Ask the Yangxifu: Understanding Silence from Your Chinese Boyfriend

An old school telephone
Understanding your Chinese boyfriend, and what it means when he doesn't call -- or e-mail

Talk to Me asks:

I’ve become involved with a chinese man and yes, I find communication to be a real problem. We email quite often since he is out of town, but I notice that there are times that he will not respond to one of my emails. Prime example, he thinks that I’ve been asking questions about his return home to one of his friends. When he asked me through email if his friend has been discussing  with me about his return, I simply answered  “It has nothing to do with who has been telling me things, these things I want to come from you because I trust it hearing this from you.” He has not responded to my email. He has completely shut down. I’m at the point of giving up on the relationship because I never know when he’s going to stop talking to me, and at this point, I’m wondering if he has broken up with me. Can you please shed some light on what I’m experiencing.

———–

You’re not the first one to be stunned by the silence of a Chinese man.

After my first Chinese boyfriend moved abroad for study, I experienced a dropoff in e-mail communications with him, as if our relationship had fallen off of some metaphorical continental shelf of the ocean into the depths of uncertainty. Nearly a month passed with no e-mail, no phone calls and no reassurances. And like you, those doubts surfaced little by little until I too wondered if our relationship sank or swam.

Why would a Chinese man suddenly withdraw from communicating with you, his girlfriend — supposedly, the most important person in his world?

He failed. A great example of this comes from my Henan friend, Qiang. He and I had a mutual friend, Guobin, who disappeared off Qiang’s radar quite suddenly, and unexpectedly, for many years. Qiang didn’t believe it, because Guobin had been one of his closest confidants in college. Later, when Guobin called Qiang up, out of nowhere, the truth came out — Guobin had failed his graduate entrance exams during those years, and didn’t even want to tell his closest friend. Why? Because he had been in a position of weakness, which he considered an embarrassing loss of face.

Maybe he’s facing hard times — which was the case with my first Chinese boyfriend. Turns out he ran out of money abroad, and was scrambling to find a job (he eventually ended up working at a McDonald’s). Like the “he failed” scenario, this is all about face — his unwillingness to appear weak, or less of a man, before you.

Sometimes it’s about machismo. Some — but certainly not all — Chinese men subscribe to the notion that the relationship revolves around them, including when and how they communicate with you. And that might extend to that most unmentionable of all possibilities: that he’s cheating on you, and hiding it.

And, of course, there’s the other unmentionable — that he wants to breakup, but doesn’t know how to tell you directly. That breakup in communications could be the preamble to a breakup in reality.

So what’s going on with your Chinese boyfriend?

I get the sense there’s a little machismo behind his actions, given his reaction to the fact you were getting information about his return from a friend. He clearly wants to control how he communicates with you, and how you hear about him.

But he’s probably hiding something too — otherwise, why would he care if you hear about him through a friend? The question is, what is he hiding? At best, he’s just failing or facing hard times, and doesn’t want you to know about it. At worst, he’s having an affair with another woman. You probably won’t really know, unless he tells you or you find out through someone else — and given his silence, good luck getting it from him.

Even if you discovered it was all because of some benign reason, would it really make things better? Intercultural/international relationships wither away without getting a good dose of honest communication. Look at John and I — we’re both fluent in English and Chinese, and we’ve still weathered some pretty explosive arguments over the years. Our relationship would have been shipwrecked without that safety ring of communication to save us. Trust me, things get way more complicated and dicey after you tie the knot — so if they’re already complicated and dicey, and you’re not even close to that kind of commitment, something’s not right.

Plus, as my readers will attest to, there are plenty of outstanding Chinese men out there that “get it” when it comes to communication — and would never want to keep you worrying.

Good luck!

What do you think? What advice do you have for Talk to Me?

———–

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17 thoughts on “Ask the Yangxifu: Understanding Silence from Your Chinese Boyfriend

  • December 3, 2010 at 12:57 pm
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    >>>Plus, as my readers will attest to, there are plenty of outstanding Chinese men out there that “get it” when it comes to communication — and would never want to keep you worrying.<<<

    Cannot agree with you more!

    Reply
  • December 3, 2010 at 9:40 pm
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    My first boyfriend in China did this when I went back to America to finish my studies. We’d been communicating regularly and then all of a sudden he went home for Spring Fesival to visit his family and I didn’t hear from him for well over a month. Turns out (so he said) that his parents had forbidden his relationship. I also found out much later that he’d been cheating, and basically that he’d given up on our relationship but didn’t have the guts to face me directly (or through e-mail/phone). Needless to say, I was in agony for that month or so. When you’re in a long distance relationship communication is so important. If you don’t hear from someone for weeks or months you of course assume the worst. I’d advise the OP not to waste time on a guy who is so inconsiderate of her feelings or who wants to play games and show he’s in control of the relationship. If he’s angry there are more mature ways to deal with it than the silent treatment.

    Reply
  • December 4, 2010 at 5:06 am
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    No fair! Chinese women do this too!

    But agreed it is mostly about not wanting to appear weak, my dad when I take apart his traditionalist arguements goes silent on me all the time.

    TCG TCG why aren’t you married yet, TCG TCG why don’t you take out a massive loan you can’t afford to buy a house yet?

    But then again we ended up not talking for over ten years.

    Reply
  • December 4, 2010 at 12:59 pm
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    Da jia hao! This is pretty similar to the behavior of my Chinese bf: you never know when he stops e-mailing. Out of the blue, he disappears for a month or so making me wonder whether our relationshit is over, but when he re-emerges, he says really nice things, like he’s been missing me and that I’m very beautiful etc. His explanation: “I’ve been very busy.” What is that supposed to mean? How busy must one be not to be able to write a word or two? If one has enough time to pee and shit, one surely can find 5 minutes for an e-mail. I’m so tired of this uncertainty, I love him but I wish we just broke up. 🙁

    Reply
  • December 5, 2010 at 12:11 am
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    I wouldn’t call the Chinese man with whom I email a boyfriend just yet, but I think we are exploring the kernel of a relationship. (We have met in person, but live far apart.) He often goes weeks without any communication, but when he does write, the main topic is how ragged he is being run by his job. Of course, it’s possible he is cheating or simply not that interested, but given what I know about his work, I think he is genuinely busy.

    At first I was resentful about it, thinking, like a previous poster, that if he at all cared about me, he’d communicate more often. And then I very recently went through a month in my life where it was my turn to cut the letters short or eliminate them entirely. I was exhausted and pushed to the limits of my patience. I had every intention of writing at the end of the day, but was falling asleep over my laptop in bed. Sometimes I had no Internet connection. One day turned into three and three days into a week, etc.

    When I realized that the shoe was now on the other foot, I became a lot more empathetic about his situation and decided it was worth hanging in there a while longer to see what develops. He also said something about how I should be getting used to his intermittent writing by now, so I think he takes it as a matter of course. I guess if he is truly taking things slowly because he sees a possible future together, it’s not a big deal in the long run.

    I’ve suggested moving to phone conversations, so we’ll see how he deals with that–I think there may be a shyness/confidence component, as well as a huge time difference to conquer. But I also believe that many men rise to the level of expectation put upon them. It’s hard to get the best from people when you are always anticipating the worst. I can’t remember who it was that said that when questioning someone’s actions, always try to ascribe the most benevolent motivations to them. So for now, instead of believing the worst about my guy, I picture him drowning in work, and instantly feel a connection with him. Call me crazy, but I always get an email right after that…

    Reply
  • December 6, 2010 at 12:59 pm
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    That is SO NOT FAIR!! 🙁 Why do some Chinese people do these things to us? Like TCG, it is not Chinese guys, the girls do it too. I’m uneasy enough with that treatment as a guy, it would probably be 20 times worse as a girl. -_-

    I think it seems like they expect you to understand them when they are silent. They expect you to understand what they are going through and what they are thinking. Chinese people definitely think more and say less in general. From what i see in young chinese couples – they like to be sticky and sweet, especially the girl. They’ll say stuff like “do you really love meee? o_O i miss uuu!” and “-_- u dont care about me anymore *cry*” and then see how the other person reacts. And then they can read the other person’s response. They really like to go for the soft spot.

    You almost never hear that kind of stuff in young western couples. Their approach is much more explicit and logical. They’ll say stuff like “I haven’t talked to you in ages/You haven’t phoned me in ages! What have you been up to?” with a serious/concerned/investigative face.

    Asking that to a Chinese person would probably frighten him/her say “not much”, “nothing”, “busy”, “ok” etc. 😛 They expect you to understand them and not investigate them. They expect you to talk first and then IMPLY your concerns indirectly from the conversation, so that they can gauge what your true feelings are.

    Keep in mind tho, everyone’s different.

    Reply
  • December 7, 2010 at 11:43 am
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    Chinese guys could go without communicating for a long time, but white and Hispanic men and women are at you all the time if they are interested…so much so it borders on harrassment. One such relationship was a fatal attraction and it ended in murder of the man back in 2008 in Arizona!

    Reply
    • December 11, 2010 at 11:02 pm
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      @Bo, thanks for the comment!

      @Jessica, wow that is just horrible what happened with your first Chinese BF — to think he didn’t have the courage to tell you.

      @TCG, agreed it’s not just the guys who are guilty. (p.s.: sorry your parents are breathing down your neck about marriage and buying a house).

      @Kirsten, sounds like this guy is really pushing your relationship to the limits. Hope things will improve!

      @Hummingbird, thanks for sharing your experience. Agreed that silence doesn’t always mean the worst, and your example is a great reminder that you always have to judge a guy’s actions within the context of everything else you know about them. Sometimes you really do have to imagine the best.

      @Chris, thanks for providing some more perspective, and, like I said to TCG, point taken it’s not just the guys. 😉

      @Grace, whoa, that is just crazy. I guess I’d take silence over harassment any day. 😉

      Reply
  • December 25, 2010 at 5:58 am
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    Having spent the last 2-3months training my Shanghainese boyfriend that there is a difference between text messages and phone calls and that calls mean significantly more than SMS, you can imagine I sympathize with the fellow commenters. Especially @Kirsten. I also frequently experience the silence treatment from him, though granted not for as long (I would not stand for that!). I appreciate @Hummingbird’s upbeat attitude and that it works for her, but at some point you have to live your own life and not wait around, as @Jessica learned (the hard way).

    Sometimes I chalk up this method of ‘dealing with it’ to the general lack of dating experience in younger years (we’re 26&27, and he’s only had 1 g/f before). As Jocelyn & @Chris mentioned, yes, it is partly cultural, but sometimes it is just that person taking it to extremes.

    @Chris, thanks for that mental image; that’s totally not my style, but when in China… maybe I’ll try it.

    @Jocelyn, I wish you could interpret my boyfriend for me and train me in the there’s-always-a-happy-ending philosophy (*^_^*)

    Reply
  • March 13, 2011 at 5:27 am
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    Hi, thanks for your blog. It’s really helpful. I enjoy your advise and your voice. Your readership seems sincere as well.

    There has a been a few blog entries regarding the “silence” of chinese men, that leave western women feeling like they’re in “limbo.” There has been other entries about the “patience” required, and the “indirectness” that happens with new relationships.

    My first question is, during this period, what is the chinese man feeling and thinking? does he feel in control? what are his intentions for this behavior? does he feel confused and in limbo too?

    My second question is, do chinese men make chinese women go through the same thing? or is it just to test out the western women?

    I don’t know if it’s my western upbringing, but when a man behaves in these ways, it’s just interpreted that he’s not into that woman so much.

    Reply
  • March 18, 2011 at 6:36 pm
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    There is always another reason: He’s busy with work or school…and doesn’t have time to chat.
    (it really gets annoying after awhile…)

    Reply
  • April 17, 2011 at 5:30 am
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    I am so thankful to have found this site.
    While most of you here are Westerners liking or dating a Chinese guy, I am Asian and still it got me to a LOOOOT of thinking why there’s this limbo…
    Although i haven’t really gotten out with him on a date, he has told me he likes me and we have been constantly communicating, like almost everyday. So when that first incident happened (he did not communicate for days), i just had to ask and all i got for an answer was “… am busy…” I said to myself,
    what the heck, how busy can one get not to even send a single message of hi or hello?!!!
    Then after that, things would get back to how we were before but again there would be days that i would not hear from him. In those times, i would think, maybe he does not like me that much, maybe he lost interest. Then he’d be back, saying he misses me and asking if i miss him! It’d feel so weird. So then i would tell him that maybe he’s just playing around with me, especially since he knows i like him too. He would say,
    “I don’t like to play or joke about love. Understand?”
    So what am i to do? i tried to understand what happens each time. There would be times when i just can’t sit back and wait so i would contact him then we’d be talking… And i would also at times not communicate with him, trying at giving him a dose of his own medicine.. But then i would miss him so my scheme blows off on me. hahahaha…
    I am actually at the moment experiencing the SILENCE time with him. I’ve asked what’s up and told him i miss talking to him and happily, i got a message that it’s not that he does not want to talk but that he’s just BUSY and tired. I actually also know he is going through something and i now understand the no-communication part. so now i would go to sleep not worried or maybe just a little.
    Would it be wiser to just let him be? to just wait for him to communicate back with me? Cant i even say I MISS You? I don’t want to be like a clingy girlfriend cos i am not his girlfriend (not yet! ) but i also don’t want him to think that i don’t care…
    Apparently i still have these questions but i am really grateful for this site… Thank you, you just don’t know how much worry you’re able to chase away from my mind… xiexie

    Reply
  • September 23, 2011 at 1:44 am
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    hey!i just have one question..how can i get a chinese boyfriend?

    Reply
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  • September 2, 2016 at 2:10 am
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    Ugghh, bad communication drives me nuts, especially when it’s about control. :/ I know this is easy to say when you’re not in this situation, but if I were about to start a long distance relationship I’d probably say, “Communication is very important to me. If I go a month without hearing from you, I’m going to assume you’re no longer interested in being in a relationship.” Lack of communication would probably still drive me nuts, but at least it would give me some peace of mind knowing we had a mutual understanding and I’d know when it’s time to move on.

    Reply
  • April 8, 2018 at 8:51 am
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    It’s real simple. Communication can certainly be partially cultural – but communication at it’s basic worth – is simply human. And, it does not take much effort to text someone good morning . . or Hey, I am super busy lately but I miss you”. I think I just typed that in 4 seconds. 4 seconds . . . so think about that. You can blame culture all you want – but something is wrong if another person can’t take 4 seconds out of the day to let you know they are okay and that they appreciate you.

    I am a very busy Man. I work full time as a computer programmer and I also own and operate a bakery/bistro cafe. I work insane hours and travel often. Many nights I get 4 hours sleep. But . . if I like someone, they are usually on my mind – no matter how busy I am. And I make every effort possible to at least send a quick text once or twice a day. Because it’s human. There is absolutely no excuse for someone who is not communicating AT ALL. Remember . . 4 seconds a day. Nobody is that busy. Not even me.

    I am a gay man and I have (tried) to date Chinese men before. And I treat everyone (no matter where they originate from) the same. If you can’t give me 4 seconds a day – then be gone. Because I am not stupid. Anyone who goes days, weeks, months without contacting you – is up to something. And, I would say that’s probably about 90% accurate. They maybe lost interest. Or started becoming interested in someone else (ye know, it’s hard to text or call your significant other when you are always spending time with another . . . . just saying the obvious). And then maybe when that gets old, they suddenly come back to you.

    My point is this . . we can make excuses all we want for others bad behavior. But that’s mostly because we don’t WANT to see the truth. But there are only a few truthful options here . . . It’s really a very inconsiderate person (and who wants to date one of those????), or they are being suspiciously up to something that they are hiding (and who wants to date one of those). Wake up. Sorry to be so blunt . .but this is coming from a mans perspective. Either way – it’s inexcusable. Don’t let him walk all over you – no matter what his ethnicity.

    Being from a different culture is no excuse. 4 seconds. That’s all it takes to keep your partner/mate feeling secure. 4 seconds. And anyone that can’t do that – can pack their bags.

    There are plenty of Chinese men that DO get it. So the cultural thing doesn’t fly in my book. Feeling sad, or like a failure – or just too busy . . . . is nothing but a cover.

    PS – Being too busy is what I SAY to someone I am not that interested in – but don’t want to count them out just yet. So . . . . keep that in mind. Men are all alike. When we are interested – you WILL know.

    Reply

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