Guest post: “Is that your foreign friend?” Why my Chinese husband hides the fact that I’m his white American wife here in China

Is this your foreign friend?

Today’s guest post is by Hangzhou-based writer and blogger Jocelyn Eikenburg. Jocelyn muses about love, family and relationships in China (as well as Asian men and Western women in love) at speakingofchina.com. Her site has been featured on the BBC and The Wall Street Journal, and she has been published in The Huffington Post as well as the anthologies How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? and Unsavory Elements. Enjoy!

It was a dark, misty evening the other night when my husband John and I ventured out to our favorite vegan restaurant for dinner – the kind of evening where it feels like you’re walking through the clouds themselves. It was definitely not a night for people watching and surely not one where anyone would notice us. Especially as we strolled through the wetlands park on our way to the restaurant, a park that felt like an overgrown wet jungle with lots of shadows and hardly a streetlamp in sight. The two of us chattered away freely in English and Chinese, laughing with such abandon that I could have sworn we had the entire park to ourselves.

At least, until we heard that voice echo out towards us, just as we crossed the entrance to the wetlands park: “Is that your foreign friend?”

I turned around to see a squat middle-aged man standing under one of the few streetlights nearby. He was dressed in the navy blue uniform that all of the park guards happened to wear – the men who occupied that tiny booth that always glowed like a lighthouse at the entrance to the park.

John flashed the guard a polite smile. “Yes.”

“What country?” the guard shouted out.

“America,” said John. If the one-syllable answers hadn’t sent the message that John didn’t want to talk about it, then surely the fact that he hadn’t even looked back at the guard this time around would definitely do the trick.

“I’m your ‘foreign friend?’” I said to John with a cockeyed smile. What would that guard have thought if he knew we had a little red marriage license tucked in our desk drawer at home and an extra-large box of condoms on our bedside table? We both glanced at each other and the shared ridiculousness of me being “a friend” before the guard made us both break out in laughter.

Still, when the hilarity subsided, I understood the truth behind it – a truth I spoke to John. “It’s better if they don’t know, isn’t it?”

He smiled. “Of course. Did you hear what they said about us yesterday at the bus station?” When we disembarked from the bus, I had instinctively reached for John’s arm, never thinking anyone was actually watching us. As it turned out, we had an audience after all. “Someone said, ‘Wow, a foreign woman with a Chinese man!”

Jocelyn-Eikenburg_02

I tilted my head. “Really? Why didn’t I hear that?”

It’s funny I asked this question to John because the answer was obvious. I didn’t hear it because I was in my happy little bubble of marital bliss. I was so thrilled to be in the moment with John, completely ignoring the fact that Western women and Chinese men are such a rare sight in China. Even in a major city like Hangzhou.

Years before, I even wrote about how just holding John’s hand here in China could turn lots of heads for this very reason. How had I neglected all of this? Simple – I had become so comfortable with my own marriage that I forgot what it looked like to the rest of the world around me.

It’s only these moments out in public when someone spots us together that I’m suddenly reminded of how I’m not “normal” in China. That being the foreign wife of a Chinese man makes me something special – something worth talking about. Then the questions come, the seemingly endless cascade of curiosity from people who could hardly imagine that a white American woman from Ohio would ever say “I do” to a young Chinese man from the Hangzhou region.

John wanted to avoid all of that, questions that would have cut into our walk to the restaurant. That’s why he didn’t mind when the guard called me “foreign friend.” It’s easier for people to understand. Lots of Chinese know and spend time with foreigners as friends. It’s not the kind of thing you’d question in China.

Is this your foreign friend?

It might seem crazy to hope that we could steer clear of people like that guard, with all of his curiosity, in a place like China. Here, I’m guaranteed to stand out for the rest of my life just because I’m a white American woman – and especially if I step out holding my husband’s hands. I know the people who ask about me usually mean no harm at all. But sometimes, there are moments when we want a reprieve from the attention or interruptions. Sometimes, we just want to be ourselves.

In the end, we didn’t run into anyone else during the rest of our walk to our favorite vegan restaurant. There, we spent a lovely evening clinking our teacups and savoring every last bite of the fantastic vegan dishes on our table (from a spicy “vegetarian fish” stew to a plate of sweet-and-sour “vegetarian ribs” made with Chinese yam). The attentive servers in the restaurant only took our orders politely, and stashed their questions away in the corners of their minds or the kitchens, instead of our table. Nobody stopped over to our table to ask about who I was and why I casually touched John’s hand more than once during the dinner.

While I knew it wouldn’t last, it was nice for once just to be John and Jocelyn. Just another happily married couple enjoying a nice dinner out.

Have you ever been in a similar situation? I’d love to hear your stories.

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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!

28 comments

  1. Ray

    People can be so rude. At least in China you almost always stand out, and you get so used to it the skill to tune it out develops…

    I love Chinese Buddhist vegan restaurants!

  2. Pingback: “Is that your foreign friend?” Why my Chinese husband hides the fact that I’m his white American wife here in China (Guest Post on China Elevator Stories) | Speaking of China

  3. Hello Jocelyn! So nice to find you here on China Elevator Stories!

    I have to say I have mixed feeling about this story.

    On one hand I say kudos to John for preventing tricky situations and preserving the couple’s wellness. On the other hand, it makes me cringe that after years of marriage you feel compelled to hide the status of your relationship!

    I don’t know if I would be able to take it. I am always very open and transparent about my relationship with my Chinese boyfriend even though I know that sometimes can stir questions. My personality is on the rebellious and fierce side, so I’d rather confront those people rather than shying away.

    But then again, I don’t live in China Mainland, so maybe I don’t realize what kind of attention you guys get. Where I live in Taiwan (and previously Hong Kong) it was totally manageable.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts marghini!

      It may be different in Taiwan and Hong Kong — I’ve been to both places, and it always seems like people don’t ask as many questions. But here, if people are curious about you, sometimes it can lead to a lot of questions that, quite frankly, you just don’t want to deal with when you’re out and about as a couple.

      And trust me, even in Hangzhou you run into lots of people curious about foreigners. In the past two weeks, people pulled me aside — strangers on the street — to get a picture with me! Yes, here in Hangzhou!

      • This is so strange to me. I would have never guessed that you’d receive so much attention in a city as large and touristy friendly as Hangzhou. But I suppose there are areas of Beijing I get stared at because not many foreigners live in that neighborhood. People rarely ask for my photo, but that’s fine!!!

  4. I’m also kind of torn about this. While I understand the desire to just be left alone, I’m usually not comfortable going along with what people think for the sake of peace and quiet–especially when asked a question directly. There have been a few times that people have thought my husband was my guide or translator, but we took the time to explain to them that we were actually a couple. Sometimes it results in a rather long conversation, other times a look of surprise.

    I don’t necessarily find it rude when people ask questions. China was closed for so long and even to this day foreigners are somewhat of a rarity where I live. I can understand people’s curiosity. But it’s not cool to interrupt people when they are having dinner.

    • I can totally understand you wanting to explain to people about your relationship.

      I think for us, when someone stops us as we’re walking around the city, there are just times when we don’t want to stop and have the long conversations or explanations. It’s like, there’s a time and a place for that — but maybe we’re in a hurry or just don’t really want to talk about it.

  5. After living in China for quite a while it must be easier to just say this is my foreign friend to prevent further conversation. The stares and questions will always be there. I don’t blame him for saying it. Sometimes you just want to spend the day or evening together without interruptions.

    Even back in my home town the majority is latinos. It is rare to see any foreigners or intercultural couples. At times I don’t mind explaining our relationship, but it gets annoying. At least I’m allowed to be rude in the West and just walk away. 😛

    • Anonymous

      Yocelyn, the stares and remarks will always be there… so why try to hide your status with each other? There is also no obligation on your part to answer back, or even recognise those people.

  6. Anonymous

    He smiled. “Of course. Did you hear what they said about us yesterday at the bus station?”

    He made a big mistake here. As you touched upon, peopl talk because its rare. But people don’t talk about white guys and asian women anymore, because it’s common as mud. So to the majority, AMWF is an exception. Something to point out.

    Which is why, in the rare cases of AMWF – you – you should make it a priority NOT to treat it as a big deal. He should have said – “No, we’re married”. Then carried on as normal. Or the bus station incident – “yeah, so?” Simple, effective, and places the guilt on them for not recognising normality.

  7. Anonymous

    To add to the comments above, this “in your face” nature is just China (and Hong Kong) in general. People get up to you, are nosy. Shop attendants bug you the moment you enter the store. It’s a difference to the “everyone going about their business” behaviour in the West.

    If they are this upfront, you are pefectly entitled – even as a foreigner (and believe me, white men have no such issue with this) to be just as blunt.

  8. Such a great read, Jocelyn. I suppose people are genuinely curious about you and John, each story and each relationship is different and it’s why I don’t find it annoying when people ask questions about me and where I’m from and the people I’m with. Of course, it can get annoying because you generally question why should you tell your story to a complete stranger.

    Lovely photos of you and John 🙂

  9. Sarah

    When i was in China in Fuzhou with my boyfriend everytime we entered any shop the sales assistant would always with out fail start to make conversation like Oh where is she from? is she your wife or girlfriend do you have any babies, I mean one or two people asking every now and again wouldn’t of been so annoying but literally every single shop keeper with the same questions gets very boring very quick. So i can understand friend ends all the annoying questions quickly and you can go about your business,

  10. Jocelyn, you made me remember once we took a taxi in a town in Jiangxi province. The driver asked C. who I was, he replied I was his guest. That didn’t stop the conversation as the driver was very chatty, hahaha. Oh, and in the end he said: She is your girlfriend, right? I don’t know how he knew! We were not even sitting together! (C. was in copilot seat and I was behind with the driver’s child…).

  11. ehhhh

    This isn’t nice but I seriously am thinking that if his wife fit more into the Chinese beauty standard of petite and was more universally attractive (even by US standards, she is considered below average and not attractive) that he would be more willing to tell everyone she was his wife. It’s shallow but men don’t hide beautiful wives, just ugly ones. If she looked like Emma Watson or Natalie Portman, I guranteed he would be telling everyone.

    • Rene

      @ -“Ehhhh”:

      Did posting this make you feel better about yourself or something? There is absolutely no truth in what you say. It was just rude and hurtful.

      There is nothing wrong or “below average” about the looks of the author. She’s an attractive lady who is confident enough to show her face (unlike you) and share her experiences with strangers on the net.

      Posting what you did adds nothing of value to the conversation. I honestly feel sad for you that you feel the need (and take the time) to anonymously bash someone else’s appearance. I hope you look inside yourself and figure out why you feel that need to try and put others down. And I also hope you will find more constructive and valuable things to do with your time. Because what you are doing here is only the actions of someone who is unhappy.

      I hope you find happiness like the author has.

  12. I have yet to experience any sorts of this. I remember when my boyfriend went to buy me headache medicine, we were still holding hands. It was no issue where I live since I’m from the greater Grand Rapids area.

    However, as for our relationship, I’m so open about it with my friends and sister, (not my parents just yet!) that practically almost all my friends know I have a boyfriend.

    Him on the other hand, his roommates have no idea! And there is this possibility of meeting one of them this weekend when I visit.

    Sometimes I think it is good for the world not to know yet but on the other hand, people need to know that love is love, wherever you go.

  13. AL

    Its all about stares, remarks,and questions that my wife gets. Absolutely not bragging about my wife. We live in U.S.
    my wife and I are Asians but we are not the same race she is from Laos I am from Cambodia. she was born 1968 I was born 1963. We have been married for 28 years now together we have 2 beautiful daughters.
    She does get a lot of stares weather she is with me or not she has nice figure looks like she never had kids. she has light skin with thick black light curly hair with no wrinkle on her beautiful face.
    She does wear her diamond ring 24/7
    when stranger asks her if she has a boyfriend she says no but i am married .
    when I am near by her she would say there is my husband.
    sometime people mistakenly think we are brother and sister.
    I know it is annoying but for 28 years kinda get used to it.
    There is one particular comment I really don’t like (You look so beautiful for an Asian woman) (Qualifiers are not needed)

  14. Great stuff Jocelyn! Nice to see a post from you on Ruth’s blog 🙂 I can totally understand how you felt when your husband said you were just his “friend” but I also get how he just wants to avoid stupid conversations with strangers. Sure, you want to be seen as a couple but then you also don’t want to have endless conversations with curious people about your private life. I used to be that way too but now I try to avoid conversations with strangers as much as possible, too!

  15. Great guest post and interesting discussion!

    For me personally I don’t like being called a friend, my ex-boyfriend did that a lot, also refused to walk hand in hand, he didn’t like the attention. Then when I met my husband and he hold my hand from day one, I felt so amazing that he didn’t shy away from the looks we got and still get. Nowadays no one thinks we are friends cause we always walk hand in hand.

    But of course, everyone has their own ways in relationships and the important thing is the couple agrees, no matter which way it is.

  16. Rene

    I’m American and I live in Mainland China with my Chinese husband. We’ve actually gone to Hangzhou quite a few times! My hubby even lived there before he met me. It an absolutely lovely place! I enjoy it every time I go and miss it when I leave.

    But, I’ve got to say – I would never be okay with my husband calling me his friend.. ever. We’ve gone all over the Mainland and people have asked us many times about our relationship. We always say that we are married. He will even correct someone who says, “Oh, is this your friend?” and tell them that we are married. Because that is the truth! I am not his “foreign friend” and he is not my “tour guide”… we are husband and wife and we aren’t going to hide that from anyone.

    I can understand being in a rush and not having the time to explain everything (or just not wanting to!). We’ve had that happen. But, when we don’t want to talk… we just simply say “Sorry, we have to go.”

    I’d rather cut off a stranger and be seen as “rude” by them instead of hiding my marriage.

  17. Bigflirtcleanfreakchinois

    Jocelyn you’re being a bit too sensitive….I don’t think for a moment that your Chinese hubby John was hiding the fact that you’re his white American wife. Make no mistake, “I” pick who I want to converse with, I dictate my response in every facet. There’re just so many “invisible” people in our everyday life with whom we care less to engage. Same here in US, Canada, Hongkong, France…you name it. Instead we respond minimally – as we don’t owe anyone any explanation (not even a cop if we ain’t detained n 3-2-go:-). Minimal engagement without offending these “invisible’ people. Probably a class thing LOL.

    Remember, keep your man clean, sex dirty!!! Your “extra-large box of condoms” comes in very handy woohoo!!!

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