Ask the Yangxifu: My Chinese Boyfriend is Too Critical

A close up of a network monitoring program with a critical alarm displayed.
When her Chinese boyfriend gets very critical with her, a Western woman wonders, is this normal, and what should I do? (photo by Rob Rosenhamer)

Anna asks:

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.

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11 thoughts on “Ask the Yangxifu: My Chinese Boyfriend is Too Critical

  • August 26, 2011 at 3:33 am

    Hello Anna,
    First of all, I am sorry that he has given you a hard feeling. I am actually very confused when I read your story, why?

    In our HongKongese Culture (Which should be similar to Chinese Culture), we have been told that we have to be nice and polite, and reject or turn down someone in a very “indirect” way, and normally it’s those western people who are too direct and “critical”. That’s my experience. (Eg. Have you ever said the word horrible, we rarely use this word to describe someone)

    let me give you a better example, a Polish friend of mine asked me to try his Polish food, I didn’t actually like it, but instead of saying “It’s so nasty!”, I said “Well, the taste is very special to me, I have never thought of fish can be cooked in this way, I think both are good, but I think I still prefer the chinese way of cooking fish”

    Another example is that we do not even know the art of rejecting someone. Therefore it’s strange for me to hear your story. But I can’t really see his body language, let’s try to think in a good way, maybe he likes you so much Anna, and he was so upset that he is such an “old” man from your picture, and that he is expecting to have a much more “handsome” image in your heart, it is against this backdrop that he didn’t like it.

    Let’s try not to take it too personal, have a chat with him about how you did feel about how critical he was.

    PS: Anna, I am glad that you like this Nice Chinese guy, there was a time I have been told by several western girls that we chinese men are “too Nice”, and that’s why they are not interested in us, which really made me feel sooooo bad, why would you want an asshold? Lol.

  • August 26, 2011 at 3:37 am

    Haha…..welcome to the world of cross-cultural dating, Anna. The first time I experienced this, I made meatballs for the first time ever. Even though my boyfriend kept refusing to try them because he hates meat that is ground up and re-made into something else, I insisted that he try one. The result was him spitting out the meatball into a napkin in front of me. After which I stormed into the room and wouldn’t talk to him. Eventually, I came to accept that this is the Chinese way (no polite chew and swallow), but we talked it out and came to a compromise; he was allowed to like or dislike my cooking as long as he didn’t spit it out in front of me. Not a bad deal, I think.

  • August 26, 2011 at 4:10 am

    No, I don’t think that such behavior is typical for Chinese.
    On the contrary – we are taught to take the feelings of other people into consideration and avoid saying anything that could cause in “face loss”.

    I can relate, however, to criticizing of food. After all, when two people with totally different tastes must dine together on a daily basis – they can’t pretend forever to like something that is too sweet or too spicy.

  • August 26, 2011 at 7:50 am

    “we are taught to take the feelings of other people into consideration and avoid saying anything that could cause in “face loss”.”


    the thing is, what is considered direct criticism and rude commentary can be very different between Eastern and Western cultures.

    Example, and often-discussed on this blog : Chinese people often, and directly and out loud, call Westerners “fat”. This results in a huge loss of face for a Western person.

    Chinese people are very direct about physical apperance in a way that Westerners are not. Westerners are very direct about other things that Chinese people are not, and also cause Chinese people to feel embarassed.

    Yes, Chinese people value “face” but critical comments about appearance and food are apparently not considered “face-losing” comments.

  • August 26, 2011 at 8:51 am

    I also think in my case at least that politeness is unilateral across family and strangers. I was raised to say thank you to my parents and to show appreciation.

    In China, I feel the politeness is reserved for outsiders and the more of an insider you are the more formalities of politeness are not required.

    Gifts are often criticized or said that they are not needed.

    In terms of the portrait you did of him, you said you went to work at it that night but do not really give an indication of how long you spent working on it. I get the feeling that you spent one evening to work on it, and in his mind, he was just giving helpful advice or criticism without thinking it would hurt your feelings as you had not invested that much time in making it.

  • August 26, 2011 at 9:24 am

    oh my god this was a major challenge for me when i went to china, In Ireland our parents always tell us we have to eat whatever food we are given at somebody elses house and never to criticize. So when I went to China and stayed with my boyfriends family the first few days everyone kept asking me do you like this do you like that type of food and so on. It was all new to me. So I just said everything was nice and tried them.

    But then my boyfriend got annoyed and said that I had totally confused him because he couldn’t tell what I liked or didn’t like or was there anything i particularly liked. So then I gradually grew to start saying i don’t like this or I like this alot.

    Another thing that shocked me when i was over there, my boyfriend gave alot of gifts to his parents and relatives and if they didn’t like the gifts they wouldn’t hesitate to tell him that they didn’t like it. In ireland if i did that my parents would kill me.

  • August 26, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    I like what HKGuy suggested that maybe your bf felt disappointed that you had portrayed him as looking old when he really wanted to look better for you and that since now he considered you as his gf he thought he could be direct without hurting you. I think he was more disappointed with himself that he appeared old to you from his judgement of your portrayal. It is generally true that when it comes to physical appearance, Chinese people can be direct and tell you in the face that you are too fat or too thin. But they often don’t really mean to hurt, they in fact want to tell you that you have changed or that you would look better and feel better were you less fat or less thin. I think they would have said this of themselves too. Right or wrong that is generally true of Chinese people. Of course you could and should let your bf know that it hurt you for him to criticise your work. And you may be surprised as to why he had been so critical. Then both of you can have a good laugh and continue to grow as cross-cultural pair. Good luck!

  • August 26, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    I noticed that many of your posts start with something like “my Chinese boyfriend is …” and ends with some whiny complaint. Of course, Americans and westerners also have their flaws but you’d never get that impression and only get the impression that it’s these foreign and weird Chinese that have flaws. There’s a bit of cultural chauvinism in it all.

  • August 26, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    Thanks everybody for the thoughts and comments. 🙂 I’m glad to know I’m not the only one out there with an experience like this.

    I finally talked it over with him. We actually talked for a little over an hour about it. I told him that I wasn’t trying to criticize his behavior, but what he did hurt my feelings. I also told him that since I’d spent so much time working on it (3 days, Laowai 😉 ) I was kind of expecting a more “surprised” reaction. Or any other reaction, haha.

    Then he started laughing and said that I’d REALLY misunderstood him.

    He told me that it was never his intention to hurt my feelings, and the real reason he didn’t like the photo was because he didn’t like the original photo I used, which came from his QZone. “I’m happy that you made me a gift,” he said, “but I really just don’t like the way I look in that pose! I was hoping you would choose any other photo than that one.” He said that the only person he was trying to criticize was himself.

    I feel like a bit of a fool now, but I’m actually glad that I misinterpreted him in such a way… live and learn, right? So, I’m going to make him a new one (with a photo that HE chose), and the next time I think he gets a bit too critical, I’ll definitely be thinking about it from a few more perspectives and possibilities.

  • August 27, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Communicating with each other is very important. It doesn’t matter if you’re an interracial couple or not. Ann, it’s easy to get back on track with your bf because normally real men don’t keep little things like that in their heart. If he still doesn’t get over it then this guy has issues. I knew things with you would be fine that was why I didn’t comment here this week. Married couples have misunderstandings all the time and you don’t have to go cross culture. With my marriage, it’s kinda different because we understands each others personalities. We always have to compromise and we always have to find out why we’re mad at this and that all the time. Little things can make you mad you know and it depends on the timing of each situation. A relationship or a marriage is an ONGOING PROCESS . You always have to apologize with your husband/wife occassionally over things/issues. Sometimes, you CAN NOT avoid what is going to happen. One hour ago , I had to compromise with my wife and then she gave me a big kiss . She said ” I’m sorry to me ” over some silly things. Friends and relatives bring their problems to our house all the time and I told my wife that please tell those guys not to come over with family problems. My house is emphasized on peace and transquility. I’m very good at negoitating now ,so no problem is a big problem in life.

  • August 30, 2011 at 8:59 am

    i think you exaggerated. it’s just the truth coming from him… a feed back .. not to do with culture or anythign else… I’ts not like he blew you off big time…


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