By Huang Lanlan, Global Times
When asked to offer Sino-foreign couples tips to keep their marriage happy, Juli Min, a Korean-American writer and lecturer who married a Chinese man, said onstage that her personal goal is to “get his parents on my side.” “My in-laws are super kind, very nice to me,” she smiled as the audience burst into laughter. “When my husband and I get into arguments that we cannot solve easily, sometimes I come to my in-laws and complain like, ‘why is your son like this?’ – usually they proactively go to talk to him and help us deal with the situations.” “But of course, people are individuals and there are so many differences between personalities,” Min said, adding that she doesn’t think international marriage is necessarily an intercultural thing.
Min was attending a sharing seminar hosted by the Global Times Shanghai Newsroom on June 10, which invited a dozen “third-culture” entrepreneurs, overseas students and foreign spouses to share their experiences and ideas about business, career planning, intercultural marriage and expat life in China.
One of the seminar’s panels was themed around Sino-foreign marriages and romantic relationships. Intercultural couples are growing at a rapid pace in China.
Due to the cultural and lifestyle differences between East and West, mixed couples have to face more challenges than usual in their marriage.
Many Chinese couples tend to live with their parents, which most Westerners find difficult to get used to. Min recalled that she had also lived with her in-laws for a few months after first arriving in Shanghai. “Fortunately they were very relaxed and accepting,” she said. “Although some of my friends joked that they tried to treat me nicely just because I’m a foreigner.”
From a Korean background, Min is familiar with Eastern family concepts. “In Korea there are a lot of social rules about how to treat your in-laws, respecting and serving them,” she added. “But actually I found that most Chinese in-laws don’t have these expectations. My in-laws are quite casual, never forcing me to be a ‘perfect’ daughter-in-law.”
Ryan Thorpe, an American associate professor who is engaged to a Chinese woman in Shanghai, said that they will not live with their parents (in-laws), either. “My in-laws are accepting people, but we can afford our own house and we decided [living apart] is a better option.”
Unmarried guests were also invited to share their opinions at the event. Rillera, Beth Lim, a 21-year-old Filipina studying in Shanghai, said she does not want to live with parents or in-laws after getting married. “They have their lives, and we [my future husband and I] have our own,” she said onstage. “I don’t want us to bother each other too much.”
Chinese-Swede Yaou Wu said that, in Sweden, the situation of living with in-laws is more common among Eastern immigrants than true locals. “Personally I would accept it due to certain reasons such as health or finance,” he said. “But I prefer they live by themselves, with my future wife and I often visiting them.”
In fact, fewer modern-day urban Chinese couples are willing to live with parents or in-laws than in previous times. Nonetheless, most heavily rely on their parents to raise their babies. According to a 2017 report by people.cn, more than 80 percent of urban Chinese seniors helped look after their grandchildren. Living with parents, as a result, becomes a forced choice for many.
In many Western countries, by contrast, senior citizens seldom get involved in raising their grandchildren. “Grandparents looking after kids is uncommon in Sweden,” Wu confirmed, explaining that nannies and the social welfare system jointly take care of children when parents are at work.
“When I was in elementary school, I had classes from 8 am to 1 pm. Since my parents work until 5 or 6 pm, I went to an afternoon school that provided children a place to stay when parents were busy with their work.”
Similar to Sweden, American grandparents play a much smaller role in raising their children’s children compared with their Chinese peers. “I find American couples are more self-sufficient, but that’s partly because hiring a babysitter or going to a day-care center is a lot more expensive [there],” Min said, adding that raising children is more challenging for young couples in the US. “But I do find that people [in the US] do parenting more independently.”
“As for myself, I would like to play a major role in raising my own children, though I think it would be great to have grandparents involved,” she said.
Thorpe mentioned the church’s contribution in children raising. “I’m from the south [of the US], where we have the church involved in terms of providing care-taking and after school services for children,” he said. “It’s a very strong social structure.”
Splitting the bill (going dutch), though quite common in the West, is unacceptable to most Chinese couples. Moreover, many Chinese husbands tend to hand over their entire salaries to their wives.
According to a domestic survey, 72 percent of Chinese male respondents were willing to hand over salaries to their wives, Shanghai Morning Post reported in 2016. Even though 13 percent said they were reluctant to do so, they would still consider it as long as “it could make her happy.”
Min does not force her Chinese husband to hand over his income to her. “Instead, we share a bank account, and if I need to spend money, I don’t have to ask ‘Can I buy this?'” she said. “Buying luxury things like cars or houses is another story, but in terms of daily expenses and relatively small things that I want, I don’t ask for permission.”
In China, husbands are generally considered the primary contributor of family finances. According to statistics from All China Women Federation and National Statistics Bureau in 2010, Chinese women’s income accounted for 67.3 of men’s in 2010. The Chinese phrase yang jia hu kou, literally “feeding a family,” is often described as one of the biggest tasks for husbands.
But neither of our two male guests have this sort of masculine, macho mindset. “For me, it doesn’t matter that much if you are a male or a female,” Wu said. “My principle is that both the husband and the wife should financially contribute to the family as much as they can. If I earned more than my future wife, I would of course financially support our lives more, and vice versa.”
Thorpe agreed. “I’m in education [industry], and my wife-to-be is in business, which is generally more profitable,” he said. “It won’t be problematic for me.”
Stereotypes and concerns
Apart from marriage and relationships, our four guests also shared their personal Chinese stories, including stereotypes and concerns, about moving to and living in China for the first time.
“I watched many kung fu movies, and that made me believe that Chinese could fly,” Lim laughed. “So before coming to China, I was excited but a bit nervous, fearing that Chinese might beat me [up].”
After years of studying and living in Shanghai as well as South China’s Guangdong Province, Lim joked that she is no longer scared. She even tried martial arts herself, practicing Tai Chi for a few months.
Studying translation at Shanghai International Studies University, Lim was the only foreign student in her class. “My Chinese is not that good compared with my local classmates, which does put pressure on me,” she said. “But my teachers are all very nice to me, offering me a lot of help.”
As the VP China of a Swedish technology company, Wu shared the challenges he has met so far when doing business in this country. “In Sweden, people communicate much more directly, like ‘this is not good, we should redo it,'” he exampled. “While in China, your partner may not directly point out the problems, and you have to be very sensitive about it.”
He admitted that sometimes it is not easy for a foreigner to know exactly what is on the minds of his Chinese partners, colleagues or clients. “But I think being in China we do need to adjust our beliefs to the Chinese culture.”
When discussing his future goals and expectations, Wu said he hopes to better coordinate the Chinese and Swedish markets in terms of trade and investment. “China is a great, huge market,” he commented. “Even though there are a few problems, including traffic congestion, in some areas, most other aspects are all very attractive to me.”