As if being born Jewish in a working class Irish/Italian New York City neighborhood wasn’t enough, I had to go and marry a girl from Shanghai. Girls from China are not the same as Chinese girls from America. Chinese girls from America are…well, American. Girls from China are not. On the surface, many people might consider New York and Shanghai a good match, and in many ways it is. The cities have many things in common: fashion sense; shopping; money; vibrant personalities; climate; cabs and their drivers; even a subway. Typical New York types are found in Shanghai and typical Shanghai types are found in New York. I’ve been to Shanghai several times and I love it. Right now it is arguably the greatest city in the world. This says a lot coming from a New Yorker.
But she is Chinese. I am American. For all of the similarities of our hometowns, our differences dominate our relationship. Some of them are, indeed, cultural. My wife despises credit. It is not the credit card itself that is the problem. It is paying the finance fees or interest. She maintains a zero balance on our credit cards. How many American women do you know who do that? Since we have been married, (and it’s been nine years), I have not paid a cent in interest or finance fees to a credit card company. In general, we try to save money up for our purchases so we can buy things outright. We recently bought new furniture for nearly every room in our house, and made sure we paid it all off as we bought it. No interest paid. My wife drinks tea. She also drinks coffee and likes Continental breakfasts (Shanghai has been influenced by Westerners since its founding). But tea is her drink of choice, without tea bags. Tea leaves are just dropped into a cup, hot water is added, and she can drink from one cup for hours. Then there is, of course, the Chinese radio station that plays in the kitchen each night as she prepares dinner.
The real issues for us, and, I believe, for most couples have nothing to do with our cultures. They have to do with our personalities. But I will leave those aside and discuss the cultural faux pas that I have blundered into as an American marrying a Chinese.
When we were dating, she whined about a lot of things. This angered me. I told her to stop whining because it disgusted me. It turns out that whining is a way that many Chinese women flirt. They won’t whine to just anyone. They will only show their weakness to men to whom they are attracted, thereby eliciting a “manly” caretaking response. Realmen taqke care of helpless women. My girl was showing me she liked me and I told her to stop because it disgusted me. Ooops. (She still does this, in different ways.)
There was, of course, the time I went to school to study Chinese, and spent a semester learning basic Mandarin. I thought I was doing pretty well. When her mother arrived to stay with us (for six months), I figured I could become pretty well versed inthe language. I was wrong. They spoke…Shanghainese (the dialect of Shanghai). This was something for which I was not prepared. Each area of China has its own dialect that most people speak as well as Mandarin, which is the official language. (Unless your girl is from Beijing, where Mandarin is the dialect). Shainghainese, Suzhounese, Guangdou, etc., all have their native dialect which is NOT Mandarin. So, while they can speak in Mandarin, it is not the language used in most households in China. Cantonese, for example, is spoken by a huge portion of the population including southern China and Hong Kong. This is not like a New York accent or a southern drawl. It is more like comparing British upper crust English to street Welsh or Ibonics. The dialects are indecipherable. Should I have expected my wife and mother-in-law to speak Mandarin in my home? Why? For my wife’s entire life she spoke Shanghainese with her mother. It is natural for them. Unfortunately, one simply cannot find Shanghainese lessons in America. This, for obvious reasons discouraged me. I halted my study of the language indefinitely. I will pick it up again now that my children are growing, since they must be fluent in both English and Mandarin (at least). So, if you’re studying Mandarin, do not be surprised if you cannot understand your in-laws conversations.
The language issue paled besides the social customs I learned. My mother-in-law introduced herself to me as “Judy”. Naturally, I called her Judy. No. Wrong. Sleep on the couch wrong. I should call her “Ma” (which I do, now). It is an unbearable insult for me to refer to her by her name because she is a generation removed from me, and therefore is deserving of my respect. I should call older woman “Auntie”, and older men “Uncle”. Even my wife’s older brother, who is younger than me, is referred to as “Big Brother” because he is her big brother. First names are not used, and using them is insulting to her family. Now I know. But just because I can adapt a more formal attitude with her family does not mean it is easy for her to adopt a less formal attitude with mine. My mother was not comfortable being called “Mom”. She did not think it was appropriate for someone who did not issue from her womb to do so. She insisted on being called by her name. My wife acquiesced. But this forced her into feeling that she is insulting my mother whenever she talks with her. These feelings have contributed to my wife’s loss of respect for my mother. After all, can you maintain respect for someone you insult whenever you talk with them? My mother, as I did, rejected my wife’s gesture of affection in favor of something more “American”. it doesn’t matter that my wife is now an American citizen. Her soul is Chinese, and the social mores with which she grew up are ingrained. We have a lot of work to do to overcome the fall out of this cultural incompatibility. So guys, if you are going to marry a girl from China, prepare your parents to be called “Mom” and “Dad” if you want to avoid problems.
Now there are drastic differences between how families treat one another in different parts of China. Beijingese women will cook for you (many of them), and they are fine conversationalists, highly intelligent, and artistic. (This is the stereotype). Shanghai women, (in general), don’t cook. When you think of Shanghai girls, think Sex & the City. Husbands and wives from some parts of Northern China do not even eat at the same table. Find out where your prospective mate is from and what are the area’s customs. Visit first, if you can. We can Americanize them all we want, (my wife is very Americanized), but we must understand where these girls come from or we are lost.
Beware the stereotype of the demure, docile, pretty little wife who is basically a slave to the big, wonderful, generous white man. If this is how you think about your prospective wife, your marriage is doomed for failure. Remember, the same culture that has this stereotype has the stereotypical dragon lady. You know that you are not marrying a stereotype (I hope). Unfortunately, your family probably doesn’t have the awareness to see this. If your wife-to-be is Chinese-American, then she is American, and few (if any) of thesenotes will apply. But if she is from China, your family will quite possibly slip her into the stereotype of their choice. I hope this is not true. I believed that my family would not do this. After all, we are New Yorkers, and have been exposed to different kinds of people for our entire lives. But they did.
The first time I went to China, my father was terrified that I would say the wrong thing and be arrested by the Communists and thrown into a re-education camp, or a Chinese prison for my radical free-speech tendencies. I promised him I would not instigate picket lines in Tianemen Square. Another relative asked my wife if she had a bath tub when she grew up. (He either did not understand that Shanghai is a major city, or he thought that Communism might have kept her from “owning” a bathtub. While it is true they shared a bathroom with other families, my wife was, nevertheless, offended by the question. It showed the general ignorance we Americans have of modern China as well as a lack of tact for asking someting so personal). A third relative actually said to me that my wife looked just like a “doll”. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard: “I think Chinese women are beautiful”, or “My sister’s cousin’s brother married a Chinese girl. Maybe we can get them together.” This is just like “Some of my best friends are black.” Be prepared. You will hear these things.
Other major Chinese/American differences:
1. Although Christianity is growing in China, the large majority of Chinese people do not know who Jesus Christ was. We were there for Christmas (my wife was a Protestant), and a friend gave her an apple because they believed that Christmas was about apples.
2. Chanukah? Forget about it.
3. To be considered ‘manly’ by Chinese male relatives you will have to eat things that disgust you and you may have to drink grain alcohol that has had a snake or bear’s claw soaking in it.
4. Smoking is the norm in China. If your girl doesn’t smoke, you’re lucky. You can probably count on the fact that her father and brothers do. When you visit, you will too (or don’t be surprised if they are insulted by your refusal).
5. A Chinese wedding is a whole different animal. Have one.
So, if you really want to marry a Chinese girl, more power to you. Try to remember that whining is flirting, studying Mandarin will not enable you to understand her family’s conversations (unless they’re from Beijing), and that you’ll learn things about your family that may disappoint you. Just remember, they Chinese have seen all the American movies, and our families mostly just know about Jackie Chan. Be patient, with everybody. And good luck.