A few years ago, I remember stumbling across a post that linked back to me on the now defunct Shlaowai blog (which billed itself as “Shanghai Uncensored”). The post, written by one of their white female writers, was titled, “So, What’s the Dating Scene Like?” I can’t share any quotes from the post — unfortunately, the blog’s creators blocked archiving of their material, which means you can’t even dig up their original content through the Wayback Machine. Still, given that the post featured the infamous photo of a shorter Long Duk Dong with his head buried in the bosom of a taller white girl, you can guess what the author had to say about “the dating scene” in China.
I can’t recall her exact wording when she referenced my site, but I remember how I felt. That I somehow couldn’t be trusted to understand her experience. After all, I crossed the line she somehow drew there in Shanghai by dating and marrying a Chinese (and then daring to write something positive about it).
You might wonder, why do I even care about an obscure post from years back on a now-defunct blog? It’s because I’ve increasingly encountered a similar perspective in e-mails from some readers — e-mails that ask, in a suspect tone, why I’m not writing enough negative things about dating Chinese men?
It’s a good question. After all, if “dating Chinese men is undesirable” is your world view, then you’d certainly be a little suspicious of a woman married to one, who can’t seem to gush enough about how great her husband is — and how women out there should give Chinese guys a chance.
Yes, it’s true, you might say I have “an agenda”. For years, I tired of the one-sided discussion that generally ensued whenever someone brought up the idea of Western women dating Chinese men. I just wanted to inject another perspective into the conversation, to challenge the assumption that Chinese men could never be a viable option for us. Perhaps it’s naive, but in a way, I hoped to empower Western women in China (at least, those women open to dating) — to help them transcend the usual narratives surrounding China’s dating scene (such as Foreign women label Beijing a dating wasteland).
But maybe these women have a point, in a way. Why should they trust me if I write about only the good, or make it all seem so easy? In fact, it wasn’t always easy. On the serpentine pathway that led me to China — and eventually John — I’ve had my share of dating encounters with Chinese men that left me cringing, crying, or simply crouched in the corner in agony.
One of my worst came in 2001, when I bumped into a friendly Chinese fellow in the Foreign Language Bookstore who spoke flawless English and had a smile as welcoming as the late afternoon winter sunshine. He invited me to tea and snacks at a local teahouse — and what I thought should have been a quick meeting stretched over eight hours, as we dined on the delicious buffet and a conversation that covered, to borrow the Spanish expression, the divine and the human. Of course he made my heart race because I felt certain we just connected. But maybe it was even easier because I faced enormous struggles at the time — an abusive foreigner I roomed with (long story), and an equally abusive volunteer job that I was on the verge of quitting. I was, as they say, vulnerable — and I still remained largely ignorant of China’s dating culture. So that evening, when he suddenly kissed me beside the West Lake, when he declared me an “angel,” I thought he meant every word. So I let him kiss me more. I let him see me off all the way back to my dormitory in a taxi. I let him kiss me again and again outside the dormitory before he left me. I shake my head when I think of how far I let things go that evening, but I really and truly was so lonely then, and in such a bad situation, that I somehow believed it was all real. Days later, I found an e-mail in my inbox with a crushing confession — he had a fiancee. This is how I learned the incredibly painful lesson to never get involved with a guy in China too fast.
I dated two other Chinese nationals seriously before meeting and marrying my husband, and those relationships both soured. I loved my first Chinese boyfriend dearly, but his decision to study in the UK, a country that would have been difficult for me to live in due to visa restrictions for Americans, shattered our relationship. I’ve also written of my second Chinese boyfriend extensively, a guy called Frank, and our brief relationship barely lasted a month, thanks to parents who wouldn’t welcome a foreigner into the family.
Of course, there are all the relationships that never even got off the ground. That guy studying at a university in Nanjing who finally told me, straight out, that he couldn’t date me because his parents wanted him to marry a Chinese woman. The Hangzhou native who graduated from Zhejiang University and almost went to study abroad at a school in Texas, who all my friends considered perfect for me…until he kept cancelling our dates, which eventually cancelled any interest I had in dating him. The fellow from somewhere in Henan Province who I met in Hangzhou — he insisted he loved me and sent text after text of cloying Chinese poetry to prove it, but he had the personality of a store mannequin and no amount of roses (yes, he tried to woo me with overflowing bouquets of roses) would change my mind.
And let’s not forget the Chinese driver who kept trying to steer the conversation back to foreign women as mistresses and sex on the way to the airport, even though the fact that I stared out the window in silence in response should have told him “not interested” loud and clear. A guy who sexually assaulted me just after he parked his car in the airport parking lot. When I ran, not walked, to my gate only minutes later, it had nothing to do with the possibility that I might miss my flight.
With all of these false starts, failed relationships and even fiascos, you might wonder — how the hell can she be so upbeat about dating Chinese men? Well, because I did have some enchanting experiences, even when the relationships didn’t work out. Because I also believed in the possibility of something — and someone — better. Because I didn’t judge the whole of Chinese men on the basis of a handful of “bad lychees”. And because, in the end, I found the love of my life there, a man who even 10 years later still makes me swoon.
In some respects, I don’t think I was all that different from many women out there, who still insist they’ll eventually find “the one” despite years of being on the dating merry-go-round.
I can’t guarantee that every single Western woman will eventually find her own happily ever after with a Chinese man. Of course, things will get in the way — such as the pool of men in your city (obviously, it’s going to be much better in Beijing than, say, in a tiny village in Gansu) and your age (since most Chinese rush to marry before 30, it is harder to find available guys in the over-30 crowd). But if you’re a Western woman under 30 (or willing to date younger men) and you’re living in a city with plenty of young educated, eligible Chinese bachelors, I feel as if the answer to the question, “So, what’s the dating scene [in China] like?” depends to a certain extent on you.
It’s kind of like the Chinese story of the Vinegar Tasters:
The three men are dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it; one man reacts with a sour expression, one reacts with a bitter expression, and one reacts with a sweet expression. The three men are Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, respectively. Each man’s expression represents the predominant attitude of his religion: Confucianism saw life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people; Buddhism saw life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering; and Taoism saw life as fundamentally good in its natural state.
I don’t know about you, but even after all of the bitterness I’ve encountered, the bitterness I’ve described above, there’s no doubt that I continued to smile. And I always will.