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lost in shanghai


The Chinese are fascinated by mixed children, but just what does it mean to be in a mixed marriage?

From ORIENTAL OUTLOOK (DONGFANG ZHOUKAN) March 21st & 28th 2008 Print Edition


By Mina Tenison


Whenever I walk around Shanghai with my two children, people often come up to me and ask whether my children are "hunxue"—mixed blood. I cannot help but smile at their quaint question because Shanghai is an international cosmopolitan city and now choc-a-block with foreigners. It has mixed children running all over the city, mixed up in every which way. There are some children that are culturally mixed—half European and half Chinese; some that are nationally mixed—as in half French and half British; some that are racially mixed—as in half Caucasian and half Asian; and some that are linguistically mixed—as in Shanghainese and Cantonese. And in between there are all variations and permutations. I myself am Korean-American and my husband is British. We live in Shanghai and my children speak Mandarin and English.

So it comes as a surprise when people still ask whether my children are mixed—"hunxue." Of course this preponderance of mixed children and mixed families in Shanghai was not always the case. Shanghai 10-15 years ago had a fewer number of foreigners and to have a mixed-blood kid always meant one thing and one thing only: a marriage between an Asian woman (i.e. a local woman) who was lucky enough or ambitious enough to secure a foreign man (a laowai). Whether she was a passport-grubber or an economic opportunist, it didn't matter; what was important was that she was smart enough to secure the deal and lock in the partner by producing children. Now, not all the mixed-marriages were like this, but I did live in Shanghai 11 years ago, and I couldn't help but notice that a great 95% of the mixed marriages that I encountered always went one way—a foreign male with an Asian female. Back then, I had just arrived from America and didn’t understand how this was a real eyesore to the indignant locals. When I used to walk around with my husband, random guys would spit on the ground and spew out angry comments I couldn’t understand. When one guy glared at me and said something that sounded particularly nasty, I asked my husband what he had just said. My husband translated it for me: "he said, 'what does it taste like?'"

But times have changed. Back then, the economic disparity between a Shanghai local and a Western foreigner was huge. In 1997, my husband earned nearly fifty times the salary of what a typical white-collar Chinese “local” manager earned. Not only that, he was supplied with a chauffeured Mercedes, and a travel allowance that constituted more than five times a typical worker’s annual salary. I could see the appeal he would have had for a pretty, local girl earning less than 800 RMB a month: the fastest way up the economic scale was to land a white, foreign guy like him. And because I looked "local" to the locals, I too was grouped in this category of ambitious ladies who had no national or cultural allegiances to their own kind, but were practical money-grubbers who believed that a foreign salary and a foreign passport was the speediest way to get themselves out of an unpromising economic situation.

Now the economic disparity is no longer so visually obvious, the resentment in Shanghai has waned somewhat. And there are many more mixed marriages going in both directions. I am beginning to see many more Chinese men with foreign wives. Furthermore, it is no longer obvious who is the richer of the two—is it the foreigner or the Chinese? Eleven years ago, my husband used to joke with his colleagues and tell them that he only married me for the U.S. Greencard. It used to irritate me, but I eventually understood why he went around saying this: he wanted to inform them that I wasn’t one of those economically opportunistic girls.

But the real challenge of mixed marriages is not about marrying up or marrying outside the culture. It is about reconciling the differences. Whether it is a mixed-culture marriage or a mixed-language marriage or a mixed-nationality marriage, all mixed marriages have the additional problem of two parties who have to bridge a gap that people who marry within the "blood" may not necessarily have to face: misunderstanding what that other person really is.

In the old days, especially in traditional Asian cultures, most young people married the man or the woman that family members would introduce them to. The logic behind this tradition was that marriage was an institution, and an institution integrating two families and one had to be very circumspect in integrating a bride or a groom into one’s family. The assumption was that one’s own family best understood the young person’s needs and personality and would pick the best marital candidate for that person. After all, if you are going to spend the rest of your life with someone, it had better be someone who was similar to you in culture and background. In addition, love didn’t matter; what did matter was the suitability of the groom or the bride to the family’s social and economic needs. The idea was that love was ephemeral, but social suitability and similar values would sustain the marriage for the rest of the couple’s lives. But times have changed, and love is now one of the most compelling reason for marrying, for both the young and the old. Still, there is something to be said about the old tradition: falling in love is one thing, but spending possibly the rest of one’s life with another person is a different matter. Eventually, as the boredom and the tedium of daily life settles in, life is beset by more unexciting questions such as: Does he come home for dinner? Is he making enough money? Does he want babies? Is he a good father? Or what I would conclude as simply: does his value system concur with mine?

The reason mixed marriages are difficult is that the ‘mixing’ adds an unknown and unpredictable wild card; it is difficult enough for men and women to communicate clearly in the first place, but then add in the language differences, cultural differences, and maybe ethnic or religious differences, the capacity for misunderstanding becomes infinite. When people ask me, “Are your children ‘hunxue’?” I think what they’re really asking me is: “What is it like? What is it like to marry someone outside your race/culture/language/etc.?” Of course, they don’t quite realize that although I look “local” and my husband looks “foreign,” we are actually more similar than we seem.

Many mixed-marriages have a built-in cultural blind spots that take a long time to unravel: just because a person seem acceptable in China doesn’t mean that he or she is acceptable in the U.K. or the U.S. There is always a huge cultural margin of error in evaluating a marital candidate from another culture because there isn’t a group of people—either colleagues or family members--vetting him: how do you really know that he is who he says he is?

Just because my husband made 50 times a local salary 11 years ago didn’t mean that he was rich. In the U.K. or in Hong Kong, he was merely a gainfully-employed corporate executive, and his salary respectably middle-class; but for the local Shanghai girls working in the same office building, he was one of the richest people they had ever met.

I’ve seen dynamic and ambitious Shanghai women marry American guys, immigrate to the U.S., only to discover that they are losers in their home country, and had never had a girlfriend before. Not only that, the wealthy, glamorous U.S. life that these women had dreamed about turned out to be a dull, suburban existence in the Midwestern cornbelt, decidedly a step down from the cosmopolitan Shanghai lifestyle. I know a Spanish woman who married an American man, and didn’t even realize that he was gay, because she mistook his aloofness and frigidity as something that must be “American.” And one Greek man told me, “Greek men have many girlfriends even after they are married because they are weak; Greek women understand this and they make up for it by being the boss at home.” But what happens when that Greek guy marries an English girl, who doesn’t understand that particular Greek marital contract?

Well, for the English girl who believes in marrying only one guy for the rest of her life, and believes faithfulness is part of that package, she will find herself unequipped to deal with that Greek husband who thinks it is normal to flaunt his girlfriends publicly. And who will tell her? Surely, not her English girlfriends.

But in truth, all marriages, mixed or not-mixed, are an exploration of the unknown. What happens when certain things that you assumed were fixed attributes about the other person turn out to be no longer true? What happens when that investment banker with a good future turns out to have a 7-year run of unemployment and decides to be an artist for the rest of his life? What happens when the person you married cannot bear children? What happens when his or her idea of a stable life and marriage does not correspond to yours? As the years tick by, and marriages meet their fair share of conflicts, the person you married will slowly transform, and whether they will transform for better or worse, only time will tell.

There is something to be said about marrying the man or the woman that your parents, relatives and colleagues set you up with: they know the history of the person that you are being introduced to; they know his or her family and educational background; and they may also know his medical history and personality quirks.

The real truth is that any marriage is a gamble, and any act of linking oneself permanently and sometimes, irrevocably, with someone else and locking in that deal by producing children, is a bold act. So when you do find someone and decide to get married, remember that you may end up spending the rest of your life wondering: just what did I get myself into?

For a complete list of essays by Mina Tenison click HERE