Over dinner two weeks ago in Beijing, Melanie Gao — a fellow yangxifu and blogger — asked an interesting question. “What language do you have a better relationship in with your Chinese husband?”
I didn’t know what to say because John and I had always floated between English and Mandarin, as if the two languages together somehow became our hybrid “husband-wife” language. “Hmmmmm, I don’t know. It’s hard to decide between English and Chinese. Maybe our relationship is slightly better in English these days because of his Ph.D. studies in the US.”
But I never would have guessed Melanie’s answer. “My husband and I have a better relationship in Japanese.” Japanese? If John had been here, he (and the remnants of his anti-Japanese ideas) would have fallen over. “I think it’s because it’s another language for us. We both have to try hard to understand one another.”
Still, I remembered reading how Melanie met her husband in Chiba, Japan when they were foreign students there — and came to know him in Japanese. Which made me wonder about another explanation. “Maybe that’s because Japanese is the language you fell in love in.”
Does it matter in what language you fall in love with someone? The question followed me long after that dinner, as I recalled my different loves in China.
I loved my first Chinese boyfriend exclusively in English, at a time when toddlers spoke better Mandarin Chinese than I did. When he left to study abroad in England, I started learning Chinese — and always felt embarrassed taking such linguistic baby steps before him. Given how he once warned me not to learn Chinese for him, breaking out of English seemed impossible for us.
Even though Frank, my second Chinese boyfriend, studied advanced English with me on the weekends, he usually turned an embarrassed shade of red and grinned in silence when I tried talking with him in English. So we came to know, love and, eventually, misunderstand each other only in Chinese.
But with John, my future Chinese husband, things changed. Some days, we would live entirely in English, trying to apply the American slang word “cheesy” to some of the terrible graphics on client websites. Other days, we’d laugh together in Chinese as he taught me new words or helped me translate phrases. So to this day, we’re just as happy having a conversation as liaoliaotian.
If Melanie had met her future husband in the US or China, maybe they would have a better relationship in English or Chinese, or even both languages. Instead, they have it in Japanese — which, in my opinion, makes for a far more interesting story. 😉
For those of you who have or have had cross-cultural relationships: what language(s) do you have a better relationship in and why?