Ask the Yangxifu: Chinese Boyfriend Changes Around His Parents?

Lonely heart - photo by Dora Mitsonia
A woman wonders why her Chinese boyfriend is showing less affection when his parents are around. (photo by Dora Mitsonia)

confused asks:

I am dating a Chinese man who has lived in North America for years. He is quite westernized in his daily life, so it’s difficult for me to ascertain which issues may be cultural and which aren’t. We’ve been dating six months, and it got serious quite quickly. His parents are just in for three weeks now, and i’ve met them and spent quite a bit if time with them while they’ve been here. My boyfriend, however, seems to be acting strange. His parents appear to like me a lot, but could his strange behavior ( less texting/phone/ verbal affection ) be an indication that they’ve mentioned to him otherwise?? When I’ve spoken to him about it he gets quite stiff says I’m overreacting and shouldn’t question his feelings ( his general attitude hahaha) but the difference these last couple weeks is notable… Sigh…

Reminds me of what happens when my Chinese husband and I visit his parents in China.

The moment we step through the doorway, he turns the affection and flirtations down a HUGE notch, and we have to take our sex life upstairs, and pack it away in the bedroom (with the door firmly closed, of course). Outside of that little corner of the house, we exist in this wholesome world of innocence, where no one holds hands, kisses, or leaves their condoms out accidentally.

Most Chinese families show love indirectly, and that includes love between everyone from husbands and wives, all the way down to boyfriends and girlfriends. So it’s no wonder your Chinese boyfriend isn’t spilling over with romance, like usual — now that the parents are back, he’s just trying be more like the kind of son they’re used to. Unfortunately, that just means you’ll have to deal with a little less outward affection while the family is in town.

I wouldn’t worry about it, because it doesn’t mean he loves you any less, or is any less interested in you.

After all, when I get my own Chinese husband behind closed doors in his parents house, it’s like entering another dimension. We hold hands, kiss, and don’t care if that condom box is lying beside the bed. 😉

At least, until his mom comes shouting up the stairwell.

What do you think?
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17 Replies to “Ask the Yangxifu: Chinese Boyfriend Changes Around His Parents?”

  1. I experienced a similar thing, My boyfriend always had this habbit of playing with my ear. he liked touching it because it felt soothing. It probably sounds weird but everyone has their own little quirks and things they like.

    Anyway he always used to do that whether we were alone or on the bus or on the train. I liked it and it never felt weird to me. But after our visit to his mom. He stopped doing it completely. My Chinese isn’t very good so i couldn’t understand exactly what his mom said but she saw him doing that… and I guess she told him to stop it and obviously something else.

    He never tried to do it again. I kind of miss that.

  2. Nah, it’s nothing to worry about. I think all Chinese guys have 3 sides – the public face for appearance’s sake, the private face shown to family and close friends, and the inside self that is always suppressed.

    Heck, I notice a change in my own personality as soon as I step into the door of my house. It’s like a dimension door between two completely different worlds. Language, customs, food, expectations all change inside vs outside the house. It’s just something that all 0.5 generation immigrants deal with.

  3. This is very true. I have only brought two girls home before to my parents. The first was in university and she was an American girl, the second was a European woman few years later.

    Both times, my girlfriend(s) asked me why I was not nearly as affectionate when I was with my family. In fact, when I was at their homes, they were as affectionate to me as per usual (as if we were around friends). In fact, I found that uncomfortable — thinking that sexuality or sensuality and family (especially around parents) just FEELS inappropriate. I don’t know why, but maybe it’s my upbringing.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about it, I think it’s just an Asian thing.

  4. Confused brings up a good point indirectly in her question and one I have struggled with. In getting to know a Chinese man, as with any man of any upbringing, I am wary of red flags that would point to emotional unavailability, hot/cold behavior, rudeness, etc. It’s so much harder to figure out the 0.5 generation Chinese man, because he has a 4th side in addition to the ones Richard mentions: the Western side that is closer in philosophy to what we American woman know.

    I have asked myself many times, “Is this man reflecting his reserved upbringing, playing hard to get, demonstrating innate shyness, disinterested, or what?” When he works hard to impress me with his achievements and status symbols, is he trying to overcome stereotypes he thinks I might have about Asian men, compensating for being short, or just a braggart? Aiya, these 0.5-ers are even harder to figure out than the men who have never left China!

  5. OMG that really touches up on a mystery while I was with my chinese guy. Initially when we were together, he’d get really close to me, be really playful like measuring his hands against mine, always laughing and joking, and meaningful eye contact.

    So. He takes me out to dinner for our second date (in the city). He almost looks startled and in shock (maybe because he didnt expect to see me ever again and still I came back to China for that second date). We spend the whole day together, where was the laughter, the comfort, the jokes? So I’m like “so whats up? whats wrong?” and he tells me “nothing’s wrong I’m really happy”

    I’m thinking ” WHAT?? You’re not saying a word, your face is frozen and I’m talking more with your friend than you. and you’re happy?” A little later, I am still feeling really uncomfortable by this strange change so I ask again ” is everything alright?” to which he respond ” everything is more than alright”.

    So in essence, I am just trying to prove the different sides and how mistake you can be thinking the chinese man doesnt care when really, its just part of his culture to change “personaliies” here and there. After that day, I really put my experience with him that day to shock as if maybe he didn’t know what to do or say because he didn’t expect that I will come back half way around the world and go out with him again.

    Now, I see different, and I expect is preventing a lot of further future misunderstandings. Such as lack of affection in emails and texts. Beware of that one. You’d think someone would reply to you in length to but no. I think its quite possible Chinese people preffer to write a couple of sentences or even words even to the most moving message. (sorry for generalising, its open for discussion)

  6. Hummingbird: it’s probably not playing hard to get. I don’t know anyone among my male friends who would do that. There is a fine difference between shy/reserved and uninterested though. Observe how he is with someone new. If he doesn’t open up to anyone but his closest friends, most likely he’s too shy to pursue anything actively. If he is normally friendly and assertive with people but doesn’t treat you any differently, it’s more likely that he’s not interested.
    As for status symbols, he’s probably doing all of the above that you mentioned. A man in courtship has to prove his worth somehow. He knows he’s not “super hot” to most western females. If he could charm you with his personality or wordplay he’d have done so already. The only thing he’s got left is demonstrating money, power, and status.

  7. Generalizing of course, but because Chinese families are generally very tight-knit and everyone knows more about each other, there’s a little more gossiping going on. When I’m with my Chinese relatives I tend to stay away from certain topics just in case they start talking about me or my parents, which could lead to THEM treating me differently.

    What you wrote was true too; Chinese people generally show affection indirectly. I just thought it was worth pointing out the above, which probably would be true in any family-oriented culture.

  8. Richard, I wish I could observe him directly, but we are in a long distance relationship (if you could call it that) at the moment. We have met in person, and he did seem a bit shy and reserved one-on one, and his email and phone correspondence has leaned that way too. However, I know his job requires him to be much more outgoing. I get the impression he puts on a business face, but has a very private side he saves for close friends, family, etc. That seems to be very common for Chinese men.

    We’ve been keeping in contact long distance for 6 months now, so I would think if he were disinterested, he would have let the communication run out. I think for both of us, we had such good chemistry when we met that we’re willing to stay in touch until we can spend time in person again and see if we still feel the same. Of course, there’s always the possibility that he has a bevy of girlfriends and I am simply on the back burner, but I don’t think his career gives him time for that.

    He’s not a wordsmith (that’s an understatement), so yeah, using his wealth and achievements to woo me would be understandable. (Although this Western woman certainly found him “super hot” from the moment I first saw him–I can’t seem to make him believe that.) The problem is that with a Western guy, I would dismiss this as being cocky and overly concerned with status. In a Chinese guy who has never lived in the West, I would accept it as overcompensating. But what do I do with a Chinese guy who was raised in the States and is now back in China? Which person is he? I guess only time spent face to face will tell… sigh.

  9. Depends on the influence of his community growing up. There’s a growing import car community among Silicon Valley Chinese, but most of the men are still rather nerdy. Most of the 0.5 gen in their mid 20s were only recently exposed to name brands and trendy clothes. I’d say most in the valley are more intellectual than materialistic in their leanings. I don’t have much knowledge of NYC, Boston, DC or LA-based Chinese.

    I think it’s important to manage expectations here. Personally I was astonished when I found out that western women expected to communicate (over phone at the minimum) at least once a day. That’s a puzzler. How would an established couple have that much to say to each other? Once you get beyond the first few months, you pretty much know another person’s life. Conversation after that would either focus on world events (few women I’ve met have been knowledgeable/interested in that) or banalities going on in each other’s lives (how many of us have exciting things happen every day?). I just find it hard to maintain enthusiasm for boring chitchat after a certain time plateau.

    What do you guys usually talk about? If it’s something he’s interested in, he should be able to go on and on about it. It could also be that you didn’t spend enough time pre-LD for him to feel comfortable opening up deeper layers of his life.

    One other thought I have is his occupation. If he works in management, finance, politics, or law, I’d expect him to be more showy in terms of achievements and possessions, because in that world, that’s how status is defined. If he’s in engineering, medicine, research science, or academia, I’d expect him to be more reserved and worry that the showy aspect is compensating for various insecurities.

  10. Just part of the Chinese culture, nothing much to be concerned about. I guess Chinese people feel uncomfortable to openly display their affections before their parents and vice versa. But I guess people DO change, and who knows?
    It is universal, the same here in Malaysia.

  11. Yes. In the weeks since his parents returned home, things have normalized to a point. It was surprising to me, he had no qualms holding my hand and other small guestures like that, but the overall aura changed for awhile – flirty texts dropped off, over all stiffer. It made me feel like a petulant child to even ask him, but it just felt – off. I do see everything on the up-swing though, and our relationship feel more natural now

  12. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it, I think it’s just an Asian thing.”

    It’s not necessarily true of all Asians. My husband was raised in Hong Kong, his parents were raised in China and lived their adult lives in HK, and he shows no reservations about hugging and kissing me around them. He even said I was being too standoffish around them and shouldn’t be worried that they might think badly of me. Maybe there are variations among families or maybe HKers have fewer hangups about PDA compared to mainland Chinese. But not all Asians behave the same in this respect.

  13. I think it would be awesome if the guys gave the women heads up. But to be honest, I’m the same way. I find that when I am not with my boyfriend in a private setting, I will not be as affectionate because I feel it’s inappropriate. That’s how my mom, brother, and I are. It even makes us uncomfortable when close friends and family are like that with each other when we are hanging out and such. A boyfriend of mine once complained to me that I’m different and until then, I actually didn’t even realize that my behavior could be considered strange and I’m not Asian or Asian American. But after that, anytime I’m dating someone and it seems it may be even a little serious so that they are going to meet my family, I give them a heads up and am like, “So, you know I adore you right? Well, while we’re around my family, we can’t be all lovey dovey.” If they need further explanation, I will give it.

  14. Jocelyn is spot on.

    Chinese do not hold dear to shop front display of public affection.

    Love is regarded as a private affair and is mostly articulated in a subdued manner.

    Of course this tendency is watered down in a western setting. Again no amount of western exposure can change this inherent trait.

    You are doing fine. The fact that he is still texting you albeit in lesser frequency is a reassurance of his commitment to your relationship.

    Best wishes

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