In case you haven’t heard about Kelly Sandor-Yang, her Chinese husband and their adventures in China, you’re in for a real treat today. Kelly publishes “Tales from Hebei” - it’s the funnniest (with three n's, no less), most humorous blog out there when it comes to exploring cross-cultural relationships with a Chinese person. Her entertaining blog was nominated for a Lotus Blossom Award in 2011.
Kelly is a blogger, teacher, and expat extraordinaire, not to mention wife to a cute and hilarious, hip-hop lovin’ Chinese man from Inner Mongolia.
Kelly grew up in a small farming community under the big, blue skies of the Canadian prairies. In 2004, she embarked on the journey of a lifetime to teach English in a small city in Hebei, China for a year.
When she left China, it seemed like the journey’s end...but it was really just the beginning.
You see, after returning “home” to life in Canada, things didn’t go as planned. In fact, Kelly soon resigned from her Canadian teaching job and left the country.
Where to? Yes, back to that same English school in that same Chinese community. It was supposed to be a temporary job, while she figured out her next move.
Famous last words! She met her Chinese husband, got married and remained living in China ever since.
You can read about Kelly’s adventures, discoveries and the roller-coaster ride of living in small-town China by checking out her blog: Tales from Hebei.
If you plan to attend or participate in a Chinese wedding, this is a must read for you.
Why? Kelly will reveal:
It was a real pleasure to chat with Kelly, and I have a feeling that you’ll enjoy this as much as I did. So kick back, relax and keep reading as Kelly shares her tale of two weddings.
Kelly, I loved reading the story of your Chinese weddings. What I admire most about it is the way you fused Western and Chinese wedding traditions into a single ceremony in a way that respects both cultures. Best of all, you managed to add your own style and personal touches...like your husband’s choice of footwear!
What essential advice would you offer someone who's thinking about their own cross-cultural Chinese wedding?
First of all, we were very lucky because we ended up planning our wedding ourselves (often Chinese parents are very involved), so we were freer to make choices and changes that were important to us.
If you are getting married in another country, you’re going to have to play by their rules.
My husband and I had a lot of discussions about the things that were important to us, and agreed that we wanted to have a wedding ceremony that was meaningful to us, rather than simply do what “everyone else always does”.
This led to us:
and his trendsetting
choice of wedding footwear.
Secondly, I also knew from the beginning that our weddings would still be primarily Chinese, since they were taking place here, and that was fine with me. I had no illusions of being able to have everything “my way” – and I think it is important to acknowledge this. If you are getting married in another country, you’re likely going to have to play by their rules.
Personally, I focused on a select few things that I wanted to change or include because they were very important to me (having family photographs taken in the park that day, my father giving me away, carrying yellow roses like my mother had) and fought hard for them. I was told several times that these things couldn’t be done for various reasons, but I insisted, and we found a way to make them happen.
And in the end, we had a wedding that people still talk about more than a year later, that actually seems to have started trends in our city (we’ve noticed that weddings are becoming much more personalized to the couples now), and that we loved, which was the most important part.
Wow, you're breaking new ground and becoming trendsetters in your community!
So you mentioned cutting a few of those usual Chinese wedding customs. Were there any Chinese wedding traditions that you didn't cut but you wish you did? Or on the flipside, which Western wedding traditions were you happy to kick to the kerb?
Chinese have a tradition of having some important leaders give speeches during the wedding ceremony. There are usually two people, and they are often the couple’s employers (or even their parents’ employers). I don’t really know what qualifies the leader of a steel factory to make a speech at a wedding, especially when he doesn’t know the bride at all, and is only an acquaintance of the groom, but it had to be done to pay respect to them and to maintain “face.”
I would have rather done without these boring, impersonal speeches, but it was a formality that we couldn’t avoid.
What qualifies the leader of a steel factory to make a speech at a wedding?
As for Western traditions I was glad to avoid, I’m not sure there were any in the actual ceremony (I’m not religious, so I didn’t miss that part of it), but I was very glad to omit some details from the planning process. Choosing table décor, designing fonts for custom invitations and programs, completing a seating chart, bridesmaid drama, selecting a menu, worrying about a wedding cake, preparing wedding favors – all are things I am perfectly happy to not worry about!
Amen! It must have been such a relief to leave the unwanted details and drama out of the picture.
Kelly, what about your family, who ventured all the way to Inner Mongolia to meet your husband’s family?
How did that work? Were the two families able to interact meaningfully even without a translator? What insights would you offer to a couple whose Chinese and Western families are coming together for the first time?
My poor husband was mentally exhausted at the end of the trip, from translating back and forth between Chinese and English!
It was interesting to watch our families get to know each other without many words. There was a lot of miming, and a ton of laughing.
I think my parents were surprised at how similar my husband’s parents are to them, both physically and personality-wise (our fathers are both easy-going jokers, while our moms are both more of the worrying-type). And it became very apparent to everyone that both our families really love us and want the best for us.
Relax and let them figure some things out on their own.
If you are part of a couple whose families are about to meet for the first time, my number one piece of advice would be to relax. Let them figure some things out on their own. There will be a tendency to always want to help, or supervise, or translate, but a lot of commonalities can be found without language, so give them a little space. And sharing a meal and sharing customs (my husband’s parents taught my family how to fold dumplings when we arrived at their house) are great ways to loosen people up.
Kelly, how receptive were your parents to the idea of traveling across the planet for their daughter’s wedding? Especially considering their first visit to China was during the Chinese New Year - the busiest, craziest time of the year to travel to China!
Was your blog a factor in making them more curious about experiencing China?
Although they were certainly surprised when I called to tell them I was engaged, I don’t think there was ever a question that my parents wouldn’t try their best to attend our wedding in person (my brother was a bit more of an uncertainty, but was thankfully able to get the time off work!).
Kelly's parents participate in the Tea Ceremony.
Regardless of their opinions of China and travel in China, they wanted to be present for my wedding. That was the most important factor. I am so glad they were willing and able to make the trip and support me, as well as to meet my husband and his family. It made the day that much more special!
As for the blog, I knew my mom read it fairly regularly before their trip, but it was only while they were here that my dad (“Mr. I Don’t Know How to Make This Computer Work”) told me that he turns on the computer every Sunday morning to check out the new post over morning coffee! I knew my mom was interested in keeping up with my life through my blog, but was touched to hear that my dad enjoys it as well. I think he’s even learned a thing or two!
In hindsight, what would you have done differently with your Chinese weddings - aside from obviously selecting a different host?
There will always be little details that I wish we could change – demanding that the food not be served until after the ceremony, making sure the hosts didn’t talk over every key moment, a couple of details with my dress – but considering everything we’d already had to convince people to change, we had a pair of pretty perfect weddings!
We had a pair of pretty perfect weddings...it’s all about compromise, people!
It may also surprise people to find out that if I had the chance to have my dream wedding, it wouldn’t have been anything like what we had. I’d never pictured myself having a large wedding, let alone two, with 250 guests at each! I’d always imagined a small, intimate ceremony – but as soon as I got engaged to a Chinese man, I knew that was not going to be an option. It’s all about compromise, people!
I get that. Compromise helps you maintain balance in your relationship.
You know, another thing your relationship really has going for it is your combined sense of humor. You both clearly have a lot of fun together and you bring that sense of playful fun into your writing, your photos and your blog. How important is that playful attitude when it comes to your interracial relationship?
A couple of the many things I love about my husband are his ability to make me laugh and that he allows me to be myself, no matter how silly. He can take a ribbing, but he can most certainly dish one out, and in his second language to boot! We truly enjoy each other’s company and try to keep things light and fun.
“Being able to laugh and
have fun with your mate is key...”
Being able to laugh and have fun with your mate is key, whether you’re in an interracial relationship or not.
It may be even more so when two people are from such different backgrounds and languages and are trying to compromise and create a life together.
There have been a few times that we have taken for granted that the other understands what we mean, only to find out later that we were sorely mistaken (my husband warning me that there were fish “in the toilet” comes to mind – he meant the room with the toilet, while I thought he meant the actual bowl!), and there really isn’t anything to do but laugh!
And considering how completely absurd or utterly frustrating it can be to live in a different country, such as China, it’s important to be able to make light of a lot of situations. My husband is a great support for me in this way.
Do you ever see yourself switching roles and becoming a great support for your husband? I mean, what if you and your husband returned to Canada one day? How would you help support him for that culture shock?
At this point, we have no plans to return to Canada to live. We hope to wade through paperwork and regulations and allow him the opportunity to visit, meet the rest of my family, see where and how I grew up, and experience Canada first-hand, but we don’t plan to relocate.
“My husband is pretty westernized...”
I’m not sure how I could prepare my husband for what he would experience in Canada. We talk often about traditions and experiences, and he’s seen pictures, but I’m not sure any amount of that will prepare him to actually live it. It’s also a little hard for me to anticipate what he might find strange, since everything is so familiar and “natural” to me.
My husband is pretty westernized, when it comes down to it. I’m sure that the biggest shock for him will be in my tiny hometown. I warned him that he will be the only Asian person in town, and because it is so small, everyone will know who he is before we even arrive (and probably will know his name before they meet him!), but I’m quite certain he thinks I’m kidding. I guess when random cowboys shout his name from across one of the six streets in town, he’ll find out otherwise, right?!
Right! That would be so surreal for him.
And that's what I enjoy most about your blog - you take those culturally confounding situations and make light of them in a humorous way. How often does that really happen to you...those moments when you just burst out laughing because you couldn’t contain the absurdity no matter how hard you tried?
Every day, people, every day.
Three of the most unexpected things I ever encountered here in China:
This happened shortly after I returned in 2009. A friend and I were walking through a local market, browsing the stalls, when we came upon one selling stuffed toys. I looked up, and hanging above the entrance was something that looked distinctly familiar. It ended up being a stuffed sun – specifically, the mascot of the city in which I’d been living in Canada (Medicine Hat, Alberta, which claims to be Canada’s sunniest city), complete with the embroidery! All I could do was shake my head – it was so surreal.
There was also the time we were in a nearby city, killing time in a fancy shopping center, and we stumbled across a furniture department selling life-sized farm animal pieces, including a pig table and a horse that doubled as a lamp. To add to the absurdity, I recently drove past a local bar that had about ten of the horse lamps lined up just inside their doors.
Are there some “strange” things that happen in China? Yes.
Pack your sense of humor, and always carry your camera...
But remember that the way we behave is often strange to a Chinese person as well. If you’re going to travel to another place, you have to keep an open mind about everything and be present to experience it all – good and bad. You’re not going to like everything, but you also can’t change it. Pack your sense of humor, and always carry your camera – you’ll end up with some great tales to tell your friends.
If you enjoyed this interview with Kelly Sandor-Yang, it’s only a small taste of what you’ll discover on her blog, “Tales of Hebei.”
For the full story on her Chinese wedding, plus all sorts of other cross-cultural craziness and silly situations...check out: talesofhebei.wordpress.com