I was born and raised in China and ten years ago I met and eventually married a Dutchman. Together we moved to The Netherlands where I would often share stories with Chinese friends who are also married to Dutch guys. We sometimes come across behaviour we think is very weird, but accept nevertheless. It’s good to know their husbands show the same characteristics and it’s not just mine who’s strange.
The first thing that surprised me was seeing my husband eat the same breakfast every day. A piece of rusk with hazelnut-chocolate spread and a cracker with butter and a slice of cheese, accompanied by a cup of cold milk. Always the same, and always the same brands. Everything is exactly the same. To a Chinese person that’s not only unbelievable but also seems very boring. In China we have all kinds of breakfast, from fried dumplings to little steamed buns, from various congees to stuffed pancakes. All kinds of choices! You can even have glass noodles with organs or animal blood. In China I would rarely have the same breakfast twice within one week.
While I thought it utterly boring at first, I later realized that it’s quite convenient. In China we buy breakfast on the way to work, often from food sellers that set up stalls out on the street. Between leaving home and arriving at work you come across countless choices. If you feel like eating something specific on a certain day, you’ll just go and buy it. But in The Netherlands, having a different breakfast every day is not that common. Unless you live or work in the centre of a big city or travel by train and you won’t come across many food sellers.
In China, the next difference would probably result in divorce and created lots of trouble in the beginning. When I was studying the Dutch language, I would often ask my husband questions about the Dutch language. Why is the grammar used in a certain way? ‘Why do you say it like this and not like that’. He would mostly give me a very blunt answer: ’This is just the way it is. I don’t know why’.
It found it frustrating that I came to his country, was learning his language and he simply didn’t seem to care at all. If you would ask a Chinese person to explain the grammar of their language, they might not know either. But they would try to come up with examples and their own explanations. After trying they might conclude that they also don’t really know. But they wouldn’t immediately tell you. In China we would always try to come up with an answer or solution to show that we are involved and care about helping another person.
I later understood that Dutch people are just very honest and straightforward about what they think and feel, about what they know and don’t know. ‘I don’t know’ is simply a fact and they just tell you. They care about giving accurate information and to them it’s not embarrassing to admit that they don’t know something, and they care about giving accurate information. The Dutch prefer to leave this to a professional; ‘you’re doing a Dutch course, you should ask your teacher, they know much better than me’.
Another example of Dutch directness occurs when I ask my husband what he thinks about pieces of clothing I have bought. His opinion is extremely direct and demotivating at times. I once had a dress that was a bit fluffy. When I asked him for his opinion, he asked me if it was already Carnaval, a local festival which sees people dressing up in silly costumes. Honestly, I didn’t immediately understand, I didn’t realise the Dutch could be so direct that it was almost humiliating to me.
Once I bought a denim dress with a rope to tie around the waist. He said it looked like a bathing robe. Another time I bought a flowery dress with a white collar, and he told me I looked like a housekeeper. I never dared to ware this one and I’ve never taken a photo of me wearing it. And when I bought a nice hoodie with a waffle structure in the textile, he asked me why I made a shirt out of our tea towels, which had the same structure.
Dutch people are just very direct. If you ask their opinion, they will honestly tell you what they think. My husband always stresses that he’s not saying I shouldn’t wear something, he’s just giving his honest personally opinion. And me being his wife, he feels I’m the person he can be most straightforward with. He thereby suggests that other people might share his opinion and tries to help me avoid a fashion faux pas. But at the end of the day, he says, it’s The Netherlands and you should wear whatever you want. Luckily, I am brave enough to wear most of the aforementioned clothes and sometimes I get very positive reaction, which eventually encouraged me to wear what I like.
If you would ask people for their opinion in China, they would never say such blunt things. They would probably come up with an acceptable answer. If they really like it, they might say, ‘oh it’s so cool’. If they don’t like it, they might say, ‘it’s okay’ and be less enthusiastic. But they would never say something looks ugly.
Socks and underwear
My husband washes underwear and socks together. In China, my mom always told me to wash my underwear by hand and to never wash them together with my socks. Socks have all of those germs from your feet, while underwear is supposed to maintain hygiene for one of the most important parts of your body. Combining them would cause cross contamination, is what I learned. But my husband puts his underwear, socks and all his other black clothing together in the washing machine. I decided it was fine if he didn’t wash his underwear by hand, but there was no way he would wash mine together with his socks!
He later explained that the washing machine can wash at higher temperatures and the germs will be killed by the heat and the washing detergent. In China, most of the washing machines use cold water. I can see his point … but I still wash my underwear by hand.
Foaming over foam
We don’t have a dishwashing machine. My husband considers it unnecessary wasteful luxury. When we do the dishes he dries them with a tea towel, the one that he thinks looks like my hoodie. They sometimes are still covered with some foam from the dishwashing liquid. In China we would use water to flush all of that foam away. We’ve learned that the soap contains chemicals that you shouldn’t digest. It would accumulate in your body and would eventually cause cancer and other health problems. Every time I still see foam on the dishes or cutlery it feels really dangerous to me.
When I point this out, he tells me that the dishwashing liquid wouldn’t be sold in The Netherlands if it was dangerous. He tells me there is no sign of a skull on the bottle and shows me websites that explain how there’s no danger because the liquid isn’t poisonous. But in this case, I still seem to have influenced him. When we now do the dishes, I wash them, and he dries them. I make sure everything is free of foam and rinse them with a lot of water. He’s not allowed to touch them before I’ve done that, and he seems to have accepted that. Problem solved.
Early in our marriage, I found out that my husband was very disappointed for not getting a birthday gift. I wished him a happy birthday in the morning, after which he kept looking at me full of anticipation. He didn’t seem very cheerful for most of the day. It turned out he was expecting for me to get him a birthday gift.
In China, when you are in a relationship but not married yet, you do want to give each other surprises and birthday gifts. Nowadays the younger generation is different, but I am a balinghou, born in the eighties. In my childhood, we didn’t have fancy stuff like birthday cakes, we didn’t get gifts, etc. On my birthday my mom would normally make me a bowl of noodles with an egg. The noodles are very long, symbolizing longevity. Birthday gifts are really not common for my generation. I barely got any birthday gifts from my parents. But I did get new clothing and nice snacks and food during each Chinese new year. But never gifts on my birthday.
I remember getting my first birthday cake when I was 12 years old. At that time there were some western influences, and you would see birthday parties in the movies or on TV. I actually didn’t like the birthday cake. At the time, the cream was very greasy, and it wasn’t delicious at all.
I understand that birthdays are an important thing in Dutch culture. In primary school they celebrate every child’s birthday. And it’s not even so much about the value of a gift, it’s more about the thought and showing you care for someone.
Again, my husband has adapted to my habits. We don’t really do birthday gifts anymore. We might get something for each other on a regular day, so we do give each other little gifts. But not specifically on birthdays anymore.
Thanks, but no thanks
When I would ask my husband to pass me the salt or gave me a cup of water he would very cynically say: ‘Yes madam!’ I was a bit confused because although he said it as a joke, I noticed he wasn’t amused. He later explained: ’Because you let me do this and do that, but you never say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. It made him feel like he was a servant getting orders. I asked him why I would need to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, he was my husband after all.
In Chinese culture we don’t say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ to close friends and family. I don’t thank my mother if she helps me with some little things. Thanking somebody that is very close to you would set them apart because you would only say this to somebody not very close, like your boss, clients, etc. But in the Dutch culture you say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ for everything to show your appreciation, regardless of who it is. So, I finally realised it was quite a civilised gesture and have learned to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ for small things, even within my close Dutch family.
It’s not always easy to adapt to cultural differences because you’ve grown up in your own cultural environment. You’ve done the things you do in your own way for more than 30 years. And then suddenly you see someone you live with do things very differently. It can create occasional arguments and there have been times I was about to walk out on the whole deal. But at the end of the day it’s all about getting used to someone’s peculiarities, understanding each other and being open to other cultures. Being married to someone from a different culture is all about exploring, being open-minded, adapting and accepting things.
We have shared our personal experiences in this article and an earlier one (Married to a Chinese: experiences of a ‘laogong’). We would also love to hear your experiences for a possible next article. Are you married or in a long-time relationship with a Dutch man or woman, or even a comparable western culture? Do share your stories with us!