Some of the most bizarre first encounters I’ve had with people happened right here in China. When you’re a Western woman in this country, it’s amazing – and even shocking – what some people (especially Chinese men) will say to you in the very first moments you meet.
Want to make that great first impression with a Western woman in China? Don’t ever say any of the following things to her on that first meeting:
1. Will you be my friend?
I’ll never forget that one morning when I attended an English corner in Zhengzhou, China all those years back. Once I arrived at the appointed place, I was completely mobbed by a crowd of English enthusiasts, all hovering around me as though I was a Hollywood movie star who had magically descended into the park. Of the many questions that they rained upon me that day, one stunned me above all.
Will you be my friend?
It wasn’t just one person who asked me this – it was several of them. And to be honest, it was kind of a scary question. I think I flashed back to some safety town movie I watched as a little girl, where I was taught to be weary whenever some stranger approached me and offered to be my friend.
Even worse, I didn’t know what to say. It’s not exactly the kind of question you want to answer “Yes” to, because who could know they want to be friends with a total stranger? On the other hand, nobody likes to tell someone – who ostensibly offers a friendly hand out to you – to go away.
The thing is, most Western women will hear this question a LOT. It’s troubling to us for the reasons I mentioned above. And it’s totally improbable. After all, if we’ve just met, you don’t know us and we don’t know you. How can either of us know we ought to be friends?
If you’re a Chinese man, it’s even more critical that you exercise caution. When you ask for our friendship without even really knowing us, we might wonder in the back of our minds if your idea of “friendship” is really just a euphemism for something totally inappropriate.
Instead, if you want to be friends with us, don’t ask for it directly (especially the first time you’ve met us!) – behave like a friend. Listen to us, instead of talking over us. Show genuine concern for who we are. Take your time in getting to know us. Only time will tell if we will finally be friends.
2. Can I have your phone number?
One lazy late summer afternoon many years ago, I was strolling beside Hangzhou’s West Lake by myself, basking in the beauty of the willow fronds swaying in the wind and the delicate stone bridges of Su Causeway. And it was a perfect moment, up until this middle aged Chinese man suddenly stopped in front of me and began asking the usual number of questions in rapid-fire sequence (from “Where are you from?” to “What do you think of China?”). I felt a little restless, mostly because he was disturbing the solitude I had hoped to enjoy that afternoon, and offered up vague, short answers that were polite all the same – but that I also hoped would send him the subtle message that I wasn’t really interested in conversation.
Instead, he threw a bomb of a question my way: Can I have your phone number?
It startled me completely. Here’s a guy who I had never met until this moment, and he expected to have a direct, personal line to me? Once again, I was totally put on the spot!
This sort of thing happens a lot to Western women in China, where people we’ve just met are suddenly asking for very personal contact information – which we’re not sure they merit, and we don’t really feel comfortable providing. Especially because, as women, we’ve spent some portion of our lives fending off unwanted attention from weirdo guys, and become very protective of our privacy before strangers.
Now, this middle-aged man could have avoided all of this weirdness of the situation by simply doing a very different thing. He could have handed me a business card of his – or a piece of paper with his contact information – and simply invited me to contact him if I was interested. And if he had done that, I might have been impressed – that here was a man in China who, for once, didn’t press me for personal information I might not have been willing to give him.
3. You’re so beautiful.
A few years back, I wrote about an encounter I had in a beauty salon:
“Beauty” could barely describe the two girls hovering over me for a makeup session two weekends ago. Both had smooth black hair reminiscent of a calligraphy brush dipped in black ink, eyes the color of pu-er tea and lips more brilliant than the fiery red pomegranate blossoms. Their smiles illuminated the entire room.
But in their minds, they weren’t the real beauty. I was.
“Look at her eyes! So big!” one of the women squealed, after powdering my face.
“Her nose is so straight,” the other sighed. She then squeezed it gently a couple of times, giggling like a schoolgirl.
But when they moved to my eyes – and specifically, my mascara – the excitement waved over the room in sudden tsunami fashion. “Her eyelashes are curved. Can you believe that?” Several women from outside rushed in to take a peek. A makeup artist next to me and even her client pulled the curtains back and lunged their heads to admire my lashes. “She doesn’t even need an eyelash curler!”
Laying there on the table, I felt like some sort of model woman from another world on display – and given my sweltering palms and the way I kept crossing my feet, it wasn’t an easy job. If anything, I didn’t understand them at all, or the way they told me “you’re so beautiful” the moment I sat down next to them, before going over to the makeup room.
It was a reminder of how China values someone with my looks: the pale white skin, large round eyes, and a straight foreign nose. While back in America people thought of me as a plain Jane, many of the people I’ve encountered here will dote upon my looks as though I were a beauty queen.
It’s strange at times, but it definitely feels even stranger when it comes from Chinese men you don’t even know, as Emma, a girl from London, reported in a guest post for Linda Living in China titled “Blonde and Alone in China: Language Learning the Awkward Way”:
Being a white foreigner, with long blond hair, I was prepared to receive some attention. Every foreign visitor to China should be prepared for the not so subtle stares and sneaky – or sometimes blatant – pictures of you being snapped without permission. I was not prepared, however, for all the attention I was to receive from the young Chinese guys.
Travelling on my own clearly gave them the courage to approach me. I was constantly being told how piao liang (漂亮: beautiful) I was. As much as this flattered my ego, I was well aware that this was more due to the lad points they would score for getting lucky with an ‘exotic’ blonde, than it was down to my actual appearance. This was clear to me after being hit on having just cycled 20k on a rented bicycle in the heat of the South China sun. I was pink faced and dripping in sweat, in stark contrast to immaculately made-up pretty Chinese girls (I still haven’t figured out how to stop the makeup from simply melting off my face when it’s so hot and humid).
Men in China who she had never met before in her life were suddenly calling her beautiful, and in the back of her mind, she wondered just what these men REALLY wanted with her.
That’s why it’s incredibly dangerous to walk up to a Western woman you’ve just met and suddenly praise her as beautiful. Because we’re going to wonder, are our looks the only thing that’s really on your mind? Are you just another one of those Chinese men who thinks Western women are sluts?
Instead, if you’re thinking “She’s beautiful” the first time you meet us, the most beautiful thing you can do is to wait until we’re friends before you would even think of telling us.
4. A creepy version of “Hello!”
When I first came to China in 1999 and roamed the streets of Zhengzhou, I soon discovered that my wanderings in the city didn’t go unnoticed. Of course, every foreigner reading their trusty China travel guide usually discovers that it’s not uncommon to hear the term “Laowai!” (one of the Chinese term for “foreigner”) shouted when you’re around. But what the guides often don’t mention is that you’re also subject to something I like to call the “creepy Hello”.
“Creepy Hello” is when someone yells out “Hello!” to you in a voice that sounds completely unworldly for what is supposed to be a friendly greeting. Sometimes it’s like hearing someone do a horrible impression of a cartoonish voice. But the reason it’s usually horrible for us is that it sounds frighteningly like a catcall – as in, those loud whistles or comments of a sexual nature that we were forced to endure in our home countries, and rather wished we didn’t have to be reminded of while we’re in China.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re smart enough to know that no woman – especially us – would want to be greeted in this way. Still, it happens on occasion in China, where Chinese men we’ve never met will give you a “creepy Hello” in passing. So guys, if you actually want to get past “Hello”, don’t even think about making it a creepy one!
What do you think? What other things should Chinese men never say to Western women in China they just met?