The “love, location, career” dilemma for Chinese men/Western women in love

John and I knew exactly where we wanted to live and work in the future: China. But these decisions don't always come easy for other couples -- and sometimes lead to breakups.
John and I knew exactly where we wanted to live and work in the future: China. But these decisions don’t always come easy for other couples — and sometimes lead to breakups.

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?

18 Replies to “The “love, location, career” dilemma for Chinese men/Western women in love”

  1. One other thing to consider: Where do we want to raise our kids? Of course, not all couples want kids, and for others, that may be something in the distant future, but it is an issue to consider as it raises aspects of social and environmental factors as well as education.

    1. Raise kids? Probably in a private school in either country. Certainly not a public school in the US. College definitely in the US

  2. In my personal experience for such a international couple a good option is a third place. Living in one’s home country could cause imbalance in the couple, simply because everything”belongs” to one side of the couple: friends, family, language, food, possibly the house, everything is about one person, and the other is just “attached”. In that sense, I personally feel like a third place provides a much better balance in such a relationship, so that the couple can create its own world resulting into a tailored mix of cultures, languages, food and so on.

    Giving up on your world to embrace someone else’s may be very tough in the long run.

  3. Nice reading this dilemma.
    Priorities and timing, and those plans need to be updated very often, cause life changes, careers change, and we as individuals and as a couple also change.
    I would not change a third country for a long term for a simple reason, we would need to pay double for all trips back home. We would need to fly to both countries and dividing the holidays would be very complex.
    By now, while living in China, we can visit his parents and it just takes us a car ride. If we live in Europe his parents would never be able to go visit us. But while living here, we know my dad can actually do it.
    Careers..well I dont know what to say. I am also in shock that my boss changes his mind very often. This week he mentioned opening an office in L.A. (ok) and yesterday he said Mexico D.F…see..I could move to L.A. but I am not willing to move to Mexico. And still from my side I would not move yet, and wait some years.

  4. Good reading as well as things to think about if a person should be in this type of situation. I guess the advice can apply to any relationship, not just Chinese men/Western women couples.

  5. If you compromise with your gf/wife, the possibilities are endless. The sky is the limit seriously. You really don’t know who can be your wife/husband so you just have to take a risk. In life, everything seems to be so perfect in the beginning ,but the end is what counts.


  6. Ahhh the careers… My boyfriend is going to be a pilot, thus we are definitely firmly in China for 5 years at least. He will be studying in America for the next year and a half, so we are working on a way to bring him to Canada to visit my family while he is in North America. Luckily for the pair of us I want my life to be in China, although we both agree that we want our children to go to high school in Canada. Our combined degrees and career areas are fairly portable, so we are hopeful that we’ll be okay. Depends on the next year, I suppose~

    1. Hello Jocelyn and also to Luoyi-
      I’ve been reading Jocelyn’s blog for a few weeks now and have really enjoyed the perspective. To Luoyi, I was wondering about your statement that you will be in China for 5 years at least due to your boyfriend’s career as a pilot. My daughter (from the US) is dating a young man who completed some of his pilot training in the US and is now back in China. I’m trying to understand the “rules” regarding how long an individual would be required to stay in China as a pilot. Would greatly appreciate ANY advice/information you can offer.
      Best wishes to all.

  7. This post is beautiful. I’m so glad you wrote it. Like, wow.
    I get a similar thing in my inbox (replace Chinese with Japanese and it’s basically the exact same dilemma).

    When Ryosuke and I got engaged that question kept popping up. I decided pretty early on that we, well, had to live in Japan. I could get a job anywhere in the world… but he probably wouldn’t be able to get a job in America. At least a job he was interested in. That, like, actually paid a living salary – not to mention all the Visa complications.

    We made a compromise, we both job hunted and whoever got the “higher paying / better job” got to keep their country. Naturally, he won because America companies don’t believe in paying a living salary to recent graduates. I still got to prove to everyone that I COULD HAVE worked (if, you know, I wanted to). It worked out really nice.

    But I can see exactly what you wrote – sometimes it’s not that simple. Visas are such a hassle, moving to a different country can crush a career, and sometimes there’s just no way to “win.”
    Thanks for the awesome posts (as always). I don’t comment often, but I love reading your stuff!

  8. This is a very important topic. The possibility of living in a third country should not be dismissed lightly. Every situation is different, but the possible power imbalance that stems from living in a country you dont know the language of/ might not understand the norms/ fit in outweighs whatever flight prices you pay to visit parents (which is a smaller concern, unless you happen to be in charge of caring for them).

    While situations vary I think ultimately the location conflict DOES boil down to whether love is enough to make up for the constraints and limitations location can enforce on partnerships. Eventually the one who compromises, even if they do it for the right reasons, may or may not end up getting the sour end of the deal. This is of course different if for instance you SEE your career in your partners country (like english teachers in China who will probably find it much more of a hassle to find the same kind of job with similar ease and growth options in west). But unless that is the case, it is naive to downplay the risks of starting a career in a foriegn country.

    This issue is further compunded when the foriegn country in question happens to be a country like China. Even western nations, which are much more used to talent based immigration and foriegn workers in workforce, pose challenges for people moving there for careers. China is very new to this and needless to say probably not as willing to change its rules for new incumbents. The industries that need foreigners are probably limited (as they are in west but even more so) and have their own set of idiosyncratic rules. For eg. consider the industry of teaching english in asia. Asian americans or even indian people who are technically more fluent in english than say eastern europeans (or even western europeans in many instances) will find it MUCH harder to get a job teaching english in china… NOT because of their skill, but because of their appearance. But if you look “white” it makes it easier even if your english might be a notch or two better than the locals.

    I don’t mean to say that one must rule out staying in their partners home country based on these deterrents. But it is also not wise to romanticise this option as if it is easy just based on experiences of those for whom it worked. It is not easy, and it is compounded by the fact that at least in countries like China where immigration by non chinese is in early stages and debates about equality and race haven’t even started; it can be difficult to fit in anyways. A third country where both can find some ground can be a good leveller, because at least both partners can share the experience of being an outsider. And trust me, you do not want to live through the “outsider” experience alone with your partner having no means to even empathise with you.

    1. That is exactly what I mean! For the sake of the couple, I think being outsiders together is much easier than dealing with different “status” within the couple. It also allows a degree of freedom in setting your own rules as a couple, rather than one side just embracing the world of the other side. In the long run, that could cause misunderstanding and possibly resentment.

  9. Hi Jocelyn,
    I’m French and my boyfriend is Chinese. I am currently dealing with this “love, location, career” dilemma you are talking about.
    We know we want to live in Europe in the long term, but right now, he needs to stay in China (family issues). I moved to Shanghai just after graduation to support him, but I can’t find any job in my domain because of the lack of experience… I could teach, and my bf’s aunt tried to find me a teacher’s position, but I really want to have a career in finance!
    I’m thinking about going back to France to gain some professional experience and save a little money… but my bf and I are heartbroken (we already spent apart more than 2 years out of 5)
    Then,as working permit are more and more difficult to get, I’m very afraid I will never be able to go back to China 🙁
    Well, thank you for your blog, I find it very supportive to see that other people faced the same problems (or worse!) and worked it out 🙂

  10. While living in a third country sounds like a good solution for some couples, as Jocelyn points out in her post, this can be very problematic visa-wise. Language may also be an issue. Plus, both couples may have to adjust to a somewhat new culture and navigate the ins and outs of finding employment, housing, etc. in a country that is unfamiliar to both of them. I’d personally find that stressful, especially having a family.

    Which brings up the next point, which Chris points out, having children. If you have or plan on having them, it will definitely influence your decisions. I would be (mostly) happy to stay in China, but having witnessed the vigorous competition and endless hours of studying, I want my step-daughter and son to be educated in a place where they have more time to enjoy childhood and are able to develop hobbies and participate in activities outside of doing homework.

    As far as education, some of our partners (or perhaps even ourselves) don’t have a college degree, though it seems that, by the language used in this post, Jocelyn assumes we all do? This is another issue my husband and I considered. Should he try to get some sort of degree in my home country? Or perhaps do some sort of blue collar job? Maybe try to juggle both?

    I guess we’ll see what the future holds.

  11. As an American married to a Chinese man and currently living in Korea, I can speak to the idea of living in a third country that some people have brought up. If you think it might be difficult for you living in China but not speaking Mandarin or Cantonese, or him living in America but not speaking English, then a third country should be out of the question for you unless you both speak that country’s language fluently. Honestly if you are already concerned about one person not speaking the native language it will not benefit you to go somewhere where you both don’t speak it. You might think it will help your relationship to be outsiders together, but the reasons language is important in the first place are jobs, daily life, doctor visits, getting an apartment – struggling over these things in a third country where neither of you speaks the language is likely to lead to relationship threatening stress *if* language is already the concern one of you have for why you don’t want to live in China or the Western country.

    However, if language is not the concern (as in our case, since we both speak enough Korean to get by, my job provides housing, and we have Korean friends who help us if we absolutely need it) – then living in the third country can definitely be great. We actually met here, in fact. We had decided to stay… until he couldn’t find a job after finishing his masters degree program here.

    This is another downside to living in the third country. Perhaps one of you might not find a job easily in China or the native Western country – that doesn’t mean you’ll both easily find a job in the third country. As a university English instructor, I’m set pretty much anywhere in Asia. An an engineer, we thought my husband would be, too… *shrug* The economy is bad, all of our Korean friends tell us.

    Add to that what some people have mentioned about having children. I know many expats in Korea who have had children here, but unless they are married to a Korean 99% of them don’t plan to stay when their children reach school age. Suppose you want your child to be fluent in English (or your native Western language) and Mandarin/Cantonese/a dialect from China. If you are in China or your Western country, they’ll get one language simply from living there, and the other will have to be from the native speaking parent (and any other input/exposure you can give them). But if we, for example, stayed in Korea, either our children would have to go to Korean school and learn Korean and use it for most of the day, rather than either English or Mandarin, *or* we’d have to pay A LOT for an international school. Add to that the fact that I dislike the ultra competitive college-entrance-exam-focused non-creative style of education here, and my husband really disliked the schooling atmosphere in China (similar to Korea), and the decision of “where should we go, since we can’t stay in Korea” kind of made itself – the USA, at least while our kids are school-aged.

    Of course there are other factors – my husband speaks fluent English and always wanted to get a PhD in America anyway. We can probably make more money in America combined than in China combined, for fewer working hours and in better company environments. He doesn’t like the smoky, alcohol-filled dinners he’d probably have to go to often if he worked for an engineering company in China. The environment itself (air, water, etc.) is cleaner in Oregon than any city he could find a job in in China. People might also need to factor in religion – we are both non-denominational Christians, and think we’d more likely find a place of worship to grow in in America than China. Family support is also important – his parents want him to stay abroad; they think he will have better opportunities than in China. And of course the visa headaches… as someone in the process of getting an immediate relative visa (green card) right now, of course it’s a ton of paperwork, but it’s one-time for 10 years. Whereas the best we could get in China is a Q2 relative/spouse visa that I would need to renew every 6 months, and as another poster already mentioned, has a lot of restrictions on it.

    I’ve kind of strayed off topic from the original points about the third country option, so I’ll try to wrap that back up: if language is the main concern for China/Western country choices, I think you’d be better off choosing one of those two and studying hard than heading to a third country with an entirely different language that neither of you know. If language isn’t the main concern, then it can be great! … (provided the country’s educational system meets your goals and you can find the jobs you need, not being natives, etc.)

  12. I never had this problem because I would rather live anywhere besides the US and I’ve never wanted my kids to be raised in the US. So any time I had relationships with people from different places, I’ve always wanted to live in their homeland vs my own. I have heard of this being a problem too with some people, because some foreigners’ parents would rather their kids use the opportunity of marrying a westerner to get out of whatever country and into the US.
    But myself personally, I’ve always gotten “You and your parents can come live with my family.” like a traditional courtyardish extended family unit.

  13. By google, I reached this website and read these interesting love stories and comments. I did this google search because I have some fantasy of European girls.

    As to me, I am a Chinese man in Germany for 4yrs. I feel somehow strange when reading a few stories, honestly! so I decide to write something.

    Why is there stereotype? I mean, the negative impression against Chinese man. Where is it from?

    Maybe, as someone said, Not everyone is sophisticate enough to get his/her own idea, after so much brainwashing in the media. So, Let me show my middle finger to them, including Chinese and Western media!

    In my mind, everyone is equal no matter where he/she is from. I didn’t judge anyone based on his race, nation….neither on his speech, but only on his behavior! In fact, before leaving China I had no idea what was race, and I F##K didn’t care. My sense of globalization was much stronger than my current colleagues’.

    Human being is just human being! We share the basic common value, no matter of the history, the culture, the religion…etc. The bridge to overcome those negative thoughts is to communicate.

    To talk, with proper language skills, to talk with our open mind.

    My experience in Germany had fun and pain, and will be void in the future, I guess. It is really hard to make German friends in my current city. They are polite and friendly, but aloof. After two yrs, my colleagues didn’t give me a sh!t, and I wouldn’t give them neither. Now, I just want to finish my work and leave this country .

    This is a bad situation, admittedly. But, my former lab was really nice, and international. I did have much friendship ! So, I still stay positive to this country!

    I am not complaining about anything. My point is, from my experience I know, ppl need to talk, and ppl need travel a lot !!! Never behavior like those silent German, or those narrow-minded Chinese village men.

    Finally u will see, human beings are the same! And the procedure to understand the culture shock is really interesting, and the final comprehension of each other is such a joy!

    OK, My final words are:

    To talk, To pursue the overlap and To respect the difference !

    There will be no love failure like the Tower of Babel, if you listen, and if you talk!

    Best wishes to your love,

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