled What’s the big deal about Asian men and bags? Even though it’s not a custom in the America where I grew up, after coming to China I came to love how men (including my husband) would gladly hold my bags for me when we’re out and about.
Lena, a Danish woman currently studying in Beijing, feels exactly the same way. She has dated the men here — and in the process, she has come to love some of those cultural differences in dating (including carrying bags for women). But the thing is, her foreign friends don’t always understand.
This is an old saying that makes perfect sense. When going to another country, it’s important to associate with the culture and the people. I don’t mean it’s necessary to change the way you are personally. But when you’re placed in another culture, there are some differences. And some of them, I do think, are important to recognize and follow so you won’t make trouble every time you walk out the door.
I’m in China right now and the dating rules here are a bit different from my home country of Denmark. Because of this, my friends and I love to discuss how “Chinese” or “Western” a boy can be. Races are also a big topic. It has nothing to do with racism towards anyone, but just about what is more attractive to us — in this case, my friends from South Africa and Italy, and me. And yes, most of my friends have different preferences.
So intercultural dating is a hot topic these days. Many people traveling abroad meet a handsome boy or beautiful girl who they fall in love with. But when reality hits them, they realize that dating between different cultures isn’t always that easy. Love is one thing but culture is another, and our own culture and behavior are very difficult to change. Furthermore, I don’t think we should try to change, but we also need to accept the other person as well and realized that they don’t necessarily need to change, even if their habits annoy us sometimes.
So last night at dinner when discussing the Chinese dating culture with my friends, we ended up talking about the classic “carrying-the-bag” issue. What is that about? Let me explain. Chinese guys are supposed to carry their girlfriend’s bag. This is the rule no matter how small, purple or bling-bling it is. My friends in this discussion are all foreigners (both boys and girls) and none of them like this. I wasn’t sure I agreed because I realized that I actually do expect the boy to carry my bag. I carry my own small fake Gucci purse but if I carry something just a bit bigger without bling, I would expect my male friend to ask if he should carry it for me. Maybe I’ll give it to him, maybe I won’t. It depends.
My friends were laughing at me when I told them the story of me and a male friend out shopping. I was carrying my bag and he had bought something. Because he didn’t have a bag, he asked if he could put his stuff in mine. I took his things and suddenly my bag was quite full. He didn’t notice. I tried to tell him, and still no reaction. I even told him that he wasn’t a real gentleman, way too Western (my other way of saying he wasn’t a gentleman) and not caring at all. He laughed at me as well and I realized that I was actually annoyed by this English guy who obviously didn’t know anything about Chinese culture. (How could he? He had just arrived and my face is pale and Scandinavian. How would he know that I expect this from every man I meet these days? It came as a surprise to me as well).
Another day, my stomach wasn’t quite well, and my Chinese male friend automatically took my little fake Gucci out of my hand immediately and carried it for me the rest of the day. I tried to take it back a few times but he was afraid of me being in too much pain. I don’t think the little purse would have made any difference but I liked his way of thinking.
After listening to these two stories, my Western friends told me that I was way too Chinese. I thought about this afterwards and I know that I am, but is it that bad then? I’ve been in the middle for a while because I know that there are some Chinese cultural behaviors that I’ll never associate with. But there are also others that I haven’t even realized I’ve already taken on my shoulders a long time ago. One reason is the fact that I actually hang out with Chinese people for fun, while many of my foreign friends don’t. It’s interesting to see this difference in our discussions. Things I never would’ve done before suddenly come so naturally now.
I’m not sure how Asian my future husband will be. But I know that if he won’t ask for my bag, I’ll probably teach him to. Not because he has to carry it around, but because it makes me feel like he’s thinking about my well-being.
Lena is a 20-something Danish girl currently studying for a semester at Renmin University in Beijing while writing about China, travel and love at http://www.lenakina.tumblr.com/. —–
Reinventing yourself abroad is practically an expat tradition. Whenever I sit down with foreigners here in China, more often than not they have a story about how the Middle Kingdom unexpectedly transformed their lives, forging them into the fascinating person they are today.
Writer Ray Hecht, who hails from my home state of Ohio (he’s from Cincinnati and I’m from Cleveland), is no exception. But he has a different kind of story to share. After all, how many have you met who took the “go to China” plunge in a psychedelic haze in the Nevada desert (Burning Man)? Ray does have an easier time meeting Chinese and foreign women for dates, but he never turns into another “charisma man” (or worse, Chinabounder) because of it.
From the girls he could have loved forever to the “just sex” moments to the one who stalked him (yikes!), Ray doesn’t shy away from letting you into his utterly imperfect love life. He’s refreshingly self-deprecating about it all and ultimately comes across as a genuinely nice foreign guy just looking for love in China. (Note that, besides graphic descriptions of sex, this story does include a lot of recreational drug use, so reader discretion is advised.)
Ray Hecht was raised in America, from the Midwest to the West Coast, on a starchy diet of movies and comics and science fiction paperbacks. Mostly writing about such states as California and Ohio, and such provinces as Guangdong. Lived in Shenzhen, China since 2008, that Special Economic Zone & Hong Kong-bordering chaotic city of the future, occasionally partaking in freelance journalism for various local publications.
I asked Ray about what it felt to have such personal stories out there for people to read, how he ended up with such a fascinating mix of women, what regrets he has (if any) and much more:
What inspired you to write this memoir?
I went through a lot of drama back in 2013. While my writing career was going up, my love life suddenly exploded. I briefly thought I met a perfect girl abroad, one Chinese woman I dated basically turned out to be a stalker and caused me incredible stress, and then it culminated in having my heart broken.
I often write private journals. It helps me process.
This time, I thought it would help if I put it all out there as a blog. It may have been a rash decision. But it did give me some inspiration to further write, and a lot of the conversation it ensued really helped me think about things. I found a lot of supportive people in the WordPress blog scene, and I’m glad I did it.
I finished the blog at a certain point, because I didn’t want people who personally knew me in Shenzhen to know all of my business. I share a lot, but I do have limits. However, at least making it an eBook seemed the thing to do, and for that project it wouldn’t be freely on my blog. It would cost just a few dollars, and I could share even more…
I don’t know if this is was a bad idea or not, perhaps putting these revelations out there will come back to haunt me one day, but too late now.
Your stories get incredibly personal and intimate at times, sharing details that would make many of us blush! How does it feel to have these stories out there for anyone to read (including your former girlfriends/lovers)?
As said, the blog was less blush-worthy than the finished product memoir. I’m fine with acquaintances and stranger readers out in the world reading about my personal life. I’m much more hesitant about people I personally know well — especially if they were there in some of those experiences!
Surprisingly, I haven’t had any negative feedback from ex-girlfriends. A few said they liked reading. I even pointed it out, in the name of honesty. There’s really just the one girl I hope doesn’t read it…
You described yourself as “a nerdy American boy from Ohio” who wasn’t “particularly good with girls” and yet your dating life was transformed in China, where you ended up dating many women and found your stride. Still, you write that “I was lucky to date anyone who would have me.” How were you able to keep such a humble perspective about it all?
I don’t know if humble is the word. Self-loathing at times? Realistic?
I try my best not to be one of those obnoxious expats who think they god’s gift to (Chinese) women. And I have been rejected so many times. I have to have a real perspective. It’s not like I’m the one-night stand kind of guy, but I was persistent for a while there and I kept trying no matter how many bad relationships I was in. More than half were due to online dating, I admit, which is easier than the confidence it takes to pick up women in bars and that sort of thing I’ve never been good at.
Mainly, racking up all these stories shows there’s something wrong with me in that my long-term relationships were so seldom.
Over the course of the book, you write about being with a variety of women — from those you could imagine spending the rest of your life with to someone who actually stalked you for months. I was so surprised by the wide range of personalities and the drama of course! Why do you think you ended up with such a diverse (and fascinating) bunch of women?
Hey, diversity is the spice of life. I’ve always been open to having friends from different backgrounds, why not give anyone a chance no matter where they’re from? That’s one of the opportunities that comes from the expat lifestyle, I suppose. Ultimately I learned through trial and error that Chinese women may not be my type. No offense meant to any great Chinese people out there!
It has been just my luck that I got to meet so many fascinating people in the world.
Looking back on your dating experiences in China, do you have any regrets? Anything you would have done differently?
I have so many regrets. I don’t want to get too specific, sorry. I guess I basically wished I knew what I was doing. I could have been more honest about the relationships that were to be short-term. I could have treated women a lot better when I wanted something deeper but couldn’t get that to happen.
But it’s not good to have too many regrets. Life is a series of harshly learned lessons, and I hope to move forward.
Social skills take a while to learn for someone like me.
What do you hope people come away with after reading your memoir?
I don’t know what people should think when they read my work. Feel some empathy with me? Simply be entertained by the more wild parts? It’s hard to say. I emphatically do not want to be giving out any pickup advice. I do hope that people who might like Chinese/Asian girls can read it and see that women are individuals and cannot be stereotyped. If anyone is an expat, I hope they can relate. If anyone is interested in becoming an expat, especially in first-tier cities in China, I hope they can see what they would be getting into with the social scenes.
Mostly, it but is what it is and if you like reading that kind of thing then more power to you.
“I’d never dated or been attracted to Chinese men before,” writes Marissa Kluger — not until she met ZJ in Xi’an, a city that stole her heart away.
Marissa’s blog Xiananigans has been a pleasure to follow over the years (right down to her “explosive” Chinese wedding, where she dons the most gorgeous red wedding gown I’ve ever seen). Here’s the story behind it all, from how she discovered Xi’an and ZJ to how they eventually moved it to her hometown in New Jersey.
My first trip to China, in 2007, happened to be a three week intensive course abroad, a general education requirement instituted by Goucher College, my alma mater. Xi’an ended up being one of our destinations. Besides inspecting the soldiers at the Terracotta Warriors, bicycling around the Xi’an City Wall, and navigating the alleys of the Muslim Quarter, we met with an alumnus teaching at Xi’an International Studies University.
The city of Xi’an compelled me to return four years later to teach at Xi’an International Studies University. I’m a fairly indecisive person but I had made up my mind after listening to the alumnus’ anecdotes about his job, travels, and experiences. Meeting his students further cemented my longing to come back; they were inquisitive, interested in cultural exchange, American politics and exposing me to as much Chinese culture as several hours would allow.
Although I knew they would show us around their dorms, the campus, and give us small gifts, I was overwhelmed by their warmth, affection, and extroverted personalities. In many ways, they toppled every notion, or better yet, stereotype I read about Chinese students. We met students from universities in other cities during our travels, but XISU students left the deepest indent.
I also saw it as a one-year opportunity to do something outside-of-the-box before starting a career, although at that time I had little idea about what I’d be doing; I hadn’t even declared a major, still opting for that looming “Undecided” title. My parents thought I’d give up on the idea as I still had three years of schooling. They were supportive of the decision, also seeing it as a good opportunity, hoping I’d pick up the language and gain other valuable experiences that could propel whatever career path I chose forward.
In 2009-10, my final year at Goucher, I applied for a position at the university. Three months went by without a word, so I began applying for jobs in my chosen field in the Greater New York City area. A ray of sunshine appeared just a week before commencement…I had received an email from the university offering me a teaching position for the next academic year! When my college girlfriends offered their congratulatory sentiments, they also foreshadowed that 缘分, or fate would lead me to at least date, perhaps even settle down in China. I dismissed this as I didn’t really put much stock in fate.
I arrived in Xi’an in late August 2010, and luckily I had the first month of September free, as I had been assigned freshman. Freshman have mandatory military training, and four years ago, this lasted an entire month. I took this chance to meet up with a very good friend of my former private drum instructor and his Chinese wife. Lu Min Lu, I called her Daphney, helped me settle in and introduced me to the nightlife Xi’an offered. She took me to Park Qin, a bar frequented by Xi’an expats. ZJ worked at Park Qin.
The first time ZJ and I met, I insisted on getting his phone number on behalf of a British girl. I initially cut in for several reasons: I was looking for Chinese acquaintances who might become friends, most of my college friends were guys, he was easy to talk to and charming. I, of course, did all of this not knowing anything about Chinese dating culture, or that ZJ considered himself “traditional.”
After getting his phone number and exchanging texts, we agreed to meet up on his next day off. Shortly after that first meeting, I went back to Park Qin and spent hours talking to ZJ about movies, music, college, culture and more. We had a lot in common, he spoke directly, didn’t seem shy or introverted, much like the students I met in 2007, but I didn’t see this going in a romantic direction. The American girlfriends I emailed back home were elated: “I told you.”
It was about a month later that ZJ and I began dating. In the early stages of our relationship, we looked more like friends. We weren’t affectionate in public and our relationship remained a secret. In February 2011, I met ZJ’s parents during our Chinese New Year visit to his hometown. He prepared me very well for that first visit, explaining that to his parents, bringing a girl home, let alone a foreign one, meant to them we were serious.
I met his best friend from high school as well as extended family from both his mother’s and father’s side; I felt more comfortable than I initially thought in an environment so different from Xi’an and New Jersey. ZJ cared, translated and interpreted for me; his way to show affection manifested itself unlike any previous relationships. I liked the nuances, subtlety of it all, and more importantly, started to fall for him, and so upon returning to Xi’an, ZJ moved in with me.
When the holiday season approached, ZJ fostered my homesickness by taking me out for Peking duck on Christmas, a tradition commonly observed by Jewish-Americans. I went home for three weeks in January 2013; I wished he could have traveled with me, to meet my family and friends. I missed him when I went home for two months in 2011, staying in touch via Skype, however, those three weeks felt utterly painful. I enjoyed my time at home, but a sense of relief washed over me when I touched down in Xi’an a week or so before heading to his 老家 for Chinese New Year.
We had already started discussing getting engaged and this discussion was met with approval by 老爸, 老妈, 大哥和二哥. ZJ proposed to me on June 8, 2013. The timing of the ceremony, the set-up, and the ring were all a surprise to me. He told me we were celebrating his birthday; I saw this as slightly suspicious, but didn’t give it a second thought when he shot me down over WeChat when I asked if he planned to propose.
I wore an ankle-length red gown, one of three dresses purchased on Taobao for the ceremony held in the countryside. I opted for a red princess-poofy gown, complete with fur-like trim, flowers, taffeta-like mesh, all in red. I changed into a red lace qipao in order to toast the guests, wearing it with a qipao-style top as a jacket in hopes of keeping out the cold. I even wore all red undergarments. My youngest sister made the trip from the US, served as pseudo-maid of honor, taking on my hair and makeup. We also had a few foreign colleagues from the university attend. 爸爸和妈妈 Zhang, my brothers and sisters-in-law ensured the shindig, a once-in-a-lifetime affair, could be watched over and over again (there’s a video!). We had a honeymoon of sorts, to Lijiang and Dali, and I say of sorts, because my sister and friends of ours tagged along.
We had traveled to Guangzhou for the petition in January and a couple of months after all the wedding excitement died down, we traveled back again for the medical and interview portions. ZJ didn’t pass on the spot, as we had to send additional documents. A week or two later, we had ZJ’s passport with the appropriate visa in hand. I couldn’t believe how relatively quickly and pain-free the process had been! More foreshadowing…
We’ve now been in the US for two and a half months. We live with my parents in the house I grew up in. I work part-time for Starbucks while I pursue other avenues. This is the first encounter ZJ’s had with my parents and friends, with the exception of my youngest sister, who also lives at home. He just received his social security number last week. When we went to the department of motor vehicles earlier in the week, they weren’t able to verify his status, meaning we have to wait before he can obtain his driver’s license. In other words, the ease we experienced during the DCF process meant more obstacles after landing stateside.
It’s not all bad news, though. I never imagined I’d be a 26 year-old “we”, returning from four years in Xi’an, and struggling to figure out what comes next. I would never take it back, or trade it in for an “easier life.” Much like the processes we’ve gone through in the last year: getting our red books, preparing for our Chinese ceremony, navigating the DCF process, prepared us for the ups and downs of a new life. I underestimated the adjustment moving to the US would be, but my husband never did.
This is why I love him. When I’m losing it, he remains calm, rational, and thoughtful. When I’m overly emotional, which is pretty much all of the time, he’s calculated and prepared to counteract my moodiness by jokes, sarcasm, or a story. He knows exactly when I need solitude, a hug or a kiss, encourages me to not only pursue my dreams, but to do so independently.
His sense of humor is infectious, and he’s grown into a more talkative, outwardly affectionate individual. He supports me in all my endeavors. Our marriage and relationship may not be conventional in the eyes of some, and we may be opposites, but I always foresaw, if I did marry, ending up with my “other half.” You see, I didn’t think I would marry, especially in my mid-20s, not because I don’t believe in the institution of marriage, but after a failed serious relationship in college, preferred to bask in dating solitude.
It’s laughable that there are Western women in China who write off Chinese men. I’d never dated or been attracted to Chinese men before, but I’m very attracted to my husband: appearance, intelligence, and personality-wise. If I had written them off, the handsome, caring man sitting to my right reading the local paper wouldn’t be in my life.
Marissa Kluger married her Chinese husband ZJ a year ago. They live in New Jersey. She reminisces about Xi’an and muses about life in the US at Xiananigans.
Are you in Beijing? Or will you be there on July 26? Would you love to hear a performance of fabulous monologues about love, sex, marriage and relationships in China? One that includes an AMWF love story?
Then you don’t want to miss the “Leftover Monologues”! Here’s the scoop:
Join us for an evening of sparkling entertainment that unites a dozen brazen Chinese (and foreign) in rousing adaptation of the “Vagina Monologues;” a play which provides stirring new insight into the complexities of love, sex, marriage and relationships in China.
We’ll regale you with tales of lost innocence and sexual discovery, embarrassing blind dates orchestrated by bumptious matchmaking mothers, and electrifying, but ill-fated love stories. Candidly, viscerally, and ardently, our performers will convey their battles with duty and desire, passion and practicality, and of course, give you an earful of the triumphs, travails and tribulations of being/fearing/or totally loving – being a leftover.
When? Saturday, July 26th, 7:30PM.
Where? Meridian Space
English address: Building 8, C&C Park, 77 Meishuguan Hou Jie, Dongcheng
Chinese address: 美术馆后街77号77文创园8号楼
Seating is limited to 80 people. Admission is free, but please RSVP to [email protected] so as to ensure a spot!
This production is brought to you by the good folks behind Chaoji Shengnü (aka 超级剩女 or “Super Leftover Woman”). If you’ve never heard of Chaoji Shengnü, then you’ve been missing one of the coolest and most ingenious online comics ever penned about love, dating and marriage in China!
(Note: I’m excited to be giving away one FREE copy of Good Chinese Wife! Want to enter the giveaway? Scroll down to the end of this post for details!)
Susan Blumberg-Kason’s new memoir Good Chinese Wife comes with a revealing subtitle: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Before you even open the book, you already know what kind of love this is – a marriage between a white American woman and a Chinese man that doesn’t end well.
I’m calling it the AMWF memoir of 2014 and you shouldn’t miss it.
This book has it all. A Chinese love interest with movie-star looks. A romance set in glitzy Hong Kong. A huge red wedding in Wuhan. A fascinating journey across China in the mid-1990s. And a transformative tale of how one shy young woman eventually finds the courage to make a dramatic escape.
But most importantly, Good Chinese Wife is just an incredibly entertaining memoir. It’s the kind of book that you’ll open, thinking you’re only going to read for a little while, and before you know it you’ve devoured the whole story in one sitting.
As someone who has known Susan for several years, I’ve had the privilege to witness the inspiring metamorphosis of Good Chinese Wife from manuscript to published memoir. It is an extraordinary honor to introduce you to Good Chinese Wife and Susan through this interview.
A freelance writer in Chicago, Susan has written for the Chicago Sun Times, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, and Chicago Parent magazine. Her essay “Ninety Minutes in Tsim Sha Tsui” is included in the fabulous new anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit. She also wrote All the Tea in Chicago, the ultimate guidebook to the city for tea enthusiasts.
I talked to Susan to learn more about her memoir – from what inspired her to write it, to her experiences as a yangxifu (the foreign wife of a Chinese man) in the mid-1990s, to what she hopes readers will come away with from her story.
When did you first realize you wanted to turn your story into a memoir? What ultimately inspired you to write it?
I first thought about writing this memoir after my divorce attorney in California asked me to write out everything that went wrong in that marriage. She needed all the details in case we went to trial. It was 14 years ago and I was living with my parents. They didn’t have a laptop connected to a printer and I wasn’t in the mood to camp out in front of the basement desktop—after having felt so isolated for the past five and a half years—so I hand-wrote it over the span of a week in the company of my family. This document was sixty-seven pages! When I proofread it before sending it off to my lawyer, I thought, “Wow! This would make a great book.”
A week later I saw the movie “Not Without My Daughter” for the first time. It was about a woman who almost lost her daughter when her family traveled to Iran to visit her husband’s family. The husband had lived in the US for 20 years, but when he returned to his motherland, he suddenly wanted to stay there and keep his daughter there. I cried because the same thing could have happened to me. I wanted to share my story with others and hoped it would give parents in cross-cultural relationships something to think about if they’re in similar situations.
Your love affair with Cai, a man from Wuhan, China, takes place in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, at a time when you were mainly a graduate student. What are some of your most interesting memories about dating in Hong Kong back then?
Hong Kong was magical back then! I was so happy to be back (I’d lived there for a year in 1990-91) and open to new opportunities, including dating. Maybe it was the thrill of being back and the comfort I felt around Hong Kong people, but I definitely took more chances there than I had back in the US. There was a new confidence in the air as people who had left Hong Kong in the 1980s were returning. One was a friend of a friend who confided some pretty heavy personal history to me on our one and only date. At one point he became violent as he grabbed my arms and squeezed them as if in a vice. I was scared about leaving that bar—we were out in the middle of the New Territories—but in the end he paid for my taxi ride home, which was two hours away. I also went out with a television anchorman who promised a weekend away in Macau, but canceled at the last minute. And then there were the two guys I wrote about in the book, the two I went out with before I met Cai.
How did people react to yangxifu back in the mid-1990s?
It was a novelty for Chinese men to have a foreign wife. In Hidden River, Cai’s hometown in Hubei province, his parents had a friend whose son had married a Japanese woman. She was a legend in that danwei—whether or not people had met her—because she was a foreigner. So my inlaws were very accepting of me and liked to brag about me with their friends. When I walked around Hidden River, people were all very polite, even when they stared and pointed at my curly hair and western nose.
Your wedding in 1995 was special compared to the average wedding banquet in Wuhan. Could you share with us some of the things that made your celebration different?
Well, back then children of Communist Party members had to have modest wedding celebrations. For instance, they could only use a couple of cars in their motorcades and could only have ten tables at their banquets. But because I was a foreigner, those rules didn’t apply to my wedding even though my father-in-law was a Party member. We had twenty tables at our wedding and five or six cars. Traditions were still low key in China then, so weddings were simple and quick. There weren’t tea ceremonies and the like. And women in Hubei didn’t wear red qipaos. It was all big poufy white wedding dresses. I had a difficult time finding a red qipao in Suzhou!
Cai’s parents also play a major role in your story. Give us one of your favorite scenes from the book featuring your inlaws.
I think my favorite scene in the book was when they were leaving San Francisco to return to China. They had lived with us for ten months and after many clashes about childcare, I realized too late, of course, how much I had appreciated their presence at home. Every night we watched Chinese soap operas and news from Beijing while Cai went out. And they were often my only adult interaction at home. As we said goodbye at the airport, I also thought about how difficult it must be for them to leave Jake, their beloved grandson. So this scene is full of contrasts and difficult emotions.
Your book includes many memorable characters, but none more so than “Japanese father” — a rather unconventional father-figure to Cai. Without giving everything away, could you tell us something about this fascinating character?
Japanese Father was a music professor who visited China one summer and met Cai in Wuhan. The two became pen pals and wrote long letters to each other almost every week. The Japanese economy was so far ahead of China’s at the time—it wasn’t even comparable—so the opportunities that Japanese Father could offer Cai, and later his friend Rui, were very attractive to young teachers who had no other way of making more than US$75 a month. Japanese Father had a lot of time to spend on his Chinese protégées because he was estranged from his wife and son. His daughter still spoke to him, though.
As the subtitle explains, your story is “a love affair with China gone wrong.” Some people may see your book as yet another story that casts Asian men in a negative light, as well as AMWF relationships and even China itself. How would you respond to those concerns?
The subtitle refers to my initial attraction to China and how that all changed. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just didn’t go according to plan. As for a negative portrayal of Asian men, I can only see two Asian men who don’t come out looking great. Some reviewers think that Cai is sympathetic, and I can see that, too. But the others—Baba, Cai’s friend Rui, my former brothers-in-law, and even the guys I dated in Hong Kong—are portrayed just as men in any other countries. They have a variety of positive traits and aren’t lumped into one general category. And as one friend pointed out, at the end I go to lengths to protect the Chinese male who matters most to me—my son Jake. As for AMWF relationships, I clearly do everything I can to make mine work. In writing my story, I hope that people will see how not to conduct an AMWF relationship! And as for China, I felt aligned with many young Chinese at that time. Every time Cai and I returned to China, he was heartbroken that it was changing so quickly and wasn’t like the China of his childhood. I echoed his feelings and could see how things were different even from my first trip to China in 1988. To me, that’s not being anti-China, but rather wishing for a smoother transition, for China to have eased into the twentieth century instead of leaping into the twenty-first in one blink!
Could you share some of the lessons you’ve learned from your courtship and marriage to Cai, and what you hope readers take away from your book?
From the courtship, people will probably conclude that I married Cai too quickly. But I think it’s more than that. He told me from the get-go that he had certain conditions for our marriage. Those are things I ignored or thought I could eventually get him to change. That should have been my red flag, not the time in which we became engaged and married. And from the marriage, I hope people can see that it’s not a good idea to justify bad behavior in the name of cultural differences, whatever those may be. (Unless we come from the exact background as our partner, we will have cultural differences. My new husband and I are from different religious backgrounds.) If something doesn’t sit well, it doesn’t sit well and shouldn’t be tolerated. It doesn’t matter if the person is from Asia or the US or wherever. One more thing: just be yourself and you’ll be fine!
When Marghini wrote that her Chinese boyfriend “just never thought a Western girl could ever be interested in him,” it was as if she channeled my good buddy Xiao Yu from 2002. Back then, he offered a nearly identical explanation for the frustrating experiences I had with a number of Chinese men who drifted in and out of my life — and never responded to my subtle flirtations. (I would meet John only months later, who ended all of those frustrations for good!)
Marghini’s story speaks to a reality that, like it or not, exists not only in China but around the world. But it’s also inspiring to see how she and Mr. B still managed to fall in love in spite of it!
The first thing I thought when I met Mr. B for the first time was that he looked very weird. I had arrived in Beijing only few days earlier and I quickly noticed how Chinese guys usually looked, behaved, dressed, and spoke English. Then I met this guy, who didn’t look, act, dress or speak they way the other Chinese boys did, yet sported a Chinese looking face.
Coming from a small Italian city, I was never really exposed to Asian Americans or simply to people with a very international upbringing. Therefore I just assumed that face and identity had to correspond. That is the reason why I was so confused at first; I couldn’t fit that funny looking guy into any of the categories I was used to. This confusion quickly turned into curiosity, which quickly became attraction. I was captured by the fact he looked so different from anyone else and my inability to decipher him just added to my attraction. His reserved personality, coupled with my inability to fully comprehend his American accented English, didn’t make it any easier for me to understand who this charming Chinese-non-Chinese was.
Time went by and slowly I got to know the guy better. I discovered why he looked so “mixed”, being born in Hong Kong but raised in Singapore, New Zealand and the US. My attraction grew bigger and bigger and I started thinking about how to show my interest to him. Being a hot-blooded Italian lady, I was used to being very direct and open about my feelings, but this time I found myself scratching my head. I didn’t know if I had to consider him Chinese or a Hong Konger or a New Zealander or an American, and I didn’t know if any of these identities would require a different approach from what I was used to. Groping in the dark, I decided I had to keep my Italian outgoing nature at bay. I bit my tongue and tried to approach the guy in a more delicate and indirect way — just few glances here and there, a couple of sweetish emails and a lot of eagerness to engage in conversations with him. Yet I felt so lost in translation! This soft strategy kept going for longer than a month and even though I sometimes felt like I spotted some sign of interest in me, nothing really meaningful happened. Then I tried to be a bit more direct, leaving a small present on his desk with a nice encouraging note, obtaining no reaction but a “thank you”.
I started considering the idea that maybe he was just not that into me. I tried to feign indifference, but in reality I felt incredibly sad and disappointed that the Chinese-non-Chinese boy didn’t share my same interest. At some point, I just stopped trying. I thought that my attempt to date out of the box just didn’t succeed and that maybe it was not my cup of tea. Maybe I had to stick to Italians as I always did.
I would have never ever guessed that Mr. B was actually very into me! He just never thought a Western girl could ever be interested in him, so therefore he just assumed he was misunderstanding my behavior. Funny enough, this handsome, smart, talented, kind and well-educated boy was convinced he was not attractive enough to date out of his race. His upbringing in New Zealand and the US, where he had to face some nasty jokes about his ethnicity, made him believe that Western girls would never even consider dating an Asian guy. He had been struggling for his whole life, feeling too Chinese in the Western world and too Westernized in China. He felt like he never really fit. Therefore, during the whole month I spent trying to communicate my interest, he was just trying to convince himself it was not possible that a girl like me was actually attracted to a Chinese boy.
Long story short, eventually Mr. B woke up and realized that he had to take a leap of faith. So he finally invited me out. We have been together ever since our first date.
Sometimes I still don’t understand whether he is more Chinese or New Zealand, or American. I would say that different sides of his personality reflect different cultures and identities, like a crystal prism projects different colors according to the edge. That is why I fell in love with him, and why I choose him everyday — because he is offbeat, different from anyone else and really unique.
Marghini is an Italian architect who accidentally stumbled into a life in Asia and has never been the same since. She currently lives in Hong Kong with her boyfriend while they figure out what’s next for them.
Ever since I discovered the blog Nama-Mama back in April, I’ve been dying to know the love story behind it all. I mean, it’s not every day you run across a white American gal who fell in love with and married a Tibetan man. Well, I’m excited that Kimberly stepped forward to tell us all how she and Konchok met!
Before I went to live in Xining I sometimes joked to my parents that I might find a nice guy there and settle down. My mother always gave me a disapproving look, which I laughed off because I wasn’t serious. I went back to China because I missed it, and because I had the chance to go to a place out west, where I could be among Tibetans and other minorities.
I met an amazing Canadian woman there and we became really good friends. At the time she was an English teacher for an organization. After she got to know me well, and I had told her that I wouldn’t mind meeting a nice young man, she introduced one of her students: K.
I’d seen him at a couple of gatherings previously but we hadn’t talked. She gave me his phone number and we began to exchange text messages. Then one night when my friend was out of town I couldn’t open her apartment door to feed her cats. I called K to come and help me and he did. We finally got the door open, cleaned up the cat mess together, then I made tea and we put in a movie. We didn’t watch it though, we just talked.
After that we continued texting and going out together on weekends. I consider our trip to the South Mountain our first date. We brought a picnic lunch and found a quiet place among the pines. I told him I was afraid someone was going to steal my boots. Later he shouted “Kim! Your boots are gone!” I scrambled around worriedly looking for them and spotted them right where I left them. The guy had a sense of humor, and I liked that.
It wasn’t long before he started to tell his family about me. First his brother, who was quite supportive, and then his parents, who were worried about various things such as the high divorce rate in America and the inevitability of me leaving him once I got homesick for my own country. Though their concerns were valid (they didn’t know me), K did what he always does when it came to his own life: whatever he wanted. And in this case, he wanted to marry me. (I later found out that once a Tibetan tells his family about his girlfriend it means that they will get married if the parents agree. Otherwise, children will never talk about their romantic relationships with their parents.)
He started to talk about marriage three months into our relationship, which freaked me out a little, but if I’m honest, I knew by four months together that we would get married. I told him that we’d have to wait at least one year to be really sure that we were compatible. The months went by peacefully and to this day we have never had a fight. His family has also come to know and like me and we all get along fine.
We are now nearing our second wedding anniversaries. We have a baby daughter who brings us a lot of joy. We are both really relaxed most of the time and take things easy. I can’t imagine sharing my life with anyone else.
Kimberly is an American woman living in Xining City, Qinghai Province, with her Tibetan husband and baby daughter.
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