updated 16 Feb 2013, 09:37
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Thu, Feb 14, 2013
China Daily
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When West marries East
by He Na

Never mind the cultural differences, He Na reveals the secret to successful transnational marriages.

A humorous recent online posting discussing the headaches a foreigner experienced after he married a Chinese woman struck a chord with many expatriates in the same situation. "Marrying a Chinese woman means marrying her whole family. Within half a year, her parents, sisters, and her sister's kids will come to visit, in a long queue," the post said. "Your home is totally occupied by Chinese and there is no privacy for you at all ..." The post went viral and while many foreigners shared similar experiences, there are those who beg to disagree. Though cultural differences and an alien environment are often cited as obstacles, many still firmly believe these are trivial things in the face of true love. No nationwide data is available on transnational marriages, but Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau said that 1,183 transnational couples got married in the city in 2012, with more than 1,100 tying the knot every year since 2008. The Spring Festival, the most important holiday for family reunions, is approaching. China Daily found two couples, who firmly believe love will conquer all, to share their experiences in making marriage work and prosper.

Love beyond words, life beyond borders

Geography is no barrier on the path toward true love

Pierre Bourdaud, a 32-year-old French actor, claimed that his family holds a motto toward patriotism that goes "Do not be patriotic, but like all human beings".

He has every reason to say so, for he married a Chinese woman three years ago, and now they have a lovely son.

Bourdaud's Chinese name is Bo Xiaolong. He quite likes the name and enjoys when people use it.

His wife, Sun Tingting, 30, is a human resources manager at an international company in Beijing. Bourdaud racked his brain to think of a word to describe her beautiful, elegant, tender, romantic, all of the above.

He took out his iPad to show their wedding pictures, which were shot in a hutong in Houhai. In the black-and-white shots, Sun wears a well-cut cheongsam while Bourdaud is in a pressed suit.

"Wo men hen ban pei ba? (We are well-matched, right?)," he asked in fluent Chinese with a strong Beijing accent. "It's destiny that we will be husband and wife."

Love marathon

Their relationship began in Beijing in 2003 when the capital was shrouded by the fear of SARS.

"At the time both of us were students in Beijing Foreign Studies University, and we met at a farewell party for French students. We did not fall in love at first sight, but contact never stopped since then," Bourdaud said.

He then moved to South Korea for work, but due to visa requirements he had to leave the country every three months. He often flew to Beijing for a short stay and Sun was the person he visited every time.

"We always had a lot to talk about and gradually I felt a great tug at parting and I realised that love is coming," Bourdaud said.

At first, Sun didn't want to be his girlfriend, but he insisted on pursuing her until she finally said yes on Sept 29, 2004.

"The decision also changed my life, as I moved to China," Bourdaud said.

"Many Chinese people think the French are the most romantic guys in the world, but to tell the truth, I am not romantic at all. I first proposed to her without flowers or a ring and was rejected."

Their relationship as lovers lasted another four years. "Though we didn't register, we lived as husband and wife. We gradually found that we couldn't live without each other," Sun said.

The first failure gave him a lesson, so Bourdaud made sure he planned the second proposal properly. He chose Sun's birthday in 2009 and used rose petals to mark a route that led to their bedroom, where a laptop on the desk was playing a video that recalled their story.

"The video ended with an instruction to turn around and I thought he must be holding a cake. But to my surprise I saw him holding a big bunch of roses and a ring. I tried to think of something to say but I drew a blank, and my heart rate sped up," Sun said.

"I succeeded," Bourdaud said with a smile. "We only had one wedding, in Beijing. It was really unforgettable and even I was moved to tears when the host recalled that we overcame so many difficulties."

Cultural differences

They have never really had a big argument during the course of their marriage, but life is composed of trials, and it is inevitable to come across small frictions. Their way of showing anger is to avoid speaking to each other for one or two days.

"My wife is very generous and often gives in first. We make progress after each 'battle'," Bourdaud said.

He recalled that every morning Sun would ask him to put on more clothes when he went out, and he used to get annoyed at her nagging.

"The French like pursuing freedom. Come on, I am not a kid," Bourdaud said. "I didn't understand that in China to nag means to deeply love."

On the contrary, he never reminds Sun of the same.

"I thought you need to give her freedom when you love someone. But my wife thought that me not saying those words means that I am not caring for her," Bourdaud said.

Bourdaud has spent many Spring Festivals in China and he often thinks that the activities for the holiday are too dull: "People leave after the meal, and that's all."

He said he still prefers Christmas. "We will have a big meal too, but many other activities as well such as playing games, dancing, singing or doing some sports, which are more fun than only eating."

More disagreements are appearing when it comes to their child's education. Bourdaud prefers to teach his one-and-half-year-old son to be independent, but he said Sun and her mother spoil the boy too much.

Generally, Bourdaud said he liked the role of being a husband and son-in-law a lot.

"If not for my Western looks, sometimes I even forget my foreign identity," he said, adding that he does not understand why many people point out the cultural and conceptual barriers to transnational marriage when even people from the same village can get divorced.

"China is getting better, and I like the country. I want my son to receive education in public Chinese schools and hope he can be a real Chinese."

Mutual respect holds key to successful marriage

The Meehans are seen as a model transnational couple

Doug Meehan and Tian Yixue (Esha Meehan) met at Old Dominion University in Virginia, where they spent time as study partners and began learning about each other before they started dating.

"Although it was not love at first sight, we each had a deep cultural interest that led to getting to know each other better. We spent a considerable amount of time talking about our backgrounds and interests as classmates and became friends before we became a couple," said Doug, 41, a business-strategy data analyst for a global grocery retail chain.

"I found her to be very pure-hearted, smart, and beautiful. I was inspired by listening to stories about her journey to America."

They developed a relationship through long discussions of their backgrounds, interests and thoughts of the future, and found commonality in areas such as career development, family values, and the desire to raise children.

"As our understanding of one another grew, feelings of affection set in. Our friendship blossomed into an intimate relationship," Doug said.

"In the beginning of our relationship, I drove an hour to her apartment, where she lived alone on a stormy night to ensure that she was OK. She was not expecting my arrival and was touched by my thoughtfulness."

They were married in 2000 in Norfolk, Virginia.

"We threw out traditional wedding customs from both cultures and participated in an annual Valentine's Day group wedding ceremony along with 32 other couples," said Tian, 35, who works as a controller for a power-tool company in the United States - a subsidiary of a Chinese-owned international company.

"Local television stations held broadcasts of the event and country singer Keith Urban performed live for the couples and guests. The ceremony has left lasting memories and is always a fun story to share and hear," said Tian.

Deeper feelings

It has been 12 years since they married, but they still have countless words to say and often stay up to chat.

"We never lost the feelings for each other and they keep growing and deeper as days come and go," said Tian.

They are the most compatible couple in the eyes of their relatives, colleagues and neighbours. Although they come from and grew up in totally different cultures and backgrounds, the difference brought more fun to their lives than trouble.

"While travelling in China, we spent an evening in a public bath. Chinese people seem to be much more comfortable exposing themselves in public than what I am used to," Doug said.

And other fun story Tian told is that they have friends who are also in a transnational relationship, but theirs is between a Chinese man and an American woman. When they go out as two couples, people often mistake who is with whom.

"I don't think cultural differences create friction in our lives. We spend a considerable amount of time in open communication," Doug said.

"We have similar beliefs on most topics and come to a quick compromise on any disagreements that may come up. Any frictions that arise tend to be basic things all couples will encounter."

But Doug still says that he needs time to accept some Chinese habits, such as the way Chinese people tend to speak very loudly and forcefully to each other.

"There have been many occasions where I thought Esha and her mom were arguing, when actually they were just discussing a dinner plan or ideas for the day. I'm still not sure why basic conversations have to be spoken so loudly," he said.

Children and in-laws

The couple has three sons who have performed well in academic subjects as well as leisure activities, such as sports and music.

"Getting the kids to understand their Chinese heritage is difficult while living and growing up in America. However, we have worked hard to teach them how to speak and write Chinese," said Doug.

"With their Chinese grandparents living in the house, the kids have learned many Chinese cultural customs."

Tian added that their children were introduced to many developmental activities such as sports, music, art, martial arts, and education-enrichment programs. "We use their Chinese heritage as a driver to pursue and develop under this demanding activity workload," she said.

Recently, Doug has found the festive atmosphere at home growing.

"My in-laws always make traditional Chinese dishes to celebrate the Chinese New Year. I enjoy celebrating with the family. Chinese Spring Festival is a special holiday for the family. My boys and I like to participate in decorating the house with Chinese paper art," he said.

"We have learned how to live in harmony with each other with respect and care. My Chinese in-laws are wonderful people who care deeply about family and want nothing more than to participate in the success of our family."

Many friends of the Meehans take them as a model transnational couple. To refresh and maintain the stability of their marriage, the couple provided some advice based on their living experience.

"Beyond the common respect and appreciation for each other that all couples must practice, transnational couples must have a genuine interest and appreciation of their partner's culture, participate in elements of their partner's culture, always be open and honest with one another and understand that your partner's culture will become a big part of your life," Doug suggested.

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