5 Awkward Things for a Longtime Married Couple in China with No Kids


I’ve got a secret to share with you.

Remember how a couple of weeks ago I mentioned John and I just celebrated our 10th marriage anniversary? And remember how we subsequently met with our friends at a nice Hangzhou restaurant on said anniversary?

Our friends who dined with us that evening had no idea it was our 10th anniversary. (We actually told them it was a dinner to celebrate my birthday – which was true, in part.)

It’s crazy, I know. And you might be wondering, Why would they hide such an important anniversary from their friends in China?

Because in China, it’s incredibly awkward to be married for 10 years and not have any kids. So awkward, that my husband just doesn’t want to mention it to his friends or even talk about it with people we know (like a friend’s mom we walked through the park with the other night). It’s funny how something that made me feel so proud could actually make me feel embarrassed at the same time.

For those of you wondering what that awkwardness is like, here are 5 things that reflect the challenges of being a married couple of 10 years in China with no children:

1. You will need a coping mechanism for the many times people ask you, “Why don’t you have children?”

In the US where I grew up, this sort of question is mostly off-limits (unless you have one of those really nosy relatives who doesn’t know the meaning of the term “off-limits”). In China, it’s par for the course. After all, this is a country where “Are you married?” and “Do you have children?” are a Chinese equivalent of asking “Are you well?” – ways to show your care and concern for someone else.

Well, believe me, when people find out we’re married but have zero children, they look INCREDIBLY concerned.

This is a culture that believes marriage and children are as inseparable as Beijing duck and those tasty little pancakes – you just cannot have one without the other. Chalk it up to Confucian values, particularly filial piety. In fact, of the three unfilial actions, the worst of all is never having kids (which are the next generation to care for the elders and worship the ancestors).

When I hear this question – “Why don’t you have children?” — the flippant side of me desperately wants to say, “Mind your own business!” But that doesn’t go over too well with most people, as you can imagine.

Sometimes I just say, “Because we don’t.” Sometimes I tell people, “Because we can’t,” and leave it up to them to figure out what that means. Sometimes I just change the subject. But more often, if my husband is with me, I just leave the answering to him!

Me and my mother-in-law.

 2. You will need to find your inner courage whenever your mother-in-law suggests you’re an “old maid”.

I love my mother-in-law to pieces, but whenever we return back to the family home after a long hiatus, she immediately brings up having kids and then tells me I’m “too old”. After all, we’ve been married for a decade and I’m over 30 (30 is the official “expiration date” in China for having kids).

I know what you’re thinking, it’s just her opinion and it’s just a bunch of words. But things like that have a way of wiggling into your subconscious and tugging on your insecurities. Before you know it, you’re wondering, “Am I too old?” Or worse, you follow this whole train of thought to its depressing end – often something involving you curled up on your bed crying away a perfectly good afternoon.

It takes a LOT of courage to fight through these awkward moments and find your inner confidence. I still don’t have a magic bullet to deal with suggestions that I’m too old. What I have found, though, is that moments of just being present – taking a walk through the park, or focusing on my breathing – can help me feel more comfortable with where I am right at this moment.


 3. You will dread going home for holidays like Chinese New Year, when all of your husband’s peers from school come over to visit – with their school-age children.

Unlike us, my husband’s peers jumped on the baby bandwagon almost immediately into their marriages (including a friend whose wife was famously pregnant and showing at their wedding – a bridal bump I had the chance to witness with my own eyes).

So whenever Chinese New Year comes around, they come around to visit as well – with, well, their young and even school-age kids.

Actually, for the most part, his friends and peers don’t give us pressure. It’s their parents that do – parents who will compare us to John’s peers and then pelt us with all sorts of uncomfortable questions or comments (usually of the “Why don’t you have children” or “You’re too old” variety) when they notice we have no little ones in tow. The whole situation completely strips all of that sepia-toned nostalgia from the idea of “home for the holidays”.

We were able to dodge a lot of these questions this year, because most people were just glad to see us back in China. But next year? I don’t really know what’s going to happen. Deep down a part of me is secretly saying, “Help!”


 4. You’ll feel isolated from your friends with kids – and instead gravitate to friendships with other people who “don’t belong”.

Don’t get me wrong, we love our friends with kids. But sometimes being around them can feel a little uncomfortable, particularly when they – with well intentions – bring up the topic of us having kids. Sometimes we feel like we don’t entirely belong to the same club, if you know what I mean. So of course, we inevitably gravitate to our other friends who feel as if they “don’t belong” in Chinese society.

In particular, one of our best friends in China is Caroline, who happens to be what people call a “leftover woman.” “Leftover women” and “leftover men” describe people of a certain age in China (over 27 for women, 30 for men) who haven’t married yet. They also feel as out of step with China’s society as we do, because it’s just not normal in China for adults to be single.

We’ve always loved Caroline, our mutual friend who introduced the two of us years ago. But maybe we feel even closer to her because she’s like the ultimate safe space where we can vent about the awkwardness of our situations – hers not being married, ours being childless.

I feel like I’ve come to understand Caroline’s pain every time someone else pelts her with that unwelcome question: “Why aren’t you married yet?” She’s even shared with us some of her less-than-pleasant encounters with the question, encounters that make her angry and frustrated, and I feel her. Because to me, the question isn’t all that different from “Why don’t you have kids yet?” It’s a question that also singles you out, that divides you from the world, that reminds you of something you lack or something that perhaps you even desire but cannot have.

The other night, she told John and me about this one ridiculous girl she used to work with (“ridiculous” was her description) who kept interrogating Caroline about things that could easily have been ripped from a list of the “10 most cringeworthy questions in China”: Why aren’t you married? Why don’t you own an apartment? Why don’t you have a car?

“What do you want to hear from me?” Caroline said to this girl (surely in a voice that was getting dangerously close to angry). “That I’m unable to find someone? That I have no money?” Somehow, just hearing about Caroline’s courageous, “take no crap” response to this girl made the three of us erupt in a cathartic burst of laughter. In these moments, we always feel a little less alone and isolated.

 5. “Being married for 10 years with no kids and living in China” will become one of the scariest things you write about.

For the longest time, I never wanted to go public with this topic. It scares me because it’s such a personal thing – and one that weighs on me on a regular basis (for many of the reasons I mentioned above). Why put it out there and risk having more people tell me either 1) You’re too old for kids or 2) What’s wrong with you?

But one of the things I’ve learned from my husband is the importance of self-acceptance. This is who I am – a woman who has been married to her Chinese husband for 10 years, lives in China, and has no children. Will I be like this forever? Honestly, I really don’t know for a lot of reasons I can’t share on this blog. But regardless, I must face my reality and embrace it – in all of its awkwardness. And for the moment, maybe that’s enough.

This is who I am, red-starred hat and all!

What do you think?

65 Replies to “5 Awkward Things for a Longtime Married Couple in China with No Kids”

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. I wish you and your hubby well. I think you should do what we Americans do and say to them: “none of your F—-ng business.” This is what we Southerns would say if we get pissed off. Don’t hold back and be strong.

    1. That’s true. If some White women keep talking and talking without ever stopping, as a Chinese person, you should also say “Would you F—g keep your mouth shut? Maybe suck some d…k so that you can’t open your mouth.” That’s how Chinese would say if we get pissed off.

  2. All it matters is if you want children. Children are blessing and it’s your choice to have this. I’m sorry to hear that it’s a daily problem. 🙁

    I have some friend that were married for nearly almost 9 years and finally had their first child last year!

  3. Jocelyne, I feel like giving you a hug!

    I can relate to the feelings you expressed so openly. I love China, and yet I have felt so isolated here in a number of recurrent situations. Questions on marital status and number of children have often created the occasion. Acquiring a boyfriend reduced the gap between my reality and ‘normality’, but only marginally as we are not married nor have children. Actually, in a sense it made all the difference in the world because now we can smile at the situation together and appreciate together how different cultures have different sets of values, which seem universal, eternal and irrefutably intrinsic to those who are immersed in that culture – and how that comes with pressure.

    Chinese society is one in which conforming is still a high value. The exceptions are few and come with a sort of ‘public condemnation’ – or at least with a (metaphorical or not) pointed finger. By and large individualism, personal choices, ‘being oneself’, ‘being different’ are in my experience not encouraged nor appreciated – on the contrary.

    By the way, there is a wonderful book on 剩女 (leftover women) that explains how the concept came about, WHERE it came from and its implications: “Leftover Women. The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China” by Leta Hong Fincher. A real eye-opener. There is also an abstract in Chinese if that’s easier to read for your friend Caroline:

    On a different note, in case this is relevant, the Chinese medicine gynaecologist I am working with recently saw a 45 yrs old woman who wants to get pregnant. I was surprised, but the doctor didn’t bat an eyelid, nor expressed concern (which she does in other cases). After the consultation she just said: your periods are normal, it shouldn’t be a problem – and proceeded to write a prescription.

    Thank you for writing this post.
    PS I loved that “a perfectly good afternoon” – yes! afternoons (and the rest of the day) are perfect no matter what others might be saying. Luckily we can keep that corner of awareness 🙂

  4. I’ve been married to my Chinese husband for 18 years next month, and we have no children. Stay strong, and make the right choices for the two of you. 🙂

  5. I’m so sorry you’re going through this. It has to be so annoying and frustrating. I got a little of this years back, but what I’d like to share is that I have two very close female friends in Hong Kong who are married with no kids. One has been married for 20 years and the other is just getting married this year at 45. I also have two female friends in Japan who are sisters, both single in their 40s, and plan to stay that way. After a while, close friends and relatives just stop bringing it up. They still get it from strangers and acquaintances. But just know that you’re not the only ones out there.

  6. This was a very brave post, Jocelyn. Virtual hugs to you.
    Unfortunately, something so personal as getting married and having kids is like a public concern in China. Will it change with time? I don’t know. I just can say that it is hard for Chinese young women also. Several friends and colleagues who had kids when they were in their early twenties told me that they wished they had had them later, but family and peer pressure didn’t give them the option to choose.
    No one should be “forced” to have a baby if they don’t feel ready, and no one should need to explain themshelves if they don’t want to or can’t have a kid.

  7. I commend your bravery for sharing such a personal topic. People do tend to make very private things their businessーnot only in China, but in Japan. Why whatever the answer is should be any of their concern I still have difficulty understanding, but I admire your bravery in dealing with it. With people getting married later in Japan (or at least in Tokyo), the questions (Why aren’t you married? When are kids going to enter the picture?) don’t seem to come as readily, it still comes up a fair bit. Even on TV, a celebrity admitted to having lived together with her partner for 8 years (no kids, no marriage) and this was a big thing. In Sweden, no one would even bat an eyelid.

    I hope you don’t waver and do/say/feel whatever feels right for you. We can’t and shouldn’t have to follow the social norms that are thrust upon us (in any culture).

  8. Although I didn’t live in China, I had similar (but not as bad) scrutiny here in the States. My husband & I were married almost 12 years before having a child. I did find myself gravitating towards childless couples (or singles). You really do have more in common with them at that point in your life. If you do have kids, be prepared to be constantly reminded that you’re an older mother. That’s really fun too (not).

  9. That must be really hard for you, but you’re so brave! I can only imagine what you go through, we’re married for two years and everyone is asking ‘When you’re going to have a baby’, they rushed Sing’s cousin to make a child as soon as they got married. People can be so insensitive and don’t know where they should just stop… but anyway I really loved this post 🙂

  10. My SIL and her hubby are in the same way, my SIL has endrometriosis and actually cannot have children which makes it I am sure really painful whenever she hears the question why don’t you have children. And of course we all feel really bad for them..more awkwardness, I can’t help but feel guilty when I have baby after baby and some people have even suggested I give one of my babies to my SIL…that’s here in the US, although she and he are both Chinese…so I can only imagine. I am sorry 🙁 and thank you for sharing at least part of your struggle, it has to stink whether by choice or not by choice it’s just one of those things that for some reason people can’t seem to wrap their minds around. 🙁

  11. First off, congrats on your 10 year anniversary!! How exciting. 🙂

    It’s actually my husband (who is Chinese) and I’s first year anniversary today. 🙂 We both live here in China (Shanghai) and come in contact with the same question all the time – even from strangers. When they ask “Why don’t you have any kids?” or “Do you have any kids” we just say “We don’t want any.” Which, is the truth! Their shock, confusion, or prying doesn’t really phase us much. Honestly, most of the time, people don’t ask anymore questions. We just don’t take anything personally, either.

    The only thing I’ve seen bother my husband slightly is when people ask him “Are you Chinese?” I guess it’s because he’s walking around with me, a white woman, they think he could possibly be another race. He’s fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese yet they still ask that question!

    In any case – about being “too old” or without children – my advice is you don’t have to “cope.” Just realize it’s questions that have been ingrained into Chinese culture and it’s really not personal and the “too old” is just not true. If family members repeatedly ask you those questions you can either let it bother/scare/upset you…or you can put your foot down, be honest, and say “You need to stop asking that question. We don’t have kids and that is what it is.” What matters most is your happiness. If it makes you unhappy to be harassed about not having children – just put a stop to it.

    Of course, I can imagine that question could be very upsetting for someone who wants kids and can’t have them. I don’t know your situation but it is great that you are blogging about this. It’s definitely a “problem” here in China that a lot of men and women have to face!

  12. When I was living in China (was in my late thirties, unattached), I would field a lot of questions on my marital status, including from pure strangers. I enjoyed puzzling them by cheerfully replying that “People don’t marry where I come from”. Which is kinda true btw. Some would anyways feel compelled to help me find a husband ASAP. I thought it was comical.

    Now that I live in Singapore and have been engaged for nearly 4 years, only older relatives still ask when we will finally tie the knot. We always smile and say: “Next year!” When further probed, we add that we’re waiting for my parents to be able to travel long-distance. Once you hint it’s about your parents’ health, it sounds good & filial enough. People seem satisfied.

    The truth is, I’m commitment-phobic, so no amount of social pressure will faze me.

    My Chinese female friends in China, all “leftovers”, are not having it easy from their family. One got divorced in her twenties but waited well over a year before telling her parents (they live in another province).

  13. I agree with what Rene has said above, except that you shouldn’t get annoyed and react in a confrontational way with the people who ask the questions. As has been pointed out, Chinese people don’t mean to offend you personally with these “personal” questions; they are just curious, or even “concerned”, because that’s how their cultural traditions frame their behaviour and thinking.

    And congrats on your ten-year anniversary!

    1. Hi D-Maybe, thanks! 🙂 But, I’m a bit confused by your comment… are you saying that I seemed “annoyed” or react in a “confrontational” way?

      Do you think the “you need to stop asking that question” is too confrontational? I genuinely would like to know. Of course I would phrase it a bit better in person – but, I have had to put some family members in their place when my husband and I were married. Sometimes things need to be said firmly… and there can be a very fine line between “confrontational” and “firm.” 🙂

  14. Well the Chinese are blunt about everything…from marriage, age, children, weight, how much money etc, etc.

    I read where young adults are opting not to go home for Chinese New Year’s celebration because they are constantly being bombarded with questions such as those mentioned in this post.

    What I find sad is that no one will stand up/support these young “adults” such as parents or other family members and just say to others “it’s none of your business”, leave them alone. It seems in China everyone has the right and in some cases feel it’s their moral duty to “gang up on them”.

    I have a friend who was pressured into getting married, having children and now that their marriage is in disarray those same parents who pushed are keeping quiet and invisible realising that in fact they pushed their child into a not so happy or healthy marriage.

  15. But,why you don’t have kids.Any problem with reproductive system.Any major issues can be treated to a close possible success rate.Anyway it’s all your personal decision to have babies or not but as you are bothered about societal pressure in China,give a serious though about having kids.

  16. I guess people are naturally curious why someone is not married or not having children when they are. In Asian societies, like the Chinese, it can become intrusive. Generally, they don’t mean to hurt you. Like Jocelyn herself pointed out, in China most of that is out of concern. Nevertheless, it can become irksome and annoying to be constantly questioned. The trick is to smile cheerfully (no matter how hard that can be in the circumstance), not to become frustrated but to frustrate the nosy ones by saying ‘next year’, ‘next year’ until they themselves get the message. And if they don’t, they will soon look stupid enough, or get tired of asking. Haha..try that and stay cheerful! The people who ask may be well-meaning, but ultimately it is your life and choice. Do they want to be pregnant for you? Get married for you? Not bad lah, if they want. Maybe ask them! But don’t take offence. Generally, they are just concerned. The persistent ones are a pain in the..! Very, give them a kick on the butt okay?

  17. My Chinese partner and I have been together almost 20 years, and made the decision very early on not to get married or have kids. Most people just assume we are married anyway, so that has never been a very big deal but the no-children topic comes up all the time, even now. Our decision was not made lightly, so I do find myself getting irritated having to justify ourselves not only to friends and family but also taxi drivers, ayis, random strangers on a fairly regular basis. Trust me, we’ve heard every argument as to why we should have a baby, but found very few people who will listen to our argument about why we should not. We were just talking about this a couple of days ago and interestingly a lot of the worst comments have come from our western friends. We sat down and tried to think who of our western ‘couple’ friends also deliberately chose not to have children and we can only think of one couple. So we realise that a lot of the pressure from our western friends comes from the fact that we are going against the grain and choosing to live a life that they just don’t understand. I can see that it really unsettles them but I do wish they would be more supportive of us.
    We’ve been living in Shanghai for the last 10 years and my partner’s parents did give us a lot of pressure which caused quite a bit of stress, especially for me. Finally after a lengthy bombardment I snapped and fought my corner. It wasn’t pretty. These days they don’t mention it at all so maybe my little tirade had some effect. His school friends do sometimes mention it, though they think he is a little weird anyway because he spent so many years overseas and then came back with a foreign ‘wife’, so mostly they just accept it. Like you said in the article, you do tend to gravitate towards friends who are like you, and a large number of our Chinese ‘couple’ friends in Shanghai are childless by choice. I think because there are more and more people making this decision in China, perhaps because the cost of living and raising children is high, so they are choosing things like travel, fine wines, fine dining and other social activities instead. They of course get a lot of criticism from their colleagues and families too.
    But I have bad news for you: unless you have a child the pressure will never really go away. And there will always be a part of you that feels like a bad daughter-in-law because you haven’t provided a grandchild. If you and John never do have children then it will be another 10 years or more of the same, before you really are too old and maybe then they will leave you alone. All you can do is be true to yourself and stay strong! Good luck!

  18. This comes so handy.
    Mid Autumn festival is coming and we are already getting ready for the situation. Is not only stressful, people assume if I couple does not have kids is the women’s business.
    Even with medical results that show the fertility situation they just turn say to the woman: you are gonna be 30 soon, try harder, etc etc etc…I mean, seriously, we have those medical results, what else?

  19. It’s amazing how something that I used to think was kind of quaint/cute (Look, the Chinese are so nosy! How interesting!) can turn into something unbearably annoying. I can totally relate, to your annoyance at least, at always being asked to deliver on cultural expectations.

    I have produced a kid, and for my in-laws, I have done my duty (it’s the same for Tibetans in this regard). However the questions and the prompting hasn’t ceased. Nearly all the relatives always suggest we have more kids. They tell us exactly how many they think we should have and when we should have them. My point is, even if you did have children, it wouldn’t be the end of the nagging.

    I know that constantly being asked these kinds of things is difficult to deal with. I don’t know your specific situation but I can tell it is really a struggle. I am sorry you are going through this now. I am with Rene about asking them to stop asking you guys.

    I think as foreigners living in China we have to change and adapt to many things that are quite different from our own way of doing things. It is not unreasonable to ask local people to respect something that you would like to have respected once in a while.

  20. Jocelyn, I just want to say 加油。You have my full support. My husband and I have been married for almost 6 years, don’t have kids, and don’t plan to. We are also pushing 40. It can be brutal, I know. Hang in there. In the end we all have to make the decision that’s best for us and our spouses personally, regardless of culture and regardless of pressure we get from family, friends, (and in China, even random strangers). You are not alone!

  21. A very interesting topic and something I’ve struggled with a bit in the past, too. I’m 31 and my husband is 38. I just had my first (and most likely only) child this April. It is my husband’s second child. We’ve been together for over 9 years and married for 6 so there was some questioning over the years, though it was probably made easier by the fact that my husband already has a child from his first marriage. I was also very straight forward with my friends and family that I didn’t know when or if I was going to have children.

    My mother-in-law was a bit concerned about my “advanced maternal age” though I’ve found that more and more Chinese people are having kids into their 30’s, especially those who decided to have more than one child. In the States, depending where you live, waiting until your 30’s is quite normal these days and 40 isn’t so shocking.

    Anyways, I think a lot of us have to find a way of dealing with these types of questions. “Do you have a boyfriend?” “When are you getting married?” “Planning on a baby?” “Going to have another little one soon?” I swear it never ends! But I admit I do ask people sometimes, too.

  22. Forgot a couple of things. For me the best coping mechanism when people ask me 你的孩子呢?’where is your child’ (notably, not ‘do you have children?’ but just assuming we must have one somewhere on the planet) is to as quickly as possible turn the tables on them and ask them about their children or grandchildren. People love to brag about their kids and have someone actually listen to them. Also this lets them know you do not hate children. It doesn’t always work but I have found this to be moderately sucessful.

    And by the way, congrats on 10 years!

  23. My wife and I married in 2004. I was on my late 40’s and it was my third marriage, she was in her mid 30’s and her second marriage. She had a son from her previous marriage, but he had a heart condition that caused him to pass away at the age of 6. Because we were both older and her family respects our privacy, they never bugged us about children.

    However in March 2012, a strange thing happened. We realized my wife was pregnant, so here we are me in my late 50’s and my wife in her mid 40’s raising a baby girl. sometimes it is rough, but I’m having the time of my life, especially now when every other word out of her mouth is “DAAAAAAAAADY”

  24. Sandeep must be from India…I infer that from his comments. In China they will be disappointed if a W-A couple of any persuasion dont have kids…as those kids are considered cute and in many cases smart!!

  25. I know exactly how this feels! I have only been married for about two months and I got questioned about having children after being married only a few weeks! My sister-in-law even began knitting a hat before we were married for our unborn child! Everyone is different, and to expect someone to give birth to a child when he/she is not ready is not a good idea. The mother/father need to both be ready to have a child, in many aspects. I’m sorry Jocelyn and John that you both have to experience this as often as you do. Please remember that despite being labeled as ‘childless’, you are still wonderful people who have made such a positive impact on all of us! Thank you for shedding light on a topic that many want to try and ignore as it can be quite sensitive to talk about openly.

  26. @Rene,

    It just sounded like you were suggesting that Jocelyn should react in a confrontational way to people who ask the questions. Asking people not to ask the questions is not too confrontational in and of itself. The danger here is that in being reticent about what Chinese people consider to be a very reasonable, ordinary topic for discussion you can come off as unfriendly or hostile. These questions can be easily brushed off, and as you have suggested there are more diplomatic ways to handle them.

    1. @D-Maybe

      In my comment I was saying to people who you’ve already answered the question over and over again to. If you say “We can’t have children” or “we aren’t having children” and someone repeatedly asks you over and over again when you will – I don’t think it’s too confrontational to say “I’ve already answered your questions, you need to stop asking me this because it upsets me.”

      Also, I feel that if it is a family member – the spouse who is related, by blood, to that family member should handle the situation. If my husband’s side of the family were doing something that was upsetting me I would ask my husband to go talk to them and try and straighten things out.

      Even though I try to be culturally sensitive.. I still have to worry about my own comfort. If I were being relentlessly harassed about not having children by a specific person – I would talk to them about it.

      If it were just an occasional question by a family member, acquaintance, or stranger .. I’d just brush it off like you’ve said.

      So, I think it really depends on the specific situation. I should have made myself a little more clear in my post. 🙂

  27. You don’t need kids in order to make a happy and completed marriage. Nowadays, kids just give you a lot of headache.

  28. I’m sorry, Jocelyn. That must be so painful. It’s akin to the “why is your Mandarin so bad?” questions I always got in China. Regardless of the intent behind the question, there’s a strong implication that you are somehow deficient because you don’t meet expectations.

    The important thing to remember is that you deserve to be accepted for exactly who you are and to find friends who will treat you that way. We all need more of that kind of gracious acceptance–and, in my experience, in Chinese culture we sometimes need an extra measure of it.

  29. @Rene,

    I’m not sure I have enough space to chime in here for “Confrontation” in Chinese society. And I guess most of the time, Westerners find it difficult to discern the SUBTLETY of Chinese communication.

    Even if we don’t like the question, we won’t say “You should stop asking the question.” We have grown up in an inherently designed old civilization or society where everyone of us understand each other what your next step would be. So imagine a scenario that I’m asking a Chinese girl “When are you going to get a child?” which is less likely because I’m a guy and I won’t ask such a question to a girl. Even then, we instantly know if she has a plan or if she don’t mind being asked the said question.
    1st stage: field the conversation (not feel)
    2nd stage: discern the subtlety

    So it’s less likely in Chinese communication that you will ever come across the reply like “You should stop asking the question.”

    It’s also the same for Westerners. It’s not like Chinese communication is a lot harder or WEIRD (those bigoted westerners sometimes carry that sentiment from their moral high ground.)

    Let’s imagine, why Westerners keep asking “How are you doing today, Sir?” whenever you go? It’s not like they’re looking out to look after you. It’s just the formality. But why is that greeting not commonly seen in Chinese conversation? Of course “你好“ is almost similar to “How are you?” But we don’t normally say “你好“ every time we see each other. But those westerners keep saying “How do you do?” “How are you?” “How’s it going?” where in fact, they don’t give a damn about your life. I’m just pointing you out the Cultural aspect of communication.

    Most of the time, when we divulge our secrets or when we talk about some problems, Chinese people tend to go an extra mile to think for other people and will respond INTELLIGENTLY.

    It’s like I’m applying for Diver license in China. My circle of friends will bombard with all information available to them, and how to apply one.

    In US, I’m applying for SSN. It’s not simple. I have to go extra step to get SSN. I asked around. They all replied “It’s weird. You’d better ask SSN office.” All conversation ends in “It’s weird.” And I said “Yes, it’s Fking weird”. Of course, that was the response I repeated myself in my mind.

    The thing I wanted to emphasize is for Chinese people, we know where to start and where to go in our conversation. Of course it’s not like a perfect mesh of genetically designed parrots having a conversation. We do have likes and dislikes. But overall, we are trained.

    The same goes for Westerners.

    1. Hi Rdm,

      Well I wasn’t meaning that to be the reply in any situation where a person asks “Are you having a child?”

      I meant more about someone who is *harassing* you about having a child. Say, if I had a mother-in-law who asked me “When are you having a baby? You are getting old.” every time I saw her – I would have to say something.

      I know there are Chinese women who are bothered by these questions so it’s not just from a “Western” view-point.

      I’m also a bit confused as to why you say “你好” isn’t commonly used in China? Do you live in China? My husband is Chinese and I’ve lived here for close to two years and everyone I know uses it daily. Or are you talking about just between family members? In that case I understand “你好” would not be used to someone you are close with.

      I also don’t feel that “How are you doing today” can be compared to “have you had children yet?” A greeting is something you would expect to hear on a daily/regular basis. Whereas I understand hearing “Have you had children yet?” or “When will you have kids?” is a common question – repeatedly asking it to someone you are close with, when you already know the answer is no, is crossing a line.

      I agree with you that having a foreigner saying “you need to stop asking me that question” would be shocking or a rarity in a conversation here. But, I feel like it can be done in specific situations and still be done in a respectful way towards Chinese culture. Like if my husband’s family was upsetting me – I would have *him* talk to them. Even though I am living in China and I am sensitive to the culture – I still have my own culture and boundaries that also need to be respected in a marriage that is cross cultural. Even though I live in China and embrace the culture wholeheartedly (I feel more at home here in China than I do back in the USA) – it doesn’t mean that I have to live my life like 100% “traditional” Chinese person. I know Chinese people who don’t do things “traditionally”, even.

      So, I guess what I am saying is that it really depends on the situation. It’s important to be sensitive to a culture of a community (especially if you are the one living within that community) – but, you can also be sensitive to your own needs. If you dread being repeatedly asked a question by the same person – there are ways to put a stop to it.

  30. I’m so glad I read your post! This issue will be some day also my issue. Once a female friend of mine complained that she had a lot of pressure to get married asap. I asked her if she had siblings, since in that case she may have less pressure. But she said that didn’t matter, pressure was there anyway. So far she was “OK” because she was doing PhD, and whenever you are studying it’s like a safe zone when you don’t really get pressure. But I guess when my boyfriend graduates he’ll get a lot of pressure too XDDD.

    Another interesting Chinese obsession is that of “marrying a convenient person”. I mean you are supposed to get somebody of your same level or a little higher if possible. For example, after my friend graduated she did a postDoc in Oxford and afterwards got a position in a Chinese university. So it turns out now she has pressure to find a guy with a similar CV and achievements. How much pressure is that, uh?

  31. All I can say is wow, the way the Chinese freak out about a child-less marriage. What’s weird is my Chinese friends don’t freak out when I say I’m single with three sons. Like all that matters is I’ve jumped into a bed with an idiot 20 years ago and here I am with three children and no marriage, and probably will never have any marriage at all, and yet no one freaks out.

  32. I love your blog, let me just throw that out there! And while my husband isn’t Chinese, we’re a mixed couple. We are always getting the “Why don’t you have kids” question too. So when I saw your blog today it was like serendipitous! Just stay strong! You aren’t the only one. 🙂

  33. When does the questioning stop? Does it ever stop? Is it fair to have to lie and make up excuses to please others when the correct answer is generally ” it’s none of your business” or ” well have a child if and when we are ready” ( which can be verbalised in a polite way) . So to stop the constant when, when, when…. you either have a child to please everyone or you “defy” everyone’s wishes (because maybe it’s not what you or your husband want) and become “too old” to have a child to only then have people say “you are too old to have a child”.

    Let me ask a question if the woman was in a bad relationship or in an abusive relationship would the same people ask her ” why don’t you leave” , “when will you leave” or will they keep silent? I would like to believe they would say something however l am not so sure.

    It have a question; if the marriage is an unhappy

  34. @Rene

    A couple of points:

    Where I live in China, people rarely say “nihao” to me, though they will return the greeting if I were to say it first. Neighbors always say something obvious like “Are you going out?” or “Are you coming home?” and then there is the ever-so-popular, “Did you eat yet?” which I often get asked by relatives. Perhaps it’s a regional difference or maybe it depends on how you greet others. Anyways, I totally agree that a greeting is different than being asked personal questions.

    I think this is an interesting discussion about cultural differences in dealing with unwanted questions and topics. I have yet to master subtlety myself and I doubt I will. It’s not part of who I am culturally and it also doesn’t jive well with my personality. Yes, I’ve become a bit more tactful in dealing with Chinese people, but when it comes to my in-laws, I try to be fairly upfront and honest. At first they didn’t understand, but now that they do it has prevented a lot of problems. I think it depends on your relationship with them, but I agree that sometimes you have to tell people to back off a little. I think you put it well here:

    “I still have my own culture and boundaries that also need to be respected in a marriage that is cross cultural. Even though I live in China and embrace the culture wholeheartedly (I feel more at home here in China than I do back in the USA) – it doesn’t mean that I have to live my life like 100% “traditional” Chinese person.”

      1. I don’t think anyone is talking about traditional Chinese culture? I was referring to Rene’s comment about acting traditionally Chinese, i.e. in accordance with traditional Chinese values–saving face, filial piety, and the like–which I think is in line with your comments about subtlety.

        For the record, I don’t think one way is right or wrong, but I obviously prefer a more direct approach due to both my upbringing and personality.

  35. This is the “Peak Season” for this topic for us, over a year married and with relatives visiting us during the summer.
    Some of the other ackward situations in China I would add are…:
    – Friends or former colleagues who text to ask if you already had children and when you say “no” they reply ” why not? you are married!” and add ” I am getting married in August and I will be pregnant after trying 3 months and deliver the baby in 12 months from this month”….
    – Women who advice you to do not have children because they “ruin” your life and plenty other negative things and they say all that with their children listening to them
    – Men who approach you at a hospital, when you are with your husband waiting for your turn with a Fertility specialist to talk to you in English and ask things like: ” Can you teach English to my baby?”, ” How do you say X in English? (i.e. treatment, pregnancy, sperm,..), “Whats the problem?” (yeah like we are gonna tell you random person our problems…?).

    – Women who are so obssesed with mixed babies that they see you in the metro with your 100% Chinese nephew and they start complimenting you and your husband and the kid because “he is so gorgeous with those facial features”.

  36. @Rene,

    I agree that if someone is harassing with the question that you don’t like, you should confront with them. It’s not because of whatever ethnicity comes into play. I’m not downplaying western culture nor neither promoting Chinese culture. The thing I wanted to emphasize here is sometimes, due to gray area where things are murky and not very clearly defined, people tend to group them altogether and put under Chinese culture.

    Since now that @R Zhao has chimed in, what I also like to point out here is MOST OF THE TIME, there’s no common topic between culturally different people, let alone they grown up in different places. That is definite and certain.

    We can talk about weather, we can talk about our recent trip, but at the end of the day, the topic that holds the two person together or bond together to understand each other is very rare. Put that into work environment, there’s no topic at all. Of course we greet each other in every culture, once the greeting’s done, what are we gonna talk about? “Hey it’s a nice weather.” “Yes, it is.” that’s it. No topic. What topic should we talk about? The topic that comes up to our mind in our conversation list is the topic that makes us familiar with the person in conversation. If she or he has a boyfriend or girlfriend, yes we’re gonna ask “When are you guys gonna tie up?” Of course if they’ve been together for 2 or 3 years and their age is kind of nearing to 25 or 30.

    Place the scenario into 10 years married couple, of course people are gonna ask “When are you guys gonna have kids?” That’s natural. That’s how people evolve. Of course if your in-laws keep NAGGING and asking about their future grandchildren. we all should be confront or at least let our partner know that we don’t like his or her parents question.

    Here’s my experience in US. In my team, I’m fairly upbeat about everything. My boss knows quite well about my personality. I teased around people. But rarely do I go into personal business. I talk about history, I talk about computer games, I talk about my experiment. When I do talk about history, I’m not going into politics, I just stay neutral and talk about the invention and discovery. My boss once said “You need to come and talk to me every day.” I asked “For what?”, he said “talk about something.” My boss is British American.

    [By the way, the first ever person who designed the commercial airplane for US Navy was Chinese –> Wong Tsu, but I’m sure that US media won’t highlight that. And most of the Chinese don’t know about that and keep thinking they can only copy.]

    Anyway, there was this White guy in my team, he’s always asking about my girlfriend. When’d she come and visit US? When are we gonna get married? Although I talk about everything, but I don’t like to talk about my personal matter. But this guy keeps asking me and I tried my best to avoid the topic. And then I confronted with him “Yea, we’re not so sure.” in curt reply. He’s got the impression.

    Later before he left our team, he kind of jokingly said to me in farewell party that he’s sad that I didn’t bring my girlfriend to meet with him. He thought I’m a part of the family for our group. So we all should know each other partner quite well. That’s his reasoning. For that I said to him in smile “Well, maybe next time.”

    From that experience, I formulated my thought that sometimes when people really LIKE you, they tend to go into personal matter and would like to enjoy with you. Of course I’m not talking about a total stranger approaching me and asking about my personal matter.

    So the question of differences in cultural communication are basically and intrinsically the same.

    And @Jocelyn, if I ever come across you in China, I will definitely come to you and John, and ask “When are you gonna get a child?” 😀

  37. I hope its okay for me to say that husband or not, I want a baby. I have two friends who have no desire to have children. (One married and one unmarried,) and I respect both of their decisions. When I got to know them better, I did ask why they didn’t want to have them, but I don’t bombard them with the fact they should have babies, and instead I talk to them of other things.

    I was brought up that having children is important, but I won’t push my values or thoughts to others. I know what that’s like.

  38. Oh boy, trust me. I know exactly how I would respond to such relatives, and when I’m done they would not be expecting me to show up for the next few Chinese New Year reunions.

  39. Thank you for sharing. We were married five years before having children (and together six years before that), and yes there was quite a bit of well meaning (and not so subtle) advice from the Taiwanese in-laws. My mother-in-law even sent over a Chinese medicine ‘script’ that one of my husband’s cousin’s wife had been using to boost fertility. No pressure, no pressure!

    Then after over a year of seeing medical specialists, I fell pregnant with my eldest son (naturally) while on an IVF program. He was a bit of a miracle in many ways, including the fact that I fell pregnant just as we found out that my father-in-law found had cancer (he died within six weeks). The circle of life. And then I had my second, incredibly healthy son just a few months before my 40th birthday.

    Whatever you chose, or whatever life holds for you, take care and be kind to yourself. And if you do have kids, there will be a different type of pressure — the well-meaning but constant advice about raising your kids. This is a topic that EVERYONE has an opinion about.

  40. Wow, I just have to say how heartening the response to this post has been! All of your comments have really touched me in so many different ways and I feel a lot less alone in my situation. Thank you so much to everyone for chiming in with your thoughts and experiences!

  41. Jocelyn, you are very brave in writing a personal post like this. Like we discussed along the West Lake, I still have an excuse for the next two years when I’m doing my master’s. Me and my hubby want to have a better financial situation before thinking about kids. We are both 26 now, so few more years for that magical “30” deadline.

    But my guess is, if you do have kids as everyone hopes, there will be even more questions, advice and talk than ever before!

    1. Studying for your Master’s may not even be a good enough “excuse.” My Chinese friend, who is about your age and studying to become a doctor, was being pushed by her mother to quickly get married and have a baby. Her mother promised to raise the baby while she finished up her studies!

      I know a lot of Chinese people who had kids over 30. In fact, most of the students who I tutor (they are mostly in grade school) have parents who are in their 40’s. These are rather affluent families, however, but maybe waiting to have kids allowed them to be more established in their careers and make more money. Sometimes waiting can be a good thing, despite the inevitable pressures!

  42. Too old? Their comments are too old! 😛 In all reality, you can only face that kind of criticism with a sense of humor. As annoying as it may be, you know what your needs are with your husband – others do not. I like the response of saying “We can’t have children.” This is one that makes people be quiet about it. Or humorously, “Children? We practically ARE still children.” All this being said with a smile and no apology. 🙂

  43. Jocelyn,

    This is tough situation and I hope your husband will always stand by you whenever people bothering you about kids issue. you know what? I have pretty similar situation with yours or about the same as your friend’s you mentioned above, Caroline’s. I’m a Chinese man and I still don’t have a gf even I’m now over 30. In my country, some people call me “expired” man (it’s worse than “left over”). Your reaction is pretty normal, I think, as I react the same way when they ask me why I’m still alone. My suggestion for you if they ask you again is keep giving them exactly the same answer again and again and I think they will get bored and stop annoying you.

    When I read your story I noticed “a bright spot amidst darkness.” in point 3 you said “Actually, for the most part, his friends and peers don’t give us pressure. It’s their parents that do …”
    Didn’t you see a difference/change between two generations here? the disturbing questions mostly come from people from of generations, not from ours. I think this is a positive change in Chinese society and the wind of change will keep blowing for generations to come until someday you will see/hear nobody annoying you with the issue of having kids. let’s have positive thinking.

  44. I saw your post through Facebook last week and only got around to reading now. There are many great supporting comments to your post but I still wanted to add a big congratulations on your wedding anniversary!

    I agree it is brave of you to openly discuss your situation. I say it will happen when it will happen and if it doesn’t then that’s fine too. It should be no one else’s business but your own, except this is China. Everyone, especially the parents and grandparents, will put their nose into it and often times it feels like you are disappointing them and you are not doing what a good wife should be doing – it obviously has nothing to do with it! I understand how hard it must be for you and John. Just know we are all behind you and support you in this.

    For various reasons, I have been unemployed since April. Our honeymoon is in September and I realistically cannot start a job until after because it would look bad to ask my employer to give me 2 weeks off right away even if this trip has been planned way before my unemployment. I have also been healing from years of stress from my previous job. Now our wedding has passed, my husband’s parents are asking me if I am looking for a job (yes, I am).

    I prefer not to discuss the subject because it is touchy. My family leaves the subject alone but not my parents-in-law; they have an opinion on the subject: I need to find a job with the government because of the benefits, regardless if I enjoy the work or not, because the benefits and job stability will be good for our [future] baby! It doesn’t matter if I go crazy in a workplace so as long as I have benefits for a baby we have yet to conceive. My father-in-law also has an opinion on the university our unborn child should attend. I have very different views than theirs on these subjects.

    I want children, I do, but their opinions make me a bit worried about the struggles I will face as a mother. I am 31 and in their eyes, their son and I are overdue for a baby (regardless of the fact we only married less than 3 months ago). I understand they only say these things because they care about us but I wish they would keep their opinion for themselves. What if, for any reason, I cannot have a baby? What if we wish to delay having kids for a few years?

    We will have to see what the future will hold but until then, we have to deal with our choices and our own personal situations. It is what it is and we can just go with the flow. It will all work out in the end.

  45. You had me first wondering what your husband actually replies when you just let him handle that, and then laughing out about the “you’re (past) 30, you’re just too old”.
    30 (if not 31 or 32) is the average age at first childbirth in Austria…

    Imagine how fascinating it’s been for me, though, to have had students (99% female) who first told me that you really, really have to be married to have a child (which, of course, isn’t too wrong in the Chinese social and legal context), had the China-typical issues with their parents not wanting them to have a relationship while they are studying (let alone having sex) – and wanting them to be married before they are 23.
    Promptly, my wife and I have been hearing more and more baby news from those of them who are on social media. Including suspicious birth dates considering the date of the wedding (re. the whole “no sex before marriage”…).
    Yeah, China is easy on you – only if you want to not have to decide what you should do with your life and do manage to follow the pre-defined course.
    Otherwise… Well, you’re seeing only too much of that.

    (Love how active this community here is, by the way. You really don’t need Facebook to have a social network, it’s all here.)

  46. I’m 34, married, and in China without my husband. The Chinese understand going abroad for a few months without my husband, maybe even better than my American acquaintances do! But the questions about why we don’t have a baby keep coming and coming.

    1. Hey Meg, thanks for the comment. As someone who has had to endure this for years, I totally feel for you.

      BTW, I think they probably understand being away b/c Chinese couples do often separate for work opportunities. It’s not uncommon. I know a number of couples who only see each other maybe a few times a year b/c of it.

  47. Thank you for sharing this so that more people can understand the difficulties of being a married couple with no children in China for ten years. I hope things are looking up for you now!

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