Amazingly, interracial marriage was only officially legalized in Mainland China in 1983. Fast forward to today, and interracial couples are a common sight on the streets of the country’s major cities. The relationship between expats and their in-laws, however, can still be complicated and confusing for many. We asked four China expats who are married to Chinese partners to dish the dirt on their relationships with their in-laws. Here’s what they told us…
Source: Jaddy Liu
James is from Scotland and has been living in Shenzhen since 2010. He has been married to his Chinese wife, Luna, for four years.
“I barely talk my wife’s parents. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because we don’t get along. It’s because we have no way of communicating. They speak their hometown dialect, cannot speak English, and can barely speak Mandarin, while I speak English, cannot speak their dialect, and have even worse Mandarin.
As a result, almost all our communication goes through my wife. This may sound like a bad situation, but in some ways it helps. We can avoid any misunderstandings that could arise from me attempting to speak their dialect or both of us trying to speak in broken Mandarin. And when we do need to have a serious discussion with my wife’s parents, the back and forth of interpretation allows everyone more time to consider what they’re saying and how they’d like to reply.
We also don’t see my in-laws all that much. Again, it’s not because we don’t get along, but we live in the south of Guangdong while they live in the north of Hubei. On top of that, we have few holidays, and my parents-in-law have a teenage son and still work. We usually only meet once a year in my wife’s hometown.
I know a lot of other expats who married a Chinese partner and ended up living with their in-laws. That would have been a deal-breaker for me, but fortunately it’s never been an issue due to the family circumstances. I was surprised too that my parents-in-law haven’t pressured us to visit more, especially to see their young grandchild. It may just be a difference in culture or that they have three other children and two other grandchildren already. Regardless, it helps a lot that they don’t pressure us.
A lot of friends have asked me how the Chinese family compares to its Western counterpart. The main takeaway for me is that Chinese children shoulder way more of the responsibility of taking care of their aging parents. In the West, it seems inevitable that older family members will eventually end up in a nursing home. But in China, they’re cared for inside the family. While it’s not necessarily something I want, that’s pretty cool, to be honest.
On the flip-side, there does seem to be an unhealthy focus on money within the Chinese family. There are parents who expect their children to pay them back for raising them and there's a ton of pressure to give money at weddings and holidays. There was a time when I didn’t’ really understand why things are the way they are and I would get quite annoyed, but I’ve since come to understand there are reasons why the culture has developed this way.
Finally, if I could offer some advice to any foreigners out there marrying into a Chinese family, it would be to remember that your partner is on your side. There can be times when there are culture clashes and you feel like everyone is against you, but don’t take it out on your partner. You’re a team and you need to work through such challenges together."
Hannah is from Canada and has been living in Beijing since 2005. She’s been married to her Chinese husband, Roger, for 10 years.
"When Roger and I first started dating, it’s fair to say we came up against some obstacles. I felt isolated by many of my fellow expats who couldn’t understand how I could date a Chinese man. Meanwhile, Roger’s family also had their doubts. They’d told Roger that foreigners could be friends, but never partners.
The longer Roger and I dated, however, the more the family warmed to the idea. We think it helped a great deal that Roger has an older brother who was already married and had a son. Had Roger been an only child, the situation might have been very different.
I think it can be harder for a foreign woman to marry into a Chinese family than it is for a foreign man. In my opinion, that’s largely down to the relationship between the wife and the mother-in-law. Wives are expected to be subservient to their mother-in-law and there is tremendous pressure to meet strict expectations of running a household. For foreign women, this can feel like stepping back in time 50 years.
For the most part, my mother-in-law understands that our relationship is different and, again, Roger having an older brother who is married has probably helped a great deal. There are times, however, when she has pressured me to have a baby. What she fails to take into account is that I, not Roger, am the main source of income for our household. It’s not so simple for me to drop everything and have a child.
That being said, I don’t have too many complaints. I have friends who’ve had it a lot worse. One Chinese friend had his foreign girlfriend break up with him when he dropped the bombshell that, ultimately, one day his mother would need to live with them. Another couple I know has the husband’s mother live with them in order to care for their son as they both work full-time. The mother-in-law is spoiling their son and teaching him bad habits, but there’s little they can say without coming across as ungrateful."
Gilles is from Switzerland and has been living in Shanghai since 2005. He has been married to his Chinese wife, Candi, for two years.
"The first time I met my parents-in-law was actually by chance. My future wife and I were in a restaurant when she spotted her parents at another table. We went over to their table to say hello, filled up their teacups, paid their bill, and went back to our table.
Since then, we see my in-laws around once a month, whether it’s to have dinner together or just meeting in the neighborhood for a chat. I speak Chinese so when we meet we can communicate to a high level of proficiency.
However, although I have the ability to speak with my in-laws, I usually listen more than I speak. Additionally, while there is mutual respect in our relationship, it doesn’t have much depth or meaning, although that might change over time.
The main difference with Chinese families compared to Western families is that you can totally rely on your extended family in China, even if those relationships are not so deep or meaningful. At the same time, the family has a much bigger impact on the individual here. The happiness and approval of family members is of huge importance to my wife. With that in mind, don’t be offended if you’re not introduced, or even mentioned, to the family until you’ve made a solid commitment."
Todd is from the US and has been living in Guangzhou since 2012. He has been married to his Chinese wife, Diane, for five years.
"I guess I would define my relationship with my mother-in-law as co-dependent. She’s divorced, doesn’t have a job, and her government pension isn’t enough to support her. In turn, we rely on her to help take care of our kids while we’re at work. Having an extra pair of hands also affords me the freedom to go to the gym once in a while and enjoy a limited social life.
Despite the co-dependent nature of our relationship, we don’t really talk to one another much. There’s been drama in the past, including a gigantic family spat the day after our wedding and a few disagreements about how to parent. That’s led to us not really engaging each other in conversation.
Also, my mother-in-law took a hell of a long time to understand that I’m not a typical Chinese father — that is to say that I intend to be as involved as possible in my parenting. My mother-in-law was continually stunned by my desire to be in the delivery room, change diapers, and give baths, etc.
But in our own way, we’ve gotten closer. Now that there are kids involved and since my wife and I were center court for the emotional throes of my mother-in-law’s divorce, we’re pretty relaxed with one another. I’ll walk around the apartment in a shirt and undies without a thought these days, for example.
We may never have a truly close relationship, but the bottom line is that we need her as much as she needs us, so I’m going to do everything in my power to keep that stability. Also, I appreciate her being here and having a deep relationship with our kids. My grandma was a huge part of my upbringing, so I know the value of that.
A bit of advice for anyone out there is to remember that you marry the family, not just the person. Whether you like it or not and whether you like them or not, you’re going to be inexorably linked to your partner’s family members, especially if you end up having kids.
Bonus tip: expect for them to be all up in your business. Don’t be surprised if you have to ask your spouse to explain to your in-laws why it’s not cool to open your bedroom door if you’re in there and it’s closed, for example."
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Keywords: China expat
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I have been with my Chinese partner for almost 15 years. We have 2 Children. There were difficulties, but we discussed them at first instance and did not let an issue to sleep overnight. I speak Mandarin and I talk my heart directly to them and they do the same. It is not easy, I agree but talking about issues frankly and honestly will lead to a solution, maybe not everyone happy but people compromise and learn to let it go.
Jul 03, 2020 20:41 Report Abuse
I've been married to my Chinese wife for ten years. I'm English, but have Anglo- Saxon and Viking roots. My Chinese in- laws died before I had a chance to meet them, however my wife has three brothers. I am therefore part of a large Chinese family.
Jul 03, 2020 09:02 Report Abuse
I dont see my wifes parents either and my Chinese is not that good,they also have the own way of speaking.they are happy with us being together ,her parents love our son and have seen him many times.but also they let us do what we want,they dont seemed to get involved.My wifes mother even said to us that she had already raised 3 kids and did not want to help raising another.she said it was up to us.
Jul 03, 2020 06:56 Report Abuse