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Dear Lulu Jeh,
My wife was born and raised in the US, but has been in Hong Kong for work for the past 10 years. I’m a local, HK-born and bred. We met and married in Hong Kong. She’s a lovely person and I love her to bits, but I find it increasingly frustrating that in these 10 years, she has made precisely zero progress when it comes to catching on to Hong Kong traditions and cultural norms. She can also barely string a phrase together in Cantonese — I get that our language is hard, but c’mon, she’s had 10 years to pick some of it up!
I have to remind her every year about lai see etiquette (like who to give these red packets to, and how much); that dragon boat festival is when we eat zongzi dumplings and Mid-Autumn is for mooncakes (and NOT the other way around); and just basic, basic cultural knowledge that anyone who calls Hong Kong home (even if temporarily) should have in their arsenal. It’s not that she’s a particularly forgetful person — she just doesn’t seem all that interested in learning or retaining this specific type of knowledge.
She has made it clear that America is her true home, where her loyalties lie. She views herself as an expat through and through. That, I do get and respect. And yes, we have made vague plans to move (back) there one day. But I myself am feeling increasingly frustrated that she pays so little attention to my culture and her “now” home. It’s as if she can’t bother to expend the effort because she expects to just pick up and move on one day, any day. How do I get her to pay some attention? — Helpless and Frustrated
How are you two still married? Joking aside, have you ever tried to tell her directly, exactly what you wrote in this letter to me? It might have been socially acceptable once upon a time for non-native implants of any city or country to touch down and live in an “expat” (oh, how I dislike that term for all its implications) bubble and be perfectly fine and comfortable and unquestioned. These days? One is out-of-touch, clueless, insensitive at best; and completely disrespectful at worst.
I think the best way to handle this is to remind her that like it or not, she has been in Hong Kong for a decade. Whether she sees it as a now-home or a forever-home is honestly irrelevant at this point. It might be that she misses her home-home a lot more than she is letting on, and this cultural insensitivity is one of the ways her nostalgia is manifesting itself. How often does she get to go back? Is her family all there? Perhaps you can encourage her to head back more frequently, if her schedule allows, or arrange more Zoom calls with her friends and fam overseas. You also need to let her know in no uncertain terms that you would appreciate a spouse who respects your heritage, just like you respect hers. Whether that’s learning to speak a few key Cantonese phrases or knowing what to order at a cha chaan teng, you two can negotiate specifically. Bottom line: respect goes both ways, it’s as simple as that!