Coming to Terms with a Long-Distance Family Relationship

Most of us have heard the phrase “When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do.” And many of us WWAMs who are living in China are struggling to do just that, or at least trying to find a happy medium, where both of our cultures can be acknowledged and respected. But an ever important question is: how far should a “non-Roman” go in order to be culturally appropriate?

In my own case, there are challenging aspects of Tibetan culture that I find more…doable than others:

  • Woman, doing all the housework and keeping busy while the men sit around and smoke cigarettes,
  • Showing respect to people who have not demonstrated that they actually deserve it,
  • Waiting two extra days for your socks and pants to dry because they can’t be hung up on the regular clothes line like everything else.

But recently, I’ve been encountering a cultural situation that is extremely hard to go along with: the suggested procedure for buying an apartment.

Our situation is a bit special. Most families here pool their resources so that there is enough money (or whatever) for the family member in question to achieve their goal. In our situation, neither of our families are able to help. Not only that, but my husband doesn’t have an Iron Rice Bowl (Government) job, nor a high formal education. Yet he is approaching middle age, and really feels like he needs to have his own home. Even I am growing weary of renting and moving every year.

So what is a couple like us to do? Well, I am a foreigner, able to earn higher salaries than local people, especially in other provinces. Regardless of if I would like such a job (because that seems to be very unimportant indeed), doing so means that I will have to be apart from my family.

This is the aspect that I struggle with, being apart from our three year old daughter. Growing up, my family was always together. When money was tight, we made things work as a family and would never consider one of us going elsewhere to send money back home. Therefore, the idea of doing that myself is difficult to bear. I would be missing how many years? How many milestones, family trips and events?

But for many people in Asia, doing just that is a way of life. One or both parents go elsewhere to earn a higher salary and save for the family leaving children with their grandparents or relatives, sometimes only being reunited once a year. Therefore my husband thinks nothing of this plan, reminding me that it is for the greater good of our family.

He has a good job in Qinghai, and it doesn’t make sense for him to leave it now, otherwise I would suggest relocating together. Also his family is nearby, and he will need their help if he is going to take care of our daughter while I am gone.

Unable to figure out any other options, I have agreed to, yet again, do things the “Roman way,” hoping that this particular sacrifice is indeed worth it in the end.

What has your experience been? Have you had to do a long-distance relationship with a family?


  1. Laura, I guess I am inherently selfish, but I would never make the sacrifice you describe. And yes, it is very common for, say, Chinese children to be raised by grandparents while their parents pursue money-making jobs elsewhere, usually separately. But for me, leaving my toddler behind while I work a higher paying job elsewhere would be a deal breaker. Have you considered taking your child with you, and bringing along a grandparent or two to watch the child while you are at work??? That is a very common arrangement among Chinese couples who are students at our university. They will go ahead and have one child or more in the U.S., which has the added benefit of the child becoming a citizen, and the grandparents come to watch the children while the parents are at school. I think that sort of arrangement is a nice compromise between the two cultures. I don’t mean to be intrusive, but it is clear that you are not comfortable with the decision to leave your child behind. Those early years are precious and so important.

    I know that the Tibetans being governed by China are struggling to maintain their culture in the face of the PRC’s determination to extinguish that precious culture and spirituality, and that they are very particular about how their children are raised. Is that a factor in your situation?

    No matter what you do, I get the impression that you will make it work, and I wish you and your family the very best!

  2. To me, the whole point of having a family, is being with them especially during their formative years, not farming out the children for their grandparents to raise. Why would anyone have a child if not to experience and share their development and growth? If you are not there with your child, expect for a few times during the year such as Spring Festival, you might as well be unrelated to them. Being emotionally present for your child is of more value than being thousands of miles away making money.

    The most difficult thing about being a foreign woman in china is that you are expected to ‘respect’ local culture with very little respect of yours in return. Your traditions and values are negated in the face of over-whelming pressure to conform to local culture.

    a three year old is going to notice your absence and will probably be effected by it, and not in a positive way. this can be exacerbated if her grandparents don’t respect any of your wishes when it comes to raising her. I am sure your parents-in-law, or whoever will be caring for your daughter, have not asked you if you have any specific wishes regarding her education and discipline – two important factors that most parents I know consider. There is also the fact that elderly relatives, due to age and infirmity, can not take as much active care as you would. there sadly have been many many many cases of such ‘left behind children’ being neglected and/or abused by relatives/’family friends’. Sadly money trumps emotional stability and closeness in China: two things you can not put a monetary value on.

    You may later regret being absent from your daughter’s life, especially if the values you wish to pass on to your daughter are ignored or neglected.

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