Tag Archives: International wedding

Act 3: Shipping around China – In Which Case is Taiwan a Province?

This post is a continuation of “A Logistical Nightmare in Three Acts Part 2”.

Of course the other minor question that arose from this whole process is Taiwan. Now, as you probably are aware if you have read anything about China, the status of Taiwan is a bit of a delicate matter. Ask a mainlander and chances are they will say Taiwan belongs to the mainland; ask a Taiwanese the answer will probably differ quite substantially. Now I will not go into too much detail about this question here; suffice it to say that this makes things such as Taobao shopping and shipping a little iffy. While the store we were buying from did ship to Taiwan, the delivery fee is three times higher than to any location in China. Furthermore, my Taiwanese friend had a disturbing experience where an item took a grand total of three months to be delivered to her from the mainland. One cannot help but wonder if it went on a trip through the entire country before finally flying over the sea and into the correct inbox.

Granted, the same thing happened with a number of packages sent by my mother via regular post from Germany to China; they generally tend to take at least a month until they arrive. The dubious quality of the Chinese post, though, was never illustrated better than when I had to send a letter to Wales. I mean, you have probably heard of Wales, right? Well, my local post office looked at me with quizzical eyes and then proceeded to open a shockingly large and heavy book, in which apparently all the countries in the world the Chinese post can ship to are listed. Behold, no Wales. “I think I will just write Ireland”, says the geographically challenged postal worker. I mean, I am sorry, when it comes to geography, I always thought I was as ignorant as they come. Show me a world map and I hardly know which way is up. Ironically, I know much more about China’s geographical landscape than about my own countries of origin. But as an employee of an institution that makes its living off of sending things from one place and possibly country to another you would hope that Geography 101 is part of the general training. Apparently not. But then really all this anecdote illustrates is how isolated China still is in the grand scheme of things; after all Nanjing calls itself a 1.5 tier city, quickly catching up to Beijing and Shanghai, and yet it took a lot of convincing that sending a letter intended for Wales to Ireland is really not a good idea.

I am happy to say that since I insisted that we write Wales, UK on the letter, it did arrive in the end. Returning to the Taiwanese debacle, the vendor suggested we opt for pay on arrival for the package, since in China, if the service has not yet been paid for the motivation to actually deliver the service is infinitely higher. In the end the package did arrive in Taiwan after only three working days, what a success story for the Chinese post. Hurray!


A Logistical Nightmare in Three Acts

With the wedding drawing nearer and bridesmaids as well as wedding locations being dotted across the globe I have found myself last week dealing with an endless stream of logistics as I attempt, and mostly fail, to send all the necessary items to the necessary people by the necessary deadline.

Act 1: International Shipping Terror – DHL and Austrian Customs

It would have been too easy I guess. Sending a simple package with DHL to Austria, which includes three bridesmaid dresses is easy right? WRONG!

A day after I had sent the package, the recipient bridesmaid receives a message from DHL saying she needs to provide an order confirmation and payment confirmation, or the package would be sent straight back to where it came from. We have used DHL before to send things to Germany and the UK and we have NEVER had any problems, but of course now, when it is essential, the Austrian customs have to be ridiculously difficult.

Well, it was my fault really. I rarely send international packages and did not think to write “present” on the cover rather than “clothes”. Also my lack of detail didn’t help or the fact that I squished the dresses into the package without taking them out of their original plastic bags in which they had been delivered from Taobao.

I blame China. I have become so used to the “Suibian” approach to life and work and anything here really. 随便 literally means casual, although you could probably translate it as “careless”. That is probably the word that sums up the general attitude towards many things here. People are very vague and general, and so filling out a DHL form, the guy who picks up the form does not really care what you put on it, even if the result is the Austrian customs thinking your package is an international online purchase that needs to be declared.

So I had to provide an invoice, the order confirmation and payment confirmation of the dresses in the package as proof that they had indeed been purchased in this country.

Naturally, the Chinese side had no clue whatsoever what the Austrians were on about. And so it took multiple exchanges for me to figure out what documents they wanted and how to present them. In the end the package passed customs but not without the greedy bloodsuckers adding 24 Euros tax; the dresses only cost about 45 Euros in the first place. The nerve! Well, it has definitely taught me a lesson, that’s for sure.

While at least this logistical nightmare has been sorted, I now pray for the dresses to fit my lovely bridesmaids, otherwise utter disaster shall ensue.

The Theme 2 – Out with the Old Shanghai and in with the New

Chinese wedding theme

We had locked down the company I wanted, a major success but still something just did not feel right. I had a conversation with Mr. Li about my idea for an Old Shanghai theme previously and he was not enthusiastic about it. Aside from the argument that Northerners don’t do a Southern theme and it would seem out of place, he further felt that the theme did not have anything to do with us. In actual fact, he even felt uncomfortable with this theme for political reasons. “That time in Shanghai was a time when Western powers colonized Shanghai, it reminds us of a shameful time of submission. It’s not appropriate for a wedding.”

I was genuinely surprised at this but in all honesty maybe just a bit ignorant and naive. I have witnessed first-hand the Chinese anger that still rages within locals whenever the Opium Wars come up; it is, if I may be honest, the reason I often choose to introduce myself as German rather than British. The former will usually result in major enthusiasm, something I was not used to at all back in Europe, while the second will not be met with outright hostility, yet still tends to be a little less warm. Especially if the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, Hong Kong or the Opium Wars come up, the situation quickly turns sour. When I once suggested to one Chinese friend to attend a movie night, at which a film on the war was to be shown, they vehemently refused and got incredibly upset, stating “this is China’s period of shame, I would never watch a film about it.” More incidents along these lines have made it increasingly clear that this is a very touchy subject.

While I made the argument that an Old Shanghai wedding theme is purely an artistic statement and not a political one, and he quickly gave in when he saw how passionate I was about having this theme, I still felt uneasy at the thought of forcing a theme on him that he did not like. Part of me kept rethinking the decision, despite the fact that I was spending many an evening combing through the internet for Republican style wedding dresses and Qipaos for my bridesmaids.

One major concern he kept voicing though was that most Old Shanghai themes are rather dark, and indeed this was one of the issues I had noticed myself. Bordeaux red, dark green or the darkest shade of purple, velvet and other heavy materials made most of the decor I found online look rather dreary and depressing. Not very celebratory at all. Now a dark theme is only as dark as you make it, and so I decided to go with a champagne-white colour scheme that would lighten up the whole thing.

As I mentioned before, MiL had found the “phallic cake company”, and it seemd like a sign from the heavens that Old Shanghai would succeed. The pictures we found of a wedding by this company seemed themed around Paris, in dark purple and white, and was just the right amount of tacky to be fun. The thing that sold me were the penis cakes that were randomly placed among the decoration. I still wonder whose idea those were. Hence, this new wedding company, that I was 100 percent sure I wanted to do my wedding was known as the “penis cake company”. I managed to get in touch with the planner from PCC and she was very helpful and enthusiastic. As many long-termers to China will know, good service is not easy to come by in most parts, unless you pay horrendous amounts of money.

So, PCC girl and I had a chat about possible decoration for my wedding and I was impressed by the fact that she admitted openly to not having done an Old Shanghai wedding before, most other wedding companies would have just downloaded pictures from the web and sold it as their theme design.

However, such splendid service of course comes at a price. PCC girl announced that the wedding I had seen on WeChat cost a ludicrous 120 000 RMB just for the decoration! I always call China a country of extremes because in nothing you find a middle ground, and once again it just went to show you can either have inexpensive and shoddy or fabulous and bankruptingly expensive.

Mr. Li reminded me that in truth the price was probably less than this, since it is very common for Chinese business people to increase the actual price, especially if they are talking to a foreigner. Yet, even so, I already had a feeling that I would have to say good bye to Penis Cake Company. And so it was, after we told her our budget for the wedding, she suggested that we contact the hotel for the big decoration (i.e. big, luxurious cloths that are draped around the hotel and massive cardboard posters with decorative elements and the couple’s “logo”; at most modern Chinese weddings the couple tends to have a logo designed by the planners). PCC girl then said, she could do the small decorations on the table, i.e. the bit that I had originally considered doing myself before I saw her. This then left me with the question, why I should use her at all if I could instead cut the same deal with the hotel directly and save a lot of money in the process.

Back to Taobao it was. Now in the meantime, the theme had also undergone some modification. Since there just seemed to be so many reasons not to do Old Shanghai, the troubles of getting Northern wedding companies to do a Southern wedding, the fact that Mr. Li didn’t like it and the problem of it being rather dark and dreary, I had been thinking of alternatives. The logical conclusion was a UK-themed wedding. I was sure Mr. Li would love it and it was after all where we met, as he said before re Old Shanghai, it had nothing to do with us really. Quick research revealed that the UK theme tended to be too tacky even for me with the glaring red and blue of the Union Jack. However, I was lucky enough to stumble upon the ultimate combo of both themes, UK and Old Shanghai, when I found a “vintage UK” themed wedding that seemed to encompass exactly what I was looking for. In terms of the colours, I felt I wanted to keep the Union Jack colours but with a little twist, a dusty blue and a Bordeaux red to make it look a bit less tacky and a bit more classy. When I sent the pictures to Mr.Li and so finally on the third attempt, the wedding theme was born.

The Theme – The North-south Divide, DIY and Professionalism

China style

One of the reasons I love China is because it is tacky. The great irony is that the discourse of East vs West in my countries of origin is always one of communism and conformity vs freedom and individuality, yet when it comes to fashion and accessorising I find China much more accepting of funky, crazy and downright eccentric choices. Take my phone cover; it has a cutefied version of Donald Duck on the back. In relief. I could never imagine strutting into my former London office with a cover as ridiculous as this (at the time I was already pushing my luck with a black cover with Hello Kitty ears). Yet in China I get countless excited compliments for my “cool phone cover”. That is probably the one aspect of contemporary Chinese culture I appreciate the most. While back home most my friends would generously accept my tacky taste for quirky eccentricity, in China no one bats an eyelid when I walk onto the street in my teddy-bear-specked boots.

The same over-the-top tastes to be found in mobile phone covers and clothing apply to weddings. Purple or pink are common colour schemes for weddings; I am not talking about lavender or rose but full-blown in your face shades that almost singe off your eyebrows with their vibrancy. In terms of themes, more and more one finds the Pan-European romantic cocktail including Eiffel Tower, bird cages and a British Telephone box all in one decor.

As a bit of an artsy person myself (part of my work in Nanjing includes designing the spreads of our magazine and I am also one of those geeks who will voluntarily go look at an art exhibition), the theme of my wedding is of major importance to me. Therefore, I have been trying to find the right theme ever since the split second Mr. Li and I made the decision to tie the knot. That is eight months of attempting to figure out the perfect amount of tackiness for our wedding, much to the despair of Mr. Li, who if it were up to him would probably go dig out those roses he gave me when he proposed five months ago, plop them next to the entrance and proudly call it our wedding display.

The wedding display is the most important decorative element in a Chinese wedding; it is a bit like an exhibition of the couple and also reflects the theme of the wedding. As such it will often include a table full of the engagement pictures of the couple, small items such as the aforementioned European mementos with a romantic and continental flair and in recent times increasingly a collection of themed little cakes, often cupcakes and macaroons.

Now, I am currently on the third iteration of our wedding theme, and by no means certain it will be the last. In the very first instance I simply wanted a lavender colour scheme and no defined theme as such; that was before I found out that Mr. Li’s cousin and his bride went for exactly that same idea. This was just an unlucky coincidence but suffice it to say that cousin’s wife and I have a rather complicated relationship and I was not keen to give the impression I was just copying her wedding.

Slightly lost for what to do, another coincidence brought me to the fabulous Peace Hotel in Shanghai, an institution for the old style of 1930s and 40s Shanghai, Republican China and Jazz. I instantly fell in love with the decor, the elegance of the vintage style and the overall feel of it all. Watching their Old Jazz Band, I felt incredibly overwhelmed, especially since my granddad used to play the clarinet in a band for the Americans after the war. This was it, I felt this has to be the wedding theme. Elegant, reminiscent of the past, a fusion of East and West. I was ready to throw myself into the planning.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that once again I had underestimated the complexities of my country of residence. As is the case in many countries, China has the North-South divide, with plenty stereotypes to be found in each side with relation to the other part of China. However, this divide in China extends into reality in so far that when I tried to find a wedding company in Hohhot to do an Old Shanghai wedding theme, I usually got one out of two answers. Reply a) was “That’s a Southern theme, we can’t do a Southern theme. No one does that.” Reply b) unsurprisingly went “Oh yes, we can do such a theme but it will be 5 times more expensive than any regular theme because we have to buy all the items from scratch.” I was not about to pay 50 000 RMB just so some greedy wedding company could order 1 000 RMB worth of decorations off Taobao.

In addition, I was feeling increasingly depressed by the fact that there was seemingly no wedding company in Hohhot with a professional attitude. Most of the images of glamorous wedding decor on their websites were just stolen from other websites and when MiL visited the company their marketing materials barely extended to a shabby A4 paper printout. Both MiL and Mr. Li only confirmed my worries by constantly stating “Hohhot is too small, there are no good wedding companies here, they are all unprofessional.”

A while later Mr.Li suggested I do the decoration myself, in an attempt to save money and make sure I got exactly what I wanted. While both the big pieces of cloth that are often draped on 2m tall cardboard printouts with the couple’s personal logo and proclamations of everlasting love and the latter are decoration elements I would never dare to attempt on my own, I did feel fairly certain I could cook up a decent little themed table. So I found myself on a weekend in February scrolling through endless items on Taobao putting together a list of all those little items for my Old Shanghai wedding.

Then, through a third coincidence my MiL found the “phallic cake company”. Through the almighty god of soft wares that is WeChat she discovered pictures if a fabulously tacky wedding and managed to out me in touch with said company. They do custom weddings and of course their prices were horrendous, although they did promise me that they could work with any budget. I was incredibly relieved and starting to feel excited; it seems there are capable wedding companies in Inner Mongolia after all.

Jet-Set Wedding (Part 6) – Inner Mongolia and the Rest of China

Inner Mongolia weddingAnd so it was done. We were officially married; well in the province of Inner Mongolia that is. You see, since Chinese administration is largely decentralised, Jiangsu province has no clue whatsoever what those people up in Beijing or Hohhot are up to and vice versa. In terms of our little wedding booklets, that means they are not valid in other parts of China but need to be notarized by the notary office so that we are legally married in the rest of the country, further proving my point that a province in China might as well be an independent country.

This idea is further enforced by the fact that our little booklets are bilingual, featuring both Chinese and Mongolian characters. I could not be happier about this, I mean not many people get to say they have a wedding booklet with Mongolian on it! The sad truth is of course that this is mostly for show; while most parts of Inner Mongolia feature bilingual signage and documents, barely anyone is able to read it anymore. Even the spoken language is finding less and less regular use on a daily basis, as an increasingly shrinking pool of “pure blood Mongolians” exist in the province. In Inner Mongolia, the Chinese government has pretty much succeeded where it has not in Xinjiang. While Mongolian tradition is being kept alive in the grasslands as a means of making money on tourism, the Han assimilation in cities is pretty much complete. Much like the Roman empire did in the past, the Chinese government’s strategy after claiming territorities inhabited by non-Han people has been to settle Han Chinese in this region in the hopes of the local people mingling with their new rulers, ending in a peaceful acceptance of their presence. Much like Greek gods have found their way into Roman mythology, the presence of the Mongolian scripture suggests at least a slight tip of the hat to the original inhabitants of the region. While a small group of nationalistic Mongolians, who communicate in their native tongue most of the time, do exist, in a majority of cases, both cultures have mingled and now tolerate each other’s presence. One of Mr. Li’s relatives by marriage is Mongolian, yet the only time when he truly shows that he is any different is when he sings Mongolian songs to much applause of the listeners; Mongolian culture seems to have become something special to be marvelled at possibly due to its near extinction rather than remaining a major part of this region’s culture.

On one of my flights back from Hohhot I struck up a conversation with my seat neighbour, a young girl who as it turned out was of Mongolian descent. In truth, except for the little character on her ID card, which under the category “people” says 蒙 where it normally reads 汉 one could barely tell. She could understand the Mongolian language, yet was unable to speak it. Especially since she worked in Shenzhen, where Mandarin or Cantonese are the common languages of communication, she now barely uses her second language. She is one of many young people who move into big cities in hopes of better work opportunities, unwittingly aiding the loss of her native culture.

While the positive side to this is that Inner Mongolia is a relatively peaceful province compared to Xinjiang, it does come at the slow loss of a culture. Calling IM entirely peaceful is not entirely truthful either, in 2011 unrests occurred when in the first instance a Mongol herdsman was run over by a Han truck driver. However, the government was eager to make concessions, affording the family damages and sentencing the driver to death. Last year’s altercation involved the detainment of protesting herdsmen, who are seeing their lifestyle encroached upon as their lands are grabbed by Han forestry and mining companies and attempts by the government to persuade them into settling in one location. To a nomad people, this is unthinkable, and has led to discontentment around the fact that their traditional life style is not being respected. That being said, Xinjiang provincs is far less stable, with clashes between Uighur and Han people occurring on a regular basis and even terrorist activities such as the train station knife attack in Kunming in 2014 and the Tian’anmen Square incident in 2013 taking the conflict outside of the region.

Hohhot, as the capital of Inner Mongolia, is very similar to most other Chinese cities, except for the aforementioned bilingual signage. Interestingly, many people do not seem to think so, as when I or Mr.Li tell people of his origins, you would be surprised how often they inquire in ernest whether he grew up in a yurt and how many ponies and sheep his family owns, while obviously wondering simultaneouslt how his family managed to afford to send him abroad for studies. In conversation with Chinese people, though, the reaction is rather different. Upon hearing my partner is from Hohhot, the first question is whether he is Mongolian. When I respond that he is Han, many say “Oh, of course, the Han are rich in Inner Mongolia.” Well, that explains everything, doesn’t it?

Somehow I feel I have slightly departed from the topic. Long story short, we had to get our certificate notarized; but not before we stood in the middle of the street and popped open our celebratory Italian sparkling wine and got our afternoon buzz on. The effect was only increased by the fact that MiL and her partner were waiting in the car and so to the slightly astonished and confused looks of some construction workers, Mr. Li and I chugged the red liquor as if there were no tomorrow.

Jet-Set Wedding (Part 3) – Part-time Bureaucrats and the King of Pandas

Restaurant Inner Mongolia

After we managed to acquire our translation, we were off to the registry office. Since I am a foreigner, said office is not just the regular registry office but instead a “special one” across town. We found out just how special it was when we arrived to find that the registrar was not there. Mr Li’s mother had been trying to contact the kind sir since Saturday to no avail and repeated calls to his office on Monday morning while we were getting our stuff done were of course to no more successful. His colleagues tried to appease us by informing us that due to the fact that about only 50 marriages between foreigners and Hohhotians take place a year, the registrar worked on a part-time basis and was currently “in the countryside”, which is probably code for sitting at home drinking tea doing absolutely nothing at all.

I think the question I ask myself most whenever I deal with bureaucratic entities in China is how on earth this country still keeps running considering no one in the administration actually ever does any work. Then again, it is probably necessary for them to be Lazy Larrys so that they can employ five people to reach the productivity rate of one regular person, in order to keep everyone employed and unemployment rate up.

After calling the Prince of Pandas, as he shall henceforth be known, he suggested we come back at 4.30 since he, and I quote, “might be around then.” But, you know, he couldn’t be sure of course, and it wasn’t like we had a plane to catch. A call to his supervisor though seemed to take care of the small issue of when he would bring his derriere into work, thus we were given an appointment at 2.30pm and left the building accompanied by a lot of swearing on my part. To my German genes, these situations are infuriating to say the least, and it is all I can do to keep myself from getting physical. With regards to our new appointment we were told to be absolutely on time, since the registrar had to leave at 3pm for another appointment (read more tea slurping, maybe some TV or card games).

So, in the meantime, there was nothing much we could do except go for a delicious lunch at a nearby Mongolian restaurant. I consider myself incredibly lucky insofar as I am a massive fan of lamb meat, or a lamb fan, and Mongolia is to lamb as Germany is to sausages. We had a most heavenly lunch of oven-roasted lamb and stewed lamb with glass noodles and Sauerkraut, which for some strange reason is identical to German Sauerkraut. A frequent subject of speculation between Mr.Li and I is how the Kraut ended up in two countries so far apart and which country had it first.

To my utter surprise, I even managed to not get any grease or sauce all over my dress (you would be just as astonished if you know of my unique talent to get food everywhere while I eat except in my mouth, apparently, like a toddler just with slightly longer arms).

I also steered clear of the Mongolian milk tea; for some strange reason, people in these parts of the world think it is a great idea to add salt instead of sugar to said beverage; a concept, which I with my bourgeois European taste buds simply cannot accept.

After posing for some slightly surreal pictures in my German dirndl and Mr.Li in his black suit in a Mongolian restaurant, it was time for our next quest; celebratory alcohol!

Jet-Set Wedding

Beijing cctv Tower

Wow, so I have not written in a while and now I need to try and catch up! A lot has happened in the last weeks; in fact so much I have barely had time to digest it all.

It’s the typical long-distance relationship syndrome! Getting used to your boring life and as soon as you meet up with your partner you feel the need to squeeze all the excitement you missed out on into a couple of days; in our case combined with Chinese New Year and Valentines Day this has equalled trekking to seven different cities in three weeks. I still have a week to go and already feel exhausted. Even more so, because in our case the squeezing in part included getting married.

YAY, we did it, isn’t that unbelievable?!

Of course it took another couple of runs to offices of any form and description and a lot of grey hairs appearing from nowhere until we managed to beat the system. Buckle up and get ready for a long ride!

I will not go into detail on the exact route the documents we needed to get my single certificate took, as I hope to provide a detailed infographic at some point. Suffice it to say it took three attempts for the documents to be verified, since the German’s followed the official Chinese standards which the notary translator in Hohhot did not.

Luckily, the town in Germany I am registered in is so small that the registry office know us well enough now to allow for me to submit my documents while I was in Germany and to hand in Mr. Li’s later, once the Chinese and German embassy in China finally managed to sort out their s..tuff.

This all happened with amazing efficiency. We got the documents approved in the way the Germans required, they in turn issued my single certificate, which my mother, after saying good bye to another €80, quickly sent to Beijing.

Once the documents arrived, I boarded the next possible high-speed railway to Beijing in order to get the final document issued by the German embassy. This went as smoothly as I could have ever wished for, as I popped in and back out and then as a reward went on a little spree at the international supermarket down the street. After moving to China, visiting supermarkets that sell cheeses, sausages and German bread becomes as exciting as front-row tickets to the Backstreet Boys to my 12-year old self (yes, I admit it and no, I am not ashamed).

After a Chinese New Year’s Party and an enjoyable weekend in Beijing, we then jetted off to Hohhot on Sunday evening in order to attempt to get married the following Monday. And with that, stay tuned!

The Dates (Part 3) – The Chinese Wedding

Calendar august wedding China

So after a lot of back and forth with regards to the Chinese wedding, involving certain Chinese superstitions, we had originally planned to keep it simple and set the date for 1st October. Although not a very auspicious date by any means (not an unlucky one either though), it is a very popular choice for weddings in China since it marks the first day of the national holiday, when everyone is off work and free to come. The temperature at this time of year in Hohhot is just about bearable and I had already made my peace with an Autumn wedding, when to my utter delight Laolao retracted her original statement.

“Since the two boys are cousins, not actual brothers, it is ok for them to be married within a year of each other”, she informed her daughter.

And so, once again, the date of the wedding was wide open. I knew instantly that it had to be August, since eight is an auspicious number in China but more importantly it would be warm in Hohhot (despite the hair-raising cold in winter, which is no stranger to averages of -20 degrees, summers can still climb up to 35 degrees). Since some of my best friends and family are making the long trip from China for this occasion, I then thought how great it would be if we could have the celebration sometime around my birthday, so I could get to spend it with everyone.

Since people will be arriving and leaving at different times, I quickly realized that if I wanted to make sure that everyone was there for my birthday, there was one sure-fire way to make it happen; have the wedding on that same day. So, in another example of German efficiency, I decided to combine the two (I sure hope I won’t regret that one day, this marriage better last!). This is only made better by the fact that my birthday includes not just one but two eights and to top it all off it will be my 28th birthday. Well if that isn’t enough auspiciousness to last a lifetime, nothing will help!

6 Things I Love About Being In An Intercultural Relationship

After the rather ranty previous post (I just had to get that off my chest), I figured it was time to give myself and you, dear reader, a little motivational boost. What better way than to remind myself of all the great reasons I agreed to get married to my inofficial fiancée in the first place?! A big thanks to Vicci, who brainstormed with me and added a considerable amount of ideas to this list. Because of that I will split this post in two, so welcome to Part One:

Intercultural relationships

1) Learning something new every day
Although it might sound a little cliche, one of the things I find most exciting about going out with a Chinese person is that I feel like I am constantly learning something new, about him as a person, the Chinese language, Chinese culture, you name it. This makes the whole relationship incredibly interesting.

Mr. Li’s favourite remark concerning my learning habits is:

“I always have to watch my language around you, you are like a child, you pick up all the terrible language I use.”

Especially since I feel very passionate about Chinese language and culture, going out with a Chinese person allows me a deep insight into it and a close connection with it, it would be almost impossible to gain otherwise. For this I will be forever grateful.

2) Seeing your own culture with new eyes
One of the most challenging but also rewarding aspects of my relationship with Mr.Li has been not only understanding his culture but also re-evaluating my own, very confused background. It is not until I have to explain certain German or English customs to him that I realize how culturally influenced my view of the world and behaviour is and at the same time how difficult it is to put a cultural label on certain habits. After all, who is to say where an individual person starts and where culture begins?

Recently Mr. Li has started to meet more Germans through Couchsurfing and comes to me with his questions about our culture. This has been especially fascinating to me, seeing him taking his first steps in the German world like a small child, trying to understand our communication styles and realizing that some of the things we say might sound incredibly rude, but we really don’t mean them that way.

Moving to China has helped me further understand and accept his culture and it has done a lot for our relationship after we managed to get through the initial hump of culture shock and finding our feet in a new life, a new culture and a long-distance relationship. Now I feel we are stronger than ever.

I am hoping that the more he is in touch with German culture the more he might discover certain similarities in our behaviour, which in turn might help him accept more easily the things that I sometimes do, which he finds frustrating. We shall see.

I am not counting my UK side into this because he has spent six years in the UK and so is pretty familiar with the culture there. Also, I consider myself about 70% German, since I grew up in Frankfurt and spent more time there than in the UK. Finally, I believe that the British culture is actually a lot more similar to Chinese than one might initially think, with its politeness and etiquette, especially when pitted against the rough but loveable honesty and straight-forwardness of the Germans.

3) Telling our family-in-law about our culture

Because China has mainly followed an isolationist policy and international cities hardly exist in China, many Chinese especially from smaller cities have no idea what your home country is like.

But they are really fascinated by it and eager to discover what life is like back in your country of origin. This kind of interest is really flattering and it is a feeling of joy that someone can get so excited simply by listening to you share stories about your own culture.

4) Fitting in between
This is a very personal aspect to do with my background, but I have a hunch that any of you out there who spend a lot of time studying the Chinese language and immersing themselves in the culture might tend to experience something similar after a while.

Growing up I never really fit into my life in Germany. I would make jokes about how

“I’m too polite to be a German but too rude to be a British”, “I am German, except for my British humour” or I am “70% German, 30% English”

(whoops, I did it again, didn’t I) to brush off the very real consequences of being a child of both worlds. Of course, Germans can be very polite and funny, and my German-to-English ratio tends to shift depending on when and where I am, with whom and finally in which mood.

But there is at least some truth to all my silly jokes in that I have never really felt at home in either culture. In Germany, I always thought of myself as the English person. But after living in the UK for two years, I finally had to admit that I was rather un-British in a considerable number of ways. Add my China obsession in the mix and the confusion is complete.

Mr. Li, having been sent to the UK at 16 years old, spent a majority of his formative years in the UK and going out with me has only made things worse. Hence, like me, he often finds that he doesn’t fit into his native Chinese culture, while at the same time he can’t say that he is British either.

In my opinion, our sharing of this experience of being stuck in the middle and having nowhere really to call home has in no small part founded a strong basis of why we get along so well.

Both of us tend to be just a little of place and awkward with our own cultures. At the same time, due to the distance this creates, we can both critically examine our own and each others’s culture and feel at home nowhere and anywhere at the same time. Actually, we do feel at home. With each other. (Okay, enough with the sappiness now.)

5) Cultural Epiphanies
It doesn’t matter whether you have been together three days or three years, the most uplifting feeling of success is what I refer to as cultural epiphany. These are the moments when you finally realize or learn something about your partner’s culture that suddenly explains all those silly little fights you had, where one of you got offended by something the other did and neither of you really knew why exactly you were fighting.

Even after three years of going out with Mr. Li I still have these unexpected moments of clarity, more on that soon, and it is incredibly important for them to happen for the success of the relationship. I think I can honestly say for the first two years of our relationship neither of us really had a clue what we were doing. I personally a was, despite my advanced Chinese language level and what I told myself, almost entirely ignorant to many of the characteristics and intricacies of Chinese culture.

How do you make these epiphanies happen?

While they are crucial in understanding and improving an international relationship, it is hard to trigger them. They might come any day, any time at the most random moment. Of course there are three major elements that help you get there – living in the foreign culture, interacting with as many locals as possible and talking to those locals about behaviour by your partner you don’t understand. While this can be sensitive in China due to the face issue, it has been mainly through talks with my female Chinese friends that I have been able to comprehend some of Mr. Li’s behaviour as stemming from his upbringing.

6) Getting past the culture

Once you have gone through an initial phase of adjustment, it becomes easier. Friends of mine confirm that the first months of the relationship were not easy simply because both sides were struggling to understand that certain behaviour by their partners is not necessarily viewed as negative in their partner’s culture.

I think on a small scale this is a case with all relationships, since we all have our individual habits and views our partner might find difficult to adjust to. In intercultural relationships there might just be more of them.

But don’t give up if in the beginning you find yourself struggling and having seemingly petty fights. Once you have managed to work through the cultural epiphany process and the cultural differences, the biggest epiphany will be that at the end of the day none of it matters. “Cultural barriers” is just a term and idea we created; and I maintain in most cases, they are just in our minds.

This is it for Part One, Part Two soon to follow.

The Bureaucracy (Part 2) – Towel brain, legalese and endurance

International wedding bureaucracy

“This is a lot easier than I thought it would be” I knew the instant the thought flashed through my mind that I was kidding myself and sure enough…

The countless horror stories on German forums I had read should have been a warning, they should have prepared me for certain failure and yet, I was naive enough to hope that my case would be different, that somehow through a miracle, we would make it through the jungle of bureaucracy and come out the other side unscathed and married.

So, after I described in the first post of this series, I had done some research and found out which documents Mr. Li was going to need in order for me to apply for my certificate of nubility.

After scrolling for hours and hours through even the last corners of the German embassy website and going through a number of documents in legalese that twisted my brain so much, it resembled a wrung-out towel, the conclusion I came to was that if we asked the German registry office about what was needed, they would know (after all the embassy website in China said to check with them for local variances in the requirements).

My mother went to the registrar in Germany and was told about the four documents and that they had to be translated in Germany by a certified translator. That, according to them, was it. After Mr. Li’s mother used her connections to get the usually impossible to get birth certificate and all the other documents, she sent it to me and I DHL’d it to my mother in Germany (I figured the only ones I can trust to deliver documents to Germany and not lose on the way is a German company, right?). My mother received them and brought them to a certified translator, who took her time and 170€ to write up the German versions. Then my mother dragged the documents to the registry office, where, because the colleague my mother had been in touch with was on holiday, they lay around for a week.

At this point it was mid-December, I was set to go to Germany in one week, during which time I was supposed to get my certificate. After all it’s not like Germany is just around the corner and I can’t pop by just anytime I feel like it.

Thursday afternoon my mother gets a call.

“These documents are not valid,”

the lady who has just returned from her relaxing holiday tells her.

“They have to be legalized by the German embassy in Beijing.”

Thank you lady on a holiday, you just ruined my entire family’s Christmas. In all fairness, my parents live in the tiniest town in the South of Germany, where international weddings are a rare thing and so these people usually do not have to deal with all the rules and regulations involved in a Germano-international marriage. So, who can I blame; as obviously I wouldn’t want to blame myself? Let’s blame the government and their stupid, stupid rules.

So after we found out that we had wasted valuable time, we were trying to figure out what exactly it was we had to do. Because getting Chinese documents legalized might sound easy in theory. In practice, it really isn’t.

What the embassy legalize is in fact merely the signature of Mr. Li and of the person who issued the official documents. Furthermore, they do not legalize original documents but only notarized copies that have been stamped and translated into German (or English, I hope; we will have to send an email as the embassies NEVER answer the phone and pray for a response).

So, once we have issued notarized copies of the original documents in Hohhot and sent them from Inner Mongolia to Beijing, Mr.Li has to run to the embassy to get them legalized; this means taking a day off work and losing that day’s salary, as his company is run by Ebenezer Scrooge.

Once he has gone through this process, he has to send the documents to my parents’ in Germany and then we can only pray that we don’t need to get them translated in Germany again. Otherwise, I might just get violent.

We were debating whether to send the original documents my mother had back to Hohhot for Mr.Li’s mother to get the notarized copies; however we also found out that the documents are only valid for 3 months and the birth certificate runs out on 10th January. Hardly enough time with all the running back and forth that is involved.

Also, the original documents had been signed by the translator to prove their authenticity and the translations stapled to the back, ruining them for any official purposes in China.

So, now my poor future mother-in-law (well, if we ever get through all this a nonsense anyway) has to do the whole thing again; including using her connections at the hospital to get the birth certificate, they are technically not allowed to issue.

A not so global village – making international marriage as impossible as possible

This experience of bureaucratic hell just makes me think how ironic it is that every day we speak about how small the world is becoming and how international borders are breaking down and all the “one world, one love” prophecies and how far from the truth this is in relation to our legal situation.

I understand that there need to be laws in place to ensure a person cannot marry as many people as they want in different countries or simply marry for visa purposes, but I think that current laws in Germany are just absolutely outdated and unreasonable.

I mean I already commented on the irony that to get my certificate of nubility I need to get Mr.Li’s – so what if the Chinese said the same. But overall this whole jumping through hoops is just absolutely over the top in my opinion. There is a very vivid German idiom that describes perfectly what we are currently going through:

“It’s as if someone is laying stones in our way”

to make things as difficult as possible. Well, to be honest, I feel as if I am drowning in a sea of stones (ah, so melodramatic).

But let’s be serious, my mother told me of a Russian-German couple that went through the same hassle and in the end just gave up and didn’t get married because it was just not worth it. A German-Chinese couple in my parent’s town had the same problems we did with the three month validity and also had to get the documents issued a second time before succeeding. Luckily, my mum is a tough cookie and a challenge such as this will only make her more determined to beat the system and get me that bloody certificate (I was just about ready to call the whole thing off when she told me).

The thing that irks me the most though, aside from this ridiculous labyrinth of legal ludicrousness, is the fact that a couple of weeks ago I spoke to a young guy from Australia who told me that after going through all the motions to get the certificate, when he got married to a young Chinese girl in Nanjing, they didn’t even need the silly piece of paper at all. Sadly the Inner Mongolians, where we need to get married due to Mr. Li’s hukou, insist on the certificate.

While again there is always the possibility of bribing them to turn a blind eye, we do want to one day return to Europe and it might get a little awkward explaining to German authorities how we have a marriage certificate without them ever having issued a certificate of nubility for me. Yes, they are that organized they would know. In conclusion, no corrupt wedding for us.

The one lesson I have learned from this is to never trust anyone who gives you “official” information as probably they have absolutely no clue what the heck they are doing. Oh yes, and that my mum is awesome, but I knew that already.

In honour of this painful procedure and hopefully to help any of you, who are facing the same issues, to not fall in the German legal trap, I plan on making a little infographic, which will hopefully help you to not make the same mistakes we did (once I know for certain how this whole confusions process works). If you are facing the paper wars as well, good luck!

Here’s to showing those bureaucratic buggers that they can never stop a determined English woman and her Chinese in-laws.