John, my Chinese husband, came to China this summer to work on his dissertation research. If I was working on a research question for this summer, it might be this — what happens when a foreign woman comes to China with her Chinese husband and then spends the majority of the summer apart from him?
Since the afternoon of May 8, 2011, John and I have lived in separate cities in China. He stays in Shanghai, as he prepares to do a clinical trial for his dissertation research. Meanwhile, I stay at the family home in rural Hangzhou, where I can read, write and do a little research for my writing.
On paper, it works perfectly. John and I both knew he would be far too busy in Shanghai, which meant if we stayed together I’d be on my own most of the time. It made sense for me to go back to the family home, because I needed a space to write and longed for the inspiration of our relatives there.
But in practice, I have to face that one thing every happily married couple grapples with when they’re apart — missing your loved one more than you imagined.
It’s not like ours is a new tale in China. Haven’t we all heard of those families – especially from the rural countryside – where often the husband goes to the big city for some job, and his wife stays at home? Or even where both the husband and the wife head to different cities for work?
According to one of my aunts on John’s father’s side, couples get separated from time to time in the village where I currently live. “It’s normal for some couples to be apart for maybe three months at a time,” she shrugged. “Not so much longer than that around here. Maybe in the interior of China, there are people coming to our Zhejiang to work for the year. Those people maybe only see their families once a year.” Once a year? Reminds me of the fables surrounding Chinese Valentine’s Day and the Mid-Autumn Festival. I don’t know if I have that kind of mettle, to be away from my husband for an entire year. I’m just trying to manage this summer, and the reality that I’ll probably only see John once a month, if that.
It definitely feels like an experiment of its own. Being away from my Chinese husband. Living by myself with my Chinese inlaws, in their huge family home and adjusting to the ebb and flow of life here. Like latent jet lag, I still feel as if I’m not altogether myself and trying to find my own bearings, to figure out what all of this means to me.
Still, at least I am not alone here. My Chinese mother-in-law keeps me filled with delicious meals of things like braised spring bamboo, asparagus lettuce in rice wine vinegar, smoked tofu made from a secret hometown recipe that’s been passed down for generations, and dumplings made from rice flour and a filling of pickled vegetables, tofu and bamboo. My Chinese father-in-law loves sharing his favorite classic Chinese philosophy books (such as the Tao Te Ching) and spin stories about his childhood (like how his mother needed to eat eggs after he was born but she couldn’t buy any because it was the Dragon Boat Festival and everyone ate eggs on that day). My grandma often invites me to her house to eat stir-fried rice vermicelli that she always complains is “not so delicious” because I’m a vegetarian and she has to make it with vegetable oil. My second brother-in-law loves flashing me a smile wherever he goes and has never been more talkative than this summer. And my sister-in-law – with her new baby – beams with goodwill like the sunshine that filters through my window in the morning.
When I think about my family here in China, and what they mean to me as well, then I wonder about another potential “experiment” I face in the future: what happens when one foreign woman spends the summer with her Chinese family and then has to return to the US — and miss them for another year or two?
Have you ever had to face separation as a couple? Do you think separation is more common for couples in China?