Guest Post: When Tradition Gets in the Way of Intercultural Dating

How many of you have ever had tradition or cultural differences get between you and your intercultural relationship? I’ll never forget the handsome guy from Nanjing who couldn’t even date me because his family expected him to marry a Chinese girl. Or the Northern guy who was my boyfriend for less than a month, until he discovered his parents could never accept a foreign girl.

Well, Lena (who blogs and vlogs at Lena Around) had all but given up on finding a mainland Chinese fellow because of all the trouble involved. But then she falls for a  fellow she meets in Beijing…and soon discovers that tradition could potentially turn them into two star-crossed lovers.

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I’m not new to this. I’ve been ‘in a relationship’ with China for five years. We have been through good and bad times. We have loved and hated each other but I always come back. I learned something every time. During those years with China I have dated both Mainland Chinese guys, kissed a Taiwanese one, saw an Australian Chinese, made out with a British Chinese and fell hard for a Danish Vietnamese. I’ve been around indeed. Every time I bumped into a guy, I would learn something. I learned that even though they have a handsome Asian face, they don’t act like an Asian guy if they grew up abroad. I wanted Asian culture to be a part of our relationship but it wasn’t. But on the other hand, I also very fast learned that if they had grown up in China, they would be thousands of kilometers away from me when it came to culture and the way we act and think.

After years in China, I’d given up on finding a mainland Chinese guy. There were still cuties around but I knew that the cultural aspect was mafan (trouble) and I was quite sure that our personalities also just wouldn’t suit each other. I’m outgoing, curious and independent and I always saw the Chinese girls as being the opposite so I had settled with the thought of only ‘dating’ China but not the people.

But when I had just settled with that then it happened. He came. I literally bumped into him. I was at this silly speed-dating event because my friend had a crush on the host. I just wanted to make a video and thought, hell yeah, why not? So we went. I sat down at one of the tables and each table had a staff member who told us how to introduce ourselves and play the games. Then he came. The staff member at my table talked to him for a second and then she got up and he sat down besides me. I turned around and played the ‘I’m-just-a-stupid-foreigner-who-doesn’t-understand-anything-card’ and asked about the rules of the game that the other girl had just explained to us a moment earlier. He was patient and told me again. Then I asked about his name because I couldn’t read his characters (that was for real) and I got his Wechat from the girl after he had left the table (yes, sneaky me).

We met up one week later and talked all evening. The same happened the day afterwards and the day after again. I walked around with a big smile on my face all day because of this.

But then the problem came.

After we had said goodnight one evening, he send me a text on Wechat. He said he had something serious to talk to me about. I asked him if he was married. He thought I was joking. I wasn’t because it wasn’t the first time that had happened to me.

He told me then that he was from a very traditional family and he was the only child. His father is very strict and he knew that he had to go home for Chinese New Year to ask his father to accept that he was seeing a foreign girl. I wasn’t sure what to say and it was all just one big mess in my head. He apologized and told me that he was scared too but he also knew that he had to do this.

Because I’m not new to China, I had heard about this situation before so even though my foreign friends laughed at the whole situation (I did a bit too in between the down-moments), I wasn’t really that surprised, just sad because I had a feeling that the father wouldn’t accept this and now I’d finally found somebody who I connected with. Somebody who was fun, chatty, good-looking and smart. He also had a big interest in Chinese history and culture just like me and we could talk for hours about different society issues and historical matter. I didn’t want to let go of this now. It was only the beginning of a beautiful thing, I thought.

Now one month later, I’m still telling myself to not think about it but of course I do because I am an over-thinker and that is what we do. Nobody around me here has tried this before so I can only talk to my guy about it. I call him my boyfriend for now but I know that it might not be for long. He is going back in January so please wish me all the best of luck. I think I need it very much.

Editor’s note: Unfortunately, things did not work out for Lena — his family could not accept her.

Lena is a 20-something Danish girl who is currently working on a master’s degree in Beijing and writing about her travels, China (her favorite place) and love. You can follow her at

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40 Replies to “Guest Post: When Tradition Gets in the Way of Intercultural Dating”

  1. I know how you feel. Although, I strongly feel this is not cultural, but racist. The parents haven’t even met you and they have decided that you are not ok simply because you are a foreigner. There is no tradition that states that it has be a Chinese woman; they are just too scared to give it a go. I bet there is someone out there for you, but it takes time. I married into a very traditional Taiwanese family that loves because I am good to their son and respectful to them. So my point is chin up and I know you’ll find the right man one day.

    1. @Katy…if they are ok with marrying a Japanese or Korean, it is plain and simple racism, similar to the white American style. Otherwise, it is tough to figure out whether it is cultural or not! Many Chinese I know are ok with their kids marrying whites, but not other Asians!

      1. This is pretty surprising to me. My family is pretty open-minded…my parents are from Taiwan. My brothers and I were born in the US. My parents are totally okay with me and my brothers marrying white, other Asians, etc.! Is my family an anomaly? I doubt it. I think it’s a stereotype that Asian families are so “racist,” strict, and traditional. My family is not very traditional, and we’re very socially liberal, kind, and forward-thinking. I’m sure many Chinese/Taiwanese families out there would welcome a white or other wife/husband with open arms!

    2. @katy
      I don’t know what it is. It might just be narrow-minded people who don’t know better. That’s what I am thinking. And then their son is sadly listening to their opinion. On the other hand, he might have had this plan of marrying a Chinese for a long time and me getting into the picture was just not a part of it. I don’t know..
      Anyways, happy that you’re happily married 🙂

      1. @Lena

        It happen sometimes not just to foreigner like you! My friend is from a traditional Chinese village in China and they speak a local dialect, it is different from Mandarin. And I am from the same province as my friend but I don’t even understand his dialect! They are like a different Chinese people within China! And until this day, some local in his hometown can only accept people who speak their dialect! Some of them don’t even accept Chinese from other parts of China, image this! So, I understand what you mean exactly!

        My friend told me one of the main reason for the guy’s family to reject relationship with foreigner is COMMUNICATION with the guy’s family members! They are worry that foreigner can not understand what they trying to express! And if their son date or marry a foreigner then they will have a hard time communicating with the foreigner!

        May I offer you a advice, if you really love this guy! If the guy and his family is speaking a different dialect to Mandarin, then you can learn some phrase in his dialect and go to his hometown and use these phrases to greet his parents etc. It shows you are will to learn to understand them! This will impress them very much!

        I think this might help you! If you are serious about your relationship with this guy, then you may consider my advice!

        I hope this can help you and your bf! Of course you can discuss with your bf first!

        All the best to you!

  2. I can completely understand your situation Lena – I think if my husband was a first born or only child his parents wouldn’t have let us marry either! however, because he’s the 3rd of 3 sons they are more relaxed about it.

    However, I have to say I really respect the guy that you dated for being so honest and straight forward with you. He could have taken advantage of the situation and just had a casual relationship knowing that it wasn’t going to lead to anything. However he told you straightaway that his family culture might get in the way of the relationship – many girls haven’t been this lucky! I know a lot of women in the UK who’ve been in long-term relationships thinking it’s going to lead to marriage and children and when they bring it up the guy comes up with ‘I’m not ready’. If everyone was upfront about what they want from the beginning then a lot fewer people would get hurt.

    1. @miriam you are so right! I try to remember that he is a great guy for telling me this from the beginning. First, I was like omg why is he in such a rush but he already knew it would be a problem and didn’t want to hurt be if we stayed together for two years and then suddenly he had to stop it because of parents.
      On the contrary, I thought that if we had stayed together for that long, he might have changed his mind about listening that much to his parents. But then again, I am also a super naive person with a positive mind haha XD
      Thank you for commenting on this. Your point of view made me feel better!

  3. The boy’s parents have a lot more in mind to consider than a marriage of people from different countries. A marriage is a duty.

      1. @Jen I tried to accept that it is a part of his upbringing and than there was nothing I could do about it. In the beginning, I had the silly thought that I might be able to change his mind but then again friends reminded me that if it was trouble now already, it would only be worse next time a big decision had to be made.
        If I should speak honest from my heart, then no, I don’t think his parents should have the last word in this discussion. He should man up and make his own choice. But then again, as he said to, he is financially dependent on them for the next few years and he already owes everything to them so if I try to look at it with my Chinese culture glasses, I kind of see where he is coming from even though I don’t like it!
        Cheers x

    1. Marriage is a duty..but due to one child policy not many “pure” Chinese women to go around. Hence the increasing number of bachelors in China.

  4. This is too common and these stories I hear so much it makes my heart hurt for women that are wanting to date Chinese guys. My best friend is currently in Beijing and has an issue of a guy who was her “best friend”. He went home recently and probably told his family about her. So he came back to Beijing acting strange. Turns out he started dating a girl from his hometown. What’s new with that besides my best friend having a broken heart?

    By the way, I feel you completely, Lena, about falling in love with China….however as of late I don’t care for dating and if the right person comes around…then sure why not. (Also cuz I am sick of being heart broken and need to take care of myself.) however the main reason I’m scared to fall in love has to do with some Chinese guys in the past. I’m afraid to fall in love with people in China because I don’t want to fall out of love with the places I fell in love with.

    1. @Holly I am really sorry to hear that your friend had her heart broken too. Tbh I have no clue how you can just go home and start dating smb else, like what? It seems more like forced love.

      Anyways, from now on I will be more careful. Even though this guy broke my heart a bit, he warned me from the beginning, he was honest and he taught some really valuable things when it comes to dating in China. Things I hadn’t run into before. I will still be dating but I will be more careful and I’ll probably break it off faster now if I get a feeling that he is traditional. Not saying that I’m cutting out Chinese guys but I will def remember what I have learned.
      I’m sorry that you aren’t dating either but I get where you’re coming from. I love China as well and I don’t want to not love this place just because of some failed attempts to date Chinese guys. Maybe it’s time to just love China and then the rest might come along later, who knows, right? 🙂
      Hugs from here x

      1. I always tell myself now that I have my entire life ahead of me. My childhood best friend just got married this past October and I heard from my sister that our childhood friend may now get divorced. And not to mention there is a baby on the way.My friend’s in my life that are around the same age as me and are married…or even single mom’s help me realize I don’t want anything that they have right now.

        Everyday I’m blessed that I am able to travel and love life the way it’s going. Loving the place you are in is better for now. Focus on you, maybe the right one will come along. 🙂 I love China and can’t wait to return. I fell in love with the mountains the most.

  5. This was so sad to read! I’m sorry it didn’t work out 🙁 The idea that parents can order their adult child to break up with their partner and the son/daughter just accepting it is so strange to me, but I guess that’s just a cultural difference.

    It’s great that you’re still so upbeat despite the disappointment. I hope you find a great guy someday!

    1. “The idea that parents can order their adult child to break up with their partner and the son/daughter just accepting it is so strange to me, but I guess that’s just a cultural difference.”

      @Jen…not exactly….

      Many white Americans order their children to marry their race at least frequently.

    2. @Jen yes it is difficult for us to understand I think. It it a silly thing but it is happening. Even between the Chinese themselves as well.
      Yes, I’m keeping my head high. That’s the only way to get around it and he luckily didn’t seduce for years and then broke it off (My Danish friend is still waiting for her bf to come to DK and that process has been going on for AGES..)

  6. Fast foward two years after he’s spawned the requiered offspring(hopefully a boy) and he wants to pick up where they left off even though he’s still married. No other word for him but a**h*l*

    1. @Elizabeth Lol I did tell him that he could always call me after the divorce but at that time I have def found smb who wanted me too despite what the parents think ..

  7. Oh, no, this is so sad 🙁 I guess I was just lucky with my bf’s parents. They are also traditional in many ways, live in rural China and have never met a foreigner until they met me. But they are very loving, and what I think they really want is just for him to be happy, and so they welcomed me with open arms <3

    It breaks my heart to hear that this is not always the case 🙁

  8. Sorry to hear that this happened to you. I hope you will find someone, and if not then it’s OK. Sometimes people are destined to be with someone they least expect or hope. I always thought my destiny is tied with being a Korean guy, but since my Half Chinese son was born, I have to give up that dream…now I don’t know my destiny since baby father and I are no longer together.

  9. such is the culture !!!! even here in Canada !!!! my brother-in-law married a white girl. my mother-in-law was so mad that she did not even go to their wedding. they have been married for more than 35 years, but my mother-in-law still does not like her !!!!
    hope Lena will find someone whose parents are more open minded.

    1. Wow that’s really bad.
      I really hope I will find smb with more open-minded parents.
      But I think I will because I have heard so many stories about these crazy in-laws and I don’t think I am ready to go there!
      Thanks for reading 🙂

  10. For me it is very hard to imagine a situation like this. I wonder if some parts of China are more open and others more traditional. But I still have trouble accepting that an adult person would let his/her parents have the final word about his/her partner.

    My Chinese family seems to be very open. My husband is a single child and they loved me since the first moment. Also, my husband’s cousin (also a single child) got married last year to an Indonesian girl. And, mind you, no one in this family can’t speak English except for my husband, and they haven’t travelled abroad either! So there is hope. Wish you good luck next time, Lena!

    1. @Marta Wow you have been really lucky there. Also, it is very uplifting to hear your positive story. I talked to more girls about this and they also have Chinese husbands and open-minded in-laws so there are def people like that as well.
      Yes, it depends very much on the province, where they are from but also the way of thinking and how strict they are. This guy’s parents are just super strict so I think even if they were another nationality, they might still do this.
      My Chinese gf grew up in Canada but her mother is still trying to control her all the time. Anyways, thanks for commenting 🙂 x

  11. @Marta and Jocelyn…I am wondering the same thing about the US as well. Are some parts of the US more racist and white supremacist than other parts based on the following story….

    Is South more racist than other parts of the country? These folks sound like well off folks. Will the reaction by this or any other equivalent family be equally visceral if their daughter or son married an East Asian? How about if their daughter or son married an East Asian billionaire’s son or daughter? Will they be equally visceral? I know the south voted for Trump by larger margins, but then again Trump has appointed folks who are married interracially and even the worst racist who is likely becoming Attorney General, has a half Asian grand-daughter. I did notice that some people in the Alabama forums who had voted for him in the past, basically holding their noses, including many women!

    1. @Ivy Chen I have never been to the US so can’t really comment on the situation there. The news you pasted is slightly a different topic, I think. Disregarding the question if the parents did it because they are racists or not, the girl in that news is a teenager living with her parents, not an independent adult. I am also not saying that Chinese parents are racist, sometimes they also oppose to marriages between two Chinese partners because of economic disparities, age, previous relationships… and of course not only Chinese parents do this, I am sure it happens in many other places.

  12. @ Lena.
    Oh Lena, I know how you feel and how he felt. When I as a Chinese man had to announce to my parents that I was going with a foreign girl, I approached them with trepidation. Fortunately for me, my older brother and my younger sister already were in relationships with Westerners and so the approach was not unfamiliar to my parents such that they accepted her with very little resistance. But I think that the Chinese man’s parents were totally racists and bigots to shun you merely because of your foreign status. If I were not married and still single, I would offer myself to you and beckon for your love. I hope that I made you feel better.

  13. I also have to wonder if it is a racist issue, because I am sure far more Chinese women are/have been marrying western men without as much family push back.

  14. @Amy….there is a lot of resentment among Asian men about Asian women marrying white men. This remains a fact although many Asian men will not marry out of their ethnicity. Chinese marry Chinese, Koreans marry Koreans etc. However, you will hear a Chinese-American man complain about a Filipina marrying a white man, although the former will never marry a Filipina.

    Many Chinese are ethnocentric, but many white Americans tend to be racist, where skin color trumps everything (pun intended)! And this is true when white females are involved in IR.

  15. “I also have to wonder if it is a racist issue, because I am sure far more Chinese women are/have been marrying western men without as much family push back.”

    Ingrained in culture. Please read this article…

    “What I would love to see in the next Sino-Hollywood collaboration is a leading Asian man and white woman as a romantic couple. “

  16. @Lena

    Sometimes this happened not only to foreigner in China but even to Chinese in China! One of my friend is from a village in China and locals in his hometown speak a Chinese dialect and also Mandarin. They have their sub-culture and think they are a special group of Chinese within China. He told me many locals in the town don’t accept their children marry Chinese from other parts of China!

    1. I asked him why! He said the main reason for this is the locals think that if their children marry someone from outside then they will not understand the local culture and language! Therefore, it becomes hard to communicate with people from outside their area. So, I think the main obstacle here is COMMUNICATION and UNDERSTANDING!

    2. May I offer you an advice on your recent encounter! If your bf is speaking a Chinese dialect then I think if you can learn a few phrases in his dialect, go to his hometown with him and greet his family members with the phrases you learned. This shows you are willing to understand them better then things will work out much easier!

      I hope this is going to help you! And hope everything will workout the way you wanted!

      All the best to you!

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