Two recent memoirs written by American women married to Asian men have the words “good” and “wife” in the titles. This is by no means random. Married women are to be attentive, dutiful and obedient. It is a cultural norm perpetuated by both parties . . . husband and wives alike.
For Tracy Slater, her marriage to the Japanese “shogun” came later in life– well after her career was established . . . the result of an accidental encounter. After falling in love she moved to Japan and found herself enjoying the small details of daily Japanese housekeeping. Surely she is lauded for her adaption and conformity (as I was) . . . and her ability to become “good” is seen as a remarkable accomplishment. Examples are abundant in her book “The Good Shufu.”
In “The Good Chinese Wife” Susan Blumberg-Kason describes her five or so years married to a Chinese man after moving abroad to test her language skills. A student of the culture, she thought she knew what she was getting herself into. What she discovered, however, was just how difficult it was to be “good” in the eyes of her beholders.
“Iiko-chan ni shinasai!” My ex would often say. “Be a good girl!”
Japan (and I presume China) is very rigid when it comes to discernment and shaming is commonplace. “X is good and Y is bad. Clearly this is so.” And if you are a foreigner trying to assimilate to these particular cultures the power to make this judgement is NOT yours. “Pretty good” or “good enough” are ideas that don’t really translate so don’t count on your efforts saving you. “Maa maa” (so-so) doesn’t cut it.
Westerners (at least Americans) are tolerant of mediocrity and don’t want others to beat themselves up over imperfections. Generally we feel bad for our mistakes and less than stellar results. We are so guilt oriented that we even feel bad for others who fail and love underdog stories. An “I’ll do better next time” attitude will suffice. We trust guilt and individual conscience will motivate us to improve.
From Tracy Slater’s seemingly positive experience as a Japanese wife I would imagine that she was clear about who she was going into the relationship and that her husband is a rare gem. But I still wonder about the words “good” and “wife” coexisting in her title. Who is the judge of good?
Being a dutiful, attentive, obedient wife sounds romantic in an old-fashioned way . . . like sacrificial love. But when a culture has a shaming bend is there not something slightly sad about this life? It seems to me that two parties who ascribe to “guilt” vs. shame policy potentially have a better balance of power between them and a healthier relationship. This is not to say that a mixed culture marriage cannot work well, but such differences are important to consider and work through.
From “The Six-Foot Bonsai” manuscript:
Most of the time I was able justify my husband’s compulsive strictness based on my knowledge of how black and white Japanese people tend to be. From the old samurai movies to modern daytime dramas, male characters are invariably strong and dramatic. The kinds of statements from Right that had so disconcerted me upon my initial exposure—the “this is good” and “that is bad” generalities—were typical of the straightforward Japanese. My own unique role, scripted to fall somewhere between that of the cute young idols of our time and traditional leading ladies, was to speak softly and respond with a “Yes, I understand” level of obedience to my man.
The traditional and unspoken sensei/grasshopper roles (as in the Kung Fu TV show) allowed Right to wield power over me; when I failed to answer appropriately I would be berated and left alone to hansei, or reflect. As had happened on that unexpectedly memorable occasion on Sado when I had mistakenly thrown my stained capris toward Right without first asking his favor, more serious transgressions resulted in breakage—an almost systematic loss of dishes, knickknacks, or whatever else might have been at hand. During his fits Right would go so far as to rip the clothes off of my body and tear them into shreds.