A Story of Love, Pregnancy and Navigating Cultures in China

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To come straight to the point: Last week I got married and next year I will become a father. As you will understand, there is a reversed causal link between these two occasions. In order to convey these two facts a deeper meaning, I will first introduce my new wife and the mother of my future child, then I will outline the romantic path of our recent history and I will conclude with the wedding day.

My Wife

You’re probably familiar with the phenomenon that Chinese people say their family names first and their given names second. So my wife’s last name is Wang and her first name is Miao, but first they say the last name and then the first name. Anyway, Wang is a common surname in China. According to the first hit of my search, the surname Wang is assigned to 7,4% of the Chinese population, which means that there are over a hundred million Chinese people called Wang. Imagine the amount of trouble they have to go through to organize a proper family party. On the other hand, in terms of the number of characters in her name, Wang Miao is an outsider. Nine out of ten Chinese names consists of three characters, eight out of one hundred names, like Wang Miao, have only two characters while a negligible percentage has four or more characters. So if a Chinese psychiatrist is visited by a schizophrenic, the patient is likely to have three characters.

But that’s just her name, now let me introduce Miao herself. Apparently her parents were fans of the Dutch football team because nine months after Ruud Gullit received the European Cup as the captain of the Orange Lions, about 400 kilometers West of Shanghai, Wang Miao was born. She was born and raised in the ‘Yellow Mountain’ municipality, named after the world famous Yellow Mountain. Other than the name suggests, this mountain is not yellow but in turn is named after the Yellow Emperor who, nearly 5000 years ago, was impressed by it. In high school, Miao excelled in English, and she perfected that skill the following years by chatting with customers in various Youth Hostels throughout China. Her parents were not really happy about it and had hoped, or even assumed, that Miao would stay near them, find a ‘normal’ job, marry before her 27th and give birth to a child before her 30th birthday. A path that almost all Chinese parents see before them when a child is born, but from which increasing numbers of Chinese people are deviating. Miao initially also deviated from this path, until she met a nice open-minded Chinese guy in Beijing. Miao happy, parents happy, they got married and Miao got pregnant. So everything went according to good old traditional customs after all.

黄山: The Yellow Mountain

Until the day that her ‘open–minded’ guy sketched out what he thought their future would look like: a traditional marriage where she had to watch the child full-time at home and she would have to listen to her husband. So Miao turned her back on this guy and went back to the Yellow Mountain. After two years she got bored of it again and in 2017 she decided to enroll for a master’s course in English-Chinese translation in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. Following Chinese customs, her two year old child Doudou remained with his grandparents, while nearly 2000 kilometers away Miao’s teachers were surprised that a student without a bachelor degree had passed the entrance exams.

The romantic path of our recent history

Wouter and the photographer searching for a place to stay.

On June the fifth 2018 I flew from Zhongshan (next to Hong Kong) where I worked at that time to Hohhot. The reason was that my cousin Wouter, his wife Bing and their son Max had come from Beijing to visit me the week before. Due to an unforeseen schedule change, which happens quite often in China, I could not spend the planned weekend with them. But to quote Johan Cruijf: “Every disadvantage has its advantage”. In this case the same schedule change gave me an extra few days off the next week giving me enough time to go on a small trip. Me and Wouter decided to meet each other in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. As expected, Hohhot itself was not very interesting, but our two-day trip into the grasslands was excellent. Due to miscommunication with the bus driver we were not dropped off at the agreed location. When I pointed out that we missed our stop the driver stepped on the brake, let us out, phoned somebody, and told us to wait. After half an hour waiting in the blistering sun we decided to walk in a random direction to find a place to stay for the night. That night we ended up in a tourist resort dancing around a campfire and drinking baijiu. The next day we went back to Hohhot via a part of the Gobi desert, where we were cabled a kilometer into the ‘infinite’ sand dunes. Hohhot was still not very interesting, but the second time I met the girl behind the bar of the Youth Hostel she once again drew my attention.

A romantic beer in Beijing.

Because of a depressed Australian roommate, I left Zhongshan (next to Hong Kong) behind me in the summer of 2018 and started working in Zhengzhou. I chose Zhengzhou because the company there offered me a good contract and because it gave me a new base to discover more of China. This decision was already taken before I met Miao in Hohhot and therefore it was really a coincidence that I came to live only a two and a half hour train ride from Beijing. That is the same time span as Groningen – Amsterdam, but in distance it is equivalent to Groningen – Paris, hooray for the Chinese high-speed trains. The same coincidence caused Miao to do an internship in Beijing at an expat oriented cough, cough, cough vet cough, cough, cough, burb, fart. Boy, am I thirsty. Anybody want a beer? Um, where was I? Oh yeah, so I lived in Zhengzhou and Miao in Beijing. You can fill in the rest for yourself: Texting, trips up and down, romantic dinners, here and there a movie, an accidental visit to a Grunge band from Iceland, a trip to Confucius’ hometown, etc. So one thing led to another and just after she moved to Zhengzhou it led to a pregnancy. How do they call that again? Not planned, but welcomed.

The wedding

In 2015 I was already looking for Miao at the Yellow Mountain.

As I already mentioned in Miao’s presentation, her parents are quite traditional. This is not a big surprise, as I believe 99% of Chinese parents attach great importance to ‘centuries-old’ traditions. At ‘our’ new years eve, 31st of December, I already visited the Yellow Mountain for a few days. Come to think of it, in the summer of 2015 I also visited to the Yellow Mountain. But back then my aim was to climb the mountain, not to meet my current in -laws. Last January, of course, that was the goal and I met Miao’s parents and her son Doudou. Initially I was not welcome in their house to minimize any possible gossiping from the neighbors. But dinner at a restaurant was no problem. Although I understood very little of what was discussed at the table the dinner went quite smooth. My Mandarin is still improving every day, but I’m left chanceless when people start to speak in a local dialect. During my stay Miao and me went for a day trip and brought back her mother’s favorite snack. I was able to deliver it to her personally at the hospital because she was there for an IV treatment. Not because it was necessary, but because she had some time to spare. She was very pleased with both the preventive injection of some random (placebo?) medicine into her veins and with my dried meat. So she promptly asked a nurse to pull out the needle and invited me to come to her house for dinner. Apparently all the concerns about gossiping neighbors were taken care of by her treatment, or maybe she was distracted by the thought of eating some of the dried meat.

Doudou and me at Miao’s parent’s place.

With this information at the back of my head I understood that Miao was a bit reluctant to tell her parents about the pregnancy. And besides, there were plenty of other things to take care of before we finally told them. In order to get the child registered we had to get married, and because of the two-child policy we also had to apply for a child budget. For Chinese couples, this is all standard work, but for foreigners, of course, all kind of extra paperwork is needed. And we also needed a romantic story to tell her parents and friends. But how romantic is a proposal if the answer is already known? Well, as long as it comes as a surprise to her, it fits the picture. And I got her by surprise. On her initiative we went to a concert of a French teenage choir. On the way to the concert I was, contrary to normal behavior, very gallantly holding her handbag. The reason wasn’t to make a good impression but because there was a secretly purchased ring in it, and obviously she was not supposed to discover it. In the concert hall there were about six hundred people in the audience waiting for the show to begin at 19:30. At 19:27 I took Miao by her hand and asked her to follow me. Afterwards, she told me that she thought I had to go to the bathroom all of a sudden and that she thought it was kind of weird that I couldn’t go there alone. But in front of the middle of the stage I turned around, told her to stand still and I waited a few seconds before going through my knees. Because of the loud applause I could not hear her answer, but as I said before that answer was already known. Obviously the audience did not know, and to be honest I must admit that I did have clammy hands.

光头强: The doom scenario of Miao’s dad.

A few days later, the feared good news conversation with Miao’s parents was on the agenda. Miraculously it went very well. Once pregnant, of course, there is no more space left for negotiation or convincing, or perhaps it was because her parents are growing older and therefore attach less importance to traditions, or maybe they have already given up on Miao and have established all their hopes on Doudou. Whatever the reason might be, all the father said was that the child would probably look like a character of a famous Chinese (or worldwide?) cartoon, and then he bursted out in laughter. Afterwards I stayed at the yellow mountains for four days and the parents were extremely cooperative and facilitated us in everything we needed, including the father’s contacts for various necessary papers. The ‘deal’ that we made is that Doudou will stay with his grandparents, and that Miao and I will concern ourselves with raising our child. In return, our child gets the family name Wang. But there is room for a Dutch name on the birth certificate as well. I don’t attach a lot of value to a family name anyway, so I’m fine with this. In Chinese culture, however, it is a disgrace when a child is given the mother’s family name. It is like the man comes to live with the woman’s family. My cheeks should color red because of humiliation. But for me, a Wang or Grol is and will be a unique combination of a Wang and a Grol, regardless of the family name. So everybody’s happy.

So all the lights were on green, and we had all the necessary paperwork. The only thing that remained was to actually get married. Getting married in China is accompanied with a lot of traditions and huge ceremonies. Sometimes brides and grooms literally fly all across the globe for multiple day photo shoots. But that is all for show. It is pure bragging about how important you are and how much money you have. The actually signing of the marriage papers, however, is a small administrative act without any fuss. Not on the day of the wedding, no special clothes, no witnesses, no speeches, no pictures and everyone keeps their own family name. Even receiving your first driver’s license in the Netherlands is a more festive occasion, it is more comparable to picking up your renewed passport. A forced, not meant “congratulations” when the civil servant hands over two wedding books, one for the bride and one for the groom, is the most you can expect. Once again as a foreigner this is another story as you cannot do this at the marriage registration office around the corner, but only in the provincial capital of the birthplace of the Chinese half of the couple. Miao comes from the Anhui province with a population of over 70 million people. During the two hour high-speed train ride from the Yellow Mountain to Hefei, the capital, Miao asked me how many Vietnamese brides I expected to see. She guessed five, I gambled there would be more.

In my wedding outfit in front of the wedding registration bureau

At half past nine in the morning the taxi driver dropped us off in front of a colorless grey building. Just before we arrived he had asked us if we had won the lottery as these prizes are awarded in the same deteriorating office building. Obviously I had won the jackpot in the lottery with a 1 to 70 million chance of winning, but we didn’t tell the taxi driver. Miao’s speculation about Vietnamese brides is based on the Chinese shortage of men, which in turn results from the fact that boys are preferred over girls. Boys pass along the family name, and women move in with the groom and therefore offer less security for the future care of their own parents. A way of thinking which, with increasing prosperity, the upcoming robotization, the development of artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation and other unforeseen inventions, in thirty years’ time is probably hopelessly old-fashioned. But Chinese people still hold quite tight onto this assumption, although it is shifting a little. And even if all of the named future changes do not come off the ground, equality between men and women is enough to reject this way of thinking. But I am wandering off, eventually there were around fifteen Vietnamese (?) brides. Nobody was happy. The Chinese grooms were not happy, the Vietnamese brides who didn’t seem to understand anything were not happy, and neither were some parents that came along. At the same counter there was an Australian with Chinese roots in his twenties, he was there with his Chinese wife to submit their divorce papers. Once again a small administrative act and here too I saw little to no emotion. The only one who showed any emotion was one of the Chinese grooms. He was angry because the civil servant suspected that the marriage did not take place with mutual consent. “Got damn-it, I paid ¥100.000 for her. Of course she wants to marry me.” But this argument did not seem to convince the civil servant. Your guess is just as good as mine as to what happened next to that bride and groom. By the way, getting a Vietnamese wife for ¥100.000, a bit less as €13.000, is not a bad deal. It is cheaper than buying a new house that a groom must do according to Chinese traditions before he can get married. Fortunately, by naming my child Wang, I don’t have to live up to this tradition either. Anyway, except for the fact that we had to arrange a last minute translation of my unmarried status, our marriage process went smoothly. And to symbolically end this very romantic day, we ate an ice cream together. Afterwards Miao took a train back to the Yellow Mountain to arrange other paperwork for our child’s registration, which has all been taken care of now, and I got on the train back to Zhengzhou because I had to work on Tuesday. Nine hours after our marriage, we slept a little less as nine hundred kilometers apart, but we did both have our own wedding book.

Happily Married!

To finish off, here’s a very brief look at our future plans: Next year we will move to Shanghai because of Miao’s career prospects. And next summer, most likely July the 18th 2020, there will be a traditional Chinese wedding ceremony in The Yellow Mountain. You are most welcome!

Tom Grol

Tom Grol

Tom Grol was born and raised in the North of The Netherlands until he turned twelve years old. At this age his birthplace didn’t change but the raising part continued in Africa, Botswana. Half a decade later he returned ‘home’ to study Human Geography. Since 2014 he’s been doing fundamental participating research in several locations throughout China. At least, that’s what he claims himself. Actually he’s just been enjoying life while trying to understand what he’s experiencing.


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