When America and China Marry

I’ve been married for 33 years. And it’s the strangest thing: I no longer hear my husband’s accent. Other people hear his accent and ask where he is from. I don’t think of him as “foreign.” He has a great English vocabulary and teaches agriculture to PhD students.  Sometimes it doesn’t feel at all like I’m in a cross-cultural marriage. But lately, I’ve been studying his home country, the Netherlands. I’m doing some language classes and researching all things Holland.

What I’ve found, is all sorts of things clicking into place. “OH! That’s why he does that!” or “Oh, my gosh, that sounds just like my hubby.” Learning more about the Netherlands is teaching me more about my husband. And I began to wonder.

Are there themes that hold cross-cultural marriages together? Are there difficulties “we” face that other marriages don’t? Are there joys unique to being all mixed up, culturally speaking. 

In light of these questions, I’d like to introduce you to a writing friend of mine. She’s in an international marriage, too.

Karen Miedrich-Luo is an ESL teacher of adult expats who lives and works near the energy corridor in Houston, Texas. She spent three years teaching English in China from 1997 – 2000 where she met her husband. I sent Karen a Q&A and she replied with these answers and photos.

When America and China Marry. 

What countries are represented in your marriage?
My husband is from the Midwest of China and I am from Texas.

How did your lives intersect?

2.13 (2) bike, Jill Kandel, So Many Africas, In-Between Cultures
I moved to China in the mid-nineties to teach English at a university he attended.
We began the fiancée visa process about 18 months after we met and it took another year before the permission came through. We left China just after my contract ended and then had a courthouse wedding as soon as we arrived back in Texas. Ten months later we had a daughter and another one 18 months after that.

What languages do you speak in your home?

2.7 (2) Jill Kandel, So Many Africas, In-Between Cultures, judge, weddingPhoto: “Judge who married us”
My husband insisted on speaking only Chinese to our daughters so they could learn it consistently. At times this was very frustrating when they would want to talk to him about their day at school and they didn’t have the vocabulary. They would clam up. I had to constantly remind them to just use the English word and let him correct it to the Chinese. Over time, this became the norm and ten years later, when we returned to Beijing to live for a year, they were very conversant.

Do you currently live in your home country or his?

2.5 (2), wok cooking, Jill Kandel, So Many Africas, In-Between CulturesPhoto: Wok cooking in Houston
We have lived all but one year in Texas. We lived one year in Beijing, traveled a lot, and showed our children as much as we could about their dad’s culture. It was an amazingly beautiful year and the kids became fluent, especially as my translators!

What’s the best thing about having an international marriage?

2.11 (3) China America, Jill Kandel, So Many Africas, In-Between CulturesPhoto: Our First Christmas Tree, taken in China.
Aside from sharing life together, the best thing about having an international marriage is how it challenges me. I can’t just assume things. Nothing is status quo. It has taught me to be patient with people who are different from me, to respect their culture, even if it is just a different region of the United States. It is so easy to be ethno-centric and I think every culture is, in one way or another. I defied those stereotypes when I was in China so I know how it feels to be typecast.

What surprised you most about being in an international marriage?

2.9 girls, Jill Kandel, So Many Africas, In-Between Cultures Photo: Our two daughters
I am most often surprised by how easy it is for me to forget my husband is not native to my culture. He is smart, funny, and has mastered the Texas dialect. On the phone, his clients don’t know he is Chinese. We might have misunderstandings on things that seem obvious to me and I can’t figure out why he doesn’t understand my thinking. Then I have that Eureka moment (again) and I try to give the marriage some breathing room and stop imagining that my way is the best way. It doesn’t often change either of us but it makes our disagreements more manageable

 

12. (2), engagement, In-Between Cultures, Jill Kandel, So Many AfricasPhoto: Engagement Picture

What are some of the difficulties related to living in a cross-cultural relationship?

I knew this marriage would be hard. Marriage is hard when two people are from the same culture, same economic background, same educational background, etc. Then you’re just dealing with life stresses and gender differences and family baggage. But turn all of that inside out and put two people on the opposite ends of the spectrum in every one of those categories and there is no road-map; there is no self-help book. Once we moved to America, I also had to factor in his own seasons of culture shock which still pop up from time to time.

Tell me about a funny misunderstanding.

2.12 flowers, Jill Kandel, So Many Africas, In-Between Cultures
Most humorous stories arise from my inability to grasp the Chinese language. The tones just slay me every time. I had a table of guests in my house and tried to show off with a few phrases that my husband taught me. Turns out there is only a tonal differences between the phrase, “Eat some more,” and “eat poop.” And when his mother came to live with us for five months, I would forget and say “Ma! come look at this!” In an excited tone of voice, Ma! sounds like fourth tone, which is the word for horse. She would complain to others who spoke Chinese that her daughter-in-law was very rude. Sigh.

What parts of your husband’s culture have you embraced? Or chosen not to embrace?

2.10 Jill Kandel, In-Between Cultures, so Many Africas, ChinaPhoto: “My husband with our daughter in traditional qipao – Chinese Dress.”
I was surprised when I began to see my husband’s point of view regarding education and study and competition in schools. I wouldn’t say I am a tiger mom, but I realize how little American education expects of children. A child can gain a great deal of confidence by being encouraged to truly do the their best and then making sure they do what is required. So we are stricter than most American parents about their study schedules and habits. The trade-off is, he doesn’t make them go to school on weekends and lets them pursue their chosen hobbies (in the hopes it will result in a scholarship, of course!)

How do you make your home feel like “home” when home is represented by different art, style, and cultural norms?

2.3 chess, Jill Kandel, So Many Africas, In-Between CulturesPhoto: “Our daughter in Beijing playing chess with her grandfather.”
I love many aspects of the Chinese culture and lifestyle and was actually very upset both times we moved back to the States. I could very easily make a permanent home in China. Instead, I settle for a few fake antiques and knick-knacks we brought back. We celebrate all the major holidays and I try to make our home a blend of both cultures, but honestly, my husband doesn’t care what the “style” is! He cares more about the food on the table than whether it is round or square.

  • Is food an issue?

2.2 moon cakes, Jill Kandel, So Many Africas, In-Between CulturesPhoto: “My husband’s father using my moon cake recipe.”
And yes, food is an issue! Although I’ve mastered fried rice and a few easy dishes like egg and tomatoes or dofu, I’m a lousy cook whether American style or Chinese. Thankfully, my husband is an excellent cook. He grew up eating Sha’anxi and Sichuan, country-style food. His favorite way to relax is to watch Chinese cooking shows. Lucky me! So I cook boring American fare during the week and on weekends he feeds us well. I must be honest, though, and say, my lack of culinary skill disheartens him. Food is such an important part of the Chinese culture and my inattention to this fact created a lot of friction in our marriage. I tried hard to be a “good Chinese wife.” Out of desperation one year, I went to Chinatown and found a wooden mold for mooncakes even though I didn’t like the traditional kind with bean paste or egg yolk in the middle. But I spent time researching online recipes until I found one I liked. My five-nut mooncakes are now the highlight of our Moon Festival celebration every year, even in China.

How do you keep family connections healthy and alive when you live in different parts of the world? 

2.8 family, Jill Kandel, So Many Africas, In-Between CulturesPhoto: “My Extended Family, Chinese New Year picture in their hometown.”
Two years ago we brought his parents to live with us in Texas. We thought initially it would be a permanent situation. This is part of the cultural norm in China; the parents live with the son. Period. I knew this going into the relationship years ago but never thought it would be a reality. It was something I knew I couldn’t fight, though, and I agreed giving the stipulation that if it didn’t work out for everyone involved, we could change the arrangement. Six months after they moved here, we were all miserable. It was a great let-down emotionally for my husband who felt so responsible for them, but his parents were like fish out of water. Sending them home seemed so cruel and right at the same time. It’s easy to be idealistic at the beginning of our plans, even when we count the cost and weigh it in the balance. But there is no single mold for every situation. His parents needed to be home. And our home is here.

A chronic diarist since childhood, Karen mines her journals for stories and the occasional essay.  You can read more about her life in China on her blog: Stone Pillars

Thank you, Karen! I especially loved that you wrote you don’t  think of your husband as “foreign.” The old adage is true: Home is where the heart is. 

Jill Kandel
jill.kandel@gmail.com
2 Comments
  • Karen Miedrich-Luo
    Posted at 16:51h, 25 February Reply

    Thank you, Jill!

    • Jill Kandel
      Posted at 17:17h, 25 February Reply

      You are very welcome, Karen! It was a pleasure. I love the pictures you sent. Many thanks.

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