5 Unhappy Things I’ve Struggled with as an Expat Married to a Foreigner

The Wall Street Journal Expat Blog just published an article titled Strategies for Coping as an Unhappy Expat. While I loved the suggestions provided by the author, the thing that struck me most about it was the focus. The idea of the unhappy expat.

Unhappy moments are not the sexy sort of thing we’d like to plaster all over our blogs and social media accounts.

Even I’m guilty of it. I’d rather you see these beautiful pics of Chinese New Year with my Chinese family than talk about how exhausting and frustrating the holiday was. I don’t want you to know about all of the hours I had spent crying in my bed, consumed with sadness.

It’s even harder when you’re married to someone from another country and living there. As I once wrote in this article for Matador:

Before I met Jun, I imagined international love to be as sexy as a James Bond movie, where lovers went from Monte Carlo to the Casbah as easily as ordering a martini. But then I went to China, and I was shaken and stirred by the reality there…

I think we’re all a little shaken a stirred – and not always in a positive way – when we chose to make another country home, with a spouse from that country. There are inevitable sacrifices and challenges that people don’t always talk about, but probably should. It would be a great leap forward to helping us all overcome the shame of feeling sad when we’re supposed to have these “fabulously sexy” expat lives.

Here are 5 unhappy things I’ve struggled with as a longtime expat in China married to a foreigner:

IMG_0045 (1)#1: Missing friends and family from your home country

I chose to live in China, half a world away from my friends and family back home. But, goodness, not a day goes by when I don’t think about them – and wish I could see them again.

Right now, for personal reasons, it’s just not feasible for me to return to the US. In fact, I haven’t returned ever since I moved here to China at the end of 2013, making it more than two years since I’ve been away.

This is probably a huge surprise to a lot of people, who might think expats always make those trips home at least once a year. But it’s not uncommon among the yangxifu (foreign wives of Chinese men) that I know. There’s one woman who actually lived six years straight in China before hopping on a plane to return to her home country. (Her reason was having kids in China – it was just too difficult for her to make the trip.)

12222324205_7aaa3fc67b_z#2: Feeling isolated

I live in Hangzhou, China. While it’s not a Beijing or Shanghai, it’s definitely right up there with the major cities in China. But there’s one thing Hangzhou doesn’t have – a vibrant, more permanent expat community.

The majority of expats in the city are pretty transient – overwhelmingly students at the universities – and don’t stick around too long. The rest of the working expats are scattered all over town. I almost never run into folks in the city, and there aren’t tons of venues to meet up with them either.

Add to that the fact that I also divide my time between the city and the countryside, and you’ve got a recipe ripe for isolation.

I have friends in China on my WeChat account, and we do chats every now and then. But honestly, just straight online chatting doesn’t really do it for me. Video chats are much better, though slow Internet can make it difficult too.

I’m learning the importance of reaching out to people when I’m struggling. Even then, I know that isolation will sometimes be a part of my life and I need to learn to find good coping strategies for it.

IMG_1838#3: Feeling misunderstood by your foreign family

I recently wrote, “It’s hard not to care about the happiness of my mother-in-law when, frankly, she spends so much of her time caring about ours.” and it’s a testament to how much I love her and the family I have here in China.

But the thing is, no matter how much I love them, there are things about my life that they don’t always understand. Especially things that have happened to me and my husband in America or places far removed from their rural Hangzhou life.

I can handle being misunderstood in small doses. But let me tell you, during Chinese New Year this month I was getting pummeled with it almost every single day from family members. And even though I know that words can’t really hurt you, I couldn’t help but feel down from it all.

Sometimes the best antidote to this is my husband, who tells me that I’m not alone in feeling like I do. With his experience living abroad and traveling, his family doesn’t always understand him or his decisions either. He’s a reminder that it’s OK.

IMG_2514.JPG – 版本 2#4: Visa woes

When you’re living in another country – and married to a foreigner – visas can become central to your existence. And in the worst case scenarios (a la the 2011 movie Like Crazy) visas can even get in the way of your relationship. I wrote about my own brushes with visa woes back in 2011 for Matador:

To me, Jun was the guy who first kissed me to the tune of cicadas, next to Hangzhou’s West Lake. The man who loved to pick me up from the metro station late at night, and ferry me home on the back of his bicycle. But to the visa officer at the US Consulate in Shanghai, Jun was just another immigration risk from China with no apartment or car, let alone a wife or children. “You’re too young,” the officer declared in Mandarin, stamping a denial in permanent red ink into the passport….

I shouldn’t have pushed Jun to apply for that US tourist visa — except I longed for him to meet my parents. I had met his months before, but he’d only known mine through the occasional long-distance phone call. But instead of getting the third degree from my dad, Jun had to get it first from a US visa officer, a guy who wasn’t kidding about “no.”

But it can go both ways. In online chat groups with foreigners, I often hear about the seemingly interminable troubles that they’re facing with applying work visas. Things like having to make the expensive journey back to their home country just to submit an application, figuring out how to get an acceptable criminal background check completed, and more. Sigh.

IMG_20160213_170645#5: When people laugh at your foreign accent

The Chinese are known for their excitement whenever Westerners say even a simple “Ni Hao” or “Xie Xie” – but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for people here to laugh at your accent.

It has actually happened to me, particularly when I’m around kids (and often in a classroom setting). When I speak my accented Chinese to them, they think it’s funny and then don’t respect me so much. Or make jokes about me behind my back.

Granted, it’s nothing compared to what Chinese might experience in America. Many Americans are such racists sticklers that they consider certain accents – including Asian accents – as proof that you can’t speak proper English. (Or worse, that you should “go back home”….)

But the experiences I’ve had here have made me even more sympathetic to foreigners in America. And they’ve given me a taste of the unhappy experiences you can have when you don’t speak exactly like a native.


Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy most of the time. I love my husband, I love China, and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in the world. But sometimes, it’s good to share the flip side of it all. For all the ups we experience as expats, there will also be plenty of downs as well.

So next time you’re feeling a little unhappy in your supposedly “amazing” expat life, just remember one very important thing – you’re not alone.

What do you think? What unhappy experiences have you had as an expat and/or as someone married to a foreigner?

55 Replies to “5 Unhappy Things I’ve Struggled with as an Expat Married to a Foreigner”

  1. Hi Jocelyn,

    Your visa woes are familiar to a lot us. Even American men married to Chinese wives meet similar, often inexplicable, obstacles. To wit: http://raoulschinasaloon.com/index.php?topic=3153.0
    I know of a fellow who approached the US Embassy on the behalf of a woman he knew well and quickly regretted doing so – his voucher and guarantee meant
    nothing those folks. Afterwards, it occurred to him that it would have been
    best to approach someone in China experienced is getting such visas and leave
    him out of it completely; then she would more likely have been able to visit
    the States. By then, of course, it was too late as her application was already on
    file. “Now I’ll never be able to visit the US,” was her unhappy conclusion. Hope
    you can find a way.


  2. I know a little bit about how you feel. My nephew left New Zealand 7 years ago to live in Dublin then London. He met and married an Irish girl and has gone through endless hoops and thousands of pounds to be able to stay there with her. It was very tough on him, but not having seen him for 7 years is tough on the family. I have lots of friends who have children living round the world who fly off to see them at the drop of a hat, but that’s not possible for my brother because of financial and health issues. It hurts, but hopefully they will bring their new baby home this Christmas for us all to meet baby and his/her mother for the first time.

  3. Aside from when I arrived to America at 8.5 years old, and even then at first I was surrounded by mom’s extended family and my own family, I think I was a bit too young to remember whether or not I experienced woes, (probably lingual and cultural and feeling isolated, oh yeah, still do.)

    I do wish you and Jun luck and I’m proud of you that you’re opening up to us about the not-so-pleasant aspects of being and living as a foreigner in China.

  4. Don’t be unhappy!

    It’s true, being unhappy sometimes is a part of life we must all deal with. And as you say, expat romance has its own challenges. Family issues and visas etc… Been there.

    In the end the hope of course is that the support from one’s partner outweighs all else.

    I do think you got a good balance and appreciate the positives just fine.

    All in all, stay strong!

  5. What a lovely and poignant article with issues many of us can identify with. I also haven’t been back to England since coming to China in 2012, it wasn’t planned, just worked out that way.
    Thanks for sharing Jocelyn and ‘wishing you a happy day every day!’ as my students say (-:

    1. The Cameron government goal is to keep international couples separate by denying them visas. One such couple is moving to Australia from Malaysia this year instead of trying to go back to England. The British Home Secretary Theresa May is responsible for most of this.

        1. Jocelyn:

          In the end it is the UK which ends up loosing causing the highest brain drain in the world. I should know because I work on skilled immigration issues…



          Yes, 50% marry abroad and never come back. Most migrate to Australia. My doctor in Singapore who is a Brit married to a Malaysian is seriously considering it. She is a math teacher in Singapore schools and won the outstanding teacher award. She cannot get a visa to the UK because they say her English is not good. In the end, it is Singapore and Australia that gain from this brain drain.

  6. Hi Jocelyn,

    I’ve just started reading your blog, and it is very helpful. I have noticed that in your China photos, you often have deep, dark circles under your eyes. Is it because of pollution? When I originally visited China for two weeks ago, I had tremendous difficulty breathing because of the pollution, even in not-very-polluted-for-China locations, and am quite apprehensive about how to prepare for that issue when I return. In fact, by the time I flew out of China the first time, I had a high fever and blood in my urine. I bought some antibiotics over the counter in China, but evidently they were not the right kind. Do you have any suggestions about how to prepare f o r the air pollution in China, since I already had difficulties the first time around? I can take zyrtec and steroidal nose spray, but I wonder about wearing a mask, as many people in Beijing seem to (not that I will be going to Beijing).

    I also notice that in a lot of family setting photographs, people wear winter jackets inside during the winter. Can you comment or elaborate on that theme? I am chronically ill, but usually putter along just fine, and I am wondering how to prepare for a visit when the weather is cold, and don’t want to give offense by asking the family. The cultural differences are so huge.

    Don’t get me wrong, I loved my time in China, and upon returning to the states was struck by how cold and aloof people in the U.S. are compared to China. Thank you for having this blog, and for any advice you can give me.

    1. Susan, I guess you’re probably referring to the pic of me at the bottom of this article…I look haggard because I suffered from sleep deprivation. I was exhausted from Chinese New Year, hence the obvious dark circles under my eyes. I do have naturally darker eyes because of natural pigmentation around my eyes, though.

      In South China, where it’s not customary to have heat indoors, people normally wear jackets indoors — that’s why you see that. This is not the case in Beijing.

  7. It’s true that it seems that, living abroad, we must be living some kind of “amazing expat life”. When people ask me how’s my life in China… well, it’s pretty much the same as in Spain, except that people speak another language and the supermarket is full of strange products! Apart from that, life is basically the same everywhere if you think about it: you work, you cook, you spend time on the internet, you go out.
    Maybe we have this idea of amazing expat life because of online articles, which are usually very one sided.

    I can share many of your “pains”. Fortunately we have never had visa problems (and it seems things are getting easier for Chinese, due to their reputation of spending thousands of dollars when they travel) but I’m definitely with you on 1, 2 and 5. I basically have no friends in Suzhou. I seldom go out and when I do, it’s with my bf. But we mostly spend our time at home. I don’t even feel like going out at night any more (I’m old haha) but I definitely wouldn’t mind having some female friends to drink tea or go shopping with. Regarding 5, yes, many Chinese people laugh at foreigners’ accent and imitate them (with weird tones). I have never liked it but now I cannot stand it. Every time someone talks to me in the stupid “foreigner accent” I feel like telling them “Do you want us to talk in Spanish or English then? Let’s see how good your accent is”.

    However, yes, I am mostly happy here (I would have left long ago if I was unhappy!).

    1. “When people ask me how’s my life in China… well, it’s pretty much the same as in Spain, except that people speak another language and the supermarket is full of strange products!”

      Love that answer, Marta!

      Your life in Suzhou sounds a lot like my life in Hangzhou too. We also don’t go out a whole lot and usually just spend time together, just the two of us.

  8. I can definitely relate to all of your points. I think some are worse if you don’t live in a big place with a large foreign community or places where you can easily meet new people (either Chinese or from other countries).

    I miss my friends in Austria and have found it very hard to make friends in this little town, I guess part is that I now have a toddler in tow, part that people with toddlers don’t seem to socialise too much here. Finding friends is a priority on my list, I don’t think I would enjoy living here long term if I can’t find any.

    But yeah, hubby feels quite isolated too because our specific situation is just so very different from most friends of his who have spent their whole life here (he left when he was 16 and we’ve only been back for a year).

    1. Thanks for sharing Ruth. It is so important to find friends…it’s something I’m also working on more here in Hangzhou.

      My hubby also feels much like yours, isolated from friends b/c his situation is so different from theirs.

  9. I always tell myself that it is ok when I feel sad or lonely or miserable – it is part of life. It takes a strong person to admit they are having problems, and having someone to share with you who wants to understand you is always a big help.

    It is interesting that it tends to be the wives that make the biggest sacrifices in life, with the foreign wife often leaving her own family, friends and country so far behind.

    If you are surrounded by people with a ‘get over it’ attitude, it can make things worse. Yes, you made the choice, yes you went in with your eyes open. But being surrounded by people who make no attempt to understand can be overwhelming and isolating.

    Online support can make all the difference.

    Keep it up !!!

    1. It’s true that wives often make the biggest sacrifices. And a “get over it” attitude doesn’t help anything — sometimes we need to feel our feelings and we need process what we’re going through.

      Online support is amazing! 🙂

  10. My husband went 17 YEARS between trips home to Shanghai because of the costs and visa fears. Now, as we wait for his green card to arrive in the mail having finally completed our interview, we are planning a visit this summer.

    1. Also the media did not report this. An AWWM couple near the place where Trump was supposed to speak in Alabama was basically chased out of the area..literally…this was back in September. Then they targeted a Turkish couple..not that they knew they were moslem..because the husband was dark and the wife looked blonde and white!

  11. Well, even though I’m still in the United States, whenever we visitish China-born parents, I do have a tendency to hide in the bedroom with books. There’s only so much criticism a woman can take before she stops reading and starts heaving her reading materials at her in-laws.

    Better that my missiles and I stay in the silo, under self-imposed quarantine.

  12. I never had such experience but my wife also had in the beginning some difficulties when she first moved to Finland to study and then with me to Germany two years ago. Thankfully even small towns as where we live have already growing Chinese communities so she quickly found friends within the first months.
    I wonder how it would have been for her without other Chinese around…

  13. Very true! Being an expat isn’t easy. There’s always a part of you that wonders what if i had stayed in my home country.. Every once and a while i must admit i have a little freak out!

  14. Ok, I am not an expert on family life in China, but I was troubled by Autumn’s post.
    I know and understand the general behavioral guideline of being conservative, letting the family set the pace for activities and so forth, and trying not to do anything that would reinforce negative stereotypes about foreign women. But what do you do in a situation where you are subjected to excessive criticism?

    I only have two years of video chats with my daughter’s Chinese family to go on, but I suspect that they would have a lot more respect for someone who didn’t allow herself to be steam rolled. When the family is behaving normally they are noisy and rowdy, and have quite a bawdy sense of humor. Maybe they aren’t typical, but I would be tempted to counter the excessive criticism with humor. I am not suggesting using malicious or cruel humor, more along the lines of street talk come backs, fast and witty. I have quite a dry sense of humor, which is hard to convey due to the language barrier, but my daughter’s family seems to get it and really enjoy my humor, although some of their come backs are blush worthy.

    I behave naturally most of the time with my daughter’s family, and I actually feel more acceptance from them than I do average people in the U.S. Of course, I am the oldest person in the room, and the Chinese do respect age, and seem very comfortable with older women shooting off their mouths, so to speak.

    Just something to consider, Autumn. If you feel that you would be squashed flat like a bug if you ventured to make a humorous sally, best not to go there.

    1. Susan, thanks for the comment — I’m glad that feel so comfortable with your daughter’s family. I think Autumn was probably being a little sarcastic and exaggerated in what she wrote…it’s kind of her style. If I didn’t know Autumn well, though, I would have felt exactly as you do.

  15. Lovely post! I just shared it with a friend in Hangzhou who is struggling with negative reactions when he speaks Chinese, as well as some other similar issues. I definitely feel you on the visa issues, I spent around 26 months on a very temporary visa and now I’m on a slightly less temporary visa, but still not the full partner visa. I was unable to leave the country to visit family, see friends and ended up having a tiny wedding with very few people there and none of my own family. It can be very difficult to feel like you belong in your new home if you’re not allowed to work, travel or study. This happened right after I graduated with a master’s degree and it really knocked me back, and I felt like everyone else was moving on and doing things without me, while I had failed. I didn’t second guess my marriage, but I second guessed myself and spent a lot of time reflecting on a lot my decisions, past behaviour, career options…heavy stuff! Of course, this adds strain on a relationship as well, because they can’t go on international trips, meet your family, have to be the sole breadwinner and you’re just in this constant limbo.

    By the way, I ended up making some more female friends by posting an ad online! We meet once a week or so to cook, shop, watch television..they are also waiting for visas.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing Amanda…it makes me feel much less alone in my situation to know that others like you have had similar struggles while living abroad.

      Posting an online ad is a terrific idea for making more female friends!

  16. To get a Visa it’s hard for me too. This year, I will go to the US and so worry about the Visa. It takes me a lot of money and time. Hope I can get it in August.

  17. Thank you for this honest article. These are similar to what I experienced (or experience) when I first moved to the US. Visa is the worst! I am a bit surprised about the foreign accent. I always thought Chinese are always impressed with foreigners when they speak Chinese since it’s such a difficult language.

  18. Being an expat married to a local in China cannot be easy, no matter how glamorous people may portray their lives. But from my experience, the most important thing is to be with someone who loves you wholly and unconditionally. I experienced all of these, but I’m convinced it would have been a little better if I’d been married to someone who understood or tried to put his feet in my shoes. Likewise, in the US he experienced all of these things, too, and I tried my best to be supportive because I understood. I’m sure once spring really comes to China, things will seem a little brighter. It’s never easy there in the winter!

  19. I’m home now, after 25 years. SO GREAT. Love it. Starting to think about traveling a little but maybe next year.

  20. Oh Jocelyn! My heart goes out to you with this article. Living abroad can be tough (I know, and many of us know!), but I think if anyone can overcome the difficulties, it’s you. I’m also happy to hear that John is so supportive and tries to help you as much as he can.

    All I can think of is: “The Grass is Always Greener.” Haha. While I experienced almost all five points up there, as soon as I’m back living in the United States I start dreaming of my life in Asia (minus all the bad, like fleas). It’s so hard to find that happy medium.

    For the most part, though, I do think Asian life suits me better than the typical American life. Lack of transportation (driving), healthcare, consumerism (and now trump) really make me think China isn’t so bad after all.

    As for point #3 regarding in-laws, I’ll take it as advice for my future to come, haha.

    1. Thanks for the lovely comment, Mary! It is so true — the grass is indeed always greener. And yeah, I’m with you on the Asian life being a better choice than the American one for all of the reasons you mentioned (and more!).

      Yeah, just wait until you get in-laws…;-)

  21. I am sorry to hear of your sadness but also happy to hear of your happiness. It’s very tough being away from family and a life you know so well. I only lived in China for three years and thoroughly enjoyed it but knew there was an end date to come home to Australia. I return to China every year because I miss it so much. It was good to read your post and hear about your feelings. Thank you for sharing.

  22. Great post about your expat life and international marriage. Me and my boyfriend have had discussions on where we’d like to settle down and it pains me alittle that it cant be in the U.S. (where I am from). But, it largely due to visa/work/ and adapting woes my boyfriend may face.

    Its always nice to hear or read about another expat women’s experience especially since our experiences are unique and individual, but we are not alone and can provide comforting advice for one another. Though, not yet married, I write about international love woes as me and my bf work on closing the distance and plan out settling down in Korea, if we mutually agree that it will be best for the both of us.

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