The e-mails from Western women that land in my Ask the Yangxifu inbox never cease to surprise and even shock me with their tales of relationship woes — particularly the ones marked “confidential”. Invariably when it’s confidential, it’s a story of unimaginable difficulties.
In the end, though, these women almost always want an answer to one simple question: “What can I do to make it right?”
Here’s what they hope I’ll say: “It’s totally normal in Chinese culture, and here’s a cultural tip to smooth things over.” Except in reality, more often than not, what they’re telling me isn’t normal and can’t be smoothed over with a little cultural finesse. And more often than not, I loathe to tell them what I’m really thinking — that, potentially, they have a guy problem. That, potentially, they’re floundering in a one-sided relationship.
What do I mean by a “one-sided relationship”? It’s a situation where only one person compromises and makes changes for the better of the couple, while they other person does not (or doesn’t enough).
Of course, one-sided relationships are not just a problem for couples with two different passports and home countries. I just watched the movie “Don Jon” not that long ago, which is essentially in part all about the dangers of a one-sided relationship using a very average couple of white Americans, where one person places all of the demands on the other, with no exceptions.
But as I think about the Ask the Yangxifu inbox — and the many nightmare relationships people have confided to me about — I wondered something. Are we more vulnerable to the throes of a one-sided relationship when we’re dating someone in a foreign country? When we’re deep in the process of acculturation and cultural adjustment, do we wrongly assume that we ought to do more of the work in the relationship precisely because we’re not in our home country?
The thing is, I thought about this because I had walked in these women’s shoes years before with my first Chinese boyfriend. Yes, I once blindly suffered through a one-sided relationship and I had no idea for the longest time.
I thought it was enough that he and I shared similar interests (music and movies), and that he loved introducing me to his own passions (like soccer). But when it came right down to it, as warmly as he invited me into his life, it didn’t go both ways. There were huge parts of my personality that he never bothered to ask me about — like my environmental biology major in college or the fact that birdwatching was one of my favorite pastimes in the US. Even worse, he didn’t care about my home country or hometown. I once suggested he might study there but he preferred to go to Europe instead. And then he asked me to follow him there, even though it was essentially impossible for me, an American, to find any meaningful work for myself. It took me the longest time to realize the problem because I was so besotted with him — “blinded by love” as they say. But looking back, I’m certain my struggles to understand Chinese culture and learn his language (at the time, I could only rattle off a handful of phrases…poorly!) also blinded me to what was really going on.
In the end, I finally said “enough!” and told him I couldn’t follow him to Europe. In part, I realized that it didn’t make sense to fashion my entire life around someone else’s wishes. And in part, I couldn’t take all of the trouble involved with moving to this country he had chosen as his dream destination. It took me years before I could finally admit the truth: that it was a one-sided relationship and that’s why it ultimately failed.
Sometimes, when you’re dating in a foreign country and you’re new to the culture, it’s not always easy to tell where personality ends and cultural norms begin. But in the end, cultural differences should never justify a relationship where everything’s tilted to one person over the other, where one person doesn’t feel supported or acknowledged or uplifted.
What do you think?