Expats married to Chinese spouses who come from rural areas in China experience a different lifestyle and face challenges with cultural differences

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/20 5:03:40

Viktoria Varadi rides a tractor in her Chinese husband's hometown in Weihai, Shandong Province. Photo: Courtesy of Viktoria Varadi

Viktoria Varadi rides a tractor in her Chinese husband's hometown in Weihai, Shandong Province. Photo: Courtesy of Viktoria Varadi

Each time the days start getting colder in Beijing, Viktoria Varadi starts to miss the small village in Shandong Province where her Chinese husband is originally from. 

It was there where she saw a kang for the first time in her life, a traditional heated brick bed used in the northern parts of China. 

"The house was old, and it felt like traveling back in time. But it was great! I liked their kang so much that I didn't want to leave it. Having a kang in the house is much better than having 100 heaters," she recalled.

"Sometimes I fell asleep on it after a meal, and the family wouldn't wake me up and just let me sleep."

Varadi, 30, who is pursuing a PhD at Beijing Film Academy, comes from Budapest, Hungary, and has been living in China for seven years.

Varadi, a self-confessed "city girl," with all her parents and grandparents living in the city, had little experience with rural lifestyle before marrying her husband who is from Weihai, Shandong. 

"I think the countrysides in China are very exotic and more attractive, while big cities like Beijing and Shanghai tend to give the impression of being westernized on a certain level," she said.

Along with the urbanization in China, there has been large-scale domestic immigration where many young people who came from rural roots move to big cities for better jobs and resources. Beijing sees a large number of people coming from a rural background. According to Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics, out of the residential population of 21.7 million, 8.2 million are migrants, accounting for more than one third.

For the expats who are married to Chinese partners with a rural background, they often get to experience some interesting differences between the urban and rural lifestyles and people's mindsets in modern China. Metropolitan has invited several expats to share their stories and insight on the topic.

Visiting rural China

Varadi goes back to Shandong with her husband to visit his parents and grandparents twice a year, once in summer and once for the Spring Festival. His parents have moved to the city, but his grandparents still live in the villages. She said she enjoys traveling there for the Spring Festival because it is especially ceremonious in rural areas.

 The village life is becoming more modern, according to her, and she did not even see cows, sheep or other farm animals like she had expected. The only thing that she could not get used to was the bathroom, which is outside of the house and by the entrance to the courtyard.

There are some cultural differences. For example, when she went with her husband to one cousin's wedding, she was surprised to learn that male and female guests sit at separate tables.

"They assigned me to a different table [from my husband's]. I didn't know anybody, and it was difficult to communicate," she said.

"In Europe, people sit with those whom they come to weddings with. That custom was really different."

Compared to the rural areas in Hungary, the culture and the view are very different, but one similarity is that the young people in both areas want to move to the city, and most of the residents are from older generations.

She also enjoys meeting the old Chinese in the villages. One time while she and her husband were visiting, she went outside and saw a group of elderly locals rehearsing a dance and playing all sorts of instruments.

When they got to talking, she was surprised to learn how well these villagers knew her; even though it was the first time they spoke.

"They knew who I was, what I do and my background," she said, adding that these people must have been very interested in her, and spent a lot of time talking about her. "It was so interesting."

When visiting the smaller cities and villages where their Chinese spouses are from, foreigners enjoy experiencing the simple lifestyle and meeting warm-hearted people, but also find some culture differences challenging.  Photo: Li Hao/GT

When visiting the smaller cities and villages where their Chinese spouses are from, foreigners enjoy experiencing the simple lifestyle and meeting warm-hearted people, but also find some culture differences challenging. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Finding connections

Joe Castillo, from Chicago, US, has been living in Beijing since 2009. And during his first visit to his wife's hometown in Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang Province for their wedding, he could not help but notice how large the portions of food were there.

"All the dishes were so huge that I couldn't believe it," he recalled.

Through all the meals he was treated to, he found the people there to be very warm-hearted, kind and hospitable. The family tried their best to show Castillo a local experience. They took him to a restaurant with local cuisine on the first day, then another specializing in local chuanr (meat on sticks) the next day, and then to the lakeside for a fresh fish dish the next.

"My brother-in-law, a skinny, small Chinese man, could drink so much baijiu (Chinese white liquor). It was amazing," he said.

"He and my mother-in-law talked very loudly, almost as if they were yelling. I thought they were fighting but my wife said it was just how they talked."

Castillo found the whole family to be "typical Northeast Chinese," with their very outgoing, outspoken and friendly personalities.

It was a good fit for Castillo who also comes from the north in the US. Now when the family visits in Beijing, Castillo even does more talking, laughing and joking with the family than his wife does.

Some other differences Castillo found were that the roads were bumpy and rough, the houses were not very well furnished and the streets were quieter. From the misspelled English translations on the business signs, he could tell the businesses there are often very small and organic. "The whole city was not as developed as I imagined, not like Beijing," he said.

It was a little surprising for Castillo, but he thinks the humble lifestyle is what the people want. "They live very humbly. However, they might own several apartments and have a lot more money than I do."

The quiet life

Charlotte Edwards, 33, who works in education, is married to a Chinese man who is originally from a village in Hubei Province and has lived in Cangzhou, Hebei Province for most of his life.

The couple, together with their son and daughter, now live in Cangzhou, which is located about 200 kilometers south of Beijing. The area, with a population of 7.7 million, only opened its first McDonald's a couple of years ago.

"I think the difference is that small Chinese cities aren't very diverse. I was told there are only about 30 foreigners," she said.

Originally from a small town in Wisconsin, the US, with a population of about 35,000, Edwards has had the opportunity to travel and be exposed to more cultures. She said her hometown was diverse, with a mix of African, Caucasian, and Hispanic people and now more Asians and Muslims too.

"The overall mentality of the people here in Cangzhou is that they don't know a lot of foreigners or have a lot of experience with the world outside of China."

One of the differences between the city folk and people with rural roots in China, according to her, is how they value stability in their life.

"From what I understand, people don't want to leave to be an entrepreneur or join a private company. It is difficult and they feel like they lose that security. In addition, people my husband's age (41) and older, remember hard times of the past. So they really appreciate and value this [stability]," she said.

"I feel it's easier [in the US] to change jobs if you're unhappy, want to do something new or move due to a partner's job." Therefore, although her husband does not find his job in a hospital lab very simulating, he says it is too difficult to do what he would like. 

She also has noticed that in many cases, when the husbands go to a big city like Beijing for better jobs, or the children have to go to better schools, the rest of family members choose to stay put, rather than moving together, like most American families would do.

Overcoming differences

When it comes to family life, one of the major differences that Edwards finds between people in the city and people from more rural areas is the level of involvement in each other's lives between the family members. The couple lives in the same neighborhood as her in-laws.

"I think in small towns, people are really dependent on family for advice, rather than getting it from experts," she said. "My husband listens to his family more than I would to my family," she said.

For example, her husband's family believed that going to school early is beneficial for her son and makes him smarter. So the boy started school comparatively earlier, going to kindergarten before he turned 4 years old.

"But it's very hard, considering he's constantly the youngest [in the class] and not having a full Chinese upbringing at home."

Another example is that her mother-in-law insisted Edwards take the Chinese traditional yuezi, which refers to the month of resting and restoring balance after child delivery.

"My mother in law is stubborn," Edwards said, and added that the reason is that while her father-in-law likes to travel, meet new people and read newspapers, her mother-in-law does not leave the neighborhood much or know much about life outside of her own.

"I can't expect my in-laws to understand my point of view. So I try my best to explain my thinking when we come across challenges."

Still, Edwards finds the local people very kind. She said some people still stare at her after 10 years, and some of the locals that return from cities to visit family may be amazed to see a foreigner there.

"But when I needed help, such as when I was lost, forgot my wallet or needed help carrying groceries and a baby, people helped."

Varadi's husband also has a typical big rural family, and the family members are closely connected. However, she does not think of her husband as a typical country boy.

"My husband is the only person in the family who decided to come to Beijing. He has the spirit of exploration," she said.

As an expat, she is an explorer herself. "That's something we have in common."

Newspaper headline: The simple life

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