Interviews with Binational Couples: Lychee and Michael

(Michael’s responses are italicized. Lychee’s are not.)

Lychee’s Birthplace: Shenxian, Shandong Province, China

Michael’s Birthplace: Virginia, USA

We met in Guanghzhou (formerly known as Canton), China on September 29, 2013.

  1. Before dating a foreigner, did you have any preconceptions/doubts about what it would be like dating and relating? (in general)

No, I didn’t really have any doubts. I’m open-minded. Before, I thought dating a person from a different culture would be interesting. I think with the cultural differences, you can learn a lot.

I always thought it would be possible and fun, as long as there was enough of a common language. In fact, to be honest, during my last relationship with an American, I began to feel I was missing something and that was sort of fulfilled by the experience of engaging with difference on a daily basis.

  1. With regard to your partner’s ethnicity, did you harbor any stereotypes or expectations about what the dating experience would be like?

My stereotype for white Americans was that it was very hard for them to be loyal to their partners. I also thought that they don’t ever want to make commitments. So far, though, Michael is doing well with that one, haha.

I’ll admit before I dated some Asian women I had a tincture of the typical American college-boy’s fantasy regarding the subservient Asian woman. It was never foremost in my mind when I was seeking women to date in Korea, though, since I was just coming out of a rough breakup when I went, and I was mostly just looking for any kind of experience. And now that stereotype is good and dead since Lychee certainly doesn’t hold back if she thinks I’m wrong about something. She’s the boss.

  1. What kind of cultural, social, political, and linguistic barriers have you encountered, if any? And how did you manage them?

Michael goes on about politics all the time, so when he talks too long, I just pretend I’m listening, while I’m really thinking of something else. At first, we had some trouble with the different foods we preferred, but gradually our tastes expanded. He liked more things that I like, and I liked more things that he likes. But, he still won’t eat chicken feet! I don’t think there are really any linguistic barriers between us, though. We’re able to express everything we need.

The linguistic barriers are pretty minor – a word here or there, and some complex concepts need to be explained (on both sides). Overall, it’s easy though. Culturally I wouldn’t really say there are barriers so much as different reference points. In discussions, there are some events and people that just aren’t as well-known across civilizational boundaries. When you have to explain who Marilyn Monroe is, you know you’re dating internationally.

  1. Name one or two culturally related behaviors your partner exhibited that surprised you?

Most of the things that surprise me about Michael aren’t culturally related, as far as I can tell.

I was definitely surprised how much it annoyed Lychee to have to tip in restaurants. I mean, having lived there for over a year, I knew China wasn’t a tipping country, but I didn’t know it would still be wasteful from her perspective once we left China. The age at which marriage is expected is also just much lower, culturally, in China, and although Lychee doesn’t fully believe in it, it is the culture into which she was born and therefore influences her thinking.

  1. 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?

We communicate in English all the time.

Yeah, it’s kind of embarrassing. It’s all English. She’s taught me a bit of Chinese, but we really only communicate in English. We’ve planned for her to teach me Chinese, but have gotten sidetracked a number of times since we’ve been applying for grad school, and now attending it.

  1. For those of you living together, what is the home dynamic like? Who does what domestically? (no lying!)

I do more cleaning, since Michael isn’t very good at that, but we share most other things.

I’ll be honest, Lychee definitely does most of the cleaning, since I’m so awful at it. But, we cook together a lot, which I REALLY enjoy. I love learning how to cook Chinese food from her, and teaching her how to cook things she’s never cooked before (i.e. pretty much everything that requires an oven).

  1. 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?

I think people in China generally paid more attention to us because we’re an international couple. Most of the time it was fun, but one time when we were out at a nice restaurant on the waterfront in Shanghai and this Chinese waitress only wanted to speak English with us. She wouldn’t answer a question about the food I was trying to ask her in Chinese. She just wanted to show off her English for the foreigner, but her English sucked!

Well, Lychee and I haven’t spent much time in America together, since she only visited for the first time a few weeks ago. But, when we were both in Beijing one time seeing her sister, we were at this restaurant and I held Lychee’s baby nephew as I walked around outside. After a few minutes, I sat down on the steps, since he seemed very comfortable sleeping in my arms. As people walked by, practically everyone stared at me and her nephew openly (at least 50 people in a 10-minute span), astonished by the young white man holding the Chinese baby. When Lychee came out and stood next to me a woman walked right up to her and said “Is that your little mixed-blood?” Mixed-blood is a name the Chinese have for children born to people of different countries (even sometimes if they’d be considered racially similar; I was once told that I was mixed blood myself because my grandparents on my mother’s side are German, while my father’s family is not). Several others inquired while we were waiting for her sister to come out of the restaurant. It was a wake-up call about how strong of a shock it can still be in China, even in a city with a large expat community, like Beijing.

  1. Have you met your partner’s parents, and were you able to communicate effectively with them?

Yes, and yes. It was a very positive experience. They’re really nice people and easy to get along with. I had lots of fun hanging out with them. They have many funny stories to tell. They have a lot of friends and many social activities. That was great because I had lots of chances to talk with people from different backgrounds.

Yes, and no. They don’t speak a word of English, and my Chinese isn’t nearly strong enough to really converse effectively. But they were really great to me. They were immensely fun, and relaxed in the great way that rural Chinese can be. I ate cicadas, a real delicacy in China with them, and had lots of fun playing with Lychee’s nieces and nephews. I like to think we communicated by how we treated each other, and I have a lot of respect for them.

  1. Lastly, what has ‘international’ dating taught you, if anything?

I learned how to get along with people from different cultures, and how to respect people that are different from you. I learned this from dating Michael but also because we live in a big, multicultural city, London. Also, I think race doesn’t make a person. All people are fundamentally the same, human beings. And this experience has, overall, been very positive. Sometimes Michael drives me crazy and I want to smack him, but at the end of the day, he’s the one I want to go home with. Love is about compromise and tolerating each other. No one is perfect.

I think it just reinforces notions I already had about the common humanity we all share. I also learned just how plain fun it can be to live with someone every day who has a totally different background from you. I mean, ok, if I want to discuss the American civil rights movement, maybe I have to explain a little more what I mean, but if I want to talk about Chinese cities that most Americans have never heard of, or chew over the latest move from Xi Jinping, I have the pleasure of talking with someone who has a wealth of firsthand knowledge. Most of all, the relationship is, as I’ve believed pretty much from the beginning, the happiest and healthiest I’ve ever experienced. Sure, we bump elbows frequently, but our different perspectives allow us to problem-solve better than most, I think. Lychee is great in a tough situation and one of the bravest people I know. And it’s a pleasure to think of exploring life with this person, and getting to know more about them every day. Even though it isn’t always easy, I learn something new from Lychee every day, and that’s probably the best part of an international relationship.

That was fun 🙂

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