Did you know that 2019, the Year of the Pig, was a widow year, and it was supposedly “unlucky for marriage?
A “widow year”?
I’ve heard the term “widow”, a woman whose husband has died, used to describe all sorts of things, from the “widow’s peak” on your hairline to, of course, the deadly “black widow spider”. And given the original meaning of “widow”, the term, when paired with a year, struck me as a rather ominous combination.
This piqued my curiosity, which prompted me to do a little research and learn more about this superstition.
Why do people call it a “widow year”? And why is it supposedly bad for marriage?
A “widow year” means any year in the Chinese lunar calendar without lichun or Spring Commences, one of the 24 solar terms that divide up the lunar year. Specifically, lichun or Spring Commences marks the coming of the spring season.
According to the China Daily article Couples Rush to Tie Knot Ahead of “Widow Year” (published Feb 3, 2010), some Chinese people think of lichun or Spring Commences as “a time of Yang (masculine) energy.” To them, a year without lichun or Spring Commences equals a year without Yang energy as well.
The article provides further clarification:
Superstitious people believe women who get married in a year without the “Spring Commences” day will become widows. … Tradition-bound parents also fear consequences like husbands coming to harm, marriages breaking down and children getting bad luck.
Should you postpone your wedding plans during a “widow year”?
If you’re newly engaged, should you put the nuptials on ice or opt for a speedy elopement before the “widow year” begins?
Well, consider what that China Daily article also said:
Regarding the idea of a “widow year”, Guo Hu, director of Beijing’s Bureau of Meteorology, says that on average, there are seven so-called “widow years” every 19 years. But there are also seven years with two “Spring Commences” days in the same 19 years.
“It is totally groundless to say a year without a Spring Commences day is unlucky,” Guo told the Beijing Daily.
In other words, it all depends on your perspective and what you consider auspicious.
After all, imagine all the hundreds of thousands of people who marry in any given “widow year” around the world. Every single one of these couples could not possibly suffer the same marital misfortune. If a “widow year” truly posed a threat to people everywhere, then why didn’t anyone ever pass the warning on to me while in the US?
When I say my husband and I had a “half-naked marriage”, you’d be wrong to envision the two of us parading down the aisle in, say, a stripper’s version of wedding garb. As titillating as it might sound, the reality looks far more practical (and not nearly as sexy), as reported in the Feb 3, 2010, China Daily article Embracing a ‘naked marriage‘:
A witty poem on major BBS and SNS websites defines naked marriages as: “No apartment, no car, nor diamond ring; no wedding ceremony, nor honeymoon; each of us pays 4.50 yuan ($0.66), and we get a wedding certificate to start a new life.”
There are two types of naked marriage, the totally nude kind and the half-naked marriage, which means the man should at least provide a ring or something else for his beloved when they get hitched.
By July 2007, it’s not as if John and I hadn’t wrestled with these issues before. We faced “Money” all the time — hadn’t we survived summer 2006, when some months I never knew when the checks from my new business would come in, and wondered what bills to pay and what to leave aside? Hadn’t we just managed to scrounge the cash together for plane tickets? When it came to “Car,” we were just grateful that our secondhand 1991 Toyota station wagon — teeter-tottering with every bump on its barely-there shocks — still ran after some 170,000-plus miles. And as for “Home,” we felt lucky to manage the rent on our place — owning just wasn’t in the cards for us yet.
Still, we did have a wedding ceremony in 2007 (which included a banquet that welcomed over 150 guests) and enjoyed a simple honeymoon a few years earlier in Bali, firmly placing us in the “half-naked marriage” camp.
While the public seems to appreciate the philosophy of true love trumping everything else, most respondents in repeated surveys still reject the notion of disavowing all traditional trappings of marriage.
When asked about “naked marriage”, a recently coined term for getting married without owning a house, car or much other property, 45 percent of those polled said they are not against the idea, but less than 30 percent would “practice a naked marriage” themselves.
While I embraced our half-naked marriage, I don’t believe I represent most foreign women either. In my previous post 5 Fascinating Stereotypes of Western Women in China, I emphasized that many follow the lead of Ember Swift, who blogged about how she valued the financial stability of the Chinese man she later married.
Nevertheless, China will always have its share of couples who dare to eschew all that pricey pomp and circumstance, whether for frugality or simply to make a statement. And while Jun and I most certainly did not have a bare-it-all ceremony, that hasn’t stopped some couples in China from trying out a more literal interpretation of the naked marriage concept — such as saying “I do” in something resembling their birthday suits.
What do you think about naked marriage?
P.S.: For those curious, naked marriage in Chinese is 裸婚 (luǒhūn).
It’s nearly summer, that intoxicating season of endless love — and, where I’m from, one punctuated by lots of wedding invitations. If you’re planning to tie the knot in China or know someone who will, here’s handy little reference of Chinese wedding/marriage words and expressions, with some of my own personal notes.
Getting Married in Chinese
Qiúhūn, 求婚: Whether you’re getting down on one knee or making a big spectacle, this word means “propose marriage.”
I proposed (marriage) to her.
wŏ xiàng tā qiúhūn le
But keep in mind that there are also different words for a woman marrying a man versus a man marrying a woman. The difference reflects the Chinese perspective that the woman marries into the man’s family.
Qǔ,娶: If you’re a man and you are marrying someone, you use qǔ,娶, which also can mean “take a bride”. For example:
He married a girl from Henan.
Tā qǔle gè Hénán gūniang.
Jià, 嫁: Women, however, are perceived as marrying out and so you use the word jià, 嫁 instead. For example:
I married (gave myself to) him.
Wǒ jià gěi tā le.
But if you think that’s confusing, so are anniversary dates in China. That’s because most people register their marriages and thus become officially married ahead of the wedding ceremony itself. (If you’re curious, read The Dengji Question: How Marriage in China Gets Confusing.) Which brings me to the next word…
Dēngjì, 登记: While this word means “to register” in general, it’s also a term people use to describe registering a marriage in China (which must be done in a marriage registration bureau and usually happens before an actual wedding ceremony occurs).
We registered (our marriage)!
Hūnlǐ, 婚礼: This is the standard word for “wedding ceremony” and the best term to use when in doubt.
But there are other similar words people often use to talk about wedding ceremonies (which usually just comprise the banquet with guests in China), such as xǐshì, 喜事 (usually taken to mean “wedding”), xǐjiǔ, 喜酒 (meaning “wedding feast”) and of course, hūnyàn, 婚宴 (“wedding banquet”, also the name of the famous film by Ang Lee).
Wedding Attire in Chinese
Hūnshā, 婚纱: The white bridal gown, which has become standard for brides in China. At wedding ceremonies/banquets, the bride usually wears her hūnshā first. If you’re purchasing a wedding dress in China, keep in mind there are lots of options for having yours tailor-made, which is what I did years ago in Suzhou (which like a number of cities, has its own “wedding-dress street).
Tóushā, 头纱: The veil for your white bridal gown.
Qípáo, 旗袍: As I wrote before, the qipao or cheongsam is “a high-necked and form-fitting style of dress with slits down the skirt, often on both sides. The dress first appeared in 1920s Shanghai as a modern take on traditional Manchu garb, and has since evolved into a stylish tradition of its own for women in China.” Since most Chinese brides wear several dresses, many opt to have a qipao at their weddings. I actually wore two at mine.
Wǎnlǐfú, 晚礼服: The evening gown, another wedding dress option chosen by many Chinese brides.
But let’s not forget the groom…
Yànwěifú, 燕尾服: A tuxedo, one option for the groom.
Tángzhuāng, 唐装: A Tang suit, which mainly consists of a jacket, often made of silk or silk brocade, to match a bride’s qipao. My husband wore a Tang suit at our wedding.
The Wedding Party in Chinese
Xīnniáng, 新娘: The bride. While weddings in the West traditionally have reflected the bride’s style, weddings in China often revolve heavily around the family and guests. In other words, it’s a family affair, much like in Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet.
Xīnláng, 新郎: The groom.
Xīnrén, 新人: The newlywed couple.
Bànniáng, 伴娘: The bridesmaid(s)
Bànláng, 伴郎: The groomsman/groomsmen
Traditionally, bridesmaids and groomsmen in Chinese weddings should be unmarried individuals.
Other Wedding Must-Haves in Chinese
Hūnshāzhào, 婚纱照: Pre-wedding photos, one of the most important — and glamorous — steps in getting married. There’s a huge industry in China devoted to turning every young couple into models for a day, complete with multiple outfits, professional makeup and hair designers, and airbrushed photos.
Jiéhūn jièzhǐ, 结婚戒指 (hūn jiè, 婚戒): The wedding ring. While not a traditional part of Chinese weddings, most couples today will exchange rings.
Hūnchē, 婚车: The wedding car, a modern version of the traditional wedding sedan chair (or jiàozi, 轿子). Expect your wedding car, which is almost always a luxury model, to be decorated in elaborate flower arrangements.
Xīnfáng, 新房: While it literally means “bridal chamber” — traditionally, extended families lived together so the new couple only had a chamber within the home — now people use the term to refer to the apartment or home purchased explicitly in preparation for a wedding, usually bought by the groom. (The pressure to buy an apartment in China, where prices have skyrocketed in major metropolitan areas, weighs heavily on the shoulders of young men, especially if their families don’t have much money. See Marriage in China Is Home, Car Money?)
Xǐtáng, 喜糖: Wedding candy. Whenever someone gets married in China, they will pass out wedding candy to all their guests as well as friends and even coworkers who may not have attended the nuptials. There’s a whole industry built around this, with ultra-cute boxes for the candies. (I love chocolate, but soft corn candies shaped like miniature corn cobs are a personal favorite as well.)
Nàodòngfáng, 闹洞房: Roughhousing in the bridal chamber, also known as the most humiliating portion of the wedding for the bride and groom. Their friends will either corner them in the banquet hall or follow them back to the new apartment or a rented hotel room, and tease them with risque practical jokes (including those involving bananas). Traditionally, it was done to ease the new couple into their sex life, long before sex education existed; now it’s just done to amuse the guests and make the couple blush, and then some. Sigh.
Hóngbāo, 红包: Red envelopes stuffed with money. Chinese weddings may be exhausting for the couple, but at least you can count on receiving lots of these from your guests.
Other Helpful Chinese Wedding Expressions
Méndānghùduì, 门当户对: Refers to families of equal status. Traditionally, Chinese marriages happened between families that matched each other in rank and wealth.
Báitóuxiélǎo, 白头偕老: A happy greeting for the newlyweds that means, “May you live together until you’re old and gray.”
The other day, a friend told me the idea of marriage was outdated and totally over-commercialized. She said she had absolutely no interest in getting married.
I totally understood where she was coming from – because, after all, there was a moment in my life when I felt exactly the same way.
I’m not sure when it started – probably sometime in high school – but I was ambivalent about marriage and weddings. Whether it was the rising divorce rate, the growing acceptance of cohabitation or the fact that I never met anyone I could even picture myself married to, I can’t really say. I just know I didn’t grow up with dreams of the perfect white dress and honeymoons and the house in the suburbs with that white picket fence.
My mother once told me about the girls she remembered from college, there for the so-called “MRS” degree. I started my freshman year at university with her advice echoing in my mind – how I should just enjoy myself and not get too tied down to anyone. I enjoyed going out with guys during college, but I always intuitively understood that it was never about finding “the one” and more about finding out who I was. Though I never explicitly said so to anyone or even to myself, looking back, I realize I struggled with the idea of being committed to anyone — making thoughts of the greatest commitment of all, marriage, impossible for me.
But all that changed when I went to work in China after graduation, and fell for a Chinese man. It was the first time the M-word – marriage – was a serious possibility.
It wasn’t just that I was deeply in love with him, more than I had ever felt for anyone else in my life up to that point. Nor was it some generalized cultural pressure from family, his or mine.
No, it had to do with something most of us take for granted – the ability to introduce someone to your family and your parents and even your hometown.
At some point in my first year in China, during that time when this guy and I were dating, I imagined what my dad and stepmom might say when they finally shook his hand in their home. Or what my grandma would make for us when we came to visit. Or what he would think after seeing the high school I attended and the library my mother once worked at.
But these thoughts were easily derailed by the harsh reality for Chinese passport holders, who included my boyfriend. After all, he had applied twice for a US visa and was rejected both times. It didn’t matter how much I hoped to take him home to see the family and my hometown, because there was always this huge international bureaucratic hurdle that stood between us.
It’s one thing to ask your parents if it’s OK to bring your steady boyfriend or girlfriend over, not certain how Mom and Dad might respond.
But it’s another thing entirely to have to ask an entire country for permission to bring this person over in an embassy or consulate, where your love for them and your word no longer matters. Where decisions can sometimes feel arbitrary and capricious in the cold, aseptic visa interview rooms. Where it’s sometimes hard to understand why some people get visas and others don’t.
For me, my decision to marry him wasn’t about pleasing him or pleasing his family and culture either; to be perfectly honest, it was about securing a visa! Anyone who has lived in China without a permanent work visa knows that the Chinese system for foreign visas is an ever-changing nightmare. And, by extension, I admit that I liked being identified as “the one” in his eyes—the one worthy of a life commitment. Are those first reasons selfish reasons to marry? Was I wrong to marry him when it benefitted me and my ego? I’ll concede that I stepped around my previous political views on marriage in order to express my respect for his culture, too, but that’s not exactly a selfless act of love; it’s more about mutual human respect.
While of course she loved Guo Jian, the added benefit of gaining a visa to stay in China was among the reasons she wanted to marry him.
What I’ve learned over the years is that debates about the “usefulness of marriage” or whether “marriage is outdated” or even whether “marriage is too commercialized and therefore pointless” are a luxury not everyone has.
You don’t have this option to talk about whether marriage matters when you’re a Westerner in love with a foreigner who isn’t given a visa on arrival for your country. Or when you’re a foreigner loving someone in his or her country, where securing a visa through marriage could ensure the two of you remain together. Being subject to the heartless bureaucracies that go hand in hand with immigration rules and residency gives you an entirely new perspective on the value of marriage.
At the same time, I’m not advocating for sham marriages that exist only for the sole purpose of gaining a visa or residency in a specific country.
But the fact of the matter is, nothing is perfect. Not marriage or weddings or, especially, the immigration rules that can potentially wreck the best of plans between a young international couple genuinely in love with one another. Sometimes we do the best we can with what we have.
And sometimes, marriage matters simply because it could mean the chance to take your loved one abroad and finally see him shake hands with your father in your hometown, just as you always dreamed of.
My husband and I were having dinner the other night at a vegetarian restaurant in Hangzhou. It just so happens that you were dining only a few feet across from us with your girlfriend.
When we first sat down, I saw the both of you enjoying a bowl of the sour and spicy vegetarian “fish” soup with pickled vegetables. I remembered how delicious that dish was, and how I hadn’t ordered it in a long time. I thought to myself, those girls have good taste.
But that was before my husband and I overheard your conversation.
You told your friend about how dissatisfied you were with your boyfriend. You said his salary of “only” 8,000 RMB a month wasn’t good enough. You flicked your expensively dyed long hair aside with great disdain as you said, “He can’t possibly support me.”
Your girlfriend, wearing black faux-leather leggings and stiletto-heeled boots just like you, nodded in agreement.
The two of you went on to belittle this young man, who you fell in love with in college, for another reason. His hometown was somewhere outside of Hangzhou. It was yet another black mark against him. Yet more proof he would never be “rich enough” for you.
I’ve heard this sort of thing before.
Years ago I learned that, for many people in China, marriage is all about having a home, car and money. I understand that women often evaluate men based on these marriage must-haves. I’m aware that there was even a girl on TV who once famously said she’d rather be crying in the back of a BMW than smiling on the back of a bicycle.
There’s a woman in China who once told me, “The purpose of life and marriage is to make money.” On the surface, she has it all. She and her husband own at least five apartments, drive a brand new BMW, have a son, and earn lots of money through the family business.
But privately, she is the saddest woman I have ever met.
She is bitter and constantly complains. Despite her huge bank accounts, she is stingy to the core. Her husband has cheated on her; she fights with him all the time. Her son is on the way to becoming a juvenile delinquent. For a time, things were so bad that she actually threatened to commit suicide.
I would not be surprised if she had cried in the backseat of her shiny new BMW.
Never would I wish to change places with this woman, even though she has so much money. I’ve realized I’m actually happier than she ever will be. There are far more important things in life her money can never buy. A peaceful, happy marriage. Love. Friendship. Kindness. Generosity. The ability to see hope in the darkest hours.
You can’t measure these things in dollars or yuan. I don’t care what that woman once told me – money isn’t everything. It never was.
So if you decide to break up with this guy just because he makes ￥8,000 a month and isn’t from Hangzhou, there’s nothing I can do to stop you.
If you end up marrying a wealthier man, maybe you’ll get lucky. Maybe he’ll be a nice guy who just happens to be rich.
But if he isn’t so nice after all, then maybe you’ll discover what it’s really like to have tears in your eyes in the back of your luxury car.
And if that happens, believe me when I say this: I won’t be crying for you.
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.
Our friends who dined with us that evening had no idea it was our 10th anniversary. (We actually told them it was a dinner to celebrate my birthday – which was true, in part.)
It’s crazy, I know. And you might be wondering, Why would they hide such an important anniversary from their friends in China?
Because in China, it’s incredibly awkward to be married for 10 years and not have any kids. So awkward, that my husband just doesn’t want to mention it to his friends or even talk about it with people we know (like a friend’s mom we walked through the park with the other night). It’s funny how something that made me feel so proud could actually make me feel embarrassed at the same time.
For those of you wondering what that awkwardness is like, here are 5 things that reflect the challenges of being a married couple of 10 years in China with no children:
1. You will need a coping mechanism for the many times people ask you, “Why don’t you have children?”
In the US where I grew up, this sort of question is mostly off-limits (unless you have one of those really nosy relatives who doesn’t know the meaning of the term “off-limits”). In China, it’s par for the course. After all, this is a country where “Are you married?” and “Do you have children?” are a Chinese equivalent of asking “Are you well?” – ways to show your care and concern for someone else.
Well, believe me, when people find out we’re married but have zero children, they look INCREDIBLY concerned.
This is a culture that believes marriage and children are as inseparable as Beijing duck and those tasty little pancakes – you just cannot have one without the other. Chalk it up to Confucian values, particularly filial piety. In fact, of the three unfilial actions, the worst of all is never having kids (which are the next generation to care for the elders and worship the ancestors).
When I hear this question – “Why don’t you have children?” — the flippant side of me desperately wants to say, “Mind your own business!” But that doesn’t go over too well with most people, as you can imagine.
Sometimes I just say, “Because we don’t.” Sometimes I tell people, “Because we can’t,” and leave it up to them to figure out what that means. Sometimes I just change the subject. But more often, if my husband is with me, I just leave the answering to him!
2. You will need to find your inner courage whenever your mother-in-law suggests you’re an “old maid”.
I love my mother-in-law to pieces, but whenever we return back to the family home after a long hiatus, she immediately brings up having kids and then tells me I’m “too old”. After all, we’ve been married for a decade and I’m over 30 (30 is the official “expiration date” in China for having kids).
I know what you’re thinking, it’s just her opinion and it’s just a bunch of words. But things like that have a way of wiggling into your subconscious and tugging on your insecurities. Before you know it, you’re wondering, “Am I too old?” Or worse, you follow this whole train of thought to its depressing end – often something involving you curled up on your bed crying away a perfectly good afternoon.
It takes a LOT of courage to fight through these awkward moments and find your inner confidence. I still don’t have a magic bullet to deal with suggestions that I’m too old. What I have found, though, is that moments of just being present – taking a walk through the park, or focusing on my breathing – can help me feel more comfortable with where I am right at this moment.
3. You will dread going home for holidays like Chinese New Year, when all of your husband’s peers from school come over to visit – with their school-age children.
Unlike us, my husband’s peers jumped on the baby bandwagon almost immediately into their marriages (including a friend whose wife was famously pregnant and showing at their wedding – a bridal bump I had the chance to witness with my own eyes).
So whenever Chinese New Year comes around, they come around to visit as well – with, well, their young and even school-age kids.
Actually, for the most part, his friends and peers don’t give us pressure. It’s their parents that do – parents who will compare us to John’s peers and then pelt us with all sorts of uncomfortable questions or comments (usually of the “Why don’t you have children” or “You’re too old” variety) when they notice we have no little ones in tow. The whole situation completely strips all of that sepia-toned nostalgia from the idea of “home for the holidays”.
We were able to dodge a lot of these questions this year, because most people were just glad to see us back in China. But next year? I don’t really know what’s going to happen. Deep down a part of me is secretly saying, “Help!”
4. You’ll feel isolated from your friends with kids – and instead gravitate to friendships with other people who “don’t belong”.
Don’t get me wrong, we love our friends with kids. But sometimes being around them can feel a little uncomfortable, particularly when they – with well intentions – bring up the topic of us having kids. Sometimes we feel like we don’t entirely belong to the same club, if you know what I mean. So of course, we inevitably gravitate to our other friends who feel as if they “don’t belong” in Chinese society.
In particular, one of our best friends in China is Caroline, who happens to be what people call a “leftover woman.” “Leftover women” and “leftover men” describe people of a certain age in China (over 27 for women, 30 for men) who haven’t married yet. They also feel as out of step with China’s society as we do, because it’s just not normal in China for adults to be single.
We’ve always loved Caroline, our mutual friend who introduced the two of us years ago. But maybe we feel even closer to her because she’s like the ultimate safe space where we can vent about the awkwardness of our situations – hers not being married, ours being childless.
I feel like I’ve come to understand Caroline’s pain every time someone else pelts her with that unwelcome question: “Why aren’t you married yet?” She’s even shared with us some of her less-than-pleasant encounters with the question, encounters that make her angry and frustrated, and I feel her. Because to me, the question isn’t all that different from “Why don’t you have kids yet?” It’s a question that also singles you out, that divides you from the world, that reminds you of something you lack or something that perhaps you even desire but cannot have.
The other night, she told John and me about this one ridiculous girl she used to work with (“ridiculous” was her description) who kept interrogating Caroline about things that could easily have been ripped from a list of the “10 most cringeworthy questions in China”: Why aren’t you married? Why don’t you own an apartment? Why don’t you have a car?
“What do you want to hear from me?” Caroline said to this girl (surely in a voice that was getting dangerously close to angry). “That I’m unable to find someone? That I have no money?” Somehow, just hearing about Caroline’s courageous, “take no crap” response to this girl made the three of us erupt in a cathartic burst of laughter. In these moments, we always feel a little less alone and isolated.
5. “Being married for 10 years with no kids and living in China” will become one of the scariest things you write about.
For the longest time, I never wanted to go public with this topic. It scares me because it’s such a personal thing – and one that weighs on me on a regular basis (for many of the reasons I mentioned above). Why put it out there and risk having more people tell me either 1) You’re too old for kids or 2) What’s wrong with you?
But one of the things I’ve learned from my husband is the importance of self-acceptance. This is who I am – a woman who has been married to her Chinese husband for 10 years, lives in China, and has no children. Will I be like this forever? Honestly, I really don’t know for a lot of reasons I can’t share on this blog. But regardless, I must face my reality and embrace it – in all of its awkwardness. And for the moment, maybe that’s enough.
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!
I go to China frequently for business and I have this friend there (she is the younger sister of our business partner). I knew her for many years. She is a pretty and hardworking. We develop a more personal relationship over a trip together to Beijing. She expressed to me several times that she wants to marry me and move to the states with me.
Here is the dilemma, I don’t really want to marry her because I don’t have any chemistry with her? She is very nice and sweet but I didn’t see any spark when I was with her. I hear that in China and in Korea (where I’m from), marriage is more of an arrangement for the betterment of the FAMILY. I am a totally westernized Asian so I just don’t buy into this argument that you need to get married for the sake of marriage itself. I need that special someone who I can actually love right away, not eventually love while married?
If I do marry her, I can see that my business can expand because she is already closely involved with the business. But if I say to her that I am not interested, I’m afraid she will tell her sister so my business can be adversely affected?
I am in my 30s and she is also in her 30s. So in China we’re already too old to not have gotten married. She is also a divorcee with a child (she don’t have custody of him which is a whole another sad story in itself). I don’t have a problem with her being a divorcee.
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