“People have always loved a love story. Our ancestors just didn’t try to live in one.” – Stephanie Coontz, as paraphrased by Melissa Schneider

On April 1, 2015, our Women’s Committee and Immigration & Nationality Law Committee hosted a special book reading and signing of Melissa Schnieder’s The Ugly Wife is a Treasure at Home, a collection of true-as-remembered tales of the evolving love and times in China. Melissa, who moved to China two days after her own wedding, traced China’s tumultuous politics and history through interviewing many, many Chinese citizens on the most intimate details of their personal lives. During AABANY’s book reading hosted at Kinokuniya, the Japanese bookstore by Bryant Park, she shared the love lives of three people in particular: her cab driver, a man reliving his student years, and a woman the day before her wedding.

While you’ll have to pick up a copy at your local bookstore to experience the magic of love in the time of Chinese communism, the dozen or so of us in the audience learned quite a bit and was more than entertained by the anecdotes.

  • The cab driver illustrated an old-school China, where rural families would often have baby-wives – adopted female children from another family who would grow up with their husbands-to-be almost as brother and sister.
  • The Cultural Revolution had officials who actually went into villages and communities and started telling people to find their beloveds, apart from the familial obligations ingrained since birth – but then of course, the government then became the authoritarian power who then decided who could marry whom. One man fell in love with a woman on test day, was lucky enough to be assigned her class in college, was all the while in love with her through the years, but ultimately decided that the unspoken regulations of marriage were more than his love could overcome.
  • A younger woman on the eve of her wedding recounted past relationships – the passion, the sneaking around, the boredom – depicting a conception of love and modernity that doesn’t differ so much from Western standards.

The overarching lesson here is that of course, love is hard in any time. Yet rather than assuming that there’s some grand objective lesson to be gained from understanding the intimacies of strangers half a world away, we can simply appreciate the efforts of each interviewee in navigating the already murky waters of interpersonal relationships knowing full well that their love didn’t exist in a cultural vacuum.

Special thanks to Melissa and her husband Matt for joining us for the evening, Kinokuniya host John Fuller, 2014-2015 Women’s Committee Co-Chairs Marianne Chow, Naf Kwun, and Sapna Palla and Immigration & Nationality Law Committee Co-Chair Tsui Yee for organizing, and all those who attended.

(Photos by AABANY. To see Tsui Yee’s photos of the event, click here.)

Following is AABANY’s live-feed of the event:

The fun is about to begin! If you’re looking for us at Kinokuniya, walk down and look to your right.… https://t.co/CzXB97JbN9

Love is hard, even (especially) in communist China. @luvwiser #TheUglyWife https://t.co/nPsLQNDwoj

Immigration & Nationality Law Committee Tsui Yee introduces author of the evening @luvwiser and her book! pic.twitter.com/HZG8cg8Mzz

She moved to China two days after she got married and spent all that time gathering info for her book. @luvwiserhttp://t.co/y9hmG64jrr

.@luvwiser shares stories of Chinese baby-raised wives, cab drivers, tradition, & communism. #TheUglyWife pic.twitter.com/TeBwf3doYg

“Communism had to change the path/purpose of marriage. Officials went to villages to tell people find their beloved.” @luvwiser #TheUglyWife

“My parents thought romantic love was too capitalist.” @luvwiser #TheUglyWife #CommunistChina

“The government had to check and double-check your background and class status.” -A man who eventually married 3 times @luvwiser

People have always loved a love story. Our ancestors just didn’t try to live in one. -Stephane Koontz @luvwiser #TheUglyWife

.@luvwiser: “Let’s get married as soon as possible so that we can have a child in the Year of the Dragon.”… http://t.co/vXlAcSSca5

“I tried so hard to look for a woman who was having an affair. I was not able to find a gay man in China.” @luvwiser #TheUglyWife