Ask the Yangxifu: Chinese Researchers, Group Dating, and ABCs vs. FOBs

In this week’s Ask the Yangxifu, I feature not one but three different questions from the mailbag — and invite you to weigh in with your own advice!

“Katie” wrote that she met a Chinese research assistant with a PhD at a nearby university in North America, but is frustrated because he’s so busy and often cancels their plans. “I want to somehow tell him that I feel frustrated that he can’t find a good time to hang out with me, but I was wondering if you might have any ideas or suggestions on how to do it without causing him to disappear.”

My husband’s graduate education in the US has schooled me in the many challenges that Chinese face when they choose to study or do research abroad. We’ve all heard the jokes that PhD stands for “piled higher and deeper” and all the horror stories of graduate student life. Well, on top of the usual obstacles of graduate/research life, Chinese also have to navigate their education in a foreign language and culture and often encounter discrimination. That means they have to work even harder and longer than their North American counterparts — and when you’re challenged like that, something (i.e., social life) sometimes has to give. Look, I lived with my husband during his education and some days I wouldn’t even see him until late at night or during mealtimes; even our weekend movie date nights weren’t always a sure thing if he had a major deadline or project coming up.

You may feel frustrated with him for cancelling on you, but chances are he’s more challenged than you actually know — and might have valid reasons for bailing on you.

Instead, you might consider reaching out to him as a friend and offering a little help that any overworked research assistant could use. For example, even the busiest people in academic settings still have to eat. Why not offer to bring him some dinner or a snack on those late nights or weekends? It would give you an excuse to contact him while showing him you care at the same time, as long as you don’t overdo it.

Also, why not ask him about his plans for the upcoming holidays? Universities quiet down, right down to research projects, meaning he’s less likely to back out at the last minute.

“Christine”, a Western woman in China, is interested in a local Chinese guy, but she’s afraid to spend too much time with him and potentially scare him off and lose him as a friend. “What do you think I should do? Should I just continue having less contact with him because we cannot hang out in a group as often or should I push the boat out and invite him to hang out alone more often? And, if so, what kind of activities do you think would be appropriate for male and female friends to do together in China without it seeming overtly like a date?”

Here’s a thought — have you considered perhaps proposing some group activities with him and his friends? For example, you could say you wanted to meet his friends (male or female) and thought it might be fun to do something together as a group (like sing karaoke or have dinner or play sports such as badminton or table tennis). That way, you could hang out with him but it’s definitely not a date. Chinese often go out together in groups, and it’s not uncommon for people to introduce others in group settings as well (to, of course, avoid the pressure of a date). It would also give you the opportunity to meet more locals your age. Plus, if you make friends with his friends, you’ll learn more about him — and potentially, they might help bring you two together.

“Maya” asks, “What’s the difference between dating an American-born Chinese versus dating a FOB [someone born and raised in China]?”

I’ll leave this answer to Ranier Maningding of The Love Life of an Asian Guy, who essentially sums it up this way:

Unless you can tell that an Asian-American guy is VERY attached to his cultural values and customs, treat him like you would every other American citizen….

If he’s an Asian Immigrant, just ask him a bunch of questions and figure out how “Asian” he really is. Get a better understanding of how he feels about his culture because when you think about it, if he is an immigrant, he chose to immigrate to your country for a reason. Maybe that reason is because he dislikes his culture and is seeking a better opportunity – or maybe he just likes Black girls.

And don’t miss Ranier’s entire entry, which will leave you both entertained and enlightened!

What do you think?


Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China/Chinese culture or Western culture? Send me yours today.

11 Replies to “Ask the Yangxifu: Chinese Researchers, Group Dating, and ABCs vs. FOBs”

  1. Wish I could really be of help. Katie can find out what he is really all busy about. Is it all to do with the research work? Is there anyway Katie can help him here? I am sure however busy he may be, surely he needs to breathe too. Perhaps you could offer to bring him some food like Jocelyn suggested or accompany him to a quick lunch or break.

    I remember that when I first started and was so busy with litigation work, I didn’t even have the time to go to the toilet, figuratively speaking! But I still had to have a quick bite or chill out now and then.

    In a group date, Christine can always try to engage the guy she is interested in in casual conversation at first and find out how it proceeds. KTV is a good place to start with, not only for the opportunity to meet but also the fun. Maybe not come on too obviously initially. Just the hint that you may be interested. If Christine can converse in Mandarin, I do think he will feel a kindred spirit with you. I think I would too. You can then take it from there.

    I think Rainer is better positioned to offer help in Maya’s case.

    All the best to you all.

  2. Some advice for Katie –

    I agree with Jocelyn – try to see if you can meet him for food near campus or bring him a picnic occasionally. Everyone does have to eat so once and while he should be okay to eat with you.

    But on the other side, if he is interested in you, he will find time – even if plans occasionally change. I met my foreign-born fiancee from China while we were both doing our PhDs – he was in his second year, I just started. He called me to ask me on a date right before he was going to take a test. Yes we’ve had some cancelled plans over the years, and some “I’m going to be late.” but if he wants to be with you (even when doing a PhD) he will make the time. We still went out to dinner and went to movies, and managed to get all of our work done. He may work later/ work weekends, but he should be okay taking several hours out of his day if he is that interested.

    Good luck!

  3. @ Maya

    There’s definitely no hard or fast rule that dictates how to respond to an ABC vs an FOB. People are individuals, and each person has his or her own preference or “amount” of each culture. Some ABCs may be more into Chinese culture, conversely, some FOBs may love everything about their new culture. It’s just a matter of talking to them and ascertaining what they think! Though of course be aware some FOBs may have a different underlying set of assumptions about the world around them, but you’ll find that out as you talk to them more.

  4. For any girl who is wondering how to treat an ABC or FOB, here is the best advice… BE YOURSELF and be friendly. Most people respond well to friendship first, and may even fall for you if they love your personality. Don’t change for anyone. As for flirting, I agree with Jocelyn that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach (aka make some nice snacks or dinner for him!) Treat them just how you would treat anyone else you are trying to be friends with… make them laugh. 🙂

  5. In response to the last questions. . .

    Most Americans I know, no matter what their race or background, want to be thought of and treated as Americans–period. Don’t treat minorities differently, assuming they are deeply tied to their culture. Sometimes they are, but this is a topic that often has to be treated with some sensitivity.

    I have had this conversation with a few different people and I think there is often some underlying resentment that whites are seen as “American” while, for example, blacks are seen as “African American” (one of my black friends pointed out that she knows little more about Africa than I probably do and feels no more African than I feel German and Irish). Some ethnic Chinese hate the phrase “American-born Chinese” and I never would use that to directly refer to someone. Ever.

    I think it’s something to think about that many white people don’t.

  6. I think it matters if you are ABC or FOB. Ignoring that difference is like bending the reality. If the person you are seeing are comfortable with his own identity, it is good for your relationship. You don’t need to do anything so different other than showing interests in the other person. Sometimes you want to ask for more inputs or validations if you think there is a culture gap. It is showing enough cultural sensitivity rather than ignoring what it is there.

    I will extend R Zhao’s point a bit further. If someone wants to be accepted as who he/she is, it is much better to think you are part of the social fabric than being fabricated by “white” culture only. In dating, a native born would share or understand a common set of cultural assumptions. A FOB has advantages of being who he is to exercise influences rather than being the influenced.

  7. To Katie,

    I’m a PhD student in US right now. I’m originally from China. I really like this White girl and I wish I could bring her out to have dinner, movie, etc etc etc. Sometimes I thought of asking her out and go no matter what. Sometimes I wondered “IF” questions a lot. If things don’t work out the way I expected, it’d be frustrating for both of us. If she finds herself embarrassed in front of all those stares, both of us will feel awkward in public.

    I’m 6 feet tall and I guess she is about 5’8”. I had a girlfriend in China before. We broke up one or two months after I’ve been to US. It’s been 2 years now in US. All I wish is I just wanted to tell her how beautiful she is. When she was walking under the sun, I just wanted to whisper to her ears how sunlights bounces off her face and she looks gorgeous. I keep replaying the eyes contact we both have snuck among our friends.

    If things work out perfectly, I can imagine we’re living together and see how things go. If everything’s alright, I wanted to get married to her. I feel excited and jubilated whenever I thought of how many nights we’ll be spending together in bed. That would be glorious.

    What’s killing me is those big “IF” questions in my head. I wish I can gather enough courage one day and ask her out.

  8. @Seck, the point is that you will never know what to do if you don’t try out that ‘if’; you cannot ‘grow up’ if cannot go beyond that ‘if’ point. Last year I had quite a similar situation like what you are in now. But I stepped forward, asking ‘the girl’ out, however immature, hasty, awkward that request was. I was rejected twice, frustrated, embarrassed. However bitter I feel about it, I cannot even be a friend with ‘the girl’ now since she insists that I was trying to be a friend with her and no more than that in the first place. When I went beyond that friendship point, she thought of me like a ‘liar’ while I did not do anything morally wrong or anything inappropriate(for self refection’s sake, the lesson was that I might have had lived in my illusion, not willing to see what the facts were, i.e., I did not know I was in fact immature, arrogant somehow, but I felt confident then; sometimes a confident self lapses into an arrogant ego without my notice in real-time communication, I suspect that was a total disaster in my case). My ‘asking out’ thing ruined the balance and our tenuous friendship soured soon afterwards. Moreover, I think one of the most important reasons was she was not interested at all, so she made an excuse for accusing me of being a liar. Nonetheless she commented on my ‘bravery’ that I was willing to taking the risk to ask her out. Albeit it is a real sad thing that everything is over between us, I feel both of us heave a sigh of relief and both of us have moved forward since. Anyway, may the very best of luck be with you!

  9. @Seck out of curiosity, do you work or do you have a student visa? If a girl likes you back and she drops hints of liking you and you ignore them, you’ll make her feel frustrated as well. Good luck though 🙂

  10. @Luc,

    Sorry to hear your story. Hopefully, you’d get another chance with another girl. Now that you mentioned, I don’t even know what to make up of it. Although “IF” she accepts me, it’s a great chance that I might go forward after that. But “IF” she denies my approach, I’ll be the one who would get sick and frustrated because I’ve been playing plenty of together-stories in my head, not sure if she’s playing though. Maybe you’re right, I’ll just take whatever it is before it is too late.


    I just came back from the lab although today is Sunday. I’m basically on student visa. Since I’m also doing TAship, it’s very demanding for me to juggle between my research in the lab and preparation for TA. My TA class is pre-med and the total hour for my TA per week is 7 hours which is basically the physical presence in the class, office and in the lab, let alone the time I need to grade their weekly lab reports, prepare for their lab experiments etc etc.

    I’m fully aware of the situation we’re both in. She as a girl won’t initiate the phase, I as a guy need to kickstart the relationship. Maybe it’s me, keep replaying the scene where she just looked at me while the sunlight shines on her face, she’s absolutely stunning. Maybe after this semester, I’ll look out for the opportunity.

    Oh thou capture my heart forever,
    trap me in thy splendid beauty of savior,
    I do hope she’d return me a favor.

    Thanks all.

  11. @Seck, I am not critical of your thoughts; I don’t want to sound mean, smug, full of complacency either. But there are several things I would not do if I were you.

    1. ‘Playing together-stories in your head’ is of no necessity, nor is there any need to know whether she bears a similar thought or not(definitely not, I think). We only have to focus on ‘facts’, which are things already out there. Anything like guesses, predictions, giving a coy smile etc. are a waste of time and energy. If you know clearly what facts are, based on the facts, you can do another thing, to love, passionately. I believe she would be very happy to know what you are thinking of her, no matter it is a YES or NO to your amorous move.

    2. I won’t assume that in any relationship that ‘a girl won’t initiate the phase; a guy needs to kickstart the relationship’. This is a Chinese stereotype, right? I love independent girls and it is a plus if they have feminist literacy. In my relationship, I would suffer consequences if I had a similar thought like that. Gender-wise, any dialogue between a girl and boy should be open, equal and truly importantly, honest. Make sure both sides are in comfort.

    I really hope you can be romantically involved with your girl and really hope my comments can help in some sense.

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