Our Cross-Cultural Marriage, Part 2: The Story

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. Catch up on the first part of the series here and make sure to check back over the weekend for the rest!

Abigail and I met in 2009 while we were both serving in the infant's nursery of our church in Washington, D.C. At that time, we didn’t become fast friends because we lived in two different parts of the city and had different groups of friends. It took us three years to warm up to each other, but very early on we did notice one strange interest that we shared.

Many people assume we must have shared an interest in Chinese culture, but this was not the case. Our church was located in Chinatown in Washington, D.C., but the only interaction Abigail had with the Chinese culture up to that point was an occasional dinner at a Chinese restaurant. She did not learn Mandarin in college, never set foot in China, and did not grow up around Chinese immigrant communities. I sometimes joke with my friends that we got married because Abigail was genuinely, really, simply just in love with me.

The one interest that we both shared, oddly enough, was our common admiration for America's second president and first lady, John and Abigail Adams. I have been a big fan of John and Abigail Adams since 10th grade, which often made me a laughing-stock among my high school and college friends. Despite the jeers, I was convinced that I must have liked them for a purpose. So when I met this girl named Abigail, she certainly caught my attention. When I eventually ended up marrying this Abigail, I felt vindicated. 

We did not start dating immediately; we didn’t even start dating until three years after we met. By then both of us were committed members of our church and volunteered at the same after-school ministry in Southeast D.C. While our pasts were very different, we were certainly converging in many areas. But most importantly, as we continued to grow in our relationship, we realized we were going in the same direction. Because we had been members of the same church for many years, we shared a similar vision for our lives, for family, and for ministry. We may have different cultural backgrounds, but both of our lives have been transformed and re-shaped by the gospel, and this shared commitment to the gospel made it possible for our relationship to grow. 

Recognizing our primary commitment to the gospel – rather than our own cultures – has had many major missional implications. First, we designed our wedding ceremony to reflect the presence of God in our relationship, and we wanted our non-Christian family members and friends to witness this as we began our marriage. Because we did not want my relatives (some came all the way from China) to have the impression that our wedding was simply an American ceremony, we included Chinese translation for every word spoken at the ceremony so that all of my relatives could follow the liturgy and prayers. We wanted our families to know that God transcends both American and Chinese cultures.   

Second, we wanted our marriage to represent two different cultures brought together by the gospel, rather than one culture assimilating into another. In Chinese culture, it is very common to expect the bride to be fully assimilated into the groom's family. If you visit China today, you will notice that many Chinese couples and their kids are living with the paternal grandparents because that is the cultural norm. On the other hand, as a Chinese immigrant marrying an Anglo woman, most people assumed that I was fully assimilating into the American culture. But assimilation has never been a major concern for us because we believe the Word of God challenges both our cultures, and we should not fully embrace one or the other.

A topic that often comes up in our conversation is how different aspects of our backgrounds teach us about God. We also point out to each other how the Bible speaks against certain things that we have always taken for granted as Chinese or American.  Most importantly, we recognize that American evangelicalism has its own deep cultural baggage and desperately needs critique and wisdom from Christians around the world. Through sharing our Christian experiences, we learn that if we blindly propagate what we American Evangelicals have taken for granted, it may be detrimental to both our friends and to ourselves.

Lastly, our story should reflect God's transformation in our lives. Many people on both sides of the Pacific have asked us how we ended up marrying each other. We like to point out that it is because we saw God's work in each other's lives and because other brothers and sisters from our church affirmed God's work in our lives. Because we had faith that God would continue to sanctify us, we had confidence that our cross-cultural marriage would thrive. 

The first time my parents met Abigail, my mom said to her, "Ryan is very Chinese, do you think you can handle that? Think about it." The first time I visited Abigail's parents, her dad asked me point-blankly, "Are you a U.S. citizen?" The night before our engagement, my parents had a long chat with Abigail – speaking in Chinese while I translated for them – to make sure she knew what to expect when she married into our family. These were all very intimidating experiences! We could move beyond these experiences not because our cultural differences are unimportant, but because we believe there is something much more important. Some days our differences cause us to argue, but more often we are grateful for the opportunity to learn about God through the other person's eyes. Our Heavenly Father is sanctifying us through these differences, and we hope that our marriage can be a testament to God's glory and faithfulness to us.