On My Chinese Husband’s Time

Retro alarm clock
How was it that my Chinese husband and I seemed to run on entirely different clocks?

We held tickets for a performance at 7pm Wednesday. By 6pm, the table had everything we needed for dinner — fried tofu, spring rolls, stir-fried vegetables. Everything, that is, except for my Chinese husband.

Where is he? I wondered, pacing as I peered out the window, scouring the landscape for any sign of him as the notice on those tickets flashed over and over again in my mind: attendees must be in their seats by 6:45pm, or the unfilled seats will be filled with people in the waiting area.

Suddenly, I spotted someone walking down the street in a rather familiar maroon down jacket, with an even more familiar gait. John. He strolled along with one of his soccer buddies, chatting with all of the leisure of a Sunday afternoon tea time — and not the Wednesday “we have to eat and get the performance ASAP” anxiety coursing through my veins.

Since he stood within shouting distance of our place, I did what any worried wife would do. “Sweetie, it’s dinnertime! Come on!”

When he finally trotted in the door, I gave him the chopsticks and a stern glance. “Where have you been? Did you completely forget about the performance this evening?”

“I was delayed at work. But I figured that 45 minutes is more than enough time for us to head over there.”

I cocked an eyebrow. “You really like to live on the edge, don’t you?”

“It’s not on the edge,” he said, shaking his head. “See, we still have enough time to eat dinner and get over there.”

But I couldn’t help but think about how his timing and my timing didn’t even seem to be in the same row of performance’s theater.

I thought about the last time I stayed with my Chinese husband’s family, back in the summer of 2009. Then, I watched his mother thoughtfully set the table with the dishes she had toiled over in the kitchen, shouting over and over “time to eat” — but with no one bounding down the stairs like they would have in my house. When I grew up, my father and mother would have punished us for coming late to the dinner table, or not heeding their call. In John’s house, everyone sauntered over in their own time — after finishing that last stroke of calligraphy, or after reading to the bottom of that page in the book. Except for me, of course. I was always first to the table.

I remembered that time when John and I took a bus from Shanghai back to his hometown in Zhejiang Province. Just as the bus began checking passenger tickets, he suddenly had to dash off to the bathroom for one last visit. “But they’re checking tickets!” I moaned. John still rushed across to the bathroom, and left me in near panic as the bus company said “last call.” That’s when I yelled across the station, standing in a pile of luggage, “No, wait! We still have to get on!” John shrugged off my anger when we got on the bus, saying they would never leave without us.

But I knew better. Maybe that’s because I — the stickler for being on-time — used to be just like him, for a time.

When I left my family home for college, and my dad’s almost stopwatch-perfect sense of timing, I rebelled by slacking off on punctuality, believing that I could push the boundaries of timeliness and get away with it. I showed up late to classes and appointments. I considered wearing a watch as something optional. I used to make jokes about the to-the-hour itineraries my father prepared for every single trip we took, and instead would drive back home during college breaks at strange hours — even 2am.

Then it happened. At the end of my semester in Spain, I arrived late to Madrid’s airport, and only had 45 minutes to dash across the entire airport to catch my plane back to America. As I hustled my luggage through a long corridor, weaving in and out of people, I knew they had to be checking tickets. I knew people were boarding that 1pm flight. I knew I had to get on. But I believed they wouldn’t leave without me — that is, until I reached the empty gate, and saw the plane taxiing out to the runway. Just like that, my rebellion against time flew away without me, and I started becoming just like my dad — the kind of person who gets angry about being late.

Don’t get angry about him being late, I reminded myself when John stepped in that evening at 6pm before the performance, even as my body felt more and more like a clenched fist. But I let it go, and continued to let go after we finished dinner and hurried over to the theater.

“Slow down,” he cautioned. “We have plenty of time to get over there. It’s only 6:26pm.”

“But I don’t want to lose our seats!” I feared, as I marched up the hill to the performing arts center.

“We won’t lose the seats,” he promised. “We’re only five minutes away. Just relax and enjoy the walk.”

I looked up and saw the center, barely 50 meters away, and then turned my head to the russet hills undulating into the distance behind it and the white clouds sweeping over them. Beautiful. How could I have let my time obsession make me miss this?

They say you’re better late than never. And I had to admit, maybe late is better when you relax, take in a gorgeous mountain vista — and still make it to the performance.

Did you ever disagree with your Chinese friends or loved ones about time?

15 Replies to “On My Chinese Husband’s Time”

  1. I’ve found some Chinese friends to be very relaxed about time. Which is great because in Ireland everyone is relaxed about time. We usually make arrangements like “meet me at about 1ish” and if someone arrived at exactly one it would be considered strange.

    But I have met some Chinese guys from the North of China who if they say they will collect me at 8pm, they will definitely be there at 8pm sharp regardless of whether their driving in rain sleet snow.

  2. I can definitely relate 🙂
    “What’s the rush? We still have plenty of time to get there…” almost always results in “Sorry we’re late….”

  3. Hi Jocelyn,

    As always, great post, highly entertaining and informative.

    I’m wondering if you’re familiar with any of the intercultural work on “monochronic” versus “polychronic” processing of time. It might shed some light on your and John’s differences.

    Love the blog!


  4. I think the Chinese’s sense of time differs from the Westerner’s. It is the same here in Malaysia. For example, if a wedding dinner is set for 7pm you could be sure the Chinese here will only begin to saunter in by the earliest 8pm and the actual dinner will only start by 9pm or thereabout! Of course it is very inconvenient to the organisers and ditto the restaurant people, but this has been going on here for so long that nobody blinks an eye. It is always nice to be on time so that one doesn’t have to panic. But to be on time here can sometimes, especially for a wedding dinner, be embarrassing since you might be the only around. Is there a cultural reason for this tardiness? It will be interesting to hear from some who might have a handle on this matter.

  5. oooohhhh.. i feel your pain…. Chinese people have no sense of urgency… when it comes to those kinds of things… they do everything at the last minute… some times I want to stab my husband in the head… (smile).. he is always moving around slowly.. and I am like come on… he is smoking that last cigarette.. or deciding to check his email.. or something silly when we need to be somewhere… then complaining that I am pushing him…. What is the deal…? even at work they move in slow motion… urgggggghhhhhh…. makes me want to scream. I will never get use to that… I am like you.. get there on time.. earlier if possible… I dont think they will every change.

  6. oh.. and i wanted to say… we American’s believe time is money… that makes us not want to waste it… not so much with the Chinese they will take hours to make decisions… and complete a task… im shaking my head now thinking about it.

  7. I work in the private equity sector, and when I say will arrive at the designated time, let’s say 8pm, I will arrive at 7.55pm. For me its about being punctual so that the person I m meeting will have a nice impression of me. But that’s just me. Different person, different thinking. Not everyone’s the same.

  8. Wow, this sounds familiar. I got tickets to a show in NYC and my wife was supposed to meet me at the theater after work. She showed up late because she thought she had plenty of time to do a little leisurely shopping. We managed to get to our seats just as the show started.

    Fortunately, she’s still earlier than my brother for any family gatherings.

  9. Well, my clock works much better than my fiance’s (we live in Israel).

    When we went to his friend’s party, I all the time hurried him up saying “Look at the time, they said to be at 6:30”. He said “Relax! NOBODY will come in time”. Actually, he was right. We came at round 7 p.m. and we were the second guests!

  10. I am little bit strange compare to my fellow italians, I have to be not only on time but earlier, if I am late something must have happened. On the other hand, my chinese-malaysian husband always does things at the last minute even when we have to catch an airplane, and that make me boil inside. But we never miss anything!!!

  11. everytime when i am going to catch a train , i usually figure out how long i maybe stay at the station waiting for the train the day before ,everytime when i am going to the station and giving my ticket to the worker, they all yell at me “hurry up ,hurry up,the train is leaving seconds later!”.once the train startedas soon as i stepped into the train from Tianjing(天津)to Beijing(北京)!

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