Stephen, from London to Beijing
Stephen is from Britain met his American educated Chinese partner in Venezuela. After a long-distance relationship, they now live in Beijing.
Where are you from?
I’m originally from the south coast of England, but moved to London for university and stayed for work.
Hailan (Helen) is from Beijing, but attended school and university in Texas, and then went to work in New York.
Where and how did you meet?
I’d just taken voluntary redundancy from a city job in 2009 so set off to volunteer in Central America. I lived in Costa Rica for a couple of months, building houses with Habitat for Humanity. This was enough time to learn a bit of Spanish, so I travelled south to Colombia to start a circuit of Latin America.
I met Helen in Venezuela on Christmas Eve. We travelled together for a while, then went our separate ways (her to Antarctica, me to Easter Island) then met up again in Argentina.
She was just being posted back to China, so I followed along.
What language do you speak at home?
We speak English. I’m continually learning Mandarin, but as she is so fluent we default back to English for most conversations.
There are a remarkable number of couples here who seem to get by with very rudimentary language skills, but I’m sure neither of us would enjoy being unable to converse with the other.
Where do you live? Was it easy to adapt to your new home?
We live in Beijing. It’s hugely different from London in a countless number of ways. Fortunately I’ve travelled extensively (90 countries so far), so am quite used to rolling with unexpected events.
After a lot of language lessons I can deal with most things, but any form of paperwork is still beyond my language skills.
What kind of food do you usually eat at home? Do you try to cook food from each other’s countries?
Dining out in China is very good value, so we eat out for lunch most days. In the evening, I tend to do most of the cooking.
After much searching we found the market that supplies many of the foreign restaurants here, so have access to ingredients for dishes from all over the world. This year I’ve been getting very good at Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese and Burmese food. We also have an oven, which is quite rare in China, so can make some more European foods and breads.
Can you explain one part of your partner’s culture that you found surprising or difficult to relate to?
For a person from the UK, where privacy is valued and certain topics are quite taboo for discussion (people’s appearance, weight, salary etc), it is tricky handling certain questions in China. Friends greet each other with ‘You look fatter/thinner’, and new acquaintances have no concern asking how much you earn.
Since the Cultural Revolution, manners are no longer valued, so there are very few pleases or thank you’s.
More annoying is the constant staring and cat-calling of ‘Hellooo!’ followed by gales of unfriendly giggles. It sounds minor, but can wear thin when it happens a few times an hour in rural areas or tourist spots.
The noisy method of eating isn’t something I’ll ever join in with either, but thankfully Helen’s family frowns on that as well.
I hear complaints and rants from a surprising number of people who accept a job in China without ever having visited. It’s so different you should at least request a few weeks here before settling long-term, so you know what you’re getting yourself into.
What’s the best thing about being in a cross-cultural relationship?
I can’t imagine a better way to get to learn about a new country than from someone that lives there, shares your interests and is keen to show it all off.
What’s the hardest thing about being in a cross-cultural relationship?
Explaining why silly things like the staring I mentioned before can be so annoying. They are very tied in to both our cultures, with one considering it normal behaviour, and one considering it almost aggressively rude.
Do you have any advice for other cross-cultural couples?
Take the time to learn as much about your new home as possible, ideally before you arrive. Everything extra you understand, from language to traditions and food culture will help you fit in and have a more enjoyable time.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
If anyone wants to follow along with my journey to the east, and travels beyond the Middle Kingdom, I’ve got a blog at You’re not from around here, are you?. There’s lots of China specific expat advice, and travel ideas and observations around the world.