Dear Ms. Wai. – Reading Between the Lines

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I’m a WWAM from Europe. I have studied Chinese and can speak the language fluently. I have been living in China for over half a decade with my husband. At first, my husband assumed I already understood a lot about Chinese culture because of my spoken Chinese. After a short while, he got to understand that even though my spoken Chinese was good (we speak Chinese with each other), there were a lot of cultural subtleties I just didn’t understand.

But recently when we argue about an issue that is connected to me not understanding these subtleties (not being able to read between the lines like Chinese people probably would be), he thinks I’m just using this as an excuse. I have used this a lot in arguments, not because I wanted to get out of the argument easily or play the victim, but because for me not being able to read between the lines – particularly in a culture that is so different from mine and using a language that couldn’t be more different from my mother tongue – is not an excuse, it’s a fact.

I am trying to look at people’s actions more than only at their words now, but I’m sure I can’t completely retrain my brain to work like a Chinese person’s brain and start understanding all the subtleties of people’s behaviors (including my husband’s) and Chinese culture the way Chinese people do. And IMHO, neither should I be asked to, as long as I’m trying to have an open mind. (I might have shouted “You should have married a Chinese person if you wanted me to act like a Chinese person” in arguments before). I also feel that after having given birth to my kids people assume that I’ll just understand everything about Chinese culture or that I have to assimilate because I have chosen to live here.

Should we be asked to change into a person we are not even behind closed doors? Personally, I believe not. I don’t mind strangers assuming that I’m a pro at understanding the Chinese way, but I don’t know how to relay this difference to my husband and his family without them thinking I’m just using the victim card. Any suggestions?

Just because you speak the same language doesn’t mean you understand everything!

This is more than just a language problem, but one every expat faces: how do you keep your sense of self and identity when living in another country?

It can be really flattering for a foreigner to get a compliment from a Chinese person saying, “you are more Chinese than me!” or “You are a real Old China Hand (expert).” But we can’t get lost in that. You need to recognize your foreignness, and embrace it. Since you said most problems are with your family/husband, tell your husband that while he doesn’t need to be your language translator he needs to be your culture translator. It’s unfair of him to be mad when you misunderstand something, and unfair that you are made to feel stupid or like you are tricking anyone.

You need to bring this up, but outside of an argument. You may have said all this stuff to him before, (“I’m a foreigner, I think differently. I need help understanding”) but said in the middle of an argument it may have fallen on deaf ears, or gotten swallowed up in the anger of the moment. So take a quiet moment, when the kids are asleep, or if you are having a date night, and just bring it up, gently and not accusatory.

Tell him something like, “I’m doing everything I can to understand this culture and language but I can’t know everything. I count on you to be more open with me when something is unspoken. You are the love of my life and the father of my children and that fact that you think I am acting naive hurts. I would never intentionally trick you, and I need you to explain things clearly so next time I can recognize and understand this same situation myself.” Ask him to not just assume you know everything, but for his help in helping you understand.

After all, while living in China for five years might be a lot for a foreigner, it is nothing for the lifetime of your husband and the dozens of generations that came before him, and it’s crazy to expect that. Your Chinese family needs to acknowledge your effort and attempts at understanding and that includes sympathy and consideration when you don’t. But they might not think of it themselves, so you need to be clear and express it directly to them and not wait for a misunderstanding to happen before you do.



Ms Wai

One comment

  1. to the OP, you will always be a foreigner in China.
    It is unreasonable for your husband to expect you to be transformed into someone who is ‘Chinese’ in your thinking. Of course you should meet him half-way, as he should meet you half-way.
    However it is my experience that some Chinese people don’t understand the compromise and negotiation that is necessary EVERY DAY in an intimate relationship, in the way that non-Chinese do.
    And when you are so embedded in a culture, as you are, it sounds like you feel you are losing your identity.
    If possible, travel with your family (husband and children) to spend time in your home country.
    Expose your husband more to your culture.
    You are not Chinese, you should never be expected to behave like a native.

    Talk to your husband in a calm manner, using assertive (not aggressive) langauge:
    “when you do X, I feel.”
    keep the focus on YOUR thoughts and feelings. Don’t use the wokds ‘never’ or ‘always’

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