When Cultures Collide

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Compared to most of the (multicultural) couples that I know, K and I are remarkably peaceful. Our relationship is based on logic and reasoning, and we often give each other the benefit of the doubt when there are misunderstandings. That and we’re both just really relaxed personalities, and don’t need to make mountains out of molehills.

Recently however we’ve been going through a difficult time. We’ve reached a problem in our relationship where there isn’t a right or wrong answer, just cultural ideas and a strong adherence to them.

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I’ve written before about the plan for me to move to a tier one city in China, work at a (teaching) job that provides housing, and save as much money as possible so that we would soon buy an apartment of our own. For a while, I too thought that was the only way that we could save up to finally settle down and have a place of our own.

But the more I hunted for jobs, and contemplated a new life far away from my family, the more I felt myself resist. I looked at my sleeping daughter and could not find a worthy enough justification in my mind for leaving her again, this time longer than ever before. I worried that I’d work another thankless, unhappy, and tiring teaching job, alone, and without any emotional support or understanding from the people I would need it from most. I dreaded another Jiangsu; the most miserable year and a half of my life to date.

Even though I put measures into place to make sure I would have a better time than I did on China’s east coast; making sure that wherever I went I’d have foreign friends and a somewhat potentially less ugly teaching experience, it still did not seem worth it to leave my family behind, especially our young daughter.

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So I chatted with a lot of people that I trust and respect, and who are in similar relationships and situations as we are, and learned about other opportunities, other ways to make money without needing to be separated from the people I care about most.

Times were already strained here, we were staying with K’s sister, and I was doing my best to be a good Tibetan wife (washing, cleaning, attending to everyone as best I could, and putting up with Yak Yak!) so I was already not dealing with things very well. K was practicing for his drivers tests and he was under a lot of pressure too. But as New Year Holiday was ending for everyone, I had to tell him how I felt.

He did not take my news well.

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As most of you reading this are fluent in English and most likely come from Western countries, you may be sympathizing with me a bit. I know in America where I come from, parents are responsible for raising their children, and being a good influence on them, especially in their younger years. It is also important, however, to know how situations like this are handled in Tibetan society, and their attitudes about family and child rearing.

From what I have been told and what I observe, most Tibetan children are raised by their grandparents, and later their teachers. Parents are away at work, and unless there are special circumstances (for example, K’s brother can look after his own kids because they attend the same school where he teaches), they don’t have much interaction with their children, especially when they are young.

They also have full confidence that the grandparents (usually the father’s parents) are doing a good job, and don’t worry about their children’s care. It is the parent’s job to go out and work, often very far away from home, to bring in the money necessary to support the family.

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So in the Tibetan mind, going away to work is NORMAL, and an EXPECTED sacrifice a parent does for their family.

Because, as a foreigner, I have such a higher earning potential in large Eastern Chinese cities (and in my case, have a much better time getting work visas), it is a no brainer that I should be on the next flight out to Shenzhen. My family would still be there waiting for me when I came back.

I understand and sympathize with my husband. If I was in his shoes, I would be frustrated with me too. But what can we really do about it? In this situation, whatever we decided, somebody would end up frustrated. Either I sacrifice my health and time with my daughter during an important time in her development, or he gives up his chance for us to buy an apartment much sooner than would otherwise be possible.

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We decided to stay in Qinghai, and that I will try my hand at online work. It’s been a dream of mine for quite some time, and it is something that people here have absolutely no faith in. Things are better in our relationship recently, now that we are on the practical path of securing an apartment to rent, finding A a kindergarten nearby, and stating the online job research-and-interview process.

I feel a lot of pressure to make this work. I feel like I have one shot to prove myself in this. The heat is on, but I am optimistic. And I am very happy to soon be with my nuclear family, away from extended family, and finally following my dreams.

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