Guest Post: “He Feels Horrible About Me Being The Breadwinner”

A few years back when I co-wrote an article titled Western Wives, Chinese Husbands (exploring what it’s like to date and marry Chinese men), we touched on the subject of money — specifically, that sometimes Western women end up being the breadwinner in the family.

I was reminded of that when I first read this post from Judith (who blogs in Dutch at Judith In China). She’s from the Netherlands and currently dating a Beijing local (who she considers her perfect match).  But, “Even though I don’t earn much at all, own a house or car, or have savings worth mentioning, I am much more economically stable than he will probably ever be.”

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Judith, the author, and her boyfriend.
Judith and her boyfriend.

I grew up in a middle-class family in a small town in the Netherlands. My two siblings and I basically had everything we could wish for. We went on modest holidays within the country once a year, got nice birthday gifts and our parents supported us throughout our studies. My boyfriend was born a one-child-policy son and grew up in Beijing’s hutongs. His parents are real lǎobǎixìng; his mother used to sell bus tickets and his father worked as the repair man for a large hotel. Although his parents cared for him much, they lived in one room without private sanitation. Some days all his father could afford for lunch was to share a pancake with his son.

Although our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different, we really are a perfect match.

I have been interested in Chinese language and culture since I was a little girl, and he has been crazy about Western music and culture since he first encountered it in Beijing’s early nineties. I have never had a preference for Asian men or an interest in the AMWF community, on the contrary: if you would have told me a few years ago that I would end up with a real Beijing boy I probably wouldn’t have believed you. When we met, my Chinese wasn’t that great and he didn’t speak much English, but we have been in a loving relationship for over five years now. He is very caring, makes me laugh, and makes me feel like the most beautiful girl on the planet despite being so much whiter, taller and larger than those cute Chinese girls. Most of all, he makes me feel safe.

There is one thing that keeps coming up in our relationship though. I wouldn’t call it a problem, but it is definitely something coming from our different backgrounds that will probably always linger right below the surface. Even though I don’t earn much at all, own a house or car, or have savings worth mentioning, I am much more economically stable than he will probably ever be. His attraction to Western music made him choose to become a professional musician. And although I really believe he is one of the most talented musicians in China and truly has the talent to make a stable income from his profession, it’s not easy in this industry and especially not in China.

When we met, my boyfriend was the member of a rather famous band, but he quit shortly after we became a couple. Since then he has been working on various projects on and off, some of which are more profitable than others. This means that his income was quite OK for the last two years. Although he didn’t earn millions he had frequent gigs, and combined with my stable salary I felt we were quite well off. This year however, there have been some changes in the projects he has been working on and he has barely made any money. At the same time we are looking to get married, but the only thing holding us back is not wanting to spend all my savings on an (even simple) wedding.

In some ways my boyfriend can be very traditional. As the man in the family, he feels horrible about me being the main breadwinner, and this year even supporting him to a certain extent. He doesn’t want to speak about it too much and doesn’t want to let me know how he feels, but I sense it more and more. I don’t mind sharing my income with him. We’re a team and should he one day become world famous I’m sure he would share his wealth with me just the same. But if I offer to buy him new clothes as a present, nicer lunches for him when we don’t eat together or suggest to go on a weekend trip, he says he doesn’t need it. He prefers to wear the same old shoes, eat a 10 kuai bowl of noodles for lunch and not travel much.

I feel this also has to do with a Western approach to finding a good balance between saving and enjoying your money, while he feels that we should not spend much until we’re in a better financial position. And then things such as marriage and buying a house would come first. Whereas I feel that although we shouldn’t spend all our money on an expensive holiday abroad, we can allow ourselves to enjoy an occasional weekend away within China, for example. He doesn’t want me to spend that kind of money for the both of us if he can’t contribute much or anything at all. Which means that I visit friends in other cities and he doesn’t join me, or that I go to a café to work while enjoying a latté and a sandwich while he just eats his bowl of noodles for lunch. He simply does not want to join me, even if I explicitly say I want him to.

I feel bad for him feeling this way, because I don’t see his financial situation as a problem. I fell in love with him because of the man he is, not because I thought that one day cash would come flowing in because of his profession and I wouldn’t have to worry about money anymore. I guess this is a very different perspective compared to many Chinese girls, as they often think in practical terms first when it comes to relationships (such as Ted highlighted in his excellent guest post on this blog titled “What I’ve Learned from 15 Blind Dates in China”).

I hope my boyfriend will someday get used to how I feel and that he can find a way to accept that his girlfriend’s income will probably always be more stable than his.

Judith lives and works in China and blogs about her daily life and the special things she encounters at (in Dutch).

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37 Replies to “Guest Post: “He Feels Horrible About Me Being The Breadwinner””

  1. Judith clearly loves his boyfriend. I am not sure there is a better solution other than him being more financially successful. The social pressure in China places a much higher burden on her boyfriend.

    I would suggest to act in a more Chinese fashion. Rather than talking about the issue with him, do small favors for him. It will require Judith to give up certain lifestyle for a while rather than wishing her boyfriend can change.

    You said your boyfriend makes you feel safe. You can do the same to make sure he feels you are there for him with or without money. The best way to show that is to go down at his level of life style unfortunately. Judith is right it will always be an issue in the relationship and marriage later. It might cause serious frictions in the marriage. I hope her boyfriend can be more successful financially.

  2. This is a really hard situation. I’d say it can be hard regardless of gender. I would not want a man I was dating (even seriously) paying for trip I couldn’t afford. But at the same time, you don’t want to feel like you are holding someone back from experiencing things you don’t have the money for.

    My husband also struggles with me being the breadwinner sometimes. We have long pooled our money together so I think it took away some of the feeling that I was paying for stuff that he didn’t have the money for. I’m not saying this is a good solution. It just happens to work for us.

  3. I wish i could meet some western girls in Beijing as well, I make pretty decent and stable incomes, but just not happening on me to find a girl like any cases above.. since my living and working envrioments are purely Chinese. back to the point, I do find many western women likes to hanging out bars, and clubs in Beijing, where there are too many underground chinese bands play whatever muisc, making music in China, aren’t that easy since you are not mainstreams, don’t have connections with mainstream medias or any business, so its gonna have bad ends, so I am not diss your bf’s dream, but he needs to do the reality check, also, by what you wrote, i sense crisis for your realtionships, once chinese man lose his confidence he might ask for ending up the relationships, if he becomes more emtionally unstable, then you maybe put more attentions on. 5 years realtionship is just a number, so its hard path from now on , I hope you guys good luck.

  4. I can understand where she is coming from. I am the breadwinner in my relationship with my Tibetan husband at the moment and I am lucky that he doesn’t mind at all. In fact, he is the one who stays at home and takes care of our daughter while I am at work all day. But I recognize that this is a rare reaction to this kind of situation.

    One thing that tends to be true in China is that the foreign one in the relationship often seems to have a higher earning potential than the local one. It is something that the local person should and probably does recognize when they get into a relationship with a foreigner (and I am sure a lot of them do so primarily for that reason).

    I know it is hard to accept this situation for a lot of people, and I wouldn’t want him to flip the other way and be happy to piggyback on his girlfriends’ generosity, but if he could change his attitude a bit, and say…look at it like, at this particular time the financial stuff is falling on her, and later it might change and he might become the breadwinner, then it might be easier to bear. We don’t know what the future holds. Relationships are about give and take.

    I hope this situation improves for them soon.

  5. Many females feel secure and happy if their mates make more than themself.

    Many males feel insecure and depressed if they can not out-earn their mates.

    You wonder why many female hollyweed stars dumped their average Joe ex-husband once they became wealthier than their husbands, e.g. dixie chicks, jennifer lopez.

    One of my colleagues (who makes six figure income) is about divorcing her average Joe husband right now. They are both white. No racial factor here.

  6. @Kimberly

    Certainly there is culture component in this kind of situation. In Africa culture, men never feel shame if their women provide every thing.

    In Western and traditional oriental culture, men feel incredible shame if they do not provide for their women. No wonder these culures are also very aggressive in wealth building.

    A lot of ethnic minorities in China do not have such strong cultural urge to be wealthy men.

    This is product of cultural expectation over thousands years of evolution.

  7. @ Judith

    It is so sad to hear that Chinese men are raised with the belief that he cannot feel fully confident in himself if he cannot provide for the wife while the wife is providing for the family. I encountered this mentality when I tried to set my Chinese nephew up in Hong Kong with 4 white American girls one time. Yew (my Chinese cousin in H.K.) was not able to muster the confidence to go with the girls because he did not have sufficient wealth in his mind.

    I feel bad for you, Judith. I think your relationship is decaying more and more as your husband is shunning you more and more as seen by the fact that he chose not to places with you. You will have to do something to uplift his spirits, or otherwise one day you two may break up.

    Good luck to you both.


    1. In the Chinese and other East Asian cultures, it is the man who will break up under those circumstances…in the western culture, the woman will get sick and tired of the boyfriend not making more and will initiate the break-up. However, back in China in most cases Chinese national men will be paid local salaries while the women will be paid the expat salaries for exactly the same job. In some coutries, the differential is as high as ten times….that may be one of the main reasons besides stereotypes and racism that we see more WMAW couples than AMWW couples…in a place like china, WW and WM make much more than the local AM AW or even a western national AM AW for exactly the same job although in the case of the latter the differential may be only one and a half to two fold.

    2. Fred, thanks for your thoughts. I think Judith’s relationship is actually fine; she just wanted to share her feelings about the financial side of things. It’s a common scenario for a lot of foreign women here in China dating or married to locals, as many of the commenters have expressed, and doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship is doomed.

  8. I sympathize with Judith and have been there, complete with the Chinese musician husband who didn’t earn much at all for a couple of years during our marriage. Judith sounds very supportive, down to earth, and understanding. I don’t think there’s anything else she should do. Her boyfriend could find a part-time job like teaching music to find fulfillment and even earn a little money so he feels more secure. This should be his responsibility, not hers.

  9. I had a morning chat with T about this post.
    We talked about how he feels about it, how we would like it to be..etc.
    Till now our situation is similar to yours, we discussed many times how easier it would be if we coud have one bank account with two names, two cards and we both could take money out of it from the atm.
    That wouldn´t change the fact that one salary is higher than the other but would change the way we access the family money. One step at a time.
    Does he wish to be the breadwinner? Yes
    Is he angry till now my salary is the one sustaining us? He is not angry, but he would like to take some responsibility out of my shoulders because somtimes it can be too much.
    Do I care my salary is higher? I don´t care. With this I mean I am not angry, but I do care in other ways. I am the woman in the relationship and we want to be parents some day in the future, knowing that nowadays many companies find ways to get rid of pregnant women. If I get pregnant and thats the case..then that would be bad. If I get pregnant and still have so much financial responsibility then that could totally have an impact on health during pregnancy.

    I think about it in a different way, we are lucky, we are lucky one of us has a higher salary, in other families the two spouses have low salaries. In ours, we can buy a bike to our nephews, we can go out for dinner, we can invest a little here and there and go back home when we have time. All the money goes to the same pot, but we still wish some day he can bring more money so I can take my decisions with more freedom and stress free.

    Go for that vacation, enjoy your relationship, and have fun. Play music, and tell him he is lucky he is a musician. Some of us wish we could have learned his skills.

  10. Many females of all cultures will say the same thing…that they dont mind being the breadwinner. However, mostly it does not work out in the end whether it is an interracial relationship or not, with the exception of one community, the Filipinas. Eventually, the female will get fed up of the male not making enough or simply staying home and spunging of her, tensions will increase and it will break up. I have seen this happen even when single brother and sister are living in the same apartment or for that matter two sisters sharing an apartment, one earning much more than the other.

  11. Communication is an important part of any relationship. cross-cultural or not.
    If your partner, male or female, refuses to talk about important issues (in a mature non-confrontational manner), then it is a time to cut your losses and move on. If the other person involved does not want to confront and deal with a fundamental aspect of the relationship, especially after it going on for some time, there is little indication that things are going to change.

    Judith sounds like she is supportive and is trying her best to talk about what could be an on-going issue, but is receiving the classic “you think too much”, “you don’t understand” type answer.

    It is always devastating to be faced such a choice in a relationship where so much has been invested emotionally and in time, but there is a point where Judith has to make a decision for her own happiness.
    Is sounds selfish, but to sometimes when the other person stone-walls all the time, there are only so many concessions that can be made by one person.

  12. @Jacelyn well Thanks , finally you gave me a feedback once. Lolz

    From this topic, there is always a something right up in my head, which is for many western women who have realtionships with Chinese men, most cases are their Chinese boyfriends, or husbands are rather than famous or rich, but more likely are ordinary guys who don’t earn much, meantime, there are many sucessful Chinese men out there in the society, even people diss on some of riches, beacuse they are having rich dads, or powerful fathers, then make them wealthy enough to live rest of their lives. for this group of Chinese men are rarely having any realtionships with western females… this phenomenon got me thinking…… would most western females in cross cultural realtionship turely sacrifice themselves for your love ones, hanging on there and living in a tough life ? or they would eventually give up the loves beacuse of the curel reality? I guess only time can tell…….

  13. I have to ask, but is it a personal thing or a cultural thing if a Chinese guy doesn’t want to celebrate holidays because he doesn’t have a job?

  14. My comment isn’t intended to address the guest post specifically, but situations in general in which the Chinese man in the relationship feels insecure about his Western (read: white) partner’s higher earning capacity.

    It would help to remember that more often than not, the reason that the Western partner is able to earn what she does has nothing to do with her actual ability or talent — it’s simply because she’s white and thus receives preferential treatment in China (and much of East Asia). One might think it’s unfair, but that’s just the way things are… Blame it on a combination of internalised racism on the part of the Chinese and an inflated sense of entitlement on the part of Westerners.

  15. @D-Maybe…Exactly a situation we encountered in my international organization a few weeks ago. Chinese guy married to a western (American) woman, both with a PhD from Cal Berkeley and he had published more than her..both are well-known..he has more experience than her..four years ahead of her..however, he earned a lot less than her in China..local salary and she earned a lot more…western expat salary in the same university…heaven knows how their marriage survived…they apply here, and because of his salary history they tried to screw him over…luckily it was all settled and now he earns about the same as her.

  16. Get out of that relationship.This lady will suffer with him.Better be practical than emotional.Why can’t he make extra income rather whine about his earnings.China is growing rapidly at rate of 5.7 percent.World’s second largest economy.Manufacturing hub for entire world.Getting jobs should not be problem.If he can’t, is just a loser.

  17. @Sandeep,

    I think whether China is the 2nd largest economy on the planet is totally irrelevant to the discussion. Even if Judith boyfriend secured a job in manufacturing it would not guarantee a decent salary. Just see what the situations are for the large contingent of around half a million underpaid workers in Foxconn factories in mainland China. You don’t want Judith’s boyfriend to be one of them, I bet.

    Second, I do wish Judith and her boyfriend the best of luck – we already know the story of Ang Lee and his wife when Ang Lee stayed at home doing housework for six years before his Hollywood career took off and never in a moment did his wife want Ang Lee to learn programming so that he could also support the family with an IT job. Ang Lee seems very grateful to his wife and later in an interview he mentioned had it not been his wife’s encouragement, he would have done seppuku during the difficult years. And certainly we would have not been able to have dramatised Sense and Sensibility or Brokeback Mountain if Ang Lee became a stockbroker.

    1. @Luc

      1. Underpaid ? depends on what kind of work you are doing. Is there an added value to your work that merits higher pay ? There are a lot of employee benefits at Foxxconn. A lot of people want to work for Foxxconn.
      Don’t believe propaganda in Western media.

      1. Ann Lee example is quite irrelevant, unless her boyfriend is talented.

  18. Such a bittersweet post. I loved all the love, but my heart kinda broke when she wrote about him insisting he was fine eating cheap noodles and wearing old shoes. I wonder how much is cultural, and how much is biological “male caveman bring meat!?”

    My Chinese-American guy is the opposite of Judith’s boyfriend. He was raised under a China-born patriarch, but his mother also worked, albeit for less pay. My guy would looooove for me to make all the money while he stayed home and cooked and went shopping. (Forget the cleaning, though. I’d have to hire someone.) But he makes more money than I do, and he’s not comfortable taking a financial risk.

    Perhaps it’s less about who makes the money and more about monetary savings/ security for Judith’s boyfriend?

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