Interviews with Binational Couples: Erni and Thomas
(Thomas’ responses are italicized. Erni’s are not.)
Erni’s Birthplace: Chengdu, China
Thomas’ Birthplace: Paris, France
We met on February 25, 2010, in Vientiane, Laos.
1. Before dating a foreigner, did you have any preconceptions/doubts about what it would be like dating and relating? (in general)
NO IDEA. But no worries.
I’ve never actually been in a relationship with someone from another ethnic or nationality. I guess I had the normal preconceptions about “dating” that everyone gets from popular culture.
2. With regard to your partner’s ethnicity, did you harbor any stereotypes or expectations about what the dating experience would be like?
My parents don’t speak English and were shocked more than me that I brought someone non-Chinese back home.
I actually knew very little about China and the Chinese before meeting Erni, so I don’t think I’ve had any preconceptions about how a relationship would evolve. Perhaps I expected a Chinese girl to be more reserved than a European one. However, even with the little I knew about Chinese culture, I very quickly felt that Erni was anything but a typical Chinese.
3. What kind of cultural, social, political, and linguistic barriers have you encountered, if any? And how did you manage them?
Basically I wasn’t able to speak English, French, and can’t tell the difference between Jewish and Israeli, no idea about French left and right parties, my western culture was messed up before our relationship. He didn’t know anything about China a part from communism and that the Chinese eat dogs, those clichés. I guess time and patience and humor and sex help this cultural political social linguistic exchange.
We had big language barriers at first. I didn’t speak a word of Chinese (not even basics like NiHao), and Erni’s English was rather rudimentary. Still, we talked and wrote each other e-mails, even if at first she had to make frequent use of her dictionary. Over time we both improved through study and practice, and we now have three languages in common: French, English and Chinese.
4. Name one or two culturally related behaviors your partner exhibited that surprised you?
If we try to have sex in Chinese sometimes I end up laughing for hours.
Once again, Erni is not exactly the stereotypical Chinese girl, so overall we didn’t have many cultural hurdles to overcome. I guess one thing that surprised me was her bashfulness regarding displays of public affection. Holding hands etc are ok, but passionate kissing on the streets made her uncomfortable. She doesn’t mind it as much when we’re outside of China, though.
5. What language do you commonly communicate in? If you didn’t know your partner’s native (or one of their native) language/s, have you started learning it?
I speak French but he doesn’t speak French to me of which I am not very happy about.
We speak mostly English, out of habit. We use Chinese when we don’t want people around us to understand, which is a dangerous habit to acquire. We also regularly use a few French expressions when speaking in English. Erni would prefer for us to speak in French more often, but for some reason it makes me uncomfortable. Speaking French to her somehow feels less intimate, more cold and distant.
6. For those of you living together, what is the home dynamic like? Who does what domestically? (no lying!)
I’m curious to see what Erni will reply here, because I definitely do the vast majority of housework. Cleaning, dishes, laundry, you name it. She does do most of the cooking though, because she’s just so good at it.
7. How have people in your native countries treated you as an intercultural couple? And can you share an anecdote, happy or sad, about one such related experience?
My country has something against women and non-Chinese couples (guess it’s from Confucius and the stupid pride of its fucking 5000 year-old culture, for me it’s 5000 tons of baggage) so most people (not intellectual people) hold prejudice for Chinese girls with a non-Chinese boyfriend (less prejudice for boys with a non-Chinese girl, or gay couple) so, many times people insult me on the street just because Thomas is beside me. I fight back sometimes, and write articles about that.
I’ve never had a personal, physical experience regarding this, but I do know that some people in China frown on girls going out with foreigners. There was one instance where an article was published online about our journey (the one where we met you!), and there were several comments insulting Erni for having a foreign boyfriend. Surprisingly she didn’t take it too bad, she’s too tough for that
8. Have you met your partner’s parents, and were you able to communicate effectively with them?
I guess we are good friends with his parents, my parents like him too.
Oh dear god yes. Not only have we both met the entirety of our respective families, but our families have also met each other on several occasions. I even lived with Erni in her parent’s home for a long period. Communication was very hard at first because, as I said, I couldn’t speak a word of Chinese. I also had no idea about certain important conventions, like having to call her parents “auntie” and “uncle”. However over time, as my language skills progressed and my cultural understanding deepened, I developed a good relationship with her family. I even occasionally talk to her mother on WeChat… Erni also has a very good relationship with both my parents, and pretty much my entire family thinks she’s great. So that’s nice.
9. Lastly, what has ‘international’ dating taught you, if anything?
I guess living in an international relationship is like travel, you live with another culture with love and everyday life.
I highly recommend it to anyone