Chapter 58: China Marriage On My Mind

Wedding rings on a white background
In Shanghai, my Chinese boyfriend and I were almost as close as husband and wife. All of the signs said we were headed to a wedding -- so why did I have to ask?

There was no history of casual dating in John’s family. His maternal grandmother was a child bride, sent to live with her grandfather’s family when she was seven or eight, without the ability or understanding to contest her fate. She went from being a virginal pre-adolescent to a wife who would immediately bear children.

John’s mother, her daughter, married during the Cultural Revolution, in 1972 — with a “revolutionary marriage certificate,” stamped in red, to prove it. She was never a child bride, but still a stranger to this man, introduced to her through a matchmaker in the village, with a courtship that fast-tracked them straight to a wedding. Marriage was simply a practical matter, solving what the Chinese often refer to as their “personal problem.”

By the time I moved to Shanghai, John and I were as close as a husband and wife, living together and depending on each other. John had long decided we were a “settled couple” — that’s why he moved in with me in Hangzhou, only days after our historic first kiss. We had skipped casual courtship and went straight to something serious — serious enough to wonder about marriage.

Marriage marched down the aisles of my own mind during a mid-March dinner at a Greek restaurant with John in 2003, and I couldn’t help but tell him what nibbled at me as I nibbled on a vegetarian pita wrap.

“Sweetie, do you think we’ll get married someday?”

In the US, this was the sort of question for blase boyfriends, who strung along their girlfriends for years in a relationship more about fun than forever. But John was anything but blase about us — defying his parents to date me, a foreign woman; supporting me after I lost my job and visa; even inviting me to spend the Chinese New Year at his home. In our journey together, all roads already led to marriage. Why ask?

John looked up from his lamb pita wrap, dressed in a blue-and-white plaid shirt I’d bought him for his birthday, smiled generously, like a parent pleased with their child. “Sure — of course we’ll get married.”

There was no mystery now — we were walking our way to a wedding, someday, just as his grandmother did. But maybe it was easier to know the mystery was gone, because we had so much more to solve. In March 2003, graduate students in China still could not marry without the approval of their school — and, as the US Embassy’s website reminded us, schools in the past frequently expelled Chinese students for marrying foreigners:

Chinese students generally are permitted to marry if all the requirements are met, but they can expect to be expelled from school as soon as they do. American citizens wishing to marry Chinese students should bear this in mind. It also should be noted that at least one school in Beijing has required Chinese students to reimburse the school for hitherto uncharged tuition and other expenses upon withdrawal from school to marry foreigners. The fees in one case amounted to about 4,700 yuan per year of study completed, and the school would not release documents the student needed to register the marriage until the fees were paid. Some work units have also demanded compensation for “lost services.”

We didn’t believe any marriage could take place until John graduated from his Shanghai university, in June 2005.

Constrained by communist rule, we could only take comfort in the knowledge of a future forever, and the realization that, like many others in John’s family, we were anything but casual.

Did you ever talk marriage before you decided to get married?


Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.

6 Replies to “Chapter 58: China Marriage On My Mind”

  1. As a Chinese-Canadian who’s seen the East and the West, I’m really amazed how well and how deep you understand the intricacies of Chinese culture and society.

    It’s quite sad that many Chinese who grew up overseas like me couldn’t care less about Chinese culture, and many tourists who visit China only get a confusing glimpse and leave.

    You are totally epic. I totally click with your “foreigner” way of thinking plus your view of China from outside-in and inside-out.

    When I get the time I will definitely read this whole series. Take care!

  2. My now hubby and I dated long distance for about two years. He would come here for a few weeks, then go back to Guatemala for a few months. It is very difficult to develop a relationship that way because you’re always asking yourself if you’re just caught up in the “lust” phase or if you’re being swept away in the drama of it all. After a little while you realize how much work a LDR (long distance relationship) really takes. The most difficult part is deciding to get married. In a way you want your relationship to develop normally, organically if you will. On the other hand, if you want to be with your other half you realize it requires getting married. This was a hard one for us. We didn’t want to rush into getting married. We didn’t want to feel that we HAD to get married.

    In the end, we got married at what felt like a good time. We had a very small, private wedding with just the two of us and a few witnesses. We didn’t even invite our families. It ended up being a very special time and we didn’t have to feel the big arm of immigration pressuring us.

  3. My Chinese husband and I did talk about getting married before we actually did it. We were however together for almost 4 years before taking the step into marriage. But I do think my in-laws in China knew already that winter of 2006 when I went with my husband to China for the first time, that they had indeed met their future daughter-in-law. In fact, they asked when my husband and I would get married 😉 My family had also asked already in 2006 when there would be a wedding. My husband and I got married in October 2009 and now in June we’ll hold a big fat (or well, small in Chinese eyes) Chinese wedding party in Suzhou with about 100 guests, and I’m not going to let Eyafjallajökull stop our plans!

  4. I had no idea marrying a Chinese citizen was so complicated!

    Dave and I talked about getting married. Then I got pregnant with William, which really sped things up. We will have been married eight years in August, though. It’s all worked out well.
    .-= Juliet´s last blog ..Illinois trip: Day 4: Coming home. =-.

    1. @Chris, thanks for the sweet comment, and compliments — you made me blush! I’m so touched my writing resonates with you. 😉

      @Melissa, thanks for the comment, and for sharing your experience on marriage. It must have been even harder for you, being in a LDR and only seeing him occasionally. I’m so glad that things worked out with you, and you had a lovely wedding to celebrate the relationship you deserve. 🙂

      @Jennie, thanks for sharing — and glad I’m not the only one who spoiled the mystery on matrimony! I bet your wedding in Suzhou is going to be gorgeous (and definitely, no volcano spoiling allowing!).

      @Juliet, thanks for the comment! It was complicated then…but if you keep reading, you’ll see things got a lot less complicated later on. Sounds like you and Dave both got on the fast track to marriage too, but I’m glad you’ve been together for almost 8 years. Congratulations!

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