I don’t know if this will sound weird to you, but are Chinese men in general *very* thrifty with money? It’s interesting to me that before my husband and I were married, he really doted on me and practically bought me anything and everything if I even just said “oh look at this, how nice.” (Of course, I was always saying, “No, I don’t want you to *buy* it, I was just thinking out loud!”) But now that we’re in the US and married, he’s turned into a real penny-pincher. I get the idea that money in the bank is worth more than even happy memories sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, I totally think saving money is wise and the right thing to do, it’s just that he seems overly concerned about money all the time. I even overheard him telling his older sister (who is also very “thrift”) on the phone one day how much money we have and how much [I] spend… that really upset me and I told him so, and he acted clueless as to what he had done wrong. I tried to explain that in American culture, one family’s money matters are not to be discussed with another’s. I know that Chinese are a lot more “saving” than Americans are, and I think money is very important to them… like my husband once said to me, “You know, Chinese think wasting is like a sin.” And I admire a lot of that aspect of their culture, and have learned a lot from it. But I guess I place more value on enjoying life than counting my pocketbook. 😛
It just bothers me how whenever we go shopping or buy something or want to do something, my husband complains about how much this or that costs, almost as if it was the most important thing in life. My friends and family think he’s so weird because of it. And it’s almost impossible for me to explain cultural differences to people who have never experienced the culture in China. When they want us to go do things with them on a whim, like go watch a movie, my husband will say he’d rather stay home and watch one and save the money and gas. Which is totally okay with me, really, it’s just that when we were dating he would do anything with me without hesitation.
I was just really surprised how he changed a lot when we came to the States… I am SO proud of him for getting jobs and working hard and I really do not mean to complain. I just wanted to get your take on this, and see if there’s something you can suggest to me in responding to my husband in a way that he knows I both care about him and saving money. When he’s worried about finances, and I try to smooth things over by saying, “Honey we’re fine, everything will be alright,” he gets upset and says that because I just don’t care, or something to that effect.
I think it’s the US economy and how expensive everything is here that burdens him. I’m just not sure how to help. We are NOT struggling financially, in fact, we’re doing surprisingly well. But according to Chinese standards for some reason it’s not good enough. I have a feeling some of my husband’s frustration stems from his family and friends “back home” constantly asking how much money he makes here and stuff like that. Maybe he’s trying to live up to their expectations? My husband is the youngest child and only boy in a family with 4 sisters. I understand there is some pressure on him.
Your Chinese husband’s words — “wasting is a sin” — could easily have come from my Chinese mother-in-law. This summer, she often complained about her grandson’s wasteful behavior. “He’ll buy some food, take a bite of it, and then just throw it away!” I could almost see another wrinkle growing on her forehead over the thought of this little boy disrespecting his parents’ hard-earned money.
So of course, my husband always loves to tell me that frugality is one of the finest traditions of the Chinese people. He grew up that way. And yes, he’s thrifty. He believes we should save money. Sometimes, he saves things I never would (I had a hard time getting rid of our broken rice cooker), and mourns when I have to throw out an entire dish because I burned it (“what a waste!”).
But when I shared your letter with him, he was shocked. My husband may be thrifty, but not to the point where he notices the cost of everything, and turns down invites to save on gas/money. He’s also one of the most generous people I know with money. He’s often the one suggesting we invite someone out to dinner (or buy them a nice thank you gift), or telling me to buy something “rewarding” at the grocery store, or getting me a T-shirt for my birthday that I thought was too expensive. I’m not convinced that you can call every Chinese man *very* thrifty, just like your husband. If anything, from my experience, the post-Mao generation seems more willing to spend, within moderation.
But China is getting extreme about money these days — to the point that I think “in RMB we trust” must be hidden somewhere on every bill I spend there. Consider this:
In a poll in the 1990s, 68 percent of the Chinese said their attitude towards life was “ work hard and get rich.” Only 4 percent said it was “never think of yourself; give everything in service of society.” In a 1997 survey by the Leo Burnett ad: 64 percent of Chinese agreed that making money is most important part of career, compared to 27 percent of Americans. In a survey in 2005, nearly three quarters of those asked sad that money was the most important thing.
One woman told the New York Times, “Chinese people never talked so much about money before. Now they are always talking about salaries and stocks and joint ventures.” One Chinese woman told the Washington Post, “People here don’t want any more Cultural Revolutions or war. We like material things.” Seeking wealth has become an end to itself to a point that for many people nothing else matters and many people are spiritually adrift.
In today’s China, many people show their power and superiority through money. And because this is a competitive society, people will compare salaries — or the suggestion of wealth (think having iPads and iPhones, BMWs, LV purses — anything that suggests you have a little more than the average). That’s what’s going on with your husband and his family/friends (incidentally, this comparing doesn’t always happen among everyone — and even when it does, some Chinese just don’t care or don’t want to play along) — but clearly, he’s not measuring up to standards. I guess, after revealing your financial situation, they told him, how could someone in the US possibly make so little? Or, we heard about a Chinese so-and-so your age in the US/China who earns even more than you do. You get the idea. And since these people are close to him, it hurts his pride and makes him want to hang on to every dollar and cent he can — in the worst way.
But hurt pride reminds me of John, when we first came to the US and were in this limbo while he struggled to get into graduate school in psychology. He faced months of rejections at job interviews, until he finally landed a job at a nonprofit that only paid enough to cover our monthly grocery bill. That nonprofit cut his confidence down all the time, when his coworkers dismissed his graduate education in China as inferior and worthless. Even worse, neither of us knew when he would get accepted into a Ph.D. program, and wondered if he ever would because of the competition. I remember he didn’t get that excited when I suggested dinner or a movie out with friends — sometimes, he even refused to go.
When he and I talk about that time, he always says the same thing. “I didn’t have any status then, so I was depressed.” What John really means is, his status was much, much lower than what he was used to in China. Some of that came from his undervalued graduate degree from China, some because he hadn’t gained acceptance into his dream Ph.D. program.
I get the sense that your husband’s status took a serious dive when he moved to the States. For him, it might even be more than a salary thing. Maybe he’s unsatisfied with his job or career prospects for the future.
Whatever it is, you should talk about it. Ask him if he’s happy with his job, or if he has hopes of going further, in a completely different field. Graduate school can be a godsend for many Chinese men living abroad, because they come out a degree, plus valuable experiences at a foreign university that make them more hire-friendly.
At the same time, you might try exchanging your different perspectives on money. Share what you believe about money and why, talk about how you like to handle your finances, and then listen to him and compare. This isn’t about changing him — because, believe me, you’ll probably never change him — but just helping him understand where you’re coming from. You might be surprised.
As I mentioned before, his social reluctance might be a symptom of deeper problems. But that doesn’t mean you should let it go. If he’s still letting worries about gas and ticket prices get in the way of a good time, why not come up with an entertainment budget for the month? Set aside a set amount of money just for going out with friends. And by the way, take this opportunity to remind him socializing matters in America too — at the very least, you can tell him even Americans need to maintain their “guanxi.”
What do you think?
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