Married for 26 years this year to a lovely gentleman from China’s northwest, I would consider Barbara Chen a gold card member of the WWAM (Western woman with Asian man) club. I was fortunate to have some time to sit down with her and learn a little more about how all this came to be and what it’s been like for her.
[Above: Barbara Chen’s Chinese wedding carriage, 1991, Lanzhou]
How did you end up in China?
So I came to China in 1989, directly following my graduation from college. I came on a program through the state bureau of foreign experts, because you couldn’t kind of just come and teach English. I had no background in China or teaching, but I was graduating college and I thought “what do I want to do? Graduate school or the Peace Corps? Or do I want to get a job?” and through this program at Georgetown, you could come and get graduate credits for teaching English as a second language. And if they accepted you, they passed you on to the State Bureau, and if they accepted you, you were guaranteed a year at a school in China. And it was kind of Peace Corps-esque – I got paid 650 rmb per month, which even then, it was not a lot of money. But it was the perfect combination of graduate school, job, travel and volunteering all rolled into one. And China, in the fall of ’88 when I was applying, seemed like the safe bet. Of course, I graduated the week before that June of ’89, but our program still came, and they assigned me to the railway college in Lanzhou, in Gansu province.
What did your family think of you coming to China at that time?
They were definitely supportive, until the political climate changed. And then my parents were like “what are you gonna do?” and I said “Well, it’s still on…” and so I came. And people weren’t talking about it when I arrived, so I arrived in August and there were no signs of anything. We were given this white glove tour around China.
And how did China compare with your expectations?
I didn’t come with expectations, I didn’t come with a history of China and in some ways, that’s a great way to come, without expectations and pre-conceived ideas of what your trip was going to be like. I wanted an adventure, and 27 years later, the adventure continues.
So that was supposed to be for one year, but I chose to stay on for another year. I had met my husband not long after I arrived. He was amongst the second cohort group of people to go to college following the end of a major period of turmoil then, he was 14 at the time so by 23 he already had his Bachelors degree and Masters degree. And he spoke quite good English. And things kind of naturally evolved between us.
So we weren’t really “dating”, but the university would have dances on a Friday night, there weren’t cafes where you could go out and stuff. But then we started looking into how to get married, and trying to figure out how it would work and just trying these steps one by one and then we kind of ended up married! So we got married in China, and then 6 months later in the States we had a ceremony for the family.
You mentioned you were born at a time that inter-racial marriage was illegal in the U.S. How did your family feel about you guys getting married?
Well, there were natural concerns about me marrying someone they had never met. But at that time, there was no email, and there was only one outgoing phone line at the university and so for my mom to call me, they would have to get through to the Lanzhou number, to get the railway number to get through to the operator to have it ring in my apartment and I had to be there…so whatever major concerns they had, I wasn’t aware of.
But when you think about stereotypes that Americans have of Asians. Asians are high academic achievers, they’re hard workers… even if they’re stereotypes, they’re stereotypes of values that Americans approve of, and so when my husband came to the States, he already had his bachelors and masters degree, he had work experience and what he would do every single morning from the day he arrived was open up the New York Times and look in the “Help Wanted” section, he was looking for a job, he obviously wasn’t just along for the ride. And my parents welcomed us both into their home until we got our own apartment
What was it like, taking him to the States for the first time?
He had never been on a plane until we went to the United States together. He had travelled a bit around China but people travelled by train then, and it was a very different time, there wasn’t recreational travel in China at that time.
I think one of the best stories, because he is a computer and electrical engineer, we had gone to the grocery store and the woman was scanning our groceries to checkout and he was like “Wow, she can use a computer! Do you think she also has a Masters in Computer Engineering?”. And I mean anyone who comes to the United States for the first time will tell you about walking into a grocery store for the first time and being overwhelmed with the amount of choices. And that’s something that’s even overwhelming for me going back there and the hypocrisy of thinking there are 90 different choices of bread in this aisle and I still can’t find the one that I want! And he had only been in a car about ten times in his life, and then in the States he got a driver’s licence, so those kind of things were really unusual.
I would think maybe the hardest thing for him might have been people assuming he had hit the jackpot, and that coming to the U.S., everything was better. They didn’t take into account what he had left behind, what sacrifices he made, and how successful he was as a teacher before arriving. So yes, The standard of living is higher, the quality of life, we would argue, is higher. But if it’s not your standard and not your comfort zone, all of a sudden the fact that is was “New York” pizza really didn’t make a difference, and maybe feeling like “Where is the Chinese food? Where are the other Chinese speakers?”, just the way that we come here as foreigners and we have our Jenny Lou’s (a chain of Western supermarkets in Beijing) and we have our foreign communities.
How long did you stay in the U.S. and how did you end up back in China?
So we lived in the States for 7 years, both our girls were born there. But then we had an opportunity to move to Tokyo, and we jumped on that.
We lived in Tokyo for about three years when our girls were 1 and 4 years old. And in Tokyo in the international school circuit there were many Japanese and something-else families. And so their classmates were bi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi passport holders and so they didn’t feel unusual there. And that was where I started learning about third culture kids. But when we moved to Beijing following Tokyo, that’s where it was a little bit different for them, especially because their Dad is from Mainland China (not Taiwan, or Hong Kong). They went to a dual language immersion school (English and Japanese) in Tokyo and I thought wouldn’t it be cool if they could have this in China. So we ended up finding our way back here.
How did it go when you moved from Tokyo to Beijing?
Well we started knocking on doors when we came back to try and find a school where they could have a similar experience as they did in Japan. Back then you had to live in “foreign” housing. There were foreigners and there were Chinese and there was very little overlap and that was by design. And most of the other foreigners here at that time were here as expatriates, and the only Chinese people they knew were their ayis and their drivers and their gardeners. I was like, this is not really what I had in mind!
And how did it go getting the girls into a school like what they had had in Tokyo?
Within 6 months of getting here and not really being thrilled at the girls being in a school full of foreigners in a Chinese division, we just started knocking on doors around schools, because one of the original reasons for coming here was so that our girls could have this equal Chinese international experience the way they did in Japan. But that really wasn’t how it was here in Beijing then. So they could go to one of the 2 or 3 international schools, which by law prohibited Chinese nationals from attending, or foreign divisions of local schools. There was no middle ground So we sought a way to go fully local. Luckily, the Chinese school right behind our apartment agreed to take our oldest daughter, she was the first foreigner to go to the school. And I felt like this is what I was looking for. And her classmates were our neighbours and she could hang out with those kids after school. And I brought some of those workbooks with me, and we’d do half an hour every day in English and lots of reading and being read to in English. The girls had extra curriculars with the foreign community (Dragonfire Swimming and Sports Beijing) and that’s how we found our balance.
From speaking with other WWAM ladies, it seems the relationship with the in-laws is where some of the cultural differences show up the most. Has that been your experience?
Well I think the biggest difference for us is that when we lived in China when we first met, we were living in Gansu province and his family lived in a different province, so they were not part of the day-to-day activities in our lives. And when we returned to Beijing, they were still living in their hometown. And I hear other people saying things like “my mother-in-law thinks I don’t wrap enough layers on my baby”… and those were not day-to-day issues for us. And so for us because we weren’t near either family, we made choices that worked for us and worked for us at the time because we’ve changed educational choices, language issues and other things. But stories I’ve heard from other women here, they’re in the same city or same apartment building or same apartment and that’s a very different dynamic, regardless of language, race, generation etc.
And for your daughters, did you notice anything special about them growing up as third culture kids?
We would go back for Chinese new year and our girls, they live very parallel lives with their dad they would eat random creatures on a stick, they would do activities wearing 22 layers, they went to public school, and yet, if they were out with me or going some place in the U.S., they were seamlessly American. So things that they would do with no qualms in Chinese, with a group of Chinese people, they would never do in their English mindsets. They had segmented rules and norms.
What was it like visiting the Chinese side of the family in their hometown?
We were kind of novelties in my husband’s hometown when we went there. I remember when we were living in the States and my oldest daughter was not yet 2, we came back [to China] for a summer to stay with them and we brought back diapers. And so if neighbours would come through when my husband and I were out or something, we came home to find our suitcase once had been completely opened and everything had been gone through and they were dying to find the diapers to show people “Look! This is what they use for their babies!”, and of course they had pulled out my feminine products that I had brought, and I was like “why are all these products on the table?” but they didn’t know they weren’t for the baby!!
Do you have any special advice for WWAM couples?
A friend of mine who is American-Chinese married a Chinese guy and he was asking me questions about the American-Chinese marriage. And I told him, in any marriage, in any part of the world, any two people regardless of gender, ethnicities etc, people fight about the same things: money, sex and religion. So if your fights are about one of those three items, it has nothing to do with being gay, or being American and he’s Chinese or this or that. I think sometimes people are very quick to identify a problem in a marriage as being “because he’s from China” or because I’m American, or because I’m Catholic and he’s not. Parenting, marriage, everything at work, you know pick your battles!
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