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From Chicago to China and Back Again: Susan Blumberg-Kason

GCW CoverNot long ago I had the pleasure to meet Susan Blumberg-Kason, author of the recently-published memoir Good Chinese Wife. The book is a very honest and brave look at Susan’s difficult marriage to a charismatic mainland scholar and musician, Cai. They met in Hong Kong, spent time in China and settled in San Francisco, where their baby boy was born. After the marriage fell apart, Susan returned with her son to her hometown, Chicago. She eventually remarried and had two more children before writing Good Chinese Wife. I found Susan’s writing completely compelling but also very, very personal. It takes guts (!!) to write so candidly. After I heard her speak about the book’s journey, which is an interesting story in itself, I asked if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions for therockmom, about writing, family and of course music!

Q: Let’s start with the memoir, which is a great read! Full of drama and emotion but not in a woe-is-me kind of way. When you were writing was it difficult to sort of re-experience your history or were you able to write in a more detached way? I imagine you’d almost have to look at yourself as a character, that you’d need that distance, to make the narrative work.

A: Thank you for the kind words about the book! If I had written it right after my divorce, it would have been an angry, finger-pointing story full of rage. But since I started writing it eight years after that marriage ended, I had enough distance between those events and the new life I had created for myself. I was able to distance myself from the person I was during the years of Good Chinese Wife. And once I started working with independent editors, and later my agent and editor at my publishing house, the book became a collaborative effort and I certainly looked at myself as a character. We would talk about me in the third person as if I was a character!

Q: I’m always curious as to how writers’ families react to their work. You spoke about it a bit at your book talk, but I’m wondering: did you get your current husband to read any early drafts? What did your children think when they saw the actual book, I mean it’s such a fun thing, right? Seeing your name on a book!

A: My husband Tom hasn’t read the book yet! I was worried about family members reading early drafts because I was worried they would try to influence what I wrote (ie, keep me from revealing so much). I guess I didn’t need to worry about that with Tom! He has been so supportive and pushes my book at work like it’s a drug, then proudly reports back to me when a colleague has read and liked it. Now he’s trying to muster up Amazon reviews. Tom at first said he would read it, but I have the feeling he doesn’t care to go back to that part of my life. He knows about the events in the book, and I think that’s good enough for him! As for my kids, my son Jake is sixteen and hasn’t read it, but I’ve placed it on a bookshelf and told him he’s welcome to it anytime. Some of his friends have read it, though. My two younger kids are too young to read it, but they were so excited when my review copies arrived in the mail. We all held a copy like it was a new baby. I also brought my little ones to a bookstore to see it on the shelves for the first time, and that was super thrilling, too.

Q: Going back to the story of you and Cai, you met him in the world of academia, but you know after I’d finished the book I found myself thinking that being married to him sounded a lot like being married to a rock musician! The hours, the lifestyle, the – dare I say – ego. Has anyone ever suggested that before? What are your thoughts?

A: No one ever compared it to being married to a rock star, but Cai himself warned me—after we married. The first time he stayed out until the early hours of the morning, he was recording a CD for a businessman in Singapore with a group of musicians at the Wuhan Conservatory of Music. When he returned home the next morning, he shrugged and said it’s difficult being married to an ethnomusicologist. As it turns out, he wasn’t kidding! His late nights out in California were all music-related outings with friends he had met in the Chinese music community there. I don’t think that lifestyle is impossible for a spouse, but the person who keeps those late hours needs to make sure he (or she) makes up for it when he’s home!

Headshot from Hong Kong 3

Susan stopped in Hong Kong recently for the release of both Good Chinese Wife & the How Does One Dress To Buy Dragonfruit anthology.

Q: You mentioned that while you and Cai were together, you spent a lot of time around Chinese music and musicians. What’s your take on classical Chinese music? It seems to be an acquired taste!

A: I like Chinese classical music! I’m certainly not an expert in it, but I like the different instruments and the sad melodies. Often when we went out with his friends in China to karaoke, they would sing revolutionary songs, which I thought was funny in a kitschy way. I even learned some of them. I know that’s not classical music, but that’s what Cai’s generation grew up on and what they were most familiar with at that time.

Q: You’ve also said that you actually started to learn to play the erhu with Cai – how difficult was that? Are you a musical person? Do you play any other instruments?

A: I am not a musical person, although I took piano lessons for eight years when I was young and can still read music. The erhu was kind of a fluke. I had signed up for a Japanese language class in graduate school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, but the class was taught in Cantonese. So I had to drop it because I only speak a smattering of Cantonese. A friend from Japan was taking erhu lessons at the University, which I thought sounded very cool. So I signed up, too. It was a lot of fun, and Cai tutored me in erhu after we first met. After we got engaged, he stopped. My class was only a semester-long and I didn’t continue. At the end of the course, I could play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star! I still have the erhu I bought in Hong Kong twenty years ago.

Q: What kind of music did you listen to as a teenager? What artists/bands had the most impact on you growing up?

A: I grew up in the seventies and eighties, so the first music I listened to on the radio was disco. This was the time of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, so the Bee Gees were my favorite when I was eight and nine. I also liked classic rock like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, which are my favorite bands to this day. But the ones that had the most impact on me growing up were The Cure, The Clash, Violent Femmes, and anything that would fit in a John Hughes movie. I not only watched his films religiously, but also grew up in the area where they were filmed. Also, my uncle was in a ska band in the ’80s, so I grew up on that. My parents would take us to all-ages concerts at venues that usually didn’t allow kids under 18. My uncle’s band played with Peter Tosh and The English Beat, so it was pretty cool to have a successful musician in the family.

Q: The English Beat! That is so cool. Are you sharing any music with your kids these days? You have a teenager plus younger children, right? Are there any artists that everyone can agree on – or is everyone’s tastes different?

A: We listen to music mainly when we’re in the car. I’m a chronic station-flipper, so I turn the dial until I find a song I like. My little ones are familiar with Top 40 songs, whereas Jake, my teenager, has eclectic taste. My husband Tom and I have taken Jake to see Bon Jovi, the Rolling Stones, and Lady Gaga! That’s kind of a good representation of what we listen to in the car, and all three kids are fine with that. Jake plays trumpet in his school’s marching band, jazz band, and orchestra. I’m sure he gets his musical abilities from his father!

Q: So, since you’re from Chicago, I’ve got to ask about Windy City music, which is so varied and unique: blues, house, indie rock, etc. Is there one band or singer that you would say is the quintessential sound of Chicago?

A: I would have to say that Buddy Guy is the quintessential sound of Chicago. He has a blues club not too far from where I used to live in the city, before I moved to the suburbs. Buddy Guy’s Legends attracts both locals and tourists. Back before we had a smoking ban, he used to perform several smoke-free concerts every January. Those were always popular. Now Legends has a new venue, with great food, and it’s all smoke-free now. When I meet people new to Chicago or visiting for the first time, I always recommend a concert at Buddy Guy’s, especially if he’s performing.

Thank you Susan for taking the time to chat with therockmom!

For more information, please check out:

Susan’s website

Susan on Twitter

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THEROCKMOM SUPERLATIVES: My Most Popular Post

After five years of posts – music-related, parenting-related, Hong Kong-related, comedic, serious, somewhere in between – my most-read post remains this one. It didn’t require any research or interviews, no field work, no iTunes purchases. Just over 500 words about how I spent an afternoon at my girls’ school. In terms of page views, it’s received almost twice as many as the next most popular read, American Village Idiot: Green Day in Hong Kong.
 
I don’t know why this post touched a chord with readers, but it did. I suppose that’s what we’re all looking for when we write – that satisfying moment when we put in to words what we’re feeling and we find out others feel the same.
 
Thanks for looking back with me this week and thanks always for your support. Have a good weekend!
 

The Serious Business of Talent Shows

It was one of those lump in your throat moments. A flashback to my younger self and a bittersweet flash forward of a young girl growing up in front of my eyes.

It was my daughter’s talent show.

The Year 5 and 6 talent show was not meant for parents. But I happened to be at school that day helping in my younger daughter’s class, so I asked my older daughter’s teacher if I could quietly perch in a corner of the hall for the show.

The group of five girls was dancing to (oh, irony) Lady Gaga’s ‘Just Dance’. One of the girls, who goes to a hip-hop class, had choreographed the routine. There was considerable back and forth about costumes: black t-shirts, jean shorts check. Hair up, hair down? Baseball caps on or off?

They had discussed and rehearsed during lunchtimes and breaks. We parents had nothing to do with this performance at all. We didn’t even have to arrange carpools!

When I told my daughter I might pop in to watch she didn’t seem to mind. When I asked her if I could bring along a big poster a la American Idol and yell out some whoop-whoops, she screamed and pummeled me with her fists.

‘What?’ I asked, ‘You don’t want me to embarrass you?’

She screamed louder. I promised to behave.

The show began with a group of Y6 girls sort of dancing, not quite karaoke’ing, but mouthing the words to ‘Fireflies’ by Ocean Eyes. Their teacher sat near me, reminding her students in the audience to show ‘big smiles’ and ‘encouragement’ and clap for those courageous kids on stage.

The acts that followed – a tap dancing duo, a drum solo and a comedy skit (boys in crazy wigs, always good for a laugh) – revealed an earnestness and seriousness of purpose that can still surprise me. Maybe the joy is in finishing?

It was now the Ladies GaGa’s turn. My daughter and the choreographer took the front two spots while the other three (taller) girls stood behind. Turns out the back three didn’t know the routine quite as well, and they spent a good portion of the dance giggling at each other and trying to catch up.

But those front two? Man, they owned it.

They sang along and danced with confidence, wonderfully free and unembarrassed. The steps were simple hip-hop moves – neither raunchy nor suggestive – and everyone clapped when it was over.

My daughter is changing so much. I turn around and her new self appears before me, taller than yesterday and oh so competent.

Many years ago, my friend, Christine Chapa, and I danced to “Night Fever’ at our elementary school talent show. We wore pink shorts and t-shirts with our names ironed on the back. I remember walking home from school that day under a brilliant blue sky. I still had my costume on, and I felt like a fluffy white cloud up there.

At my daughter’s show, I felt the same high. I also felt my eyes moisten, and I wondered why I get so emotional.

But right at the end, I managed a slightly muffled whoo-hoo!