Our Cross-Cultural Marriage, Part 3: Why Abigail Wasn’t Worried

Ryan and Abigail live and work in the Boston metro area. Ryan immigrated to the United States from China in 1999 and currently serves as a pastoral intern and staff member at Christ the King Presbyterian Church. Abigail grew up in Champaign, Illinois, and currently works and studies at Tufts University. They met while working in Washington, D.C., a city they love dearly. Catch up on the first and second parts of the series and make sure to check back tomorrow for the rest!

Before Ryan and I started dating, I was living a pretty settled life in D.C. I had moved out of an overcrowded group house and was living in a row house that I loved with just one roommate. My 9-5 job felt compelling, I was heavily involved with church and neighborhood ministries, I volunteered at local cultural events, and I had a wonderful community of friends. I distinctly considered that some people could live like this forever. How did I get from there to walking down the aisle toward Ryan Zhang?

The short version of this story starts with an email that showed up in my inbox the day after Valentine’s Day inviting me to visit a museum. The long story focuses a lot less on the meet-cute and a lot more on the significant work God did in our hearts even before our relationship began. It’s less about falling in love and more about the great Love that drew us both to himself and then to each other.

This winter I met a new friend over lunch. In her cross-cultural marriage she’s the one from a minority culture, and as our time unfolded she asked if during dating and engagement, I had felt any apprehension (as a white American) about entering a cross-cultural marriage. I wanted to give her a more thoughtful answer than my usual “No, I wasn’t too worried,” but I fumbled through my response. Here’s what I wish I had said:

A better checklist. Like many others, I spent unmarried years thinking about what kind of husband I thought I would be compatible with. I thought about what personality types I would enjoy, how many shared interests we should have, what kind of family I imagined we would want, and how he should share my interests and goals. 

If I had been more objective at the time, I would have realized that this checklist was really a mirror. Essentially, I was trying to find an idealized version of myself. Finding someone with the same goals, priorities, experiences, and perspectives would mean marriage would disrupt my life as little as possible and also validate all my decisions and preferences.

Thankfully, the church and our believing friends pushed back on these ideas and clearly articulated alternate, Biblical reasons for marriage. After a while, the checklist started to look more like this:

  • evidence of personal submission to Christ and his transformative rule

  • membership commitment and service in a local church

  • vision of married life as a picture of Christ and the church

  • vision of marriage as a place of ongoing sanctification


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  • understanding that a spouse is a friend and partner, but not a savior

Evaluating potential boyfriends by this standard revealed some of my idolatrous expectations and created space to give someone unexpected a chance. This meant that when Ryan asked me on that first date, my decision couldn’t be based on whether or not I was interested in dating a Chinese guy. Instead I had to consider what I knew of his character through our already-shared life in the church and city. The question wasn’t “Why?” but “Why not?”

Theology matters. Marriage isn’t a decision made all at once. Looking back now, deep theological paths chosen before any sort of relationship existed between us affected things as small as our initial hello and as permanent as saying “I do.” In many ways, the decisions were made before the choices came.

Before Ryan and I started dating, we were already both embedded in a church community striving to learn what it means to love God and love others, particularly those who are not like us. It taught us that believers must resist cultivating only friendships that benefit us, and instead we must actively seek to love others the way God has loved us. We began to deeply believe that the gospel is beautifully displayed when God unites people who have no earthly reason to be together other than their commitment to love Jesus Christ and serve one another in love. That’s the reason for the church, and the reason for our marriage.

In a bi-cultural marriage this means there is freedom to work on the beautiful and chaotic calling of becoming family with someone very different. If my goal is for Ryan to fit neatly into my life, without altering any of my plans or preferences, we will fail – the cultural gap is too great. But if we both approach marriage loving God and choosing each other over and over again, we will grow.

“I do” to only you. On our wedding day, I wasn’t walking down the aisle toward an anonymous, generalized amalgam of the Chinese-American immigrant experience. I committed to a specific man. This means I didn’t have to become an expert on all of China before saying yes. During our dating and engagement, getting to know him and his family specifically took precedence over learning Chinese history, culture, and customs generally. It was okay that my entry point to those things was this specific person and family. 

I’ve now learned Chinese legends and Cantonese schoolyard songs because they are Ryan’s favorites. I’ve learned that Chinese movies excel in a genre untapped by American films – the despondent man finally gets the girl. I’ve learned about hard Cultural Revolution years through stories of his parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. I’ve learned holiday traditions, funeral customs, and now have my own favorite dim sum dishes. None of these are because I set out to learn those things, but because I set out to love my husband.

“I do” to all of you. By bringing two cultures under one roof, we see in very immediate and personal ways how easily we can ignore or refuse to love another culture, and feel justified in doing so! But God did not call us to “prefer one another in love – unless the food is weird” or “as much as it is possible with you, live at peace with everyone – except if they speak Cantonese.” We are learning more and more that God’s word challenges believers from all cultures. We also see how he uses close living with another culture to teach us both new facets of his character, and demonstrate daily the greater and greater degrees to which he can be trusted.

Loving and committing to Ryan must lead me to know and love exponentially more people and places. I cannot enjoy nerding out together over U.S. presidential biographies and then sigh at watching another Cantonese-language film. I must push back against the unspoken assumption that members of the dominant culture have the right to determine how much “otherness” is acceptable or enjoyable. I cannot love my husband well and hang on to the privilege of ignoring the minority experience in America and in the American church. I must love this whole person and join him in his whole experience, even when it means confronting some ugly things in my own heart and culture.

We are not home yet. After our wedding, Ryan and I spent the summer in a tiny dormitory apartment above my office, and even as I write this we don’t know where we’ll get our mail a year from now. In deeper ways, the raised eyebrows, uncomprehending stares, and uninformed comments we encounter from time to time as a cross-cultural couple reminds us this world is not our home. We are rarely both culturally comfortable at the same time. And yet, we celebrate. 

We celebrate because our marriage points us to a Love greater than greeting cards or chocolate hearts. We see our marriage as a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven, where people of all nations and languages will be presented as the bride of Christ. We pray and work now for this kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, looking for the day when Christ will unite all nations to worship him, wipe away all tears, and make all things new.

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Further Reading

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Nanjing: Bringing the Gospel Into Life
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Nanjing: A Welcoming City of Newcomers
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Nanjing: A Relational Gospel
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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Stories from Shenyang

About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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Stories from Qingdao

About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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Stories from Xiamen

About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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Stories from Chongqing

About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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Stories from Nanjing

About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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Stories from Changchun

About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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Stories from Guangzhou

About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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Stories from Kunming

About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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Stories from Shenzhen

About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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Stories from Chengdu

About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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Stories from Beijing

About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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Stories from Shanghai

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