What’s the big deal about Asian men and bags?

(photo by James Creegan via Flickr.com)
(photo by James Creegan via Flickr.com)

There’s one topic in the foreign blogosphere in China and Asia that I just don’t understand. Why do people make such a big deal about Asian men carrying certain bags?

For those of you who missed the hoopla, the complaints fall into two different camps:

#1. Why do Asian men carry their girlfriends’ or wives’ purses? It makes them look effeminate, unmanly and/or “whipped”.
#2. Why do Asian men carry “manbags” or “man-purses”? It makes them look effeminate, unmanly and/or “whipped”.

Note that while the two complaints are slightly different, the conclusion is essentially the same. In other words, if a guy does one or the other (or, god forbid, both!), he is forever exiled out of the kingdom of masculinity.

I’ve lived a total of almost six years in China and have seen my share of Chinese men carrying their girlfriends’ or wives’ purses — or sporting what some might label as a “manbag” of their own. But I’ve also experienced them on a personal level through my marriage to a Chinese man.

Whenever my husband and I go out shopping, he always offers to carry my shopping bags…and, at times, he might even hold my own bag or purse for me. I never thought of him as “less than a man” just because he did that. To me, it just seemed like gentlemanly behavior — like opening a door or pulling out your seat for you, a simple way to show he cares for you. And besides, whenever we shop, I’m the one who’s usually rifling through the clearance racks and dashing in and out of the fitting rooms more than him, and I’m the one with the list of stores to hit and things to buy. Honestly, it’s nice to have someone to take care of the bags so my hands are free to sift through the shelves and racks without worrying about forgetting or losing the bags. (I am, after all, incredibly absent minded!)

As for so-called “manbags”, my husband’s oldest brother just bought him a brown leather bag as a gift. It was square and had a sturdy shoulder strap. My husband ultimately wasn’t interested in it (he’s prefers backpacks or computer bags) but neither of us judged his brother for the gift.

What I’ve learned from my experiences is this — there is no such thing as a universal definition of what it means to be a man. Different countries and cultures have different ideas of what men should and should not do. So we shouldn’t automatically assume that our country’s definition of “how to be a man” applies everywhere around the world.

We shouldn’t assume that when an Asian man carries a woman’s bag or purse for her, or carries what some label as a “manbag”, he’s somehow not a man. Maybe it’s not something you or the men in your life would do, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. So why should anyone make a big deal about it?

Personally, I love the fact that, here in China, men can carry all kinds of bags without thinking, “Will this compromise my masculinity?” Sadly, that’s not true in the US, my home country. For all of the talk about freedom and being yourself in the US, our definition of masculinity is frighteningly restrictive.

Ultimately, the measure of a man is not in what bag he has under his arm or on his shoulder. It’s about who he is as a person. And you’ll never know that from a casual glance on the street.

For everyone who still insists that carrying a woman’s bag/bags for her or toting a so-called “manbag” undermines your manhood, let me ask you this. Who told you so? Where is it written that “Thou shalt not carry thy woman’s bag/bags or carry a so-called ‘manbag’”? And why is it okay for men to carry certain bags, like laptop bags or backpacks, but not others?

No good answers to those questions? Exactly. 😉

P.S.: For further reading on a similar topic, read this post by Grace of Texan in Tokyo titled Things I Love About Japan: Men can wear Pink Running Shoes without being Labeled “Gay”.

43 Replies to “What’s the big deal about Asian men and bags?”

  1. You’re right, the American definition of masculinity is rather restrictive and, dare I say, non-progressive, and the American urge to conform here is ironic.

    But incidentally, since you mentioned Grace in Tokyo, Japanese men also refuse to carry their girlfriend’s/wife’s purse for fear of appearing unmanly.

  2. I agree! I think it’s so silly how people say that Asian men look “girly” or “whipped” because they carry purses.

    Rysouke has a number of man purses (and on the rare occasions I bring a purse instead, he always carries mine). It’s just, I don’t know, nice.

    Last time we were in Texas, a shop owner was like “Can you teach me how to train my husband to do that?” (Carrying my purse)

  3. My husband uses a man-bag and I am so glad he does. Actually, I am the one who suggested it. He is always looking for his keys, his wallet, sunglasses, and so on. But when he dropped his new smartphone outside our house, nearly ran over it with the car, and a neighbour picked it up, he decided that maybe I was right. Having a bag keeps everything in one place and reduces the amount of time he looks for things. He doesn’t use it as a fashion statement, but rather as a way to keep everything in one place. Plus it comes in handy when carrying smaller camera equipment like batteries.

  4. For the first question my husband’s answer is ‘Well, they hold it because they paid for them’ – joke about Hong Kong guys spending a lot of money to buy their girlfriend’s expensive brands and in the end they still need to carry them. I don’t get that – I can understand heavy shopping bag but since I got myself super awesome cutie purse I want to wear it. For me it’s not like ‘he’s not manly to carry his girlfriend’s purse’ – for me it’s more like I want to wear because I bought it to wear. Plus how heavy a wallet, phone and keys can be.

    When it goes to men’s purse this is the thing I don’t get but I accept. Everyone can wear whatever they want. And I would lie if I said my husband doesn’t have one – when I first saw his Japanese edition black Burberry men’s purse I was pretty shocked, in my country it’s not normal to have them. Even now in America that bag is hidden in our closet since he’s too ashamed to wear it and I cannot take it since there’s a thought in my head ‘what if those Asians in America know it’s a man’s purse and I’m actually having one?!’ haha 🙂 world is free and more unisex, maybe I don’t get the concept of men’s purse but honestly it’s non of my business, if a guy wants he can even wear high heels – as long as it doesn’t harm anyone 🙂

  5. My husband always has a bag. It’s either a backpack or his camera bag, which is a shoulder bag. He ALWAYS asks to hold my purse when I’m driving because he’s worried it’ll get in the way since I have a weird tendency to hold it on my lap when I drive (trained too well at restaurants?). And he’s fine holding it when I have to do something like tend to our kids or go to the bathroom when we’re out. I think people say these things about Asian men not so much because of the bag issue (many guys in the west use messenger bags and backpacks), but because it’s another way to put down the threat they somehow feel. Some people are still living in the 1950s. And it’s tragic.

    1. I wouldn’t say its a threat. More like competition. There are people in the west, western men who just can’t handle it. Some years ago, I met someone while waiting for a flight and he basically said “first we took their jobs. then we took over their companies. then we took over their markets. everywhere you look, we are taking over. now even their women are beginning to look at us Asian men a bit favorably. so the competition is intensifying. what did you expect these western men to do ? just sit still and do nothing ? of course not ! they are fighting back by reverting to stereotypes, stereotypes that belong to the previous century, stereotypes that are not going to work anymore in the 21st century.”

  6. @D-Maybe, thanks for the comment! It definitely is non-progressive. I don’t know if that’s true about all Japanese guys. See Grace’s comment, she said Ryosuke carries her purse for her.

    @Grace, what a wonderful guy Ryosuke is! 🙂

    @Constance, it makes total sense to have a bag with all of those things. My husband tends to use his backback as his sort of “manbag”. Sometimes he also uses camera bags as his “manbag”. 😉

    @Lina, that is so funny about guys buying the purses…and actually pretty accurate! 😉

    @Susan, what you said about “Some people are still living in the 1950s. And it’s tragic” is so true.

    @Eileen, thanks!

    BTW, apologies to all of you for the problems getting your comments submitted! Looks like my spam plugin got a little overactive. I just deactivated it, so hopefully there shouldn’t be any more problems. If you have a problem, please e-mail me so I can fix it ASAP!

    1. @Jocelyn, that’s interesting. Grace can correct me if I’m wrong here, but I would say her guy is an exception to the cultural norm in Japan, in the same way that not all American men will refuse to hold their girlfriend’s/wife’s purse (a la Susan Blumberg-Kason’s comment). Or maybe the current generation or young men in Japan is no longer bound by the cultural expectations of the past.

  7. Ever since getting pregnant my husband has carried tons of food for me (albeit in his own backpack) and he’ll only allow me to carry a small (and not too heavy) bag. Before, he would help me carry my bag if it was heavy, but not just for the sake of carrying his girlfriend’s/wife’s bag (he thinks it’s a way for couples to show that they are together or for the guy to show that the woman is already “taken”).

    As far as men’s bags are concerned, those aren’t uncommon in Europe – they might come in different forms and shapes than the ones in China, but guys still do carry bags other than backpacks, so I don’t think men’s bags are that weird after all.

    I agree with Lina, it doesn’t hurt anyone, so why bother?

  8. One of the things I love about Asian culture is that men aren’t so restrictive as here in America. In the past when I had some friends from Asian culture, I liked that they carried a backpack for me and stuff 🙂 My first Korean ex in 2005 used to accompany me to a downtown area just to make sure I’d be okay.

    One of my girlfriends is flying over to South Korea, and I asked her if she can see someone I used to know. I gave her some gifts to give to the guy, and one of those was a lovely Russian nesting doll key-chain in sort of a lavender color. My mom asked me if the color was okay because it looked feminine. I told her the color should be okay. (I watch Korean dramas, and yeah the guys are dressed in “feminine” colors) and the guy I knew was the type that cross-stitched and enjoyed romantic movies (He’s the one that introduced me to The Classic and Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.)

  9. My issue isn’t whether or not a man carrying a purse (whether it’s his own or his gf’s) is feminine-looking. My problem is with the woman who always has the man carry her purse. In my mind, a purse is an accessory to an outfit, or it’s where you carry your phone, keys, essentials. If you’re not planning on carrying your own purse, why buy it? Why take it out? Why not just have your bf buy a manpurse and put all your stuff in it?

    I think grocery bags and shopping bags are totally different. But to me, a guy carrying a woman’s purse for her is like her buying a hat only to have her bf wear it for her.

  10. My husband has a few man bags, but only uses them when he has to go out for business for a day or two. In the event of a tw0-day trip, it doubles as a suitcase since he’s well-trained in the art of minimalism.
    However, he’s totally oblivious to the fact that other guys hold their girlfrined’s bags. I once asked him why guys always carried the girls’ purses and he said, “no, they don’t.” But one thing I’ve noticed in the city we live in is that this only happens with dating, married-but-still-childless and pregnant couples. Same goes for holding hands. I’ve never seen a couple with kids hold hands while walking. Seems like once the kid arrives, the outward offection gets done away with–which I find sad.
    I’ve never gotten him to carry my purse, but I’d feel odd if he did, though he’ll carry shopping bags. As for holding hands these days, we do if the kids are under control and behaving! But then we get looked at like we’re animals in a zoo.

    1. Hello Charlotte,

      Your story is interesting. I think the reason people stare at you when you and your husband holding each other’s hands is they rarely see Chinese man-Western woman couple. As some people in this blog said that having foreign wife in China is like having abundant gold, I think they are amazed with your husband since he has a foreign wife (you) with him 😀 they don’t think you are something weird or strange.

      My guess is the first word popping up in their mind when they saw you and your husband holding hands each other is “WOW” or maybe your kids look very adorable to them so they turn their heads?

      Please don’t be upset or bothered with those staring at you 🙂 I’m pretty sure most of us here (if not all) support what you and your husband do (holding hands, or some other kinds of affections maybe). So, please keep doing it 😀

  11. I don’t mind to carry handbag for my partner. She often wants me to do that for her. It actually shows a sense of trust between me and her.

    She trust me, that is why she wants me to carry her handbag. She can count on me when she needed.

    A woman allows a man to carry her hand bag shows that she thinks the man is reliable. And a man carry his woman handbag shows that he care about the woman.

  12. Western hypocrisy at it best. They lecture China about women’s right, yet are far more conscious of & inflexible about traditional gender roles. Note there’re proportionally more female Chinese entrepreneurs in tech & other traditionally male-dominated sectors, whereas most notable American female entrepreneurs tends to dwell on fashion-related areas.

  13. My Chinese boyfriend is will always offer to carry my bag(s) when we are out because I have back issues and doesn’t seem to generate any particular stares (anymore than we get normally as a AMWF couple) and neither of us have thought anything about this as being ‘unmanly’ in any sense.

    There have also been times I have carried his bags when we are shopping and he is trying things on. Just seems a polite and nice thing to do either way.

  14. Personally I really wouldn’t want my husband to carry my personal handbag around. It’s so unnecessary. I can carry my own bag! If he offers to hold it while i need to do something that’s fine. Other than that, it just seems so unnecessary. If women dont want to carry a handbag, dont take one out. Why burden the guy with their stuff?
    I think many men globally now carry bags for themselves. It happens frequently in Europe as well as in Asia. Here in Malaysia many Chinese men would not be seen carrying their lady’s handbag for them but they would help carry other things.

  15. In China, men carrying girlfriends or wives’ purses shows their love to their girlfriends or wivies. Boys also carries girls’ purses or bags, because it is a kind of gentlemanly behavior. We carry friends’ purses or bags when they are in the fitting room for their convenience.

  16. What I don’t understand is how this worry about masculinity can begin at such a young age. My five-year-old grandson, who lives in the United States, won’t wear colors that are for girls or play with “girls’ toys.” When he was in preschool, the boys played with construction toys; the girls drew pictures. The little girls wore all colors, but the little boys wouldn’t dare wear pink or lavender. This worry about masculinity starts very early.

    Have you ever wondered why women can wear skirts or pants, but men can only wear pants? Maybe women don’t feel as threatened as men.

    Anyway, I’m glad Chinese men don’t feel that holding a girlfriend’s purse threatens their masculinity. It’s a good sign.

    1. I’ve seen this with my nephew. After he started going to kindergarten, he became very much aware of colours that are (supposedly) suitable for boys to like and which ones aren’t. I’m wondering if it’s the parents who teach their kids that? He told me that green is his favourite colour and that he can like this colour because it’s a boys’ colour. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be his favourite colour anymore if it was only a girls’ colour.

  17. I agree with Michelle and Miriam above about women’s purses being an accessory to an outfit the point of which is defeated if she doesn’t carry it. Also that it is unnecessary – I’ve said before that if you don’t have the arm strength to manage to carry your own handbag, then perhaps you need to clean it out or do some push-ups!

    I would add that in my case, as a foreigner here in China required to carry my ID around with me, that I am fiercely protective of my own bag. My husband has held it for me on the odd occasion where I have to tie my shoe, but other than that, I carry it myself always.

    To make a couple of points in reference to the actual article – carrying or holding shopping bags is, to me, not at all the same as carrying a wife or gf’s purse.

    And my issue with “man bags”, at least here where I live, is that they are pointless! The men I see carrying these bags still clip their keys to a hook on their belt loop and crumple their cash up and shove it in their pockets. So what do you need a bag for?!

  18. @Nicki,

    That’s a great comment. Women seem to have less hang-ups about their sexuality in general, and a well-known demonstration of this is the fact that most women, regardless of their sexual inclination, are able to witness same sex intimacy without any apparent discomfort, which stands in stark contrast to most straight men with regard to man-on-man love.

    One theory for this is that because the basal human form is female, women are able to tolerate a greater range of sexual behaviour and characteristics.

  19. Long time ago in Japan and other Asian countries, women had to walk behind their men. It’s okay that men carry purses and other items WHILE the women go to the restroom etc.

  20. In a nutshell,
    if the american’s mind intrinsically cannot perceive an asian man as manly, then whatever position that asian man takes to have a pee, he will be perceived as a sissy.

  21. I think the point here is we are not supposed to make any judgment about what people do before we understand the “anatomy” of those people or society.

    In some third-world countries, most of “home works” like ironing clothes, washing dishes, or cleaning bedroom are done by women. In a western country I currently live, here, those things are done by both men and women. Is that fair if I say western men are girly? I believe the answer is “NO”

  22. Good post! Coming from America to China (and marrying a Chinese man) myself – I was a bit surprised to see all these men holding “man bags” or fanning themselves with huge fans.

    Before I moved to China I didn’t judge… but, I also didn’t understand. I just figured those who carry bags and fans are just very secure. I’m not talking about holding a woman’s purse for her.. because that is just chivalry. 🙂

    My husband (boyfriend at the time) came to visit me in America and he was very into carrying a shoulder bag and using a fan. He’s a very “manly” man ~ so I just figured he didn’t care what other people thought! But now I see the true convenience of it. His “man bag” has saved us many a time!! Like the time I needed to wash my hands in the middle of the night while we were walking on some small streets. The only sink we could find was on the street and had no handles… but, who carries basic tools in his manbag?? My Hubbie! 😀 Who knows when you need a wrench, flashlight, or screwdriver!

    Also, everybody is constantly on the move – hoofing it or taking public transportation. You need to carry a lot on you (especially toiletries!!). Everyone needs a bag! I find the shoulder bag to be a lot more free than a backpack. Why should men carry a full on backpack just to be more “manly” when they can carry a less cumbersome shoulder bag that fits everything they need when they have no need to carry around a laptop or tab?

    As for the fan…. they are just awesome in the summer heat. ‘Nuff said. 😉

    1. @Rene

      “The only sink we could find was on the street and had no handles… but, who carries basic tools in his manbag?? My Hubbie! 😀 Who knows when you need a wrench, flashlight, or screwdriver!”

      Manly tools in a girly bag? That could create quite a bit of cognitive dissonance in an American man! 🙂

      1. @ D-Maybe

        Maybe one day American men will see the genius that is the manbag. 😀

        Also, I have seen guys who carry “girly” bags without a girlfriend or wife in sight… but, not my guy. Picking out his perfect manbag was no small task – he had to have the best of leather in the perfect style. He didn’t want a ladybag… it had to be a Man’s manbag! 😉 He picked it with flashlight and tool holding capabilities in mind.

        He says “Hey, if Indiana Jones can have a manbag – so can I.”

  23. If the west can’t accept the Chinese carrying their gf’s bag or a “man-bag” of their own, the problem does not lie with the Chinese guys. Why should the Chinese conform to the west’s “ideology” of manhood? That said, I personally do not want to carry a girl’s bag for her unless it is to relieve her because she needs both her hands to do something else. Miriam is right that here in Malaysia few Chinese men want to be seen carrying their gf’s bag. But that does not give us the right to think less of our Mainland Chinese brothers. Maybe our Mainland Chinese brothers have more to say, and rightly so, of our insecurity – not wanting to be caught doing a “girly” thing? Haha…maybe we do feel insecure after all, come to think of it – unsure of our own masculinity?

  24. @ordinary malaysian

    “Why should the Chinese conform to the west’s “ideology” of manhood?”

    In any culture, judgemental people are almost always from low-class. Non-judgementalism is the sign of upper class. When you spot some one or comment very judgmental, you know what you are dealing with.


    Judgement and prejudice are really the same thing.

  25. Lol @ IC and his blind love of upper class.

    Regarding the issue, to me this is a non-issue. I don’t carry my gf’s purse, because it’s hers to carry, just like I don’t ask her to carry my wallet, nor my cell phone. I don’t think a guy’s girly for carrying their gfs’ purses. I don’t carry that many things on my person at any time, other than my wallet and my cell phone, so I don’t really have a need for a man’s purse. And when I need to bring stuff with me, it’s too much anyways, so I always bring a backpack, because that would be the most ergonomic way to carry.

    Sometimes though, I do wish most things are made wallet size

  26. I occasionally also carry my wife’s handbag etc. but usually only when we are for a longer time outside and she has overloaded it once again a bit too much. But during her preganancy I carried it probably most of the time.

    I don’t think it lets me appear less manly or whatsoever, but then again, I never really mind what others think of me in such situations.

    Also when we go out shopping it is me carrying all the shopping bags/ grocery bags. Sure, I let my wife carry some lighter bags when i am overloaded but why should I let my wife carry the heavy stuff? I mean, as a child isnt it normal to help for example your mother carrying groceries? (weird comparison I know but somehow related)

    I cant say how I feel about the man purses, so far they havent been really my taste at all and besides I dont feel like spending money on something like that. However, I never know how my perception about such things might change with a bit more money in my pockets 🙂

  27. @IC…actually it is the “upper classes” so to speak that aftually make comments like that, not the “poorer” as you infer. Very often those who have less tend to be more accepting of others. To illustrate this I quote for you Edward Bernays, the guru of US public relations industry whilepeaking with his fellow “upper class” folk: “Ours must be a leadership democracy administered by the intelligent minority who know how to tegiment and guide the masses.” Ouch! I think it is a very shaky road to be on to state that poor people make comments demeaning to masculinity while people with money and education dont! Often these upper class you refer to are the ones who are much more discriminatory against other! Men carrying gf handbag in China happens because the girls want that. I personally just dont want it…I like carrying my own bag.

  28. I think in China if a Chinese man carries his g/f or wife’s handbag it’s a “gentlemanly” thing to do and has nothing to do with his masculinity.

    What I find unreasonable is when the female “expects” or demands the man carry her bag, ( e.g. comparing her man to others so if other men are doing it so should he… or if she’s playing the weak, frail woman to get what she).

    I (not often) have seen western men hold their Chinese girlfriends handbag, the few times I’ve seen this I ask myself ….
    a) Does he want to hold her bag willingly or he has been asked to hold it?
    b) Did he do this back in his own country and if not why then do it in China?

  29. I always thought it was very sweet that chinese guys offer to carry their girlfriends bags, but i do think it can look a bit ridiculous if the girls bag is bright pink or something, I think its ok to let the man carry a handbag for a few minutes while your in the middle of doing something but i wouldn’t like him to walk down the street carrying it. As for the Manbags, i think they can look quite stylish and slowly but surely they will become a thing in the west

  30. I’ve actually heard a couple of expat women here shaming the woman for letting the man carry her purse or bags- like the woman is spoiled or infantile for not carrying her own bags (unfortunately, some westerners here stereotype the local women this way in other matters too). I disagree with that. My husband always offers to carry bags and sometimes my purse, just like yours, and I think it is nice of him to give me a break since I’m always carrying so much stuff on the train each day when he’s not around. I don’t expect it, but I certainly appreciate it.

  31. I didn’t read all the comments. But when I asked about it, I was told that one of the reasons (not mentioned in the article nor in the comments that I did read) was for safety and security. A thief is more likely to steal a purse from a woman than a man. So if he carries her bag, the safety is higher. Also, a lot of Chinese guys buy the nice handbags for their girlfriends. So they can show off by carrying them. It’s just another culture’s way of impressing the ladies with their bravery and wealth.

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