The train is hot. I’m reading Susan Blumberg Kason’s memoir, The Good Chinese Wife, on my Kindle. A woman I don’t know across from me asks if she can use my phone to make a call. I tell her I don’t have a phone. She asks four others in our row. All refuse. She sits back down and takes out her own phone and gets into a vociferous argument with someone. I have no idea what language she’s speaking in or why she needed another phone in the first place. I drown out the argument and focus on the memoir.
It starts off in Hong Kong and recounts how she first fell in love with Hong Kong scholar, Cai. They were both students, both attracted to each other. Kason is able to recreate the youthfulness and innocence of her younger self. I feel like I’m in a conversation and her voice is bold, funny, sad, candid, and lucid. The conjunction of cultural clashes is a key thrust of the journey; but it’s also just as much about a woman finding herself, weaving together an often agonizing journey that is rife with misunderstandings and disappointment between the two. She finds difficulties in the cultural differences, as well as the physical hardships of simple things like taking a bath. Fortunately, there is television as palliatve:
“I found refuge in a soap opera called Russian girls in Harbin. The noticeably foreign women on the TV show lived in northern China and encountered cultural differences every day- at work, with friends, and in love. I fancied myself one of them; learning the complexities of Chinese culture by trial and error. Clinging once again to images of our happier days in Hong Kong, I vowed not to let cultural differences taint our marriage.”
But as she begins to suspect, this isn’t just a matter of cultural differences. He’s obsessed with porn (even watching it on their honeymoon night), is often thoughtless, cold, controlling, and just an asshole using the you’re a foreigner, you don’t understand China lie as a way of masking his selfishness. Things take a turn when the possibility of his unfaithfulness enters the fray:
“For the first time, I felt alone in Hong Kong. It was as if six million people had finally let me in on an inside joke. Was this what people meant by cultural differences? I could handle things like eating sea slugs or using squatter toilets. But a cheating husband was a cultural difference I hadn’t bargained on.”
Kason transcends culture, all while deftly navigating in between the pylons of Asian idiosyncrasies. My train ride continues. The woman across from me is now talking in loving coos on the phone. The argument has changed from anguish to desire. We’ve arrived. As I prepare my bags, she runs off the train to meet her lover. I wonder what she would have done with my phone.