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.

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 and

      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:

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Buffalo Bill's Defunct--or is he?

So this is how it goes, people. You fall in love with a man and he's the love of your godddamned life and he dies. And you've already gone through your self-destructive phase---you're done. Now you live in in your little one-bedroom apartment in Chinatown and you're cool with that. Don't drink too much, don't do drugs, don't talk to anybody who does, You are so on top of it, bitch.

And then you're on a deck of a Seattle waterfront hotel, sipping your Prosecco with a friend whom you used to sell books with, calmly and rationally discussing how The Mikado should be staged for the 21st century--calmly even though you don't agree. What you do agree upon is the importance of clothes and the sheer delight of Seattle's blue, sparkling summer. And then there he is.

The guy is so wasted he can barely stand up but he's smart enough that he gets every fucking cultural reference you throw his way and then he matches them. He's trying to hold up the wall and you offer him one of your chairs. Then you try to play with his mind but he's right with you and god is that fun. You talk and you go into that mental foreplay that only self-destructives really know-- how to fall into check and then checkmate. It's fun--more fun than you've known in a long, very long time.

But you're in your mid-sixties and this dude claims to be just entering his mid-century point. He's been places you might know and then again maybe not. He's not juiced up, he knows opiates and you don't. You're with a friend "more brave than me, more blond than you" and you leave with her, not him.

But the edge is there, again. You never wanted it but it is back. The guy with the teeshirt advertising Guinness in Gaelic is one of your people. And how the hell do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death? Oh much too much--we speak the same language, he and I.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

If You Can't Stand the Kitchen, Get Into the Heat

There are many things I love about living alone, but a solitary mealtime isn't one of them. Cooking for one seems dismal and involves far too many leftovers. Take-out is everywhere in my neighborhood but I've lived here for years--the choices no longer dazzle me and the expense takes its toll. Two days ago I went to my local supermarket and bought my usual standbys--lean pork loin and plain yogurt. I steamed some jasmine rice and ate my supper, feeling bored to death.

Then it came to me in a blazing flash of satori--why bother? If food is becoming a chore, why not forget it. Following the example of a willowy friend who also suffers from meal ennui, I bought a large can of whey powder and a bottle of peppermint extract. Water, powder, a frozen banana, and a dash of extract whirled in a blender three times a day--voila. There they are--breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

This is the second day and the liberation from the tyranny of what am I going to eat today is dazzling. It's not a diet regimen, although god knows if I lose weight that would be fantastic. The day I wake up eager to eat something, I certainly will--and eating with friends is still high on my list of pleasures. But that obligatory force-feeding that comes with living alone is something I'm more than happy to be done with. Viva the blender!