One Couple, Two Cultures

Apr 15, 2009
*Special to asia!

Once considered forbidden fruit, Western-Chinese marriages are now as common as mandarin oranges. Dan Waters takes a fresh look at a ripe ol’ issue.

Then again, Western-Chinese marriage can depend as much on fermented Shanghainese beancurd and smelly gorgonzola cheese as on compatibility of the spouses. In a few cases it ends up with one partner sitting on one side of the table with chopsticks eating, among other things, a succulent chicken’s foot and the other partner with a knife and fork enjoying “gamy” steak and kidney pie. An American wife in my survey complained that her husband had been slurping his soup for the 30 years of their marriage. “It annoys me a lot,” she stressed. But the Chinese husband refused to take it lying down. “I would like my wife to be more understanding,” he retorted. After all piping hot soup, double-boiled with loving care, has to be savoured. Slurping aids the cooling process. It shows appreciation.


341 The author’s niece and her husband paying their respects and obeisances at their wedding by ceremonially offering up tea (jum cha), an age old ceremony, to Dan and Vera.


In a mixed marriage it has to be respected that the two races, and indeed individuals in many cases, have different ways of doing things. At Chinese New Year does the Western husband accompany his wife visiting her relations or does he go off on the boat with a few buddies and a couple of crates of beer? Does he try to understand why, “Whiteheads don’t go to the Blackheads funeral?” The fact that elderly Chinese parents may not attend their own children’s funerals is based on common sense. After all, the gravity of the occasion really could be too much for them to bear.

Bearing in mind prejudices and the strong objections to “mixing the breed,” a derogatory expression common in the past, it was surprising that, in my survey, 58 per cent of the partners said “no,” they had never been “looked down upon” because of their interracial marriage. Nevertheless a Scot said he met his wife-to-be in 1955, but they did not wed until 1963 because her family, her mother especially, was horrified at the thought of her beloved daughter marrying a foreigner. The Cantonese saying has it that, “If you marry a dog you follow a dog.”

Another Chinese wife interviewed said that, these days, there is hardly any prejudice, but as late as the 1970s Chinese women seen with non-Chinese men were often the butt of insulting remarks made by Chinese observers. Interestingly, there is now considerable interest on the China Mainland in marrying a foreigner and Hong Kong’s famous film star and martial arts exponent, Jackie Chan, said, no doubt partly with tongue-in-cheek, that more Chinese should wed foreigners in order to “spread Chinese culture around the world.”

Now to the 50-million-dollar question: “Can Western-Chinese couples overcome cultural obstacles and lead happy lives together, or is a mixed-marriage an impossible dream?”

Henry J Lethbridge, professor of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong in the 1960s and ’70s, was a researcher who brought insight and originality to his work. He wrote that Western-Chinese marriages usually only take place after a period of serious deliberation. With such marriages, he continued, emotional bonds are usually strong and most partners work hard to make their marriages a success. Although these are striking statements my research tends to support Lethbridge’s views. Unlike poles often attract and the Chinese matchmaker’s saying, “Bamboo doors should match bamboo doors and wooden gates should match wooden gates,” may not always be the answer.

About one-third of the over four-score couples in my survey felt that racial factors made limited differences as far as compatibility was concerned. The remaining two-thirds maintained that cultural differences brought varying pressures to bear and created extra “hurdles” to be juggled. I subscribe to the latter view. Nevertheless most of the spouses felt that the main factor, as in any marriage, is the man-to-woman relationship. As one Chinese wife phrased it, “I didn’t marry a foreigner, I married John.”

There are many happy Western-Chinese marriages and, as one American lady in my survey phrased it, “Being in a cross-cultural marriage has mostly been a wonderful adventure and I would do it all again in a second.”

So, the answer appears to be “no,” a happy Western-Chinese marriage is not an impossible dream. Also, with globalisation, interracial marriage may become a marked social phenomenon of the 21st century.


Excerpt from One Couple Two Cultures: 81 Western-Chinese Couples Talk About Love and Marriage (2005), by Dan Waters. For enquiries, go to

Dr Dan Waters ISO BBS was born in Norwich (UK), city of pubs and churches. He fought as a Desert Rat and in Italy, including taking part in the landings at Salerno and Anzio. After World War Two, in 1954, he joined the Colonial Service and set sail for Hong Kong where he has lived ever since. He has written widely about Hong Kong’s history, culture and customs.