Interview with Davide M., expat spouse in Mangshi

JM: Hey Davide! The first question I have for you today is: Tell me how you came to China, and what makes you a China Expat Spouse.

DM: In 2010, I went back to university to do my Graduate Diploma of Education. That year, I met a visiting scholar from here – ‘here’ being Mangshi City, the capital of the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture in south-west Yunnan.

During 2010, we co-authored a book on Australian idiomatic English. After her year of study was over, she went back to China. We stayed in contact a little bit. I had expressed interest in coming to China to work. I studied English and History at university, but at that point, I knew very little about China, so I thought that would be interesting and a good change. I had spent the previous six years working as a doorman after I finished university, so…

Anyway. At the end of 2011, I came here to work at one of the private English training centers that are so prevalent here in China. Even here in Mangshi, which is a very small city.

JM: It is not so common to meet people who are located in smaller towns. Most people I know in China, especially the spouses who follow their partners, tend to be located in big places, where the big companies those partners work for, are.

DM: Well, in small places like here, where the cost of living is very low, you can actually save a lot of money.

However, unless you are working for a big company in a big city, you will not be making the kind of income that will let you set up in your home country.

For that reason, people who come to places like Mangshi tend to be younger, and only stay for a year or two. They come to get some experience before they go back to their own country.

In my case, I worked for a private school here for six months, then I went back home. Then, at the end of 2012, a job came up at Dehong Teacher’s College through some contacts I’d made. It was a job as a spoken English teacher, which was much more in line with my academic qualifications.

I ended up working at the college for three years, from 2013 to 2016. At the end of my time there, I met the lovely lady I’m now married to.

The thing is, though – we didn’t know each other at that time. We worked at the same college for three years and never met each other until right at the end of my stay, in the middle of 2016.

We met each other once, and then I went back home, and she stayed here, and that was the last we heard of each other until near the end of 2017.

In the latter half of 2017, one of my colleagues from the college said by e-mail, “Would you like to talk to my friend? She’s really nice.”

So, her friend (my wife now) and I started communicating with each other, and we got along really well, almost immediately. We’d be emailing back and forth nearly every night. And then, toward the end of 2017, she mentioned that she had started going on holidays in different countries, to see some stuff outside of China in her spare time.

She mentioned she’d never been to Australia, and that she had been going on holidays for a few years before. And I said: “Why don’t you come here, and we can go on a holiday together here in Australia? We can travel around together.” At that point, we were getting along very well, but there hadn’t been any outward acknowledgment of anything beyond friendship.

So, she came to Australia and I showed her around Perth, and then we went traveling to Sydney and Melbourne together. We weren’t sure how well we would get along in person. You know, sometimes, that’s a totally different thing, when you meet a person. But we got along very, very well.

And we talked about it. And I said: “Look, it’s much easier for me to come back to Dehong. I’ve got contacts there, and I can find a job. If you come to Perth, it might take a little while to sort all that stuff out.”

And also, she had a long career at the teachers’ college, whereas I was working at another private college in my hometown Perth, teaching glossary-building of all things.

So, it was easier for me to go: “Yeah, I’ll come back.” So In July of 2018, I returned to Mangshi. We’ve been living together ever since. We got married October 30th that year, and then we had our big public ceremony on New Year’s Day 2019.

JM: So, there is nothing to worry about. In the eyes of her family, you’re married, so all is good.

DM: Well, we’re both closer to 40 than 30. Both of us were perfectly happy not being married before we met each other. But, we got along so well, we liked each other, everything fit so perfectly that we decided, why not get married? You know, we can have a life together, that’ll be good. That’s basically it, as far as that goes.

JM: The next question I have for you, is: what has following your partner to China enabled you to do which you wouldn’t have been able to do at home?

DM: Well, if I had stayed in Australia, and she had stayed here, we wouldn’t be able to have a life together, so that’s the first and most important thing. I mean, if you have a serious long-term relationship, you’ll ideally be in the same place.

If I was in Australia working at this college and she was here working at the teachers’ college, maybe our schedules wouldn’t align, so that we couldn’t be in communication. We couldn’t do stuff together. It would just be this relationship mediated by technology and thousands of kilometers.

JM: That makes sense.

Is there anything else you wouldn’t have done if you hadn’t come to China this time around?

DM: Well, I’ve gotten so much knowledge about the history and culture of China. Especially the culture here, which is so different to the history and culture of other parts of China. Here, you have the Dehong Dai people, a subset of the overall Dai people who live all over South-East Asia, from India all the way to further north than Yunnan, and many other different peoples besides.

And this is a big thing for me. One of my majors at university was history. And while I did my honors’ degree in English literature, I studied history. I’d always been interested in history – I certainly didn’t study it to be more employable!

JM: Well, you worked as a doorman…

DM: That’s self-evident, isn’t it?

JM: What else is there that you feel you’ve gotten through your relationship, through being in China, that you wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere?

DM: Apart from our marriage itself? Well, there’s the history side, but there’s also the culture side. There are so many different cultures here, and they live in very close proximity. I have a lot of friends who are Dai or Jingpo people, or from other groups. If you are friendly and you help people, you tend to make friends. I don’t have the option to stay in the ‘expat circle’ here because there isn’t one.

JM: I was gonna say, there probably isn’t much of a bubble for you to immerse yourself in.

DM: There never has been, and I’m happy about that.

And that’s another thing.

I am from Australia, which is an extremely Sinophobic country, especially nowadays. And being able to have a more accurate perspective and being able to share that perspective with my friends and family in Australia, and the UK, the US, and so on; that’s the basis of my Patreon project.

I post some pictures, videos, or some writing about different aspects of life here pretty much every day: history, culture … it’s a pretty mixed bag. That is definitely something I couldn’t have done if I had stayed in Perth.

I write pretty much every day there. I am going to be a little bit conceited and say here, that for English-speaking sources about the history and culture of here, you’re not gonna find much better sources, honestly. Sometimes, I post what I would like to post. However, I generally do take a lot of care to give information that is not weighed down by either my own ideological leanings or anyone else’s.

This is the problem with a lot of foreigners writing about China. Not a lot of people have a lot of knowledge. So, rather than give accurate information, they can play to the prejudices of their audience. And no one is gonna go “That’s bullshit!”, basically. Because they have no way to know.

So, this is something I try very much not to do. Even if something doesn’t gel with my own ideological bias or whatever. But, anyway, here’s the link to the Patreon:

www.patreon.com/southwestchina

That’s another thing I couldn’t have done. I have also met people from all over the world who are interested in how things are in rural China. And, justifiably, have a lot of reservations with China reportage in Western media, in the “China Watcher” community on Twitter and other social media, which is pretty heavily loaded with people who are adjacent to the intelligence community in America or other countries.

And so, there are a lot of people who are not “I am all for China, no matter what!” or “I am all against China, no matter what!”. They simply want accurate information about the place. That’s really the basis of my Patreon.

JM: Sounds good.

What would be your one piece of advice for someone who is about to follow their partner to China to live there for a while. What would be your best piece of advice to give them?

DM: I understand you come over to be with your partner. But your life should be your life. You need to have a life and a purpose beyond: “I’m X’s wife or I’m Y’s husband.”

JM: I love that.

DM: It’s the same anywhere. But because of the language and socialization barrier, it’s more difficult coming to China as an expat spouse than it is doing it in your own country.

And also, you will be a better spouse if your entire existence isn’t predicated on being their husband or their wife, but you have your own life, your own perspective on things, your own circle of friends. That is very important.

JM: I agree. It’s this idea of “Be your own person” and “Be grounded in yourself” rather than just identifying with your partner’s identity.

DM: That’s not healthy anywhere. I simply mention it here, because there are so many more boundaries. There’s a few sub-entries to that.

Try your best to learn the language. You should be able to communicate with people by yourself.

Try to get a knowledge of the city you’re living in. How to get around.

Let me see…

Try to build your own social network. That will enrich your life, but it will also enrich your partner’s life as well. That it’s not just “your friends are my friends, my friends are your friends”.

You need to find meaningful work for yourself. Like … don’t do some job if you hate it, just because you feel there is nothing else out there. That’s a bad idea in your own country, too. If you’re doing work that you hate, you won’t be happy. And if you’re not happy, that will inevitably bleed across the relationship.

Really, that’s standard relationship stuff. It’s not like relationships have different rules just because you’re in a foreign country together.

JM: No, but I would argue that it brings you closer for the good stuff, but also for the bad stuff, too. There’s more of a tendency to lean on what you know. And, especially when you arrive, what you know, is your partner.

DM: There’s something else I should probably mention. If things are temporarily not to your liking, because you’re getting settled in, or lack of opportunities, or what, what, what – you need to be very mindful about that.

Like, because you’re having a hard time with a job that sucks, or getting ill, or whatever. You need to be very mindful that that doesn’t affect your socialization with your partner. That can happen, and it’s not fair, you know, for your partner. So, you need to have an outlet for that kind of thing.

JM: It goes back to what you said before: “How can I build my circle? How can I be my own person?” So I’m not dependent on somebody else for my happiness.

DM: Exactly. A marriage is a partnership, not a subordinate relationship. You need to have some kind of parity in your goals in life, and what you’re doing in your life, as well. A kind of common cause for your partnership. Let’s call it what it is: you’re allies. You’re allies in your life. Life itself is a struggle.

JM: I hear you. Especially in 2020.

Thank you so much for your time and patience with me on this interview!

DM: Thank you. It’s been fun.

As a coach serving relocating partners in China, I connect with many amazing spouses who find their place, purpose, and passion in the Middle Kingdom. If you are moving to China soon to follow your partner in their expat assignment and would like some support, contact me

-by sending me a LinkedIn message

-by connecting through the Facebook page @ChinaExpatSpouse

-by adding me on WeChat (julie_marx)

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