Marry a foreigner: one way to avoid Spring Festival dilemma
In the first of our four-part series on how families across the spectrum of Chinese society celebrate the holiday, a Shanghai woman’s Swiss husband is the centre of attention at her annual family reunions
The annual argument over whose family to spend the Lunar New Year with has become a modern tradition for married couples in China. But it’s one that Qiu Feilan will be spared because her husband is a foreigner whose family does not celebrate the most important holiday for Chinese people around the world.
Qiu and her Swiss husband Marc Hunziker spend every Lunar New Year – also known as Spring Festival on the mainland – with her family while the Christmas and New Year holidays are spent with Hunziker’s family in Bern, Switzerland.
It’s a holiday arrangement that’s worked out well for them over the past few years.
“At all my family gatherings, my husband will become the centre of attention,” said Qiu, a 34-year-old marketing manager at a state-owned firm in Shanghai, who married Hunziker in May. “‘Do you like Chinese food, how did you pick up the Chinese language, what do the Swiss people do during Christmas?’ … My relatives are very interested to find out his views.”
This year, Qiu’s parents will be visiting them in Shanghai and also other relatives who live in the city. Qiu’s home town is in Tongxiang, Jiaxing, in eastern Zhejiang province, but she and her husband have remained in Shanghai to celebrate the Spring Festival with her relatives for the past few years.
Over the Spring Festival, Qiu and Hunziker, 42, a lawyer turned businessman, spend their time visiting her relatives, eating, chatting, playing games and watching television programmes together with the family.
Hunziker said it all started to feel slightly repetitive after the first few days, but it was good to see his wife’s relatives again every year. He communicates well with Qiu’s family as he speaks fluent Putonghua.
“My husband’s views often differ greatly from my relatives’ because of the differences between their Western and Chinese cultural backgrounds,” Qiu said. For example, while Chinese people traditionally give children lai see – red envelopes containing cash that are known as hongbao on the mainland – during the Spring Festival, Hunziker would prefer to give young children little gifts instead of cash. However, he and Qiu still give lai see to her young relatives in keeping with tradition.
Hunziker said that for his own relatives, he usually selected a different gift for each child according to their age and hobbies, and sometimes gave them educational toys or books that they could play with or talk about together. The items were not necessarily expensive, but they represented his affection for them.
He said the Spring Festival was similar to Christmas for his family, when his relatives gather to have a meal, give each other presents, enjoy Christmas music and admire the Christmas tree.
“Children like Christmas because of the presents. Getting toys and other gifts makes it a happy time for them,” Hunziker said. “But the hongbao concept is too abstract for children. They might use the money to go to university when they grow up, but right now, that’s too distant for them.”
While Hunziker makes the effort to integrate himself into Qiu’s extended family, his wife also does her part to get to know his side of the family better. Although the couple do not see much of their families throughout the year, Qiu often chats with Hunziker’s mother through WhatsApp, sending each other interesting pictures and anecdotes of the day.
Qiu communicates with Hunziker’s family in English. She said she did not feel any major language or cultural barrier between them, but was planning to pick up German as his family also spoke that language.
The couple registered their marriage in Shanghai last May but their romance goes back to 2008, when they first met in the kitchen of a dormitory at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Qiu was enrolled in a short course on international trade at the university while Hunziker, who had just graduated, had yet to move out of the dormitory.
They started off as friends, speaking to each other in English and going out together as part of a group. Qiu said Hunziker left a good impression on her, as she found him to be “an honest, well-behaved man without any bad habits”. Hunziker said he was drawn to Qiu because she was “kind-hearted, smart and pretty”.
Gradually, the pair started dating, and in 2009, Hunziker visited China for the first time and decided to pick up the Chinese language given his interest in the culture. Three years later, he quit his job in Bern and moved to Shanghai to be with Qiu.
Qiu and Hunziker are among millions of mixed-marriage couples in China as globalisation exposes more Chinese people to other cultures. As is typical in any mixed marriage, the couple encounter cultural clashes in various aspects of their life together.
“Marrying a foreigner means integrating yourself into a different culture and ideology. You have to understand and accept it,” Qiu said.
Rather than buying a flat before marriage, like most Chinese couples, Qiu and Hunziker rent a house in Shanghai’s central Xuhui district. They said they missed the opportunity to buy a home when real estate in the city was still reasonably priced, and apartments in the city centre now cost more than they were willing to pay.
“My husband says buying a house is not a prerequisite for marriage,” Qiu said. “In Switzerland and Germany, more than half of families don’t own real estate. People don’t think it’s a problem to marry and live in a rented apartment. At first I was sceptical and hesitated about his decision. But gradually, I was persuaded.”
Qiu said she appreciated the fact her parents had not insisted that Hunziker buy a home before they approved her marriage, unlike many Chinese in-laws. China’s skyrocketing property prices have even been blamed on such pressure.
Qiu and Hunziker are not planning to have children yet.
“Having a baby means you have big responsibilities; it’s a big decision,” Hunziker said. “It’s not a pet and you shouldn’t have a baby just for fun or because it’s a family tradition. You should be able to provide your child with a good life.”
Hunziker’s company, Swiss food trading firm Swiss Oriental, was still in its start-up phase, he said, and after four years in Shanghai he was still learning the Chinese way of socialising and how to do business with Chinese people.
“It’s not easy to be successful in China,” he said. “Everything works through guanxi (connections).”
Besides learning to resolve their cultural differences after eight years together, the couple have also found their own solutions to day-to-day issues common to any modern couple, such as the assignment of housework.
They divide their household chores according their abilities and preferences – Qiu takes care of the laundry and ironing while Hunziker does the dishes.
“He would say, ‘Feilan, since you fold the clothes much better than I do, why don’t you do it?’ The playful way he words his request makes it hard for me to refuse,” Qiu said with a laugh.