What if my mother could have seen me in China? What if she could have met my Chinese husband John?
The question taunted me a few months back when I encountered this post by Susan Blumberg-Kason (my friend and author of Good Chinese Wife), recounting one time when her mother and father flew to Hong Kong to spend time with her. This was a regular thing for Susan’s parents, who loved to travel and longed to see their daughter more often than her occasional jaunts back to her hometown of Chicago. My heart ached as I scrolled through photos of her mom and dad smiling at the camera, knowing I could never have posted pics of my parents together in China.
After all, my mother had passed away long before I first boarded that Air China flight in 1999 headed straight for Beijing.
A pained expression flashed across my face as I recalled 1994, the same year my mother lost her battle with a late-stage skin cancer that had aggressively metastasized all over her body.
Weeks before she passed away, she gifted me with an Audubon guide to the Eastern birds of North America – a reflection of my career aspirations at the time, the hope that I would one day become an ornithologist. I spent huge chunks of my summers chasing after warblers, swifts and ospreys with a pair of binoculars, and dreamed that I might earn a PhD one day from Cornell, which housed America’s preeminent laboratory of ornithology. Even though I studied a foreign language, it was Spanish – and I viewed it as little more than fulfilling a requirement to graduate. I only wrote poetry or in my trusted journal, where I felt freer to pour my heart out than with anyone else. And when it came to my adolescent love life at the time, I dated a string of gangly, shy white guys – never daring to kiss outside my own race.
In short, my mother carried a very different image of me to her grave.
How did I end up in China? That’s a long story in itself – but suffice to say, I arrived in this country knowing hardly a phrase in Mandarin and little about the culture or history, never expecting I’d find a new career, a husband and a future for myself. I never expected I’d shed away much of the girl my mother once knew, turning into a completely different woman.
My greatest regret is that my mother will never be able to meet the person I am here in China – or, for that matter, to meet my husband John. Second to that, it saddens me to think that she’ll never be able to read my blog or anything else I’ve written – from the articles I’ve published elsewhere to essays I’ve contributed to two anthologies. What would she think of my decision to be a writer? How would she react when hearing me chortling away in Mandarin? Most of all, would she love my husband John? Would she see the same indomitable spirit in him that made me want to marry him?
I’ll never know the answers. And sometimes, when I contemplate these questions, I can fall into a melancholy funk, even crying. It’s funny that so much time has passed and yet, at times, it can feel as if my mother died just yesterday.
In light of all of that, here’s the strangest thing – I also don’t know who I would have become, had my mother not passed away.
Before her death, fear was my almost constant companion whenever I ventured into foreign settings. (I famously cried quite a lot during a high school trip to Spain without my parents, and I swear that were it not for the really caring teacher in charge of us, I never would have survived the entire journey.) I was such a homebody back then, so completely attached to my parents…and especially, to my mother. Deep down, I realize that her passing forced upon me one of the scariest things a young girl could ever face – and as a result, the fears I once had about living far from my parents and home eventually fell away. Without that experience, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to leave my own country for one I barely even knew.
A fortune teller in Taiwan once advised me that I had the ability to turn the bad things in life into something better. Was my unlikely detour towards China in the years following my mother’s death yet another example of this?
On this coming Mother’s Day, I’ll once again remember my own mother. And I know that, as much as I wish she could have been here to see me now, she’s still shaping the person I am in subtle and yet remarkable ways. That the legacy of being loved so deeply by a mother never really ends, even when the direction of my life takes me to places she never could have imagined.
Sometimes, when I think about how I grew up in a very average, very white, very Midwestern suburb in the US, never dreaming that I would eventually find my future husband and a totally new life in China, it blows my mind that here I am in Hangzhou. And yet, at the same time I firmly believe (like many of my husband’s friends) that destiny had a role — that somehow, this was all meant to be.
That’s why I love this guest post from Constance, who blogs at Foreign Sanctuary and writes today about how her unlikely journey to Taiwan (where she met her Taiwanese husband) was anything but an accident. (Enjoy the striking photos as well, a delightful sampling of Constance’s own photography.)
If someone had to tell me twenty years ago that I would be living in Taiwan and married to a Taiwanese man, I would have laughed in their face and then, well, I would have probably grabbed my atlas, turned to Asia, and then tried to find the location of where most of my childhood toys were made. Yes, that was probably the extent of my knowledge of Taiwan when I was little – a far away place where people hammered and sewed and assembled the toys that I played with and then stamped ‘Made in Taiwan’ somewhere on the box or toy.
Fast forward to now and I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. If it wasn’t for that casual conversation with friends over a glass (or two) of wine one cold night in January of 1999, I would have never considered teaching in Asia.The thought never, ever crossed my mind until that point in time.
My fortitude and tenacity was tested to the max when it took me nearly an entire week to get to Taiwan, a nightmare that I recently relived while writing my book. I thought about giving up on my dream to move to Asia so many times that week and if it wasn’t for my recruiter, who gave me the extra reassurance that everything was going to be OK, I probably would be in living and working somewhere in Canada right now.
My thirst for adventure and for experiencing new things led me to sign a third contract at the school where I worked at, which extended my time in Taiwan for one more year. And if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have been out celebrating with a group of friends the night my husband literally danced into my life. However, if it wasn’t for his quick thinking and cleverness, he would have not gotten my number that night and we would not be together right now.
Four years later, my husband and I decided to get married. I always knew he was one (nearly) right from the beginning. We shared the same interests such as travel, we had so much fun together, and he always gave me ‘that feeling’ which never dwindled with time. When the newness of the relationship wore off, the feeling of ‘puppy love’ was still there. I was and still am a better person because of him. He is an optimist who dares me to take chances and to dream bigger. I am a realist who keeps him grounded (with regards to certain things). We complement each other. We are better people because of our relationship and each other. We may have grown up on different sides of the world but that makes life interesting.
On June 10, 2005, four years to the exact date that we met, we got married at the court.According to the lunar calendar, it was a perfect day. Probably too perfect! It was definitely a wedding to remember, all for the wrong reasons. Luckily, we had our Canadian church wedding and reception a few months later which was perfect – well, except for me putting the ring on the wrong finger. Plus, we had our reception in Taiwan where we celebrated with our closest friends.
Then, we come to the house which we actually purchased three months prior to completion. If it wasn’t for a series of events, this house that we bought over five year ago wouldn’t have been ours. It was the first house we looked at. My husband knew it was the one but I wanted to look at more. It was actually purchased by our neighbor who opted to buy another one. And if it wasn’t been for the poor state of the economy at the time, it would have been sold immediately at a higher price. The house was meant to be ours.
Which brings me to now! If it wasn’t for that heartbreaking news that shook me to the core and tested my hope and strength two years ago this month, but had a happy ending, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. That incident reminds me each and every day of all the good in my life and to appreciate the now, the present!
That is why I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.
Constance is a Canadian expat who currently calls Taiwan home. She blogs about her travel experiences as well as her personal reflections about expat and married life on her blog, Foreign Sanctuary. Photography is one of her passions and she shares photos from her [Photographing 2015] project daily on her Facebook page. She is also an aspiring writer with a memoir in the works.
I wrote last week about how marriage changes you – especially when you’re in an international or cross-cultural relationship — and shared 4 habits I’ve learned from my Chinese husband. But I’m not the only one who has picked up a few new habits from my foreign spouse.
What has my husband learned from his white American wife after over 10 years of marriage? Here are 5 examples of his new habits (my personal favorites!):
In the first month or so when I was dating John, I totally stressed over a small – but to me, not unimportant – thing. Here was this guy who had moved in with me and taken care of me in so many ways, far beyond anyone else I had ever met. And yet, he hadn’t really told me those three simple words: “I love you”.
Eventually, he did say it to me when we were standing on a mountaintop (and I was in ridiculous tears about it all). He really seemed to understand, beyond all of my expectations. He even told me it wasn’t silly at all for me to ask him if he could tell me I loved him (which is how it all started).
Anyhow, that was the first time when he learned just how much those three little words meant to me. So much that I showered him with “I love you” in all the usual ways couples in America do. At the end of phone conversations and e-mails, in text messages, when I kissed him and told him good night. Gradually, the idea that his girlfriend, and later, wife, liked hearing it turned “I love you” into a regular and frequent thing from John’s lips.
“You’ve never had chocolate before?” It was early in my relationship with John when I learned the shocking truth. He had never tasted this most ambrosial of all sweets.
So before Christmas, I bought a generous package of Dove dark chocolates and stuffed them into a stocking I prepared for John. Never did I realize that the moment he popped one of them in his mouth, he had found his second true love in life (the first, of course, being me!).
In that moment, a chocoholic was born. (It’s ironic that it happened with a guy who recalls eating carrots as a child to satisfy his sweet tooth).
My parents, of course, only indulged the habit when we moved to America, plying my husband with the stuff at pretty much every holiday.
So you can guess what was under our tree this past Christmas – and whose eyes sparkled the brightest when that dark, delicious goodness was unwrapped from its foil. Mmmm.
3. Drinking coffee
It all started when John and I were living with my parents after moving to America. John is the kind of guy who needs hefty servings of caffeine to get through the day. In China, he always got his fix from black teas or oolong teas (the nice loose leaf varieties that he introduced to me). But my parents don’t do loose leaf tea and, as you can imagine, he never particularly liked anything that came in a teabag.
What my parents did have, however, was coffee. Lots of coffee. They had a brand-new coffeemaker, their own coffee bean grinder, and a tantalizing selection of fine blends, from Sumatran to Italian Roast. “Hey, do you want to try some coffee, John?” my dad asked him one day. So when in America, John figured, do as the Americans (or in this case, his wife’s American parents) do.
He took that first tentative sip, followed by a contented “Ahhhhh!” Not long after, the caffeine kicked in (strong!) and he knew he had solved his caffeine problem in America for good.
He’s been a pretty steady coffee drinker ever since and, after discovering the bold and rich flavor of Starbucks’ Sumatran brand, still swears by Starbucks coffee (and savors the occasional soy latte from our local branch).
Sometimes I can’t believe how much coffee – or, for that matter, caffeine – my husband drinks! He may be shorter than me, but he stands head and shoulders above me when it comes to his caffeine tolerance.
4. Silly dancing in the privacy of our home
The other day, I was playing some upbeat tunes on my phone – you know, the kind of music that’s so fun you can’t help but swing your hips to it. All of a sudden, my husband got up out of his chair, started mimicking the tune (off-key!) and then turned around to shake his butt. He laughed (because he knows how hilarious he looks when he does this) and I couldn’t help but return the laughter…all the while knowing that I had a hand in much of this.
John didn’t grow up spontaneously jumping up and dancing to a great tune. And I’ve spent enough time in his family home to know that his parents and relatives don’t really do this either. But it’s the kind of thing I do all the time when I’m inspired to move by a great tune.
I can’t remember exactly when I first did this in front of him, but I’m certain he was the one laughing at me (and perhaps wondering what in the heck I was doing). But after years of being together – and even watching all of those American movies where other people would bop to a beat at the spur of the moment – he realized it was a part of who I was. And learned that it could be fun too.
So every time he shakes his butt to a tune (and giggles about it), I can’t help but giggle along with him, knowing that he’s embraced something that’s a part of me.
5. Using a heated mattress pad to stay warm in bed
The first time I ever stayed at John’s family home years ago, his mother handed me only one thick comforter to make it through the winter’s night in their drafty, unheated house. Being used to lots of covers on my bed and a warm heating vent somewhere near the floor, it was such a shock to my body that I caught quite the cold before leaving.
At the time, John, my then boyfriend and now husband, was stunned. I can’t remember his exact words, but they went something along the lines of, “You weren’t warm enough?”
Growing up, he and his family never used more than a comforter on their beds to sleep through the winter. And of course, they never, ever thought of using things like a heated electric mattress pad to stay warm and cozy.
You can imagine, then, that John and I struggled for a period of time when it came to sharing a bed together – with me trying to pile on the covers (and anything else to help stay warm) and him complaining he felt too hot.
Well, we eventually moved to America for a time and during our first Christmas there, my parents gave us an electric blanket. When we brought the electric blanket home, John surprised me by letting me plug it in for the night. And then he further surprised me when, after crawling into bed (a nice, toasty warm bed like nothing before), he couldn’t stop smiling and telling me how great it was.
The last thing I ever expected was for the one-comforter guy to suddenly love electric blankets.
We’ve since owned electric blankets and electric mattress pads, and he’s become a huge fan. How huge? Whenever he slides under the covers of our own bed – heated by a electric mattress pad – he always laughs with delight over how nice it is to have a “snug bed.”
Everyone always say marriage changes you. Well, when you marry someone from another culture and country – like I have – you’re bound to change in ways you never would have expected growing up, picking up some of your foreign spouse’s new habits.
What habits have I learned from living all these years with John, my Chinese husband? Here are four of my favorites:
Some of my fondest childhood memories include watching my mother bob her teabag up and down in her cup before taking a sip. She introduced me to Orange Pekoe, Earl Grey, chamomile, peppermint and many other fine brews, the tea leaves or herbal blends always neatly wrapped in permeable bags. After all, who would want stray leaves floating around in your a teacup?
Or so I thought, until I arrived in China.
I’ll never forget the first time someone thrust a paper cup of hot steaming tea into my hands, the tea leaves drifting around without a single thing to keep them in place. I stared awkwardly at it, wondering how in the world I was going to drink without swallowing a leaf or having one end up plastered to my front teeth. Could anyone enjoy a cup of tea this way?
Years later, when John moved into my heart and life, he brought along his joy of drinking loose-leaf green tea. You might say it’s in his DNA – he is, after all, from Hangzhou, an area renowned for its world-famous Dragonwell. He never had a filter stand between him and his green tea leaves, and loved it. And, ultimately, he’s the one who helped me learn how to navigate a hot cup of the brew with loose leaves. (It’s a must-have skill in China, where people are always welcoming me with hot cups of loose-leaf tea everywhere I go!)
Now, his habits for drinking green tea (letting the tea sit a few minutes so the leaves begin falling to the bottom, blowing on the surface before taking a sip to keep the leaves away from your lips) have become a daily morning ritual for me. And a real pleasure, because the finest of these teas have complex, nuanced flavors that probably you’ll never enjoy from anything in a teabag.
Using toilet seat covers
It was early in my relationship with John and we were out shopping in Watson’s, a health and beauty care store that’s so ultra-feminine I swear it repels men with its teal signage and bright pink tags all over the store. John came along with me because it was a weekend and shopping together was one of those things we liked to do (even if it meant bringing John into a store he wouldn’t normally visit without me).
So there I was, going through my long list of Watson’s must-haves (including their luxurious papaya-scented body creams), expecting John to just tag along for the ride, when the sight of one simple product made his eyes shine like two silvery 1 yuan coins.
Toilet seat covers.
“We need one of these,” he said. And he was all serious about it, sifting through the packages and many color options (most of them, admittedly, in pastels like baby blue and powder pink).
I was totally stunned. My family never used fabric toilet seat covers, and the few times I actually saw them (usually in an elderly woman’s home, along with lots of other cutesy décor) made me believe that guys usually ran screaming from the idea of putting one on your toilet.
What I didn’t realize, however, was that John had an incredibly smart reason for buying one – to protect our behinds from the shock an extremely cold toilet seat in the cold. After all, we didn’t have heat in our apartment (like most people in China who live South of the Yangtze River), which did actually make the toilet seat pretty frigid (especially at night).
Admittedly, he was also trying to be a gentleman in suggesting a toilet seat cover. Maybe it’s not a typical Hallmark moment, but worrying about your girlfriend’s butt getting too cold when she pees at night is one way to say “I love you” (albeit an unusual one).
So we bought one (in a pastel color – they were all pastels, so what can you do?) and later that night when nature called, that little piece of fabric between the cold seat and my behind made a big difference. I was hooked.
We’ve been buying toilet seat covers here in China ever since, to the point that now I’m the one reminding him we need one!
Of course, last time we shopped for toilet seat covers, John couldn’t help being the gentleman. He refused my suggestion choose the cheaper brand and instead told me to buy the one with the velvety cushion (pictured above). “It’s more comfortable for your butt,” he said. (Nothing but the best for his wife, right down to her behind! 😉 )
Having soup with fried rice
Fried rice always struck me as a perfect meal in itself. Who needs anything else?
Or so I thought, until I met John. I’ll never forget that first time I prepared fried rice for him, when he requested a very specific thing on the side. A bowl of soup.
“Why do we need soup?” I was so tired and desperately hungry that evening, the last thing I wanted to do was fix something else in the kitchen.
“Because fried rice is too dry.”
It never before occurred to me that fried rice could be considered dry. That a side of soup might just balance out the meal in a way I never imagined.
That night, I dug out some instant soup from the cabinet and John was all smiles. Over the years, I kept serving it every time fried rice was on the menu, always to please John. Never did I think that, in the end, I’d come to think that fried rice and soup was one of the best combinations ever.
That’s why, last time we had fried rice for dinner, I was already pulling out the soup before the meal even hit the table. There’s something about the flavor of a nice hot soup (especially miso) that makes fried rice even more delicious.
Wearing slippers inside the house
When I was growing up in America, we weren’t super-strict about taking our shoes off at the door. I often wandered upstairs still wearing my flats or sneakers and we almost never asked our guests to remove their shoes either (unless it was wintertime, where everybody’s boots were caked in wet snow). And when we weren’t wearing shoes, we opted for socks or went barefoot. In fact, I didn’t really use slippers much until I went off to college, and even then they were just your standard flip-flops for showering in the bathroom down the hall.
All that has changed since I married John. He’s from China and, like most people here, grew up with the habit of removing his shoes at the door and changing into a pair of indoor slippers or flip-flops. He likes this, because it keeps the outside dirt from coming into the house – a perfectly reasonable thing to do. (This, off course, makes me cringe a little when I think about all of the dirt I must have tracked around my family home!)
So now I’m an indoor slipper girl who owns multiple pairs of them. Soft, fuzzy slippers with woolen linings for the wintertime, and airy plastic flip-flops for showering and bumming around the house for the rest of the year.
Removing my shoes at the door has practically become second nature to me; I don’t even think about it and I never, ever ask, “Should I remove my shoes?” (which I used to do in America).
I’ve also become strangely adept at landing my feet perfectly into my slippers whenever I get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Don’t ask me how I know exactly where they are – call it slipper intuition. 😉
What habits have you learned from your husband/wife or boyfriend/girlfriend?
In her post, Shannon writes about her own marriage to a half Chinese (from Hong Kong) and half British man she first met while studying abroad in London. She also shares an excerpt about how they first fell in love from her new memoir Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong (Blacksmith Books), which details that life-changing year she lived in Hong Kong while managing a long-distance relationship with him. It’s a beautifully written story about how far people will go for love — and the unexpected joys life can bring us when things don’t work out as planned.
My husband is half Chinese (from Hong Kong) and half British, and I am an American. Sometimes this means we connect easily, thanks to his Western side. He’s a native English speaker, and we share a common cultural language: American movies, Harry Potter, an independent streak, an appreciation for British humor.
He looks more like his English father, so he can easily pass for a Westerner — until he starts speaking Cantonese. We live in Hong Kong, and it’s always fun when my husband speaks Cantonese to shopkeepers, taxi drivers and acquaintances for the first time. We’ve had countless variations on the scene:
The man at the goldfish market explains something to us in tentative English.
My husband asks a clarifying question in Cantonese.
The goldfish seller stares at my husband’s Western features for a moment, then laughs and unleashes a string of compliments about his fluency.
My husband explains that, yes, he is half English and half Chinese (I understand this part).
The goldfish seller and my husband chat for a few minutes in Cantonese (I don’t understand this part).
Because he seems so Western at first, both culturally and in appearance, my husband’s Chinese side can come as a surprise. He has a strong sense of filial responsibility. He was raised in a Hong Kong family where the only acceptable career choices were doctor, banker or lawyer. He followed the common Hong Kong practice of living with his parents until our marriage (not counting the ten years he spent on his own in the UK). He has an all-consuming passion for good food: he cooks; he talks about restaurants a lot; he has strong opinions about frying pans and the right way to prepare instant noodles. This can be hard to match for an American girl who grew up on Kraft mac’n’cheese and weekly backyard barbecues.
On the other hand, I care more about saving face than he does. He worries that I’m too concerned about being embarrassed. He’s very good at having frank discussions and urging me to talk through problems until they’re resolved. It’s a quality that’s all his own.
Living at the intersection of two cultures has made him the perfect candidate for our multicultural relationship. He is good at compromise — a nonnegotiable part of mixed marriages — and at seeing things from different points of view. I’ve learned a lot from him.
As we settle into our second year of marriage, I wonder which parts of myself I’ll compromise. Will I become a bit more Hong Kong in my thinking? Will he become a bit more American? I suspect it’s both. All couples, whether we’re blending two or three distinct cultures or two families from different parts of town, have to learn how to hold on to the best parts of ourselves as we work to form new families.
More importantly, we have to learn how to speak each other’s languages. People are more than the sum of their cultures. We each have our own special brand of communication. Marriage is all about learning how to speak your partner’s language, no matter where you’re from.
In my new memoir published in Hong Kong this month, I share the story of how I followed my long distance boyfriend to Hong Kong and his company immediately sent him away to London. Over the course of one year I got to know the city on my own terms, which allowed me to better understand his culture — and myself.
Jocelyn has allowed me to share the first chapter of my book below. It is the beginning of our love story, the story that brought me to Hong Kong.
YEAR OF FIRE DRAGONS
The fire dragon trundled toward me through the crowded street. Smoke curled from the incense protruding from its long, thin body like thousands of spines on some mystical porcupine. Sweat poured down the faces and backs of every spectator. The fire dragon wound back and forth through the streets, faster and faster, dancing to the beat of drums. A wave of cheers rippled through the crowd each time it came near. The drums rattled the high-rises, the dragon danced, and the pavement shuddered under our feet.
This was the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hong Kong, a time to celebrate the moon goddess and her flight across the sky.
My flight wasn’t like that of Chang’e, the moon goddess who escaped her lover in a blaze of luminescence. I was flying toward mine. His gravitational field had pulled me across the sea, drawn me to a distant isle of fire dragons and skyscrapers. I’d follow him anywhere—even to Hong Kong. We hadn’t lived in the same country since we’d met, but this was our chance to be together, to build a life in the city where he grew up.
But one month ago, his company sent him to London.
I first met Ben in London, at a fencing club. I was a bookish American student on a semester abroad. He was an opportunity for a real live English romance, my very own Mr. Darcy, except that unlike Darcy, Ben was talkative—and half Chinese.
I’d taken up fencing several years before, attracted by the romance of sword fighting and the fact that it was something unique, historic, literary even. I wasn’t bad, and the sport brought me unexpected confidence. It seemed like a great way for an introvert like me to connect with people at the university in London.
When I pushed open the door to the club, the familiar buzz of the scoring machine and the squeak of athletic shoes on the floor reached my ears. I rocked on the sides of my feet, unsure how to join in. Ben came over immediately, introduced himself, and invited me to fence him. I was relieved at being included and already curious about this open-faced young man whose accent I couldn’t place. He won our first bout by one point; he always said I wouldn’t have dated him if I had been able to beat him.
We fenced a few more bouts, and then sat cross-legged in our matching gear, masks forgotten on the floor. He prodded at my shy shell; he asked me questions, joked about fencing, told me he was from Hong Kong. He had an eloquent vocabulary mixed with an offbeat sense of humor. He didn’t seem to mind when people didn’t get his jokes. He put me at ease, and I found myself stealing glances at him as I adjusted my equipment and met the other fencers. By the time I changed my shoes and left the gym, I was already lecturing myself about reading too much into his attention. I didn’t want to get swept away, blinded by the novelty of an international fling. But it was too late.
For two months, we wandered the streets of London together, kissed on street corners, and took spontaneous trips to Oxford and the coast. He took the time to get to know me, using our shared love of fencing to get me talking. He surprised me with his insight, his persistence. He seemed to understand why I, analytical and introverted, never quite fit into any group. As someone who had grown up shuttling between Hong Kong and London, not quite Chinese and not quite British, he knew what it was like to be an outsider. Ben had a gift for coaxing people to confide in him and trust him. Before long, he got even the most reserved, responsible American girl to give him handfuls of her heart.
When the semester ended, we said goodbye at Heathrow in a flurry of kisses and long-distance promises: “It will just be for a year, maybe two.”
“I can visit you in America.”
“I’ll get a job wherever you live after graduation.” Our confidence in each other was reckless and optimistic, but staying together felt like the only sensible thing to do.
In 2010, thoroughly in love, I moved to Hong Kong to be with him.
It lasted for one glorious month.
Ben left me in Hong Kong on the eve of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Instead of exploring the city with him, I was at the airport saying my goodbyes while the children of Hong Kong flooded the streets and parks with lanterns. Instead of walking beneath the Mid-Autumn moon together, we shared a fierce hug and made a hundred tiny promises. The next day, still reeling from the sheer solitude, I found my way to Tai Hang—to the incense and the drums. The fire dragon loomed, full of possibilities.
It had already grown dark, or as dark as it ever gets in the city, when I emerged from the subway into a night that felt nothing like the end of September. The humidity surrounded me like steam pouring out of a broken dumpling. I made my way along the street. An arch announced the festival in gold foil and tissue paper fringe. I found a spot beside a Chinese family of three or four generations. A group of Mainland girls chattered in shrill Mandarin in front of me. The balconies of a hundred apartments teetered over our heads.
I hadn’t had a chance to ask Ben what the fire dragon would be like before the airport security line swallowed him and carried him away. The fire dragon in my mind looked like a dancing, tuft-eared Pekinese dog, with people standing under a big sheet to form the body, holding up the head. Of course, that’s an image from a lion dance, not a dragon dance, I would soon learn. I was just starting to discover that Hong Kong was full of surprises—and I was ill prepared. I jumped up on my toes and looked for the Pekinese head.
The drums began. “Want me to hoist you up?” An American man stepped close behind me. He was tall, and the scent of stale alcohol mixed with the incense.
“No, thanks,” I said.
“You sure? You want a good view when they bring out the dragon,” he reached for my arms.
“I can see just fine.” I maneuvered away from the man, finding refuge on the other side of the Chinese family. My fingers curled tighter around my purse. Suddenly, I was aware just how alone I was in the crowd, and in the country.
“Why didn’t you just go to London instead of Hong Kong when you found out Ben would be leaving?” my friends had asked me. “You’re already moving across the world for him.” I wondered the same thing myself—now. But this was 2010. I wasn’t in a position to jet around the world after men lightly. I’d graduated from Colgate University with nearly $80,000 in student debt, debt I had taken on before the economy crumbled. Moving without a job was not an option. Employment would be hard to find in London for an English major with limited work experience and no visa. I didn’t have a chance.
Jobs were not easy to come by anywhere in the Western world. My generation faced the worst job market in living memory. My college-educated friends competed tooth-and-nail for part-time barista work, borrowed more money for graduate school, and moved in with their parents. There was a mounting sense of desperation among those of us who had taken out big student loans only to discover there was no work for us in our own country when we graduated.
Asia was another story.
There were rumors going around that this was where the jobs were to be found. Ben had found work in Hong Kong, his hometown. My own sister had recently begun teaching English in South Korea. So, I spent nearly a year applying and interviewing for a job in Hong Kong (and yes, living with my parents while I did it). When a local school emailed and asked me to be their new English teacher, it seemed the long distance part of our international romance, which had lasted two and half years by now, was finally done. I showed up with a work visa and a salary advance, ready to take on the city and the next stage in our relationship. Yet here I was, alone in a crowd as the fire dragon approached.
I couldn’t afford to give up my new job when Ben’s circumstances changed. With a one-way ticket and a monthly student loan payment of $935, I stayed in Hong Kong.
The drums pounded. A row of children appeared, carrying lanterns that bobbed above the crowds. Their glow mixed with the lights from the apartment buildings looming over our heads. My arms brushed an elbow on one side, a woman’s handbag on the other.
Ben had been lucky, really, to be sent to London. It was a one-year placement at a law firm with the prospect of a permanent contract afterwards. All I had to do was spend this year in Hong Kong looking for an opportunity in London where we could be reunited once again. “It’ll be for one more year, and then we’ll be together,” we promised each other as we set up our web cams. “We already know we can handle the whole long distance thing.” We plotted our reunion in a whirl of emails and long distance calls. “It’ll just be this year,” we said, “and then that’s it. No more long distance.”
Of course, the other thing people asked was, “What if you don’t get along when you finally do live in the same country?” That was a question I couldn’t answer.
As I stood in the Mid-Autumn crowd, little did I know that my move to Hong Kong would bring about our longest separation ever, a separation that would bring me face to face with the reality of the risk I had taken.
The pounding of the drums intensified. The people around me drew closer together, choking what little breeze there was. Finally, the fire dragon appeared, followed by more children carrying lanterns. I was surprised when I saw what it was really like. It had an elaborate head, made from branches twisted into impossible shapes and filled with a thicket of incense. The thin body was over 200 feet long and muscular bearers danced beneath its undulating shape. The people around me cheered as the dragon’s head passed us and then turned back on itself, leaving behind a million tiny trails of smoke. I felt a growing sense of excitement as the fire dragon whirled and darted through the streets. Its wiry, crackling body defied my expectations. It was fast. It was wild. I pushed forward so I could see better. I was a part of the crowd. I didn’t feel like a foreign girl, alone, in an interrupted romance. This was an adventure! I could do this; I could live in Hong Kong, alone. Ben and I would be together soon enough.
As the dragon twirled in front of me, I didn’t know that in nine months I’d be sitting on the floor of my single apartment, cell phone pressed to my ear, feeling the foreign ground shift beneath me, feeling a panic I’d been too confident to anticipate. I pulled my hair away from my neck, trying to find relief from the suffocating heat, too stubborn to guess at the coldness that was coming.
This was not what I had planned. Nothing happened the way I expected. This was Hong Kong.
As the rumble of the drums reached a crescendo, the men carrying the dragon pulled off the sticks of incense and passed them to the crowd. Within seconds, the fire dragon dispersed into a thousand tiny sparks in the night.
Thanks so much to Shannon for this post and lovely excerpt! Don’t forget, if you’re in the Hong Kong area this weekend and would love to have your very own signed copy of her excellent memoir, Shannon will be appearing at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival on Sunday, November 9 at 10am at Room 202, Duke of Windsor Building. Tickets are $90 to attend (purchase yours here).
I never thought a simple trip to the grocery store with my husband would give me one of the most embarrassing experiences I’ve ever had.
It happened while we were checking out of a grocery store in the US. My husband, as usual, started bagging our stuff while I pulled out my credit card to pay for everything. It was just another typical checkout experience – until the cashier, a white woman in her fifties, started chatting with me.
“Nice to have some help,” she said, referring to my husband who had already bagged everything and placed it neatly in our shopping cart.
“Yeah, he is pretty great.” I couldn’t help but smile with pride. Who doesn’t love it when her husband is the envy of others?
Or so I thought, until the cashier opened her mouth again.
“So, is he your foreign exchange student?”
That’s right – a casher in America actually mistook my own husband for some foreign exchange student I was hosting.
A flush of red mounted my face as I realized exactly what this meant. One, that she had noticed my thirty-something husband was a foreigner and thought he looked old enough to be an undergraduate in college or younger. And two, that she thought I looked too old to be his wife.
She might as well have pointed out every single wrinkle on my thirty-something face, because that’s exactly how embarrassed I felt.
I cleared my throat. “Actually, he’s my husband.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” The cashier seemed genuinely apologetic, right down to the way her own cheeks turned a self-conscious shade of scarlet.
But it was too late for that. She’d already put the idea out there. And let me tell you, I never hurried out of a checkout line faster than that moment.
Honestly, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Long before this ever happened, relatives and friends doted on John’s youthful appearance. In fact, it seemed like a month never went by in America without my dad saying, “John, you look like you’re still in high school!” They schooled me a reality that had remained hidden to me until I married an Asian man: the popular belief that Asians look younger than white people.
But until that moment in that checkout line, I was blissfully unaware that some Americans might actually think I was old enough to, say, be a guardian to a foreign exchange student. And might mistake my Asian husband for said student.
While dining in Las Vegas a couple of years ago, my 30-something year old husband (who, might I add, is two years older than me) heard the most magical words from a waitress when he tried to order a beer.
‘May I see your ID, please?’
Smiling from ear to ear, his dimples as defined as ever, like a kid in a candy store, he turned to me and asked me for his passport which I was holding for safe keeping in my bag.
He passed her his passport and she began to examine it. She looked at his passport photo, she looked at him, and then back at the photo. She continued by checking the edges, clearly thinking that it must have been a fake one.
Then, she said ‘Oh my God! You are in your 30’s!!’
Talk about inflating someone’s ego with one sentence!
Trying to salvage some dignity, even just a little, I casually asked the following question.
‘Would you like to see mine as well?’
And to add more salt to the wound, to drive the dagger further into my heart, she made the following reply:.
‘No, that’s fine! You’re OK.’
Oh, the humiliation! The embarrassment!
I’ll be honest – for the longest time, I swore I would never go public with this encounter in the grocery store. I wanted it to be like the diary I used to hide under my mattress in grade school, forever safe from scrutiny. Who wants to admit before the world that, in fact, people think she looks old?
Yet, the older I get, the more I realize the importance of accepting myself, warts and all. After all, aging is a reality for everyone. Maybe some of us are lucky enough to look younger (ahem, John), while others are not so lucky (ahem, me!). But in the end, we’re all headed in the same direction.
And honestly, who hasn’t seen the person with the dyed hair that’s obviously there to hide the gray and isn’t fooling anyone? Or someone like the late Joan Rivers, with so much plastic surgery and botox she doesn’t even look real anymore?
I cringe over the extremes we turn to just to hide our real age, when the treatment we really need is simple — accepting ourselves exactly as we are.
Besides, my husband still thinks I’m the sexiest woman in the world. He can’t keep his hands off me – wrinkles and stretch marks and hidden gray hairs and all. He loves me just as passionately as that night over 12 years ago when we first kissed beside the West Lake.
So what if he doesn’t “look” like he matches me in age to some folks? I know he’s my perfect match and that’s all I’ll ever need to know.
Have you ever had an experience where someone mistook you or your boyfriend/girlfriend or spouse for a different age? How did it make you feel?
You never know where love’s going to find you — and where it might take you. Sarah (a native of Birmingham, England and the woman behind Diaries of a Yangxifu) had just finished the Half-Marathon in Birmingham, all sweaty and exhausted, when lo and behold, she discovered an incredibly handsome Chinese man right beside her. A man who would propose to her less than a year later in his hometown of Dalian, China.
Have an unusual love story or thrilling guest post you’d love to see published on Speaking of China? Learn how you can do it (just Sarah did) at the submit a post page.
I never felt quite the same after that year of teaching English in Nanjing in 2010. When I returned to the UK, I found I had a little thing for Chinese men, who reminded me of my year in China and shared my love of 饮茶 (drinking tea) and 烤鱼 (roasted fish). However after about two years, I had got back in to the swing of things back home and was really enjoying living in a multicultural city with a big Chinatown and occasional trips to KTV.
I had been training for the Half Marathon for over four months, including a three-week holiday in China where I managed to sneak in a few runs on the banks of the Pearl River in Guangzhou and along Victoria Harbour in HK. I was feeling incredibly proud of myself when I had completed the 13.1 mile run and felt on top of the world as I walked from the finish line to my home 10 minutes away. Still, I was a bit achey and was trying to decide whether to take a little rest or just get home and have a nice shower. I saw a free bit of wall in the square and decided to take a little rest.
I soon noticed the handsome Chinese man sitting on the wall next to me and was deciding how to make conversation, a habit of mine since returning from China. Then he turned to me and congratulated me on finishing the run. (Let’s hope it was the medal round my neck rather than the bright red face and disgusting hair that gave me away!)
We got to chatting for a while, exchanged snacks (they put some strange things in race finish bags) and chatted about sport. I had not met such a sporty Chinese person before, or one with freckles. Some time into the conversation I asked whether he was Chinese, and he replied, “Yes, but don’t be scared.” (I’m not sure what kind of experience he’d had of British people!). I answered (in Chinese) that I wasn’t afraid and actually I could speak a little Chinese myself, much to his surprise!
We spent the rest of that day together, and I think it was the best day of my life. I had not only met not only the most handsome man I’ve ever known. I also met the man who 10 months later proposed to me “movie-style” at the top of Dalian’s sightseeing tower observation deck, right in his hometown where we had moved a couple of months before. I feel so lucky to have met a man with such integrity and intelligence, someone who always strives to be better — just like me.
That day, sitting on a wall in the Birmingham city centre, marks the start of my greatest adventure: of marriage, of a new family, of living a taste of real Chinese life.
Sarah is currently studying Mandarin Chinese in Guilin, China, where she lives with her husband, and documents the challenges and the joys of her adventure at Diaries of a Yangxifu.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 makeup. We 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…
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.
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.
It’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.
I want to thank Fred and Jocelyn for inspiring me to conduct my own study of AMWF couples.
Aside from my husband and me, there are two other couples that I personally know of in AMWF relationships. One is a close friend of mine, whom I set-up with my husband’s friend. She is Canadian with Macedonian heritage, while he hails from Thailand. The other couple is made up of two Canadians — her background is English/Irish and his is Chinese. They both currently reside in Mississauga, with one couple married and the other dating.
I decided to conduct this study over a period of one month. The study began on April 19, 2014, and ended on May 19, 2014. Unfortunately, I was only able to write about two days of viewing as those were the only days when I noticed AMWF couples during my travels. Each date includes the place where I observed the AMWF couples, their actions, and my perceptions of them.
Day 1: April 19, 2014
My husband and I were at Square One Shopping Centre, the largest mall in Mississauga. At this mall, I observed four AMWF couples.
Couple #1: The first couple I saw was walking through the mall holding bags. They were walking side by side, while laughing about something. They seemed to be enjoying each other’s company. They were quite young, possibly in their late teens/early twenties.
Couple #2: The second couple I saw was also walking through the mall. They were an older AMWF couple, most likely in their mid-late forties. They were smiling, while enjoying each other’s company (or so it seemed).
Couple #3: The third couple I saw was quite young, possibly in their late teens. The young woman was holding the young man’s arm. They seemed to be quite intimate in terms of their body language. They then departed at the entrance of a jewelry store. As they departed, they kissed each other passionately on the lips. They didn’t seem to mind the stares that they received as they looked to be very much in love. The young woman was holding a bag of food in her hand as she walked away.
Couple #4: The last couple that I saw was in a popular department store called Target. I was in the changing-room when I noticed a middle-aged man coming in and asking his wife, who was trying on an outfit, if she needed a different size. She seemed grateful to have his assistance, thanking him more than once.
Day 2: May 10, 2014
My husband and I were dining at a Korean restaurant in Mississauga called The Owl of Minerva. We were dining with my husband’s mother and father. I noticed one AMWF couple during the entire time that we were at the restaurant.
Couple #1: The only couple that I saw was sitting at a table behind us. They seemed to be very interested in each other, holding each other’s hands while they spoke with the young man’s mother and sister, who were also dining with them. The couple looked to be in their mid-late twenties, possibly just recently married.
During my one month of observation, I only noticed five AMWF couples. I found this to be quite low as I would have expected to see more in a larger city like Mississauga. However, I am grateful for the couples I did see as I was able to observe their behaviour and consider the nature of their relationship. That being said, in comparison to Fred’s study of AMWF couples in Hong Kong, those found in Mississauga were similar in numbers, being slightly higher than the six noted by Fred. In total, we noted eight AMWF couples in Mississauga over the one month of observation (including me and my husband as well as the two couples we know personally).
Unfortunately, since I was focusing solely on AMWF couples, I neglected to include the number of WMAF couples that I had noticed. I will say it was much higher than the AMWF couples that I had noted above. Fred’s post nicely reveals the number of WMAF couples compared to the number of AMWF couples.
Of course, the sighting of AMWF couples all depends on time and place. Before this study took place, my husband and I dined at a popular Chinese restaurant in Mississauga called Summit Garden. We would attend Dim Sum (点心) in the mornings with my husband’s parents and friends. We often noted many other AMWF couples: some young, some old. We were pleased to see that AMWF couples, like us, do exist. Although AMWF couples will never be as numerous as WMAF couples, we are out there and we are proud!
What do you think of this article? Have you noticed many AMWF couples in your part of the world?
Maria Deng currently resides in Mississauga, Canada with her husband Guangjie (Joey), who originally hails from Guangzhou, China. She loves reading about AMWF relationships, and looks forward to writing more about her experiences being married to a Chinese man.
Our friends who dined with us that evening had no idea it was our 10th anniversary. (We actually told them it was a dinner to celebrate my birthday – which was true, in part.)
It’s crazy, I know. And you might be wondering, Why would they hide such an important anniversary from their friends in China?
Because in China, it’s incredibly awkward to be married for 10 years and not have any kids. So awkward, that my husband just doesn’t want to mention it to his friends or even talk about it with people we know (like a friend’s mom we walked through the park with the other night). It’s funny how something that made me feel so proud could actually make me feel embarrassed at the same time.
For those of you wondering what that awkwardness is like, here are 5 things that reflect the challenges of being a married couple of 10 years in China with no children:
1. You will need a coping mechanism for the many times people ask you, “Why don’t you have children?”
In the US where I grew up, this sort of question is mostly off-limits (unless you have one of those really nosy relatives who doesn’t know the meaning of the term “off-limits”). In China, it’s par for the course. After all, this is a country where “Are you married?” and “Do you have children?” are a Chinese equivalent of asking “Are you well?” – ways to show your care and concern for someone else.
Well, believe me, when people find out we’re married but have zero children, they look INCREDIBLY concerned.
This is a culture that believes marriage and children are as inseparable as Beijing duck and those tasty little pancakes – you just cannot have one without the other. Chalk it up to Confucian values, particularly filial piety. In fact, of the three unfilial actions, the worst of all is never having kids (which are the next generation to care for the elders and worship the ancestors).
When I hear this question – “Why don’t you have children?” — the flippant side of me desperately wants to say, “Mind your own business!” But that doesn’t go over too well with most people, as you can imagine.
Sometimes I just say, “Because we don’t.” Sometimes I tell people, “Because we can’t,” and leave it up to them to figure out what that means. Sometimes I just change the subject. But more often, if my husband is with me, I just leave the answering to him!
2. You will need to find your inner courage whenever your mother-in-law suggests you’re an “old maid”.
I love my mother-in-law to pieces, but whenever we return back to the family home after a long hiatus, she immediately brings up having kids and then tells me I’m “too old”. After all, we’ve been married for a decade and I’m over 30 (30 is the official “expiration date” in China for having kids).
I know what you’re thinking, it’s just her opinion and it’s just a bunch of words. But things like that have a way of wiggling into your subconscious and tugging on your insecurities. Before you know it, you’re wondering, “Am I too old?” Or worse, you follow this whole train of thought to its depressing end – often something involving you curled up on your bed crying away a perfectly good afternoon.
It takes a LOT of courage to fight through these awkward moments and find your inner confidence. I still don’t have a magic bullet to deal with suggestions that I’m too old. What I have found, though, is that moments of just being present – taking a walk through the park, or focusing on my breathing – can help me feel more comfortable with where I am right at this moment.
3. You will dread going home for holidays like Chinese New Year, when all of your husband’s peers from school come over to visit – with their school-age children.
Unlike us, my husband’s peers jumped on the baby bandwagon almost immediately into their marriages (including a friend whose wife was famously pregnant and showing at their wedding – a bridal bump I had the chance to witness with my own eyes).
So whenever Chinese New Year comes around, they come around to visit as well – with, well, their young and even school-age kids.
Actually, for the most part, his friends and peers don’t give us pressure. It’s their parents that do – parents who will compare us to John’s peers and then pelt us with all sorts of uncomfortable questions or comments (usually of the “Why don’t you have children” or “You’re too old” variety) when they notice we have no little ones in tow. The whole situation completely strips all of that sepia-toned nostalgia from the idea of “home for the holidays”.
We were able to dodge a lot of these questions this year, because most people were just glad to see us back in China. But next year? I don’t really know what’s going to happen. Deep down a part of me is secretly saying, “Help!”
4. You’ll feel isolated from your friends with kids – and instead gravitate to friendships with other people who “don’t belong”.
Don’t get me wrong, we love our friends with kids. But sometimes being around them can feel a little uncomfortable, particularly when they – with well intentions – bring up the topic of us having kids. Sometimes we feel like we don’t entirely belong to the same club, if you know what I mean. So of course, we inevitably gravitate to our other friends who feel as if they “don’t belong” in Chinese society.
In particular, one of our best friends in China is Caroline, who happens to be what people call a “leftover woman.” “Leftover women” and “leftover men” describe people of a certain age in China (over 27 for women, 30 for men) who haven’t married yet. They also feel as out of step with China’s society as we do, because it’s just not normal in China for adults to be single.
We’ve always loved Caroline, our mutual friend who introduced the two of us years ago. But maybe we feel even closer to her because she’s like the ultimate safe space where we can vent about the awkwardness of our situations – hers not being married, ours being childless.
I feel like I’ve come to understand Caroline’s pain every time someone else pelts her with that unwelcome question: “Why aren’t you married yet?” She’s even shared with us some of her less-than-pleasant encounters with the question, encounters that make her angry and frustrated, and I feel her. Because to me, the question isn’t all that different from “Why don’t you have kids yet?” It’s a question that also singles you out, that divides you from the world, that reminds you of something you lack or something that perhaps you even desire but cannot have.
The other night, she told John and me about this one ridiculous girl she used to work with (“ridiculous” was her description) who kept interrogating Caroline about things that could easily have been ripped from a list of the “10 most cringeworthy questions in China”: Why aren’t you married? Why don’t you own an apartment? Why don’t you have a car?
“What do you want to hear from me?” Caroline said to this girl (surely in a voice that was getting dangerously close to angry). “That I’m unable to find someone? That I have no money?” Somehow, just hearing about Caroline’s courageous, “take no crap” response to this girl made the three of us erupt in a cathartic burst of laughter. In these moments, we always feel a little less alone and isolated.
5. “Being married for 10 years with no kids and living in China” will become one of the scariest things you write about.
For the longest time, I never wanted to go public with this topic. It scares me because it’s such a personal thing – and one that weighs on me on a regular basis (for many of the reasons I mentioned above). Why put it out there and risk having more people tell me either 1) You’re too old for kids or 2) What’s wrong with you?
But one of the things I’ve learned from my husband is the importance of self-acceptance. This is who I am – a woman who has been married to her Chinese husband for 10 years, lives in China, and has no children. Will I be like this forever? Honestly, I really don’t know for a lot of reasons I can’t share on this blog. But regardless, I must face my reality and embrace it – in all of its awkwardness. And for the moment, maybe that’s enough.
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.