In the summer of 2006, I went on a Study Abroad Program in China which changed the course of my life. The first Friday night of my stay at Ren Min University, I was casually walking the school grounds when I came across a square where many people noisily conversed. As I approached, I realized everyone was speaking English. It turned out to be a weekly event called English Corner, a time when people would come and practice speaking English with each other. Naturally a laowai like myself drew a big crowd. I felt like a celebrity with all the students gathered around me asking me questions. After several minutes, I noticed a beautiful girl in the back who was listening and not asking many questions. I felt bold so I started talking to her. Our conversation went something to the effect of, “Hi, what’s your name?”
“My name is Sea Eagle. My English teacher suggested Heidi but I thought that was too old fashioned so I translated my name by myself.”
“Oh… Sea Eagle… That is an interesting name.”
We kept talking for another hour and exchanged email addresses. Then she left and I scolded myself for not offering to walk her home or asking for her phone number. Fate was on my side because she returned to tell me that she could not read my handwriting. Having been given the second chance, I then offered to walk her home. And the rest is history.
The real purpose of this blog post actually is to describe my thoughts and lessons learned on international relationships. This post is based on my own experiences married to a Chinese woman. It in no way reflects every international relationship.
Firstly I think that I was predisposed to seek love in a foreign land. I am attracted to difference. Different appearance, different culture, different language, all of these aspects intrigue and excite me. I also think that such a kind of love is a positive and important influence on humanity because it brings communities closer.
While differences can be exciting and provide a great impulse during the formation of an international relationship, they become challenging as you grow more accustomed to each other. As an example, in China serving food to guests is simply good manners. With my own family, however, this is never done. I don’t know if other American families do this but we don’t. It’s not that we don’t care about guests. We just trust that they will serve themselves whatever food they want to eat. So when I am eating food with my family in China, I am uncomfortable being served. Sometimes I will try to tell people I don’t want any more, “bu yao xie xie,”. I do it even when I am not full because I prefer to serve myself. This is just one example where cultural differences can be uncomfortable or lead to disagreements. Other examples include what is acceptable humor, gift giving customs, and child rearing.
Another aspect of international relationships that is difficult is the distance. You spend months only able to communicate on the computer or over the phone. When your unhappy, you can’t feel each other which makes comforting each other especially hard. My wife equated it to tending a fire. When you are close, the fire burns very hot. When you are apart, it cools down and only the glowing embers remain.
My advice on surviving the dangerous long distance phase of the relationship is to always have a plan about the next time you are going to see each other as well as how you eventually be together. Having a plan can reduce the inevitable feelings of worry, hopelessness and loneliness which shake your resolve. My wife and I endured more than five years living in different countries. Having plans was what kept us going.
A more subtle problem with the long distance is that you never really get to experience what life with the other person is like. You grow comfortable in having autonomy while also having that warm feeling that someone in the world cares about you. When you finally are living together, married life can be an abrupt end to that autonomy.
Finally, there are a lot of negative stereotypes that can impact an international relationship. In my case, I am a white man and my wife is an Asian woman. There is a bias that white men seek Asian women for exotic pleasure (the dragon lady) or because they are submissive (the china doll). Sadly I have met many such men in my travels. At the same time, Asian women are seen as seeking nothing more than wealth from their relationships with foreigners. My wife was accused of as much by a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agent during her first interview for a visa to come to the United States.
International relationships have their up’s and down’s just like any other relationship. If you can navigate the cultural differences and the hard logistics questions, international relationships can be immensely rewarding and will expand your horizons. My wife and I have known each other for seven years now and been married for three. One year ago, our lives were blessed with a little baby boy. I hope our little family can be healthy and strong for the rest of our lives. I wish the same thing for everyone.