China Elevator Stories

8 things you should know before marrying into a Chinese family

Marrying a Chinese man means marrying his family.


Ruth Silbermayr
Ruth Silbermayr


When I married my Chinese husband, I had read up on some cross-cultural marriage issues, but there is also a lot I’m only getting to know with time. I’m still learning. What does it mean to marry into a Chinese family (if the man is Chinese)?

1. Everything’s a family affair …

me and my former in-laws - Ruth Silbermayr AMWF

It is widely known that marrying a Chinese guy means you marry into the family. Things you thought were private matters might suddenly be discussed in loud voices at the family table. Where’s that child you’re supposed to birth? Are you still fertile although you’re already over 30? Should you birth a boy or a girl? Should you keep your cat or is that innocent looking kitty one of the most dangerous creatures on earth? How about your salary? Should you switch careers so you can live in closer proximity to your in-laws? Once that baby is here, how about you just give it to the grandparents to raise while you and your husband live in the big city and pretend to be two youngsters without kid? We’ve had quite a few of these things discussed at the family table. Luckily, so far my menstrual problems are usually only discussed between my husband, my mother-in-law and me (and sometimes women working at bath houses). There are still things that are off-topic for fathers-in-law.

2. … including finances

When my husband and I first started dating, we talked about finances a lot. Growing up, I always had problems talking about money, so I thought being able to talk about finances with him was a fresh respite. If you marry into a Chinese family, finances are often not only an issue discussed between you and your spouse, but between extended family members. Depending if your in-laws are better off or worse financially, they might help you out when you’re in financial troubles or expect you to help them out financially in old age. Many people here don’t get a pension or not enough money to afford hospital visits or else, so your financial help might be essential for them to get by. Make sure you’re in the know about finances before you say yes to your Chinese family. Talking about finances before marriage is helpful no matter if you’re in a cross-cultural relationship or not.

3. You’ll be expected to come home to your Chinese family for Spring Festival

Now, I’m sure there are exceptions to this one, but in general, once you’re married, you are part of your Chinese family and thus expected to spend Spring Festival with them. Similar to spending Christmas with family back home (if you’re in living in somewhat close proximity), Chinese New Year is celebrated with the extended family. The good thing about it is that if you’re from different countries which don’t both celebrate Spring Festival, you won’t need to negotiate on which day you’ll see which part of the family. Many Chinese marry spouses from different provinces and can only visit one part of the family each year, giving them plenty of opportunity to fight over which part they should visit the upcoming year (which, again, is pretty similar to Christmas in Western countries).

4. Fighting can seem utterly pointless or even ridiculous

This one is more general and is probably similar for many couples in cross-cultural relationships across the world. Fighting can lead to communication. But it might also seem pointless. We’ve had plenty of fights that led to better communication and because of that, I’m not afraid to fight anymore (like I used to be before I met my husband), but we’ve also had quite a few fights where I just really couldn’t figure out what the hell we were actually fighting about. When you’re in a relationship where you speak different mother tongues, at least one of you will probably not speak in their own mother tongue when fighting. It is hard to put emotions into words in your mother tongue, and even harder if you fight in a second language. Add this component and the fact that you’ve probably grown up in two really different cultures, and you might be fighting about completely different things during the same fight. Hubby says A, I understand B and say C. He understands D and says E. It can go on like that forever from A to Z. The last time we fought like that, he concluded: “Fighting with you doesn’t make any sense.” That’s when we stopped fighting and went back to business as usual. Weirdly enough, everything’s been pretty fine since then.

5. Your opinion as a mother might not count

If your in-laws help you with childcare, your parents-in-law might think what they say about childcare counts more than what you say as the mother. Why is that so? In China, seniority is usually not to be questioned. Your mother-in-law has already raised a child on her own, so she’s the one who knows how it works is the general mindset. Many of us are lucky in that their in-laws still have an open ear for their requests or are willing to communicate, but quite a few have had to fight their way into doing things the way they’d like to do them or minimise the time the in-laws spend with their grandchild, leading to broken hearts or severely damaged family relationships on the way.

my older son and me taking a train - Ruth Silbermayr-Song AMWF

The thing is, there’s often no right or wrong when it comes to childcare, just different cultural practices. But if you live in China, you’re representing the minority culture, so how you raise your child might be seen as rather a little crazy by the locals. Either your husband has your back, you have an understanding mother-in-law – or if you’re not okay with the in-laws meddling in what you consider your business, you’ll have to find other ways to get that much-needed help.

In our household, we communicate on a regular basis when issues come up in regards to parenting. There’s a lot we don’t agree on with the in-laws and many times where I don’t know how to get my point across in Chinese. Mostly, I’ve had to let go of finding solutions that work for me, though, because my in-laws are impossible to argue with.

6. Many Chinese fathers aren’t as involved in raising their children as Western ones might be

This one can be pretty hard to swallow for women who grew up expecting their spouse to be really involved with his children from birth (read Ember Swift’s post here on how she’s dealing with this issue). Now, I’m not saying every Western dad is an involved father, we’re just talking about general here. In many Chinese families, it’s the women’s job to raise the children (traditionally both the mother’s as well as the mother-in-law’s). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there are no involved Chinese fathers, there certainly are and times are changing, but your husband might turn out not to be of the involved-father-species or he might be better with caring for his children only once they are a little older.

Caring for a newborn is hard enough and will give you plenty of topics to fight about with your spouse, add to that your unfulfilled expectations and you’re in for a bumpy ride, if not even divorce. Make sure to talk about your expectations before that little crying bundle of joy enters the world and try to find some common ground. Things might change a bit after your baby has arrived, but talking about both of your expectations early on might help you re-negotiate your points once the baby’s there.

7. Society’s expectations will encroach upon you

Still remember that time you were really in love with China and how light and free you felt living here? If you marry a Chinese man and decide to live in China, society’s expectations will encroach upon you. You won’t be able to just leave your life in China behind on a whim if you feel like it. YOU WILL BE MARRIED TO CHINA, for good or for worse (as long as you don’t divorce, that is). You’ll be expected to understand certain aspects of Chinese culture. You might have to act the “I’m certainly not a feminist wife”-and “I look up to seniority”-part at family gatherings (or, like me, become really unpopular with the oldest patriarch in the family, because you don’t). You’ll also get to know a lot of things you probably never wanted to know about Chinese society. As long as you’re not married to China, you’re free to choose which aspects of Chinese culture you want to embrace and which aspects you’ll just want to leave at your doorstep. Marrying into China doesn’t give you that choice anymore. I was struggling quite a bit with this at first, but have since come to my piece of mind about it.

8. Just as there are different kinds of in-laws in your own culture, so there are in China

There are a few general aspects of Chinese culture that might play a role in your married life, but just as there are different kinds of in-laws back home, so there are in China. You might have a great relationship with your Chinese mother-in-law or it might be really strained. Your father-in-law might be quite the patriarch, or he might be really supportive of gender equality. They might expect you to care for them in old age or not. They might offer you their 24-hour help with childcare or they might prefer to enjoy their own free time. They might want to live with you in one household or not. Be open-minded and they might surprise you. But if they are anything but supportive, then I suggest living farther away from them for your own sake and that of your marriage.

Is there anything you’d add to the list?

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