Karen Tye speaks to couples about how they make their cross-cultural relationships work.
Of course the Beatles have it right: All you need is love.
According to Pamela Opdebeck – a Canadian married to a Shanghainese – cultural differences don’t make or break a marriage.
“It is challenging to be in a cross-cultural marriage but the hardest part is the marriage itself, not the cultures involved,” she says.
Pamela met her husband Jonathan Chen, three years ago in Shanghai through an online dating site and was immediately attracted to his deep voice and sense of humour. Today, Pamela and Jonathan are proud parents of Jakob, their eight-month-old son.
Queenslander Owen Caterer, who has been married to former Shanghai Acrobat Troupe trapeze artist Holly Liu for five years, acknowledges that the couple’s different cultural backgrounds have not been a barrier, but instead have served to strengthen their marriage.
“In many ways, there’s great potential for conflicts and misunderstandings when different cultures are involved. In some ways it’s a positive because it has forced us to communicate clearly over many issues and not take the other for granted,” says Owen.
“You practice listening, understanding and resolving misunderstandings.”
Owen and Holly’s family now includes four-year-old son Noah and 18-month-old daughter Jocia.
These two couples represent the growing number of cross-cultural marriages in Shanghai, as well as in China.
According to Xinhua News Agency, for every hundred married couples in Shanghai, you can expect on average three of these couples to have different cultural backgrounds. Compared with other Chinese cities, Shanghai ranks No. 1 in terms of cross-cultural marriage rates.
Nevertheless, as Owen puts it, “Many people have their own preconceptions about cross-cultural marriages.”
“For one, a lot of people think that Chinese women who marry Westerners are gold diggers and all we want to become are tai tais,” Says Holly Liu.
“Perhaps there was some truth to it in the ‘80’s but it’s the opposite these days. China’s wealth has brought foreigners over, and if one was after a rich man, there are plenty of Chinese men these days that fit the bill,” she says.
“Some people assume that the Western guy doesn’t have much going for him and others assume the Chinese side is after a passport. As for us, after five years, we still haven’t started the process for Holly to attain PR in Australia and probably won’t get around to it until we need it for her to be with the kids at school in Australia, which might end up being another five years or more,” says Owen.
Interestingly, both couples share very similar views on family and children’s education. Owen notes that Chinese people have a very strong sense of family and are very protective of their children. And it is a sentiment Pamela Opdebeck agrees on.
“That’s what I love most about Johnny’s culture – his devotion to, and respect for family, his, mine and ours,” she says.
Holly however, admits that sometimes, on small matters, she and Owen don’t always see eye to eye.
“I still think that kids shouldn’t go barefoot at any time, including at home, because they can catch a cold anytime, and Owen says I force feed the kids but I think growing bodies need fuel. He thinks that if the kids are really hungry, they’ll eat on their own accord,” says Holly.
Says Owen: “I often protest at the little Michelin men we take outside even when it is 10 to 15 degrees. And I often reason that if it isn’t going to kill them, or noticeably harm them, then I should relax a bit, that’s my Australian laid back ‘she’ll be right’ attitude coming through.
It’s the same in Pamela and Jonathan’s house where Pamela says dealing with health issues is a recurring hot topic.
“The Chinese belief that getting cold gives you a cold is something we are in constant disagreement about. Medicine is probably our most contentious topic!” Pamela says.
Both couples eventually plan on moving abroad when their children are older, for the advantages in education and a better quality of life.
“Our intent is to move to Canada. This is a sacrifice many Chinese parents make for their children to have a better life so it was obvious for Johnny,” says Pamela.
“We’ve talked about moving to Australia a lot. It’ll be better for Noah to attend primary school in Australia, as we believe the education is more balanced,” says Holly.
In the meantime, both couples are doing whatever’s possible to ensure their children become linguistic prodigies.
“Pamela’s the expert when it comes to education because she’s a teacher, so she makes most of those decisions,” says Jonathan, who spent a year and a half at Queensland’s Bond University studying an MBA and then six months in Sydney working.
Currently, Chen is the Executive VP of Shanghai of Geebox Logistics, a local distribution company.
“But my job at home is to speak Mandarin to Jakob, while my parents speak Shanghainese. Pamela speaks English to him and later on, she also wants him to learn French. She believes the best period in terms of a child’s language learning ability is from one month to three years,” says Jonathan.
Owen and Holly’s children speak mostly Chinese, and English as well as some Shanghainese.
“We put the kids first,” says Holly.
“We make decisions based on what’s best for the kids, and then it doesn’t matter which one of us has to compromise, which is never as bad as it seems. I believe that’s the key to a successful marriage.” ■