How We End Up Where We Are

This week, I passed the 50,000-word mark on The Good Shufu, meaning (phew!) I’m still on track to get it to my editor at Putnam by my deadline in Jan. One of my main themes in the book, and I think a central theme in so many people’s lives, is how the world can lead us to two opposite places at once: the place we never thought we’d be, and the place that was somehow our destination anyway, even though that destination looks completely different from how we thought it would. (More about this here.)

So recently, I was really excited to learn about a new memoir coming out from Sourcebooks, Good Chinese Wife, by the incomparable Susan Blumberg-Kason, who writes about her own unexpected journey. Here’s what Susan says about the ways her story describes ending up where we least expect to be and where we were always heading, and finding these to be, in some senses, one and the same:

A Journey of a Thousand Miles

I’ve heard it as a statement and asked as a question, out of earshot or spoken to me directly. It’s been happening for so long that I can’t recall when it started. And it doesn’t matter where it comes from—relatives or people I’ve just met—but the bottom line is the same. People can’t understand how someone who studied Mandarin and earned an advanced degree in Chinese politics isn’t working in either or both.

I was a serious student, albeit never at the top of my class. Yet I toiled in college, copying Chinese characters over and over seven nights a week, including a year abroad in Hong Kong. I continued studying Mandarin after graduation for a couple of years in Washington, DC.

Susan Blumberg-Kason
Susan in front of her dorm in China as a student in 1991

Back in the early to mid-1990s China was opening and foreigners were just beginning to flock there to find work. My first love was Hong Kong, so I returned there for graduate school when I was twenty-three. That’s where I studied Chinese politics. I pictured promising job prospects after graduation, and with any hope they would allow me to remain in Hong Kong.

But family got in the way. Or rather I should say I chose family over career. I just didn’t know it at the time. I had always viewed myself as fiercely independent and non-conformist. In 1991 at the age of twenty-one, I traveled alone to forbidden countries like Vietnam and dangerous ones like Cambodia. I was cut off from the world alone in a Moscow apartment, shivering and feverish from an unknown illness, just a month before the Soviet Union fell. And surely the very fact of moving back to Hong Kong as a single woman a few years later proved that I was my own person.

One month into my first graduate school semester I met and fell in love with a dashing PhD student from mainland China. I married him six months later. After receiving my master’s degree, I took any job I could find in Hong Kong just so we could stay together while he finished his post-doctoral fellowship. This was in 1996, a year before the Handover and during a massive localization program where all jobs were to go local Hong Kong Chinese. Expats were hired for their foreign ‘expertise’, and in my case that turned out to be something in which I had no formal training or educational background. I happily accepted my one job offer: an English editing position at another university in Hong Kong.

Susan Blumberg-Kason
And again, in front of the same dorm, in 2012

When my husband’s Hong Kong visa expired a couple years later, he wanted to try living in San Francisco. He had several friends from China who lived there. So I followed him to California and accepted an entry-level editing/administrative assistant position because it would give us immediate health insurance, which we needed badly because I was pregnant. By the time we divorced at the new millennium, I was no closer to working in a field where I could use Mandarin or my background in China and Hong Kong.

Fast forward a decade. I remarried and now live in a small, Chicago suburb. I stay home with my three kids while my husband works a seventy-hour week. He’s in a career that requires a local license, so there’s no chance we’ll ever move from this area. But after all this time, I’m finally using my background in Hong Kong and China.  And it’s in the most intimate way I can think of. For the last five years I’ve been working on a memoir of my first marriage and my years in Asia. GOOD CHINESE WIFE will be published by Sourcebooks next summer. [Note from Tracy: YAY!]

The road to publication—learning to write memoir, finding an agent, going on submission to land a publisher—has been the most challenging and difficult job I’ve ever had. But it’s also by far been the most rewarding. It just goes to show that things often work out better than one could ever expect.

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12 thoughts on “How We End Up Where We Are

  1. Thank you so much for asking me to guest blog! I enjoyed writing this piece and thinking back to how life sometimes takes us on unexpected twists. Congratulations on making it to the 50,000 word mark! You’re making great progress!

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  2. Came into this just wondering a little about the mutual blogging society you gals seem to be starting… leaving quite fascinated:
    With all the “having it all,” “leaning in,” etc. discussions that are going on, this could be read as the story of a woman who was – quite typically – not strong, driven, or whatever enough to really make it. And it would, by the sounds of it, be a totally wrong judgment very much based on ideas (of life, and predominantly career life) that are serving us ever-worse, in my opinion.

    What serves us well is just what you, Susan, did, I think: Remaining open, following a path – and not minding when it leads somewhere else.
    Sure, we have to do something, steer (or at least, step) along in a direction we think will be good. But, not without some openness to seeing where the winds may lead us, and some understanding and acceptance that things may – indeed, will – turn out differently from the expected… and still, good. Perhaps, better.

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    1. Gerald, I know your comment was to Susan, but I’m moved to respond because your point about the “having it all” and “leaning in” topic is one I’ve been thinking about myself a lot lately, and I love that you picked up the relevance here. It seems like many high-profile women lately are talking about the sacrifices women make for their careers, but I think that’s only half the story, and not necessarily the most intimate one. A perhaps more relevant issue for may women, like Susan and I, is being honest about the sacrifices we, as self-defined feminists, face for our marriages, esp. when they involve cross-cultures.

      I know I’ve struggled with a lot of feminist guilt over “choosing” my husband’s world “over” mine. (I’m American, he’s Japanese, and we live here in Japan.)

      But as you suggested in your comment, sometimes we can see sacrifices as not so one-dimensional and we can work hard to find meaning and fulfillment in the choices we end up making, even if they involved sacrifices or the the inevitability of bowing to not being able to have it all.

      Susan, like you say, followed her own path and eventually it has lead her somewhere great, not disenfranchised. And I’m so thrilled for her about her book deal! (And I feel so lucky myself that after giving up my career as a US-based academic, I’ve also gotten a book deal about my life as a “gaijin wife.”)

      Of course, neither Susan nor I will probably ever become business leaders like the women at the center of the “lean in” debates, but I’m not sure that this means we have less than they do or will end up less fulfilled.

      Or maybe I’m wrong?

      Susan would love to know what you think!

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      1. Really good points, Gerald and Tracy! I’ve also had to ‘choose’ between my husband’s lack of enthusiasm for China and my love for the motherland (ha). I dragged him to Beijing back in 2002-2003 and we suffered through SARS and smog, but I still dream of kidnapping him to a much kinder part of China. As my husband often says, “Life is full of psychic choices” and as such, every choice we make comes with a compromise. And yes, this definitely relates to the “Lean In” conversation as well — a small plug: my HIPPO Reads partner Anna is working on a post on this right now. Will let you know when it’s live so we can continue the dialogue!

        Many thanks to Tracy and Susan for starting this great conversation. Looking forward to where it leads…

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      2. Thank you, Gerald and Tracy! I think with these “lean in” debates, people are looking at the issues in black and white terms. Either or. And that’s not the way things usually work.

        Other factors like extended family can play a large role, too. I know in Tracy’s case, it would be very difficult to leave Japan because her father-in-law is elderly and has health issues. That was one reason I returned to my parents in Chicago after my divorce. For a while I daydreamed about moving back to Hong Kong (with my toddler son at the time), but my parents weren’t getting younger. And as it turned out, my dad developed a terminal illness soon after I moved back to Chicago. Maybe others wouldn’t put family first, but I think many do if they are fortunate to still have parents, grandparents, etc.

        It’s funny about the writing career that I’ve fallen into. When I remarried and worked in corporate communications, it made no sense to stay at my office job because I soon had two kids on two very different schedules. We would have had to spend almost all of my salary on childcare. So my new husband casually suggested that I stay home and write novels, as if that were the easiest thing in the world. But as it turned out, I feel that writing has been a perfect fit because I can work at home and still spend a ton of time with my family. It’s very important to maintain one’s identity.

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  3. Congrats, Tracy, on that great accomplishment. I am eagerly awaiting The Good Shufu’s publication!

    And Susan, this is such a great reminder to let life teach us its lessons rather than trying to fit our plans into what life hands us. Like you, I fell in love with China many decades ago and my relationship with the country, and my scholarship there, has been fraught with issues — like any good love! Thank you for reminding us that everything can come full circle in the most meaningful and delightful way. Looking forward to reading your book as well! Such great literature will be entering the world soon! 😉

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    1. Katilin, it’s so interesting to me when people like you and Susan write about falling in love with a foreign country. I fell in love w/my sweetie and his country came with him; I wonder how different (or maybe the same?) the issues of home and choices and sacrifices would seem if my love were the country, not the man. But one thing I find so hard about living overseas is missing that incredibly rooted feeling of just being ‘at home.’ Do you not miss that, if you live overseas in a country you’ve fallen in love with?

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      1. Thanks, Kaitlin and Tracy. Kaitlin, that’s so interesting about your husband. Mine (new) husband has only been to Asia once and that was four days in Hong Kong with me last year. He loved it, but because of his job and closeness to his family, we’ll never leave Chicago. I was so relieved that he loved our trip there. I can’t wait to read your HIPPO Read partner’s piece! Tracy, I always wondered something similar to what you asked. If I had fallen in love with a person before his country, would it have been different? Maybe. As for feeling ‘home’, I felt that in Hong Kong when I first went there at 19. I had been to China at 17 and didn’t feel home there, so in comparing HK with China, I knew I belonged in HK. Maybe it would have been different if I’d gone after I’d finished college and grad school and had had an established career. All these what ifs!

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