Ask the Yangxifu: Opposite-Sex Friendships in China

An American woman wonders, can people of the opposite sex still be friends in China? (photo by Edwin Pijpe)

Eleanor asks:

I’ve recently befriended a Chinese student here in the US. I lived in China for 2 years and speak Chinese more or less fluently, but my grasp of Chinese friendship/dating culture is still pretty basic. He and I have talked about exploring the possibility of being more than friends, but both of us agreed to take more time to get to know each other just as friends for now and not to rush anything. I think there’s an obvious undercurrent of attraction between us, and I’m worried that if we decided we were unsuitable romantically that he would back off friendship-wise as well. In China, I didn’t see many opposite-sex friendships (besides with high school aged kids), and I worry if we don’t end up dating that I would lose him as a friend too. I like and respect this guy a lot, so I hope you can reassure me that our friendship can continue even if one of us finds someone else.


Many of my closest friends in China happen to be men — including Peter, a guy I even call my “older brother.” But none of them are ex-Chinese boyfriends. And given fellow yangxifu Jessica‘s response in this article about dating and marrying Chinese men, I’m not alone:

it is rare for ‘exes’ in China to remain friends.

So what’s up with the ex-factor? Many Chinese get suspicious when their partner or spouse continues a friendship with an ex — that, sooner or later, they’ll become more than friends. After all, if they dated before, why couldn’t they do it again? Bad breakups — a friendship killer the world over — also can get in the way, as can the pain of losing someone you truly loved, but who didn’t love you back in the end. If you date a Chinese, just realize that, sooner or later, your breakup means your friendship will eventually end.

But friendships can and do happen between people of the opposite sex. Many of my friends happen to be Chinese men, and many of my husband’s friends happen to be Chinese women. These friendships thrive even as we date, marry and have children — because none of us had a dating history to begin with.

In your case, you risk more by dating him than not dating. Not dating, though, could also screw your friendship if he has hidden feelings for you (think “I feel pain every time I see her or communicate with her”). Even if you choose “not dating” I can’t guarantee your friendship.

I’m reminded of a quote from Sex and the City: “Maybe we should go out on a date before we break up.” Before you decide this relationship won’t work, just take it day by day. You might be surprised.

What do you think? What advice do you have?

Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China/Chinese culture (or Western culture)? Every Friday, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.

6 Replies to “Ask the Yangxifu: Opposite-Sex Friendships in China”

  1. I think Jocelyn’s advice is excellent as usual, although in my opinion friendship between ex’s in China does sometimes occur, especially if the people are younger (like in their 20’s). I (an American living in China) am still friendly with an ex in his 20’s and I know that some of my former students (now in their early 20’s) are friends with some of their ex’s. Maybe this is a relatively new phenomenon in China, though, and I do think overall it is much less common in CHina to be friends with an ex.

    As for being friends with the opposite sex, I agree that this is relatively common in China. Although…it seems to me that if two members of the opposite sex hang around each other a lot exclusively people, especially the older generation, will assume things. I guess that’s true in the west too, though. Also, since you and he are in the States and not in China I would think he might be less reliant on Chinese social norms.

  2. @Eleanor, just carry on as friends and see how it goes since you obviously like him. If love blossoms, well and good. If not, like they say, it is better to have loved and lost than not at all. As to whether an ex Chinese boyfriend will remain a friend or not after breakup, it will really depend on the man himself and it is difficult to predict. I don’t know about the situation in China, but there may be a grain of truth in what Jocelyn has said that Chinese people may find it hard to want to continue with an ex, rightly or wrongly.

  3. I don’t think a Chinese man can be with his ex. He can be your friend but once you break up ,you will be his past. Majority of Chinese men don’t like to be friends with their ex. It’s just too much misunderstanding for future gf/wife. If you start as friends then it’s absolutely fine. When I kick a woman to the curb, she is never in my life again!!!!!

  4. I am a Chinese American man and 2 of my best friends are white girls. So I think friendships between opposite sex do occur. I think it really depends on the guy’s mind. If he’s been in the U.S. long enough, he probably wouldn’t care.

    Your question about exes though is different. I think disregarding any cultural differences, it’s hard to have your ex as your friend after a break up even here in the U.S. I have only knew one case of that personally and the reason those two are still friends is because they never really ended their relationship (it’s a mess).

    I would suggest you two go for it and give it a try. The longer you stay as friends, the more likely you will just remain as friends. Take a step forward when the passion is still there. Maybe you will discover enough things other than passion to sustain a long term relationship. If not, hey, at least you wouldn’t have to wonder about the “what ifs” when you are older and regret you didn’t take any action.

    Best to both of you!

  5. I think this article is interesting. My boyfriend told me that he would like to be friends with his ex’s but expressed concern for an opposite sex friendship that I am in. He even told me that he still keeps photo’s of “the girl’s” he once loved. I thought it was inappropriate and strange. But, I ignorned it because it seemed idk, like something a kid would say. No offense to him but also because I still have things that ex’s have given to me. Not for emotional value but because they are mine and I don’t see the need for getting rid of them.

    Now to the topic. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t see the need to hold to people when things are over. Once we’re done, we’re done. So my boyfriend wouldn’t have to worry about that. My boyfriend expressed concern about my friend I mentioned above and a bit about my best friend. He thinks they are fine but obviously he wants boundaries, which I totally agree with, however, I don’t think that the boundaries we have in mind completely match. He once asked me if the roles were reversed, how would I feel. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to say that I wouldn’t care but I know many men (and while I’m positive he’s not like them, you can never be too sure) who would then purposely seek out friendship similar to mine but with the purpose of “showing me”. Also, I thought, I haven’t been in such a situation so can I truly say I wouldn’t care. But the fact is, regardless of whether my insecurities sneek out or not, because they are friends and assuming I have no reason to think otherwise, it wouldn’t be my place to tell him to stop.

    I think I still wasn’t fully on topic, I apologize for that. I think this is a question you should really talk to your friend about. If you want to bring it up go for it or you can wait to see if the topic comes up again. Either way, if you both are expressing interested in each other, ask directly, “If we don’t, will our friendship last?” “If we do and it doesn’t work out, will our friendship survive?”

    One of the things I’ve always been afraid of, is the possibility of a friend telling me his feelings, regardles but almost always, if I have feelings for him as well. Because I know myself and how I am with my ex’s. I also figure that if I was truly in love with my friend, I wouldn’t even be thinking of the possibility of a break up and just go for it. Not that I believe that we wouldn’t break up but because I’m not looking for it. Why go into a relationship thinking about the end? It’s about the moments you have and about making them last for as long as you can.

    Anyway, that’s just my opinion.

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