Blog Post 5: "What's it like having a Chinese wife?"
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
This is a deeply flawed question, but one that I don't really mind. Actually, I love when people ask me this. It's impossible to answer it directly, but it gives me an amazing excuse to talk about both Li Pengyun and my unbelievably good in-laws. But before we get into that, I'll tell you my normal "go to" response:
"What's it like having a Chinese wife?" / "What's it like being married to a Chinese person?"
"Fucking awesome. But not at all because she's Chinese."
Pengyun can no more be defined by her country of birth than she can be defined by her height or the sound of her laughter—though, when defining her, I frequently reference the frequency of her laughter. Pengyun's cultural background impacts her deeply—more deeply than my own cultural background impacts me. She is Chinese, her parents are Chinese, their parents were Chinese, and so on and so forth for about three to four thousand years. As an American who grew up being told he was Scotch-Irish while never knowing anything more about Scotland than: "the movie Braveheart is really good" and not knowing anything more about Ireland than: "Saint Patrick did something involving snakes and druids and now adults have an excuse get super drunk on the day of his name" I never felt a deep connection to my ancestors. That being said, I've never felt like something was "missing" and I've never envied those who have a far better understanding of where they came from. But I gotta say, hearing Pengyun talk about Chinese history is so cool. And hearing my brother-in-law talk about history in general is even cooler (See, told you I'd talk about my in-laws).
Before we continue, though, there is one thing you need to know about the Chinese mindset. There are only two types of people in the world: Chinese... and foreign.
There is an obvious negative to this, however. But I hope whoever reads this can understand it's a negative that only requires time and experience to overcome.
I was born in America. I'm American. When I go to places that aren't America, I view the locals as whomever they are, whether they be Colombia, Turkish, or Japanese. The Chinese kind of don't. Again, you're either "Chinese" or "foreign". It's very ethnocentric and leads to conflict and ignorance. An example of this is one situation played out in two ways:
I leave my country and I become the foreigner.
A Chinese person leaves their country and everyone else remains the foreigner.
One of the things we often laugh about with our friends here is the thought that nearly every Chinese person that's left China has had. I'll use my friend Kim as an example. Kim is from Tianjin, China and is married to Marcel, a man (and unbelievably good cook) from Germany. The first time she went to Germany she got off the plane, looked around at all non-Chinese and thought: "哇塞，这里有好多外国人" which translates to: "Wow, there are so many foreigners here."
She actually thought that. While in Germany. As a foreigner.
Pengyun did the same. When we were in America she was blown away at how many foreigners there were. These foreigners included my family—many of whom have never once even left America. Now, this initial view is not a fault of their own doing. From the time they were born until now they've been taught that anyone not Chinese is a foreigner. Of course, this teaching makes sense when in China. Also, it didn't take long for Pengyun to get used to the fact that, in America, she was the foreigner. And it should be said, while in any country other than China, Pengyun has never treated anyone like a foreigner or as if they were less. Her early cognization of them being foreign was purely semantic in nature and didn't change the way she treated them. Pengyun is far too kind-hearted to treat anyone badly.
One more time, too. I do not say this to criticize Pengyun or my friend Kim. Both of them speak English (and Kim speaks Korean), so they have an appreciation for people outside of China. This is just to communicate to people who haven't had the level of exposure I have to Chinese thought that this is something real.
All that being said, Pengyun and I connected very early on in our relationship over our view that human life is rendered no more important or less important depending on citizenship. A person may be heavily impacted by their cultural upbringing, but their quality comes from who they are and the actions they take and not by the color of their passport.
This leads me back to my in-laws.
Before I got married I'd only met my (then future) mother-in-law one time. And that was to drop off my dog, noodles. He was a rescue (named because he looked like a noodle when I found him) that I definitely hadn't planned on keeping when I found him. But I couldn't find a home for him, so I became his home. But then I had to go back to America and, for several reasons, I couldn't bring him home with me. Pengyun agreed to keep him, which was amazing because we were actually planning on ending our relationship when I left China (this again just shows who the woman I married is). Anyway, when I dropped him off I met her mother. Our conversation lasted about three minutes and then I had to go.
Fast forward seven months and I'm back in China, and Pengyun and I have decided to get married. I've never met any of her family except for that three minute conversation with her mom and man, I was more than a bit worried. I'd heard horror stories of in-laws and they were magnified ten times when a foreign element was added. But the night came for me to meet them. Pengyun's father organized a big family meal that was going to be filled with cousins and aunts and uncles. It was definitely going to be overwhelming and nerve wracking.
But it wasn't.
It wasn't at all.
I met them in late February—three months before our wedding date—and they made me feel like I was already part of their family. My father in law is a serious man (though when he wants to, he makes the whole family laugh hysterically). A life of hard work, diligence, and integrity has made him that way. And I held an immediate respect for who he was and how his family viewed him. He's a handsome man, too, and I'll always remember my first time seeing him.
He was laughing with Coco—Pengyun's then 9 year old niece—about something. She obviously adored him. Seeing him smiling with the little girl set me as ease, but when Pengyun got his attention, his smile immediately evaporated as he rose to look at his future son-in-law. He, unsmiling, shook my hand, gave me a curt head nod, and said "Ni Hao". I returned the handshake and told him I was pleased to meet him and that I'd heard a lot about him. He replied with a half grunt before turning and walking away. I wasn't sure what to feel. I knew I was marrying this man's daughter and I also knew that over the last 26 years, he couldn't have possibly guessed Pengyun would marry a foreigner, but I also didn't feel like he was rejecting me. In China, displays and actions are how one shows love and acceptance and he'd paid for a huge meal where the whole family could meet me. He wasn't warm to me yet, but he accepted me.
After that, I spoke briefly with Pengyun's mother again. She was—as she always is—ever-smiling and kind. She is among the warmest people I've ever met. One trait both of Pengyun's parents share is their keen minds. They're both fantastically intelligent and raised two fantastically intelligent children. My mother-in-law hadn't studied English in decades, but she still remembered a lot of words and phrases. Things like, "Sit down, please," "Thank you," and "Nice to meet you."
From there, I was shuffled from aunt to uncle to cousin before getting to talk more to my brother-in-law. He and I clicked quickly. I could see he wasn't really sure how to talk to me or what to say, and we fell into nervous laughter more than a few times, but eventually we broke through the barrier of awkwardness and began what has become one of my most treasured friendships. I hate to break continuity of the night I met them all, but I'd like to take a moment to speak again how truly gifted this man is. I taught him chess a year or so after we met. One morning we were bored, so I explained the rules... and by afternoon, he was already beating me. I'm not master, for sure, but it was impressive that his mind was able to look several moves into the future after only having learned the game that morning. This isn't hyperbole, either. He learned chess that quickly.
Back to the evening I met everyone.
Aside from one of Pengyun's cousins trying to secretly take my picture (I obviously caught him) and sending it to his friends, I never felt like an outsider. I was a foreigner, absolutely, but over the last three years, none of my in-laws have made me feel like one. I occasionally feel like a foreigner because someone will make a reference I don't get or use a word I don't know, but even in that, it's only the situation that makes me remember I'm not a local here—and never a close family member that makes me remember I'm not a local here.
And I am eternally grateful for my in-laws for never drawing my "foreignness" to attention in a negative way. They also don't ignore it or pretend it isn't there. And I am deeply appreciative of that as well. I remember Pengyun's uncle (a man I call "uncle Joe" to my family and foreign friends because 大舅 in Chinese is "Da Jiu" with "Jiu" being pronounced as "Joe") addressing me as a foreigner once in a very accepting way. We were at a big family dinner and I talked about how happy I am to be in this family and how I love that we're all able to just be together and not worry about global politics or the differences between America and China. I remember he said: “真是个外国朋友". Which means "This is a real foreign friend". He called me a foreigner, but only because I am a foreigner and not because it's a bad thing. Again, back to the first night I met my in-laws. Sorry for jumping around so much, I didn't outline this blog post at all, haha. That first night, I was actually seated beside Uncle Joe. He learned that I am a huge fan of Romance of the Three Kingdoms (listed in my favorite books list here ) and we talked at length at the similarities between Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the current world. We really connected over that and, as we drank, we connected more and more. We laughed a lot (something we always do when together now) and his wife taught me a phrase in their local language that means "kind person", before then using that word to describe me. I'll never forget it. I'll never forget this night and I'll never forget these conversations.
Fuck. I'm about to break continuity again. Sorry, but it's a really cool story involving my Uncle Joe.
Flash forward three months to my wedding. Not only did my mom come, but so also did three of my best friends. For all four of them it was their first time outside of North America. And they came. For me. And I'll never be able to express how much that means to me.
Of my three friends, one was a white guy with long, glorious hair named Vincent (he's in my Thank you! page, here). The other two are black guys named Cedric and Lloyd (His nickname is Tank and I'll probably use that without realizing). The only reason I mention their race is because most of my in-laws had never seen a black person outside of movies or TV. It was so cool to see them interact. I hate to say it, but there are some pervasive beliefs in China that are negative towards black people. I can't express how much I love the Chinese people, but the truth is, "black is bad" here. And I hate it. I want that to change so damn badly. And again, the younger generation is starting to outgrow this repressive belief, but I would be doing you a grave injustice to pretend like it wasn't a problem. It is a problem. But on my wedding day, I think there were several people who realized their preconceived notions were flat-out false. I'd always been convinced that ignorance could be fought with experience, and my wedding day was proof.
At the start of the wedding, people were keeping their distance a bit from Cedric and Tank. They weren't being overtly rude, mind you, just very unsure of what to do or how to act. But when my Uncle Joe came around, he filled their glasses with Chinese white liquor （中国白酒) and man, the three of them hit it hard. Pengyun and I had to go table to table to greet our guests (In China, the wedding is from those getting married to those who attend... Pengyun and I didn't even get to try our own wedding feast, haha, but we didn't mind). We were gone for a while tending to our duties as hosts but when we returned, Cedric, Tank, and Uncle Joe were lit, man. They were laughing and had arms around each other and every Chinese person that saw them felt more at ease. Soon people wanted to take pictures with Tank and Cedric and had their arms around them as well. Coco, Pengyun's niece, wanted to touch Tank's hair and Cedric's beard. It must have been awkward for Cedric and Tank, but they handled it like pros. One day, if I'm successful enough as a writer, I want to pay to bring Vincent, Cedric, and Tank back out for reunion. I want to throw a huge party with a massive meal and I just want everyone to laugh and be happy.
This isn't meant as a commentary on racism or a method for overcoming it. All of the above are simply memories that I'll always hold dear. Memories of family and friends.
Okay, last time-jump back to the meal where I met my in-laws. Once the meal was over Pengyun's cousin Tengfei （腾飞）gave us a ride home. One area where I am SUPER American and incredibly southern, is my need to be polite. I'll always remember (are you sick of me saying "I'll always remember"?) I told him thank you for driving us home. Tengfei replied:
"It's nothing. We're family, this is what we're supposed to do."
And damn... if I had to sum up my in-laws in one sentence it'd be that.
"We're family, this is what we're supposed to do."
So when someone asks me, "What's it like having a chinese wife?" I politely point out that the question is flawed, but I don't let the opportunity pass. I may not be able to explain what it's like having a "Chinese wife" or a "Chinese family", but you bet your ass I can explain what it's like having an "Amazing wife" and a "Wonderful family".
(Post-script note: I didn't reference my amazing Sister-in-law because I didn't know her on the night I met the rest of most of my in-laws and to mention her would have further broken the continuity of the post. She and my brother-in-law met over year after the night described above and married soon after. It has to be said, however, that she is incredible. In the future I will almost certainly write a post that goes deeper into who she is, and I wish I could have done so here without it coming across as forced. I loved Wang Changchun from the first moment I met her and immediately began hoping that she and my brother-in-law would get married. She is the kindest person and fully embraces her love language by frequently speaking encouraging words to those she's close to while also constantly surprising all of us with gifts that she knows we'll enjoy. I could not have chosen a more perfect person to accompany me in joining this family.)