China, July 3, 2000
I really should've fallen for a French girl!
The logic was simple but the argument was not. Essentially, I loaned
Jingmei a chunk of money and she had agreed to pay me back, though went I
asked for it, she refused to pay it all back to me. Sighting the obvious,
'I'm your girlfriend' excuse, she wanted to erase part of the
To both of us, it wasn't the amount involved, it was the principle. For Jingmei, as my girlfriend, I shouldn't care about money between us; while for me as an American with an agreement, changing the terms at payback was highly irregular.
We bitched and moaned for a week as this and other meaningless disagreements snowballed into full-blown shouting matches before two days of crying and talking at the edge of the break-up abyss found the real problem and the obvious solution to our fights.
We finally realized that I am not the Chinese guy in an American body as she expected, and she's not an American in a Chinese body as I hoped. We are not of the same background, culture, or even Lunar Year (She is Ox while I am Rat), and to live together, we really must communicate our different outlooks on life.
Let's take this apartment as an example. It's her brother's place, who gave it to Jingmei when he moved to Shanghai. Unlike the West, there are no mortgages in China; you pay cash for your home, so we don't pay rent. We do pay for utilities and a type of condo fee each month. When I arrived, as I would do anywhere I don't have to sleep on the floor/couch, I asked what I should pay for in terms of rent or utilities.
Jingmei told me not to worry about it, which to me meant the bills here, like in the other Chinese apartment I lived in, were so small (like $20/month) as to be insignificant between us. I never asked again, and she didn't bring it up until we started to argue. She bitched that I wasn't paying my fare share of bills. I was shocked since I'd asked her, the first week I was here, what I should be paying for and was told not to worry about it. She was pissed because I didn't pay for them anyway.
It wasn't until I learned the true amount of the bills (around $200 a month as private apartments like ours are charged several times higher for services than government owned flats), and Chinese payment customs, that I understood her anger.
See, in one of the many aspects of her Asian mentality that I am learning about, one should offer to pay at least three times before the recipient feels they will not look greedy in accepting the money. Between friends and lovers, this is even more complicated, and you are required to use CIA tactics to ambush others with your payments.
According to Jingmei, I should've somehow paid for the apartment fees without her knowledge, although I've never seen the bills, or been able to read them if I did! Oh, and it was a loss if Asian 'face' for her to even bring up the subject even though it was frustrating her and affecting our relationship.
This Asian-ness was very surprising for me, for compared to other Beijingers, Jingmei is amazingly liberal and Western, lulling me into thinking she understood American thinkings. I realized just how un-American she is when we talked about relationships.
I was explaining how I felt a marriage was a partnership, with each spouse putting in roughly half of all the chores, workload, and child rearing, when Jingmei interjected. First, as she learned business English before casual speech, the term 'partner' was out as she feels that, 'I'm not your partner, we are not a business, I am your girlfriend!' Then Jingmei feels I have no place in the kitchen and she no place in the garage, while I should always make more than her, work harder than her, and provide more for the family. In the midst of the heated discussion that followed, we never did get to the child rearing part.
As my girl-power, feminist Mom influences will never allow me have the traits of a 1950's American male that Jingmei desires, and she'll never be the post-feminist that I dreamed of, we did work towards an understanding.
I will be the pay-for-everything man she wants when she gives me her paycheck to add to mine for group expenses. She'll not have to worry about me being a bum like I am now, for much longer, and I assured her that when Wayan works, Wayan works! She's not my partner, she's my girlfriend, with privileges and expectations that I will have to live up to no matter how odd or demeaning I will think this for her. I will try my best not to cause her to loose face, even when I have no clue that my actions are face-loosing, and she'll be kind enough to give me a little guidance on how to do it, while not hating me when my clumsy foreigner ways mess it all up.
Above all, we agreed to communicate more, not just asking and assuming, but trying to explain why we ask (or don't), what the proper response is, and if it wasn't honored, why the hell it wasn't.
Damn! This cross-cultural loving is a lot harder than I expected. Luckily, Jingmei is worth ever ounce of the blood, sweat, and tears that's going into our love.