On Eggplant, Intercultural Love and Making Room for Cultural Differences at the Table

Earlier, I wrote about How “Italian Eggplant” Divided Us, and Then United Us in Love:

Jun and I have a fascinating history with eggplant – specifically, a Chinese-style dish I’ve nicknamed “Italian Eggplant”. It’s one of the first dishes I ever prepared for him when we started dating years ago. It’s also a dish that led to one of our first heated (no pun intended) arguments.

I had spent the evening making one of my favorite dishes for Jun, and found myself shocked by his reaction:

“Too sour. Too much soy sauce. Too much tomato,” he said. Jun grimaced with every bite – and I could feel my anger rising with every complaint. How dare he insult the food I so lovingly prepared for him! Where was his appreciation for my hard work?

I was steaming almost as much as that dish fresh from the kitchen — not what I intended for a romantic dinner at home, and definitely not one of my proudest moments. But behind our spat wasn’t merely a difference of opinion, but rather one of culture and upbringing:

[My reaction] had to do with how I’d been raised – to always say thank you to the chef, even if you didn’t like the food. It was a lesson I’d learned well after years of dining at my paternal grandmother’s house. She was a notoriously horrible cook who would entertain us with things like soggy, tasteless macaroni and veggies from a can. Even though I could sometimes barely stomach the stuff on my plate, I would force myself to say how good the food was.

When I told Jun about this, his face turned as red as the tomatoes in the dish. Turns out, he had a completely different experience growing up at the table. Every dinner included a course of blunt feedback about how everything tasted – even if that meant saying the food was unequivocally bad.

I apologized for my outburst, and he apologized for criticizing my food, instead of saying thanks.

Thankfully, we were able to share our own perspectives and ultimately recognize where each of us went wrong in the exchange. And in doing so, we also learned something about our own respective cultural backgrounds. At the same time, it reminded us that the taste preferences we bring to the table reflect the respective cultures of our upbringing. (Jun did in time come to embrace my “Italian eggplant” dish — so much so that he has actually learned how to prepare it for me later on!)

But such a realization and reflection requires a willingness to see cultural differences and, in some circumstances, recognize there isn’t always one “right” point of view. This especially holds true when it comes to what we regard as “strange” foods. The macaroni and cheese that my mother often made us for dinner growing up seems bizarre to my husband, who never consumed this dairy product in his childhood in rural China, let alone with noodles. Meanwhile, the tofu and seaweed dishes my husband enjoyed as a young boy would appear odd or even downright unappetizing to many of my relatives in the US.

I wonder, what if that eggplant clash had happened between people with more rigid views about the world, believing their cultural upbringing was the “right” one? He might have branded her eggplant dish as “weird” and told her to never make it again. She would have become even more enraged — and perhaps might not have told him that his behavior violated the mealtime manners her parents had taught her growing up. Likewise, he probably wouldn’t have acknowledged that his family did things differently. Perhaps one of them might have stormed out of the apartment. And if the two couldn’t reconcile their differences over a simple meal, how could they possibly navigate the even trickier issues that arise in a long-term relationship?

Sometimes, two people of two distinct cultures might sit down to dinner, smell the eggplant, and discover they smelled something different after all. And that’s OK, so long as they make room for those differences at the table.

P.S.: See also my post Why Ignoring Cultural Differences in Cross-Cultural Relationships is Harmful.

Intercultural Love Leads to More Creativity? Study by MIT Prof Says Yes

Creativity doesn’t usually come to mind when we think of intercultural love — but it should, thanks to the 2017 study from MIT assistant professor Jackson G. Lu titled “Going out” of the box: Close intercultural friendships and romantic relationships spark creativity, workplace innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Here’s a summary of the researchers’ findings from the study [emphasis added]:

…we found that close intercultural romantic relationships and friendships predicted important creative outcomes. As a two-phase longitudinal study, Study 1 found that MBA students who dated someone from another culture during their program performed better on both divergent and convergent forms of creativity at Phase 2 (accounting for creative performance at Phase 1 and other control variables). Using an experimental design, Study 2 revealed that reactivating a past intercultural dating experience led to higher creativity than reactivating a past intracultural dating experience; importantly, this effect was mediated by cultural learning. Comparing the duration versus the number of both intercultural and intracultural romantic relationships, Study 3 found that only the duration of intercultural relationships significantly predicted the ability of current employees to generate creative names for marketing products. Extending the preceding findings to the “Big C” creativity (Simonton, 1994), Study 4 found that professional repatriates’ frequency of contact with American friends positively predicted both entrepreneurship and workplace innovation back in their home countries….

Furthermore, the study offers some insightful advice about the importance of being deeply engaged and open to cultural differences [emphasis added]:

Importantly, the current findings suggest that people cannot simply “collect” intercultural relationships at a superficial level, but instead must engage in cultural learning at a deep level. When in an intercultural relationship, an individual should not eschew cultural differences but rather embrace them, because such differences enable one to discern and learn the underlying assumptions and values of both the foreign culture and the home culture (Cheng & Leung, 2013; Leung & Chiu, 2010). Without close social interactions, it can be difficult for individuals to juxtapose and synthesize different cultural perspectives to achieve cultural learning and produce creative insights.

Previously, I had written about Why Ignoring Cultural Differences in Cross-Cultural Relationships is Harmful, pointing out the negative consequences of this colorblind approach. But this study from Lu highlights the tremendous creative benefits that come from welcoming and exploring cultural differences in a thoughtful way, and the findings indicate that such advantages wouldn’t come to those who disregard cultural differences.

This fascinating research has also led me to reflect on my own intercultural relationship and the ways in which it may have boosted my creativity (such as the founding of this very blog). And I also thought about the many other creative folks I’ve encountered in intercultural relationships here in China, from bloggers and writers to entrepreneurs, artists and musicians. How much has their creative output benefited from loving outside the lines?

In any event, the study certainly stands as compelling evidence for why everyone should embrace meaningful intercultural ties in their lives, including romantic ones.

What do you think about this study?

‘Love Battle’ (爱情保卫战): Cross-Cultural Couples Collide in Chinese TV Show

Can you resolve your cross-cultural dating dilemmas and boost your Chinese at the same time? Maybe, if you’re watching the Tianjin-based Chinese reality show Love Battle (爱情保卫战), where couples in crisis present their problems in front of a panel of “dating doctors,” who later offer their advice before a live studio audience. (Talk about “bearing your soul”!)

It’s not exactly what you’d call relationship counseling — in the few episodes I did watch, the panelists (who range from matchmaking experts to even actors and TV personalities) doled out a lot of pointed, even tough-love advice to troubled couples, a sharp contrast to how real counselors and psychologists usually handle couples therapy. But that’s reality TV for you.

What is interesting about Love Battle (爱情保卫战), however, is the fact that the show welcomes cross-cultural and international couples to take part, touching on a number of issues common to such couples. Even issues that resonate with me.

For example, there’s an African woman who doubts her Chinese boyfriend because he won’t introduce her to his parents. The reason (which I won’t reveal — you’ll have to watch this short clip for yourself) is one that I once faced in a relationship (and it ultimately led to our breakup).

In another segment, a Chinese man doesn’t understand why his Russian girlfriend wants her own space and independence in the relationship. Meanwhile, she thinks he’s too clingy and can’t understand why he doubts her commitment. Sound familiar?

Here’s a selection of a few other episodes of Love Battle (爱情保卫战) with international, cross-cultural couples if you’re curious and would like to watch:

  • Episode 20140821, with a Kenyan man and a Chinese woman, and a Russian man and a Chinese woman
  • Episode 20151231, with a Chinese man and a Kenyan woman, a Chinese man and a Russian woman, a German man and a Chinese woman, an Equatorial Guinean man and a Chinese woman
  • A segment published in April 2017 with a Russian man and a Korean woman
  • Episode 20170809, with a Kenyan man and a Chinese woman, and a Turkmen man and a Chinese woman

For those of you in China who can’t get on Youtube, watch episodes from the show here at CNTV.

Have you ever watched Love Battle (爱情保卫战)? What do you think of the show?

More on Weathering Those Cross-Cultural Differences in Your Relationship

IMG_20160227_165522I’ve been happily married for over a decade to someone from another country and culture. And like many folks in my shoes, sometimes I forget how far I’ve come from the early days in my relationship…from those arguments, misunderstandings, and stumbles to where John and I are now.

I was reminded of this after seeing the following comment:

I took the chance to read once more your post on cultural differences in intercultural relationships, especially today since I am back to South France after a week spent in Tokyo; I was there for work, commuting everyday from my boyfriend’s place (he is from Inner Mongolia, now living and working in Japan).

It was a hard week, under many aspects. I will quit my present job and move to Japan in August this year, and we already made plans for the future, everything is almost set, but last week we often discussed over each other’s “domestic” habits.

I wanted to ask if you, or your husband, ever felt that the other, sometimes, does not think/understand that there is always “another side of the coin” speaking of how things should be done or viewed. I feel this way, now, but also believe some time together, only the two of us, and at a normal rhythm, is what we need.

Oh, believe me, I’ve been there.

When my husband and I first started living with each other full time in Shanghai, we definitely had our share of ups and downs:

Like the weather, relationships have their own rapid fluctuations — as I have discovered in this month. In only a few minutes, your congenial conversation might end with the thundering echo of a slamming door, just as ours did a few weeks ago, when John and I were sitting on the bed after eating dinner. I bolted down the street to my yoga class, hoping the asanas would help to cloud over the events of the evening. But in the end my eyes let out a deluge of tears. And, to my surprise, when I came out of the gym, there was John sitting on the steps, ready to clear the skies with an apologetic embrace.

This wasn’t the only inclement moment this month. Frankly, not a week has gone by without some petty quarrel — and it has brought me into a strange fog of anxiety and depression.

I should have seen it coming. We’ve both been burdened with a potentially explosive combination of ingredients: John with his thesis and test preparation; me with applying for John’s green card and my work. Throw into that your standard communication gaps between men and women plus cultural misunderstandings, and you’ve got a volatile combination that even the sturdiest chemistry lab hood couldn’t protect you from.

Ironically, I least expected cultural differences to get in the way of my relationship with John. When you’re in love with someone from another culture, when you treat them as your equal, it’s easy to forget that you learned different ways to respond to problems, and different ways to communicate.

Whenever people start living together full time, I think there’s always going to be an adjustment period for everyone. You’re seeing more of that person, right down to those everyday home behaviors you didn’t really see before (like how they deal with chores at home). But when you add cultural differences into the mix, you’re dealing with a whole lot more.

As I wrote above, sometimes I didn’t even think about the cultural differences — when I probably should have acknowledged them more. John and I had different expectations for a lot of things we had initially overlooked, such as how to tackle and resolve conflicts. Tempers flared and sometimes we said things we shouldn’t have. (Ouch.)

Honestly, I think it took us a few years to work out those “kinks” in our relationship and really get to a place where we understood each other. Where we were willing to listen and adjust how we responded to each other. Where we could, as the commenter referenced above, acknowledge that there was more than one way to do things. (For example, John learned how I liked to be talked to during an argument, while I learned to tone down my anger and control my temper.)

Getting to that point takes time, patience and a willingness to make things better. And sometimes it doesn’t happen through conversations alone. Early on in our relationship, I remember how watching American movies and TV with John actually deepened his understanding of my own habits. (Like how I love to spontaneously dance around the house whenever I hear a great song. 😉 ).

To all of the cross-cultural and international couples just starting out, I wish you lots of understanding in your journey to marital bliss. John and I weathered those hardships starting out in our marriage…I know you can too. 🙂

Guest Post: How I Came to Write Gay (Asian Male/Western Male) Romance Novels

Atom Yang Red Envelope

I’m excited to feature this post from writer Atom Yang, and not just because it’s a beautifully written and compelling story. Today marks the debut of Atom Yang’s first romance novel Red Envelope from MLR Press! Here’s the description:

The Chinese New Year is a time for saying goodbye to the past and hello to the future, but Clint doesn’t want to bid farewell to his cousin’s handsome American friend, Weaver, after they share an unexpected passionate encounter.

The Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday in the Chinese calendar, a time for family reunions, and for saying goodbye to the past and hello to the future. Clint, however, doesn’t want to bid farewell to what happened after last year’s celebration, when he and his Cousin Maggie’s handsome Caucasian friend, Weaver, shared an unexpected but long-desired passionate encounter. East is East and West is West, and Weaver seems to want to keep it that way, but maybe Clint can bridge that great divide this coming New Year, and show Weaver what it means to be loved and accepted.

It’s available on Amazon.com (where your purchase helps support this site) and might just be a wonderful holiday gift for the book lovers in your life. 

Do you have a guest post you’d love to see featured here on Speaking of China? Check out the submit a post page to learn more about how to write for us. 


Atom Yang Red Envelope

My name is Atom Yang, and I write romance. How I came to write romance took a lot of heartbreak, time, and eventually meeting the man of my dreams (just like in those novels).

Cross-cultural and interracial dating isn’t easy for Asian men, especially in the West. The standards of male beauty differ, and in the East, men are prized for appearing scholarly and refined (even androgynous), with lithe bodies, a sensitive demeanor, and high intelligence. This may also be one of the reasons why Western media perpetuates the stereotype of the sexless Asian male. What it means to be a man in the West today—athletic and rugged, with muscular bodies, stoic and individualistic—is essentially the polar opposite of Eastern ideals of masculinity. It’s no wonder that Asian guys get little game outside of the home court—would you want a ballet dancer to be your offensive lineman?

Years of hearing or reading Sorry, I’m not into Asians or No Asians, fats, or femmes or I love Asians took its toll on my self-esteem, to the point where if the proverbial mirror didn’t crack with my obvious unattractiveness or sole value as a fetish, I’d smash it myself to make it true. This is one of the worst heartbreaks a person can experience: to fall out of love with who they are, and to lose faith in their own beauty and worthiness.

That said, stories about rejection and loneliness all have the potential to be an ugly duckling story, but not the kind where a makeover and montage scene solves the protagonist’s problems and brings the love interest around, because this isn’t about how I changed myself with blue contact lenses and bleached hair and suddenly all the white boys who had said Not racist, just my preference decided that I was acceptable. No, this is the real ugly duckling story, and it’s about becoming who you are, leaving behind those who do not appreciate you, and finding those who do.

Over time and in my travels, I came to realize that people other than those in my hometown found me attractive and unique. My ethnicity makes up a part of who I am, and I would hope that it does because it’s an aspect of my identity that informs both my perspective and my experiences in life—things I need my partner to want to understand.

After two decades, a couple of long term relationships, and longer dating dry spells due to prejudice and my location, I finally met my future partner (he’s of German, Irish, and English descent) online, and he lived four hours away. According to those inscrutable algorithms, we were a 99% match, which I think is math for “soul mate.” I admit it’s been uncannily accurate, but to be clear, we were not matched merely based on our interests—we were also matched according to how we express love, support, and understanding for our partners. The only thing the site couldn’t figure out is if there’d be physical chemistry.

We met in person after chatting for two weeks (I read research about online dating and knew it was important to meet early to prevent unrealistic expectations and to allow the relationship to develop). We had seen each other’s pictures and had expressed initial attraction, but a picture is nothing compared to real life. Our first date would be at a geographical midpoint. I arrived first, and spent time trembling with nervous energy hoping we would feel the same in person as we did on the phone, and then he arrived a few minutes later. It was love at first sight for both of us.

Two more months of dating, and given what we knew and what the site had shown us, we proposed to each other. After four months of doing the long distance thing, we decided that I would close down my practice and move in with him. He came up, helped me pack my life on a rainy day with the wizardry of an international Tetris champion, and we caravanned to his home—our home—stopping for dinner at the midway point at the Moroccan restaurant where we had our first date. Sharing our story with several friends who had been married for years, many revealed their own stories of knowing and proposals after a week or two of dating, with the longevity and satisfaction of their marriage as proof that this sort of thing does happen, and more frequently than previously believed.

Domestic life couldn’t be better, but reestablishing my practice in a new town left me a lot of time on my hands that also left the house extremely clean. Feeling loved, supported, and hot by my partner in a way I hadn’t for almost all of my life, I had the mental and emotional space to begin an endeavor I half-finished due to personal difficulties ten years ago: write stories.

Given the happily ever after ending I’ve been creating, I gravitated toward romance. Working in this genre has been an act of gratitude, hope, and social justice for me. It’s a chance to pay it forward and offer narratives that change and expand the landscape upon which we connect to each other and imagine the possibilities of our lives, so that there might be less heartbreak and wasted time for someone while they find out who they are and where they belong. I came to write romance because it happened to me, and I want to share my fervent belief that we all deserve love, good relationships, and happily ever afters. It can happen. Just like in those novels.

Atom Yang

Atom Yang debuts today with his story, Red Envelope, available from MLR Press.

Atom was born to Chinese immigrant parents who thought it’d be a hoot to raise him as an immigrant, too–so he grew up estranged in a familiar land, which gives him an interesting perspective. He’s named after a Japanese manga (comic book) character his father loved, in case you were wondering.

Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

Things I’ve Learned from My Chinese Husband: Not Everyone Does DTR (Defining the Relationship)

Picture 462One of my favorite stories from when John and I started dating is the day when he moved into my apartment without any “should we move in together” conversation.

In America, we all know about the conversation, even if we’ve never had it before. We’ve seen it on TV and in the movies, that pivotal moment when someone says, “Let’s move in together” – a simple question that’s never all that simple. People agonize over this, to the point of proliferating totally conflicting advice (from “You’ve got to move in with him to test things out!” to “If he moves in with you, he’ll never propose!).

Well, we never had that conversation. Instead, I came home one day after work and, lo and behold, there was a duffel bag lying in the guest room of my apartment, filled with a soccer ball, a pair of soccer shoes, and some rather familiar T-shirts. When John returned back later that evening, the conversation went like this:

Me: “Is that your bag?”

John: “Uh, yeah.”

Me: “Oh, okay.”

You might wonder, why did I just answer “okay” and not grill him about furtively depositing his things in my apartment? Well, for starters, I did give him a key to my place and told him to come over whenever he wanted. I figured he just interpreted that more liberally – that “whenever he wanted” could mean all the time. (And, besides, I was under the deep, romantic spell of love, which has a way of clouding your judgment, especially whenever you think of that hot weekend the two of you just enjoyed at your place.)

Years later, when I asked John about this “moving in without a discussion” thing, he had a very simple explanation for it. “Our relationship was already settled. We didn’t need to discuss things like that.”

I discovered that the fact he kissed me beside the West Lake – and later spent the night at my place – qualified as evidence of our relationship as the real deal. We didn’t have to hash out our relationship status over coffee, debating whether we should just “keep it casual” or “make it serious.” In John’s eyes, we were a serious couple.

This was like a revelation to me – that people could actually enter into a relationship, secure in what it was without ever having some big, nervewracking conversation about it.

I’m reminded of a post I saw a few years back on VOA written by a Chinese girl titled Everything You Need to Know about Dating an American and Having the ‘Relationship Talk’:

Why do Americans have these big relationship talks?

Well, there are so many types of relationships in the U.S.: dating, casual dating, relationship, open relationship (this one does not make any sense to me), serious relationship, etc.  It’s easy to see how people could be confused about which stage they are and which stage their partners are….

In China, and I believe in other Asian countries as well, there is only ONE type of relationship.  You are either boyfriend and girlfriend, or pure friends, so there is no chance to be confused.  In other words, when it comes to V-Day [Valentine’s Day], people either have it for sure, or don’t even think of it.  No discussion needed.

It’s fascinating that a relationship could either be really simple and obvious, or incredibly complicated and worthy of long discussions, depending on who you are and the cultural background you grew up with.

Guest Post: My Relationship Ideals Were a Smorgasbord of Western & Eastern Values, All Torn Down by Him

Have you ever compromised your own core values in a relationship? That’s what happened to Jocelyn Wong (who blogs at Jocelyn Writes and Is That Top 30?) when she dated a fellow from China. She writes, “I grew up in Hong Kong but many of the things I was brought up with included splitting a meal, not having sex on the first date and waiting until the engagement to meet each other’s parents. These ideals were a smorgasbord of Western and Eastern values that were all torn down early on in the relationship.”

Read on for the full story.

Do you have a tough breakup, love story or other guest post you’d like to share on Speaking of China? Learn how to become a guest poster by checking out the submit a post page.

(Photo by Kiril Strax via Flickr.com)
(Photo by Kiril Strax via Flickr.com)

Kyle and I met through Tinder of all places after one too many messy breakups. Back then I was living in a small town in Canada. I went into the app with the notion that maybe people in my own social circle just weren’t “good” enough and that my circle of friends might be too small. So I took to online dating to correct that.

I grew up in Hong Kong but many of the things I was brought up with included splitting a meal, not having sex on the first date and waiting until the engagement to meet each other’s parents. These ideals were a smorgasbord of Western and Eastern values that were all torn down early on in the relationship.

Early on our relationship I found it difficult to communicate with Kyle even though I had a very international background. Firstly there was the pseudo language barrier. Don’t get me wrong, I am a native English speaker but there are times when I find it difficult to find certain words in English that communicate my feelings. This proved to be an obstacle on our first date when I was signaling furiously at him to try get him to understand what the concept of 無奈 or 孝順 was in half broken English and Chinese. At the very least, it broke the ice.

There were other things about him that really confounded me on a cultural perspective. I was raised with the theory that “sex comes after marriage” and that you should “only have sex with your husband”. Even barring that, sex always came after “monogamy,” as I was taught by Patti Stanger who hosted Millionaire Matchmaker on Bravo. He was a lot more promiscuous than I was (though I didn’t know it at the time). It was cute though when he asked “Do you kiss on the second date?” Immediately I knew that he was going to be mine sooner or later. I would pursue him romantically because that level of awkwardness and consideration was just what I was looking for in a partner.

I digress though. That night, there was something about him, something strange that just made me throw away all the principles I was brought up with. So I slept with him on that second date.

The sex was unfulfilling, but I should’ve known better.

I’d been spoiled previously – falling in love and having meaningful sex with my previous partners that I forgot what meaningless, hedonistic sex felt like. I regretted my decision almost immediately and wished I’d stuck with my traditional principles. Still, things worked out and we became a couple very soon. The sex didn’t improve though, we were still a premature couple and that level of connection needed to be built up.

The second time our values clashed was when I met his parents the day we decided to become a couple – five days after we had met – and it was too overwhelming. He expected me to be okay with meeting his family the morning after I had slept over at his place. This meant: no makeup, grubby outfit, no carefully pre-arranged gift and certainly no mental preparation. What kind of daughter-in-law was I going to be?! I was mortified. I was raised in an environment where it was absolutely necessary to give your significant other’s parent a gift on your first encounter and to look your best. That day, I failed all of those criteria and retreated into myself, I was disgusted with myself. I didn’t see him for a couple of days because I was so angry with myself and him for making me go through that experience.

More cultural differences: I met his parents again soon after that first awkward encounter. This time I was prepared. I was dressed to the nines and brought them their favourite choice of alcohol (the right brand even) and some gifts I had purchased in Toronto when I spent a weekend there. They were “taken aback by my generosity” but I honestly knew no other way to act. This was how I was brought up and it seemed to have made a good impression on my other Canadian boyfriends so I followed suit this time. I later learned that they found me to be a little over the top.

Throughout our relationship, we would have troubles communicating with each other because of our cultural differences but this was the most glaring when we broke up. I was raised on local TV shows and my mother’s advice to make breakups short and snappy, like “ripping off a bandage” and to “never speak to him again” afterwards. Clean and Clear. Just like those pore strips. And that’s how my breakups had been orchestrated each time: I returned my ex-lovers things and we never spoke to each other again. You can imagine my utter shock and horror when he suggested that we not only gradually return each other’s things but to remain “friends” or “friends-with-benefits” afterwards. I could not comprehend that level of promiscuity at all and his utter lack of consideration for my feelings.

This is not my first trip around the rodeo but one that embodied the biggest cultural differences. I didn’t realise I could compromise my core values for a man. But what can I say? I was stupidly in love. Let’s hope that next time around, I learn from my mistakes and stick to what I believe in and hopefully, it’ll work out.

Jocelyn Wong is a writer, blogger, journalist and radio host. She blogs about food and fun things at www.jocelynwrites.com, and about music at www.isthattop30.com. She has been published in the 2014 Women in Publishing Hong Kong Anthology: Imprint.

Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

How Could I Forget About the Cultural Differences in My Intercultural Marriage?

116The other day, someone asked me during an interview, “Tell me about some cultural differences between you and your husband.”

You would have thought I had a million things to say on the topic. After all, that’s a big part of what I blog about – the cultural differences between interracial and international couples in China.

But in fact, I couldn’t come up with a single decent example! (Crazy, I know.)

I mentioned what I thought were a couple of good ones – from differences in diet (I’m a vegan, he’s not) to those explosive arguments that my husband and I weathered early on in our relationship. Instead, the woman talking with me laughed in a lighthearted way – the kind of laughter that tells you that you’ve veered off course. “But those are personality differences, not cultural!” she said.

My face started to flush red. Had I just completely bombed this conversation? There I was, mentally lashing myself, wondering why I hadn’t prepared examples for this very important topic ahead of time?

Afterwards, I couldn’t help replaying the whole conversation in my mind – especially the part about cultural differences. Was it just nerves that made me forget?

But then I considered the most frustrating cultural differences in my marriage. You know, the “big fat Chinese wedding” Johns family insisted we have, which completed exploded all my dreams of having a small ceremony at their whitewashed rural family home. Or the way John’s relatives can’t stop pestering us about when we’re going to have a baby.

That’s when I realized why I had stumbled all over that question. The most obvious cultural clashes in my marriage weren’t between me and John. They were between me and his family.

When you think about it, it’s not surprising. John and I have been married for over 10 years. Yep, there’s more than a decade of marital experience between us – and if you’ve made it as far as we have, you’ve already worked through the major kinks in your relationship, including the cultural stuff. Cultural clashes? That’s like ancient history to us. I can’t even remember the last time we fought over anything cultural. Seriously.


John’s family, however, is another story. I’ve written about challenges with weddings, things relatives say to us, pressure to have kids and more. And here’s the really interesting part – John feels that sometimes certain relatives don’t 100 percent understand him either.

John likes to say I know him better than anyone else in the world, even many close friends here in China. And you know what? I feel the same about him. He really gets me like no one else ever could — whether it’s how I can’t live without writing, my passion for birdwatching, or the fact that I secretly love really cheesy romantic comedies.

When you’re in an intercultural relationship with someone for a long time, and things work out, I think both people eventually come to a consensus or understanding on these things. You’re not negotiating cultural stuff all of the time, because it’s now second nature to you. John’s culture has become a part of who I am, and my culture has become a part of him.

As for his family, god knows that’ll never happen. Which means I can expect a future filled with plenty of cultural conundrums.

(Now if I can just remember this for my next interview!)

P.S.: One thing I should add – it’s always important to recognize and understand your partner’s cultural background when you’re in an intercultural (cross-cultural) and international relationship. To learn why, check out my article on Why Ignoring Cultural Differences in Cross-Cultural Relationships is Harmful.

P.P.S.: To the interviewers, if you’re reading, thanks for the opportunity — and for making the conversation a great one!

P.P.P.S.: To everyone else, if you’re curious about the interview (as in, who did it and where it’s going to end up) stay tuned in to my blog for some news later this month! 😉

Guest Post: “I don’t look at my daughter as Indian or Canadian. I look at her soul.”

Alexandra, the white Canadian blogger behind Madh Mama, thought all of the ignorant comments about her marriage to a South Indian man would end once they had a child. But they didn’t, and it has been one of the biggest challenges for her — especially as hearing things about her daughter hurts her deeply.  

Have you heard something about your interracial relationship or biracial children that you’d like to write about for Speaking of China? We welcome all kinds of guest posts (including love stories) — check out the submit a post page for details.



I often forget that my husband and I are from different cultures. We have so much in common, so many shared interests. We are going on our 9th year together, and I could trace every freckle and scar on his body with my eyes closed. The kind of familiarity that you have with someone you know inside and out.


In reality, we are from vastly different cultures. I was born and brought up in Vancouver, Canada, by a small tight-knit family with European ancestors. My husband is from Hyderabad, India, and descends from the most conservative and devout Indian clans – the Tamil Iyengars.


I always dreamed of having a child with him, in a romantic way. I wanted to expand our family and raise kids together in a way that combined our similar values. I wanted to grow myself by becoming a mother, and I wanted our bond to deepen even further by becoming parents together.


Being a rare mix, we have had a hefty share of ignorant comments. At first, it was people saying things like we “just want to try out a different race“, then it was “he’s only with her for a green card” (I’m not an American, so I don’t even have a green card), then it was “she’s corrupting him with her Western values“, then it was “they’ll never make it to the altar“, then after we got married it was “how can they function with all these cultural differences?” Supporters and believers in our relationship were few and far between. We became desensitized by these kind of comments and learned to expect them. For a long time we didn’t even know that other couples like us even existed, so any negative experience just brought us closer together, since we were the only two people who understood what we were going through.

I thought all of that would end once we started a family together – that by having a child, people would realize that we are committed for life. Especially to other Indians, who assumed that by me having white skin, it automatically meant I was not cut out for motherhood, have no family values, or that I would divorce him.


When we had our daughter, it was the happiest moment of my life. It was incredible. She looked like every single person in our families – combined. Watching her grow up and see how her personality has developed has been astonishing. She is nurturing like me, quick like her dad, a great dancer, and eats any cuisine. She is the most global child I have ever come across. She is classically beautiful and looks like she could pass for any ethnicity. She is adventurous and loves to travel and do new things.


I think the comments started when she was about 6 months old. One of our Indian relatives asked me if we intended to raise her “Indian or American” – as if we had to choose. Then, I got a few comments from white Canadians about how tanned my daughter is, with a weird side-eye glance to prompt me to tell them her ethnicity. When we were visiting Italy last year, everyone thought she was Italian. So much that one old Italian lady pointed to my husband and asked “Is he the father?” when he was standing right in front of her. We have stepped inside an Indian restaurant where every table looked at us with disgust, so much that it scared my daughter. The latest comment we got from an elderly Indian relative was when my daughter was feeling shy. She said, “Maybe she doesn’t like Indians“. Appalling, since she certainly adores her father and many other Indian family members. It stung a lot.


The thing is – I expect comments about myself, but when it is directed towards my child, it hurts me deeply. And it surprises me, because I forget that we are an intercultural family, raising a biracial child. We live in such a multicultural world. We celebrate all festivals and holidays, even ones that don’t belong to our respective cultures – like Chinese New Year and Greek Easter. We have lots of intercultural friends. It’s only when we get ignorant comments that it occurs to me that the multicultural world we live in – is one that we have constructed for ourselves. That the majority of people out there do not mix, that they tend to stick to their own culture, and either out of fear or ignorance – and they do not step outside it. That global families, such as ours, are a minority. However, I hope that my children and grandchildren’s generations see love before color. Because that’s what the world needs – more love…a love that transcends borders and limitations.


My daughter is only 2.5 years old now. I haven’t really figured out how to tell her that sometimes people might question our family – more than others – because we are different. I know I will tell her that doing things differently doesn’t mean we’re wrong, but just that a lot of people won’t understand us. I want her to be confident in who she is. I want her to not be scared of this diverse world we live in, to see the beauty in being different and blaze the trail from there.

I don’t look at my daughter as Indian or Canadian. I look at her soul. I look at her as my child. The child that God sent me to raise. She is both cultures; but at the same time – she is everything. She is anything she wants to be.


Alexandra Madhavan fell in love and married her soulmate. Then she inherited a big, fat South Indian family. She shares her unfiltered view of what it’s really like to be a Firangi Bahu at Madh Mama.

Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

5 Habits My Chinese Husband Has Learned From Me

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!):

P.S.: This post was also inspired by a question posted on the AMWF Facebook Group Ichiro & Juliet, run by Ranier Maningding (who is also the guy behind The Love Life of an Asian Guy, one of my favorite blogs).

1. Saying “I love you”

(Photo by Sarah Potts via Flickr.com)
(Photo by Sarah Potts via Flickr.com)

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.

It amazed me.

Of course, some habits don’t entirely change. One thing I have learned is this – that’s it’s a heck of a lot easier for him to say “I love you” because it’s in English. Trying to get him to say the Chinese version, 我爱你 (Wǒ’àinǐ)?Well, I’m still working on that.

2. Eating chocolate

(Photo by chocolatereviews via Flickr.com)
(Photo by chocolatereviews via Flickr.com)

“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

Yes, my husband loves Starbucks -- and I'm responsible!
Yes, my husband loves Starbucks — and I’m responsible!

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

Beneath my husband's calm exterior is a man with some serious moves -- a man who can truly dance in silly ways when people aren't looking.
Beneath my husband’s calm exterior is a man with some serious moves — a man who can truly dance in silly ways when people aren’t looking.

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

"Electricblanket" by Original uploader was Limetolime at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Khayman using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Electricblanket.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Electricblanket.jpg
“Electricblanket” by Original uploader was Limetolime at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Khayman using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Electricblanket.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Electricblanket.jpg

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.”

What habits has your spouse learned from you?