I Read a Book: Susan Blumberg-Kason’s Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong (2014)

Good Chinese Wife CoverLet me be honest: Good Chinese Wife is not something I would normally read.

Susan’s ex-husband was Chinese; my wife is Korean. Susan’s relationship goes from friends to engaged in less than two minutes; we lived together for years, and had lots of wild sex before I proposed. Their marriage rapidly turned sour; we just celebrated our tenth anniversary. They married, had a child, and divorced way back in the 1990s; I’m really only interested in Chinese attitudes towards dating, sex, and marriage in the 2010s. And so on.

I’m still grateful for receiving a reviewer’s copy, organized by Jocelyn Eikenburg of the Speaking of China blog (see here for many more bloggers’ reviews). But first impressions? I expected it to be very outdated, and that it would have little to offer readers with Korean partners.

I was dead wrong, on both counts.

Good Chinese Wife begins in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, where Susan is doing a graduate degree (she previously spent a year there as an exchange student in 1990). Then in her early-twenties, she soon becomes smitten with Cai, an older mainlander from Wuhan. She starts tutoring him English in her dorm room; unbeknownst to her, other students consider them already dating. This prompts him to open up and explain he’s already been married and has a child, revealing all as a prelude to showing he is now interested in dating Susan. Because in China, Cai explains, “couples traditionally only date if they plan to marry.”

This sounded very antiquated. But as it turns out, dating in China is still not at all like in the West, nor even Korea. In Behind the Red Door: Sex in China (2012), Richard Burger explains that even in the big cities, “serial dating” is frowned upon as immoral or promiscuous. Instead, “most Chinese women still believe it is best to date only man and to marry him. Once the man invites her on a second or third date, he is indicating that he’s serious, that he is hoping for an exclusive Behind the Red Door Sex in Chinarelationship, and that marriage might be on the cards.” Whereas for women, inviting her to meet her parents “means she expects to marry him, and Chinese men understand this arrangement.” What’s more, the average age of marriage for Chinese men was only 24 in 2010; for women, 22 (in Korea, 31.8 and 28.9 respectively).

So, I understood Cai. And, being head-over-heels ever since they’d met, why Susan quickly accepted his proposal, before so much as a kiss—it sounded sweet. Her frankness about her feelings and mistakes is also a definite charm, especially for someone who likewise fell very easily in love at that age.

But that’s only 36 pages into the book. For the remaining 300, sympathy turns to constant frustration and exasperation with Susan’s rushing into marriage, then her frequent acquiescence towards her increasingly controlling and abusive husband. These feelings are only amplified by knowing that she’s doomed to fail.

In an interview, Susan says her problems were more because “He told me from the get-go that he had certain conditions for our marriage. Those are things I ignored or thought I could eventually get him to change. That should have been my red flag, not the [6 months] in which we became engaged and married.” (Likewise many happily-married Koreans, for whom such whirlwind courtships are also common, would surely bristle at the suggestion that they should have taken things slower.)

I disagree. From Cai’s belief that women are especially “dirty” in the summer, once all but physically forcing an exhausted Susan to bathe in a rat-infested bathroom, to his bizarre, surprisingly submissive relationship with eccentric professor friend ‘Japanese Father’ (“He thinks it’s not good [for us] to have sex relations more than once a week”), most of Susan’s later issues with Cai could have been discovered if they’d spent (much) more time together before the wedding day—and/or resolved if an expensive wedding wasn’t already looming over them.

Still, it does make for a good page turner. There is also merit in studying a bad relationship to learn what to avoid, and much about this one that will already be familiar to those with Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese partners. New and expecting parents in Korea, for example, will sympathize with Susan’s expectations to conform to man yue, the belief that mothers shouldn’t bathe or go outdoors in their first month—it mirrors the Korean one of sanhoojori. Also, for those couples planning to move to a Western country, her discussion of Cai’s difficulties with adjusting to life in San Francisco will be very beneficial. Her avoidance of tiresome Orientalist stereotypes is especially welcome, with her ex-parents-in-law coming across as old-fashioned but lovely, and Chinese men portrayed no better or worse than Western ones.

That said, I am reminded of a book for couples I once flicked through, which encouraged them to discuss their expectations of marriage in great detail before committing. With checklists ranging from beliefs about circumcision and determining which cities were best for both partners’ careers, to dividing the housework and setting dating policies for potential teenage children, that approach would be much too calculating for most couples. Marriage, after all, is ultimately about making a scary but exciting leap of faith with someone. But when partners come from such wildly different backgrounds, and bring such different expectations into marriage? Susan’s experience teaches readers that for international couples in particular, perhaps they really should learn the answers to those questions sooner rather than later.

Good Chinese Wife back cover

One minor quibble was all the hyperbole. Not to diminish Susan’s genuine fears for herself and her son at times, but did it lead me to expect a story involving forged passports and bribed border guards(!). Also, I disliked the format of numerous short chapters, with so little happening in some that they felt like diary entries. But that is just a personal preference.

The verdict? Good Chinese Wife is well worth the US$14.99 cover price (16,410 won at What the Book), and a definite eye-opener about the value of reading more about relationships in this part of the world, especially with such limited options for reading about Korean ones specifically. Please do leave your suggestions (and reviewer copies!) for more like it, and/or for blogs.

Korean Women’s Sexual Histories: Still a slippery subject

Durex Korea Condom Ad December 2013(Source)

Remember last summer, when Korea’s first condom commercials came out?

Showing a woman bringing condoms to a date, I hailed Durex Korea for challenging popular, slut-shaming attitudes that women must feign sexual inexperience and naivety with new partners, with contraception widely considered only men’s responsibility.

But those would be the last condoms to grace Korean TV screens, by any company. Add Durex Korea’s recent, asinine marketing attempts, and that its Facebook page looks like it belongs to a lads’ mag, then the cynic in me lamented that last year’s efforts weren’t so much the start of a progressive, feminist campaign as simple, one-off copies of the original.

Then I discovered that there had been a similar, OMG-girls-like-sex-too commercial back in December, which played on various cable channels after 10pm:

Durex Korea Condom Ad December 2013 screenshotSounds awesome, right? Even if it was just a copy again.

My hopes raised, I began looking for more information, but was soon frustrated by the lack of mention on Durex Korea’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and blog. What’s more, there proved to be only one low-res, IE-only version of it that is publicly available. (Another requires a paid subscription to this site.)

I began to suspect that some unspecified controversy spilling over from last year’s June commercials may have been responsible, as those videos are also no longer available on its FB page (although the posts are). But probably that’s just simple neglect; with a Facebook page, Twitter, and blog myself, I can confirm that it’s difficult finding the time to fix broken links in old, rarely-read posts. Better to create new content, and accordingly Korean companies rarely keep old ads on their websites, preferring that consumers focus on their recent most ones instead. Sure enough, Durex Korea’s reply to my tweet made me realize that it was actually private Youtube users that were originally responsible for (re)uploading and sharing their June commercials, without whom they too wouldn’t be publicly available today.

I guess the December commercial just wasn’t all that popular really—there was never any great patriarchal conspiracy to have it removed. But, popular or not, it shouldn’t have been such a struggle to find more information—any information—about a (relatively) groundbreaking campaign, let alone from the company responsible. So, again, I have to conclude that Durex Korea was never making any real effort to engage with female consumers and challenge double-standards. Sigh.

This summer then, it’s probably T-ara member Eun-jung’s recentconfession” to—shock! horror!—past sexual relationships that is most likely to have an impact on how the public views or discusses theirs. Or, alternatively, the news that matchmaking companies no longer assume that their female clients will pretend to be virgins before marriage…

Korean Couple Under the Co vers(Source)

That’s the takeaway message from this survey by two matchmaking companies, currently making the rounds of the Korean portals. Ostensibly, its message is actually that Korean women let men take the initiative when it comes to sexual relationships, and that previous experience with one partner makes a significant number of women—not men—much “more cautious” with their subsequent ones. Which does appear to confirm previous, more rigorous surveys, and hence the context about double-standards provided in the first half of this post.

But with no mention of the methodology, what exactly “more cautious” (etc.) means, and likely a self-selecting sample population? Then really, it confirms nothing at all. Please make of it what you will:

미혼女 34%, 애인과의 첫 성관계는 ‘술김에…’ 34% of unmarried woman need alcohol for their first time with a lover

이낙규 기자 (nak17@ajunews.com) 26.06.14

성(性)에 대한 의식이 개방적으로 바뀌고 있지만 미혼여성들은 아직도 10명 중 6명 이상이 애인과 첫 관계를 가질 때 술의 힘을 빌린다던가 억지로 끌려가는 듯한 수동적 자세인 반면, 남성은 10명 중 7명 정도가 성관계를 주도하거나 적극적인 자세로 임하는 것으로 나타났다.

Awareness of and attitudes towards sex are changing these days, [but still traditional gender roles remain]. With a new lover, six out of ten women admit that they take advantage of alcohol to overcome their shyness or reluctance when having sex for the first time, and/or passively accept it when their partner is insistent, whereas seven out of ten men believe they have to take the initiative and assume an active role.

결혼정보회사 비에나래가 결혼정보업체 온리-유와 공동으로 미혼남녀 544명을 대상으로 ‘애인과 첫 성관계를 가질 때 본인의 자세’에 대한 설문조사를 실시했다.

Marriage matchmaking companies Bien Aller and Only You surveyed 544 male and female customers, asking them about their thoughts and feelings the first time they had sex with previous partners.

그결과 남성과 여성의 반응이 판이하게 달랐는데, 남성은 37.1%가 ‘주도적’, 33.5%는 ‘적극적’으로 답해 나란히 1, 2위를 차지했다. 즉 70.6%가 능동적이라는 것을 알 수 있다.

Men and women differed quite widely in their replies. Out of the men, 37.1% said they took the lead, and 33.5% that they were active in initiating sex, the top two replies. Altogether, 70.6% said they took an active role.

Wait, I'm beginning to feel something(Source)

반면 여성은 34.2%가 ‘술의 힘을 빌린다’, 28.3%는 ‘억지로 끌려가듯 (응한다)’이라고 답해 상위 1, 2위에 올랐다. 성관계를 거부하지는 않지만 수동적인 자세가 62.5%이다.

In contrast, 34.2% of women said they need alcohol [to get over their shyness or reluctance], and 28.3% that their partner insisted, the top two replies. Altogether, 62.5% said they weren’t against a sexual relationship, but they assumed a passive role.

그 다음 세 번째로는 남녀 공히 4명 중 한 명꼴이 ‘자연스럽게 임한다’(남 26.1%, 여 24.6%)고 답했다.

With both men (26.1%) and women (24.6%), the third most common reply was that they “just behaved naturally.”

‘성 경험이 있는 상황에서 다른 애인과 성관계를 가질 때의 마음 상태’에 대해서도 남녀 간에 시각차를 보였다.

With the question of how previous their sexual experience impacted their feelings about sex with a new boyfriend or girlfriend, a big difference was visible in the replies from men and women.

남성은 ‘(마음이) 더 편해진다’가 54.7%로서 과반수를 차지했고, ‘변함없다’(33.5%)에 이어 ‘더 신중해 진다’(12.8%)가 뒤따랐으나, 여성은 ‘마음이 더 편해진다’(42.7%)는 대답이 가장 많기는 하나, 그 다음의 ‘더 신중해진다’(39.7%)와 큰 차이가 없었고(3.0%포인트), ‘변함없다’는 대답은 17.6%였다.

With men, more than half (54.7%) replied it would make them feel more comfortable; 33.5%, no change; and 12.6% that it would make them more cautious. While “more comfortable” was also 고준희 정진운the most popular reply with women (42.7%), 39.7% replied that it would make them more cautious, a gap of only 3%; 17.6% replied that it wouldn’t make any difference.

자세한 응답분포를 보면 남성은 ‘다소 편해진다’(37.5%) – ‘변함없다’(33.5%) – ‘훨씬 더 편해진다’(16.2%) – ‘다소 신중해진다’(12.8%) 등의 순이고, 여성은 ‘다소 편해진다’(31.3%) – ‘다소 신중해진다’(29.4%) – ‘변함없다’(17.6%) – ‘(훨씬 더 편해진다’(11.4%) – ‘훨씬 더 신중해 진다’(10.3%)의 순서이다 (source, right).

In detail, 37.5% of men replied that it would make them a little more comfortable; 33.5% no change; 16.2% a lot more comfortable; and 12.8% that it would make them a little more cautious. With women, 31.3% replied that it would make them a little more comfortable; 29.4% a little more cautious; 17.6%, no change; 11.4% a lot more comfortable; and 10.3% a lot more cautious. (END)

Thoughts?

The Women’s Issue

Groove May 2014Sorry for the slow posting everyone: I recently had food-poisoning, some editing deadlines and my students’ end of semester exams are looming, and on my days off I’ve been on a mini-whirlwind tour of Korean universities giving presentations about body-image. But I hope to be posting again soon, and, until then, the latest issue of Groove Magazine will easily provide more than enough insights and new information to whet your appetites!

If you can’t get a physical copy, please click on the image above to read it at Issuu (a quick registration is required), or to download a PDF (click on “share” to get the link).

Update: I forgot to mention that I was interviewed for Annie Narae Lee’s article on page 58, but it may not appear online unfortunately. Also, I’m still too busy to listen myself, but Groove’s recent podcast on abortion in Korea sounds useful and interesting.

Media and Body Image Workshop, Bar Carmen, Seoul, Sunday 30th, 5-8pm

(Sources: left, center, right)

Yes, it’s back on, and I promise that none of my relatives will be in hospital this time!

Once again, please see Disruptive Voices’ Facebook Event page for more details and RSVPs, or if you’re not on Facebook then please feel free to ask any questions in the comments here, and/or to just turn up to Bar Carmen in Itaewon on the day. (Note that it’s not on the main drag though, but on the other side of the hill: see here or here for maps.)

Media and Body Image Workshop, Bar Carmen, Seoul, Sunday 23rd, 5-8pm

Pear Banana Body Shape(Sources: left; right, “Bunch” by Amanda S. Lanzone)

And I’ll be the guest speaker! Please see Disruptive Voices’ Facebook Event page for more details and RSVPs, or if you’re not on Facebook then please feel free to ask any questions in the comments here, and/or to just turn up to Bar Carmen in Itaewon on the day. (Note that it’s not on the main drag though, but on the other side of the hill: see here or here for maps.)

Blogging-wise, unfortunately the timing is terrible sorry: my father-in-law is having a major operation in Seoul in a few days, and my wife will be attending to him, leaving me to look after our children until the night before the workshop. A demanding enough job even when we’re both here, that means that all my spare time will be spent on preparing my presentation (yes, they really do take that long!). So, apologies to readers, and I’ll get back to writing here as soon as I can.

Update, Saturday 22nd: PRESENTATION HAS BEEN CANCELLED — I’m not used to this sort of thing sorry, so I’ll just say it: I’m afraid my father-in-law’s condition has rapidly deteriorated, and there’s a possibility he may not make the night. I’ll keep you posted, but of course I can no longer give the presentation. Sorry everybody, and thanks for understanding.

Update, Sunday 23rd: To clarify sorry, the workshop itself is still going ahead.

My father-in-law is still in critical condition.

Update, Thursday 27th: There were some very scary moments, but I’m happy to say that father-in-law recovered earlier in the week, and is due to be discharged today :)

What? She’s NOT Pregnant??!

Seeing Through Clothes and Arnolfini Portrait(Sources: left, personal scan; right)

Sorry for the slow posting everyone, admittedly somewhat ironic during the semester break. I’ve just been busy with a lot of offline work recently, and unfortunately for you readers it’s still ongoing.

Also, I’ve been fulfilling a New Years’ resolution to spend much more time in the bedroom with my wife. As in, I’ll turn off my computer at 10pm and lie in bed reading books, while she calls English teachers from her desk alongside me (she’s a recruiter). Now four weeks into 2014, she only occasionally tells me to fuck off back to my study and make more money from writing, so all is good.

One of those books is Seeing Through Clothes by Anne Hollander (1980 ed.), picked up in Nampo Book Alley. Bursting with revelations for — ahem — complete beginners to art-history, I was especially surprised to learn that the woman in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait above-right isn’t pregnant, despite the strong impression of that I’ve had for a good quarter-century or so. So, with apologies for not reading something more Korea-related on this occasion, please allow me to pass on what I’ve learned, starting with pages 109-110 (my emphasis):

Because of the desirable quality of a big female stomach for so many centuries [James -- The shift in emphasis to the bosom would come in the late-seventeenth century], pregnancy was not represented in art by showing a distended belly, even in genre scenes. If an unmistakable indication of pregnancy were intended, it seems to have been customary to show an otherwise unwarranted disarrangement of clothing: stays unlaced a little from the bottom for example, or corsets left off entirely and extra loose folds of smock noticeable in front….The swelling abdomen was too conventional a female attribute to be useful for specific references to pregnancy. Giovanna Arnolfini, in Van Eyck’s famous double portrait, often thought to be pregnant, is in fact demonstrating how a young bride’s fashionable slim soldiers and chest might be set off by an equally chic abdominal swell, exaggerated on purpose to display the fur-lined green excesses of her gown. Her own desirability and her husband’s riches both show; a well-known mode of bourgeois female self-presentation.

In this particular style of dress, a woman’s belly provided the central accent point of her costume. It was the place where the balance was struck between elaborate headdresses and dragging skirt — or, for virgins, DresdenTriptych rightbetween a dragging skirt and a long mane of hair [James -- Compare the right panel of the Dresden Triptych, by the same painter; source]. The domelike belly was not only erotically pleasing but elegant; it connoted elegance rather than fruitfulness. In the nude art that corresponds to this kind of fashion, it would also have done so.

More on those last points in a moment. First, given the common false conception (no pun intended) of a pregnant wife, again I was surprised that greater attention wasn’t given to that in the voluminous Wikipedia entry on the painting:

Although many viewers assume the wife to be pregnant, this is not believed to be so. Art historians point to numerous paintings of female virgin saints similarly dressed, and believe that this look was fashionable for women’s dresses at the time.[32] Fashion would have been important to Arnolfini, especially since he was a cloth merchant. The more cloth a person wore, the more wealthy he or she was assumed to be. Another indication that the woman is not pregnant is that Giovanna Cenami (the identification of the woman according to most earlier scholars) died childless,[33] as did Costanza Trenta (a possible identification according to recent archival evidence);[16] whether a hypothetical unsuccessful pregnancy would have been left recorded in a portrait is questionable. As mentioned above, some viewers have argued that the woman in the portrait is already pregnant, thus the protruding belly. Harbison, however, maintains her gesture is merely an indication of the extreme desire of the couple shown for fertility and progeny.[34]

Note 32 leads to Chapter 4, pp.105-6 of The Arnolfini Betrothal: Medieval marriage and the enigma of Van Eyck’s double portrait, by Edwin Hall (1994):

The comparative approach I advocate for elucidating the meaning of the London panel is readily exemplified with reference to the female figure’s supposedly pregnant state. Documented as early as the Spanish royal inventory of 1700, this mistaken inference continues to be drawn by modern viewers seeing the picture for the first time. But among those familiar with Franco-Flemish works of the fifteenth century a consensus has developed that this is not the case, for virgin saints, who obviously cannot be pregnant, also appear gravid in many contemporary representations. The woman in the London panel has thus often been compared with the Saint Catherine in the right wing of Van Eyck’s Dresden Triptych, who is similarly portrayed (Fig. 48), as is the bride in the marriage vignette of Rogier’s Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (see Fig. 21) as well as the Virgin and one of her attendants in Israhel van Meckenem’s Marriage of the Virgin (see Fig. 50). And a protruding belly is seen in many female nudes, including again virgin saints, as in a depiction of the martyrdom of Saint Catherine in the Belles Heures (Fig. 49).[25] Whether or not this feature is explained by fifteenth-century perceptions of idealized feminine beauty, these images clearly reflect some contemporary Flemish convention whose precise meaning is no longer readily apparent.

Dressed Maja vs. Nude Maja(Source)

Another revelation from Hollander is that nudes tend to be posed and/or presented as if they were still wearing the fashions of their era, which incorporated sexual standards and symbolism which may no longer apply today (e.g., those “erotically pleasing domelike bellies”). One consequence is that we “may even mistake an erotically intended image [of the past] for an idealized one — if it lacks the shapes, proportions, and details we are accustomed to responding to in contemporary life” (p. 88; this is given as an example). Another is the gravity-defying breasts of the Nude Maja on the cover I scanned; ironically, again something I’m only noticing for the first time (my emphasis; p. 91):

One of the most telling features on the nude maja’s body is that it seems to show the effect of corseting without the corset — which, on the other hand, is very definitely present in the dressed version. The high, widely separated breasts and rigid spine of the recumbent nude lady are as erotic as her pubic hair fuzz or sexy smile. Her breasts indeed defy the law of gravity; and her legs, accustomed to appearing through the lightweight and rather narrow skirts of the day Visualizing Beauty Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia[James -- It was painted circa 1797-1800], are self-consciously disposed for effect, like those of a twentieth-century woman. It is the emphatic effect of her absent modish costume that makes her a deliberately sexual image.

And on that note, thank you for the indulgence of any art-history majors still reading, and I’d really appreciate any suggestions for further, much more recent reading on the links between historical and contemporary ideals of body image — or rather, the representations in popular-culture thereof (Ways of Seeing by John Berger {1972} is good of course, but frankly I found the final chapter on that to be its weakest, and of course it’s also old). Naturally, anything on Korea in particular, and for one I’d be interested in hearing if Visualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia edited by Aida Yuen Wong (2012; source) is worth buying for instance, which I’ve been wavering about because it only has two chapters on Korea. Or are there any other possibilities, in Korean (but not this one!) or in English? Thanks!