Every year, there’s always a new bunch of Western women married to Chinese men who announce their plans to move to her country. But what happens after the plane ride is over, the luggage unpacked, and the honeymoon excitement of the move a distant memory?
White American Marissa, the writer and blogger behind Xiananigans, (you might remember her from her Double Happiness story published last year on this blog, How An American Woman Fell In Love With Xi’an (And One Special Guy)) moved back to her country over a year ago with her husband in tow. Here’s what she’s learned since then.
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“Why ever did you move home?” said a doctor I saw at a clinic last October. It is a question I am still grappling to answer.
I repatriated just over a year ago, saddling my husband into the whole affair.
Much has not changed since divulging our Double Happiness story. We live with my parents and youngest sister, both working in retail.
I also freelance write for an online hyperlocal, and do a particularly terrible job of keeping up on Xiananigans.
With the cons, come pros. Partaking in road trips, day trips to the beach, exploring New York City, Jersey City where a good friend lives, brunching, driving two hours for the sole purpose of purchasing ingredients for a home-cooked Chinese meal, pestering my father during his weekly grocery shopping trips, hiking and basking in summer’s glorious weather in local parks, a 散步 in the evenings, indulging in ice cream on a far too regular basis, getting outdoors by playing basketball, badminton, bike riding, going to the gym and building tolerance for intolerance.
So if you repatriated or plan to do so in the immediate future, I advise:
Starting your search before arriving, line up a job or consider industries outside your field. There are industries experiencing growth, particularly healthcare, education, and retail. There is a need for postsecondary teachers, office clerks, registered nurses, personal care aids, and customer service representatives, to name a few. I can say most, if not all, do not appeal to me, in the slightest, yet I am currently employed in one of the previously mentioned fields, freeing you to pursue other career interests, think moonlighting or freelance gigs, or perhaps work on your side hustle.
Living with your family, for the interim. If at all possible to reside with your parents, or extended family members, as my husband and I have done, then do so. Although not always ideal, we spend less, share evening meals, and cooking responsibilities, whether we put together Chinese or Western dinners, several times a week. Those who did not cook, help out by cleaning up. In hindsight, I suggest creating a written agreement of duties, including both parties’ expectations.
Staying connected to China, however you see fit. I read Chinese several times a week, picking up children’s books, written in Chinese, from the public library. The librarian bequeathed a stack of books to me, saying the library had no room or real need for them. Among them was Eric CarIe’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a children’s story I had a copy of and had my sister purchased for one of my nephews. I also read literature by Chinese authors, in translation of course, or books, fiction and nonfiction alike, interweaving China into their narratives. Keeping up with your spoken Chinese, even if, like me, you are merely conversational, proves as yet another way to stay connected. Talk to your in-laws, even if saying hello, how are you, and wishing them good health is all you can muster. Nag your husband to keep in touch with his family, friends, and acquaintances; it is easy and free to connect on WeChat. Watch Chinese films and TV shows together (we fawned over Jia Zhangke films and Hunan TV’s 爸爸去哪儿第三季…kudos to readers who uncover why 😉 ), partake in Chinese chess 象棋, mahjong 麻将, and Chinese card games. Find your area’s most authentic Chinese restaurant, frequent it, making sure to use the visit as a chance to practice Chinese with people other than your spouse.
Making new friends, but reconnecting with the “old.” Reach out to people you have not heard from in ages, believe me, they will be happy to hear from you. Finding new friends, particularly other repatriated individuals, helps build a stronger support system where you have those you can share your overseas experience with, and not nag the friends who do not wish to hear every minute detail recounted to them for the third time.
Be prepared to discuss politics, the weather, and make small talk. No one will ask you have you eaten “你吃了没有？／你吃了吗？” when you run into them, instead asking after your day, discussing the latest in political affairs, and complaining about today’s humidity, or lack thereof, peppers conversations here.
Ensure you can defend China, or deal with the inaccurate ramblings and representations smattered in the American media. China is a hot topic as of late in the American media (when is it not?), covering the explosion in Tianjin, the devaluing of the renminbi, the fluctuating stock markets in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong, and President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US slated for September. Inaccuracies, biases regarding China are too easy to find in print and online, leading even the most informed of Americans to rattle off their “informed” thoughts, telling you what China is like, even though they never lived, let alone visited there. When words like “backwards,” “Communist” accompany the phrases “I know, I read” there is no hope for that conversation to progress. Resort to jumping ship, neutralizing the topic, and return to domestic politics, where they can rant up a storm, and you can pretend to listen intently.
Patience, patience, and more patience. Embracing the mantra “Good things come to those who wait” will serve you well. Similarly, remaining optimistic in your search for a career and supporting each other, in all your endeavors, helps envisioning the light at the end of that proverbial tunnel. Do not forget to exude patience with your partner, as acculturating is far harder for them. In my case, ZJ proves thick skinned and unphased by intolerance. Stick up for your partner, regardless if the hate comes from relatives or strangers. And, slightly unrelated, be patient with your spouse’s language acquisition. I lucked out, as ZJ has very few language-related barriers, flaunting a unique blend of dry humor laced with sarcasm, snide (yet always polite!) commentary in the face of rude, intolerant, or unsavory proclamations. He does pick up some rather intriguing phrases from coworkers, “Oh my ‘lanta” replacing “OMG” until, thankfully, he retired it! 😉
And apologies for sounding too positive…let me return to my good old chastising self in the final piece of advice.
If you managed to internalize the friendly, complimentary offerings Chinese friends, students, and maybe even strangers bequeathed on you, perhaps commenting on your impeccable Chinese langauge skills, appearance, personality or competencies, then brace yourself to be labeled as “too sensitive.” Simply put, you may have received compliments, flattery of some kind, or even the opposite. Chinese people told you exactly how it is, as was the case with students who did not shy away from telling me I was a little fat, but not as fat as most Americans! I disliked this approach at first but eventually learned to appreciate this type of honesty. Americans tend to speak ill of an individual behind their back, and provide empty means of flattery when facing the person. Although well aware the compliments and flattery I received in China may have been as equally fake, the honesty I received from students, friends and acquaintances helped me project and blame others less, giving me a thick skin, but one thick enough for dealing with the Chinese way of bluntness. This so-called “thick skin” is thin here, where relatives perceived me as such. Moving back to America means readjusting the way you internalize the comments others make, so reinvest in learning to not care what people think. Easier said than done, but you can do it (is better said in Chinese 加油!)!
Marissa Kluger married her Chinese husband ZJ almost two years ago. They live in New Jersey. She occasionally reminisces about Xi’an and muses about life in the US at Xiananigans.