How Could I Forget About the Cultural Differences in My Intercultural Marriage?

116The other day, someone asked me during an interview, “Tell me about some cultural differences between you and your husband.”

You would have thought I had a million things to say on the topic. After all, that’s a big part of what I blog about – the cultural differences between interracial and international couples in China.

But in fact, I couldn’t come up with a single decent example! (Crazy, I know.)

I mentioned what I thought were a couple of good ones – from differences in diet (I’m a vegan, he’s not) to those explosive arguments that my husband and I weathered early on in our relationship. Instead, the woman talking with me laughed in a lighthearted way – the kind of laughter that tells you that you’ve veered off course. “But those are personality differences, not cultural!” she said.

My face started to flush red. Had I just completely bombed this conversation? There I was, mentally lashing myself, wondering why I hadn’t prepared examples for this very important topic ahead of time?

Afterwards, I couldn’t help replaying the whole conversation in my mind – especially the part about cultural differences. Was it just nerves that made me forget?

But then I considered the most frustrating cultural differences in my marriage. You know, the “big fat Chinese wedding” Johns family insisted we have, which completed exploded all my dreams of having a small ceremony at their whitewashed rural family home. Or the way John’s relatives can’t stop pestering us about when we’re going to have a baby.

That’s when I realized why I had stumbled all over that question. The most obvious cultural clashes in my marriage weren’t between me and John. They were between me and his family.

When you think about it, it’s not surprising. John and I have been married for over 10 years. Yep, there’s more than a decade of marital experience between us – and if you’ve made it as far as we have, you’ve already worked through the major kinks in your relationship, including the cultural stuff. Cultural clashes? That’s like ancient history to us. I can’t even remember the last time we fought over anything cultural. Seriously.


John’s family, however, is another story. I’ve written about challenges with weddings, things relatives say to us, pressure to have kids and more. And here’s the really interesting part – John feels that sometimes certain relatives don’t 100 percent understand him either.

John likes to say I know him better than anyone else in the world, even many close friends here in China. And you know what? I feel the same about him. He really gets me like no one else ever could — whether it’s how I can’t live without writing, my passion for birdwatching, or the fact that I secretly love really cheesy romantic comedies.

When you’re in an intercultural relationship with someone for a long time, and things work out, I think both people eventually come to a consensus or understanding on these things. You’re not negotiating cultural stuff all of the time, because it’s now second nature to you. John’s culture has become a part of who I am, and my culture has become a part of him.

As for his family, god knows that’ll never happen. Which means I can expect a future filled with plenty of cultural conundrums.

(Now if I can just remember this for my next interview!)

P.S.: One thing I should add – it’s always important to recognize and understand your partner’s cultural background when you’re in an intercultural (cross-cultural) and international relationship. To learn why, check out my article on Why Ignoring Cultural Differences in Cross-Cultural Relationships is Harmful.

P.P.S.: To the interviewers, if you’re reading, thanks for the opportunity — and for making the conversation a great one!

P.P.P.S.: To everyone else, if you’re curious about the interview (as in, who did it and where it’s going to end up) stay tuned in to my blog for some news later this month! 😉

29 Replies to “How Could I Forget About the Cultural Differences in My Intercultural Marriage?”

  1. Well, I envy you. I wish I could forget about our cultural differences. I think my husband’s parenting style has a lot to do with his culture (a bit of a Tiger Dad complex, if you ask me) and we still haven’t found a way to compromise on this. It’s a weekly, if not daily, issue.

  2. Compromise in any relationship is important however there also needs to be respect for each other, respect for each other’s beliefs and respect for each other’s culture if you are in an intercultural relationship.

    Jocelyn, you and John have been together 10 years so with experience, hard work , trial and error any cultural differences have been “ironed out “. I ask a hypothetical question….You arrived in China a year ago, you met John (who hadn’t studied or lived abroad), you fall in love and decide to get married do you think there would be cultural differences between the two of you? If so what would be those differences?

    1. MM, absolutely, you definitely have to respect each other, including beliefs and one another’s culture!

      Actually, your hypothetical situation isn’t that far off from the reality between John and I. I had been in China for two years when he and I first met, and he had never studied nor lived abroad. Back then, as I recall there were small things between us…like how I liked telling him “I love you” and he wasn’t used to that. Nothing huge, though, and definitely no deal breakers!

  3. I agree with you Jocelyn – the biggest and hardest to overcome cultural challenges are most definitely between me and my boyfriend’s family.

    Not just that: because of the pressure his family put on him while growing up and the rigid education, sometimes I think the real reason we disagree about certain BIG topics is still indirectly his family, just he is not aware of it.

    Our education keeps influencing us a lot long after we leave our family house. Sigh.

  4. Oh, this is so true. Andy and I agree on most stuff, which is why meeting his China-born and raised parents was such a shock to my white system. Andy has assimilated easily — he swears because he watched so much TV growing up — but his parents have not. They have traditional opinions on superstitions, gender roles, gender preference, money, and Chinese medicine.

    The one cultural issue that causes friction is Andy’s refusal to ever argue with his parents. Sometimes arguing with them would equal sticking up for me!

    1. The refusal to argue with the parents is more of a specifically Cantonese cultural trait than it is a broadly Chinese one. When it comes to deference to parents, the Cantonese are almost as bad as Koreans.

  5. Hi Jocelyn, sorry I made a mistake with my hypothetical question. What if you and John had met now at the age you are at ( not 10 years ago). This being your first time to China and he having studied and worked and possibly only dating Chinese girls. What type of Cultural differences could you envisage between the two of you?

  6. Actually, the way you describe the differences in the post doesn’t sound like they are only personal to me. They are personal up to a certain point, but how you handle these situations individually is still influenced by culture (at least that’s my take).

  7. I haven’t been married ten years, but in the beginning of my relationship, I wrote in a diary about every issue that came up. I would write for his perspective and try my best to reach an understanding of why we argued or whatever. And the more I dissected our issues, the many times initially I thought, “Oh our cultures are just different,” I began to realize, “No, these are just natural issues between couples.”

    Now when I think of things that stand out as being culturally, they are so trivial I couldn’t answer that question appropriately either. Like if he makes fun of me for “being so American” eating toast and coffee for breakfast. I wonder how things will be 10 years down the line and when we have children.

  8. Almost only cultural difference existing between me and my Chinese husband is the look on the history and society. Other are personal – and we are pretty similar actually 🙂

  9. I feel the same way most of the time. At first it was hard to figure out if we were arguing over cultural or personal differences. I feel like we know each other better than anyone else now, but problems still arise when his friends and family come into play, since I am going to be living in Korea with him. He wants me to learn about his culture so I don’t make mistakes, which is impossible, but he does it out of love I guess. I am not as stressed about him learning about my American culture since it doesn’t hold as much influence over our relationship.

  10. I love this topic and the advice MM gives about respect. I really do think that is key, having had an AMWF marriage and one to a guy who looks like he could be my relative. I actually need to remind myself to respect my new husband’s background more than I ever had to think about it in my first marriage to my Chinese ex. I think people may think more about compromising and respecting differences when you come from other backgrounds.

    I was also fascinated by your comment, Jocelyn, about how John wasn’t used to saying I love you. My ex came from a traditional Chinese family, but for some reason he had no problem telling me that in the beginning and end of our relationship. So interesting. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words sometimes!

  11. I wish to say it is harmful to forget the cultural difference, which Jocelyn has pointed it out. I don’t think the difference in your relationship goes away. You both probably changed and met the other person half way already. Sometimes your differences would surface, and it really pays off when both partners recognize them instead of receiving them negatively. To me it is more important to admit those differences will always exist. We each can draw strength from the other person.

    It is wise not to argue with your Chinese parents. You won’t win that way. The Chinese way is always about compromise to the point the other person feel they have to give something in return. It is not the American way of being straight and talk it out. The Chinese parents would just retreat and refuse to engage. Respect is valued above reason and love most of time. Doesn’t make sense sometimes, but the Chinese parents can be really loyal. They will never disown you no matter what. You will only feel the guilt of arguing with them at the end. Don’t do it – communicate in their way if you can. I don’t even know if I can do it, but I learned what I shouldn’t do.

    1. While I would agree that not arguing with Chinese parents is a good idea, and I would certainly agree that cultural awareness is an excellent idea (though I often failed at both), I’m going to have to disagree with you, Dan, on two other counts:

      1) Compromise. I have never witnesses this compromising of which you speak, at least not by my Chinese-American guy’s parents. I think it is mythical! It is his parents’ way, or they simply pretend not to hear you. Or they yell.

      2) Disowning their children. I haven’t gotten to this post yet on my blog, but yes, Andy’s parents threatened to disown him if he did not accede to their wishes.

      Maybe they have been corrupted by their years in the U.S., or maybe they are just extra-special Chinese parents, but there you have it. I’m calling BS on compromise and loyalty.

  12. @Autumn
    I am sorry to hear about what happened to Andy. It did not happen in my case. If it does, I would definitely argue. I want to warn not to argue though. There is a limit to everything.

    I came to the understanding some parents feel they own their children, probably the same way in the US many generations ago. What can I say? It is too bad your guys’ parents can be so unreasonable. Maybe they have given up a lot to live in this country. I am sure a typical generation gap exist in the first and second generation.

    I don’t know Andy’s parents. I don’t know if they would really disown him. If they just threaten to do it, I call it BS and bad parenting tactic. Maybe you can BS on them. 🙂

    1. You made me laugh, Dan! I wanted to call BS, but Andy really prefers to avoid confrontation. I’m getting used to sucking it up. Hopefully I don’t lose it one day.

      I guess if I do it will make a good story?

      1. You can only hold it in for so long. I guess it is important your guy is standing with you and understand your feelings. I think too much compromise will lead to resentment in any relationship.
        It is common to fight it out in US and talk it over to forgive someone. The price to pay is higher in Asian culture. Once you damage the relationship in some way, people remember for a long time. I personally prefer the American way. If you confront Andy’s parents, he will probably pay the price. Try to look at the brighter side.

        I am sure it will be a good story. Put it down tonight.

  13. After thirty years of marriage to my Chinese husband, it would be hard to separate cultural differences from personality differences. Even though he’d only spent four years in the United States by the time we were married, he was quick to adjust. In general, I’d say that our cultural differences were not a big problem. I agree with Jocelyn that after being married for a long time, you’ve worked things out. You know each other so well that the differences in your background have already been incorporated into your relationship.

    My in-laws never lived nearby, and for the most part, they expected that we would make our own decisions.

  14. It is pretty stupid, but do you know what the main cultural difference between my bf and me is? Or at least the one I feel most, haha: the totally different childhood references we have. Like, the movies and cartoons we watched while growing up. “How can you NOT have seen that? Didn’t you have a childhood?” is a common question in our home 😀

  15. The biggest cultural difference I noticed is the attitude towards treatment of total strangers. My girlfriends often comments how polite I am to total strangers, when it’s just common courtesy to me. Not that she’s like some other Chinese people, who have a “if I don’t know you/if I don’t want something from you, you might as well not exist” mentality. But there’s a certain disregard for other people, unlike in Japan, where other people are often extremely mindful of each other. I think there’s a reluctance to give beggars money, to help people (because of the infamous “Nanjing judge”?), which is common to many mainland Chinese people.

  16. I loved reading this… and all the comments! We have been married for over 14 years and a couple of things still remain, mostly with food and raising kids. Definitely not anything worth fighting about, but obvious differences nonetheless. 🙂

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