I came to China about six months ago with the intention of staying for four years to study at University. Three months ago, I met my current boyfriend — Chinese, 24, owns his own hair salon — although we’ve only been “officially together” for roughly two weeks.
He’s from Henan, and his parents are very poor farmers, so he was never able to get a good education and some of our outlooks on life are very different (although we value that about each other). He’s very bright and intelligent, though, and he’s always been the sweetest person to me. He’ll even accompany my classmates and I to the bars and clubs on weekends, and doesn’t mind hanging around the international dorms even though he can’t speak any English. Point is, he’s a great guy.
I’m a digital artist, and a few days ago I showed him some of my artwork. He said he really liked it, and asked if I could do a digital portrait of him. Of course I said okay, and went straight to work that night. I worked really hard, and it turned out really well. I was so excited to show it to him! But… when I did… all he could say was, “You made me look too old. I look 53. I don’t really like it… did you make any others?”
My Chinese is just intermediate, so for a minute I thought he was just joking around and trying to be humorous. But then I realized he was dead serious. Now… I don’t really mind so much that he didn’t like the picture… everyone has their own tastes… and although, to me, he doesn’t look 53 but in fact looks younger, I understand that he might have a different perspective.
What I DON’T understand is why he was so critical about it right off the bat! He often offers me those scolding-words-of-encouragement that I’ve come to appreciate… but he’s never been so directly negative before, especially about a gift. He really hurt my feelings. Is it normal/cultural for Chinese boys to be so harsh about these sort of things? Did we cross into the super-critical-is-okay boundary when we declared ourselves official? He really hurt my feelings… but I don’t want to make a big fuss if it’s jut something normal. The last thing I want is to seem petty to him. What should I think? What should I do? Has anyone else had a similar experience?
A similar experience? Um…I have.
Some of you might remember the tale of my eggplant dinner gone wrong. It was the first time I ever cooked for John, and I decided to do my ever-popular “Italian-style eggplant” dish (a fusion of fish-fragrant eggplant, with a little tomato tossed in for Italian flair). I’d tested this dish on just about every single one of my closest Chinese friends — they loved it. But I wasn’t finding any love from John when he dug into the dish. Too salty. Too sour. And, what? You put soy sauce in this? Let’s just say the eggplant on the table wasn’t the only thing steaming.
We finally talked about it, and here’s what I learned — at his home, everyone criticizes the food on the table. Now that we’re married, I’ve seen this in action many, many times. This is how John was brought up. I think it’s a lot like how families in China don’t see the need to say “thank you” or be too polite. They’re family, why shouldn’t they tell the cook what they think of the food?
More recently, while staying with my Chinese in-laws, I saw the concept of super-critical elevated to another level entirely. Not a day went by without my Chinese mother-in-law slamming my Chinese father-in-law over something he screwed up.
Chances are, your Chinese boyfriend’s family doesn’t believe in having “polite filters” on for their loved ones. And since you’re now his loved one officially (someone who, chances are, he’s seriously considering for marriage), he’s just treating you the way he’d treat anyone else in the family.
That doesn’t mean you have to suddenly put on your mental padding and prepare for a lifetime of harsh criticism. You’re in this relationship too. Consider having a conversation about how you felt when he criticized you, and what people in your family would think of this. Then ask him how he feels when he gets criticism like this, and if this happens often in his family — and you might be surprised.
Believe me, these conversations are so critical to making a cross-cultural relationship work. So many arguments or hurt feelings come when the two of you see the same thing in a completely different way. Talking about it isn’t a petty thing, or even about asking him to change right now — it’s just a way to create a little understanding between the two of you. After all, I’m sure this won’t be the last time the two of you misinterpret a situation.
Maybe, though, it will be the last time you make him “look 53.” 😉 Good luck!
What do you think? What advice do you have?
Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China/Chinese culture (or Western culture)? Every Friday, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.