This cross-cultural birthday post is a bit different than the others. More rum, less sprinkles. A sophisticated, intercultural love story, this coming-of-age tale plays out over continents, through hopping cities, and over great seas.
Good Chinese Wife is a compelling, smart memoir, bringing you to picture each vivid scene, each paragraph and chapter, with the enthusiasm it deserves.
Susan B. Kason, author of Good Chinese Wife (Sourcebooks, Inc.), writes about leaving Chicago, circa 1990, to study in Hong Kong, the then quiet Tolo Harbour, for a year. Later, upon returning for graduate school, Susan meets the cute cellist. She is smitten with China; taken by Cai’s soft charm.
I’ve been wanting to interview this down-to-earth, yet dazzling author for a long time, and this series became a great opportunity for us to team up! Susan is kind, encouraging, and superbly talented. She must also be quite brilliant.
Kirkus calls her book, “An American freelance journalist’s painful account of how a hasty marriage to a Chinese man turned her life upside down…it is the author’s courage to face her mistakes that makes the book worthwhile.”
This guest post is not an excerpt from her book, but a very separate response to my prompt; I asked the author for a birthday anecdote that was difficult, or rewarding, perhaps nudging us to reexamine our own cultural expectations.
Here it is!
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I met my first husband a month before his thirty-third birthday. By the time I found out when it was, his birthday had passed. On his birthday the following year, we were already married and still living in the Hong Kong graduate student dormitory where we met. I asked Cai what he wanted to do for his thirty-fourth birthday, but he only shrugged.
“Nothing special,” he said. “I haven’t celebrated it in years. Honestly, sometimes I forget all about it.”
I felt so bad for Cai and knew I had to put an end to this business of not celebrating his birthday. Maybe this was a mainland Chinese custom, but we were in Hong Kong, which was a great place to find birthday cakes. Even twenty years later, I can taste the lightness of Hong Kong cakes with its signature whipped cream frosting and fruit filling.
For Cai’s birthday, though, cake wasn’t going to be enough. I had bigger plans: a surprise party! Every night after dinner, Cai watched the news from China in our dorm’s common room. His friends all came from mainland China, too, and milled about the common room all evening. One evening when Cai was out at a department dinner, I wandered into the common room and waited until a commercial break. Then I got the attention of his friends and explained my plan.
“I’ll get a cake and some soft drinks. If you can stay here until seven, that would be great.”
Now I just had to order the cake. That was easy because most Hong Kong train stations housed a Maxim’s cake shop, so I simply hiked downhill from our dorm to the train station and placed my order. I could store the cake in the common room’s refrigerator the afternoon of Cai’s birthday. He habitually played ping pong with other mainland students just before dinner.
About ten minutes before Cai usually left our room to watch the news, I excused myself to make a call on the hall phone. Instead, I ran down to the common room, where I had earlier hid some candles and matches from a restaurant. Cai’s friends were ready and told me they would guard the lit cake while I returned to our room to get the birthday boy.
“There’s a problem in the common room,” I said, out of breath. I felt like an actress, playing her role to perfection. “You need to come right away.”
A sudden look of terror struck Cai’s face. He stood up and pushed away his chair, following me out of the room without bothering to lock the door. He did shut it, though.
When we reached the common room, the lights were out and the candles glowed brilliantly. Just then a friend flipped the light switch and half a dozen graduate students shouted, “surprise”, in English.
Cai’s face froze and it took him a moment to register what was going on. As soon as he saw the cake with his name on it, he sighed with deep relief and said I scared him half to death.
“Don’t surprise me like that again,” Cai told me after we were back in our room. “I almost passed out.”
I didn’t surprise Cai the following year, but still insisted on celebrating his birthday. Cai was back in China for a few months while his passport and Hong Kong student visa were being renewed. I had graduated and had a job in Hong Kong by then, which meant I couldn’t pick up and leave with him for three months. But I could take off a week to visit him for his birthday. “I’ll bring you a cake,” I told Cai over the phone a couple weeks before I left for Wuhan.
“That would be great!”
But over the next week, I worried about taking a delicate Hong Kong birthday cake across the border to Shenzhen, on a bus to the airport, a two-hour flight, and then a rickety bus ride to his hometown two hours outside Wuhan. My friend Zara and I made multiple trips to the Metropole Hotel’s cake shop during our lunch break. I asked many questions about transporting a cake to the interior of China. The women at the cake shop suggested a pie.
“Brilliant!” Zara said. “That would hold up much better.”
And I had to agree. So I ordered a pecan pie. Cai and his family liked to eat nuts, so I figured a pecan pie would go over well.
On the day of my trip, I left work at noon, picked up the pie, and headed home before starting on my half-day trip. Along the way, I took special care to make sure the pie remained secure in its box. By the time I met Cai at the Wuhan airport, the pie was still in tact.
“You brought it!” Cai marveled.
“Yes, of course. We can’t celebrate your birthday tomorrow without a special dessert.”
The next day after lunch, Cai, his parents, three sisters and their spouses all crowded around the dining table, oohing and aahing, while I cut the pie into equal parts. Cai’s eldest sister took the first bite and immediately set her plate back on the table.
“Bu hao chi,” she spat. That’s gross. The others took bites and did the same thing, except for Cai and his father.
Was the pie spoiled or had it gone bad on the trip? I was mortified and immediately took a bite to see for myself.
The pie was spiked with rum and lots of it. Not a big drinker, I still ate my piece of pie out of duty to myself after schlepping it half across China. The rest of it found its way into the trash. I was disappointed the family didn’t like the pie, but also a bit miffed that the cake store hadn’t warned me.
Cai and I wouldn’t celebrate many more of his birthdays together. We divorced a few years after the pie incident.
* * * *
What a nice glimpse at the author, and a fabulous essay. (I’d definitely eat that pie. I keep thinking that.)
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong (Sourcebooks, 2014) and lives in the Chicago suburbs with her three children and new husband of almost ten years. Purchase here
Other pieces in this “B-DAY” series:
Figuring out celebrations in Japan!
Cake in the South of France!