Over the years, I’ve noticed a certain e-mail finds its way into my Ask the Yangxifu inbox. The story usually goes like this: Chinese boy who was born and raised in China meets Western girl, they fall crazy in love and the future seems ripe with possibilities for the two of them…until reality hits in the form of a few simple questions. What about our careers? Where will we live?
So when I receive these questions — which are invariably confidential — it either happens that 1) the couple can’t decide where to live (often China versus her Western country) because each country somehow handicaps one person career-wise, or 2) the relationship ended because one or both of them gave up.
Whenever people talk about Chinese-Western international marriages, you would think that language or culture pose the greatest barriers. But when it comes to Chinese men and Western women in love, this “love, location, career” dilemma more often threatens an otherwise outstanding relationship. Career options aren’t always the same for both people in his home country (China or another Asian country) versus hers. Sometimes, when a couple can’t reach an agreement, they sadly break up — just as my Chinese ex and I did years ago.
At the time, he had moved from China to a European country for university and hoped I would follow him and, in his words, “be his wife.” It sounded glorious at first when he whispered this to in my arms…but not when I discovered the unappealing possibilities for a US national in this European country (not to mention all of the visa headaches for me). It didn’t help that his phone calls, e-mails and other communications dwindled over time, until an entire month passed without a single e-mail from him. So on top of the whole “where to live/work” issue, I also started doubting our very relationship — the foundation of everything we had together. In the end, I had to say, “Enough!” I couldn’t justify all of the headaches of moving to this country when he couldn’t make the time to even write me a simple e-mail or call me.
My face was glazed with tears the day that I called him and said I couldn’t move there. I knew our relationship would collapse and sure enough, we broke things off officially in the weeks that followed. But looking back, I also realize that — in a sense — he determined our fate the moment he put down a deposit for that European university. He was fluent in English and could easily have chosen to study abroad in the US, my home country…but he didn’t, citing a personal distaste for America.
Hence I learned my first lesson in cross-cultural relationships: love isn’t always enough. When you add into the mix each person’s careers and dreams (often linked with a specific country or place in the world, especially if a person only speaks one language) it complicates things in a way that couples from the same country would hardly understand.
I think about my stepsister, for example, who is happily married to her college sweetheart. They both were born and raised in the Cleveland, Ohio region in the US and, naturally, always wanted to settle and build their careers up there as well. There was never any question about what country might offer the two of them the most opportunities and most benefits, no tug-of-war about living here versus there or somewhere else.
Nothing like what I experienced with my ex-boyfriend in China. It was his lifelong dream to reside in this European country, so naturally he wanted to study abroad there. But his dreams clashed completely with mine. Granted, I was still trying to find my way in the world at the time. But the longer I pondered moving there with him, the more I intuitively realized I just didn’t belong in that country — that following him would be a colossal mistake.
With my husband John, though, the choices were a lot easier and, in the end, much more obvious. John had always envisioned getting educated in the US and then bringing his talents back to China to start a business. We had discussed this years before when we started dating, developing a long-term plan together to help him achieve his dreams. But it’s not as if I was putting his needs before mine. In fact, China made sense for me personally and professionally for a variety of reasons…not to mention that I’m fluent in Mandarin Chinese, absolutely love this place, and find endless inspiration here for my writing.
Unfortunately, decisions don’t always come so easy.
For example, I’ve heard from couples where she wants to settle in her home country in the West for career reasons, but he doesn’t for reasons of his own (he can’t speak the language, he has better opportunities in China). I’ve also met couples who decided to live in her country, only to realize even more problems with his career — for example, people don’t value his degree from China. Even gaining an education in her country offers no guarantees of employment, as prospective employers may discriminate against him.
Then there’s the flip side — he says, “Let’s live in China,” and she’s not sure. Maybe she struggles with Mandarin Chinese or can’t even say a word. Or she spent years studying in a certain field — which offers few or no opportunities in China — and doesn’t want to abandon her chosen career.
How should Chinese men and Western women handle a “love, location, career” dilemma? Here are some of my thoughts:
Support, support, support. He’s into pharmacy, she dreams of being a physical therapist. Whatever your partner’s work dreams are, you should say, “More power to you!” In other words, support them.
Think about both of your respective careers first and foremost. Don’t get caught up in finding the ideal for your own career — instead, the question you should be asking is, “What’s good for both of us?”
Don’t fall into the “sacrifice your job for my sake” trap either. I’ve heard of couples, where one person expects the other to quit their careers or jobs for all sorts of reasons — but that should honestly be your last resort, if at all. It breeds resentment (i.e., “How come I have to make the sacrifice and he/she doesn’t?”), and resentment is not a good bedfellow in any relationship.
Compromises sometimes have to be made — but if so, give it an expiration date. For example, my husband washed dishes in a restaurant in the US, but we both agreed he would only do this for half a year. I also know of an American woman considering teaching English in China for a year, which would give her the chance to remain closer to her fiancee while they apply for his US green card from China.
Never choose places over him/her. Preferences and prejudices about where to live and work can sometimes wreck an otherwise awesome international relationship. For example, my Chinese ex could have chosen to go to the US; maybe that wasn’t his dream location, but he would have had no problem finding endless universities with his field of study (a very popular one) and I would have had no problems finding a job. Instead, he prioritized geography over me — and contributed to our eventual breakup.
If you and your partner both agree on where to live (like John and me) you’re fortunate! If not, look for locations that benefit both of you career-wise. It could be your home countries or even a third country or region. For example, one American woman married to a fellow from Northeast China agreed to try living in the US first, with Hong Kong and Singapore as backup options.
Back to school. Sometimes all you or your partner needs is a little education — whether graduate school or business school — and suddenly you end up with a great location for everyone in the relationship. I know several couples of American women and Chinese men who are moving to the US, where both husband and wife will enroll in graduate school. Studying Mandarin Chinese at one of China’s many universities (like Sara Jaaksola) can offer foreign women a wealth of career opportunities in China.
It’s the relationship, stupid. Still butting heads over London versus Shanghai? Sometimes that’s just a symptom and the real issue is your relationship. Look at my Chinese ex — he didn’t e-mail me for an entire month, proving that we had bigger issues going on in our relationship.
If you have a relationship problem and both of you feel motivated to work on it, consider relationship counseling.
What do you think? What advice do you have for couples struggling over where to work and live?