8 things you should know before marrying into a Chinese family

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When I married my Chinese husband, I had read up on some cross-cultural marriage issues, but there is also a lot I’m only getting to know with time. I’m still learning. What does it mean to marry into a Chinese family (if the man is Chinese)?

  1. Everything’s a family affair …

It is widely known that marrying a Chinese guy means you marry into the family. Things you thought were private matters might suddenly be discussed in loud voices at the family table. Where’s that child you’re supposed to birth? Are you still fertile although you’re already over 30? Should you birth a boy or a girl? Should you keep your cat or is that innocent looking kitty one of the most dangerous creatures on earth? How about your salary? Should you switch careers so you can live in closer proximity to your in-laws? Once that baby is here, how about you just give it to the grandparents to raise while you and your husband live in the big city and pretend to be two youngsters without kid? We’ve had quite a few of these things discussed at the family table. Luckily, so far my menstrual problems are usually only discussed between my husband, my mother-in-law and me (and sometimes women working at bath houses). There are still things that are off-topic for fathers-in-law.

  1. … including finances

When my husband and I first started dating, we talked about finances a lot. Growing up, I always had problems talking about money, so I thought being able to talk about finances with him was a fresh respite. If you marry into a Chinese family, finances are often not only an issue discussed between you and your spouse, but between extended family members. Depending if your in-laws are better off or worse financially, they might help you out when you’re in financial troubles or expect you to help them out financially in old age. Many people here don’t get a pension or not enough money to afford hospital visits or else, so your financial help might be essential for them to get by. Make sure you’re in the know about finances before you say yes to your Chinese family. Talking about finances before marriage is helpful no matter if you’re in a cross-cultural relationship or not.

  1. You’ll be expected to come home to your Chinese family for Spring Festival

Now, I’m sure there are exceptions to this one, but in general, once you’re married, you are part of your Chinese family and thus expected to spend Spring Festival with them. Similar to spending Christmas with family back home (if you’re in living in somewhat close proximity), Chinese New Year is celebrated with the extended family. The good thing about it is that if you’re from different countries which don’t both celebrate Spring Festival, you won’t need to negotiate on which day you’ll see which part of the family. Many Chinese marry spouses from different provinces and can only visit one part of the family each year, giving them plenty of opportunity to fight over which part they should visit the upcoming year (which, again, is pretty similar to Christmas in Western countries).

  1. Fighting can seem utterly pointless or even ridiculous

This one is more general and is probably similar for many couples in cross-cultural relationships across the world. Fighting can lead to communication. But it might also seem pointless. We’ve had plenty of fights that led to better communication and because of that, I’m not afraid to fight anymore (like I used to be before I met my husband), but we’ve also had quite a few fights where I just really couldn’t figure out what the hell we were actually fighting about. When you’re in a relationship where you speak different mother tongues, at least one of you will probably not speak in their own mother tongue when fighting. It is hard to put emotions into words in your mother tongue, and even harder if you fight in a second language. Add this component and the fact that you’ve probably grown up in two really different cultures, and you might be fighting about completely different things during the same fight. Hubby says A, I understand B and say C. He understands D and says E. It can go on like that forever from A to Z. The last time we fought like that, he concluded: “Fighting with you doesn’t make any sense.” That’s when we stopped fighting and went back to business as usual. Weirdly enough, everything’s been pretty fine since then.

  1. Your opinion as a mother might not count as much as it would in your home-country

marrying into Chinese family

If your in-laws help you with childcare, your parents-in-law might think what they say about childcare counts more than what you say as the mother. Why is that so? In China, seniority is usually not to be questioned. Your mother-in-law has already raised a child on her own, so she’s the one who knows how it works is the general mindset. Many of us are lucky in that their in-laws still have an open ear for their requests or are willing to communicate, but quite a few have had to fight their way into doing things the way they’d like to do them or minimise the time the in-laws spend with their grandchild, leading to broken hearts or severely damaged family relationships on the way.

The thing is, there’s often no right or wrong when it comes to childcare, just different cultural practices. But if you live in China, you’re representing the minority culture, so how you raise your child might be seen as rather a little crazy by the locals. Either your husband has your back (I count myself lucky in this regard), you have an understanding mother-in-law (lucky again) – or if you’re not okay with the in-laws meddling in what you consider your business, you’ll have to find other ways to get that much-needed help.

In our household, we communicate on a regular basis about issues about parenting. There’s a lot we don’t agree on with the in-laws, many times where I don’t know how to get my points across in Chinese, but there’s also a lot I’ve learned to let go of because I know we all have the best intentions in mind and no matter if the in-laws do some things differently from us, our son will still turn out alright. The most important thing is that his grandparents love him, he loves them, and they’d never do anything to hurt him. Never mind all those red songs his granddad sings with him! He’ll figure things out by himself.

  1. Many Chinese fathers aren’t as involved in raising their children as Western ones might be

This one can be pretty hard to swallow for women who grew up expecting their spouse to be really involved with his children from birth (read Ember Swift’s post here on how she’s dealing with this issue). Now, I’m not saying every Western dad is an involved father, we’re just talking about general here. In many Chinese families, it’s the women’s job to raise the children (traditionally both the mother’s as well as the mother-in-law’s). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there are no involved Chinese fathers, there certainly are (my husband is a good example for it) and times are changing, but your husband might turn out not to be of the involved-father-species or he might be better with caring for his children only once they are a little older.

Caring for a newborn is hard enough and will give you plenty of topics to fight about with your spouse, add to that your unfulfilled expectations and you’re in for a bumpy ride, if not even divorce. Make sure to talk about your expectations before that little crying bundle of joy enters the world and try to find some common ground. Things might change a bit after your baby has arrived, but talking about both of your expectations early on might help you re-negotiate your points once the baby’s there.

  1. Society’s expectations will encroach upon you

Still remember that time you were really in love with China and how light and free you felt living here? If you marry a Chinese man and decide to live in China, society’s expectations will encroach upon you. You won’t be able to just leave your life in China behind on a whim if you feel like it. YOU WILL BE MARRIED TO CHINA, for good or for worse (as long as you don’t divorce, that is). You’ll be expected to understand certain aspects of Chinese culture. You might have to act the “I’m certainly not a feminist wife”-and “I look up to seniority”-part at family gatherings (or, like me, become really unpopular with the oldest patriarch in the family). You’ll also get to know a lot of things you probably never wanted to know about Chinese society. As long as you’re not married to China, you’re free to choose which aspects of Chinese culture you want to embrace and which aspects you’ll just want to leave at your doorstep. Marrying into China doesn’t give you that choice anymore. I was struggling quite a bit with this at first, but have since come to my piece of mind about it.

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  1. Just as there are different kinds of in-laws in your own culture, so there are in China

There are a few general aspects of Chinese culture that might play a role in your married life, but just as there are different kinds of in-laws back home, so there are in China. You might have a great relationship with your Chinese mother-in-law or it might be really strained. Your father-in-law might be quite the patriarch, or he might be really supportive of gender equality. They might expect you to care for them in old age or not. They might offer you their 24-hour help with childcare or they might prefer to enjoy their own free time. They might want to live with you in one household or not. Be open-minded and they might surprise you. But if they are anything but supportive, then I suggest living farther away from them for your own sake and that of your marriage. Never forget that you do have choices.

You might think that a lot of the above sounds way negative, but I don’t want to paint an all-rosy picture. Marrying into a Chinese family can have its ups and downs (hopefully more ups than downs). But like I said, there are all kinds of families and you might be lucky (like me) and marry into a loving family, whose main concern is that you and your husband are happy and who think that all the cultural issues can be communicated about. We do have fights, we do have communication issues, but at the end of the day I know that my in-laws have my back. I’ve never regretted marrying my husband and thereby extending our family of two to four (five now with our son), but honestly speaking, I sometimes regret being married to China. I’ll stand my ground on things that are important to me (remember that time Daye really put me down?), but there are times when you can’t just say “f*** it” and turn your back on everything. After all, I’m not only married to a Chinese man and China, but I have a son who is Chinese (and Austrian) who grows up partly in China.

marrying into a Chinese family

And that’s the beauty of it: The ease with which he answers questions from strangers that used to upset me like “Shouldn’t he be inside? Isn’t he cold?”, his childlike curiosity and wonder for everyone and everything, the way it’s as normal for him to wear Chinese-style kids clothes as well as Austrian-style ones, his appetite for fried silkworm chrysalis as well as bread with butter – these are all things with which he, more than anyone else, has taught me to lay down my own culture-influenced judgments and just take things as they are (which, by the way, is still a huge work in progress).

Would you add anything to the list? I’d love to read your thoughts.

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About

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!

27 comments

  1. Great post! So true. And don’t think you’re off the hook if you marry a guy raised in western society, either — my husband is first generation American, but #1, #2, and #5 above are absolutely true for his parents. I had no idea what I was getting into.

    He’s worth it, though. Mostly.

  2. Jen

    Great post! Even though I have been married to my Chinese husband for a few months, I am starting to see things on your list. I never expected some things too. I think it is very revering that my husband changed his mind about how to raise children. He first wanted to send our future children to go to school in China and then when they are older have them go to school in the USA for high school. Now he says he wants to be more involved with our children’s lives. He was surprised to hear that my mother would love to take care of our children when we are at work. This helps with our low funds, child care in USA is so high. We will see how this turns out when we have children.

    I agree that you have to have communication between each other to fully understand each other. My husband and I continue to talk about issues even after marriage. This is important.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks!

      It’s great that he wants to be more involved and that you are able to talk about what you consider important for your future children.

      Communication is key, and if in-laws are involved, it’s even more important to communicate about what you want for you and your family.

  3. Chu

    This was a great post and so true! My husband and I settled in Canada so some of this doesn’t necessarily apply to me but a lot of it does.

    My in laws and I had a fantastic relationship until I had my baby. It created a lot of strain and miscommunication; I’m afraid that relationship will never heal completely. But like you said, my son will love his grandparents like they love him and I will do anything to support their relationship with my children… As long as I can keep my sanity! (Kind of a blessing them being in Hong Kong while my son is a baby…)

    • I agree, having a baby can change the relationship with the in-laws. It certainly put some pressure on us initially and I remember that we tried a lot of different methods to solve the problem of appreciating their help, but still wanting some privacy as a family of three. I imagine it gets easier once you have set up some basic rules. But we still communicate with them quite frequently about those basic rules.

  4. I love the top photo, it’s so cute. You two really are a lovely couple and a great union of China and the west!

    Anyway, you have prepared me for a lot of what is to come with this post, haha. I’m also dating a Chinese man, but he was mostly raised in the west, although his family is still very Chinese. I already feel them creeping into my life like a shadow right behind me. My boyfriend will often invite them on our travel holidays and what not, which no western guy would ever do (at least, not before marriage anyway, no matter how serious).

    I can only imagine how much more difficult it gets once you have a child!

    I also enjoy talking about finances as well. I don’t think my western ex boyfriends were very comfortable talking about money and it made the topic somewhat… offensive? Chinese people are very open and transparent about money and it’s been a relief for me.

    • Thank you, Mary!

      I’m sure there are a few differences for those born in the West, but a lot of family life can still be similar because the parents often grew up in China or in another Asian nation where similar family values exist.

      I also enjoy that I’m able to talk about finances. If you live together or are married, it’s definitely important to talk about it. I think Western people (both men and women) can be reluctant to talk about finances because if you’re “just” dating, there’s no need to talk about it, right? You need a lot of commitment to be able to talk about it with your partner.

      You’re right, once you have a child the relationship with the in-laws can change quite a lot. You’ll need a lot of communication to make it work.

    • Jon

      Hi Mary. It’s great that you are dating a Chinese man and he’s very Westernized. But, keep in mind that you will have to deal with his family eventually. That’s part of the Chinese culture. And it’s funny, I do invite my family to go on trip with my wife also! haha. Fortunately, they get along pretty well, most of the time. 😀 Good luck and communication is important!

  5. Am also dating a Chinese guy and we’re about to become parents unexpectedly if all goes well sometime in March of this year. I do hope that #6 will be an exception for me due to reasons of having an un-involved father in my life and bad enough that the father-to-be is a college-holic when it comes to various degrees. For #3, considering that he is the only one in his family who lives in Texas while others are spread out to different states and even a country or two, I kind of doubt that we’ll be expected anywhere at Spring Festival, although other occasions would be more appropriate. (Perhaps someone’s birthday is one.) Not sure about other numbers, but #1 is true actually, (as soon as my pregnancy was confirmed he told his mom who told to other people she knew, and when I was having some issues due to my obgyn underestimating baby’s size few months back, his mom also knew about it.) and so far no objections on my part about it.

    I do admit that I am nervous about #5 (I’m a first time mom who wants to make people happy but at the same time do the right things when it comes to raising the child.)

    Have to say that its a very adorable picture of your husband and son 🙂 I hope mine little one will look cute as well.

    • #3 is probably more common if you live in China (should have added that in the article).

      Re #5: Your baby and you come first. Every other person second. Keep that in mind once the baby’s there. You might need some help from friends or family, but don’t put their needs above yours and the baby’s.

      Thanks! I’m sure your baby will be beautiful.

  6. Jon

    Great article. Came across this piece from Jocelyn’s blog. Even though I grew up in China/HK, I am pretty Americanized and I was naive not to think about these things before I got married with my American wife. For me, she’s just someone I love, that’s all. But, as you said, it’s way more complicated than that. I am actually shocked at some of the traditional values that my parents brought up after we got married even though my parents are very open-minded. There’s not just generation gap but also cultural gap. It’s definitely not as romantic as people think. 😀

    • You’re completely right, part of it is not only a cultural gap, but also a generational gap (I suppose also within families who live in China, but probably even more so if you moved abroad or grew up in a different country).

      Yeah, the romance can get lost pretty fast in some of these situations.

  7. You never marry a Chinese guy alone, you marry his whole family.

    According to point 5: I think it is not only when you are a mother. I always have the feeling that my opinion doesn’t count as much because.. maybe I am younger than them?

    • That might be it. I hope it’s not because you’re a woman (who’s younger than your MIL), but that would also be another possible reason. I’ve had that problem with certain relatives, but found that the longer hubby and I are together, the more serious they take my opinions. Maybe I just wasn’t considered part of the inner family right after the wedding by some of the relatives and they wanted to see if I stay?

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  9. robert

    Well I am married now, so far some things apply, and some not. I think we’re lucky because my wife has two sisters, so all the expectations people have, we just get a third of them. That and the family being a 2 hour flight + 2 hour drive away puts up a barrier. Not that I don’t like them, actually quite the opposite. But I definitely have to go into “Chinese family member” mode when I visit them, be respectful, tolerate behavior I may otherwise not tolerate, and be a nice and jolly fellow. And at the family gatherings I really enjoy it. But I couldn’t do it full time. So I’m quite happy that there’s a bit of a distance – even though I wish it were a bit less. The 2 hour drive from Beijing to Chengde sucks, and we didn’t visit the inlaws as often as we wanted.

    • Every family is different and since your wife technically married out, a few of these points won’t apply to her as much as they would to a couple where the wife married into the Chinese family. Of course, a lot of the above mentioned also depends on your specific living situation, like how far away do you live from extended family, do you have kids, …

  10. Chen Gang

    Great post Ruth!

    I really admire the western women who marry Chinese men, including my wife! I know how much cultural difficulties you have to overcome, especially living in China. I read somewhere that cross cultural marriages have a higher rate of divorce in the US, but not true how significant the difference is. But in the end, it is the special bond between the parteners that sustains the time and challenges, and leaves a beautiful story.

    • There are challenges, and plenty challenges many aren’t aware of when we first start dating. But then, every relationship has its challenges, the important thing is if the positives outweigh the negatives or not.

      It would be interesting to know which different factors they took into account for the study.

  11. Alireza

    How about your visa? Do you renew your visa annually? Marrying a Chinese man can give guarantee a permanent visa or citizenship?

    • China has a spousal residence permit (usually for up to 2 years, where I live only for 1), but you’re not allowed to work on it. If you want to work, you need to get a work permit (need to renew every year). No citizenship through marriage

  12. Lena

    Great post! I just happened to come across this article and really enjoyed it. I’m the product of an American-Chinese marriage. I can remember my parents having those bumpy moments and tough learning curves with the family! There was the time my grandfather visited us when I was 8. My father couldn’t understand why his father-in-law was outside rooting up and replanting all his carefully tended flowers and plants! My father was so upset and I still remember my mother shushing him in the kitchen, “Just let him do it. You can always move it back once he leaves.” Because, obviously, you don’t tell your father-in-law what he can or can’t do in your own yard!! But with time the blend of cultures in our family deepened and became natural for all of us. It sounds like the same is happening for you and your family. 🙂

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  15. Jessica

    Thanks Ruth for your post,
    I met my Singaporean-Chinese husband when I was just 20 in university in Massachusetts, and married when I was 24, and he was 30. He was the whole package-big brotherly, sweet, intelligent, sensitive, and took very good care of me. We have been married for 16 years and have 2 beautiful boys ages 10 and 5. I’m so blessed to have him in my life. When we were dating and I would have my menstral cramps he would without even asking buy my pads for me and make me egg drop soup and rice. His dad was not available to him when he was younger. He had to stay with his grandma because his mom couldn’t cope with 4 little ones so I think he resolved to be there for our boys and has always been a hands on dad. My in-laws are wonderful people and I love them very much. They are older and stay with my bother in law. He works very hard so that we can live on one income (a real challenge here in Singapore) and I can stay home with our boys. Our eldest has ADHD and the school system here is nothing like in the USA as they go much faster, as I’m sure it probably is in China. I’m always impressed when I see other non-Chinese ladies learning Chinese. In Singapore English is widely spoken due to Singapore being a British colony in the past, so I am spoiled … But I have always wanted to learn. Chinese can open up better communication with my husband I’m sure as it’s his mother tongue. Hubby is Hokkien with some teochew relatives in his father’s side. My sons are learning Mandarin at kindergarten and primary school so I really should start learning!!! I still feel a little bit sad when I’m out on my own or with my kids and hear “Ang moh” … I am not a “red haired devil” I want to tell them! I am happy in Singapore but sometimes wish I could go places without people noticing my blue eyes and dark blonde hair. It’s just part and parcel like people asking “where are you from?”I have taught my son to be proud of his cultures: Chinese from his dad and English, Irish, Scottish, Swiss, German,Dutch and French from me haha) It makes me sad that while we are all different it has to be such a big deal…Even now. Every culture has its own beauty. I admire Chinese culture because there is so much meaning: the idioms, the nature references in art and design, and I love the food, traditional costumes and music. And Yes! I look forward to Chinese New Year every spring!! 😊 Thanks for sharing and God bless you!

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