Our Cross-Cultural Marriage, Part 1: TSA, Chickens, and Sandals

Ryan and Abigail Zhang live and work in the Boston metro area. Ryan immigrated to the United States from China in 1999 and currently serves as a pastoral intern and staff member at Christ the King Presbyterian Church. Abigail grew up in Champaign, Illinois, and currently works and studies at Tufts University. The Zhangs met while working in Washington, D.C., a city they love dearly. Make sure to check back over the weekend for the rest of the series!

We did not refer to each other as husband and wife, but we were wearing our rings.  It was a beautiful fall weekend in New England, when all the trees decided to put on their seasonal best for the thousands of tourists, ourselves included, who came to visit the mountains. The owner of our Airbnb cabin was a middle-aged woman who had lived in multiple major cities around the country. Through the course of our conversation, we mentioned that I am a pastor-in-training and that I had just finished preaching in a nearby church earlier that morning. The visit went really well, and our stay was pleasant. A few days later we received an email from Airbnb, informing us that our host had given us a review on the website. I didn’t pay any attention to it until Abigail pointed out to me that our host referred to us as "Ryan and his friend." 

My wife is an Anglo woman from Champaign, Illinois. I am a Chinese-American immigrant who came to the U.S. at the age of twelve. We realized that somehow, it seemed more likely to our host that a prospective pastor would have a romantic getaway with "his friend" than that we were married to each other.

This may seem to be an unfair and insecure reaction, but situations like this are part of the regular pattern of our life. Very often during TSA checks and in restaurant lines we are mistaken as two separate parties. When people see that the last name on my wife's ID is spelled "Z-H-A-N-G," a momentary bewilderment often flashes across their faces. The number of intercultural marriages between Chinese and Anglo-Americans is growing. Marriages between Chinese women and Anglo men are more common, but it is still rare, especially in smaller towns, to spot a Chinese man with an Anglo wife.  

Although I spent my childhood in Guangzhou, China, I went through middle school and high school in a small town outside of Cincinnati, OH. I was the only Chinese-born student in my graduating class of 750, and all of my best friends were white Christian boys. I feel very comfortable stepping outside our home into the American world, but my parents and I still retain many Chinese customs at home. We cook Chinese food at home (which is still the only type of food I know how to cook), watch Chinese television shows, and speak to each other in Chinese.

I had grown very accustomed to stepping between these two worlds without even noticing any alteration in myself, until my best friend from college visited my family. He commented the next morning, "Oh my gosh, everything makes so much sense now!" I asked him, "What do you mean?" He responded, "Now I know why you are who you are, because when you leave your house you are in America, but when you go home you’re in China!" Despite the academic research I've done on Chinese-American immigrants, I had never fully grasped that I too inhabited two vastly different worlds. The switch between my home culture and the outside world had become so seamless that I barely noticed its existence. I didn't know there was a noticeable difference in my home and "away" lives.

Now imagine my Anglo-American girlfriend visiting my Chinese family in Cincinnati for the first time. After dating for about four months, Abigail came back with me to visit my parents, and I received a chance to see our lives through a white girl's eyes. Abigail courageously ate all the food that was set before her, listened to my conversations with my parents in Chinese, watched Chinese television with my parents, and attended Chinese church services at my dad's church. She also carefully abided by all the shoes and sandals rules in my parents' house. At the end of the week, my parents sent us back to D.C. with whole cooked chickens in each of our bags. Abigail didn't even know you could travel on the plane with a whole cooked chicken! I began to notice our eccentricities. Most importantly, I had the chance to see how Abigail grew comfortable with my parents, communicated with them through hand gestures and meaningful glances, and treated them with the reverence and respect that all Chinese mothers and fathers-in-law look for.

To my delight (and my parents' too), this warmth has continued into our married life. Abigail and I have celebrated Chinese holidays with my extended family in Boston, grieved through the illness and death of my grandma, and visited China with my parents for two weeks. Our cultural differences have only added colors and flavors to our marriage. That does not mean we don’t differ over traditions, holidays, and dinner decisions. And of course, we still attract perplexing looks and double-checking from waiters and TSA agents. In the next few days, you will get to hear from both of us about our story, our experiences, and some of our reflections. You will get to see how our cross-cultural marriage opened our eyes to see our own primary and secondary cultures, and how God works through our marriage to nurture our faith in Him and love for one another.