Sometimes the family you discover in China isn’t the family you married into. It’s the family you create through meaningful connections. That’s the story Josh and Liz of Career China have to share in this guest post.
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Swirling my chopsticks around in the giant pot of boiling oil and spices, I make a feeble attempt to snag a piece of thinly sliced beef floating about. Finally I catch one, but that’s the easy part. Now I must have confidence in my shaky chopstick skills to get it out of the pot and into my bowl of sauce, then into my mouth without dropping it on the table…or my shirt. After my success in this seemingly minor act, my husband and our Chinese hosts, CJ and Gigi, cheer and hold up their glasses of wine for a toast. “To good friends from around the world, China and the USA!” our new friend CJ proclaims. But for us, the relationship is more than just friends, it feels more like we have a Chinese family.
How Did We End Up In China?
My husband and I arrived in Guangzhou, China back in 2014. The previous year we had decided that we weren’t satisfied with our old lives in the United States, even though we had good jobs and a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. The two of us always had a passion for exploring the world, not just traveling and seeing the sights, but interacting with the local people and learning about the culture.
We realized that we weren’t fulfilling this passion with only a few weeks of vacation each year, so we made a plan to save up some money and then sell everything to hit the road for a while. Setting off in August 2014, we spent time in South East Asia as well as New Zealand before ending up back in Thailand for TEFL training (teaching English as a foreign language). Our plan was to be able to stay longer in a country by working as English teachers, that way we could really experience the culture more closely and for a longer period of time.
Shortly after finishing our month-long program, we began searching for teaching opportunities. Knowing that China has such a massive market for English learning, and such an interesting ancient culture, we set our sights on finding a job in China. And we were surprised how quickly it all happened — within a matter of weeks, we were flying to China!
Our “Chinese Family”
When we decided to move to China, we had absolutely no idea what to expect. And now as we look back on our time here, we can’t imagine not having our “Chinese family” in our lives. We were really fortunate to make good friends during our time in China, including Gigi and CJ, who are a Chinese couple that run an English school and have a little daughter. We also became great friends with another expat, Stephen, who is from England and had been living and working in China for many years; he has a Chinese wife, Wendy.
One of our fears about living in China was that we would feel isolated or lonely without close friends and family. But we’ve discovered that it has been the opposite. Our social calendars seem to always be full. And while we also had some other expat friends who were teaching in China also, we spent a significant part of our time with CJ, Gigi, Stephen and Wendy.
But it wasn’t only for fun. Our “Chinese Family” was there for us when we needed them. Whether it was helping to solve problems with our bank account, getting our internet upgraded in our apartment, or talking to the landlord to fix a wall. They would help translate and take us through the process. If we were sick, they brought us medicine and even food. And when I broke my foot, they were there to take me to the hospital for check-ups. They have been like family to us in just about every way!
Alike, But So Different…
Whenever we travel and meet people from around the world, it’s interesting to note the similarities and differences. In many ways, our “Chinese family” was just like us. Young couples who talked a lot about their futures and their dreams. They discussed their apartments and what they loved about them, and what they wished they could remodel. We all spoke fondly of our childhood and families, but also vented about frustrations with our parents.
But at the same time, we also came from very different backgrounds and had quite different family situations. With my husband and I both being from the States, we discovered just how fortunate we were to have fun-loving childhoods with minimal pressure. We also began to appreciate how we were able to choose on our own who we wanted to marry, without much input from our parents. But in Chinese culture, the parents are quite involved in match-making. And for our Chinese friends growing up, there was a lot more pressure on the children to do well in school and get good jobs.
Another area that we discovered a difference was in our desire to travel freely and not worry about having children. In fact, whenever people in China found out I was married, they would immediately ask about children. Not that they were intending to be rude, they were just curious how I could travel if I had kids. And when they found out I didn’t, they wanted to know why.
In China, children are expected almost immediately after marriage — and in the States, many people are happy to enjoy themselves with their new spouse for some time before they consider having kids. It’s also perfectly acceptable if people choose not to have children in the States, while that’s not really the case in China. If a couple is married for some time and don’t have kids, people will start to think something is wrong.
It was definitely eye-opening to chat with our Chinese friends about the subject of family structure and children. We could see that they wanted to make their parents happy, and that there were expectations of them when it came to having kids. While we didn’t feel like they were unhappy with these expectations, we could feel that there was maybe some pressure on them. Gigi and CJ were happy to have their daughter, but they were also planning to have a second child — and Gigi kept saying how she really was praying for a son, so she could make her husband happy. Personally, we know CJ would be happy with either a son or a daughter – he is a great father. But but deep down, we knew that there was a cultural aspect to this pressure to have a son too.
Oh the Memories!
Because of our “Chinese family” we were able to experience so many things that many other expats may not have been able to experience. For example, during Chinese holidays we felt like we got an inside scoop about the holiday from our friends, and were even be able to participate in special family activities. In fact, one of our best memories of our time China was during the Spring Festival holiday (Chinese New Year). We were invited over to Gigi & CJ’s apartment to cook homemade dumplings, which is an important tradition during the festival.
We made everything from scratch together, even mincing the meat with big cleavers! While the men chopped the meat with lighting speed, Gigi, Wendy and I were out on the large patio rolling the dough and chopping vegetables. Then we all handmade what seemed like hundreds of pork stuffed dumplings!
I discovered quickly that making dumplings is not as easy as it looks…in fact, mine were downright ugly! Our friends also told us how we needed to put little “surprises” in some of the dumplings for good luck, such as a big garlic clove or a pepper. Then if a person bites into it, they should have good luck in the next year!
It sounds like a fun little game, until later when you are eating them and somehow manage to be the only person not to find a “surprise” until you’ve eating about 15 dumplings and your stomach is about to explode! “Come on Lizzie,” Gigi told me “you have to eat another until you find one so you can have good luck next year!”
In addition to spending time with our friends over other holidays like the Dragon Boat Festival or Mid-Autumn festival, we also enjoyed having fun with them at sporting events. CJ was a huge football (soccer in the States) fan, and the local professional team, the Guangzhou Dragons, was actually one of the best in the country. So they purchased us tickets to go to a couple local games, where we all wore our jerseys and cheered loudly for the local team. We also enjoyed sporting our jerseys and playing football together in the park on pleasant evenings, or going to a local bar to watch the team play while having a few drinks.
Being a huge sports fan, my husband was really excited to have a local friend here in China who enjoyed sports just as much as him. And he was really excited to learn more about football and have a team to cheer for. Growing up in the US, he was more into American football, so he has definitely developed a new appreciation for the international football game that is so popular everywhere else in the world.
Bringing the World Together, With Open Hearts
We really couldn’t imagine our experience in China without our lovely local friends. From sharing their special holidays with us and letting us experience it with them, to making us feel at home, and even taking care of us when we needed them. It has been the ultimate cultural exchange, and something we never could have experienced if we didn’t take a risk to move to China to live for a while.
China has been great to us, and it’s not just our “Chinese family” — we’ve made so many other friends and met many other people who have touched our hearts. Never again will we see this country the same way. And that’s the point. To bring the world together by opening our hearts to each other and learning about one another.
Liz and her husband Josh have been living and traveling around Asia since 2014. Currently they split their time between the USA and China, working on their travel blog and assisting those who are interested in living and working in China through their project Career China.