How to Tell the Dancer from the Dance (#62)

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Until last January, I had no idea that other people had noticed the dearth of Asian Male, White Female couples. I certainly had no idea there was a whole AMWF cyber community. And while I was kinda bummed that I was not, in fact, the first internet interracial love pioneer, I was delighted to find so many other unicorns. Some were even authors! Susan Blumberg-Kason, for example, wrote a memoir entitled Good Chinese Wife.

“I should totally read that,” I thought, when I first saw the book online. Then I looked at the subtitle: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong. Uh-oh. I looked at the blurb. One phrase jumped off the screen and hit me in the face: “increasingly controlling and abusive husband.” I hastily closed that window on my computer. Hell, no, I thought. I would rather watch nothing but the gruesome Twitter feed of Ricky Gervais before the Yulin Dog Meat Festival than read about controlling men.

Yeah, well, I’m clearly a masochist, because I did read “Good Chinese Wife.” I yelled at the book like other people yell at horror movies:

“No, Susan! Don’t give him your phone card!”

“Listen to Janice, Susan! Janice is your friend!”

“Argh! Leave! Walk out of the dance! I take that back! RUN!”

Susan did not run, of course. She continued her magical, romantic dances with the handsome Cai. And for all my railing, I understood. Once upon a time, a young woman named Autumn had met a handsome, dashing, dancing prince of her own.

We’ll call him Dick. For no particular reason, of course.

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Dick clearly didn’t belong in the Country Western bar where I first saw him. His grace and elegance stood out among the rough and rowdy Saturday night crowd. Dick spun his partners into dips that hit the breaks in the music perfectly, whether he was dancing Waltz, Two-step, or West Coast Swing. His cowboy boots glided across the floor, rather than shuffling or stomping like those of the other men. Yet there was power and presence below the polish.

He asked me to dance. Our dances were amazing. Dick had such a great frame and such musicality that I managed moves I’d never done before. I knew exactly what he wanted me to do, in advance, with no verbal cues. (In the dance world, this is known as connection. The best partners connect so perfectly that their dances, even when not choreographed, look like the couple has been practicing a routine for months. Since meeting Dick, I’ve seen dozens of powerful dance connections wreck even strong marital connections.)

Dick asked me out. I said yes. Four glorious Saturday nights of dinner and  dancing followed and flowed into dancing almost every night. I found out that Dick used to dance competitively. Only it got too intense, he said, and it stopped being fun. Now he had met me, and he had rediscovered his love for dance. I probably glowed over that, and many other compliments.

Dick told me that I had too much potential to just dance in bars. I should compete, Dick said. Even if I didn’t compete with him, I should dance competitively with someone. There was a competition in Palm Springs in a few months that I could check out. Since our relationship was all googly-eyed bliss, I agreed to dance with Dick in Palm Springs.

Dick introduced me to dance studios, lessons, instructors, and other competitive dancers. All the men were very nice to me. All the women were reserved. Everyone seemed to know Dick, and yet no one was buddy-buddy with him.

I worked my butt off. But even as my dancing improved, my relationship with Dick deteriorated. On the dance floor, he grew critical of the slightest mistake. There was no longer laughter if I mistook a pivot for a telemark. Even if he didn’t speak an actual word of criticism, the five-minute frown and silent treatment that followed said it all.

I might have coped with an actual insult better. If Dick had been an outright dick, yelling, “No! Wrong, you clumsy bitch, get it right next time!” my nasty Ashbough temper would have responded with “WHAT did you just call me? Take your rude behavior and your receding hairline elsewhere, motherfucker!”

But Dick’s silent disapproval was the perfect key for unlocking my insecurities. I had only gained my father’s approval when I placed first or had perfect grades as a child. Dick slipped right into an old, twisted groove worn into my neural pathways. I thought, “If I’m just perfect, he’ll love me again, and we’ll be so happy again, and there will be fairies, flowers, and fireworks and all that great Disney shit!”

Of course that didn’t happen.  It never does.

Instead, Dick’s silent disapproval grew noisy. He sighed about how dancing with me might hold him back, about how he might have to compete at an intermediate level, rather than an advanced level. All due to the fact that I wasn’t a good enough dancer yet, of course. His disapproval bled over into real life. If anything happened to stress Dick out or inconvenience him, that also became my fault. If Dick didn’t feel well? My fault for insisting on Del Taco over Carl’s Junior the night before. Late to a lesson because Dick had an errand to run at a store and the lines were long? My fault for not checking traffic and warning Dick we’d need extra time. His every unhappiness was ultimately down to me and he WAS NEVER HAPPY.

Maybe there was something seductive about the idea that I had control over our happiness, even though it was a total lie. Dick was in control. I did whatever Dick said to do, on the dance floor and off of it. I lost my appetite, and barely ate. Dick, who used to say I was beautiful without makeup, now insisted that I needed it, especially for competition. So I wore it. He hated skirts that twirled up on spins. I wore pants. I completely lost my hold on the smart, independent, and tough woman I used to be.

Well, I still had control of my legs. I should have used them to run. Just like I wanted Susan to run.* Yet I did not run. I only danced around the same ballroom floors, in the same circular patterns, following the same controlling lead. Over and over.

She said, “Tell me, oh, tell me, was I all right?”
Whatever happened to Saturday night?
– “Saturday Night,” The Eagles

*Susan did run, eventually. And while Good Chinese Wife was tough for me to pick up, I couldn’t put it down until I finished it.

You can read Part II in Dancing with the Dick.

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Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

44 thoughts on “How to Tell the Dancer from the Dance (#62)”

  1. I also yelled at Susan when I read “Good Chinese Wife.”

    I did understand her problem, though. When you move to a foreign country, if you’re going to get any benefit from the experience, you have to accept customs and behaviors you may not like. There’s no way around it. The people around you look at the world from a different perspective than you do. But, whereas the country and its citizens can go on its merry way without seriously affecting your life, such is not the case in marriage. There has to be give and take. And no matter how ancient your spouse’s customs are, they have to be up for discussion if they affect your life and relationship.

    Eventually Susan decided she was no longer willing to put up with the treatment she was getting. And then she wrote a book about it.

    1. Ha! I am glad to know I was not the only yeller. But you make a good point, and at least Susan had the excuse of having to cope with an unfamiliar culture.

      I have no such excuse!

    2. I agree with you about the give and take in a marriage and to discuss things if it affects life and relationship. I’m of the view it also apply in a relationship. I do not favour stewed tea.

      Sometimes, one has to nip things in the bud.

        1. You’re a sage, Autumn.

          Is/are painful experience(s) a bad thing?

          I know a highly intelligent man and women who put up with domestic violence or being belittle etc for years and years. We the friends/colleagues could not understand why. The man had 2 light bulb moments; the school rang him because there were concerns and when he paid an unannounced visit to his former partner’s office. Another woman had a baby, a boy in an attempt to bring harmony to the relationship. These are people in their late 30s – early 50s, educated and solvent.

          1. Some people are smart enough to stay away from a hot stove.

            Some people burn themselves.

            And some people cook fantastic dishes and don’t mind a few burns.

            Seriously, I can make up cliches and platitudes all day. 🙂

  2. I guess we kind of had the same opinion and advice for Susan. The following is a part of my goodreads review:

    My heart hurt for her when she described going to sleep on her wedding night while her husband watched porn. I wanted to comfort her when Cai gave her the silent treatment on a train from Shanghai. And at some points, I wanted to give her advice – I wanted to tell her to leave. I wanted to tell her that no man should treat a woman like this.

    I am with Martha! What happened to Dick? You are such a tease, Autumn! 😉

      1. I think it is a situation of we live and learn. I know there have been many incidents in my life that have made me a stronger person. One of those was moving to Taiwan all those years ago, ‘before it was the cool thing to do.’ Sometimes we have to endure challenging times in order to prevail. Since I started writing my book, I have the utmost respect for the 22-23 year old version of me – she was one determined cookie who took no s**t [and still doesn’t.]

  3. Like Marta asked, what happened with Dick? You left us hanging! He sounds like the kind of guy who knows what he wants, and wants it bad and will do almost anything to get to it. Sorry to hear that you felt like an accessory or handbag, or a man bag. Never nice to be made to feel like you’re a dormat in a relationship – after all, it takes two to tango and to make it work, and both parties to feel genuinely happy, cross cultural relationship or not.

    1. Part II as soon as I can finish it, promise! Although…maybe I should save it for our American “Independence Day!” That would be nice and thematic.

      Sadly, I don’t think Dick really knew what he wanted, other than someone to blame for his misery.

      1. Such a tease, such a tease. I can’t wait to read it. I’m sure it will be worth the wait. Dick might have had his priorities wrong, or maybe really was just with the wrong type of person at that moment.

  4. I yelled at Susan too! I actually Tweeted my yell to her a couple of times when the pressure of the story became unsustainable.

    I never had an experience with controlling men, so I don’t really know how I would react. The worst I had to deal with was more of a stupid childish kinda man, which is frustrating but far less traumatizing than a controlling one.

    In Susan’s case she comes across as extremely young and insecure, so I guess the ideal prey for that kind of man. I think (smart) controlling men steer clear of confident strong women because they sense their dysfunctional tricks would not work with them.

    1. I never thought of that. I totally should have tweeted Susan. But then she would probably have blocked me. 🙂

      Yeah, well, I was pretty sure I was a smart and confident young woman. And I got sucked into an emotionally abusive relationship. Granted, it’s not a dynamic that everyone is susceptible to. Those of us with dysfunctional childhoods and super critical parents are perhaps more at risk than others.

      All the more reason to raise your children mindfully, should you really, really want to have them.

  5. Great (horrible?) story, Autumn. Like Susan, it seems you found your “Prince Charming” eventually, which makes tales like this slightly less painful to read about. Looking forward to part 2

  6. Oh my goodness, I love this post and am so grateful you read Good Chinese Wife! And I’m so sorry about your awful experience with Dick. The silent treatment is the worst. Being passive aggressive is almost more abusive than anything else besides physical violence. That said, I think our experiences help us to become stronger people. Not to brag or anything, but I also think age has a lot to do with it. At 40-something now, I have little patience for people who cannot respect others. I wish someone had told me that our perspectives change in our 40s. Now the only passive aggressive being I’m living with is my 13 year old cat. He drives us all nuts, but he’s cute enough that we can put up with him. Thank you again!!!

    1. Thank you, Susan! I know what you mean — of course I wish I hadn’t put up with Dick’s behavior, and yet I learned so much, I think. Not just dance steps, but compassion and empathy for those who find themselves stuck in an abusive dynamic.

      And I do think it’s important for stories like yours to be told. They are not only warnings to other women (red flag! no friends! no leftover girlfriends hanging around!) but it’s nice to know one wasn’t the only doormat in town. Shame persists, but I think that helps.

  7. I’m guessing he didn’t like skirts that twirled because it took the attention off of him. Bastard.

    No, Autumn, no! Don’t give him your number!

    1. Well, skirts also create problems with certain moves because they interfere with quickly changing handholds. But even if you have a point, you don’t have to be a dick about making it!

      Hahahaha, yeah, hopefully Susan was screaming back at my post.

  8. Geez, the names you picked for everyone. I almost choked because of Dick. So much fun to read your posts.
    I’m sorry for the awful experience with the dude. And yes, silent treatment sucks.

    1. I am glad you enjoyed the naming of the Dick!

      I would be worry about doing him, but, well, the great thing about being a writer is that even your suckiest moments in life are material.

  9. This -> “I might have coped with an actual insult better.” Sometimes, that was all I wanted because it would have been so satisfying to unleash my fury without second-guessing myself and his motives. And he denied me even that! The nerve.

    Man, poor Susan. Kind of interested in reading it now though; interracial and intercultural relationship stories are always…illuminating.

    1. YES! I like to think that if he’d just gone over an imaginary line and called me a name, or given me a shove, I’d have responded with overwhelming force. But would I have? Or would I have let that go, too?

      I hope not. Imagining calling my sister to bail me out of jail seems better.

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