Fenshou: “I Was Once Engaged to a Chinese Man”

(photo by Eternal Vagabond via Flickr)

When I called for submissions a couple of weeks ago, never did I imagine the overwhelming response from readers. Literally within days of posting, the submissions started rolling in.

The first I received was this piece from a woman with the nickname “Smallsquirrel”. It is a poignant and thoughtfully penned story of how her engagement to a Chinese man from a prominent Beijing family eventually ended. I’m honored to kick off my new series — which I’m calling “Fenshou” from the pinyin for the Chinese word for breakup — with what I’ve titled “I Was Once Engaged to a Chinese Man.”


Long ago, in what seems like another lifetime, I was once engaged to a Chinese man.

I met this man, we’ll call him Zhong, in graduate school. We were peers. We dated and eventually planned to marry. During our relationship I tried very hard to understand his culture. He was from Beijing, and both of his parents were very successful. What I knew about China then I could fit in a single paragraph.

We eventually traveled to China so I could meet his family. I remember once Zhong had stringently told me that foot binding was a myth. It was “made up by the stupid Americans to shame China.” So imagine my shock when his aunty answered the door to the family home tottering on teensy nubs. I learned later from a family friend with a penchant for chatter that she had been married off as a young girl to a successful Army man. As a symbol of his wealth, so that she would be forever reliant on servants, her feet were broken after the marriage, folded over on themselves and bound tightly in cloth. Not two months after they were wed, the aunty’s husband was killed and she was shipped back to her family… crippled. When I tried to ask Zhong about the aunt, he ignored me. When I persisted, he wheeled around and hissed at me that we would never speak of it again.

This was my baptism into China.

China is an amazing place, full of beauty and preternatural grace. Walking through the streets of Beijing I felt as if I was in a movie. But I noticed that everything in China seemed to have a purpose. Nothing was random. No one said anything in an offhand manner. Words were measured. Even emotions seemed calculated. I started to be able to place a finger on what was causing the nagging doubts I had been feeling about my engagement. I wondered, also, when I would be given the script so I could at least play my part competently. It never came.

I finally began to understand that for Zhong’s family, everything revolves around appearances and that I would need Zhong to brief me on how to act before every meeting with a family friend or relative. The instructions would go something like: “Wear something conservative. Mention your Master’s degree but only after he mentions his PhD, so he knows you are inferior to him. And make sure you look down when you talk to him. Also tell him that you like to garden and other simplistic tasks.” Um, I hate gardening. No matter? Oh right, I have to create an image.

At one point we had to go visit an old friend of Zhong’s father. I found out on the way there that he was a former ambassador. He would be serving us a certain kind of tea, which I despise, but I was to drink it. I was to drink two cups, actually, and praise it. I was to say the bare minimum, and I was to answer all the ambassador’s questions in a deferential manner. Under no circumstances should I talk plainly with the man, and I should not mention my degree in Political Science. My hands should remain folded in my lap.

We got to the ambassador’s house, and it all went wrong from the start. I am a terrible liar, and so when the ambassador asked me what my undergraduate degree was in, I stumbled. As a result he came to know I was a student of politics. Even though he seemed very friendly and eager for honest discussion, I tried to keep my views very benign. Then I excused myself to use the restroom, as I had begun to feel quite sick.

As soon as I was done spilling my guts into the toilet and tried to gracefully recover, I realized that the toilet would not flush. I was horrified. I stood in silent panic for what seemed like eons. I tried it again, begging it, “Please, please, please flush, damnit!” But nothing was happening. Finally I peeped my head out the door and whispered for Zhong. He could not hear me. But the ambassador saw me, and came to my aid.

“Oh!” he said jovially, “the flush is broken, you must do this…” and began to fill a bucket with water. Zhong glared at me as if I had done this all purposefully. I stood by in horror as the ambassador worked to flush my vomit down the toilet, all with the same demeanor as he had when we had earlier been discussing the former Soviet Union.

In the taxi on the way home the only words that were spoken to me were, “Do you have any idea how much you have shamed me? My family? I cannot look at you. Do not speak. I asked you very simple things and you cannot even do that much.”

(photo by Emily Barney via Flickr.com)

The list of things I was never to speak of grew to epic proportions that month. Human rights, alternate sexuality, my views on democracy, my views on anything really, except scholarly insights into neutral topics like linguistics. I was not even allowed to have an opinion on cooking, since each time I ventured into the kitchen I made terrible blunders. For example, once when chopping vegetables to help with the evening meal, I was met with strange sideways glances from Zhong’s mother. When I was done, I noticed that she shooed me out, and threw the carrots away. When I asked Zhong what had happened he informed me that “everyone knows that the carrots for that chicken dish must be julienned. You made slices. And they were uneven.”

When we returned home I broke the engagement. It was better for everyone for that way. I am a spirited person. I am an opinionated woman who expresses her opinion no matter how inconvenient, and that just wasn’t what Zhong was used to. He came from a family that had very regimented expectations, and very exacting ways in which behavior was measured. And while I think that is not uncommon in general throughout China, the way in which his family acted is surely not the norm. The failure of our relationship thankfully did not dampen my respect for the rich Chinese culture and generous people that I met, but I knew I could not be happy with a man who placed so much importance on appearance.

My bond with Asia remains unbroken, though in an admittedly very different way. About ten years after parting ways with Zhong, I met a wonderful man from Bangalore, India. We spent time getting to know each other and eventually I moved to India and we married. We have now been married for nearly seven years, have a beautiful daughter, and chop our vegetables into any shape we wish.


We’re looking for a few good stories from Chinese men and Western women in love — or out of love — to share on Fridays. Submit your original story or a published blog post today.

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35 Replies to “Fenshou: “I Was Once Engaged to a Chinese Man””

  1. that’s long time ago,lady,hope u do not hold any grudges.yeah,it happens,let it go,and don;t ever let it change u in a way

  2. A story beautifully told. Once you are closer to the political establishment, you will know how much of China is “traditional”.
    Gender plays a role. In inner circle of Beijing, it is not uncommon for those daughters of high ranking officials to marry foreigners. They all keep a low key for the party’s sake. The sons have to bear extra burden. Social code also changes when you are up the ladder.

    I am not sure if this lady fully understood his ex-finance’s background. A simple visit wouldn’t tell much. You were likely to experience all the culture shocks. I also wonder what would happen if the relationship has lasted longer. It was a long time ago and many things did evolve.

  3. I think she ran into a real communist family. Just like over a quarter century ago in Indiana, one Japanese American woman from Hawaii dating a white soldier ran into his racist mother. He also promised her that just liker her, his mother is a Christian with not a racist.

  4. Wow, That was beautiful! 🙂 I’m so glad her views on China as a whole didn’t change after they broke up.

    Reminded me of something my Mother used to tell me when I was dating a Coloured/Mixed boy a few years ago. We really were not well suited for each other, we disagreed too much. But still we tried to stay together because we loved each other. And one day my mother told me that sometimes love just isn’t enough to keep a couple together! Not words I wanted to hear at the time, but I understand today why she told me that so out of the blue.

  5. @ Girl With Broken Heart. I am sorry to read that you had a horrendous experience with the traditional Chinese man. When I was younger, I wanted one of those traditional Chinese girls and I more or less had the same experience as you did. I had difficulties in a different way though. Then I got sick of them and decided that Western girls (including ABC girls) were for me. You should have tried dating an ABC man. We (ABC boys) are more wild, crazy, and loose (ie. more fun). Hee, hee, hee….. All the best to you and your family.
    I am happy to read that you are now happy with an Indian man now.

  6. Thanks for reading, and thanks Jocelyn, for sharing my story! As I said, I absolutely did not know a lot about China back then. But to be fair at the time really no one did… especially about families that operated like the one I encountered. I tried my best, but it really was more about it being a bad interpersonal match-up. I learned a lot and I am happy for that and the time I spent there!

  7. @smallsquirrel, perhaps you were with too much of a Confucian type of family. There are 2 sides to every Chinese. Try a Daoist guy. The Daoist guy never have rules, so your personality wouldn’t be surprising to that person.

  8. smallsquirrel,

    Excellent essay. I am happy that you are now happy. That guy had too many rules and regulations. Really, if I had been you I would have whacked the Zhong guy to no end whatsoever with my excellent collection of kungfu weapons and simply song-zhong’ed him.


  9. Thanks for your story Smallsquirrel! Your story is wonderful, and you perfectly describe and articulate the notion of behaviours and emotions being measured. I am curious about how your finance’s behaviour in China compared to his behaviour in your home country. Did he have a critical approach towards you during your courtship? Did he place expectations on you when you were out socialising? What a shame he couldn’t wrap his arms around you and tell you that vomiting is ok, everyone does it…:(

  10. smallsquirrel,
    Nowdays Families like that in China was so rare, I just know, wealthy people tried hard to immigrant to overseas, ordinary people changed so much their views instead of this type of tranditional BS, maybe ZHong was from one of old fashioned plotical level back ground of families in China, well, that could be only reason make him think, “Shame or losing faces” just how was unlucky for you, however that somehow build up your mind with Asia with out this unlucky enagement, you wouldn’t keep moving find your current husband right now, its everything working alright. so by this point you were lucky.

  11. Yeah I agree with Chen Yong’s comment. Your ex must have been from a “gan bu” family, meaning they had ties to the Party. While “face” is an important part of Chinese culture, there is definitely such a thing as prioritizing face to a pathological level. I think any girl, Chinese or foreign, would have felt uncomfortable in your situation.

  12. P.S. The thing that angers me most about this story is the carrot wasting. Back in the early 90s, people in China were still on liang piao (food rations). I still remember my grandma carefully storing the slips of paper that would allot us certain kilos of meat, grains, veggies, etc per month. The fact that this family could afford to throw food away just to make a passive-aggressive point shows that they were living sky high above the level of ordinary Chinese. Having ties to the Party is like having ties to the Mafia. There’s a lot of shady business that calls for discretion. No ordinary laobaixing would have made the cut, let along a foreigner. Girl, you dodged a bullet!

  13. Nobody knows how much pressure the guy was under at the time.
    A powerful story does not mean the other person is to take all the blame. I think those list of to-dos is just as long today in certain families. It has a lot to do with the social circle. In fact, you will find it works similar ways in US, but less strict perhaps.

  14. Beautiful story, nicely told. I will write mine, although it will be in a story form, I should let you guys know…sorry I didn’t do it earlier.

  15. @smallsquirell,
    Did you visit China afterwards?
    I like the way the story was told, no doubt that relationship marked you and your memory.
    Congrats for your marriage, your chopped or not chopped vegetables!

    It could perfectly come from a book. I wonder how Zhong is at present.

    This articles are a great idea! Thanks for sharing.

  16. @smallsquirell – 1994 in China is really ancient, considering the profound impact of rapid economical development on people’s social mindset.
    In short, as globalization expands, different cultures start to converge. Don’t think young generation would have the same mindset, certainly not ABC.

  17. Foot binding is a myth made up by stupid Americans? Now that’s the most disgusting lie I’ve ever heard. My Chinese friends have told me about foot binding in China. For some reason Chinese think small feet is a standard of beauty. smallsquirrel, you’re better off without him. For someone as precious and open-minded as yourself, he should be the one trying to impress you.

  18. ahahahhaha Foot binding during that time was true 60 + yrs ago. I used to know a Chinese woman who married to a Chinese man yrs ago. His parents worked for the Chinese gov’t and his dad was a high ranking official with drivers. Their marriage didn’t work out because her MIL controlled every moves that they made like ” you can’t close /lock your door while sleeping etc” You have to disclose everything even pissing in the restroom, you have to show your private parts. I don’t know about you guys but I want privacy. We’re training alot of sissy men out there.

  19. I am surprised to see many Chinese guys comment here are so negative.
    About chopping the vegetables, it is a big deal in good Chinese cooking. The guy’s family is clearly privileged. He was certainly not interested in simply to please a girl. He was looking for someone who his family could accept. It is a different dynamic in that relationship. Relationships requires compromises sometimes.

    I like your story. But I see bias in it as well. It has a lot to do with your understanding of the culture.

  20. Again, thanks everyone for your kind words and feedback.

    Nope, haven’t gone back. Not because I don’t want to or never would go, it’s just that I have family in Europe and now in-laws in India and that really eats up the traveling budget! I would LOVE to go back to China and explore it more. My Mandarin is rusty but I think I could get it back eventually. And clearly there is so much more to see and do (and eat)!

    As for the ex, he remained in the US and is now on his second divorce, I think. Clearly in a relationship it takes two people to make it succeed or fail. The failure was not only his fault. But in the end I also did not want to make it work because it was not the right relationship for either of us. Does that make sense? The failure wasn’t down to any one person’s culture, it was down to personalities and what each of us needed from a partner.

  21. askdsk… want to know something crazy? his parents and family LOVED me. And in the end I grew fond of them too. They were devastated when we broke up and I received a long letter from his mother about it asking me to reconsider. It seems Zhong’s family were much more accepting of my slips than he was ever able to be. They were willing to teach me and saw that I was willing to learn. Yes, there were frustrations, as there can be any time there is a culture gap AND a knowledge gap AND a communication gap. But like I said, the major issue was one of compatibility.

  22. Thoughtfully penned, indeed! I’m so glad that her view of China and Chinese culture in general wasn’t tainted after this horrendous experience. Congrats to Smallsquirrel for embracing a life of seeing the lightheartedness of embarrassing situations and chopping vegetables any damn way you want.

  23. As a Chinese, I hope your experience didn’t ruin your perception of Chinese culture. His family must have been wealthy and had some political connections to the Communist Party based on the details. I don’t think a middle class Chinese family would throw out carrots like that. We might use it for something else if it doesn’t look aesthetically correct but throwing it out would be a waste. I feel sympathy for you because I had a grandmother who came from a wealthy family in Canton and I hear a lot of stories of how regimented life was back then. Of course, that was around WWII and I think your ex could have taken a ‘chill pill’. It wasn’t /that/ bad.

    Anyhow, I’m glad to see that his family actually did like you and that you moved on and had a happy family with a wonderful man.

  24. I think the story is fair for the most part. But it s also emotional that can be misleading. How the family reacted at the end showed they were also acting in their son’s best interests.
    It takes maturity to single out a person, not the entire country or entire culture.
    “chop our vegetables into any shape we wish” — I dare to say life is more complicated than that.

  25. You guys don’t understand anything!! Chopping your vegetables in a particular shape is personal. You will never see me chop a carrot like the above picture. iIf you chop it in a wrong way, chop the correct way next time. No big deal! Some neat freaks will chop vegetables neatly but their lives are not perfect I can promise you. At least , his parents were understanding and willing to teach her about everything. I always say ” compatibility” is the most important factor in any relationship or even for business relationship. Culture gap is one thing but ARE YOU WILLING TO LEARN ? I’m learning everyday.

  26. Yeah, Bruce, I understand that, but throwing away food that isn’t perfectly chopped!?! No, I don’t understand that and don’t tell us what to understand.


  27. Interesting story, I’m glad you’ve moved on and happily married now. It’s strange how your ex find the feudal practice; foot binding disgraceful and yet in reality his family life seemed to be of the feudal era. Though I don’t mean that they are bad people. This is a very interesting development of Chinese culture through the effect of the communist regime. I’m sure such mindset is slowly phasing out.

  28. Wow this must have been heartbreaking. Its interesting how the culture differences didnt break you up but highlight differences that already were in terms of personality.

    Its a sad story but I am glad you told it.

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