Am I Married?

I haven’t mentioned my “girlfriend” in a long time. This is not only because I don’t like to talk about certain aspects of my private life here; it’s also because I’m not sure what to call her anymore. This is all due to the peculiar features of getting married in China.

You see, we are already legally married, but we have not yet had a “proper wedding.” To her and her family, that means a proper Chinese wedding banquet. To me and my family, that means a proper wedding in a Catholic church. All that will happen next year.

Furthermore, we are not living together. She still lives with her parents as before, and I live with my roommate Lenny. Our lives after becoming legally married remain almost exactly as they were when we were just “engaged.”

(So why did we get legally married so early? It’s largely to simplify the breaucratic headaches that arise from my nationality and her employer, and to save me from having to make another trip back to the States right before the wedding next year.)

I can call her my 老婆 in Chinese and this isn’t strange at all… Many Chinese couples here call each other 老婆 and 老公 long before they’re married (which really kind of annoys me for some reason). But calling her my wife–in English–feels wrong to me, because my whole life my idea of my “wife” has been the woman I spend the rest of my life with after we go through that sacred ceremony in church. And we haven’t done that yet.

In China, the wedding banquet has tremendous social significance for both families, but no legal standing. I know a Chinese couple who waited for years for the wedding banquet because they wanted to be legally married but couldn’t yet afford a nice reception. I also heard of a couple that had the wedding banquet but then split up and were never legally married in the first place. In the US, saying “I do” in a ceremony in front of a priest and other witnesses is a part of the legal process (in addition to the marriage registration).

So basically the feeling I get is that we’re taking that minute or so when the man and woman each say “I do” and the priest pronounces them husband and wife, and stretching it out to about a year. It’s a little strange, but I don’t think it’s all bad. Marriage is, after all, a big adjustment.

Update: Dan Washburn recently had a similar marriage experience.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Exactly! What happened to the term “男朋友/女朋友“? I never hear it anymore since I moved to Shanghai!

  2. Congratulations! So many good things are happening in your life. May you love and cherish each other forever.

  3. AMEN! to that last sentence.

  4. I always thought the answer is I will rather than I do, as you have stated before, that “… the woman I spend the rest of my life with”

    Otherwise, congratulation!

  5. Chicago Wedding Minister Officiant Rev. Daniel Harris says:

    The most basic form would be something like this: (Officiant) “Do you, (Name), take (Name), to be your (wife/husband)?” (Groom/Bride Response) “I do.”

  6. anyway u’re her husband legally

  7. In Belgium the only thing legal about a religious wedding is that it’s illegal to even have one before you’ve properly had the civil one. More: that seems to be so important they teach you again and again in both primary and secondary school. So according to Belgian standards (a traditionally 99 percent Catholic country) your’re definitely married.


  8. Only a wedding in Vegas will be able to sort this confusion out.

    And my Belgian roommate and the 25% of the Belgian population that is Protestant finds your ‘99% Catholic country’ statement to be offensive Tuur.

  9. John,


    I wish you would be more open on the issue though, love should not be hidden between cultures and administrative procedures.

    I would love to hear more about how it is to marry a chinese and how love really is being “practiced” by Chinese (can seem cold from an outsider point of view).

    But good luck to the both of you, may you live in interesting times.

  10. So why are you talking about it now? And congrats!

  11. In the US, saying “I do” in a ceremony in front of a priest and other witnesses is a part of the legal process (in addition to the marriage registration).
    what if they are not religious people?still legal process?

  12. Da Xiangchang Says: August 19, 2006 at 7:51 am

    So she’s converting to Catholicism?

  13. It’s funny, I was just at the rehersal (and in turn the ceremony) of my best friend’s wedding. In the rehersal the pastor actually had them do the while “I do” bit (actually, “I will”)… I couldn’t help but think that they were technically (under the eyes of god and all that stuff) married.

    I’m actually thinking I might be doing the marriage registration thing long before we have our wedding ceremony for the simple reason of logistics and to assist in visa processes in the future should they be needed.

    For me, registration or not – marriage is what you make it and despite what the legal implications are, if a ceremony signifies marriage – that’s marriage. When did we start letting bureaucracy dictating our personal lives?

  14. i’m just referring to her as your fiancee. does that work for you? it indicates the highest level of pre-marriage commitment, right? true, some people can be somewhat cavalier about engagements, but not most. basically it says you’ve committed, but that the legalities haven’t gone through yet. in your case, ONLY the legalities have gone through. at any rate, you’re happy to be stuck w/ each other, and i’m happy for you both! 🙂

  15. I’ve been to plenty US marriages and I’ve never seen anybody say “I do” in front of a priest. A priest is just one of a large number of people who have the ability to sign off on a marriage. My favorites: SF ex-mayor Willie Brown, and an Las Vegas Elvis impersonator (he claimed to be the original one).

    Congratulations are definite! I had my own speculations, just from reading the blog.

  16. @Carl: I’ll freely admit that Belgium these days is not a particularly Catholic country. It was between the two World Wars though, with 99 percent of people professing any religion at all being Catholics, many of them militant at that. However, things have changed a lot since then though and there are now plenty of ‘somethingers’ ( – sorry: Dutch only), muslims, Jehova’s witnesses, agnostics and so on. You will note that I wrote “traditionally 99 percent Catholic”.

    But “25% of the Belgian population that is Protestant”, ‘scuse me, that’s nonsense. And no, I did not edit that particular Wikipedia article in any way.

  17. you’re right: I don’t think Chinese really consider you married until you have the banquet, no matter how many legal docs you throw at them. My wife and I got married in Boulder, Co, and it was four years before we could go back and 請客.

    We still had to go through all the silly wedding banquet shenanigans up on stage, and later with her friends (the games Chinese people like to make newlyweds do to embarrass them), even though we’d already been married several years.

  18. Scott,

    Are you thinking of the Chinese “我愿意“? That’s what I said for the legal process, but the tradition in English is to say “I do” (in response to a question that starts with “Do you promise…” or “Do you pledge…”).

  19. Marco,

    what if they are not religious people?still legal process?

    No. But I am religious, so I used that scenario.

  20. Da Xiangchang,

    She has no plans for conversaion at this moment, but she’s not atheist or anti-Catholic.

  21. Thank you, everyone, for the congratulations. I will be writing more about this in the future. There are a lot of things about it I’d like to say when the time is right.

  22. John,

    Since you referred to your Catholic faith on this thread, I’m curious, as someone who was raised Catholic but no longer believes or practices, have you ever attended services in China?

    I and a lapsed Catholic apartmentmate attended Christmas Eve services once in a small neighborhood Catholic church in Seoul. At the time, neither of us spoke much Korean, but it wasn’t a problem since the order of the Mass is the same.

  23. Wow! Congratulations John. I didn’t know you were married. I knew that you had a fiancee visa for her to come to the states, but this is Great News.
    We’ll have to celebrate on my next visit with a traditional Polish drink – Beer! haha.

  24. Sonagi: There’s a foreigner-only Catholic church (by legal decree, fucking China…) downtown on Yan’an Lu, wish I had the exact address… I’m atheist but I went a couple times with my old roommate, who’s Catholic.

    Anyway it was a nice church, it’s multi-lingual, it’s rather large, the staff seems well-experienced, and if such is your interest I would recommend checking it out.

  25. Sonagi,

    Yes, I do attend mass in China. I go to the service at the cathedral in Xujiahui. It’s in Chinese.

    Jeff is talking about another Catholic church with English services: St. Peter’s Catholic Church, 270 Chongqing Nan Road (located between Fuxing Road and Jianguo Road). [more info]

  26. wow!! good news spreads fast! lol~
    and warmest wishes.

  27. What are the legal aspects of being legally married in China?

  28. Jeff, I am back in the States now and searching for a good Buddhist meditation group in my new community.

  29. interesting… 老婆 and 老公 are used in the mainland. As a confused ABC chinese student, a general rule of thumb is “if it is spoken in colloqial Cantonese, there is NO WAY IN HELL it can be spoken in Putonghua”. This one of those exceptions that break the rule.

    Very curious if this is one of those phrases taken from Cantonese such as 買單 and 打的 (cantonese speakers don’t actually say 打的, but 的士 is the HK Cantonized word for taxi.. thus 打的 in Putonghua).

  30. hmm… if memory serve correct, saying 老公 and 老婆 to Taiwanese, it means “old man” and “old lady”… again, which makes it strange that it is used in Putonghua to mean wife and husband.

  31. Asian related quick-links : August 25th…

    This post will include some quick links to Asian related interesting stories that I found on the web recently. It's a trendy thing lately, linking, and it's the least I could do to show my appreciation for the interesting things that I find in …

  32. No, 老公 and 老婆 mean husband and wife in Taiwan, too.

  33. David Webb Says: August 31, 2006 at 7:51 pm

    “She has no plans for conversaion at this moment, but she’s not atheist or anti-Catholic.”

    You are maybe not as Catholic as you think. As you know the Bible rules out marriage with non-believers (St Paul: don’ t be unevenly yoked with non-believers, or whatever it says).

  34. @David Webb:

    The Church does allow marriage to non-Catholics without conversion. You only have to promise that any children will be raised as Catholics.

    An aunt of mine married a german protestant that way. In a Catholic church. The Antwerp cathedral to be exact.

  35. Tuur,

    Thanks for the help, but David Webb is not interested in meaningful exchange; he is merely being a troll. His response to your comment (which I am not approving) talks about my wife burning in hell. DELETE!

  36. […] of yesterday, I am 100% married. I had been “half married” for a year. Honestly, I think it was great to do it this way. We had plenty of time to get […]

  37. Hmmm even for married couples I do not like the name 老公,老婆 I can’t stop referring to eunuch.. where the word seems to originate….
    Great that you’re no longer half married now and don’t have to feel confused. 🙂 I am also glad that she is no atheist… I can’t imagine how difficult it is if you’re driving at different directions spiritually.

  38. My Ping and I were legally married last Wednesday. She is 42 and I am 54. Her larger family (including her daughter Dan) have no problem with us living together before our Wedding Dinner. I am living in China and have found that the customs vary per region and in the larger cities per personal persuasion.

  39. […] my “wife” and I will attend part three of an 8-week marriage preparation course. The Catholic Church […]

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