The other day, a friend told me the idea of marriage was outdated and totally over-commercialized. She said she had absolutely no interest in getting married.
I totally understood where she was coming from – because, after all, there was a moment in my life when I felt exactly the same way.
I’m not sure when it started – probably sometime in high school – but I was ambivalent about marriage and weddings. Whether it was the rising divorce rate, the growing acceptance of cohabitation or the fact that I never met anyone I could even picture myself married to, I can’t really say. I just know I didn’t grow up with dreams of the perfect white dress and honeymoons and the house in the suburbs with that white picket fence.
My mother once told me about the girls she remembered from college, there for the so-called “MRS” degree. I started my freshman year at university with her advice echoing in my mind – how I should just enjoy myself and not get too tied down to anyone. I enjoyed going out with guys during college, but I always intuitively understood that it was never about finding “the one” and more about finding out who I was. Though I never explicitly said so to anyone or even to myself, looking back, I realize I struggled with the idea of being committed to anyone — making thoughts of the greatest commitment of all, marriage, impossible for me.
But all that changed when I went to work in China after graduation, and fell for a Chinese man. It was the first time the M-word – marriage – was a serious possibility.
It wasn’t just that I was deeply in love with him, more than I had ever felt for anyone else in my life up to that point. Nor was it some generalized cultural pressure from family, his or mine.
No, it had to do with something most of us take for granted – the ability to introduce someone to your family and your parents and even your hometown.
At some point in my first year in China, during that time when this guy and I were dating, I imagined what my dad and stepmom might say when they finally shook his hand in their home. Or what my grandma would make for us when we came to visit. Or what he would think after seeing the high school I attended and the library my mother once worked at.
But these thoughts were easily derailed by the harsh reality for Chinese passport holders, who included my boyfriend. After all, he had applied twice for a US visa and was rejected both times. It didn’t matter how much I hoped to take him home to see the family and my hometown, because there was always this huge international bureaucratic hurdle that stood between us.
It’s one thing to ask your parents if it’s OK to bring your steady boyfriend or girlfriend over, not certain how Mom and Dad might respond.
But it’s another thing entirely to have to ask an entire country for permission to bring this person over in an embassy or consulate, where your love for them and your word no longer matters. Where decisions can sometimes feel arbitrary and capricious in the cold, aseptic visa interview rooms. Where it’s sometimes hard to understand why some people get visas and others don’t.
In addition, there’s a flip side to this conversation – namely, the right to remain in the foreign country where you met your foreign boyfriend or girlfriend. While I never had this issue, consider what Canadian singer-songwriter Ember Swift once wrote regarding her marriage with Guo Jian:
For me, my decision to marry him wasn’t about pleasing him or pleasing his family and culture either; to be perfectly honest, it was about securing a visa! Anyone who has lived in China without a permanent work visa knows that the Chinese system for foreign visas is an ever-changing nightmare. And, by extension, I admit that I liked being identified as “the one” in his eyes—the one worthy of a life commitment. Are those first reasons selfish reasons to marry? Was I wrong to marry him when it benefitted me and my ego? I’ll concede that I stepped around my previous political views on marriage in order to express my respect for his culture, too, but that’s not exactly a selfless act of love; it’s more about mutual human respect.
While of course she loved Guo Jian, the added benefit of gaining a visa to stay in China was among the reasons she wanted to marry him.
I ultimately broke up with that guy I met my first year in China – but I’ve faced similar visa-related issues while dating Jun, who is also from China and who I eventually married.
What I’ve learned over the years is that debates about the “usefulness of marriage” or whether “marriage is outdated” or even whether “marriage is too commercialized and therefore pointless” are a luxury not everyone has.
You don’t have this option to talk about whether marriage matters when you’re a Westerner in love with a foreigner who isn’t given a visa on arrival for your country. Or when you’re a foreigner loving someone in his or her country, where securing a visa through marriage could ensure the two of you remain together. Being subject to the heartless bureaucracies that go hand in hand with immigration rules and residency gives you an entirely new perspective on the value of marriage.
I recognize that there are off-putting things about modern marriage and weddings. And I should know, because I’ve blogged openly about my dislike for weddings in China (to the point that I’d rather not attend them, if possible). We should have conversations about these things.
At the same time, I’m not advocating for sham marriages that exist only for the sole purpose of gaining a visa or residency in a specific country.
But the fact of the matter is, nothing is perfect. Not marriage or weddings or, especially, the immigration rules that can potentially wreck the best of plans between a young international couple genuinely in love with one another. Sometimes we do the best we can with what we have.
And sometimes, marriage matters simply because it could mean the chance to take your loved one abroad and finally see him shake hands with your father in your hometown, just as you always dreamed of.