Ask the Yangxifu: Sensitive China issues, arguments and your Chinese husband

Ellen asks:

My husband and I had a little argument yesterday regarding the execution of a British citizen in China, you are probably aware of the case. We often have complete opposite opinions on political issues and China’s attitude towards human rights, democracy, and so on… I tend to avoid these subjects because I know they are very sensitive to him and no matter what he will always defend his country. He can be very stubborn, and very annoyed by the fact that the West will only listen to Chinese people when they criticize their country (his words, not mine).

I was wondering: how do these sensitive issues (Tibet, Urumqi, China’s “great firewall”, freedom of speech, human rights and so on and on…) affect your husband? Do you often have discussions about it? Or do you -like me- tend to avoid them (also on this blog maybe?)? And if you have different views, do they influence your communication?

What sensitive issues? I’ve blocked my Chinese husband’s access to and Xinhuanet, so he’ll never again argue with me about China. 😉

Just kidding.

Seriously, though, my Chinese husband is the kind of guy who still believes in “helping the Motherland” — so it’s no surprise that we haven’t always agreed. At times, he did see the Western media as incredibly biased, and China-unfriendly (he was a fan of Anti-CNN).

Do we have discussions? You bet. You can’t avoid it — at least not if your husband is a news junkie, like mine, and pours over the online news for fun when he’s not working or doing homework. Inevitably, something is going to happen in China that we disagree about.

In the past, we were truly like a dragon and a phoenix (ironically, also the Chinese symbol of couples). We both had fire when it came to sensitive topics — stubborn, sensitive, and ready to explode if the conversation got too inflammatory. We didn’t want to listen, because we believed we knew the truth — and wanted to defend our own countries. It made for some chilling nights, despite the fire — because, after that, we didn’t really want to talk anymore. Sometimes we would not talk for a whole night.

But our fire has mostly gone — I can’t even remember the last time we stirred up a conversational conflagration over a sensitive topic. My Chinese husband says it’s because of critical thinking — that is, that we are interested in both sides of the issue, and acknowledge that biases exist in media from the West and China (some more than others). I certainly acknowledge the harrowing, and humiliating, recent history in China, and the desire to defend China — if nothing else than for pride. I’m sure I would do the same.

But I think it’s also because we’ve lived in both of our countries as well. Sometimes, that experiential knowledge goes a long way. Just recently, my husband nearly caught a cold at my parents’ home during the holidays, and he said he finally understood how uncomfortable I must have felt when I weathered those chilly nights at his parents’ home during Chinese New Year. His realization wasn’t about a sensitive China issue, but experiences like this can build understanding between couples like us, and make each other more willing to understand and see the other side.

My husband is also more open to talking things out. Before, he would withdraw, and sometimes even stonewall me, instead of engaging. But now, he’s realized it’s important to me to talk. (It also doesn’t hurt that he’s in a communication-heavy PhD program, so he has engage all the time — or else!)

Okay, yes, he can still be stubborn, and so can I (the whole “I’ll let things be, but not until after I’ve shown you the article in the newspaper that supports my point of view!”). Obviously, we don’t always think the same. But, it helps to remember, as my husband often does, that these issues have little to do with our daily lives. Being “right” about something might make us feel better for the moment, but it won’t, say, help me get my writing done, or help John finish his dissertation. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about the moral ramifications of these issues — i.e. the well-being and rights of vulnerable populations in China. We just acknowledge that our argument won’t be so productive, in the long run.

At the same time, I’ve come to discover that a way to a harmonious marriage — sans arguments — is through your Chinese husband’s stomach. I keep him happy with a heavy helping of home-cooked Chinese meals, and, even though I’m a vegan, make sure he has his favorite “comfort foods” — fried eggs, chicken wings, and, a new favorite, smoked salmon.

I also keep a stash of chocolate on hand at all times, ready to feed my husband when an argument strikes. Believe me, nothing melts away an argument quite like chocolate. -)

P.S.: Thanks so much to Ellen for providing my first Ask the Yangxifu question! Do you have a question about dating, marriage and family in China (or in Chinese culture). Every Friday, I’ll choose one question and answer it on my blog. Send me your question today.

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14 thoughts on “Ask the Yangxifu: Sensitive China issues, arguments and your Chinese husband

  • January 8, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Another great post, Jocelyn!

    My spouse and I were just talking about how the Chinese education system does a good job of teaching its’ citizens to be sensitive and defensive about any criticism the country or its’ government might receive, especially from non-Chinese, given all the abuses China has suffered by the hands of foreigners over hundreds of years.

    That said, he too is surprisingly patient, empathetic, and sometimes even defensive of his homeland governments’ behavior. But I usually enjoy our debates, as he knows so much more history (China and elsewhere) than I do; it’s a free history lesson for me.

  • January 8, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    when two partners have different cultures, adaption is not easy, some of people really believe their countries, maybe their countries believe them . for example, in my country, many people don’t like to do their traditions. once they are living in foreign countries, they prefer foreign cultures , they will be in opposite of our cultures , traditions, and countries, and many times family. but many Chinese really believe their country . (maybe not really related to this post, but related to this blog )

  • January 8, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    My Chinese wife and I have been at odds on the issue of Tibet, Finally, last year, she treated me, and told me to visit Tibet, to see for myself. I went. I had my eyes opened. Everywhere you look there are investment and modernization projects.New Buildings , Roads, Cleaner Water, Bridges and a whole lot of Transportation Infrastructure and Developement. The millions in RMB are coming from Beijing. And, there is a large merchant middle class, many of whom describe the dalai as a “politician”, with the universal scorn that goes with that label. There is so much to be learned from the Culture of China. For us ,Westerners, to presume that “we know better” is assinine. RichFromTampa

    • January 8, 2010 at 11:41 pm

      Dear Susan,

      Thanks for the comment! It’s always good to get a perspective, and understand where your spouse is coming from, which you clearly do. And, as you mention (in terms of getting a good “history lesson” from your debates) there’s an upside to disagreeing. 😉

      Dear Roueen,

      Thanks for sharing! It is true that adapting is not easy for many people, including some Chinese.

      Dear RichFromTampa,

      Thanks for weighing in! It’s so true that we don’t often get the other side of the story. I know my husband has shared his understanding of Tibet with me, and what I’ve learned has shocked me. I’ve definitely learned to dig deeper into stories, instead of simply assuming that because it comes from the Western media, it must be right.

  • January 9, 2010 at 1:07 am

    Hi, thanks for sharing your experience. I’d like to share some thoughts too if you don’t mind. 🙂
    I never impose my point of view, usually I’m more interesting in discussing and understanding other’s ideas rather than imposing mine. My (chinese) girlfriend is sometimes very stubborn but she can also be more critical than I am, so I prefer avoiding some subjects or shorten our conversations when I know it’s not going anywhere. It is not because I don’t agree with her but because I don’t like when there is no “discussion”.
    In my opinion that is THE main problem, I met this situation many times when talking with some chinese friends. I do not make it a general rule but many people just don’t want to share arguments with you because they don’t want to hear yours and directly reject them.
    If noone has the will to hear and consider other’s point of view in a discussion, it is not a discussion anymore.
    When I discuss “sensitive” things with my girlfriend I first try to show her I understand her points before saying what I think. Direct opposition always result in a end of discussion ! 🙂
    (Sorry for being so talkative, hope I’m not being confusing)
    — Woods

  • January 9, 2010 at 7:42 am

    As my significant other is a Chinese minority (Tibetan) who never quite bought into the government education he got growing up, we’ve never had arguments about these sensitive topics. Phew.

    RichfromTampa — Though a visit to Tibet can be an eye-opener in terms of development of the region, it seems as though you have swapped one over-simplified description of the region for another. It takes quite a bit of work to see beneath the surface, perhaps more than you can get on a single vacation.

  • January 10, 2010 at 7:51 am

    I’m glad my Chinese husband and I can talk pretty objectively about politics. Most of my information comes from the Western media and a lot of his comes from the Chinese media, so we like to compare notes and see what we really think is going on. Now I know that no media outlet has a monopoly on the Truth so we have to learn as much as we can from multiple sources and then draw our own conclusions. And we’re both learning to be more dispassionate.

    • January 10, 2010 at 11:31 pm

      Dear Woods,

      Thank you so much for sharing! I think it’s smart not to impose your views directly on others — it is certainly a good way to keep the goodwill going. 😉

      Dear Han Hu,

      Thanks for the comment. I could never pretend to know Tibet the way you do, and I’m sure we could all learn from someone like you who has truly experienced the culture. If only I could sit down and pick your brain one of these days. It’s truly my loss.

      Dear Melanie,

      You are fast becoming one of my most active commenters — thanks so much! That is great that you’re able to speak objectively about politics with your husband. I feel much the same way, and like you, I like to compare notes with John too. Somehow this only adds credence to the idea that we’re long lost twins… 😉

  • January 28, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    My husband and I had a little argument yesterday regarding the execution of a British citizen in China, you are probably aware of the case.
    Why do you object to execute him?
    This reminds me of a movie – Dead man walking
    i think the point we should care is not the excution itself.

  • February 21, 2010 at 4:40 pm

    Wow, your approach to your husband completely changed my views on how white girls treat their husbands, bravo, you treat your husband better than my Chinese girlfriend treat me.

    • February 21, 2010 at 7:55 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Andrew — and how sweet of you to say so. I think there are, in fact, a lot of girls out there who treat their husbands as nice as I do…we just don’t get the headlines. 😉

  • March 9, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    My husband (Chinese) and I (Swedish) might not always have the same point of view on things, but we have never actually argued or had a heated discussion about “sensitive subjects”. I don’t know how we have managed this through four years, maybe it’s because my husband is quite western and I’m pretty Chinese so we meet halfway?
    We have been discussing Tibet some, and while both of us agree Tibet is probably better off being a part of China, my husband more or less call Dalai Lama a terrorist while I’m more neutral. And in my eyes, Taiwan is a country while my husband says it’s China.

    So talking about sensitive subjects, yes we do. But we don’t argue about it.

    • March 9, 2010 at 3:54 pm

      Thanks for sharing, Jennie! I think you illustrate the importance of being understanding in a cross-cultural couple — that, sometimes, you just don’t see eye-to-eye, and that’s okay. Because, the love is more important than any political or news conflict ever could be (at least, from my perspective!).

  • May 2, 2011 at 7:27 am

    Great post Jocelyn! I relate to the experiences of our squabbles with respect to Japan, Tibet, Taiwan and even human rights. I tend to be more opinionated than my boyfriend (chinese) on these issues. Its not that I have a ‘western’ perspective, more that I have certain views on how the boundaries in this world should be drawn (if at all) than he does. However he is very patriotic. Thankfully, he is also very patient in showing me the other side (he showed me some movies about Japanese invasion, the formation of Taiwan) and I also try to show him my perspective through the documentaries and news reports that affected my way of thinking. Also being Indian I guess I had a different perspective to offer him about Tibet.

    In the end, we both realize that to a certain extent these issues are political and no government is untainted. Also while he constantly tries to make me see the chinese need for ‘harmony and unity’ and the ‘chinese identity’ which well extends beyond the borders of PRC, I try to make him understand that the biggest advantage of leaving your country and venturing out is the ability to gain access to different perspectives rather than one simplistic polarized one.

    I have to say I am lucky that he is a critical thinker, unlike a lot of our other chinese friends who despite being here, refuse to see beyond the point of view they were raised with. Probably why we dont have heated arguments about political issues anymore..


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