6 things I’ve learned in 2 years of being in a cross-cultural relationship with my Chinese husband

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:

cross-cultural relationship

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.

cross-cultural relationship

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.

cross-cultural relationship

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.

cross-cultural relationship

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.

cross-cultural relationship

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.

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Hi, I'm Ruth, welcome to China Elevator Stories! I have been living in Kunming and Shenzhen in the past and am now staying in Northeast China with my Chinese husband and our baby and toddler son. Join us on our journey bridging worlds!


  1. robert

    Very nice write up of the difficulties of a inter-racial/cultural relationship! After 4 years I can relate.
    Also being a foreigner myself made me respect many of the foreigners in Austria much more. Especially since their roles are reversed and there is, for many, no “foreigner bonus”.
    What also adds, sometimes, to the difficulties is that I live the foreigner experience – even though it’s mostly a good one – and my girlfriend does not. So she cannot always relate to my problems because she never lived abroad. Living abroad in different countries, for more than ten years also changed my perspective on Austria (also my home). Sometimes I really don’t understand the people there any more either 😉

    • It definitely goes both ways and we’re probably more understanding of the issues foreigners in our own country face. Which is a good thing. If you choose to live in Austria with your Chinese spouse at some point in time, you’ll experience some of these issues first hand. It can be hard, but sometimes you’ll also be surprised if someone’s friendlier than expected.

  2. Very powerful post, Ruth. Thank you for sharing so honestly about the challenges of a cross-cultural relationship. I love how honestly you state that there’s more to communication than language. Language is a powerful tool that helps us understand aspects of cultures, but at the end of the day action speaks louder than words. From what you’ve described, your husband comes across as a very attentive guy and he lets his character do the talking.

    I’m sure apart from learning different songs and food, your son will be traveling different countries as he grows up, what an experience that will be for him. I suppose when you marry someone of a different culture, you marry into their culture as well. The two of you don’t agree on some of each other’s customs, but hats off to the two of you for putting your differences aside to make it all work and let love blossom 🙂

    • Thanks, Mabel!

      I agree, language is a very powerful tool. But it’s only one out of many (and language can be so different depending if you write it or speak it – I, for one, am much better at putting thoughts into written words than into spoken ones). The relationship between language and communication would deserve a post all in its own right.

      You’re right that you also marry into your spouse’s culture. You might never be completely included (people will excuse you if you don’t understand their customs), but you’ll also experience things you wouldn’t if you weren’t married to someone from that culture. It can be both positive and negative.

      There are always differences between two partners, no matter if they are from two different countries or from the same one. But love lets us see the similarities more than the differences.

  3. Totally agree with all of this! I’m married to a Russian with EXCELLENT English which helps a lot as I’m a very lazy Russian speaker. There are definitely times where it’s frustrating, but it’s easy enough to overcome as you’ve shown.

    The legal stuff though… We’ve spent so much money getting him US tourist visas, getting (rejected) Schengen visas, and now we’re doing a green card. I definitely didn’t anticipate the expense!

    Overall you’re totally right, though. If you like them enough, it’s totally worth it 🙂

    • Thanks for sharing what it’s been like for you,Polly. Good luck with the green card!

      It is. It’s not like we chose to handle all that red tape that marrying someone from a different culture brings with it (and the connected expenses), but it’s totally worth doing it for love.

  4. This is a great post. Even though I have been in an AMWF for 2.5 years, you mentioned some things I hadn’t even thought about (like the cost of getting all your documents translated!). Some other things I have already considered, like the challenges and the red tape, and decided it was totally worth it, as you said 🙂

    That picture of your husband and your baby in bed absolutely melted my heart :_)

    • It melted mine too :D. I’d definitely marry him again if he wasn’t my husband yet (just because he’s so cute with our baby).

      Yes, getting all the documents + translations isn’t cheap, but it helps to be prepared. One of the advantages I didn’t mention is that as a spouse of someone from a Schengen country (you need to be married for that), you won’t need to pay the fee for a Schengen visa. Yay! So it’s not all bad.

  5. I can’t relate, but the way you wrote it is beautiful and endearing. So, I feel like I can understand your situation better. Wonderful post. Many blessings.

  6. Lovely post! I think you should frame the photo of your husband and son in bed because it is so precious! I’ve been in a few relationships with guys from other countries and have learned a lot. The bottom line is respect. If you respect each other, you will be fine. But if one of the people doesn’t respect the other, it will be very difficult to make it work.

  7. F.

    Great post! I’m Austrian, my boyfriend is Japanese and I can relate to many of your points. Interestingly enough I think that our communication is a lot better than in my last relationships (with German speaking boys/men), although I don’t speak Japanese (or just in a very basic way) and he doesn’t really speak German (a little better than my Japanese). So we communicate in a language which is neither his nor my mother tongue (and not English). Maybe it works out that well because we are always aware of that? Of possible missunderstandings? Or because we need a little more effort? We both love (foreign) language(s) though, so maybe it’s because of that. I’m not sure – but I can’t complain about communication problems.

    • Being aware that there might be possible misunderstandings definitely helps. It’s easy to misunderstand someone when they speak the same language, but we’re often not as aware of it as if someone (or both of us) speak a different language.

  8. I believe that love does not need the same skin color, the same language, the same nationality…
    Love is something universally possible (you’re a nice example) and the triasl that you have to overcome, will strengthen your marriage!
    I have to mention that our Mind/Soul has no boundaries… in this life here, in the next maybe in China, then maybe even in Africa… and I believe in reincarnation as a Buddhist.
    I wish you eternal love!
    🙂 claudine

  9. Eric

    “We fight in Chinese and swear in German”

    This is funny, in my case it is the other way round. I guess one only get the full satisfaction of swearing in ones’ native language. Just curious, what nationality does your son have?

  10. Just wanted to say, that last photo with your husband and son is really, really precious. This post as a whole, combined with that photo, was incredibly emotional, endearing and heartfelt. I really love reading pieces of writing that flow like this.

    When you date someone from another country, I think many people don’t even think about no. 3 and 4 you posted up there (red tape and costs). And here I thought all that paperwork got easier after marriage!!

    One of my recent relationships fell apart due to finances, cultural clashes and the hassle of red tape. We couldn’t pull off step one (we once got into a screaming fight about how I wanted to drink a cold drink during my period), we were constantly worrying about how to bring him to the USA and I was having second doubts about staying in China. There are sooooo many things to consider when dating internationally.

    But like you list at the end, I think in the end all the pros are worth the cons. If two people can get through all these hurdles, then they can get through anything!

    • Thanks!

      The paperwork somehow does get easier after marriage because you already have most of the documents translated. But it really never stops, kind of. Especially not if you live in China. If we were living in Austria long term, it would probably get easier because my husband would be eligible for a long term residence permit after a while.

      If you can make it through all the paperwork, that’s already a big step. If you can’t, it’s better to know in advance (like you did) and not tie the knot. It might not have worked out in the long run, I guess.

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  12. this was such a heartfelt, incredibly well written piece. =) you articulate so well the struggles and joys you two face together in marriage and how despite the difficulties, it is so worth it =) beautifully said!

  13. Interesting read! I wonder how similar Japanese men and Chinese men are. It’s interesting that, during labour, you didn’t have to say anything in order for your husband to understand that you were thirsty. We do a lot of non-verbal communication in Japan as well.

    Anyway, you husband seems a great guy!

    • I’m sure there are some similarities, especially when it comes to reading someone’s face or gestures, since both Japanese and Chinese culture don’t encourage people to express feelings as much with words as some Western cultures do.

      He surely is a great guy!

  14. K

    I really like this post and it inspires me to believe in love for the future no matter what comes my way.
    I am curious though, why did you decide to have your little boy in Austria?

  15. My best wishes for your son and marriage.

    In your avatar profile, you said you speak Chinese fluently. So what does that mean in relation to your husband when you said that you and hubby don’t have a common language?

    I actually think a lot and complex communication is often required to make a marriage work well forever.. I’m just basing this on my parents’ marriage (my mother was a picture bride) and they Toishanese to one another.

    And with my partner (past 23+ yrs.) …it’s English of course. And he and I love chatting with one another about anything.

    • We do have a common language, which is Mandarin Chinese, but not a common mother tongue. Chinese is my husband’s mother tongue, but not mine, and although I am fluent, there are still times when I have difficulty putting thoughts into words in this language. It can be hard putting thoughts into words in one’s own mother tongue, not to speak of a second language.

      I agree. A lot of communication is required to make marriage work well (can’t speak about the forever yet), and finding the right way to communicate can be challenging especially when it comes to topics such as raising kids. But if both partners have different mother tongues, you can still make it work. First and foremost, communication is key – not language (I’m not saying language is not important, just saying that communication is even more important than language), and that includes one partner being aware of what the other partner not speaking the language like a native speaker entails.

      Loving to converse with each other even after so many years of being together – it sounds like you have a great marriage.

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  17. Alana

    Thank you so much for such a beautiful article. I am in an interracial relationship with a wonderful filipino man. As marriage would naturally be the next step in our future I have wondered what it would be like if I lived in his country and how to adjust to their way of living. After visiting the Philippines for two months my heart is not entirely in the idea of permanently living there but at the same time I am open minded to the possibilities. Just the process at immigration alone in the capital made me cringe because the way that paperwork is processed there and hoops and ladders you go through is exhausting. I agree with you that marrying someone from another country is expensive but my children will have two homes and have the coolest most colorful life! I have really been looking online for an article about this so thank you for your work! This has helped me a lot. I am wondering if you have written an article yet on adjusting to your husbands family values. How to adjust to “their” way of doing things compared to what you know how to do.

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