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Geographic Separation: The Inevitable Side Effect Of A Cross-Cultural Marriage

We married so we could be together. Today, separations are a big part of our life.


Ruth Silbermayr
Ruth Silbermayr


My husband is a Chinese citizen. I’m Austrian. We married so we could be together, but today, separations are a big part of our life.

Song Yang 宋阳 - Ruth Silbermayr

My husband and I had a shotgun wedding a few years ago. When we met, we clicked and even though I was one commitment phobic European afraid of marriage, it felt a 100% right to say yes when he asked me if I wanted to marry him. He was the person I felt completely at ease with.

Geographic Separation

Vienna - Ruth Silbermayr

Today marks the last day of August. It’s that time of the year when liqiu (立秋), the Beginning of Autumn, will soon turn into real autumn. Leaves have started falling from the trees in shades more green than yellow. The seasons’ changes are still subtle, only visible to the watchful observer and the weather can still get hot during the day. It’s 3:26 a.m. in Vienna. I’m in Austria with my two-year-old toddler son. I’m also 9 months pregnant with our second child. We’re currently waiting for my husband’s Schengen visa to be processed. This is yet another geographic separation.

I have spent countless nights sleepless, waking up in the middle of the night, unable to fall back to sleep again wondering how I’ll manage if our second baby arrives before my husband, or if his visa is denied. Being married means that I can apply for a spousal residence permit in China (团聚 for reunion). The first time I apply for one, I get half a year, the second time, one year. That is the maximum amount of time I can apply for a residence permit to be with my husband in China (in many other places you will get two years, but not where my husband lives). You are not permitted to work on a Chinese spousal residence permit. The maximum amount of time I get on a work residence permit is also one year. Our relationship is a staccato of one-year-visas.

In Austria, the visa situation isn’t any better. While it would technically be easier to get a residence permit, in reality and for us, it’s currently not. You need a stable job and high enough income to be able to get that residence permit. For a simple family visa, you either need to prove you have high savings or a house or similar in China, or sponsorship in Austria from someone who has a high enough income. People in a forum for Austrians married to non-Austrian citizens from non-EU-countries advise you to move to another European country and reside there until you are both eligible to make a living in Austria. I would like to say this is a joke, shake my shoulders and laugh about it, but it’s not. That is the extent to which some couples have to go so they can be together.

Video-chatting – No Replacement for Having Dad Around

When we video chat with my husband during the day, every question my husband asks our son, he’ll answer with “nein”, German for “no”. He’s hurt his dad can’t be with us. From nearly exclusively speaking Chinese, he has now switched to almost completely speaking German. He’ll only answer my husband’s questions if I translate them to German. He perfectly understands his dad’s Chinese, he just doesn’t answer if I don’t translate. My husband moves the phone so our son can say hello to his Chinese grandparents. They ask him if he’s missed them, the Chinese equivalent of telling someone “we missed you”. Another nein. I can see the tears in my two-year-olds eyes giving away his real feelings.

These days, I feel like a single mom. I take care of our son 24/7 nine months pregnant. I only have the rare hour where my usually busy sister has time to play with him. I feel like I need to make up for the separation by taking our son to his most favorite playgrounds, even if that means taking the tram instead of walking, or by taking him to the supermarket featuring shopping carts with a car attached at the front, letting him ride around the aisles. “Drive on,” he’ll say impatiently if I stop to take something from the shelves. I also take him to the library often.

chinese german children's book - Ruth Silbermayr
“Opas Hochzeit (Grandpa’s Wedding) 姥爷的婚礼” by Li Hong 洪力

We go to the Children’s World Library and read one of the two books that come in both Chinese and German. My son loves listening to stories and looking at illustrations. Going to the library and choosing books I’ll read to him is one of his favorite pastimes. But when I read this bilingual book to him and even though I only read the part in German, I can see tears appear in his eyes again. When I open the book, the first thing he says is: “Dad can read this to me.” He has realized there are Chinese characters in the book. He also instinctively knows the story is set in China. I ask him if everything’s okay and he says that everything’s not okay. People say kids adjust fast to new surroundings and people. They do. Our son has adjusted fast and well. But that doesn’t mean that he won’t miss his other home and the people there. He misses his dad, his Chinese grandparents, the meals his yeye lovingly prepares for him in China, and China. He’s only two years old, but a geographic separation like this is hard for everyone involved, even – or even more so – for a two-year-old.

Have you ever been separated geographically from your spouse?

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