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October 29, 2012

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Trials and tribulations of cross-cultural marriages

IT'S not an uncommon story. Western man working in Shanghai meets lovely Chinese lady at a fashionable bar downtown or at work. A few dates ensue. Love blossoms. Marriage vows are exchanged.

It wasn't long ago that cross-cultural marriages were considered taboo in China. But when the country opened its doors to the world, social mores changed along with the economy.

But fairy tales don't always end with everyone living happily ever after. In some cases, the cultural differences that didn't seem to matter in the first blush of love can exacerbate the common disputes of any marriage.

Frenchman Jean Dupont, who owns an art studio in Shanghai, met his Chinese girlfriend in Paris. He said his mother-in-law flew to France from a business trip in Vienna and gave him quite a grilling about his intentions toward her daughter.

"She asked me very direct questions that made me feel strange and upset," said Dupont, who married his sweetheart about three years ago.

In France, many people just live together without marrying, he said, but that arrangement didn't suit many Chinese parents. "After all, my wife is 27 years old, not 16!" he said with some exasperation.

His wife saw nothing particularly odd about the inquisition. "My mother was just concerned about me, like many other Chinese parents," she said. "She wanted to talk with him to see whether he was a good man."

The couple admits there have been marital arguments about issues such as how to rear their daughter and how long they will stay in Shanghai.

Create tensions

Difference in values will create tensions when cultures collide, said Azin Nasseri, a Canadian psychologist and marriage counselor working in Shanghai. He said he sees many cases where marital bliss has hit the rocks over finances, infidelity and other marital problems, but cultural differences can make reconciliation harder.

In the past five years, Shanghai registered 9,271 cross-cultural marriages and 1,116 cross-cultural divorces. The figures for each of the years have remained pretty stable.

Nasseri said child-rearing and priorities in life are the major areas that may trigger tensions in cross-cultural marriages.

"Both Chinese and Westerners are family-oriented, but Chinese culture seems to be much more so, and often parents live with their grown children and assist with the raising of the grandchildren," Nasseri said.

"In a Western family, children move away and grandparents generally are not involved in the daily lives of grandchildren," he said.

He said Chinese families traditionally are more protective of their children and tend to cater more to their whims. In Western families, by contrast, children are often given more free rein to develop on their own.

Park Seung-ho, vice president of a South Korean newspaper in Shanghai, said South Korean husbands and Chinese wives often clash over something as minor as housework.

Divide the work

"In South Korea, wives usually do all housework, but that is not the case here in Shanghai, where couples tend to divide the work equally," Park said.

Chinese husbands may enjoy it, but many South Korean men won't marry Chinese women.

A Burundi development specialist Jean Marie Cishahayo living in Shanghai married a Chinese woman more than 10 years ago and has been living in Shanghai for 14 years. He speaks fluent Mandarin.

Chinese and African people share many similarities in culture and traditions, he said. They're both very family-oriented, and divorce rates are low.

He recalled the day he and his wife registered their marriage in Shanghai.

Noticeably absent, he said, were expressions of congratulations by personnel at the marriage bureau. The whole process seemed cold.

Stella Si, executive director of Community Center Shanghai, said marriage is about a deep commitment between two people and requires that both respect the cultural heritage and customs of the other.

"Different understandings about social norms pose challenges for cross-cultural marriages," said Si, who is married to a Westerner. Her center is a nonprofit organization that is trying to bridge cultural gaps with programs and counseling.

She cited the example of a Chinese woman who might invite her new husband to live with her family for a month or two, a common enough custom in China. But a Westerner might well balk at the perception of in-laws meddling in a marriage.

In general, Si revealed that marriages between Chinese men and foreign women seem to work the best. The men are usually well-educated, well-behaved and conversant in the wife's language.


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