This original Dutch version of this article was published in 2018.
It has been about ten years since I met my wife during my stay in China, nine years since we got married. In 2013 we moved (back) to The Netherlands together. Being married to someone from a different culture is a special experience and turned out to be a fascinating learning process for both of us.
Now, I must add right away that one of the things that attracted me to my wife was how different she was from other Chinese. She had a lot of experience working with westerners in her jobs as travel guide and student counselor at an international school and some aspects of other cultures seemed to have rubbed off on her. She was also quite nü hanzi, literally a ‘masculine woman’, as they call it in China, but in a positive way: independent, emancipated, open-minded and with a strong will of her own. But even with this relatively western personality, there were still enough cultural differences between the two of us.
‘You can take the girl out of China, but you can’t take China out of the girl’, the rather derogatory saying goes. Some cultural customs and curiosities are deeply rooted and occasionally cause misunderstanding, hilarious situations and fascination. For instance, it took me a long time to get used to the fact that my wife usually calls me laogong, the Chinese word for ‘husband’. Although it’s a kind of pet name for her and Chinese wifes use it as a sign of devotion and respect, it felt very distant to me. Why didn’t she just call me by my name? It’s as if colleagues address you by your job title. ‘Hey Marketing Manager, do you want some coffee?’ doesn’t feel quite right, does it? For westerners, addressing somebody by their given name emphasizes their individuality. The Chinese emphasize the role in mutual relationships and call their husbands laogong and address their bosses as laoban, meaning ‘boss’.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Chinese migrants who are open to western medicine might have become accustomed to the fact that their family doctor does not immediately write out a prescription for every small ailment or hook them up to a IV drip, as is often customary in China. But they often maintain a belief in traditional Chinese medicine. Several times, I was shocked when I saw my wife’s back covered with round bruises when she had undergone a ‘cupping’ treatment. A vaccum is created under cups which according to Chinese medicine will then extract bad fluids from the body. Less informed people could easily mistake the marks for some form of domestic abuse.
And then there was the day I came home and thought our house was on fire. It turned out to be just the ‘moxa’ stick my wife had been given by a Chinese friend. Moxibustion is a form of heat therapy in which dried plant materials are burned on or very near the surface of the skin. She had lit the moxa stick for a heat treatment of her aching knee. We had to open all windows for a few hours to get rid of the penetrating burning smell.
Traditional medicine also comes into play with her monthly female discomfort. As a Chinese, she naturally prefers hot drinks. But a few days a month all cold things are even completely banned, because the Chinese believe that cold can cause problems during menstruation. While my wife would normally send me selfies on WeChat showing the latest ice creams she has discovered, things go remarkably quiet during those days. And the Greek yogurt she otherwise loves to eat remains untouched.
People who have ever been to or have lived in China will know that things are not always exceptionally safe and hygienic. Sometimes, as with some food scandals and unsafe buildings and infrastructure, there is malicious intent or sheer neglect, but often it is a lack of general knowledge. Early during our relationship I regularly had to draw the attention of my wife to the risk of cross-contamination when preparing food. Since then she has learned how to use the various colors of the cutting boards in the kitchen the same way I do.
Many young Chinese often eat out, something which is often saved for special occasions in The Netherlands because eating out isn’t cheap. In China, my wife rarely cooked at home and her basic knowledge was sometimes lacking. I also regularly have to remind her about the best before date of perishable products.
She also had to get used to making balanced decisions when making purchases; that ‘cheap’ might end up being ‘expensive’ because of bad quality. Sometimes it is just more sensible to pay a little more for a dress in a Dutch store than for the cheap alternative bought on Taobao that falls apart after wearing it twice. The role of brands was relatively new in China and she has had to learn about their value. Having said that, brands offer a certain reliability, but for some products a private label of the supermarket is almost as good as an A-brand. You pay extra for the brand image of some products, while the differences with private label alternatives are minimal. She understands the game of price and branding in different product categories better and better. She has become a critical consumer, but also dares to invest in quality and sustainability.
Sometimes you hear how westerners that are married to Chinese get frustrated about the meddling of their in-laws in their family affairs. It’s also something I tell others who are planning to marry their Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend about when they ask me for advice. It is simply the flip side of the very strong family ties in China. Personally, I have been extremely lucky in that regard. I get on very well with my in-laws and while the choices me and my wife make might not always be the ones they would prefer, they never complain or interfere. Even the familiar pressure to have children as soon as you get married is (as far as I know) absent. The same cannot be said of Chinese friends who kept asking us the same question over and over. And I haven’t even mentioned my wifes grandmother from her mother’s side that pulled out all the psychological tricks you can think of and inevitably said ‘You must have children soon, because I’m about to die!’ every time we are leaving after a visit.
Nevertheless, it is usually nice to visit family in my wife’s hometown, a 4th tier city in the north of China. We might have to treat 25 people from her extended family to dinner and I might unexpectedly be asked to give a speech in faulty Mandarin, but you get used to it. My in-laws live in a small apartment but have a spare room where we can sleep. Nevertheless, I always choose to stay in the hotel down the street. Not just to get some well needed privacy at the end of the day, but even more so because the apartment does not have its own shower. The community shares a communal shower and although I’m quite used to being stared at after a few years in China, it was just a bit too much to ask to take a shower while the whole neighborhood comes out to see the rare sight of a showering foreigner. Knowing there aren’t that many of us in her hometown I quickly learned to say ‘what are you looking at?!’ in the local dialect.
That local dialect is also something worth mentioning: after studying Mandarin in my spare time for a few years I found I could finally have simple conversations. But then it turned out my parents-in-law speak a local dialect. I understand that dialect just as well as my wife understands dialects that Dutch farmers speak. With a bit of effort, my wife’s mother can speak putonghua, the standard form of Mandarin. But her father understands but can’t speak putonghua. Whenever we meet, his wife and daughter have to constantly act as interpreters, although fortunately he understands what I’m saying better and better.
At home, me and my wife speak three languages at the same time: English, Chinese and more and more often Dutch. Our understanding of the other’s mother tongues is growing and therefore we use our greatest common denominator, English, less often. But mispronunciation of Chinese or Dutch words still regularly leads to hilarious situations and confusion. Take for instance the ‘kuikenpapier’ (chick paper) and the ‘tros duiven’ (bunch of pigeons) that I once found on a shopping list, when she needed kitchen towels and grapes (keukenpapier and tros druiven in Dutch). Or my incorrect tones in Chinese pronunciation, so that a ‘lighter’ (dǎhuǒjī) becomes a ‘big turkey’ (dàhuǒjī).
Ta ta for now
Sometimes things even go wrong when we speak English, especially when my wife is telling me a story about one or more individuals. In China, ‘he’ and ‘she’ have a different Chinese character, but the pronunciation is exactly the same in both cases: tā. Like many Chinese, my wife regularly confuses ‘he’ and ‘she’. In a conversation, she can refer to one specific person as ‘he’ one moment and ‘she’ a few sentences later, which can lead to enormous confusion, as she does not consistently get it wrong. As such, the woman she was talking about a minute ago can turn out to be the same person as the ‘man’ she’s talking about now. “Wait, how many people are actually in this story?!’
My pronunciation in Mandarin has improved in recent years and through hard work I have learned to write about 600 Chinese characters. But that doesn’t mean I understand all the Chinese sayings my wife uses all the time. Quite often she’ll start ‘In China we have a saying…’ followed by something that sounds extraordinarily poetic. But most of the time I don’t have the patience for further translation and explanation.
My wife, in turn, had the same lack of patience a few years ago when she asked me questions I felt I couldn’t answer. This probably conceals an important cultural difference. A Chinese will usually answer, even if he is not sure, and simply use his best guesswork. Not giving an answer is less acceptable than giving a wrong answer. With us Dutch it is different; if we can’t give a reliable answer, we’d rather say we really don’t know. That then comes across as unwillingness to a Chinese person. Luckily my wife and I don’t argue often, but one of the biggest fights we’ve had was because I wouldn’t answer her question about what percentage of alcohol was in her cocktail. I didn’t know the drink and the ingredients and even if I did, I didn’t know the ratio. Conclusion: I could not give her a reliable answer in my opinion. That was interpreted as an unwillingness to have a normal conversation with each other…
The Chinese can be quite superstitious and although it’s not that bad with my wife, it is not completely absent either. The Chinese avoid anything that contains the number ‘4’, because in Chinese it sounds roughly the same as the Chinese word for ‘death’ or ‘dying’. The number four is therefore considered to bring bad luck. When she went to buy a car after obtaining her driver’s license, I was able to save her from a bad buy at the last minute. She hadn’t looked at the license plate, which had the numbers ’54’ in it. In Chinese that sounds like ‘I die’. Had she bought it, she probably wouldn’t have put many miles on it. When given a choice of alternatives, she will also avoid the number 4. On a trip we took to Mongolia she preferred to sleep in yurt ‘8’ (a lucky number) instead of yurt ‘4’ that had originally been assigned to us. Nowadays I am taking this into account. When I book flight tickets I avoid seat numbers with a ‘4’ in them.
As mentioned, pressure from family and friends is generally not too bad. Or maybe it just doesn’t get through to me because my wife acts as a filter. However, there was one exception that caused quite a bit of friction. When we came to The Netherlands in 2013, many of her friends and family saw my wife as an easy way to obtain safe Dutch milk powder for their children. That was at the time when every morning in The Netherlands hordes of Chinese would raid supermarkets and drugstores to buy all the baby milk formula. A maximum of two packs per customer was eventually implemented by the shops.
Nowadays there are various alternatives with which Chinese people in The Netherlands can order products online and have them shipped to China. And there are various cross-border e-commerce stores where consumers can purchase foreiggn goods in China. But in 2013, a so-called ‘daigou‘ that bought and sent popular products to you was often the only method available. I was convinced that my wife should not become one of those ‘daigou‘ and become part of the milk powder mafia that gave her fellow countrymen such a bad reputation at the time. It led to a few heated discussions, but in the end she realized it would not contribute to her being accepted in another culture. But it was very difficult for her to disappoint friends and family.
One aspect that should not be underestimated when marrying someone from another culture is the fact that you might have few common experiences from the time that shaped you the most as a person: your teenage years. You both grew up with different TV shows, music and hobbies. References to ‘pop culture’ that are understood by everyone in The Netherlands are completely unknown to my wife. And the same goes for me when we are in China. Sometimes that feels like something is missing between the two of us. But at other times it feels like a nice opportunity to rediscover your own childhood, for example by sharing music by your teen idols and popular movies. In practice, however, it turns out to be difficult to create lasting interest outside of the context you experienced them in yourself.
After returning to The Netherlands I picked up my old hobbies and made an attempt to involve my wife in them. I wanted to have her experience everything at least once so she could determine for herself whether she liked it too. Of all my passions, we found out we only share films and travel. All those rock concerts, pub quizzes and evenings with friends chatting about music are not really her cup of oolong. The reverse also applies. She has mostly Chinese friends and I’ve found that even if they are all fluent in English, they tend to stick to talking Mandarin when we get together. You end up being a laowai again; a foreigner, with insufficient Mandarin skills to fully understand the conversation. That leaves you with a group of other Dutch laogong that need to make the best of the evening together. As a result, in terms of hobbies and friends, with a few exceptions, we mainly go our own way. But the time we spend together more than makes up for minor gripes like these.