Culture vs. Personality in a Cross-Cultural Relationship

When I married my former husband, Cai, I assumed we would have cultural differences. We came from such different backgrounds. He was from a small town in central China; I grew up in a suburb just north of Chicago. We didn’t ignore these differences at first, but discussed them and looked forward to a life together that differences at first, but discussed them and looked forward to a life together that would never grow dull.

That didn’t happen, as I write in Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China GoneWrong. It wasn’t just China that threw me for a loop, it was Cai and his ever-erratic Wrong. It wasn’t just China that threw me for a loop, it was Cai and his ever-erratic behaviour. The difference between marrying Cai and someone from Chicago or anywhere else in the US was that whenever we hit a problem, it was all too easy to pass it off as a cultural difference. We were still learning about each other’s cultures, even though I thought I was an Old China Hand before I met Cai. Little did I know, however, that years of Mandarin, Chinese politics, and Chinese history classes were of little help when it came to living in a Chinese family.

I remember the first time Cai laughed at me when someone went awry. We were walking down our mountainous campus in Hong Kong when I tripped and fell. It wasn’t a serious fall, but I skinned my knee and twisted my ankle. Instead of helping me up, Cai stood there. And he laughed. I was flabbergasted by this behaviour and sulked for a few minutes before he accusingly asked me what was wrong. What was wrong? I just fell, I replied. And you laughed. Cai turned toward me and explained that he only laughed because he was worried about me and wanted to lighten the mood. He said it was the Chinese way. And it was. I learned then that that’s quite a common reaction to when someone gets hurt.

Looking back, that was an easy culture clash to deal with. If only they had all been so straightforward!

When Cai started staying out late with his professors on a research trip to the scenic city of Suzhou, I also racked that up to culture differences. The Confucian teacher-student one, to be exact. He left me alone in our hotel room so he could stay out until the early hours of the morning playing cards and chatting. I couldn’t go along because Cai claimed the professors would be in their underwear and it would obviously make them uncomfortable if I tagged along. I was sure this was just another cultural difference I had to understand. And certainly there would be

As our differences became more obvious, I found it very difficult to differentiate between culture and personality. Was the silent treatment Cai gave me on a two-and-a-half hour train ride a cultural difference or a personality problem? I’m thinking it was the latter, but at the time, I was trying to figure out this cultural difference. Was I really the spoiled American Cai called me at the Shanghai Railway Station, or was he the knuckle headed husband who didn’t want his wife to get her way for once? These questions wreaked havoc on my marriage to Cai when we lived in Hong Kong and traveled often to mainland China. I thought things would calm down when we moved to San Francisco, but they only grew worse.

If there is one lesson I learned from that marriage, it would be that I never should have dismissed all of our conflicts as cultural differences I just needed to better understand. When something doesn’t sit right, no matter if it’s with someone from another culture or one’s own, it’s always best to speak up right away. Cross-cultural relationships can work just as well as intra-cultural ones, but there needs to be a mutual level of respect between the two people for that to happen.