Living with two cultures under one roof causes us to chuckle, shake our heads, argue, weep, and celebrate. In this post, we would like to give you a peek into four everyday realizations from our marriage and share how our cross-cultural marriage causes us to see ministry in the Church with new eyes.
1. Who cooks dinner depends on where we go grocery shopping. Because we live in a city with many Chinese grocery stores, my natural preference is to visit my favorite shops and load up on Chinese vegetables and spices. The problem with this is that it also locks me into cooking for the rest of the week because Abigail may not know what I was planning to do with the lotus root or the pea shoots. On the other hand, I still don't know what to make of the piecrust and French bread that take up half of our freezer. Who cooks and what we make are limited by the ingredients.
This is not just a limited experience we have at home. How are people’s worship experiences being limited by the “ingredients” we give them? Do they know what to do with the structures and elements we have set in place? This has implication not only for people from other cultures, but also for people who are new to the Christian faith or the Presbyterian tradition. In order to welcome them as an integral part of our community, we will need to tell them both what we do, and also why we do what we do. Most importantly, we may have to model for them how we do what we do. Last week Abigail combined Chinese ingredients in a way I never had, and it was great! What new expressions of the character of God can we look forward to seeing from brothers and sisters in the church with backgrounds different from our own?
2. My parents are very kind to my wife for a very subtle reason. My parents are very gentle and simple folks, and I am grateful that they have a great relationship with Abigail. But we noticed that the cause of their kindness to Abigail goes beyond their personality. My parents speak Cantonese with each other and with me; English is still a very foreign language to them. The only time they use English is during their sporadic communications with co-workers. Therefore, when they speak in English they are usually speaking from a position of vulnerability and deference, and this carries over in their communication with their own daughter-in-law, even in their own house.
This taught both of us to be sensitive to my parents' discomfort and the underlying dynamics behind languages. Speaking in English in the U.S. is a constant reminder for my parents – and at times even for me – that they are sojourners living far away from home. It also limits their ability to express themselves fully and therefore places them on a different comfort level. As a result, it brings a sense of vulnerability even within their own house. If you have a chance to observe people’s tone and personality as they switch between their native tongue and a foreign language, you would usually find a noticeable difference. When we interact with people from another culture – even if they may be international students who have a good grasp of the English language – we need to be sensitive to the underlying dynamics in our communications and the discomfort it may be causing the very same people we are trying to befriend.
3. We learn to celebrate holidays differently. One major area that we learned to be sensitive to – and the subject of most of our arguments – is how to celebrate holidays. For Abigail, if we do not put up a Christmas tree, exchange birthday gifts with family, or get an Easter haircut, we have not yet properly celebrated these holidays. This sometimes causes tension in our relationship because many of these things have no meaning to me and seem like extra work. For me, these holidays are foreign to my culture. I appreciate the opportunity to celebrate such holidays with the body of Christ, but they still remain as foreign holidays for my extended family.
Gradually, I have learned that the ways we prepare for and celebrate these holidays reflect the importance of the events, not just as traditions, but as the people of God who seek to worship and celebrate His work of redemption. Some of the things we do – like the Tenebrae service we just had on Good Friday – reflect how we remember God's works in our lives. They carry deep spiritual significance, but learning to celebrate them is a matter of growing in faith and discipleship, not assimilating into the Western culture. It is still difficult and confusing for us to figure out which piece is spiritual and which piece is cultural. On the other hand, we also recognize that many people around the world do not celebrate holidays the same ways we do in America. For example, at the Chinese church where my father is a member, holidays celebrations are not always festive – no Christmas trees, no bright Easter dresses – but they always carry a sense of both the joy and urgency because this is one of the few times in the year where they can preach the Gospel to people who have never heard of it before. The ways other people celebrate holidays can teach us about more than just their culture. It can reveal what God's work means to them as a people. We can learn from one another to get a more comprehensive understanding of God's redemption. This brings me to the last point.
4. Cultural assimilation is not the goal. In Chinese culture, it is very common to expect the bride to be fully assimilated into the groom's family. If you visit China today, you will notice that many Chinese couples and their kids are living with the paternal grandparents because that is the cultural norm. On the other hand, as a Chinese immigrant marrying a Caucasian woman, most people assume that I have fully assimilated into the American culture. But cultural assimilation has never been a major concern for us because we believe the Word of God challenges both our cultures, and we cannot fully embrace one or the other. We often talk about how different aspects of our backgrounds teach us about God and how to love the things He loves. We also point out to each other how the Bible speaks against certain things that we have always taken for granted as Chinese or American. Most importantly, we recognize that even American evangelicalism has deep cultural baggage and desperately needs critique and wisdom from Christians around the world.
Many relatives and friends on both sides of the Pacific have asked us how we ended up marrying each other. We like to point out that it is because we saw God's work in each other's lives and because other brothers and sisters affirmed God's work in our lives. Since we had faith that God would continue to sanctify us, we had confidence that our cross-cultural marriage would thrive.
The first time my parents met Abigail, my mom said to her, "Ryan is very Chinese, do you think you can handle that? Think about it." The first time I visited Abigail's parents, her dad asked me point-blank, "Are you a U.S. citizen?" The night before our engagement, my parents had a long chat with Abigail – speaking in Chinese while I translated for them – to make sure she knew what to expect when she married into our family. These were all very intimidating experiences! We could move beyond these experiences, not because our cultural differences are unimportant, but because we believe there is something much more important.
Some days our differences cause us to argue, but more often we are grateful for the opportunity to learn about God through the other person's eyes. Cross-culture marriage has its challenges, but it is also extremely rewarding. We believe that is also the same for cultures within the church, whether ethnic, regional, political, or economic. In Christ, God has broken down the wall of hostility and brought His people together as one family, under one roof. Like all earthly families, we don't always get to choose who is in it. Our Heavenly Father is sanctifying us through our cultural differences, and we hope that our marriage can be a testament to God's glory and faithfulness to us and to all His people.
Ryan and Abigail Zhang are members at CTK Cambridge. Ryan attended Gordon-Conwell from 2012-2015 and currently works as the CTK Cambridge Volunteer Coordinator and Pastoral Intern. Abigail works full-time in higher education marketing and is completing a graduate degree in museum education at Tufts University.