or many Western men who end up getting married to Chinese women, things are wonderful at first, but can suddenly change. Sometimes it’s immediately after the marriage. Sometimes after the first child is born. Sometimes it’s after the in-laws come to visit and don’t leave for months.
The men are left confused and bewildered. What the heck happened? Once upon a time, you would have had no clue, and end up commiserating with other shell-shocked husbands at the local foreigner bar.
But in China, there is now a WeChat group for almost every question. That includes WeChat groups for foreign men married to Chinese wives.
I’m an active member in one of them. You might think we spend most of our time complaining about our wives. We do not. Everyone in our group is focused on how to work things out.
This is because marriage at the best of times is challenging. It is especially hard when the often invisible forces of two cultures collide in ways that might not be apparent.
Joining this group made me realize that a lot of the very weird and specific things I’ve noticed about my marriage are actually very common.
For example, tens of thousands of words have been written in our group agonizing over the Chinese fear of cold. Our wives and in-laws have spoken a thousand variations of these ideas: “Drinking cold water will cause stomach problems.”
Knowing some form of this conversation is happening every day between mixed couples is somehow reassuring.
Fortunately, our group aims to raise cultural awareness, not traffic in stereotypes. One person pointed out that the Chinese rule about drinking only boiling hot water has saved the lives of millions of people who would have otherwise died of unclean water. This practice was in place long before Westerners knew anything about germs.
In a broader sense, the group is reassuring because it reminds us that keeping a marriage happy and healthy is very, very tough and takes a lot of work and compromise. When in the thick of trying times, it is easy to imagine that every other married couple is giggling during a regular Wednesday date night or gazing lovingly at their child while feeling gratitude for all the gifts their family has been blessed with.
WeChat says: Not true. A lot of marriage is trying to drudge through the details of daily living without getting too annoyed by your significant other.
Then there are endless conversations about the complications of having a mixed child. Should the name on the birth certificate be in Chinese, English, or both? What office issues a “travel document” and why do you need it? How do you renounce one nationality and choose another?
Occasionally, some member of the group becomes a negative example and inadvertently reminds us why we have to compromise with our wives and in-laws.
One hotheaded Irishman kept butting heads with his mother-in-law over safety issues like whether a baby should sleep in the crib with a blanket. The mother-in-law insisted yes, or the baby would get cold and die. The Irishman pointed to the risk of sudden infant death syndrome and accidental strangulation associated with having a blanket in an infant’s crib.
When both sides in an argument insist on winning, a lot more is at stake than the issue at hand. Trust, goodwill, and even love can be slowly worn away as egos strive for dominance.
In truth, the chance of that baby dying of SIDS or cold were remote. But as these conflicts continued, it became obvious that the chances of that marriage surviving were growing vanishingly small.
This Irishman was eventually booted from the group for complaining about his wife constantly while refusing to listen to advice or acknowledge he might be at fault.
I know more about him and his drama than I want to.
But I was thankful for his presence to remind myself what a dead end insisting on winning arguments is even if it feels righteous and energizing at the time. As many group members told him “You can be right, or be happy.”
Daily topics in the group aren’t always profound. Mostly we remind each other that things that look ridiculous often have some solid reasoning behind them.
We exchange old saws like: “Men get married assuming their wife won't change, women marry assuming they can change their husband.”
And we do the unforgiving work of bridging cultures, comforted by knowing it is tough for everyone.