Our Cross-Cultural Marriage, Part 4: Five Interesting Things

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. If you haven’t already, make sure to catch up on the first, second, and third parts of the series!

In our previous posts, we recounted the story of how Abigail and I met and started our cross-cultural marriage. In the years after our wedding, many interesting things have happened to make us chuckle, shake our heads, argue, and weep. In this post, we would like to tell you five interesting things that we have discovered in our cross-cultural marriage.

1.     Who cooks dinner depends on where we go grocery shopping. Abigail and I have always tried to divide up chores equally, but we’ve found it tricky to share cooking duties, not because we are unwilling to be in the kitchen with each other, but because we often do not know what the other person is cooking. Because we live in a city where Chinese grocery stores are within close driving distance, my natural preference is to visit such establishments and load up on Chinese vegetables and spices. The problem is that this also locks me into cooking for the rest of the week because Abigail may not know what I was planning to do with the lotus root or the pea shoots. On the other hand, I still don't know what to make of the piecrust and French bread that take up half or our freezer. We have learned to help each other in the small tasks and washing up in the kitchen, but the one in charge of cooking is still the one who went grocery shopping. 

2.     My parents are very kind to my wife for a very subtle reason. My parents are very gentle and simple folks, and I am grateful that they have a great relationship with Abigail. But we noticed that the cause of their kindness to Abigail goes beyond their personality. My parents speak Cantonese with each other and with me; English is still a very foreign language to them. The only time they use English is during their sporadic communications with co-workers. Therefore, when they speak in English they are usually speaking from a position of vulnerability and deference, and this carries over in their communication with their own daughter-in-law, even in their own house. This taught both of us to be sensitive to my parents' discomfort and the power dynamics behind languages. The use of different languages can create different levels of comfort, and this is true even for immediate families.

3.     We have to distinguish between cultural differences and personal preferences. Because Abigail and I grew up in different cultures, it’s natural to assume that we will have a lot of cultural differences in our practices and values. We certainly have our differences, but we soon discovered that some of them have little to do with culture and more to do with personal preference. How to spend money or care for our parents have cultural roots, but how often to do laundry or how to decorate our home are just personal preferences. Put it another way, when two people come from two different families – regardless of ethnic background – a layer of cultural difference already exists. Our ethnic background only adds another layer of complexity to our marriage. But despite the complexity, we still believe it is a welcome addition because it has made our marriage more colorful and taught us to be more sensitive.

4.     We learn to embrace each other's holidays. One major area that we learned to be sensitive to – and the subject of most of our arguments – is how to embrace each other's holidays. I had already lived in the U.S. for fourteen years by the time we got married, so I am quite familiar with American holidays, but many of the holidays that I celebrate with my family are foreign to Abigail. What is Mid-Autumn Festival? Why do we go visit family cemeteries on April 5th? Why do we wrap sticky rice with beans in bamboo leaves in May? Abigail had to learn to embrace and celebrate these holidays. Even holidays that are familiar to both of us, like Christmas and Chinese New Year, require some creative thinking. How much energy should I spend on Christmas when my family has never even gotten a Christmas tree or decorated our house? How to celebrate Chinese New Year when few people outside of our family even know about its existence? Working through these questions has been surprisingly challenging, but the process is getting better every year.

5.     Assimilation is not the goal. When I first moved to the U.S. and started middle school in southwest Ohio, I imagined that I had to adapt to the American way of life to fit into this society. In many ways, becoming a Christian and marrying a white girl may appear to be steps in this direction. Surprisingly, these two major changes in my life have actually made me more comfortable in my own skin. Seeing Abigail's growing appreciation for our traditions and her love for Chinese movies, shows, and music has made me more proud of my own culture. In church conversations about theology and racial reconciliation, Abigail made me realize that I have something unique to bring to the table as a Chinese immigrant. It is somewhat ironic that it has taken an Anglo woman to help me find my voice as a Chinese-American, but it is another sign how the grace of God works in mysterious ways. Marriage, above all things, is a way God sanctifies us and helps us mature as his children. For us, God does this is by bringing our two cultures together in our marriage.