Well, I thought I’d be able to stay away but it turns out no…However, posting may continue to be sporadic until the second week of September when hopefully the stars will align and solve my childcare issues. In the meantime, some thoughts on an interesting book:
My husband is Swiss. I am American. When we got married, these two nationalities became just another part of our shared life. In a year or so, if I want, I can apply for Swiss citizenship. Someday we may decide to move to the United States and if we do, my husband can apply for American citizenship. There is very little chance that either of us will be denied. It wasn’t until I read Danielle Dufay’s epistolary memoir Mon Mariage Chinois (My Chinese Marriage), that I realized the possibility of “sharing” citizenship is something I never should have taken for granted.
In 1913, Dufay’s grandmother Jeanne married a Chinese citizen. Without realizing it, by signing her marriage certificate, Jeanne surrendered her French citizenship. The book opens in 1922, when Jeanne, separated from her husband because of WWI, is finally traveling to China to meet him again. They have not seen one another for seven years and Jeanne has some very justifiable apprehensions about this reunion. One of the reasons she is finally going is that since her wedding, she has been forced to live as a foreigner in her own country.
The book is formed of the letters Jeanne writes home to her sister Laurence in France, filled with descriptions of the long journey to China, detailed portraits of the various people she meets along the way, and of course, news of her marital situation and life in her new home. I think it is safe to say that the cultural differences between China and France in the 1920s were much bigger than they are today. And Jeanne suffers because of this great rift – not only in her relationship with her husband but also in ordinary everyday experiences. As any expatriate will readily admit, simple tasks can become momentous trials when the cultural frame is shifted.
Now Jeanne’s situation is made even more complicated because of her citizen status. If something becomes difficult for her, she has no recourse to the French consulate and very little support from any of her fellow French citizens. When things between her and her husband become difficult, she cannot just pick up and leave. She is considered “Chinese” in the eyes of the state. She is also supported financially by her husband, which in theory could have been a nightmare, but Jeanne’s husband grants her a liberal measure of freedom to travel and socialize as she prefers. She is not allowed to work, however, except for some part-time English teaching, so she has no means of saving money to return to France.
Mon Mariage Chinois gets a little clunky from time to time. The book was fashioned into a series of letters from Jeanne’s actual letters, a few of her essays and her private journals. I understand the reason for forcing these three different genres together but I’m not convinced it was the best idea. Too much exposition in a personal letter reads false. But this effect is heaviest at the beginning of the book, when Jeanne is giving the background to her marriage. Once she gets on the boat and especially when she reaches Hong Kong and China, this issue smoothes itself out a bit.
Also, the book is not a page turner but best savored slowly. Each of Jeanne’s letters is a treasure trove of historic information, filled with rich detail about 1920s Asia and its customs. As an expat she is keenly interested in the expat community, but also in other minority groups versus traditional Chinese culture. Something I found very interesting was that she was not exempt from the racist thinking that infused her generation, even if she was a victim of it herself.
Finally, aside from its cultural preoccupations, Mon Mariage Chinois is also the portrait of a woman trying to negotiate between her traditional upbringing with its blind championing of marital duty, and her fiercely independent, intensely feminist character.