In the first year of marriage to my Chinese husband, the cultural difference that has stuck out the most is praise. Or lack of it.
I grew up in the West, where I was praised for my achievements. Where love was vocalised and praise was given freely. My mum used to say that a child needs to be praised 5 times for every 1 criticism, and she was proactive in this. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t criticised or called out on my mistakes. Nor was praise given where it wasn’t due. It was a very positive environment, both at home and at school.
My husband, on the other hand, grew up in China and from what I gather, criticism was used to motivate him to be better. He was a young table tennis player and his dad was his biggest critic. I’ve worked in a Chinese middle school and seen students criticised for not being the best. I’ve read about Tiger Mothers. My husband studied in the Chinese education system until he went to the UK for his Masters degree, so the environment was more negative.
It’s definitely a cultural issue, but these approaches are not confined to these cultures, it depends on the parents’ approach. It’s carrot vs stick.
The issue has arisen multiple times. I guess I’m insecure, as many people are. I guess I need a lot of praise, as well as support and encouragement. My husband doesn’t know to provide this. It’s not what he’s grown up with. When I’ve asked for this, he has expressed frustration with this need. I’m needy. It’s stating the obvious. It doesn’t need to be said.
On the flip side, he has criticised me more than I am used to and this can be hard to take. In my experience of relationships, my own and of others, I have learnt that you must try to accept the flaws of your loved ones. Sure, there are always ground rules and deal-breakers, but we acknowledge that no one is perfect and concentrate on the good points. So to be criticised on my appearance, behaviour and character can be hurtful. Doesn’t he accept me for who I am?
R has also expressed concern that too much praise makes you complacent, or even arrogant. If he calls me beautiful, I may think I don’t need to lose that extra half stone. If he did a good job at table tennis training, he won’t improve for the next tournament. A foreign concept to me.
As touched upon in Speaking of China‘s post, Chinese people don’t often, if ever, say I love you. I had to explain to my husband that our love wasn’t the same as his family’s (eternally unspoken) love and had to be vocalised and nurtured.
I can see that my husband is taking on board what I’ve asked. He tells me he loves me, and since it’s not every day, I usually feel I’ve done something to earn it. When he says it I feel he’s really saying ‘I love you a little bit more today’. And he is starting to praise me too. Not often, but again, I feel every time has been earned. So when he says I’m a good mum, I know he appreciates something I’ve done for baby Z and sees the hard work I am putting in. When something is rare, it feels more special.
The interesting thing is, I see how much praise my husband himself needs. He may have not had that much of it, but I can see that it really helps. I hope I make him feel good about himself. I hope our home is a safe place, full of love and support. I hope he is the happiest he has ever been.
I also hope that I’ve made some changes too. Perhaps not in this sense, but some cultural compromises. Things that though foreign to me, R appreciates. And now that we have a child to raise together, I hope that baby Z gets the best of both worlds. With lots of love.