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This year the first generation of Chinese children born under the one-child policy turned 33. It was a population control policy that radically changed the country, creating a nation of coddled only-children dubbed by the media "little emperors". Here is the story of one 'little empress' and how her love affair with an Australian man, and her experiences in his home country, profoundly changed her life.
I was born in 1983 in the city of Beijing. My parents absolutely doted on me, which was typical of my generation. Before my move to Australia, I lived with my parents and couldn't cook, didn't know how to wash my clothes and never cleaned up around the house. Instead every month I'd spend all the money I had, and anything that I ever wanted, my parents would try to provide for me.
In 2007 I was working as an administrative assistant in the Beijing branch of an English company. The first I ever heard of Alex was through a colleague at work who mentioned there was a foreign guy in the company who spoke excellent Chinese. I found this intriguing. At the time my English was pretty bad, and although his spoken Chinese was great he had difficulty writing formal Chinese, so we helped one another out. Slowly we found ourselves developing feelings for one another.
Markets in Beijing.
Falling in love
Alex had already been living in China for a long time so he was familiar with Chinese culture, which made dating easy. When Chinese girls are with their boyfriend they like to sajiao (act like a spoiled child) and throw little tantrums. It can be really cute. In return Chinese boyfriends will honghong (humor and comfort them). I'm a classic sajiao loving, tantrum throwing, born in the 80s Beijing girl and Alex always behaved just like a Chinese guy, humoring me. When we went out he would always pay for my share, another must for Chinese guys.
But I've come to realise Westerners don't always like sajiao, especially in front of their friends. They find it disrespectful. One time Alex's Australian friend Nathan came to visit, and we took him out to a noodle place for dinner. I got angry with Alex over something small, but he didn't humor me as usual, so I took a teacup of water and poured it into his noodle bowl. Nathan just looked at Alex with this embarrassed smile. No doubt he'll forever consider me this strange, completely incomprehensible Chinese girl.
At the end of 2009, Alex was missing his family and also wanted to return to Australia to develop his career, so we reluctantly agreed to break up. A few months later I decided to go to New Zealand to improve my English. When Alex learned I was there he came to visit and we spent two weeks driving around the North Island. Afterwards he asked if I would come to Sydney, and I agreed. He'd previously had a lot of doubt about whether I could get used to Australia and get along with his friends and family.
Hard lessons in a new country
At first we didn't have our own place so we lived with Alex's parents. I would help Alex's mum with cutting and washing the vegetables, but eventually Alex asked if I would consider actually cooking twice a week? I'd never really cooked before, let alone for an entire family, and I remember going to the market and walking around for ages, bewildered. Eventually I settled on pork ribs, and then rang my mum, who talked me through what to do. I suspect all Chinese people are born with the ability to cook, because despite never once having stewed meat before the meal was a big success!
Turns out with both cooking and doing housework practice makes perfect. From Alex's dad I learned how to iron shirts, and now my arms and hands have lots of tiny scars from the iron, splashing hot oil frying vegetables, and using the lawnmower. I no longer find any of these things hard to do and my friends and family love to eat my cooking. Plus I'm amazed at how neat and tidy our new house is!
My English wasn't yet fluent which made paid work difficult. I ended up in Chinatown waitressing at a Hong Kong-style restaurant. It was hard work, 12 hour shifts of moving heavy tables and big umbrellas, answering the phone, making deliveries to unfamiliar addresses, clearing tables, washing dishes and taking out the trash. It was my first taste of truly hard work, and I really suffered. Every day I'd come home crying. And I only had Alex to vent all my feelings, and with whom I'd get very angry.
In China, no Beijinger would ever become a waiter. [Author's note: Beijing's service industry is made up of workers from less well off provinces having migrated to the city]. Waiting is considered lowly work and people really hold you in contempt. But Alex's mother told me she'd once been a waiter. Alex as well, in a café where he'd had a lot of fun. His sister even worked in McDonalds. I don't know if she was just trying to make me feel better, but according to her Australians don't discriminate towards waiters.
Alex encouraged me to find an internship, which is how I started working at a migration agent office. The boss thought I was pretty good, and asked if I could become full time, heralding the end of my days as a waitress.
The good life
In Australia the air is great, the sun shines brightly, the beaches are beautiful and the coffee tastes great. I arrived someone who doesn't drink coffee at all and turned into a complete coffee addict. There's food from every part of the world, that's not only affordable but tastes very authentic. In China eating at foreign food restaurants is expensive and considered very extravagant.
Everyone's life is free and contented. Alex and I often go to the gym, or sometimes we'll take his sister's King Charles spaniel and our neighbor's three-legged Labrador to the dog park. We like to go golfing, take bushwalks or head to the beach. Australia has such a rich outdoor life. You can have a lot of fun for free, where gas is the most expensive cost, and even that can be split between friends. In China everywhere is ticketed.
Australian women are independent and ambitious. Take Alex's sister, even though she has two children to look after, she still goes to work and shares the burden of household expenses with her husband. According to Alex, Australian girls don't like to be written off as superficial. So not only are they very pretty and fashionable, they know a lot, and can do a lot. They run their own businesses, love to exercise, and have lots of hobbies.
But compared to Chinese girls they can seem quite tough, and very straightforward. They'll have no qualms about saying to me, "Hannah, I don't like it when I'm talking to you and you're incessantly using your phone, it's not respectful." "Hannah, you should really listen to what we're saying. What do you think, Hannah? What's your opinion?" Haha!
Chinese girls on the other hand are quite chaste, and understand the importance of filial piety. I'm often thinking of ways I can take care of Alex's parents. It's just how we were brought up.
A daughter changed
It was only when I first went to Australia in 2010 I told my mother about Alex. Even then I left my father in the dark because he's quite traditional and I was afraid he'd be angry.
Then in June of last year Alex and I returned to China for a holiday as I was missing my family. I carried with me a very long letter I'd written to my father, including over 10 pages of photos of Alex's family and our life together - a timeline narrating the story of our love. I apologised to my father, explaining why I'd left the country to go to New Zealand and then Australia, and how with mum's encouragement I had pursued my own heart. It was the first time I'd been separated from my parents for so long, and so far, and experienced the kind of hard working life that had been so familiar to them.
With all of this in my mind, I stepped off the plane and back into my own country.
As it turns out, Dad really likes his son-in-law. Not only because Alex can speak Chinese, but because he understands Chinese etiquette and is very polite to my parents and relatives. And he loves to invite Alex and I to his favourite donkey meat restaurant, haha! Dad's such a typical Beijing guy.
But my parents were also nervous about the two of us, unmarried, staying with them and becoming the target of gossip by the neighbours. And since our relationship was already so solid why not get married?
On the day of our wedding banquet Alex didn't wear a formal suit, nor I a cheongsam or wedding dress. My parents wanted me to but I didn't want to spend all that money on an outfit I'd only wear once, and are just decorations that don't truly represent a newlywed's happiness. So instead we went to the markets and paid $15 for a red polo shirt (the traditional colour for weddings in China), and bought $20 white converse sneakers, paired with our own jeans and denim skirt. Dressed like this, in order to provide my parents an appropriate cover, and to give my family face, we were "married", with a lot of Alex's friends also in attendance.
To this day my parents still don't realise it wasn't actually a legal wedding.
And although we weren't dressed in "proper" wedding attire, not a single person criticised or made fun of us. Instead everyone wholeheartedly gave us their blessings and said it was such a beautiful day. Even my most nitpicking relatives!
Alex's parents and sister often ask us when we'll get married in Sydney. But I don't think it's that important, especially seeing as Australia recognizes our de facto status. Weddings in Australia are really expensive and we only just put a deposit on an apartment. But I hope one day my parents can come to Australia, and along with Alex's parents pick a day in which the sunshine is bright and beautiful, and head to a place that's lovely. There we'll eat and together celebrate our marriage. For me, that's good enough.
Translated from Chinese. Names have been changed.
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