Highlights from study into mixed relationships/marriages with a Chinese partner

Small porcelain dolls showing a Chinese husband and wife in traditional red clothing
(photo from rickz Flickr)

Many of you might remember about a year ago, when I posted an ad: UK Chinese Studies Student Seeks Chinese/Non-Chinese Couples for Dissertation Survey. Some of you participated in her survey, including myself. Ultimately, she surveyed 33 couples in her research, 18 with a Chinese female partner and 15 with a Chinese male partner.

Laura Banks just successfully defended her dissertation a few weeks ago and sent me a copy. I’m excerpting the abstract and quoting some of her findings, which you can scroll down to read.

In addition, some of you who participated asked Laura for a copy of the dissertation. I’ll be glad to send a copy to anyone who e-mails me (jocelyn (at) speakingofchina.com), with the understanding that the dissertation is meant for your personal use only and not to be posted publicly online.

And now, onto the highlights…

Her abstract:

As the world develops, the ‘social distance between Westerners and Chinese has narrowed’ and ‘over the past half century, with the effects of globalisation, the East and the West have grown much, much closer.’ As a result intercultural relationships and marriages between Chinese nationals and foreigners is increasing each year. These relationships can be very interesting to others, the way they communicate, where they decide to live and what they eat are all elements that can be different to relationships with people from the same culture. Through a written survey thirty-three couples were contacted and their replies are analysed and the results discussed throughout the paper. A purpose of this is to give an insight into the nuances of their daily life and to straighten out any previous stereotypes that may not be true.

On choosing which language to use:

The choice of which language to use in the relationship has a number of variables to it. Sometimes being able to choose which language to use is not possible, due to one partners inability to speak another…. Some couples have the ability to switch between multiple languages…. Other couples use one language for everyday topics and another for deeper and more complicated topics…. Some people allow the context of the conversation to determine the language use because they can feel uncomfortable saying some things in one language but not another….

Another variable for which language to speak is the country in which the couple are living, for example some people find it easier to speak the same language as the country that they are in speak, so Chinese when in China….

For others language is never even a question and they just slip into one and never question it….

On learning a new language:

A number of the couples talk about one of them learning a new language with one of the aims being to aid the relationship and each other….

One of the couples give the reason for learning a new language for ‘future work’ purposes as well as for their own personal development….

Another reason is the desire to be able to speak and communicate with the partner’s family…. This is an important factor for many because it can be difficult to feel accepted and comfortable in a family if you are unable to communicate with them.

Some of the couples say that they have just picked up basic words and phrases of their partners language….

Being in an intercultural relationship a number of the couples have gained the ability to speak or understand a new language, so they have been able to develop culturally. By learning a new language the couple may start speaking more and more in a different language….

On translating for partners and families:

A number of couples talk about themselves having to or ‘finding someone to’ translate or interpret for the partner or family because for example, ‘my wife and parents don’t have a common language’, so ‘they always need me for translation.’ This sometimes feels like a ‘burden’ on the partner who is doing the translating, as it can be a very tiring exercise. However, having someone to translate for the partner does open up doors and can help to develop the relationship, as it means for example that families are then able to communicate….

On the language that children speak:

Children and the language that they are able to speak when their parents are in an intercultural relationship can be very interesting. A few of the couples surveyed have children and most of these children are growing up in a bilingual home. Some of the parents speak to them in both languages…. Some create exciting things like Chinese day…to encourage the use of both languages….

In some families one of the parents will talk in their native language to the children when another language is dominant in the home and their daily lives….

On reasons for settling where (regarding children):

Many countries have different elements of their nations system that are attractive such as education and healthcare that draws people to live there but in the surveys China was not a specifically popular choice mentioned for children to grow up.

On traditions and festivals:

Some couples have embraced or ‘have learned to incorporate’ each other’s traditions into their lives…. When living outside of your own country it can sometimes be difficult to celebrate certain festivals….

However, people can feel the other side to this as not only can they ‘gain culturally by learning about a new festival or religion’ but they can also feel like they get ‘double the holidays’ and another interesting gain is ‘there is never any arguing over whose family to go to this year’ an element that can be quite a burden on those people in relationships with someone from the same culture or country as them….

Another couple mentioned their differences in traditions and two specific traditions that that they ‘saw some friction’ over. One of the traditions was the Chinese tradition of Yuezi (月子), which is the ‘month-long resting period after a pregnancy.’…

Another tradition which this couple discussed was about them disagreeing about was the tradition of gift giving…. This issue is not necessarily a cultural one, and could just be the different types of person that they are. However, gift-giving and receiving is different across the world, ‘when presented with a gift, Chinese are less likely to display the same level of joy and delight that is characteristics of North Americans. Chinese usually open a gift in private rather than in front of the gift givers’ , whereas in the West it is perfectly acceptable to open the gift in front of the person who gave it, so that you are able to give thanks to them straightaway.

Most of the couples talk about learning about new traditions but also of having to miss out on those traditions at home. It is an aspect of life that each couple have adapted to uniquely. Although there are a couple of traditions that have caused a small amount of ‘friction’ it does not seem to be a huge problem and solutions have been made and negotiations reached.

On food:

Food is an integral part to our lives and can mean a lot to people individually. Within the couples a number of them said that they tended to eat a mixture of the two nations food….

Food can be defining parts of certain cultures and some countries become famous because of their unique food, which can be an interesting part of an intercultural relationship.

On the other hand each nation also has its own dishes that seem unappetising or even revolting to other people, from mushy peas to fried scorpions. Chinese food is no different to this and can have some elements that are not present in many other cultures, particularly European and American cuisines….

The choice of food and what to eat did not come across as a bone of contention or even a problem in the survey although there are noticeable differences. As with anyone living away from home people eat what they can find and as with any relationship, habits develop and change to suit the situation.

On cultural faux pas:

…One cultural faux pas that was mentioned in one of the surveys was the meeting of the partners parents and when it was deemed appropriate to. In this instance the American girlfriend wanted her Chinese boyfriend to meet her father, relatively early on in the relationship…. However, American and Chinese cultures are not the same in this instance and actually the meaning of meeting the parents in Chinese culture can indicate the ‘intention of marriage.’…

On prejudice:

…It is not always people whom the couple do not know that have prejudices or hesitations, but family members and friends can be an obstacle to overcome. Meeting a partner’s family and especially parents can be a very important part of a relationship. The acceptance of one’s partner can be a unnerving ordeal as wanting to please your parents is important to a huge number of people….

Many of the couples said that their families are just happy that their children have just found happiness and someone to love them….

Some of the couples talked about their parents and families initially having ‘hesitations’ being ‘dubious’ and ‘withdrawn’ about the relationship. However none of the couples mentioned anything about their families being more than a bit hesitant or having initial worries.

Other hesitations were based on previous stereotypes, one partner’s Grandmother ‘warned her about marrying a communist.’…

One issue that was a reason for reluctance of acceptance was a potential language barrier between the family and the new partner.

…although some hesitations are mentioned, the extreme prejudices such as excommunication for their choice of partner do not shine through in the survey responses.

On previous marriages and children from previous relationships:

…The issue was mentioned a couple of times in the survey responses and the general feeling by all those who mentioned anything about it was that ‘previous marriages and children from other marriages are definitely more accepted in Western culture.’…

What do you think about these findings?

13 Replies to “Highlights from study into mixed relationships/marriages with a Chinese partner”

  1. @Jocelyn: Does she specify where the partner who is not Chinese is from particularly and where the couple is living at the moment? I think it would be interesting to get some more details, it seems like a very general overview and I’m not sure 33 is a very representative number.

    One point mentioned that definitely resonates with me is the translating. I had to translate a lot when we were in Europe and although I didn’t mind most of the time, it did bother me when I was tired.

    Will send an e-mail to request the survey.

  2. Laura,
    May I know hwo did you find interest in this topic? Or how did you know this was the topic for your dissertation?
    When I wrote my Master thesis finding the right topic was a huge challenge!

    1. @chinaelevatorstories, yes, she does break down where the non-Chinese partners are from, and where the couples are currently living in the dissertation. I just didn’t share that in this post. Sure, I’ll be happy to send you a copy.

      @Laura, hopefully Laura will respond at some point in the comments as to her decision to pursue the topic.

  3. I would love to read the whole dissertation too! I’m especially interested in the language aspect of Chinese-Foreign relationship as it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot recently.

    Was it you Jocelyn who had the post about a couple’s romantic language? That if you fell in love in Chinese, then it would be harder to change that common language later on to English for example. That’s whay I’m feeling at the moment when it seems so weird to speak English with my boyfriend, even I do want to help him to improve his language skills.

  4. Hi everyone and once again thank you for your support in the creation of my dissertation.
    @Laura I did a Chinese studies degree, so that’s the main link but the topic link was that my course tutor once said to me about the UK law having some barriers with children from intercultural marriages. I then just started thinking about other aspects of marriages that may prove different, whether positive or negative issues and then it just developed from there really.

  5. UK law having some barriers with children from intercultural marriages? Really? I would be very interested to read what your tutor says these are as I have never
    Heard of or come across them. UK is FULL of people in intercultural marriages. If they face some legal barriers with their children this really is quite shocking but would be good to be informed of such. Thanks!

  6. @Miriam. No. The immigration laws of the Cameron-May government make it near impossible for British citizens to bring in their foreign spouses. A British doctor is now working in Singapore after it became near impossible for his Malaysian born wife to get a visa to migrate to the UK. In particular, white-non-white international marriages are targeted and backlogs are created to prevent white Brits from bringing in Non-white British spouses and vice versa. Here is a relevant story….


  7. @David… Thanks for your insight. Wow! Very shocked to be coming across this. It certainly was NOT my experience 16 years ago when I brought my Chinese husband over. Obtaining PR for him was very straight forward and very easy. We only stayed for a year though and have been living in Asia for past 15 years. It is MUCH more difficult to obtain PR in Asia though for a European. In saying that, I do remember a few years back reading several stories of people in UK who were abusing the system of getting PR and hence the many “marriages of convenience” with people divorcing as soon as PR was granted. Perhaps this is what Cameron’s administration was tryijg to curb? Perhaps it was other things besides this? Anything is possible. But how very unfortunate it is for those who are in genuine.relatuonships and face such difficulties. Really peculiar to hear it. A friend from UK brought her Bidayu Malaysian husband back 2 years ago to UK and he was also granted PR within a year and without difficulty. Just shows people in similar situations can experience very different things.

  8. @Miriam: Since you have been mentioning Malaysia, are you in Malaysia now? If so are you in Kuala Lumpur? Last month I went to this mall in KL and it was full of at least white people…I have been there before, and it was not nearly as white. In fact, never seen anything that white here in the Washington DC area. There were a few people (almost all English women) whose spouses had their visas delayed or rejected. Many planned to move to Singapore for work or Australia permanently. They told me that Theresa May particularly is not for international marriages and there are many in the current government who think along those lines. I am wondering whether this is contributing to the brain drain of British talent causing further harm to the already damaged economy…



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