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Peter lived for nearly a half-decade in China, including two as a Peace Corps volunteer, and is the author of Socrates in Sichuan: Chinese Students Search for Truth, Justice and the (Chinese) Way. It is the intention of his blog to foster the sort of intercultural understanding necessary for long term relationships.
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Intercultural Relationships and the Holidays    

By Peter V
1916 Views | 6 Comments | 1/18/2017 1:11:10 PM

“If all the year were playing holidays/To sport would be as tedious as to work.” --Shakespeare


The houses are outlined with blinking lights; representations of Santa and Baby Jesus are plopped into people’s front lawns; stores blare out “Silent Night,” “There’s no place like home for the holidays,” and my personal favorite “Grandma got run over by a reindeer.” It is Christmas time in America.


Every culture that I am aware of celebrates holidays. Anthropologists often compare culture to an iceberg, and place holidays along with cuisine in the tip of the iceberg. The implication might seem to be that these are only superficial elements of culture, and reveal nothing of the real nature of the thing, that just as 97% of the iceberg’s mass lies beneath the surface, invisible to the naked eye, so too in order to get at the essence of a culture we must look beyond the obvious elements of diet and ritual.


Such a depiction is itself superficial. Far from being irrelevant, surface appearances can serve as the pathway to a plethora of insights, if only we know how to interpret them. Sherlock Holmes can scan a host of seemingly superfluous details to unveil an entire personality. Just so, supposedly surface aspects of culture like holidays speak volumes about what a culture values. The emphasis on family and the return to home that serves as the central theme of the Chinese New Year contrasts sharply with the relationship with the Divine that dominates the Jewish parallel, Rosh Hashanah.  Each celebration is in its way is revelatory of the culture, and its significance is ignored at the peril of one who wants to understand the culture.


But if holidays are essential to understanding a culture, they invariably play a key role in the development of the individuals who are products of that culture. At an existential level, they provide meaning and significance to our journey through life just as certain landmarks, say, the Louvre and the Eifel Tower, provide a sense of structure and purpose to a trip to Paris. More intimately, they instill in us a set of intense feelings and emotional experiences which, because they are undergone before the age of reason, hold an especially strong grip on the personality.


And herein lies the problem. We seek a soulmate in order to share the moments of life. A glowing sunset, a funny movie, or a fine dinner become richer events when they can be experienced with someone special. The work promotion is a personal triumph but is so much more satisfying when it can be savored with someone who knows and cares about how much we have struggled. The same is true of life’s sadnesses. As the saying goes, a grief shared is half a grief, a joy shared is twice a joy. But can we really share the experience of a holiday with a partner from another culture?


I am skeptical. If Christmas were merely buying presents and singing carols, if mid-autumn festival were simply eating mooncakes, then there would be no problem in sharing the experience of the holidays, since those acts obviously can be replicated by willing partner. But a holiday is not merely the external ritual but the internal feeling it generates. And this feeling cannot simply be acquired the way you can acquire a piece of knowledge by reading about it but arrives only as a result of a lifetime of experiences.


I realized this last September as Yong and I sat in our front yard in Kenosha, a blanket spread out beneath a full moon sipping tea and consuming the closest thing we could find to mooncakes, which were round brownies from a local bakery. For me it was a nice event and a special time, but no different from the other times we had sat in the yard or in a park and picnicked. But for her, that night harkened back to memories from childhood—decades’ old memories of joyful times when the family gathered together and told stories and distant relatives many now departed were present, sweet never-to-be-repeated times which both connect her to her past and provide meaning to her present.


The night was suffused with such thoughts the way Christmas morning in Western culture is intermingled in my mind with a parallel set of experiences and emotional reactions: the opening of presents, the smell of baking cookies wafting from the kitchen, the crooning of Bing Crosby, and a sense of wholeness and harmony, of peace on earth good will towards men. And I could no more share that experience of mid-autumn festival, nor she my experience of Christmas morning, than a blind person can share a sunset with a sighted one.


This is not tragic. Tragic would have been never to have met the love of your life. This is merely an instance of the law of life which says you never gain but that you lose something—a law too obvious to require defense. In my case, having an intercultural partner is not only a refuge from a Western worldview I have grown weary of but also an ongoing invitation to a never ending process of discovery of an alternate way of seeing the world--a different set of traditions, values, and experiences. And if the price for that is an occasional disconnect on the existential impact of a few days of the year, well, it is a fee I happily submit.


But I do think holidays pose a challenge in cross cultural dating and marriage if they create unmet expectations, if you do not realize that you can no more truly experience the holiday of another culture than you can experience the inner life of the fan of a sports team by moving to the city and starting to cheer for that team.


In order to avoid these potential pitfalls, I recommend the following.


First, I would urge the Western partner to not put too much emphasis on the holidays, and especially not to expect too much of Christmas. You may have grown up with a set of rituals connected to this holiday; my advice would be to not to impose these on your intercultural partner lest either they or you become confused or disappointed by their inability to experience a holiday-like emotion during this time. This is easier to do if you are living in China, where the cultural cues are not going to be nearly as strong. But this policy of non-participation is essential if you happen to be living in the land where you are bombarded by constant reminders of how much happiness is available for you at this time of year if only you purchase the right product. Second, I would recommend you get up to speed on your partner’s holiday traditions. Even if you will not feel the emotional impact it is a gesture of good will that will not go unappreciated. 

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#2017-01-18 13:10:56 by JohnAbbot @JohnAbbot

Peter, my experience has been that Chinese women really enjoy Christmas as I think most of us tend to celebrate it. It's one of the few times that Westerners, or at least Westerners with a Western Europe heritage (be they Christian anymore or not), tend to get together with a real sense of family, and that is something that Chinese tend to much enjoy.

Then toss in the extensive gift giving and receiving, both of which is big with Chinese women, and you've got a pretty happy time for the Chinese women I've come to know.

The only thing that is a bit of a downer for them is the food, which does not in anyway meet their culinary expectations of food. But otherwise, except for the food and the fireworks, our Christmas is as close as we get to the family spirit that flows so freely among Chinese during Chinese New Year. Frankly, while living in China, I always enjoyed Chinese New year because it gave me the same feelings I felt back in Canada at Christmas time.

I agree with you that we cannot expect to get as much out of our Chinese lifemate's holiday traditions as they do, nor for them to get as much as we do out of ours. But if we go into each other's holidays trying to get as much out of them as possible, with an open mind and a willing spirit, we might surprise ourselves at just how close we both come to replicating our own holiday joy.

#2017-01-18 17:08:07 by melcyan @melcyan

Great blog Peter! My 2016 Christmas highlighted what you are talking about. My partner and I have shared Christmas events every year for six years. Three years ago, I set up a Christmas tree and decorations at her place but that turned out to be a one off. All of her extended family thoroughly enjoyed it but looking back the Christmas celebration was more like a one-off novelty event for them.


This may sound strange but my extended family and my partner’s extended family have never been together at the one event. When my partner finally decides on her day to marry me, everyone will be together for the wedding. We will have to choose a very large venue!


2016 Christmas was celebrated at my older brother’s place. My partner seriously suggested that I not waste time putting up a Christmas tree and decorations at my place. I put the Christmas tree and decorations up anyway. When she saw the tree up she thought it was a waste of time because only a relatively small number of people were going to see it.


It felt strange explaining to her why the Christmas tree was important to me. This explanation and further reflection led me to write the forum thread “ An Atheist’s Christmas Tree”. I did not mention in the thread that my partner had recommended that I not put the tree up. It is yet another illustration of what Peter is talking about in this blog.


Peter’s blog reaffirms the importance of each year being a growing phase for both of us. Every year I will learn a little more about Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn festival and my partner will learn a little more about Christmas. Our motivation is not the events themselves but our relationship with each other.

#2017-01-19 10:39:07 by Beaverdam @Beaverdam

@Peter V  Bravo and very well written.

#2017-01-19 15:11:06 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

@JohnAbbot: I agree about Chinese women appreciating the family nature of certain holidays, and also about the gift giving element of Christmas. I also agree we should try to participate in each other's holidays. But I do think there is an inevitable divide (as melcyan's case illustrates) which I woud not call tragic (as I wrote) but is something I think needs to be acknowledged. Each couple will deal with it differently. Christmas is not a big thing for me (I am more of a Festivus person), so it actually works out quite well. But I realize when it comes to Chinese New Year there is an experience that Yong has that I will never be able to experience. 


@melcyan: Your disconnect about Christmas is one I think many will feel. As I mentioned above, my only advantage here is that I am not a big fan of Christmas, so am happy to skip the attempt to experience Christmas. Still, I don't think you can just throw out the holiday experience, but I think you can create that sense on your own, and this is what I would like to try to do in Yong and my case, to create our own holidays. But this is a story for another blog. 

@Beaverdam: Thanks

#2017-01-22 08:32:14 by anonymous15816 @anonymous15816

Even though my girlfriend and future wife is a Christian, she doesn't have many traditions regarding Christmas. I tell her about the ones I celebrate and what my family does. Chinese Christians usually go to church Christmas Eve, which I've done at a Three-Self Church. They may have a Christmas tree in their home. In our language school we decorated the place with our tutors whcih they enjoyed and we did a white elephant party. Many Chinese university students like to have a party as my students did, exchange apples (pingguo (apple) sounds like ping an (silent night) and give cards to their friends. Around town in stores, restaurants and malls you might see some Christmas trees, floating Santa heads and Santa playing a sax. I tell my students about the origins of the the various traditions, like the candy cane that tells the good news of Jesus' birth, death and resurrection.

#2017-02-03 18:13:50 by anonymous15828 @anonymous15828

This blog reminds me of eating mooncake with my bf then, he ate so quickly just as  ordinary sweets before I finished telling him the relavant story. When he said "I am done." I felt werid, but I did appreciate  his effort to share with me at important events in my life. 

Like what Peter said the gesture of good will is received and appreciated, whatelse we could expect from our intercultural partners:) 

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