In June 2004 I made my first foray to China to meet a woman named Ying, a woman I barely knew, having no idea what to expect and it was the same for her. We had met on Asianfriendfinder (AFF) early 2003 after I had gone through a divorce (my second) from a loveless marriage and moving from Portland, Oregon to Kerrville, Texas. Like me, Ying had gone through her own divorce from a loveless marriage of her own. I was on AFF because I was curious about Asian women and she was there to improve her English. What started as innocent conversation soon became deeper and we started talking about the “M” word. As we talked my curiosity became even more intense, so when I mentioned the possibility of coming to China, she invited me to her home without a moment’s hesitation. Because she knew the hassles of domestic air travel in China for foreigners, she decided to meet me in Beijing. Upon my arrival in Beijing, I had hardly stepped of out customs when this tiny woman practically flew over the velvet rope separating the customs area from the terminal at large into my arms. It was love at first sight for both of us. The next day, June 23rd happened to be my birthday so we went to see the Great Wall. From there we took a train to Changchun where on June 24th, where we married, and I have never looked back.
Since that day I have read many articles, blogs and comments of how to make a marriage to a Chinese woman work, but most articles usually talk about the woman in the relationship and very few are about the man. I decided to dwell on some of the things that have made my marriage to Ying so enduring.
LISTENING: This is by far the most important thing you need in a marriage. When we were single we only had ourselves to answer to, but once you get married, you need to get over the “I have my own ideas” attitude and start thinking “What does my spouse think?” That is one of the hardest things a person can do, but when you think that your foreign spouse might have a different perspective on a subject it might behoove you to listen, they might surprise you with their insight. By the same token your spouse needs to understand that they also need to listen to you. But more important to you both is learning the art of compromise, when you give a little and they give a little, you’ll find an agreement somewhere in the middle. It may not be the most optimum decision, but these days few things are. I listen to everything Ying tells me, I discuss my thoughts with her and together we usually make the right decision.
RESPECT: Even if you were to marry somebody from your own country, there will be differences in opinion, religion, politics and a whole host of others. Marrying somebody from another country you the religious differences may be even greater, but it also introduces differences in culture, food and sociological mores. The same is true with Ying and me. She is a very devout Buddhist who prays and reads every day. Even though I am not the church going type, I still adhere to my Christian upbringing, but if you look under the veneer of the individual practices you will see that the basic philosophy of all religions has the same golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Where cultural differences are more apparent, it is sometimes even harder. Most of us early on have done or said something that while it is acceptable in your culture is a big NONO in your spouse’s and vice versa. It is in situations like this where listening again is important in understanding the feelings of your spouse and will help them understand you. On the occasions you visit your spouse’s country, the pressure of trying to avoid committing those social faux pas which are usually more embarrassing to your spouse than you. Respect can also be the little things you do, especially without being asked. Even if your spouse is from a culture where gender roles are clearly defined you have no idea how a simple gesture, especially when it is a man doing something like washing the dishes, cooking a meal, cleaning the house, taking out the trash and others simple tasks will not only show your respect to your spouse, but earn theirs as well.
Another part of respect is being able to change a habit if it bothers your spouse. Some habits are difficult to change in the best of circumstances. When we first married I was a smoker. I never thought much of it because both of her parent, most of the men in her family and her nearly all of her friend’s husbands smoked, but it bothered Ying. After a year or so, Ying flat out asked, begged and pleaded with me to stop, because she wanted me around for a long time. The look in her eyes so overwhelmed me that I agreed and immediately stopped. It was difficult at first but the joy in her eyes as I stayed smoke free was all I needed to keep going. When friends asked me why and I told them because she asked me to, I know I have earned their respect. When asked if I am ever tempted to smoke again I admit I am but then when I think of the disappointment Ying will feel if I did would make me feel so guilty, that I would rather be stabbed in the heart than suffer Ying’s disappointment
HUMOR: There is nothing more important or more difficult, especially if one of the spouses is a foreigner, than humor. There are still times when after making a joke I need to stop and explain it to Ying, but instead of getting frustrated, the description itself becomes the basis of even more humor. We both realized that part of love was being able to laugh at one another and at one's self. A few years ago Ying and I went to Branson, MO for a short holiday. While we were thee we went to see Yakov Smirnoff, the Russian comic. Most don’t realize that Yakov has a master’s degree in “positive psychology” and between times he is on the stage making jokes, he teaches at Missouri State and Drury Universities. In his show he mentions how humor can make a marriage better. He tells of a couple in their 80’s that’ve been very happily married for over sixty-five years. When he asked the wife what made their marriage happy, she replied, “Every day, for sixty-five years, no matter how bad things seemed, he always made me laugh.” When he asked the husband what he thought made their marriage happy, simply replied, “She laughs.”
And that is a huge part in mine and Ying’s marriage. There are times when I screw up so badly that Ying is beside herself in anger. When that happens she sometimes says things that can be rather hurtful or insulting. I might get angry myself, but I hold my tongue and generally keep quiet, after which I get the silent treatment for about 30 minutes or so. When times like this first arose between us, she told me she knew I was angry but was wondering why I kept quiet. My usual response was either, “I’m already so deep in a hole, I don’t want to dig myself any deeper,” or “I’m already in the doghouse, I don’t want to stay any longer than I have to.” When she heard that for the first time, she started laughing so hard she forgot what she was mad about, but was still able to apologize for losing her temper. She then asked me, “Am I such a female tiger, that you are afraid of me?” “No,” I replied, “You are not a female tiger, you’re a dragon, and yes I am afraid… I’m afraid of losing your respect.” We still have our disagreements, but I still make her and she still laughs.
When we have dinner with friends and guests, Ying gets asked (in Chinese of course) what is like to be married to me she usually tells them to watch this. She will turn to me and in a loud voice say “BOY!” Now when she does that I know what is going on so I usually answer is my most sheepish little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar voice, “Yes dear?” “What are you doing?” “Nothing.” “Why did you do that?” “I don’t know. Just because.” By now our friends are laughing at us, we are laughing with them and we all feel good. Even now after seven years we still pull little pranks on one another just to keep the laughs going.
BEING ABLE TO APOLOGIZE: A lot of people are afraid to apologize, as if admitting you are human is a mortal sin. In the Asian culture saving face is of the most importance. Even when things are going completely wrong it will be completely ignored because to admit otherwise would be a blow to one’s prestige, reputation and social standing. They seem to have the idea that if they remain aloof of the whole thing the failure would not be blamed on them but others. The kicker is that these same people who screwed up in the first place will be allowed to continue to operate because there is “an understanding” between the parties involved, where everyone at the top always benefit while those below them pay the price for their mistakes.
Even among westerners there is a reluctance to admitting your own fault if the blame can be shifted to another. But in marriage it is just the two of you and when you screw up, your spouse knows immediately what you did and you know that they know. There is nothing wrong with owning up to mistakes and there are very few situations where an “I’m sorry,” “I apologize,” “forgive me” or an “I forgive you” wouldn’t work. I think that the willingness to admit your mistakes, apologize and ask forgiveness will enhance your spouse’s respect for you and in turn their acceptance will increase your respect for them.
SHOWING AFFECTION: Some spouses come from a culture where public displays of affection (PDA) is frowned upon if not outlawed. Even in the west where PDA is not discouraged there are some displays that are considered inappropriate, but holding hands, kissing and walking arm in arm is ok. When you are visiting your spouse’s home country and walking in public, it is always best to follow their lead as to what is acceptable and whet is not, but when you are home alone of among family and friends, don’t be afraid of hiding the affection you have for your spouse. I show my affections in many different ways. When we walk we usually hold hands or walk arm in arm. If we aren’t holding hands and some have something like a tree or other object between us I like to interject some humor by saying “bread and butter.” If Ying decides she wants to go to a beauty salon and I decide to go home, we will kiss and say see you later. At home I like to surprise her with a kiss on the cheek, a hug, a back scratch, a snuggle or just a simple touch. One thing I always do whether we are alone or have visitors, is after a meal, I always say thank you and give her a kiss. When we first married we met one of her girlfriends and after seeing me either holding Ying’s hand, putting my arm around her, giving her a peck on the cheek or doing any one of the many things newlyweds tend to do she said, “I’m jealous.” Since then it has become a running joke between the three of us. I hug or kiss Ying and she says “I’m still jealous” after which we all have a laugh.
These are just a few of the things that I think have made our marriage work. But the bottom line is that I love my wife with all my heart, there is nothing I would not do if she asked me to and I know I can expect the same (within reason) from her.