Living Apart from my Chinese Husband for the Summer in China

Motorcycle parked in front of a Chinese home in the countryside
What happens when my Chinese husband works for the summer in Shanghai, while I'm parked at the Chinese family home in the countryside?

John, my Chinese husband, came to China this summer to work on his dissertation research. If I was working on a research question for this summer, it might be this — what happens when a foreign woman comes to China with her Chinese husband and then spends the majority of the summer apart from him?

Since the afternoon of May 8, 2011, John and I have lived in separate cities in China. He stays in Shanghai, as he prepares to do a clinical trial for his dissertation research. Meanwhile, I stay at the family home in rural Hangzhou, where I can read, write and do a little research for my writing.

On paper, it works perfectly. John and I both knew he would be far too busy in Shanghai, which meant if we stayed together I’d be on my own most of the time. It made sense for me to go back to the family home, because I needed a space to write and longed for the inspiration of our relatives there.

But in practice, I have to face that one thing every happily married couple grapples with when they’re apart — missing your loved one more than you imagined.

It’s not like ours is a new tale in China. Haven’t we all heard of those families – especially from the rural countryside – where often the husband goes to the big city for some job, and his wife stays at home? Or even where both the husband and the wife head to different cities for work?

According to one of my aunts on John’s father’s side, couples get separated from time to time in the village where I currently live. “It’s normal for some couples to be apart for maybe three months at a time,” she shrugged. “Not so much longer than that around here. Maybe in the interior of China, there are people coming to our Zhejiang to work for the year. Those people maybe only see their families once a year.” Once a year? Reminds me of the fables surrounding Chinese Valentine’s Day and the Mid-Autumn Festival. I don’t know if I have that kind of mettle, to be away from my husband for an entire year. I’m just trying to manage this summer, and the reality that I’ll probably only see John once a month, if that.

It definitely feels like an experiment of its own. Being away from my Chinese husband. Living by myself with my Chinese inlaws, in their huge family home and adjusting to the ebb and flow of life here. Like latent jet lag, I still feel as if I’m not altogether myself and trying to find my own bearings, to figure out what all of this means to me.

Still, at least I am not alone here. My Chinese mother-in-law keeps me filled with delicious meals of things like braised spring bamboo, asparagus lettuce in rice wine vinegar, smoked tofu made from a secret hometown recipe that’s been passed down for generations, and dumplings made from rice flour and a filling of pickled vegetables, tofu and bamboo. My Chinese father-in-law loves sharing his favorite classic Chinese philosophy books (such as the Tao Te Ching) and spin stories about his childhood (like how his mother needed to eat eggs after he was born but she couldn’t buy any because it was the Dragon Boat Festival and everyone ate eggs on that day). My grandma often invites me to her house to eat stir-fried rice vermicelli that she always complains is “not so delicious” because I’m a vegetarian and she has to make it with vegetable oil. My second brother-in-law loves flashing me a smile wherever he goes and has never been more talkative than this summer. And my sister-in-law – with her new baby – beams with goodwill like the sunshine that filters through my window in the morning.

When I think about my family here in China, and what they mean to me as well, then I wonder about another potential “experiment” I face in the future: what happens when one foreign woman spends the summer with her Chinese family and then has to return to the US — and miss them for another year or two?

Have you ever had to face separation as a couple? Do you think separation is more common for couples in China?

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17 Replies to “Living Apart from my Chinese Husband for the Summer in China”

  1. You are so lucky having a Chinese family to take care of you and make you feel at home.
    There is something that happens to me when I am in China. I want to feel part of them, to feel integrated, you know, merge in (I have learnt their customs and social practices not to be “weird”) but still, sometimes it is hard and they see me as someone strange, that is not part of them. Any advice?

  2. Owww Jocelyn, I’m so sorry to hear that you are missing eachother. But at least if will last only for a short while. This is why, in ways, I’m glad that I am not so close with my sweetheart yet, because I can’t bear to think what it would be like to miss him from overseas if I were to be too used to his company, engaged or even married. We have another 2 years like this, but if everything goes well between us and if fortune is favourable on us, then he will be working from Europe because then even if he still is in another country, I will not feel long distance like this!

    Anyway, hopefully I will see you in Aug! We can talk about Tao Te Ching, and on 6th August, it will be Qi Xi so it will be a particularly romantic mood then I hope! If you want, we can even come to Hangzhou, as we were planning to make the journey there. It would be lovely to hear about this place full of tales from you!

    I wish there was a syrup I could give you to ease your few months of being apart. Anyway, they say it’s the thought that counts!!

    Loved this entry, you can tell it was inspired by China!

  3. My BIL has a wife and kids in China, he’s been here for six years! He goes back once a year to visit and they talk on QQ. I feel so bad for them though.

  4. Jocelyn,

    Since your father in law and mother in law will take good care of you, things will be fine. You will be fine because you and your husband have trust and love in the marriage. We must have confidence in our spouse. We must not afraid that he/she might find another lover or other woman/man might come and steal him/her from you.

  5. Oh no! Yes, it is good that at least you will have your in-laws around, so you won’t be too lonely and will still be able to feel connected to him via his family. I’m sure it will be a good opportunity to really get to know them each better. And surely you can enjoy precious time with your new niece/nephew!

    As someone who has been apart from my boyfriend now for more than three years via seemingly endless combinations (different cities in America, America-China, China-America, different cities in China, and, now, Hong Kong-Beijing), I assure you I feel your pain! But a few months will fly by quicker than you think! Hopefully you will be able to visit each other a few times (?), and just think how much more you’ll appreciate your time spent together after being apart for so long.

    Best of luck adjusting to your new routine! Enjoy the summer.

  6. Dear Adriana,

    If you are in China or in Shanghai. Pls contact with me. I want invite you have a cup of coffee with me. So
    We can chat and be good friends

    I went to WINDOWS BAR and I AM LOVE SHANGHAI BAR in Shanghai last week. I try to talking with the western girls but mose of them are very cool
    to me. very bad manners. Some of them said they have no intersting talking with Chinese man. But they can introduce their friends to me maybe they are intersting be friends to Chinese man. But finally when I call them again they didn’t answer my phone. One of them from Germany named Jessica she told she knew a girls from Denmark very interesting about Chinese guy. When I gave her my name card. ang got Jessica’s number. Last
    Sunday. I called Jessica want her arragne the meeting for me and the Denmark girls. But her mobile no any answering. I just looks like a jester she cheating me like
    this way. I really can not understand why she did that to me. Why she told me she knew a Denmark girls very want find Chinese friends? I am really sad about it. But tonight I will go to I LOVE SHANGHAI BAR again. I really hope can meet the white girls like Jocenly would like be friends with Chinese, Any one who can help me pls send the E-mail address to me my E-mail is [email protected].

  7. FrankZhao ,

    Being too desperate won’t get no woman not just western woman. Any type of women can play ya . You should have a flow to everything like your outlook on life etc. Just talk and have fun . Don’t demand anything in return that a relationship will happen. Just don’t give a damn if things are going to happen! I don’t think GOOD women like pushy men in general. Women like pushy men are the types who like no relationship. Anyway, back to work 🙁 🙂

    1. Thanks so much to everyone for the thoughtful comments! I’m actually starting to feel a lot more at ease with our arrangement this summer, and am beginning to enjoy myself a lot more.

      @Adriana, you raise a good question and I don’t even know if I have a definitive answer. I can say that you’ll probably feel more “integrated” if you make more Chinese friends and also put in some effort to learn the language. But even that will never entirely free you from the stares and curiosity that often follow foreigners on the streets of China. Even my marriage to a Chinese man doesn’t make me completely “integrated” — in fact, just today my father-in-law wanted to discourage me from attending a local fair, because he said the shopkeepers would all pay too much attention to me! Sorry if I don’t have a more helpful answer, but hang in there.

      @Vyara, thanks for the kind words. I definitely look forward to meeting up with you in Shanghai.

      @Rhiannon, wow, a wife and kids in China and your BIL hasn’t seen them in six years. That is truly tough, and makes my situation seem rather manageable. 😉

      @Bruce, thanks for your concern. My in-laws are really taking great care of me, that’s for sure. 🙂

      @Brittany, I had no idea you and your boyfriend had maintained a relationship long-distance like that for so long! Wow! I commend both of you for being able to manage to live apart for so long.

      @FrankZhao, I think Bruce has some good advice. I know you really want to find a foreign girlfriend. Just keep in mind that putting your phone number/e-mail out there and desperately asking women to call you will only make you seem less desirable. Study the e-mail I sent you a few days back.

      @Crystal, yes, he’s in psychology — you have an excellent memory!

  8. First I’m sorry to hear that you have to spend time apart with your husband, but mostly I paid attention how well you seem to do with your in-laws. I have met my boyfriends family members (some of them) only twice so it is still very scary for me to meet them and I don’t get even one word out of my mouth! I hope that in the future I would have as good relationship with them as you have with yours.

    1. @Sara, thanks for the comment! Yes, it is scary at first, so I can understand how you feel! It has taken many meetings, over many years, to get to where I am with my relatives here. I was truly terrified the first time I met his parents — I think it’s normal. I also hope you’ll learn to find that comfort someday with his family.

  9. Jocelyn, my twin! When we meet in Beijing in June I will tell you about how I’m moving to Nashville for a year in July and my dear husband is going to stay behind in Beijing to work and support us during the year. It’s a huge sacrifice for all of us but very necessary at this point.

    I remember when we were dating and lived on different continents we swore that once we got married we’d never be apart for more than a few weeks and now look at us. So different. I’m kind of excited about the idea of long-distance dating my husband. We might even send each other hand-written love letters.

  10. And I was getting worried about sending my wife back to China for a month or so to visit her family and friends (we can only afford one ticket this year). I don’t mind too much when my wife is away for a day or so, but extended times are difficult–longest she was away was 3 weeks on a business trip. Just be sure you both have gifts for each other when you get back together.

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