Why I Write About “Forbidden” Love in China

Forbidden entry sign
(photo by ilco)

Forbidden. That’s what someone once called my writing back in 2004 when I started sharing my relationships with Chinese men. It’s not as if I put some adult-store-version of my life out there, complete with salacious descriptions that would have everyone heading for a cold shower. Sex never even came up.

No, I just happened to write about my former Chinese boyfriends.

I broke with Chinese tradition, where you keep your past loves buried away in your heart (to be sure, I never used their actual names and changed some of their details, though everything I shared was essentially true). That comment shook me then — I never realized I crossed a cultural line in my writing. If my old files from that time are any measure — I steered clear of intimate topics for years — the comment impacted me in ways I didn’t even realize.

Not for good, though. Starting in 2009, I once again ventured into the same “forbidden” spaces. On top of it, I delved into some blush-worthy territory with John (such as here and here), and then shared it with you. I knew the rules this time around, but I chose to break them, and still do. That’s because I believe these stories matter — they’re the kind of stories I wish I found years ago when I first began dating men in China, and my only guidance came from this short chapter to relationships in China out of a decade-old book about Chinese culture. Stories I longed for when I couldn’t seem to find another couple like me on the streets, and when I was tired of hearing another foreign woman announce why she snubbed local men in China. Stories that might just give another Chinese man the courage to ask a Western woman out.

Still, they’re not always easy to tell. Someone who submitted a story for Double Happiness once worried about having her story published, and then asked me, “Is it weird for me to be nervous?” She never guessed that I’ve tossed and turned on some of those late Sunday or Thursday nights, especially if I just scheduled a post on sex or something deeply personal. Let’s just say it’s a good thing my husband’s clinical strengths include progressive muscle relaxation and positive imagery. At the same time, I have to write the rules as I go along — and sometimes I’ve backed off from territory that would expose me or my husband too much for comfort.

Chances are, that same guy would still call my work “forbidden.” Only this time, I’d direct him right to this post — and never, ever, stop writing.

What do you think?

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19 Replies to “Why I Write About “Forbidden” Love in China”

  1. I guess in every society there are lines the locals will not want to cross. It is a cultural thing. It is true that generally, Chinese people do not feel comfortable publishing their love stories. This may be hard for those who are far more open in the matter and feel stifled by the local norms. I guess we just have to find a middle point.

  2. I guess it’s very -Chinese- to bury the past relationships and never ever talk about them again as if it had never existed. My fiancé forbid me to mention my ex again because it hurt him (and I completely understand that) but before getting together with him that didn’t hinder me to write a lot of blog entries to “digest” that lost love. I guess my fiancé never quite “got over” his relationships and thus didn’t learn much from them.

    I, on the other hand am pretty sentimental and do like to remember and analyze in the past (retrospectively, there’s always some lesson to learn) as long as it doesn’t overshadow the present. I used to write about my two first boyfriends (without names of course) on my sohu blog and got quite a lot of response. I not only wrote how we got together but also mentioned that it was my first relationship and so on.

    I think Chinese people actually do like to reminisce but simply don’t talk about it. Why else are cheesy (“come back to me”/ “I’ll love you forever” kind of ) love songs so popular in China?

    Here are some of my entries (it’s an old inactive blog)
    1 http://lacosta.blog.sohu.com/84327233.html
    2 http://lacosta.blog.sohu.com/90178092.html
    3 http://lacosta.blog.sohu.com/86040031.html
    4 http://lacosta.blog.sohu.com/94918210.html

    …and yeah, I tried so hard to express myself in Chinese… =)

  3. Hear, hear! Your blog is so important for the reasons you mentioned. I wish it were around when I felt confused and alone many years ago in China. Writing about it isn’t easy, so I applaud you for being so brave. I have had the same thoughts as I’ve written my memoir, but along the way have reminded myself that I wished someone had written about cross cultural relationships when I needed advice back then. Even if people aren’t in a cross cultural relationship, they can learn a lot from your blog as many of these issues apply to us all!

  4. I’ve only started writing my own blog 10 months ago and I’ve gone through similar feelings and experience, especially with my post on “Why Chinese Men Lie” in which I write about the “saving face” issue and what I have experienced with my own Chinese boyfriend. Even if they have nothing to do with sex, they are still “touchy” or “forbidden” subjects.

    I still have trouble posting due to the reaction I’ve received, especially on this particular post; yes, I’ve lost sleep over it and even made me doubt of continuing writing. Fortunately, Liang is good at supporting me (he has a very similar personality as your husband with the muscle relaxation and positive imagery!) and he’s the first one to read and comment on my posts before I even upload them so I know if he’s good with what I write, then I shouldn’t worry too much about the reaction of a few readers. I’ve received the support of many regular readers so this outweighs the few negative comments received and keeps me going. As the saying goes: “You can’t please everyone”.

    Keep up your wonderful writing, Jocelyn. I love reading about these “forbidden” topics; who else is going to write about them and help those looking for information on these subjects?

  5. @Jocelyn , doesn’t matter what you write I’m here with you. Those forbidden topics must be discussed no matter what others would think. Don’t feel discourage. We will always be here to support you so it will be a smoother ride. so don’t be afraid. Just put it out there on cyberspace and with time and patience, people will learn to accept it. Jocelyn , thank you for all your hard work over the yrs and breaking alot of Asian sterotypes. Without women like you, I don’t think western women understand much about Chinese men or even Asian men in general. WE NEED MORE WESTERN WOMEN LIKE YOU.

    @ Nathalie , on your post “why Chinese men lie” should continue on the discussion. I don’t understand why you stop just because there was a few bad comments. Yes, you are right. We don’t need to please anybody. We can only please a person for a very short period of time . I still want you to continue on that post and other forbidden topics in the future. Of course, we will expect confrontations from people but it’s all worth it at the end. Ask your bf, Liang if he agrees with me.

    @Susan, keep up the good work. I do agree with you. Some information over the yrs are old already. If no information is updated online regarding Chinese/ Asian men , people really don’t know where to find it. It’s not like going to a supermarket to buy vegetables. I do find a lot of misleading info. on Chinese/asian men which were written by insecured white men trying to put down on other men. Seriously, western women are doing alot of googling online on every subjects about Chinese/asian men right now.

  6. I think its kind of a reason why I never started writing my own personal blog. (Book Blog doesn’t really count I suppose.) I worry about embarrassing my family or whatnot with things I could write, and there are many things that aren’t okay to write about. I would like to thank you ladies for writing blogs and helping me understand the Chinese men 🙂 You’re an inspiration to everyone I have to say.

  7. Oh, I totally get this. My boyfriend and I have very different views on how much and what to share. I eventually got him to start talking about his past relationships, and it wasn’t easy. I shared everything about my past with him from the start. I now share less and he shares more, but it took at least two years to get him to open up about his past.
    Since we have yet to share our relationship with his family-due to their traditional nature and a bad past experience for him and an ex-I can see how this is not something everyone wants to talk about.

  8. Agreed with ordinary Malaysian that there is a cultural element coming into play when different peoples make choices regarding what, when, as well with whom to share. I’d been asked of some personal information in Western settings by people who were mere acquaintances – in a Chinese context, though, it’d have been perfectly legitimate to take offence and break off contacts. To this day, I’d remained extremely private and been guarded up whenever conversations flow into the direction of revealing personal information and real feelings. On the other hand, I can’t help but wondering if that very old school (very Chinese and Confucian) thinking of maintaining an ideal composure at whatever time that was instilled in me when I was small has exercised a significient influence on my outlook. The basic idea is to deal with whatever issues or negative emotions privately, even the postive ones such as pride in accomplishments must also be restrained under an public eye. Not only is it for retaining an ideal composure, or projecting a stable and strong image, but it many times is also for being considerate, thoughtful and sensitive to other people’s feelings. On a pragmatic level, it has to do with keep nosy gossipers at bay – everywhere, people talk, most times showing no refrain from tossing their ill-informed judgements around, even taking pleasure from making petty and catty comments behind each other’s back; not to mention plenty users and manipulators out there lurking for the opportunity mounting an ambush.

    Putting oneself out under a spotlight brings uninvited attentions which sometimes carry with them burning heat – I admire the candor, in particular, the courage, that many a Western woman demonstrates here.

    @Jocelyn, again a great post of courage and insight. Even though I personally am not sure about sharing, I must recongize for many issues (some of them viewed as taboos), an open dialogue more often than not brings in new perspectives and most importanly, will help and inspire many many other people who relate. As a fellow woman I admire and proud of your writing. 🙂

    @Natalie, I found your comment interesting, hence having checked the said post out. Those are lovely stories you’ve shared in your blog; and may I say that I’m so very much envious of your fortune of having a great guy at your side holding your hand 😉 I wish you two a harmonious hundred years together (百年好合).

    However, I’d like to to share my perspectives on several issues discussed.

    First – Chinese (or East Asians at large) have very different concepts of what are and what are not, ‘lies’, than those of North Americans. Or rather, the mannerisms of giving information are sometimes radically different. What you’ve perceived as ‘lies’ in a Chinese person’s eyes may have been acknowledged as a form of soical politeness. A Chinese person would instanly and instinctively understand what is really meant to be conveyed despite what is literally said – this is less about ‘saving-face’ rather than conforming to the social norm and customs. Most Chinese have internalized without even realizing this could be perceived as so-called face saving or immoral lying, not until they are measured up against a set of moral terms of another alien culture.

    Besides, not only is it most times acceptable (depending on specific circumstances, though), but occassionally it’s expected if you are to interact with other Chinese persons smoothly, especially with those standing at the (more) ‘traditional’ side of the spectrum. The expectation is that each and everyone is able to pick up the cue and react accordingly. In some cases, Chinese would view ‘white lies’ legitimate or even must be used. Say, in a scenario where a grandparent is diagnosed with cancer and has only several months left. Would you tell the truth to him or to lie about it but go about for everything in your ability to make his last days comfortable and happy? My understanding is that a typical North American would reason the truth must be told because it’s his life and his very right to know. But highly likely a Chinese person, having realized nothing else could be done to extend his life, would choose to block the information completely – that is, to lie – to him that it’s just a minor problem but doing everything to serve his last days. Yes, this is a lie, but it is also filial piety to spare him the despair and fear of cancer and its forthcoming verdict. Just do everything to make him happy in the last days – which are already short and precious, so why risking wasting them, inflicting the pain of despair and horror of cancer and its consequences? – I’d have lied here without hesitating.

    Second, on a personal level, as a woman, I doubt I could stand ‘lies’ used only for soical functions told to me by the man I love and trust – the rules you set are pure gold.

    I’d also have confronted him, perhaps fiercely, depending on what real issues were. Yet it’s inconcevable for me to have it published. When my ‘Chineseness’ gets better of me, a blog entry as such would have been a deal-breaker if trading shoes – my guy published a post of our fight, especially analyzing how my parents’ parenting skills contributing to behavior of ‘lie-to-keep-face’ – no need for us to see each other’s face again then.

    For me, and I believe many other Chinese, immediate family – parent-child and husband-wife duos represent the sense of trust and safty. We’ve one another’s back in a tough world. There are times when conflicts are inevitable and parents and child/wife and husband disagree rigorously. But to get it up for others to know – or to open channels for others to judge one’s parent/child/wife/husband – is inconceivable. It’s not a face-losing issue, it is a betrayal that my beloved subjects me to strangers’ judgements. You mentioned you boy friend’s parents kept whatever he did perceived not enough from the family and attributed it to ‘saving face’ – I beg to differ, it seems to me more like a form of protection of their son than their need to preserve their own face, although it could have been one of the minor factors. I honestly would have done the same if I have a child – constantly motivating her/him or even exercising tough love but never ever allowing other people using my baby for their tea time tidbits.

    I apologize in advance if I sound too blunt, and I certainly don’t want to hurt or offend. But I’ve noticed how many times people attribute such-and-such to the Chinese face-saving. Not really. Not entirely ture at the least. The Chinese family relations have way more deeper, subtler, nuanced facets of loyalty and trust.

    Thank you for this platform for exchanging ideas.

  9. Im sooooo happy that didnt stop u from writing… this blog is the only place I can find… how to say … examples? or something like that … when I need them… or when I think im gettin thru something really weird in my relationship and non of my friends can understand because they dont have cross-cultural relationships.. so thanks for that 😉
    and yes the thing about the ex-s is true … my boyfriend gets all uncomfortable if I say something about my ex, even if it is something negative,its like he doesn’t want to remember that there was someone before him… and if I ask something about his exes he answers but always after that he would say ‘why do u care about the past that much?, u should care about the future”

  10. Jocelyn, I appreciate your candid posts about love, relationships, and Chinese culture. Cross-cultural relationships (especially marriage) present their own set of challenges (and rewards!). I appreciate that you take the time to thread some of these issues out and provide an open forum for discussion.

  11. @Jocelyn – Thank you for the effort to write about a subject few touches. It takes real courage to do so and takes real dedication to upkeeping.
    @Nathalie – A few negative comments do not represent most of the readers view. Under heated debate, some people can go over borad. I have been cursed by someone during business meeting, but it does not stop us to work togather.
    @Yuping – Thank you for the insightful thought and view. It is all true and it is exactly the reason I prefer straight foreword open dialog type of conversation. I rather take face value of the statement than trying to figure out meaning between lines. It is too tiresome for me.

  12. Jocelyn,

    I think you’re doing a wonderful job of sharing about a topic that has seemed foreign to people both in China and in Western countries. It’s difficult to do this and more so when people either lack the experience or the inclination to enter into the discussion with you.

    That said, I do understand why some people might not discuss. Personally, it took me awhile to even comment here, let alone share a story. At home, we were brought up to keep things to ourselves (don’t air the laundry publicly) and would share only with our closest friends. I still do that and thankfully, have felt camaraderie here so have been comfortable enough to open up a little.

    I am thankful you have been brave enough to share, have provided a forum that allows others to contribute, and built a community where people feel respected and eager to encourage others as they navigate their own paths toward love.

  13. @cvaguy

    Thank you for your kind words. I agree, it’s a tiresome practice. I had my own teenager frankness expriments, the boldness to speak up constantly broung me troubles from my class teacher. Got fingers burnt, and had wisen up later on. 🙂

    Interestingly enough though, my overseas experience has enanbled me to appreciate some of the cultural aspects of China’s life that I used to dismiss as excessively sentimental. Overall, I now feel Chinese is a warm, kind and generous people, regardless how they are demonized in Western media. A regular Chinese folk today still retains some of the ‘人情味’ in contrast to the straightforward, ‘you mind your business and i mind mine’ Western style. Friendships and emotional bondings last long and are genuninely appreicated. Certainly this is not to say they don’t exist in Western society or to deny there are real problems for Chinese society to deal with collectively, but that’s not something new, every culture is a combo of good and complicated. 🙂

    I was not advocating the ‘subtle cultural communicative style’, either. But it would be comforting to see these subtleties understood and appreciated rather than reduced to the ‘saving face’ lump altogether 🙂

  14. It is the ‘forbidden’ which stirs people the most, whether they agree with what you are writing or not – and is the reason why you have so many followers.

    When my tireless googling paid off and I found your blog, I felt so relieved that it never occured to me it could be seen in that way.

    Anyway, there shouldn’t be any boundaries when you are writing for the ‘greater good’ 😉

  15. @Typing – when you have friends who tell you their personal problems crying in front of you, you will know we are all the humans, Chinese or not.
    I don’t mean reading between lines and tip toe dancing around sensitive issues are not important skills, just prefer not to do that when it comes to love and relationship.

  16. @Yuping – I meant “Yuping” not “Typing”, sorry I about the misspelling of, the silly auto correction 🙁

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