Double Happiness: How An American Woman Fell In Love With Xi’an (And One Special Guy)

Marissa and ZJ
Marissa and ZJ

“I’d never dated or been attracted to Chinese men before,” writes Marissa Kluger — not until she met ZJ in Xi’an, a city that stole her heart away.

Marissa’s blog Xiananigans has been a pleasure to follow over the years (right down to her “explosive” Chinese wedding, where she dons the most gorgeous red wedding gown I’ve ever seen). Here’s the story behind it all, from how she discovered Xi’an and ZJ to how they eventually moved it to her hometown in New Jersey.

Have an “explosive” story you’d like to share with us? To learn more about getting your stuff published on Speaking of China, check out the submit a post page for details.


My first trip to China, in 2007, happened to be a three week intensive course abroad, a general education requirement instituted by Goucher College, my alma mater. Xi’an ended up being one of our destinations. Besides inspecting the soldiers at the Terracotta Warriors, bicycling around the Xi’an City Wall, and navigating the alleys of the Muslim Quarter, we met with an alumnus teaching at Xi’an International Studies University.

The city of Xi’an compelled me to return four years later to teach at Xi’an International Studies University. I’m a fairly indecisive person but I had made up my mind after listening to the alumnus’ anecdotes about his job, travels, and experiences. Meeting his students further cemented my longing to come back; they were inquisitive, interested in cultural exchange, American politics and exposing me to as much Chinese culture as several hours would allow.

Snapped at Delhi Darbar, our local Indian haunt, Summer 2013
Snapped at Delhi Darbar, our local Indian haunt, Summer 2013

Although I knew they would show us around their dorms, the campus, and give us small gifts, I was overwhelmed by their warmth, affection, and extroverted personalities. In many ways, they toppled every notion, or better yet, stereotype I read about Chinese students. We met students from universities in other cities during our travels, but XISU students left the deepest indent.

I also saw it as a one-year opportunity to do something outside-of-the-box before starting a career, although at that time I had little idea about what I’d be doing; I hadn’t even declared a major, still opting for that looming “Undecided” title. My parents thought I’d give up on the idea as I still had three years of schooling. They were supportive of the decision, also seeing it as a good opportunity, hoping I’d pick up the language and gain other valuable experiences that could propel whatever career path I chose forward.

In 2009-10, my final year at Goucher, I applied for a position at the university. Three months went by without a word, so I began applying for jobs in my chosen field in the Greater New York City area. A ray of sunshine appeared just a week before commencement…I had received an email from the university offering me a teaching position for the next academic year! When my college girlfriends offered their congratulatory sentiments, they also foreshadowed that 缘分, or fate would lead me to at least date, perhaps even settle down in China. I dismissed this as I didn’t really put much stock in fate.

Bicycling to the 798-like art district in Xi’an, Summer 2013
Bicycling to the 798-like art district in Xi’an, Summer 2013

I arrived in Xi’an in late August 2010, and luckily I had the first month of September free, as I had been assigned freshman. Freshman have mandatory military training, and four years ago, this lasted an entire month. I took this chance to meet up with a very good friend of my former private drum instructor and his Chinese wife. Lu Min Lu, I called her Daphney, helped me settle in and introduced me to the nightlife Xi’an offered. She took me to Park Qin, a bar frequented by Xi’an expats. ZJ worked at Park Qin.

The first time ZJ and I met, I insisted on getting his phone number on behalf of a British girl. I initially cut in for several reasons: I was looking for Chinese acquaintances who might become friends, most of my college friends were guys, he was easy to talk to and charming. I, of course, did all of this not knowing anything about Chinese dating culture, or that ZJ considered himself “traditional.”

After getting his phone number and exchanging texts, we agreed to meet up on his next day off. Shortly after that first meeting, I went back to Park Qin and spent hours talking to ZJ about movies, music, college, culture and more. We had a lot in common, he spoke directly, didn’t seem shy or introverted, much like the students I met in 2007, but I didn’t see this going in a romantic direction. The American girlfriends I emailed back home were elated: “I told you.”

ZJ and I in Xi’an, Chinese New Year 2013
ZJ and I in Xi’an, Chinese New Year 2013

It was about a month later that ZJ and I began dating. In the early stages of our relationship, we looked more like friends. We weren’t affectionate in public and our relationship remained a secret. In February 2011, I met ZJ’s parents during our Chinese New Year visit to his hometown. He prepared me very well for that first visit, explaining that to his parents, bringing a girl home, let alone a foreign one, meant to them we were serious.

I met his best friend from high school as well as extended family from both his mother’s and father’s side; I felt more comfortable than I initially thought in an environment so different from Xi’an and New Jersey. ZJ cared, translated and interpreted for me; his way to show affection manifested itself unlike any previous relationships. I liked the nuances, subtlety of it all, and more importantly, started to fall for him, and so upon returning to Xi’an, ZJ moved in with me.

After moving in together, we spent Western Valentine’s Day on the City Wall, visited the Shaanxi Botancial Gardensattended a professional soccer game at the sports stadium, and he attended Thanksgiving dinner I hosted with a friend. I went back to the US for the summer in 2011. Although we lived together, I worked during the day while ZJ slept after bartending into the wee hours of the morning. After 2012’s Chinese New Year, he decided to take a sabbatical from work.

We visited Baoji after the Chinese New Year to meet 大哥, ZJ’s eldest brother. The spring months of 2012, free from working in the evenings, we visited another campus infamous for their cherry blossomsday-tripped to Hanzhong with friendsspent July in Xi’an and backpacked through Thailand and Laos that summer. This trip tested our relationship, and looking back, foreshadowed some of the difficulties we now face.

The flowers ZJ procured by riding on a motorbike taxi in the pouring rain, at our engagement on June 8, 2013
The flowers ZJ procured by riding on a motorbike taxi in the pouring rain, at our engagement on June 8, 2013

When the holiday season approached, ZJ fostered my homesickness by taking me out for Peking duck on Christmas, a tradition commonly observed by Jewish-Americans. I went home for three weeks in January 2013; I wished he could have traveled with me, to meet my family and friends. I missed him when I went home for two months in 2011, staying in touch via Skype, however, those three weeks felt utterly painful. I enjoyed my time at home, but a sense of relief washed over me when I touched down in Xi’an a week or so before heading to his 老家 for Chinese New Year.

We had already started discussing getting engaged and this discussion was met with approval by 老爸, 老妈, 大哥和二哥. ZJ proposed to me on June 8, 2013. The timing of the ceremony, the set-up, and the ring were all a surprise to me. He told me we were celebrating his birthday; I saw this as slightly suspicious, but didn’t give it a second thought when he shot me down over WeChat when I asked if he planned to propose.

A collage put together by one of our foreign guests at the Chinese wedding ceremony, Feb. 5, 2014

We had a friend take engagement photos, stayed at the Sheraton North as a quasi-engagement honeymoon, biked to Xi’an’s new art district, and went to Beijing. We talked about when we would get married that summer: would we stay in China or move to the US?

We registered our marriage a year ago. In October, we took our wedding photos for the Chinese wedding ceremony. Because many of ZJ’s coworkers and friends wouldn’t be able to make the two and a half hour trip to his 老家, we hosted a wedding luncheon in Xi’an, receiving the customary red envelopes. A month or so after, we began researching the DCF process so that we could move to the US in the summer, setting the wedding for February 5.

We made it up Cangshan, Dali Feb. 2014
We made it up Cangshan, Dali Feb. 2014

I wore an ankle-length red gown, one of three dresses purchased on Taobao for the ceremony held in the countryside. I opted for a red princess-poofy gown, complete with fur-like trim, flowers, taffeta-like mesh, all in red. I changed into a red lace qipao in order to toast the guests, wearing it with a qipao-style top as a jacket in hopes of keeping out the cold. I even wore all red undergarments. My youngest sister made the trip from the US, served as pseudo-maid of honor, taking on my hair and makeupWe also had a few foreign colleagues from the university attend. 爸爸和妈妈 Zhang, my brothers and sisters-in-law ensured the shindig, a once-in-a-lifetime affair, could be watched over and over again (there’s a video!). We had a honeymoon of sorts, to Lijiang and Dali, and I say of sorts, because my sister and friends of ours tagged along.

We had traveled to Guangzhou for the petition in January and a couple of months after all the wedding excitement died down, we traveled back again for the medical and interview portions. ZJ didn’t pass on the spot, as we had to send additional documents. A week or two later, we had ZJ’s passport with the appropriate visa in hand. I couldn’t believe how relatively quickly and pain-free the process had been! More foreshadowing…

ZJ and I in Hanzhong, 2012
ZJ and I in Hanzhong, 2012

We’ve now been in the US for two and a half months. We live with my parents in the house I grew up in. I work part-time for Starbucks while I pursue other avenues. This is the first encounter ZJ’s had with my parents and friends, with the exception of my youngest sister, who also lives at home. He just received his social security number last week. When we went to the department of motor vehicles earlier in the week, they weren’t able to verify his status, meaning we have to wait before he can obtain his driver’s license. In other words, the ease we experienced during the DCF process meant more obstacles after landing stateside.

It’s not all bad news, though. I never imagined I’d be a 26 year-old “we”, returning from four years in Xi’an, and struggling to figure out what comes next. I would never take it back, or trade it in for an “easier life.” Much like the processes we’ve gone through in the last year: getting our red books, preparing for our Chinese ceremony, navigating the DCF process, prepared us for the ups and downs of a new life. I underestimated the adjustment moving to the US would be, but my husband never did.

Ringwood State Park in New Jersey, July 2014

This is why I love him. When I’m losing it, he remains calm, rational, and thoughtful. When I’m overly emotional, which is pretty much all of the time, he’s calculated and prepared to counteract my moodiness by jokes, sarcasm, or a story. He knows exactly when I need solitude, a hug or a kiss, encourages me to not only pursue my dreams, but to do so independently.

His sense of humor is infectious, and he’s grown into a more talkative, outwardly affectionate individual. He supports me in all my endeavors. Our marriage and relationship may not be conventional in the eyes of some, and we may be opposites, but I always foresaw, if I did marry, ending up with my “other half.” You see, I didn’t think I would marry, especially in my mid-20s, not because I don’t believe in the institution of marriage, but after a failed serious relationship in college, preferred to bask in dating solitude.

DSC_0024It’s laughable that there are Western women in China who write off Chinese men. I’d never dated or been attracted to Chinese men before, but I’m very attracted to my husband: appearance, intelligence, and personality-wise. If I had written them off, the handsome, caring man sitting to my right reading the local paper wouldn’t be in my life.

Marissa Kluger married her Chinese husband ZJ a year ago. They live in New Jersey. She reminisces about Xi’an and muses about life in the US at Xiananigans.


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37 Replies to “Double Happiness: How An American Woman Fell In Love With Xi’an (And One Special Guy)”

  1. What a beautiful story – an example of everything happening for a reason. I love how you asked him for his number and he offered it to you. I also met my husband (who is Taiwanese) at restaurant/dance club but when he asked me for my number, I flat out said ‘no.’ Luckily for me, he cleverly got my number and well, let’s say, I am happy that he did!

    I wish you all the happiness and everything works out for you in the States!

  2. What a beautiful post. It reminds me a lot of some of the things I’ve gone through with my husband. It’s a long road and isn’t always easy, but being married can be so wonderful and teaches us a lot about life and ourselves. It’s great that you have your husband to lean on and it sounds like you love each other a lot. As for moving back to the US, it’s a huge transition! It will get easier, but of course, there will always be highs and lows.

  3. Awwww, what a sweet story!
    Congratulations on the nuptials (though…well…late I guess) and also on getting your husband’s visa to the U.S. so easily. It’s a shame what came after was such a pain to deal with. Hopefully things will go more smoothly now he has a social security number. ^^
    (Also, your red wedding gown is fabulous! <3 )

    1. Thanks, Ri! That red wedding gown was so much fun to wear, albeit atypical of my style…as R Zhao mentioned there will be ups and downs but things will go more smoothly as long as we’re patient. 🙂

  4. I love this and realized I didn’t know as much about your story as I had thought! I didn’t know you first went to China with Goucher. ZJ has to be a real catch because 1) when my 5 year old Martin accidentally called you in Xian, ZJ was a real gentleman. And, please, anyone who wouldn’t flinch at commuting into NY for a book reading AND go on to take fabulous photos without being asked is a real keeper! I hope you kept all your wedding dresses! They’re great!

    1. Thanks, Susan! I never shared so much of our story as I wanted to do so after having finalized our move to the US and celebrating one year together. I always intended to reveal it here, thanks in part to how inspiring Jocelyn is 🙂 We bought them on Taobao so I could keep them, and it was difficult to find shops that sold dresses, especially in my size. Most Chinese brides rent dresses. My show-stopping dress is still at my in-laws in China 🙁

  5. @ Marissa.

    Wow! What a wonderful story! I was fascinated by the fact that you changed from not finding Chinese guys to be worthy of dating you for being unattractive to suddenly falling for one. Your experience is highly reminiscent of mine whereby when I as a younger Chinese man only wanted to date and marry a petite slim Chinese (or another Asian) girl because white girls were too big and fat for my liking, and then suddenly I changed to loving white girls now. I am now married to a white girl who is bigger and heavier than I am. People within my circle were initially shocked when they found out about my sudden and extraordinary reversal.

    Did anyone try to dissuade you from marrying a Chinese man?

    I am glad that your marriage is successful. I read Susan Blumger Kason’s book and she said that her Chinese parents-in-law in Hidden River advised her that so long as you two love each other you can conquer all obstacles. Even if the whole world is collapsing around you and you are living in poverty, you can still be happy if you and your spouse love and respect each other.

    I wish you and ZJ the best! Keep up the greatness.

    1. Frank,

      I wouldn’t use the word “worthy” to describe why I never dated Chinese guys before. I didn’t grow up in a very racially diverse community, and I wasn’t well-acquainted with any Asian Americans, let alone Chinese Americans.

      Of course people tried to dissuade me from marrying a Chinese man, but you can’t help who you fall in love with. I’ve generally cared very little about what others think. You could say I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum.

      I’ve heard similar sentiments from ZJ’s family in the countryside that as long as we love and respect each other, we can conquer everything. My parents’ sentiment, when we revealed to them on Skype a year ago we were going to register our marriage, my dad in particular, was that they were happy as long as I was, and as long as ZJ made me happy and treated me well.

      Thanks for your sentiments and we’ll do our best to continue being great! 🙂

  6. @ Marissa.

    Firstly, I am “Fred” and not “Frank.”

    Secondly, I am sorry for misquoting you when I used the words “not worthy” because I thought that was your intention. Now I understand that you were raised with very little Asian exposure and thus you did not find yourself attracted to the Asians due to the lack of exposure and not due to prejudice.

    Thirdly, you rock American white girl!!!!! Keep up the greatness.


    1. I’m so sorry, Fred!

      I hope I still rock! Thanks again for your comments. It’s great to hear from other AMWF couples 🙂 Jocelyn has done an upstanding job of creating a virtual place for us.

  7. @ Marissa.

    I am curious about one thing though. Jocelyn wrote that when she was in China, she encountered sexual harassment from some Chinese men because they viewed Western women as a bit promiscuous and thus some harassed her sexually. I was wondering did you encounter any incidents of sexual harassment and mistreatment based on this stereotype when you were living in China?


    1. Yes, Fred, I did experience incidents of harassment and mistreatment based on the promiscuity stereotype of Western women. Luckily, never anything life threatening, or I had my husband by my side. The harassment and mistreatment did hinder my desire to go out alone, and that’s a real shame.

  8. @ Marissa.

    Wow! It is shocking to read about men who resort to violence to secure a date with a woman. It is without wonder that the woman rejected him.

    I wish you well with your new Chinese husband.

    You rock, Marissa!!!!

  9. Hello!

    My name is Ella and I am thinking of going to university to study East Asian Cultures and Civilisations, and I really want to look into doing an Immersion programme to pick up a new language, possibly Mandarin or Korean. This may seem very random, and I can’t quite explain how I ended up on this website, but I just wanted to say that this is one of the loveliest things I have ever read! Please say hello to your husband for me, and hello to you of course, I hope you both are safe and well!

    I’m sure you will continue to be an inspiration to others through showing your love for each other, thank you so much for posting this!


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