The Not-So-Secret Ingredient to a Happy Chinese Marriage

Tonight my “wife” and I will attend part three of an 8-week marriage preparation course. The Catholic Church requires all couples that wish to be married with the blessing of the Church to undergo this course. The purpose is not really to educate couples about Catholicism, but rather to ensure that the couples have closely examined the big questions before they officially tie the knot (and by “officially” I mean “in the Church”). One unexpected thing about the course is that it’s jointly conducted by a mainland priest and a Taiwanese nun, using Taiwanese materials*.

Last week’s session was rather enlightening. Altogether, there were nine couples in attendance. The theme was “this is how I grew up.” It was all about understanding how each person’s family background differed, and how that would affect the couple’s life together.

Obviously, there’s a million things that could come up in this discussion. The one that came to mind for us was the difference between being raised as an only child in modern China and being raised in a family of five in the States. (Without going into too much detail, I’m just going to say that there’s no way in hell that any future child of mine is going to glide through childhood without doing any chores, regardless of what culture he grows up in.)

So that’s a serious issue, but it’s one that is largely due to the intercultural nature of our marriage. Still, you can imagine that plenty of equally serious domestic issues would be raised… Money management, in-laws, work issues, bad habits, anything related to child-rearing, etc. So which topic was raised and repeatedly stressed by every single couple except us? You guessed it. Food.

The following are some of the crucial issues raised by the other couples:

1. His family likes bland food, but I’m used to strong seasoning.
2. I like spicy food, but his family can’t eat it.
3. I have to have soup with every meal, but his family never eats soup.
4. My family always makes lots of dishes, but his only makes 3 or 4 per meal and never wastes any food.
5. Her family takes a really long time to eat.

Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean to judge these people. But you would think that after all this time I would have at least learned one thing: the paramount importance of food to the Chinese. I really hope I’ll get it one of these days and stop being astonished.

* This is interesting because the Catholic Church in Taiwan is currently in direct communion with Rome, while the mainland Catholic Church in the mainland is still the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which is not officially in communion with Rome.


John Pasden

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


  1. Well, food is not what I would have guessed, but I’m having trouble believing just how not surprised I am.

  2. Its amazing how many profound differences there are in background. Although I’m nowhere near the big M, the girls I’ve gotten to know here have made this point painfully obvious. One recent conversation was focused almost entirely on the concept of prom! This girl couldn’t hear enough about it (even if I was just lukewarm in my recollection of the details). And that’s just one dance.

    Anyhow, best of luck.

  3. Dude, Brian, are you sure they’re 18 yet?

  4. Did they remind you that birth control is a no no?

  5. This is a new angle for me to consider when someone makes a big deal to me about how amazed they are when I tell them that I have adapted to Chinese food.

  6. Anyone here lived in China for more than 1 year and still likes Chinese food?

    I seem to have totally gone off it for at least 2 years now. Every dish seems to be pretty much the same.

  7. @Ash: I’m with you. I mean, I crave some dishes when I haven’t had them for a while (BIG sucker for Hui Guo Rou), but generally speaking… well, generally speaking, my pizza should be here in 20 minutes. And the fajitas I made a few nights ago kicked ass.

  8. I’ll take that part about chores as a complement. I’m glad that you valued the experience. (What’s the emoticon for “bursting w/ pride”? **

  9. It’s funny how I imagine the hims and hers in that list to be non-Chinese and Chinese, respectively, when in reality it could go either way.

    Were they all him=non-Chinese, her=Chinese, John, or was it mixed up a bit?

  10. LJD,

    No mention of birth control. I haven’t figured out yet who in the room is the CCP spy… 😛

  11. ash,

    I’m not crazy about eating Chinese food every day, but I still like it after 6 years. You save a lot of money by eating Chinese most meals. I’d say that 3/4 of my meals here are Chinese.

  12. Tim P,

    It’s hard to say whether I valued the experience or whether I’m just out for generationally transferred revenge. 🙂

  13. wulong,

    I was the only non-Chinese there.

  14. food is totally paramount in making your family stronger! take this scenario, husband likes mother-in-law’s cooking. in fact, husband likes mother-in-law’s cooking more than wife- and even prefers it to his own mother’s cooking. husband follows mother-in-law around the kitchen on her visits wheedling recipes and techniques from her. end result: mother-in-law loves him, comes to visit often, cooks lots of food (much of it especially for him), husband rejoices, wife is happy husband loves mom, grandkids get spoiled rotten, and the whole family is happy.

    so the chinese’ve got it right. the secret to familial compatibility is food.

  15. Hathai, I like your reasoning.

  16. As a former vegan turned paleo-inspired, I can relate to the importance of food compatibility. It wouldn’t be practical or desirable to try to cook to appeal to vastly different dietary preferences.

  17. Does the Catholic Church require its members to take this course worldwide (if one wishes for the blessing of the Church)? I’ve never heard of this before in the States. I for one think it’s a great idea. Forces people to really stop and think critically about the huge step they are about to take. Vatican 1 – Random Opponent 0.

  18. Yes, it is required of Catholics worldwide. It has existed in the United States for awhile. My brother and his wife did it 10 years ago. It’s interesting to know that members of the Patriotic Catholic Church go through the marriage preparation course, also, since it was recently established by Rome.

  19. The marriage prep courses are not something recently established. I’ve been married 36 yrs (& counting). When we were preparing for our wedding the course was called Pre-Cana Conference. Same thing; different title. Who knows what it was called prior to that. There’s also the 6 month requirement for announcing the banns of marriage.

  20. Ash:

    Interestingly, that’ my take on Korean food; a nice change-of-pace from what I usually have, but not something that I can stand to eat every day for the rest of my life.

    What part of China are you in? I have a suspicion (at least about what parts you aren’t in). I find that the diversity and quality of food varies quite a bit across regions.

  21. The marriage prep courses are not something recently established

    I meant relative to the establishment of the PRC, when the Patriotic Catholic Church was founded and ties were cut with Rome.

  22. I asked my mom, the uberCatholic, and she said she and my dad did not go through any marriage preparation, other than the Banns or Marriage announcement, 45 years ago; Pre-Cana was introduced after they married.

  23. After 4 years, I still love Chinese food, but I’ve gone off Chinese restaurant food for the most part. I prefer home cooked food, and I guess I’m lucky in that I get to eat home cooked Chinese food every day. It’s a matter of seeing what ingredients are available in the kitchen and then cooking something yummy with them. Most of what we cook is spicy. I think there’s a difference between following a recipe, and being able to cook.

    I can understand some of these food probelms that the couples are concerned about; imagine being from Sichuan but marrying into a Suzhounese house, where the food is bland, sweet if your lucky. I for one would not be able to take it and look for the nearest blunt object in order to bludgeon myself to death so as to escape the lifelong suffereing of having to eat traditional Suzhounese food.

  24. My favorite cuisine is Korean. I love to eat it but can’t make it. I’ve often joked that I’d be willing to endure the abuse that only a Korean mother-in-law can dish out as long as she did the family cooking.

  25. Do Chinese citizens still have to have those medical exams before marriage and go to family planning info sessions? I remember people telling me about it a few years back, and I saw signs for one of the centers that did it near xujiahui, but I’m not sure if its still mandatory. Maybe it was just for party members to 保持 their 先进性.

  26. Matt:

    Bland? Try Cantonese food (though they would say that it is subtle, and they you can’t taste anything only because your tastebuds have been killed off by all those red peppers you’ve eaten). Suzhou food seems to all be drenched in sugar to me.

    BTW, your point brings to mind a story about my mother’s stepmother (my maternal grandmother had passed away). She’s from Sichuan, my mother and grandfather are from Zhuji (Zhejiang). After a having a few meals of her’s, they begged her to lay off the red pepper a little bit, which she did. She prepared a dish which she thought was very bland but which still was too spicy for my mother and grandfather to handle. Eventually, she got in to the habit of preparing 2 main dishes–1 for her, and 1 for the other 2 members of the family.

  27. john, i understand your astonishment – there are so many other issues! but maybe in china, the answers to the majority of those issues are dictated by chinese tradition &/or the husband’s right to call the shots (?). was your wife equally astonished? she seems very forward thinking. has she expressed an opinion on your blog entry?

  28. FOOD friends – I used to be pretty indiscriminate with friends in China, you know, a friend is better than no friend. But now I find myself gravitating towards like-food friends…. I mean, I like spicy and I can deal with the cow stomach in the hotpot, but when the fish-stew has an acre of red-chillies and no flavor…where is my let’s go get la-mian bud. Then there is the burger companion. The no KFC friend. The Xingjiang restaurant gal. 等等

  29. 音弗丽娅 Says: May 8, 2007 at 11:04 pm

    They say that as an immigrant to another country, food is one thing that is the most difficult to give up. This is not really particular to Chinese culture, it’s particular to any culture where people grew up eating a certain kinds of food. If you look at all the different immigrants in America, the last thing they give up from their own culture is food. People will forget the way they used to dress a few weeks into the country, learn a new language, American habits (such as wearing different clothes everyday), but food, they will hang on to that for many years to come. Perhaps it is because it is not difficult to get rid of the clothes you used to wear, or listen to new music, or to speak a new language. But food, you have to learn. Food also a lot more emotional than clothes, language, perhaps even music. Almost every single event we go through in life is centered around food, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Forth of July, Sunday brunch, etc. Certain foods remind us of the back in the days, it has sentimental values, let it be that chicken pot pie mom used to make on sundays, or that 红烧肉. To give up certain foods is almost like denying certain parts of ourselves. Either way, these things are hard to give up when they are so ingrained in us. I don’t think it’s impossible, but in the end it’s going end up leaning on way or the other, usually towards whoever is doing the cooking.

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