Thursday, October 23, 2014

Losing the Light


As the days shorten here in Seattle, my relocation gene flares into full-blown life again. Light is a minimum daily requirement for me and without it, I begin to wither inside.

I've been looking online at rentals in Tucson, which is appealing not only because of its unflagging daylight, but because it's close to the border. I do love my border escapes and fantasies of going to Mexico through a drug tunnel kept me amused for quite a while.

Then a friend went to San Diego and posted a photo of the ocean there. When I went to Craigslist, the most enticing options were in Playas de Tijuana.
http://sandiego.craigslist.org/csd/apa/4715263371.html

Apparently there is a trolley that runs between Tijuana and San Diego. People commute to work that way. I could use it for book shopping.

Why not bypass that border town option on the US side and head straight for the country that appeals to me?

It's memories of my move to Penang that is making me research this very, very diligently. I began to suffocate in a place that had been so visually appealing to me--even though there was light, heat, salt water, newsprint, and good food. Even though the Thai border was nearby, I felt as though I had to become comfortable in Penang before I left it. That never happened for me. I've never been quite so unhappy.

So I'm looking into this very slowly, deliberately, and carefully. If I do it, I need to get a functional grasp on Spanish. I need to think about personal safety. And I have to realize that although the Craigslist ads are appealing, I'm the kind of woman who's happier living in a local neighborhood near a wet market than in an expat enclave next to a beach.

However as the days grow darker and colder here, it's nice to have a daydream--and I know from experience that those fantasies can come true.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Two-faced Nature of Tourism and its Consequences


Anyone who grew up in Alaska is well aware of the antipathy felt by locals toward tourists--they come with their stupid questions and their condescending attitudes. They clog the highways and drive up prices for the summer. They bring their money and their complaints and their disregard for the year-round lives of the residents. Their sense of entitlement is damned near unbearable, as is the knowledge that their dollars give them an experience that few who live in the area will ever be able to afford. When they all leave as winter approaches, it feels as though a very tight girdle has been removed and everybody takes a deep breath.

But what happens in a country where tourists arrive 365 days a year, with the onslaught separated only by high season and low? Where the host culture and those of the visitors clash so severely that the country tries hard to give visitors a watered-down, pre-packaged contact point? Where etiquette is so much a part of tradition that tourists appear barbaric to local eyes?

In Thailand, sometimes the tourists are murdered. Or death comes under clouded circumstances.

This wouldn't be noteworthy if Thailand weren't so insistent that deaths in their country were nobody's business but theirs. And the first order of business is to cover the whole thing up so thoroughly that nobody will think twice about the death. The foreigner who leaps to his death from a top floor in Pattaya is such a timeworn cliche that it's become a bitter little joke. Less amusing and more obfuscated were the deaths of Chiang Mai tourists in one of that city's hotels. There were a number of them in 2010, all at different times and all of them with the same symptoms. Authorities claimed the deaths were from heart disease until two healthy young women died. Then the reasons for their inexplicable and fatal illness ranged from the misuse of recreational drugs to the consumption of bad Japanese seaweed. Foreign medical examiners determined that probable cause of death was from improper use of high-powered insect repellents, intended to kill bedbugs. Thai authorities ignored that implication of manslaughter--tourists don't like to think that death might lurk in their bedroom. And tourism, as ugly as it can be, keeps Thailand afloat.

Social media,as ugly as it can be, is breaking down the institution of cover-ups, as has been evidenced in the murder of two British tourists on the island of Koh Tao. Every facet of the police investigation has been revealed on twitter and facebook, and shown to be inept to the point of being a tragic farce. No arrests were made until most of the foreign journalists had left the island, but amateur whistleblowers were on the scene when two Burmese migrant workers confessed to the crime after five hours of interrogation by the local police.

The attention to this case has been humiliating to the Thai powers that be; even the Prime Minister has rallied to the defense of a dubious end to a bungled investigation. The burden of his remarks is that foreigners just can't understand the intricacies of Thailand. In other words, mind your own business and keep your noses where they belong.

Meanwhile the country's leading forensic expert has decried the methods used in the Koh Tao investigation and the 300-plus- page police report has been rejected by the local court system as being unclear. The two suspects have claimed their confessions were made under torture and human rights lawyers have come to their defense. This case is not a nine-days-wonder, thanks to the attention drawn to it by social media.

In 1998, pre-facebook and twitter, a Canadian girl was raped and murdered on the island of Koh Samet. A laborer working on the island was arrested immediately and was executed for the crime within a week or two of the death. Much was made of the fact that the dead girl had been drinking in the resort bar with friends and before bedtime had gone alone to the bathhouse to take a shower, clad only in a large towel. A charming little warning was handed to female incoming tourists at Don Muang Airport (yes this was the Dark Ages) saying that they had to dress appropriately while in Thailand or bad things would happen to them. The implication of course was those bad things would be their fault, much like the PM's pronouncement in this century that women in Thailand were only safe in bikinis if they were not beautiful.

Except for people who read the English-language Thai newspapers, and the people related to the dead Canadian, this crime went unnoticed. Even in the 20th century, that rush to execution was extraordinary. Now with what has come to light through social media, it seems suspicious--and very pragmatic. A life or two is easily sacrificed to sustain the economic necessity of Thai tourism.

Death to travelers happens in every corner of the world and so do cover-ups of the crimes. It's the blatant nature of cover-ups in Thailand and the lack of accountability that pervades the institutions of authority that is so incredibly horrible. The deaths of the two British travelers may change this state of affairs, just so long as social media keeps its gaze focused on the official proceedings.

Don't stop looking.



Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Pretty Plastic


When I first went to Bangkok, I was a leather snob—no petroleum byproducts for this American woman. I always brought at least two pairs of Easy Spirit heels with me along with sturdy Rockport sandals. My bag was from Coach. I looked at the array of plastic on the feet and over the shoulders of Thai women and felt pity for them. Frank Zappa's immortal lines, "Plastic shoes, plastic hat and you think you know where it's at," invariably came to mind. Then the rains came.

There’s something about wading down a flooded soi barefoot, shoes in hand, and watching dye leach from a handbag in a heavy downpour that would change anybody’s mind about plastic. When I found out that my feet fit into Thai shoes it was the end of leather for me in the Kingdom.

I once lived with a Thai man who was involved in the fashion business. When he was home, he could always be found in front of the TV, eyes on the Fashion Channel and hand rapidly sketching what was coming down the catwalk. As I watched with him, I began to learn that what was in Milan or Paris one week would appear in the cheap sidewalk markets of Bangkok in the next. My mode of shopping flipped—now I bought plastic in Bangkok to wear in the States.

Without exception, my Bangkok purchases were always ahead of the U.S. curve—thanks to those annoying intellectual property laws. One of my treasured memories was visiting a sweet little Seattle boutique where a man from Vietnam retooled vintage clothing for trendy tastes. I was there with a woman whose handbag was leather and expensive while I carried a small piece of plastic purchased for five dollars at a stall from Victory Monument.

Both my friend and I were surprised when the boutique owner demanded “Is your bag sharkskin? Where did you get it?” and he was looking at me. That’s what happens when you carry Bangkok plastic. It never fails.

I’m getting older and I’ve begun to think of having one or two things that I won’t have to replace every fifteen minutes. So on my latest trips to Thailand, I purchased two small, well-made, classic leather bags that will probably outlive me.

When I carry them, nobody notices them. They look like any department store purchase in this part of the world. But when I go out with my large mustard-colored plastic tote, or my little red envelope bag, or my big squishy turquoise hobo, people ask about them—and will right up to the day that they fall to bits.

Thai Plastic—long may it reign.




Friday, September 5, 2014

Other Homes, Other Laundry


When I think of my homes in the world, I define them by my laundry.

In my primary residence, a century-plus-vintage apartment building, laundry is a matter of impulse coupled with necessity. In the basement there are two washers and two dryers. In my bedroom near one of the windows is a long pole for clothes that shouldn't cook in the dryer. The only barrier I have to clean clothing is having enough quarters for the machines, and my bank is only five blocks away. In this home, doing laundry is as easy as brushing my teeth--and I never take it for granted. At one stage in my life, I did my laundry in two plastic tubs, by hand, in my Bangkok bathroom, and occasionally had to gather it from the ground below when storms swept in, blowing my clothes from my balcony. Having a security guard ask me "Is this your skirt?' in a language not my own is not one of the high points in my memory. For me, sharing a laundry with 49 other residents is no problem at all.

In my Hong Kong home, my first order of business is buying a dozen plastic coat hangers, because my miniscule Chungking Mansions domicile never has more than three hanging from pegs in the wall. Every four days, I carry a bag of laundry to a woman on the ground floor; if she receives it in the morning, I can pick it up in the afternoon. And I do my best to get it soon after 2 pm, because if I hurry and put the laundered clothes on hangers, layering them on the four wall pegs, the humidity will work for me and I won't have to pay for expensive ironing. The most difficult part of this enterprise is being sure that I don't lose my laundry ticket, and having my day bifurcated by the afternoon pick-up. I could of course take the local way out and wash my clothes by hand and hang them out the window, but the thought of marinating them in the stagnant Kowloon air that smells like wet mops makes my laundry bill worthwhile. It's around $32 US per month and that's a price I'm willing and able to pay.

In my Bangkok apartment, laundry is a matter of charm and bemusement. Often the building's laundress has as shaky a command of Thai as I do myself, although the Lao lady and I always understand each other and the Myanmar refugee became much more fluent than I as the years passed. What is sometimes an insurmountable gap is our differing concepts of time and urgency. I always spend more money on clothing than I have planned because most of my clothes are being held somewhere in laundry limbo. But when they do come back to me, each garment is on its own hanger, beautifully ironed and presentable, delivered to my door. I usually pay around $38 US at the end of the month, plus the cost of the beer I use for self-medication when I realize that once again I will have to buy more clothes, since god knows when my laundry will reappear.

All of this is still infinitely preferable to having laundry done while on the road. Punctual it always is, but what will return to me is always a matter of conjecture and sometimes consternation. Ironed? Unironed? Wadded into a clean ball? Will it come back before check-out? These are the questions that haunt me in a strange bed at 4 am. Suddenly the varying laundry methods of my three homes across the globe seem comforting and luxurious, making me realize that familiarity breeds content.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Our Seattle Socialist Saint

Seattle has traditionally boasted a small hotbed of radicalism flaming among its solid citizen bourgeoisie. This has  led to an interesting counterbalance of politically correct liberals providing a public face to the rest of the U.S. while Amazon, Microsoft, and Starbucks carry on the time-honored role of the robber barons. Our mayor is in a solid, same-sex, inter-racial marriage, Columbus Day is soon to be renamed Indigenous Peoples Day (which brings up images of white people thronging the malls to shop the Indigenous Peoples Day Sales), and on the city council is a real honest-to-god, card-carrying Socialist, a woman of color to boot.

Don't gasp just yet--there's more. Kshama Sawant is a PhD from Mumbai who emigrated to the U.S. as an academic in economics and a trailing spouse of a Microsoft engineer. She was propelled to her city council seat by her campaign to raise Seattle's minimum wage to a national high of $15 an hour, a dazzling idea that will be phased in over a period of years, by which time $15 will be a poverty-level wage in this Cascadia boomtown.

Nevertheless, despite revealing herself as a woman more than able to cut backroom deals and water down campaign promises, Sawant has achieved international fame in the pages of the Guardian, Forbes, and New York. And this month in the upscale city magazine, Seattle, the grey eminence of local liberals, Knute Berger, has all but canonized her.

"To insist on a $40,000 salary in Seattle is to take a vow of poverty," Berger gushes, going on to marvel that Kshama Sawant will give "some $70,000 per year" from her "tax-payer-funded income" of $117,000 "to her pet causes." Speculating that perhaps Sawant has a trust fund, Berger touchingly confides that the cost of living in the sixth most-expensive city in America (and #41 world-wide) makes living on "$40K per year--even with benefits--a challenge these days."

I buy Seattle perhaps four times a year as a dose of reality therapy, to prove that the working-class city that I fell in love with in the 80's is gone-baby-gone. In the past year alone, rents in the city of Seattle have easily tripled and my $800 a month one-bedroom apartment in Chinatown is on its way to becoming mythical.

I'm lucky. I live in one of the few downtown neighborhoods that still is affordable to people who live on much less than $40K per year. My own income is about half of that and many of my neighbors live on less. Seattle is not where any of us live. None of us can dream of buying the $3,300 liquor cabinet, the $1,400 pendant light, or the amusing maple, leather and glass table mirror that would set us back a mere $245. Hand-drawn wallpaper will never adorn our small apartments nor will we leave our domiciles wearing Italian stretch wool crop trousers in granite ($380, by a local designer from Bellevue).

When I look at the bungalows that were for sale thirty years ago for $20K, all of them built for blue-collar laborers back in the early 1900s, now inhabited by young urban professionals who paid at least several hundred thousand dollars for them, my stomach tightens. Seattle's current workforce lives in studios that are considered reasonable at $1000 a month. Unless they live in Chinatown--but even that bailiwick of economic sanity is under siege, with tracks laid down for "the latest in Seattle mass transit," the First Hill Streetcar. Seattle is famous for installing cute transit options through down-at-the-heel neighborhoods, with spit and celotex condos following close behind.

Our current mayor believes "public employees should be decently paid" and with the city council drawing $117,000 a year per head, I'd say he is meeting his goal. But he isn't fiscally irresponsible--the superintendent of City Light will receive a mere $60,000 raise to his salary of $245,000. It makes one wonder what the mayor's salary is, while knowing damn well that it's stratospherically above the $31,000 dollars that would be made at one of those yet-to-materialize (full-time) minimum wage jobs at $15 an hour.

Sawant's answer to this? Cap city wages at $150,000 a year. My answer to this? I'm counting the years on one hand before I move--where? Everett, Tacoma, and Bremerton are all undergoing massive rent increases. I'm thinking Tucson...


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Talking About My (De)Generation


There are a lot of us on Medicare right now, with more to come. I've been dubious about this blessing from the very onset but was persuaded to sign up for Plan B and then for the insurance company that would administrate this for me. Every month I pay $104 and every month I continue to bask in rude health--but, as friends pointed out, this could change at any time. Prudence demanded that I make that payment and for once in my life, I decided to be prudent.

By mid-September I will have paid $1000 for unused medical benefits, so recently I decided it would be a fine idea to have a checkup done, my first in thirteen years. It was basic to the nth degree, weight, eye chart, breast exam, Pap smear, a couple of immunizations, and cholesterol and colon lab work.

This basic examination would have cost $728--were it not for the Medicare discount, which brought the exam total to $329.49, which was paid by Medicare. What wasn't covered was a vaccine for tetanus, diptheria, and pertussis, which clocked in at $86, to be paid by me. Fortunately the $137 pneumonia vaccine was covered, which I appreciate but find illogical--why one and not the other?

Then there is the lab work. A $95 analysis (brought down to $19.06 by the Medicare discount) was covered. Another, sent to another lab and billed at an undiscounted rate of $140, was not. This brings the total cost of my basic checkup to $226, a mere $103.49 less than my entire (discounted) checkup.

Feeling curious, I went to the website of the hospital I very occasionally went to when I lived in Bangkok. This is what I would receive for $248 at Paolo Memorial
http://paolohealthcare.com/eng/index.php/package-promotion/138-health-check-up-program
It includes a vision exam by an opthamologist, which in this country I have to make a separate visit to obtain.

For $21 more than what I will pay for a lab test and a vaccine here, I would be given a comprehensive exam in Bangkok.

Since my health is exemplary, according to this recent checkup, I'm so tempted to tell Medicare to take me off their stupid Plan B and then put that money aside for an annual air ticket. That $1200 would get me to Bangkok and back--and pay for my physical, perhaps even a spot of dentistry. This is absurd and I resent supporting this idiocy any longer.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Some Do and Some Don't (You Never Can Tell with Bees)


My mother's attitude toward cooking could best be described as tepid and when I married, I felt much the same way. My father-in-law owned a roadside restaurant and my husband and I ate there most of the time when we began our life together. When we moved away from this refuge, TunaHelper became my best friend. Then I had a baby and found there were huge amounts of my time at home that stretched before me like the Gobi Desert. I started to read recipes in magazines, and then cookbooks. I discovered I could make things that I'd never dreamed of eating--exotic delicacies like eggs foo yung and beef stew with red wine.

As the seventies progressed, so did the cookbooks,and the minute I discovered Elizabeth David, there was no turning back. One year we bought half a pig and every damned bit of it was served up in the style of the French provinces.

Cooking was the least irksome domestic duty and I immersed myself in it. When my kids grew up, I cooked dinner for friends; after my first three months in Thailand, I came back to the U.S. and found a Thai cookbook and made wild forays into that cuisine with enthusiasm and very little skill.

Then I went back to Thailand for two years, during which time I never cooked a damned thing--ever. I made coffee in the morning and that was it. On the streets were hundreds of people who cooked for me, and in the nine years total that I spent in that country, I learned not to cook.

This is not a skill that translates well in the States.

At heart I suppose I was never a cook or I couldn't have relinquished the task so thoroughly. I've been back from Thailand for three years and the only food I ever cook edibly is Thai. When I don't make that effort, I roast chickens and chunks of pork. or I buy a quart of plain yogurt and eat it, or when tomatoes finally smell the way they should, I eat them. But as far as combining these things into a creative little mixture, forget it. That means cooking and I don't do that anymore.

It's too much effort and too much money for too little pleasure. It's boring--both making the food and consuming it. And face it, a tomato tastes best when  in the peak of summer it's eaten like the fruit it is, uncooked with a sprinkling of salt.

Much of my aversion to practicing culinary arts in this country is most of the food is eaten out of season and very little of it is fresh. The worst thing to happen to food was refrigeration. In countries where that's uncommon, food has to be fresh. And that's a terrible thing to become accustomed to, because when you're back in the land of freezers and refrigerators, you don't want to eat.

It's summer in Seattle and I understand the farmer's markets have fruit and vegetables that haven't been shipped for thousands of miles in a reefer van. There's a butcher shop down the street that has unfrozen meat that is displayed like offerings from Tiffany and cost only marginally less. It's the time to eat, I suppose--if I can afford to pay those premium prices for food that tastes good--food that stands on its own without ruffles and flourishes and with the barest minimum of preparation.

Or I can move back to the nation of good cooks and let them do it all for me...


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Too Much With Us, Late and Soon


This week Facebook is filled with images from Gaza and posts that carry links to articles. Photographs of bodies are absorbed into the consciousness of the world along with morning coffee. Not since Vietnam, when network TV brought napalm and jungle warfare into living rooms at dinnertime, has the carnage of war come so close to home.

But the Internet serves up this news 24/7, in thumbnail photos and soundbites--human tragedy in 140 characters, link-clicking optional. A good thing, right? We should know, we should see, we should act. We can click "like" and "favorite" and sign online petitions until our fingers turn red. It's the new activism--read, react, feel good that apathy can be put so easily at bay.

Who can forget the striking photo of Michelle Obama, fierce and beautiful, holding a sign that said "Bring Back Our Girls." Like, like, like--thousands of them clicked on Facebook back in April. Now it's almost August. Far from "brought back," Boko Haram still has the girls from Chibok. A video was released on Nigerian television that showed them reciting the Koran and wearing hijabs, "liberated" from Christianity  claims Boko Haram's leader. That was reported in the New Yorker in late May. In late July,the girls are still being held as ransom, to be traded for imprisoned members of Boko Haram, which the Nigerian government refuses to do.

But what the hell? We all clicked, right? And the world's disasters keep coming to our screens--how the hell can we keep up? In a more naive time, we believed that had we known about Auschwitz, about Pol Pot, genocide could have been prevented. Now we know that we would have decried, clicked, signed online, and moved on to the next photograph.

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/boko-haram-leader-mocks-campaign-to-free-kidnapped-girls/

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Missing What I Do Not Know


Today I woke up missing Nakhon Phanom, a city I've spent two weeks exploring. Two weeks of staying in a hotel that's frozen back in the 60s, walking along the Mekong river, taking a sunset ride on a basic tour boat, drinking coffee at a little corner cafe, and eating desserts at a lovely oasis owned by a woman I met when she lived in the States. I've spent hours walking this city's dusty and colorful streets and I know it not at all. I'm an observer, not an analyst.

And that's a good thing, because so many foreign analysts who bring their microscopes to bear on the many landscapes of Thailand are horribly, laughably wrong in their assessments. The foreigners I respect are the observers, who watch and keep their counsel. I try my best to emulate them.

My private opinions have been formed by where I've spent time. In Bangkok the neighborhood that I lived in for years is Thai and in it I've seen a segment of the multileveled nature of Thai society. It's taught me that many people in the capital city are often little different from their rural counterparts, except their cost of living is much higher. From conversations held in and out of a classroom, with middle-class people who have traveled widely and are bilingual, I have found that official dogma, repeated throughout years of education, not infrequently replaces critical thinking. As for truly wealthy people in Bangkok, I have no idea. But I have been in the home of a man in Samut Prakan who had five cars in his garage, among them two Benz and  a Jeep Cherokee. You could easily drive an 18-wheel truck up the main staircase of his house, which had the gleam of highly polished teak, and his wife, who taught at the local primary school, had a lighted, walk-in closet filled with the deep glow of silk cocktail dresses. She gave me one when I admired it and told me it was made of Shinawatra silk from Chiang Mai. In Thailand even the silk has a pedigree.

I know how people in Bangkok live when they are hungry because I was, after the baht fell. So were the people I worked with and we banded together, Thai and farang. We shared. We took care of each other. The Thai people taught us foreigners how to do that and I will never forget those lessons.

These are things engraved on my bones and I know they are true. But don't ask me who burned parts of Bangkok in 2010. Or who hired the snipers who killed people who took refuge in a temple. Or who The Men In Black were in the recent protests. I don't know--and you know what? Anyone who says that they do, especially if they are foreigners with a limited knowledge of the Thai language, is a dupe, if not a liar.

The only political opinion I have is that all Thai political leaders of all lineages and regional origins, just as in my own country, are manipulators of public opinion. There are no good guys among them and the rest of the Thai people are getting it in the neck. It's happening right now, but we're unlikely to hear much about it because Thai media is being suppressed in a way that's been absent since perhaps the 70s. Facebook is being monitored for sentiments that may not be "happy" and who knows how long the foreign press will have a toehold in Thailand?

Even in my brief episode in Nakhon Phanom, politics became part of what I observed, enough that I know there are people there who are not happy. The thought of them not being able to express that truth makes my stomach roil. Thai, I was always told, meant free and a Thailand that is under rigid control isn't somewhere I want to be. I will probably spend a long time missing Nakhon Phanom.




Saturday, July 19, 2014

Good Chinese Wife: A Celebration!




This radiant, talented woman will launch her first book, Good Chinese Wife, a riveting story of a marriage that did its best to span two divergent cultures, in stores on July 29. To celebrate this achievement, she is making a blog tour and stopped here to answer some questions about her marriage and her book. Next stop--tomorrow's appearances at http://offbeatmarriage.com and  http://martalivesinchina.wordpress.com

      When you first went to China in 1988 as a teenager, what first attracted you to that country and its culture?

I felt drawn to China when I was a pre-teen. My uncle worked for the airline TWA for twenty years starting in the 1960s, which allowed my grandparents to travel the world for free. They made eight trips to Hong Kong, including many when I was quite young. My grandfather always wanted to visit China, but during most of the time he could travel for free, China wasn’t open to the west. It always seemed like a forbidden fruit until the mid-80s when my father began to teach graduate students from Beijing and Shanghai. These students were all female and were married to amazing men who followed them to the US. The students were like sisters I never had. They and their families would come over for Thanksgiving and Passover and became part of our family. So while my friends in high school dreamed of studying in England and France, I looked toward China. I was also fascinated by the concept of Hong Kong and felt an urgency to see it before the handover.

      What year was it when you went to graduate school in Hong Kong and met Cai?

That was in 1994, three years before the handover. It was a special time in Hong Kong. People’s confidence has returned after Tiananmen, but the handover brought much uncertainty. Mainlanders were starting to travel—and move—to Hong Kong around that time. Much of my story happened because of the timing of these events.

3      Why didn’t you move to Shanghai or Beijing after your marriage where there would be a vestige of what you were used to in the midst of Chinese culture, English-language bookstores, for example, and foreign communities?

The foreign communities in these cities were still very small in the mid-90s. Cai thought about moving us to Beijing, but the housing he would have received through a potential job would have been two hours from the city. He thought that was too far to commute. I was always drawn to Shanghai, but he never considered it for very long, which is ironic because that’s where he lives today. His top choice in China was Wuhan, which was two hours from his parents. He had close ties there and felt most at home there. The Hankou part of Wuhan reminded me a bit of old Shanghai, but the city on the whole was not cosmopolitan at all apart from a French community that ran a joint venture automobile factory. I took this out of the book, but Singapore was actually Cai’s top choice soon after we got engaged. He had a contact there who promised him a job, but months later that suddenly ceased to be an option because Cai had a professor who defected there and ended up hating it. My mistake was that I told Cai I would follow him wherever he found a job.

I    In The Uncooked Seed, Anchee Min talks about the comfort she found in watching pornographic movies when she first came to the U.S. In Beijing, porn is displayed quite openly in shop windows of sex shops in otherwise staid neighborhoods, right beside the shops that sell handbags or shoes. Is there a different attitude about pornography in China; is it more accepted than in the U.S.?

Porn was still hidden from public view in the mid-90s. Cai wanted to write a newspaper article about porn in 1996 to introduce it to people in China. That article never materialized, but I think it shows that it was still relatively uncommon back then. And I think that explains why he was so drawn to Times Square in early 1996. I haven’t been to China in sixteen years, but it sounds like things have greatly changed since then! It might be more accepted in China now, but perhaps because it’s relatively new since it was outlawed under Mao.

        Japanese Father is one of the most chilling people I’ve ever encountered outside of fiction. Particularly puzzling is the large sum of money that he entrusts to Cai. What do you think was the explanation for this? Money-laundering is what comes first to mind, but what do you think?

Gosh, I never thought about money-laundering. I just assumed it was in exchange for a service! Either something Cai did or viewed. Cai’s friend Rui had a huge falling out with Japanese Father, and it sounded to me like Rui rebuffed Japanese Father’s advances. I couldn’t think of another reason for Japanese Father to suddenly cut Rui off like that. Your guess is as good as mine!

          Since Cai told you at the outset of your relationship that he didn’t want to move to the U.S., why do you suppose he so rapidly succumbed to the charms of San Francisco?

For our three years in Hong Kong together, Cai changed his mind every month or even every week about where he wanted to live after graduation. I think the freedom to travel and to live wherever he wanted was overwhelming after the government decided that for him for his first 35 years. When you’re used to having these decisions made for you, it can be quite daunting to suddenly be able to make them on your own. He went back and forth between Beijing, Wuhan, Shanghai a little, and Singapore. Hong Kong was out because of the immigration laws at the time. He even talked about moving to New York—for a day or two. Every time we went back to China, he because depressed about the rapid changes there. He thought the people were becoming selfish and money-hungry. And this was before there were millionaires in China! It was difficult for him to reconcile the China of his youth with what was going on in the mid-90s. Because he had half a dozen friends in San Francisco, he thought that would be a good place to settle. It was the flavor of the week when we traveled there for spring break.

        For me, one of the few moments that made me feel sympathy for Cai was when he broke down in the suburbs of San Francisco, saying “It’s not convenient here. It’s not like Hong Kong.” But then I wondered how a man as old as he was could make such life-changing decisions (get married, move to another country, buy a house there) so impulsively. I know this sounds very American, but do you think medication might have helped your marriage?

Yes, and for both of us! We definitely should have tried marriage counseling, but he wouldn’t hear of it when I brought it up. I think by then it was too late, though. He’s been nothing but kind and caring since our divorce. Soon after our divorce he said something about going to counseling himself. I think his impulsiveness had to do with all the sudden choices he faced once he married me. He claimed he didn’t want a green card or US passport, but those things did give him a newfound freedom to live and work anywhere in the US and travel freely abroad.

   The nightmare of having your in-laws live with you for a year would have been insupportable even if you shared a common cultural ground. (Then to add Japanese Father to the mix!) How did you manage to keep your sanity during that time?

I was just trying to survive and get through each day. Work helped, too, because I could joke around with my coworkers about my in-laws and it seemed to lighten up the problems at home, which I kept to myself until a few months before I left San Francisco. But it wasn’t the first time I’d lived with Mama and Baba. I had to take this out of the book for space reasons, but they spent three weeks with us in Hong Kong, sharing our 420 square foot apartment, in early 1997. We got along all right because I worked all day and only saw them at night and on the weekends. And we didn’t have Jake then, so I wasn’t uptight about cultural differences. I was so relaxed in Hong Kong and I guess I thought it would be the same in San Francisco when they lived with us for a year. Of course, that didn’t happen!

     The barely controlled violence Cai displayed toward his infant son is terrifying, contrasting sharply with the controlled way you gathered information on how to leave him without charges of desertion, kidnapping, and other repercussions. How did you manage to keep your own emotions in check during that perilous time?

When I made those plans to leave, it felt like an out-of-body experience. Something took over, maybe because I was in a rush to act before Cai booked us tickets to China. In the past, I went along with everything because I always held out hope that he would change. That’s the thing about emotional abuse. It’s like a rollercoaster. Sometimes the perpetrator is nice and sometimes he’s mean. But it’s always unpredictable. I couldn’t wait around to see if he would change after he decided we needed to go back to China to visit his family.

       Cai’s third wife sounds like a force to be reckoned with and you say that your conclusion was that “here was another woman who was probably gaining from what Cai had learned from his mistakes with me.” Do you really think that’s the case or did Cai find the mother he needed, capable, sophisticated, take-charge, with no offspring to distract her from her husband?

I think he was always looking for a strong-willed person even though he acted like a dictator when he was married to me and I presume when he was married to his first wife. His parents never said no to him, but I really believe that he was screaming for help and wanted some boundaries in his life. And as I mentioned before, I think he probably sought out therapy and was in the right frame of mind to listen and to change after our divorce. I guess we’ll know for sure when he finds out about the true nature of this book!

1    This must have been an extremely difficult book to write. Would you ever write another memoir?

It was difficult at first, but that’s the beauty of taking five years to write it and one more year to publish it. After I left him and moved back to Chicago, it was all I talked about. My new neighbors and friends must have thought I was batty, but I suddenly felt the need to talk. Eight years passed between my divorce and when I started looking for an agent, so it definitely helped to put some space between leaving Cai and starting to write the book. I am writing another memoir! The working title is Once Upon a Time in Shanghai and it’s about finding out that I had a relative who was a Jewish refugee in Shanghai during WWII and how I inadvertently visited most of the Jewish landmarks in late 80s through the mid-90s before I knew anything about this history. I’ll add more scenes with Cai in Shanghai that I cut from Good Chinese Wife. I’ll also write about the years post-divorce and how I became interested in the story of the Shanghai Jews. 


Susan will launch Good Chinese Wife in Napierville, Illinois on July 29th at Anderson's Bookshop--you can find information about other appearances here: http://www.susanbkason.com/