This week marks my and my husband’s 2-year anniversary. So much happened in these two years. We got engaged after knowing each other for only a month, married after dating for half a year, I became pregnant a few months after the wedding and today we have a 5-month-old son who keeps us from sleeping through the night (he has a cute laugh, so we bear with it). These are the things I’ve learned from being in a cross-cultural relationship with a spouse from a different country:
1. Respecting your partner’s culture is essential
If you are with someone who has grown up with a different cultural background, respecting your other half’s culture is key to making the relationship work.
I try to respect my husband’s cultural background, and he tries to respect mine. I don’t understand all the traditions and I don’t believe in all the superstitions (neither does my husband), but I still embrace these things as part of our life together. They are a part of the culture that has shaped who my husband is today, and they play a role in the upbringing of our child (an example for one such custom is the Chinese ritual for 5-day-old newborns).
2. There’s so much more to communication than language
Language is only a very small part of effective communication.
People often ask if my husband and I have communication problems based on language. We don’t have a common mother tongue and yes, we sometimes do have communication problems connected to language. We did and sometimes still do fight (I’ve written about one of our fights in a guest post titled “Fighting with my Chinese husband over rain” for The Lady Errant). But the good thing is that there’s so much more to effective communication than language. (This is not saying that fights can’t lead to effective communication, they often do.)
Here are three examples of how my husband and I communicated without the need for language in the delivery room:
- I gave birth to our son in a hospital in Austria. During labor, I got really thirsty (like really, really thirsty) after every contraction. I only had to make a small gesture with my hand and my husband knew that I needed another glass of water.
- When our son was born, my husband cried. He was the first person in this world our son looked at. I have never seen my husband cry before, so I knew how overjoyed he was. We still joke that I cried at our wedding, while he didn’t, and he cried after the birth of our son, while I didn’t (exhaustion, anyone?).
- Half an hour after giving birth, my husband walked me to the restroom. When I got up from the toilet to wash my hands, I suddenly felt very weak. I said to my husband “I think I need to lean…” and pang, fell to the floor unconscious. He caught me in mid-air and I only hurt my knee. I woke up lying on the floor of the restroom and could see my husband’s worried face. (I also have vague memories of him shouting “Schatz”, the German equivalent of “darling”, and him slapping my face.) He didn’t need to say anything. I knew how he felt. And he didn’t need to speak German to call the nurses. They were there when I woke up, because my husband instinctively knew that he had to press the emergency button.
These are only a few examples of how we communicate without words. Of course, being in the delivery room is an extreme example, but it works the same in everyday situations.
3. Handling red tape will become a big part of your life
If you want to be with your spouse from another country, handling red tape is something you can’t avoid.
When I studied abroad in Kunming in 2009, I thought that the red tape I had to handle was overwhelming. I was completely stressed out a week after arrival. Today, handling red tape has become my second nature. From getting all the documents needed for getting married to a person from a different country to applying for yet another visa, red tape is a big part of our life.
By handling so much red tape, I’ve learned that with patience, things usually work out. Getting a Chinese police officer to register me in their system at a police station that has never registered a foreigner before and where people don’t even know which document to use? Check. Getting my husband a 5-month visa for Austria for the birth of our baby instead of the usual 3-month visa? Check. Getting my husband’s birth certificate from a hospital that has been torn down 20 years ago? Check. Getting our son a Chinese travel permit? Check.
4. Marrying a person with a different citizenship is expensive
Before I married my Chinese husband, I had no idea that marrying someone from a different country is expensive. Registering your marriage in Austria is relatively inexpensive, getting all the documents, translations and apostilles you need for marrying a person from a different country – not so much.
When my husband applied for his first Schengen visa for our wedding in 2013, he had to travel all the way from Shenzhen in Southeast China to Beijing in Northern China for the interview. Having children born to parents of different nationalities is also expensive. Getting our son’s birth certificate translated and notarised cost us 170 EUR (about 210 USD or 1300 CNY). This is only talking about one single document. There was a bunch of other documents we needed to translate and notarise to get married and yet another few that we need for spousal visas. The only good thing about it is that once your document is translated and notarised, it is translated and notarised for life.
5. Being married to someone from a different country is challenging
Being married to someone from a different country is challenging. It’s challenging because of all the legal issues you have to solve to be together. It’s challenging because when you’re tired at the end of the day, you don’t know how to express your feelings well in a language that’s not your mother tongue. It’s challenging because you live in a country that is so unlike the one you grew up in. It’s challenging because there are different cultural expectations of how to raise your children. It’s challenging because as a person married to someone from a different country, you’re in between countries. You’ll feel like you don’t belong to either of both cultures.
You’ll feel alone because your family and friends can’t relate to the issues being married to someone from a different country brings with it. You’ll feel desperate because you don’t know if you can get the documents in order before your visa expires. You’ll be worried that the baby arrives before your husband does.
6. All the challenges will be rewarding if you love each other
My husband and I take on all these challenges because it means that we can wake up right next to each other every single day. All the challenges are rewarding because we love each other. Most of the time, these challenges don’t weigh us down. The positives highly outnumber the negatives.
Of course it would be nice if I could apply for a 1, 2 or even 5 year residence permit in my husband’s hometown (I currently get half a year, and after that 1 year at a time). It would be nice if I was allowed to work on a spousal residence permit. It would be great if more people could relate to our situation.
But looking at my husband and our son, I don’t think about all the would be’s. I see the positive aspects, the things we have already accomplished.
I feel blessed because we have two places we call home, two languages and cultures our son grows up with, both Chinese and Austrian holidays to celebrate, a variety of favourite songs to choose from and plenty of children’s stories to tell our son. I rock our son to sleep singing Bruder Jakob (the German equivalent of Brother John). He’ll grow up singing Liǎng zhī lǎohǔ (两只老虎, “Two Tigers”, a Chinese children’s song with the same melody, but different text from Brother John). Our breakfast is bread and congee, cheese and pickles, coffee and soy milk. We fight in Chinese and swear in German.
We live in a colourful world. As colourful as it is, at the end of the day, we’re just humans who happened to fall in love with someone from a different country.
Seeing my husband cry after the birth of our beautiful son? I wouldn’t want to miss this experience for anything in the world.
Have you ever been in a cross-cultural relationship? What lessons have you taken away from the experience? I’d love to read your stories.