Saturday, February 6, 2016

My Intercultural Love: Y & Ruth

Ruth writes an amazing blog about her adventures as an expat in China and I'm a huge fan of hers!

Hi! I’m Ruth from Austria, currently living in Northeast China with my Chinese husband, our toddler son and the in-laws living really close-by. I work as a German teacher at a local university during the semester and on children’s book illustrations in the holidays. My husband is Y and he's from Siping, Jilin province, in China.

Three words that describe you...
Receptive, sensitive, creative.

Favorite childhood memory...
Curling up on my bed reading books.

Where/how do you feel most inspired?
I feel most inspired when traveling solo (in the last years mostly in China). 

Where/how did you meet your spouse?
We met at work in an ad agency in Shenzhen, a big city in Southeast China right across the border from Hong Kong. We worked in a team together and I sat right next to him on my first day at work. The rest is history.

How long have you been together?
We have been together for 3 years.

What qualities do you admire in your spouse?
I like that he’s determined and protective (but in a good way), doesn’t listen to peer pressure and that he has a great sense of humor.

Favorite memory together as a couple...
Walking down a road in Nanning, where he proposed to me out of the blue, and seeing him cry happy tears after the birth of our son.

How did you tell your friends/family about your intercultural relationship?
We sent out an e-mail for Christmas with a picture of us right after we got together, most people weren’t that surprised I had a Chinese boyfriend (I used to date another Chinese guy in the past), but rather about the fact that he’s so tall (which tells a lot about the stereotypes most people have about Chinese men being short).

How has your relationship enlightened your life? How has it changed you & your outlook on life?
I have learned so much more about Chinese society and culture by being in a relationship with my husband, both the good and the bad. I like to think that it has made me less judgmental, especially now that we are raising our son here. 

I didn’t think I would marry a guy after knowing him for only half a year and get pregnant at age 25. I know not everyone thinks that’s young, but to me, to marry before 30 and get pregnant was just really not what I imagined my life would be like, so it has also made me less judgmental in regard to how I think about marriage or raising kids.

My husband is a very involved father and because of this, both the Chinese and Austrian way of raising children is important in our household. This has led to plenty of fights, but also to many compromises that made me realize there’s not just one way of doing things and different doesn’t necessarily mean worse.

Who proposed and how?
My husband proposed when we walked down a pedestrian street in a southern Chinese city we had just arrived in for a holiday. It wasn’t very romantic, but it really suited me. He just popped the question while we walked down that road holding hands. He didn’t even prepare a ring, so I suggested he could just make one out of a 10-Yuan note. He still jokes that this was the cheapest proposal ever, but I really wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Describe your wedding...
We married in Austria and I really wasn’t that excited about the wedding after all the stressful months of preparations from afar leading up to it. Since my husband doesn’t speak German and is not familiar with Austrian wedding customs, I had to prepare the whole wedding on my own with the help of my family. We went to the registrar at noon and celebrated the wedding with lots of food, drinks and cake afterwards. It lasted until midnight, the dancing in the evening was fun, but I think to my husband it was also a very lonely experience since his family and friends couldn’t attend. We sometimes think of having a ceremony in China to make up for it.

What does being married mean to you?
To me, being married is definitely about commitment and it also means that we can be together no matter what happens. What I mean is that we have the paperwork, so at least from a legal standpoint there shouldn’t be a reason why we can’t be together (geographically speaking).

What are your dreams for your future together as a married couple?
We’d like to be more independent financially, so we can go to Austria together every once in a while. Right now I take our son back alone, since we currently just can’t afford going back together. It’s tough to be separated, especially with a little child. The last time I took our baby son back to Austria, our son just ignored my husband when we were reunited in Beijing, because he was so hurt his dad didn’t come with us.

I hope that some day Austrian culture will feel more natural to my husband, too, but otherwise I just hope that we can be happily together, no matter where we are located geographically and give our son a happy childhood.

Both my husband and I like traveling, so that’s also something we want to do whenever we have some time and money.

What's the best marital advice that you received from elder family/friends?
I think the best advice I got is from my mother-in-law. It wasn’t about marriage per-se, but she once said after my husband had to explain to her that I sometimes I say things differently in Chinese than I mean them: “I don’t mind the cultural differences and misunderstandings, as long as you two are happy, that’s all that matters.” I feel so loved knowing that she’ll support us no matter what and puts our happiness before anything else. I think that’s good advice to go with for anyone being married, that although there might be differences, you can still work on them and be happy together.

What do you do to keep your relationship alive? What kinds of things do you do to connect with your spouse?
We like to joke with each other and make a point in spending quality time together just the two of us. We like going to the cinema, to bathhouses in winter or for a walk in the evening in summer, and we have a tradition of enjoying coffee together on Saturday mornings.

In what ways have you adopted aspects of your spouse's culture?
It’s very common in China to have the grandparents help out (a lot) with raising your kid, and some even raise the kids instead of the parents. We currently live in Northeast China in close proximity to my in-laws. When my husband and I are at work or go on a date, they take care of our son (they really love taking care of him and our son loves playing with them, so it’s a win-win for all of us).

I drink hot water a lot, and when I have internal heat (a TCM-term), I’ll boil some Chrysanthemum tea. Whenever our son has a cold or a fever, I drink boiled ginger water. My mother-in-law says that he will take up the ginger when he nurses. 

I also try to be considerate of my husband and get him a glass of water or a snack when he works from home. Chinese often show their love with actions, not with words, and I try to take that into account.

Has your family adopted aspects of your spouse's culture?
Not really, we don’t live in Austria and most of my family members have never been to China. For our wedding, my paternal grandmother and aunts considered wearing Qipao’s (traditional Chinese dresses). They decided for traditional Austrian dresses in the end, because they wanted to show our husband what those looked like.

What aspects of your spouse's culture do you find difficult to embrace?
The fact that in Chinese society you have to figuratively bow to elders, people higher in rank or with more power than you and the sexism that can still be very prevalent here (thank you, Confucius!).

Name some cultural faux-pas that you have unknowingly committed...
Where should I start? I once told a friend that his ear-surgery sounded really awesome (instead of serious) and I do repeatedly invite ghosts into our home because I don’t always know how I can keep them out.

What was the most challenging time in your intercultural relationship?
Being new parents and a location change that also brought on financial difficulties was definitely the most challenging time so far. I think being new parents is a challenging time in almost any relationship, but adding the cultural component and financial difficulties really made for a trying time. It’s much better now that our son is a little older and we have found some balance again.

What's the best and the worst part of being in an intercultural relationship?
The best part is that you get to experience a different culture not just from afar, but close-up. You’ll find new friends and will have a new family. You can celebrate new holidays and get to travel to stunning places. But at the same time, being a part of this culture is also one of the worst parts, because you can’t just throw in the towel and leave if you have a bad China-day, -month or -year or just feel like you don’t want to live here anymore.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions that people have about intercultural relationships?
I think many people tend to see intercultural relationships in shades of black and white. Many have either a romanticized image where they view the relationship as something very positive (being able to travel a lot, get to know a different culture, being at home in two countries, having “beautiful and intelligent mixed kids”), while others see mostly the negatives (communication issues, discrimination, the whole “it can’t possibly work out”-attitude). I think when it comes down to it, with all the challenges intercultural relationships bring with them, we are still just people living together as a family trying to find a way to make it work.

What are the biggest misconceptions about Western women / men?
In China, one big misconception is that Western women are all “easy”. I do think that women should have the right to choose how often and who they want to have sex with, but in China the assumption is often that Western women would sleep with just any guy at any time, no matter the guys’ age, his character, or his looks; objectifying Western women.

Another big misconception is that we all eat steak and hamburgers and our mother tongue must certainly be English, but then, many people in Austria can’t distinguish between people from different East Asian countries as well, so this one goes both ways.

Take-away advice for other intercultural couples...
I’ve been asked how I decide in which aspects I stick to my own way of raising our child and in which aspects I’m okay with the Chinese way of doing it. To me, if it concerns safety or health issues or if I feel really strongly about something, I’ll definitely stick to my guns, anything else is open for discussion. 

Otherwise, I have started to remind myself not to judge as much. It’s easy to get into a rut. Not judging when there’s no need to judge is one of the hardest, but most rewarding things you can do when it comes to living a fulfilling life abroad.



  1. Loved this interview, it is nice to see this one from Ruth as I am also following her blog ever since I started blogging myself back in 2013.


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