4 Things You Should Never Say to a Western Woman in China You Just Met

Some of the most bizarre first encounters I’ve had with people happened right here in China. When you’re a Western woman in this country, it’s amazing – and even shocking – what some people (especially Chinese men) will say to you in the very first moments you meet.

Want to make that great first impression with a Western woman in China? Don’t ever say any of the following things to her on that first meeting:

1. Will you be my friend?

"Will you be my friend?"
“Will you be my friend?”

I’ll never forget that one morning when I attended an English corner in Zhengzhou, China all those years back. Once I arrived at the appointed place, I was completely mobbed by a crowd of English enthusiasts, all hovering around me as though I was a Hollywood movie star who had magically descended into the park. Of the many questions that they rained upon me that day, one stunned me above all.

Will you be my friend?

It wasn’t just one person who asked me this – it was several of them. And to be honest, it was kind of a scary question. I think I flashed back to some safety town movie I watched as a little girl, where I was taught to be weary whenever some stranger approached me and offered to be my friend.

Even worse, I didn’t know what to say. It’s not exactly the kind of question you want to answer “Yes” to, because who could know they want to be friends with a total stranger? On the other hand, nobody likes to tell someone – who ostensibly offers a friendly hand out to you – to go away.

The thing is, most Western women will hear this question a LOT. It’s troubling to us for the reasons I mentioned above. And it’s totally improbable. After all, if we’ve just met, you don’t know us and we don’t know you. How can either of us know we ought to be friends?

If you’re a Chinese man, it’s even more critical that you exercise caution. When you ask for our friendship without even really knowing us, we might wonder in the back of our minds if your idea of “friendship” is really just a euphemism for something totally inappropriate.

Instead, if you want to be friends with us, don’t ask for it directly (especially the first time you’ve met us!) – behave like a friend. Listen to us, instead of talking over us. Show genuine concern for who we are. Take your time in getting to know us. Only time will tell if we will finally be friends.

2. Can I have your phone number?

(photo by Vanessa Berry via Flickr.com)

One lazy late summer afternoon many years ago, I was strolling beside Hangzhou’s West Lake by myself, basking in the beauty of the willow fronds swaying in the wind and the delicate stone bridges of Su Causeway. And it was a perfect moment, up until this middle aged Chinese man suddenly stopped in front of me and began asking the usual number of questions in rapid-fire sequence (from “Where are you from?” to “What do you think of China?”). I felt a little restless, mostly because he was disturbing the solitude I had hoped to enjoy that afternoon, and offered up vague, short answers that were polite all the same – but that I also hoped would send him the subtle message that I wasn’t really interested in conversation.

Instead, he threw a bomb of a question my way: Can I have your phone number?

It startled me completely. Here’s a guy who I had never met until this moment, and he expected to have a direct, personal line to me? Once again, I was totally put on the spot!

This sort of thing happens a lot to Western women in China, where people we’ve just met are suddenly asking for very personal contact information – which we’re not sure they merit, and we don’t really feel comfortable providing. Especially because, as women, we’ve spent some portion of our lives fending off unwanted attention from weirdo guys, and become very protective of our privacy before strangers.

Now, this middle-aged man could have avoided all of this weirdness of the situation by simply doing a very different thing. He could have handed me a business card of his – or a piece of paper with his contact information – and simply invited me to contact him if I was interested. And if he had done that, I might have been impressed – that here was a man in China who, for once, didn’t press me for personal information I might not have been willing to give him.

 3. You’re so beautiful.

(photo by haylee via Flickr.com)
(photo by haylee via Flickr.com)

A few years back, I wrote about an encounter I had in a beauty salon:

“Beauty” could barely describe the two girls hovering over me for a makeup session two weekends ago. Both had smooth black hair reminiscent of a calligraphy brush dipped in black ink, eyes the color of pu-er tea and lips more brilliant than the fiery red pomegranate blossoms. Their smiles illuminated the entire room.

But in their minds, they weren’t the real beauty. I was.

“Look at her eyes! So big!” one of the women squealed, after powdering my face.

“Her nose is so straight,” the other sighed. She then squeezed it gently a couple of times, giggling like a schoolgirl.

But when they moved to my eyes – and specifically, my mascara – the excitement waved over the room in sudden tsunami fashion. “Her eyelashes are curved. Can you believe that?” Several women from outside rushed in to take a peek. A makeup artist next to me and even her client pulled the curtains back and lunged their heads to admire my lashes. “She doesn’t even need an eyelash curler!”

Laying there on the table, I felt like some sort of model woman from another world on display – and given my sweltering palms and the way I kept crossing my feet, it wasn’t an easy job. If anything, I didn’t understand them at all, or the way they told me “you’re so beautiful” the moment I sat down next to them, before going over to the makeup room.

It was a reminder of how China values someone with my looks: the pale white skin, large round eyes, and a straight foreign nose. While back in America people thought of me as a plain Jane, many of the people I’ve encountered here will dote upon my looks as though I were a beauty queen.

It’s strange at times, but it definitely feels even stranger when it comes from Chinese men you don’t even know, as Emma, a girl from London, reported in a guest post for Linda Living in China titled “Blonde and Alone in China: Language Learning the Awkward Way”:

Being a white foreigner, with long blond hair, I was prepared to receive some attention. Every foreign visitor to China should be prepared for the not so subtle stares and sneaky – or sometimes blatant – pictures of you being snapped without permission. I was not prepared, however, for all the attention I was to receive from the young Chinese guys.

Travelling on my own clearly gave them the courage to approach me. I was constantly being told how piao liang (漂亮: beautiful) I was. As much as this flattered my ego, I was well aware that this was more due to the lad points they would score for getting lucky with an ‘exotic’ blonde, than it was down to my actual appearance. This was clear to me after being hit on having just cycled 20k on a rented bicycle in the heat of the South China sun. I was pink faced and dripping in sweat, in stark contrast to immaculately made-up pretty Chinese girls (I still haven’t figured out how to stop the makeup from simply melting off my face when it’s so hot and humid).

Men in China who she had never met before in her life were suddenly calling her beautiful, and in the back of her mind, she wondered just what these men REALLY wanted with her.

That’s why it’s incredibly dangerous to walk up to a Western woman you’ve just met and suddenly praise her as beautiful. Because we’re going to wonder, are our looks the only thing that’s really on your mind? Are you just another one of those Chinese men who thinks Western women are sluts?

Instead, if you’re thinking “She’s beautiful” the first time you meet us, the most beautiful thing you can do is to wait until we’re friends before you would even think of telling us.

 4. A creepy version of “Hello!”

That "hello" is just creepy! (photo by Keenan Pepper via Flickr.com)
That “hello” is just creepy! (photo by Keenan Pepper via Flickr.com)

When I first came to China in 1999 and roamed the streets of Zhengzhou, I soon discovered that my wanderings in the city didn’t go unnoticed. Of course, every foreigner reading their trusty China travel guide usually discovers that it’s not uncommon to hear the term “Laowai!” (one of the Chinese term for “foreigner”) shouted when you’re around. But what the guides often don’t mention is that you’re also subject to something I like to call the “creepy Hello”.

“Creepy Hello” is when someone yells out “Hello!” to you in a voice that sounds completely unworldly for what is supposed to be a friendly greeting. Sometimes it’s like hearing someone do a horrible impression of a cartoonish voice. But the reason it’s usually horrible for us is that it sounds frighteningly like a catcall – as in, those loud whistles or comments of a sexual nature that we were forced to endure in our home countries, and rather wished we didn’t have to be reminded of while we’re in China.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re smart enough to know that no woman – especially us – would want to be greeted in this way. Still, it happens on occasion in China, where Chinese men we’ve never met will give you a “creepy Hello” in passing. So guys, if you actually want to get past “Hello”, don’t even think about making it a creepy one!

What do you think? What other things should Chinese men never say to Western women in China they just met? 

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29 Replies to “4 Things You Should Never Say to a Western Woman in China You Just Met”

  1. What’s fascinating is that this isn’t limited to any one culture. I lived in West Africa for a bit, and your 4 points happened to me all the time. Human nature and curiousity has a way of transcending culture I think. In any case, I’m glad to be back in the USA, because I hated how guarded and cold I became since I could never get used to the constant attention.

  2. Asking for someone’s number you just met is rude, but calling out hello, asking to be your friend, and telling someone they are beautiful are just really the only ways people have to communicate sometimes when there is a language barrier. As a visitor to someone else’s country it’s good to also exercise a lot of patience especially when being looked up to and adored which definitely doesn’t happen in every country Americans visit.

  3. Haha, while you are still considered a celebrity better enjoy the attention! Just learn to relax a little. It is not everyday that you will be complimented; once you become familiar to the Chinese and are no longer just exotic looking, you are going to miss the attention! Stars work so desperately hard to be noticed and remain in the public eye. You lucky gals don’t have to do anything, just being the 老外 is all there is to the magic! Except of course, the phone number! And the disembodied ‘hello’ from a distance – those could be disconcerting, agree. Otherwise, just smile and strut like a princess – that you are are, for all we know, to the Chinese! Ten years down the road, you might no longer even be noticed! Now is the time to soak in all the attention, and I mean it in a positive way! So, cheerio to all you all princesses!

    1. I have to disagree with Ordinary Malaysian. Culture changes how men interact with women, but disrespect looks pretty standard everywhere. What Jocelyn describes here are many times a result of not curiosity but blatant stereotyping. I understand before 2000’s in rural china (or even now). But I have encountered (either as a recipient or a bystander) such behaviour even in this day and age (sometimes by intl students on top university campuses). In that context, such ignorance is intolerable and absolutely unforgivable. Educated, connected gen Y individuals have no excuse to act stupid (and lets not kid ourselves; people who engage in any of the behaviours Jecelyn describes, neither flatter themselves, nor others. But if they happen to be well travelled and educated, it just makes them seem incredibly stupid).

  4. I often get the ‘Hello! How are you?’ in Taiwan by random people. Usually, if I respond, they don’t know what to say next because that is the extent of their English ability and thus, the conversation quickly ends.

    In Taiwan, I feel my white skin gets the most attention – by men and women alike. I have very fair skin which quickly burns and never tans. In Taiwan, it is beautiful but I remember when we were having our church wedding in Canada, my sister suggested that I do tanning sessions so I could have a little color. Of course, I didn’t. I guess it just goes to show that the concept of beauty is different everywhere you go.

  5. I’d like to agree with all of those and add: don’t grab ahold of me! I was sitting next to the window at night on a nearly abandoned bus when a man got on, looked around at all the empty seats, and came and sat right next to me, blocking me in against the window. After sitting there silently for a few tense stops he suddenly reached out, grabbed my arm, and loudly said “hello! Welcome to china!” I shrieked a bit in terror and he realized his mistake, apologized, and moved to another seat. I don’t think he meant to be weird, he just wanted to meet me, but it was in an inappropriate way! I think a good guideline for guys is to treat us the way they would want their sister or mother to be treated by men.

    Also, to ordinary Malaysian who commented above, I just want to say, no. I don’t want to be a princess or famous or exotic. Personally I’m married and am not looking for any attention. It seems many other western women also feel the same way. Please don’t tell us how we should feel. Thanks.

  6. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who finds certain “hellos” creepy. Sometimes they sound like Chucky. (the demented doll from the horror movies)

  7. My father-in-law (Chinese) is visiting in the US now, and twice he has told random strangers (the cashier at Kohl’s and a server from Applebee’s) that their beards are beautiful. He is limited in English, so he just repeats very beautiful a few times. The men did not know how to respond to that comment.

  8. While we are on the topic of comments from random men, could someone who’s spent more time in China PLEASE tell me what that “tsk” sound means? If I knew what it meant, it would bother me less. My husband doesn’t hear it, but I know I’m not hallucinating! He tends to be more oblivious to annoying things in the streets. It sounds like a tsk, or maybe a tut. It’s only men, usually middle aged, who do it.

  9. Hollywood Movie star? In a city in North India, three white women were working on an international organization project. They were transferred to Vietnam or Malaysia, I am not sure…this was back in 1999. They were replaced by an Indian woman living in the US, an African and a Chinese…literally a riot broke out…they wanted the three white women back.

    As far as all other issues mentions…strange… I thought many Asian men will rarely ask a white woman out for a coffee or tea…let alone ask for a phone number.

  10. It’s pretty much all going right back to the “background difference” I see a lot:
    To many of us Westerners, the thing you do not talk about is how someone looks, because that’s personal.
    To Chinese, the simplest and most obvious topic to talk about is how someone looks, because that’s, well, obvious.

    Funny thing about the “creepy Hello”… I felt it mainly bothered me because so much of it was something of an experiment to see if the laowai would react to it – with no chance of any sensible follow-up, and often even just dared to utter once one had already passed the person in question.
    Reading your analogy with cat-calls, I wonder if that isn’t just the thing that makes it so odd for a guy.
    Then again, I was wolf-whistled after by a girl in Latvia…

  11. When I’m in the countryside I don’t really mind the random hellos. They usually come from school kids, so I’m not so fussed. In Tokyo it really bothers me thoughーpartly due to custom and partly because it feels quite threatening to be suddenly approached by people you don’t know, especially at night. You don’t really know their motives, or if they’re drunk they might react badly if you ignore/say something they’re not expecting. :/

  12. I thought of another one – don’t ask if Western women are very “open” with a suggestive leer. For one thing that word does not have the same connotation, at least for me in American English. Secondly… Ew!

  13. I think I’m pretty lucky, I haven’t had the “can I have your phone number” in a loooong time, and every time someone tells me I’m beautiful it’s always a woman! My hellos are also mostly from kids.

  14. Ugh, the creepy hellos. Usually it seems they just want to get a reaction so they can laugh with their friends. In other words, yes it’s basically a catcall.

    For the intrusive things like asking my phone number or to be my friend, it mostly only bugs me when people bother me in the middle of something. More than once I’ve had guys come up and tap me on the shoulder when I’m jogging and listening to music to start in with the “Where are you from? Do you like China?” stuff. Also reading in coffee shops. It makes me feel like they think that foreigners are just there for their personal entertainment – come chat us up any time you want some English practice!

  15. The “can I have your phone number” question led to the addition of (not one, but three) “don’t answer” IDs in my mobile contact list.

    When I was a novice in China I thought they were just trying to be friends and I obliged, but 33 phone calls in one day later I knew they were crazy. If there is one thing I have to say about Chinese men, it’s this: They are persistent!

    1. Haha… “Crazy” is probably a little harsh. But I know what you’re talking about… The persistent men are really just inexperienced and awkward with foreigners. It’s worth noting that it’s not unusual for Chinese people to send multiple messages or make multiple phone calls to their boyfriends/girlfriends in one day — in fact, it is often expected.

      1. I would argue 33 phone calls from someone is crazy and inappropriate behavior. It is not “multiple phone calls;” it is dozens! I don’t think people get a pass for being Chinese and awkward with foreigners. Frankly, that’s insulting. My husband is Chinese as are many of my friends and they all have enough common sense to realize that calling someone that many times is totally not okay. But I do agree that Chinese men can be a lot more persistent than what I’m accustomed to in my home country.

        1. 33 phone calls is probably at the high end of the range but this sort of thing does happen with Chinese couples — and I stress couples, not friends and acquaintances. The concept of “clingy” or “stalking” for the Chinese is different and often non-existent and Chinese people are often not aware that their action amounts to harassment, especially when they’re attempting courtship. There are in fact Chinese women who expect their boyfriends to be constantly available for them.

    2. Oh my! My record is just 5 or 6 haha. It seems some Chinese men don’t understand indirects! If I don’t pick the phone it’s because I don’t want to talk to you! But to be fair, the most annoying guys I ever gave my phone number to were a guy from Xinjiang and another from Angola. So it’s not only Chinese men who can’t handle foreigners 😀

  16. I’m sure this is really helpful to us Chinese men. Tracing back three years ago before I came to the states, i could totally greet those aliens on the street. For christ’s sake foreigners were too rare to those of us who live in the rural areas. Therefore I would guess this happens for a reason. It would be no surprise for y’all from the west to see people with different color, from different cultural background on a regular basis.

    On the side note, instead of getting the digits by directly asking ” Can I have your phone number?”, i notice something like ” hey by the way would you like to exchange contact info?” would really do the trick without appearing rude. It delivers a subtle message that ” hey I’d like to get to know you but it’s up to you to decide if there is a chance”. And that puts us on the same pedestal that anyone could step down.

    Kind of realize it is a matter of learning process, about absorbing the more western/polite manner to define oneself.


  17. “It would be no surprise for y’all from the west to see people with different color, from different cultural background on a regular basis.”

    Not exactly. Not outside the big cities and their suburbs. I know folks in New Hampshire who voted for Obama but rarely see black people, around the town of Dixiville Notch near the Quebec border.

  18. What?
    When do Chinese guys become so outgoing?
    This is so not me.And I thought the 4 points were white guys’ icon.lol

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