When I told a colleague the other day that I was taller than my husband, she gave us an unexpected thumbs-up – even though it’s more unusual for women to date and marry shorter men.
“That’s great,” she said, which was probably the first time anyone has ever congratulated me for standing several inches higher than Jun. “Because you know, it’s better for couples in China to be of different heights than the same height.”
“Even when the woman is taller than the man?” I asked her.
While she conceded it might not be true for rural areas, she felt confident that this was the case for big cities in China, like Beijing.
Meanwhile, if I had been in a comic that moment, I would have had a string of question marks circling about my head. Her assertions clashed with everything I thought I knew about dating preferences and height in China. Sure, I had seen other couples like me and my husband – including one of his best friends from middle school who was a few inches shorter than his own wife. But was this really a thing? Did urban China truly applaud any height differences between couples, even when it’s the woman who’s taller?
What if you you walk down the street and see a couple. They are almost the same height, with the woman taller than the man. Would you think it strange? (如果你们走在街上看到一对情侣，这对情侣的身高差不多高。 女的比男的高一点！你们会觉得奇怪吗？)
Here’s what the best responder had to say (with my English translation):
Thinking it strange is too one-sided to fully understand enough. (觉得奇怪的前提是看法太片面了解的不够多的缘故。)
Different people have different understandings. Early modern society emphasized men over women. Although it’s normal for women to be taller than men, there are some people who have a kind of male chauvinism in their hearts, believing that it’s not proper for women to be taller than men, that it would embarrass the man. (不同的人不同的理解，近代社会就是重男轻女，虽然女比男高也是意见很正常的事情，但是有些人从心里就始终有一种大男子主义的情怀，觉得女比男高就不合适，觉得男人没面子。)
In reality all of this doesn’t exist. Now society emphasizes the freedom to choose who you love. Age is not a problem, height should not create distance. As long as two people are happy, what’s wrong with that? (其实这些都不存在的，现在社会提倡自由恋爱，年龄都不是问题，身高都不是距离，只要两个人喜欢，那又何妨？)
The other day, a friend told me the idea of marriage was outdated and totally over-commercialized. She said she had absolutely no interest in getting married.
I totally understood where she was coming from – because, after all, there was a moment in my life when I felt exactly the same way.
I’m not sure when it started – probably sometime in high school – but I was ambivalent about marriage and weddings. Whether it was the rising divorce rate, the growing acceptance of cohabitation or the fact that I never met anyone I could even picture myself married to, I can’t really say. I just know I didn’t grow up with dreams of the perfect white dress and honeymoons and the house in the suburbs with that white picket fence.
My mother once told me about the girls she remembered from college, there for the so-called “MRS” degree. I started my freshman year at university with her advice echoing in my mind – how I should just enjoy myself and not get too tied down to anyone. I enjoyed going out with guys during college, but I always intuitively understood that it was never about finding “the one” and more about finding out who I was. Though I never explicitly said so to anyone or even to myself, looking back, I realize I struggled with the idea of being committed to anyone — making thoughts of the greatest commitment of all, marriage, impossible for me.
But all that changed when I went to work in China after graduation, and fell for a Chinese man. It was the first time the M-word – marriage – was a serious possibility.
It wasn’t just that I was deeply in love with him, more than I had ever felt for anyone else in my life up to that point. Nor was it some generalized cultural pressure from family, his or mine.
No, it had to do with something most of us take for granted – the ability to introduce someone to your family and your parents and even your hometown.
At some point in my first year in China, during that time when this guy and I were dating, I imagined what my dad and stepmom might say when they finally shook his hand in their home. Or what my grandma would make for us when we came to visit. Or what he would think after seeing the high school I attended and the library my mother once worked at.
But these thoughts were easily derailed by the harsh reality for Chinese passport holders, who included my boyfriend. After all, he had applied twice for a US visa and was rejected both times. It didn’t matter how much I hoped to take him home to see the family and my hometown, because there was always this huge international bureaucratic hurdle that stood between us.
It’s one thing to ask your parents if it’s OK to bring your steady boyfriend or girlfriend over, not certain how Mom and Dad might respond.
But it’s another thing entirely to have to ask an entire country for permission to bring this person over in an embassy or consulate, where your love for them and your word no longer matters. Where decisions can sometimes feel arbitrary and capricious in the cold, aseptic visa interview rooms. Where it’s sometimes hard to understand why some people get visas and others don’t.
For me, my decision to marry him wasn’t about pleasing him or pleasing his family and culture either; to be perfectly honest, it was about securing a visa! Anyone who has lived in China without a permanent work visa knows that the Chinese system for foreign visas is an ever-changing nightmare. And, by extension, I admit that I liked being identified as “the one” in his eyes—the one worthy of a life commitment. Are those first reasons selfish reasons to marry? Was I wrong to marry him when it benefitted me and my ego? I’ll concede that I stepped around my previous political views on marriage in order to express my respect for his culture, too, but that’s not exactly a selfless act of love; it’s more about mutual human respect.
While of course she loved Guo Jian, the added benefit of gaining a visa to stay in China was among the reasons she wanted to marry him.
What I’ve learned over the years is that debates about the “usefulness of marriage” or whether “marriage is outdated” or even whether “marriage is too commercialized and therefore pointless” are a luxury not everyone has.
You don’t have this option to talk about whether marriage matters when you’re a Westerner in love with a foreigner who isn’t given a visa on arrival for your country. Or when you’re a foreigner loving someone in his or her country, where securing a visa through marriage could ensure the two of you remain together. Being subject to the heartless bureaucracies that go hand in hand with immigration rules and residency gives you an entirely new perspective on the value of marriage.
At the same time, I’m not advocating for sham marriages that exist only for the sole purpose of gaining a visa or residency in a specific country.
But the fact of the matter is, nothing is perfect. Not marriage or weddings or, especially, the immigration rules that can potentially wreck the best of plans between a young international couple genuinely in love with one another. Sometimes we do the best we can with what we have.
And sometimes, marriage matters simply because it could mean the chance to take your loved one abroad and finally see him shake hands with your father in your hometown, just as you always dreamed of.
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.
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 lenaaround.com.
My husband and I were having dinner the other night at a vegetarian restaurant in Hangzhou. It just so happens that you were dining only a few feet across from us with your girlfriend.
When we first sat down, I saw the both of you enjoying a bowl of the sour and spicy vegetarian “fish” soup with pickled vegetables. I remembered how delicious that dish was, and how I hadn’t ordered it in a long time. I thought to myself, those girls have good taste.
But that was before my husband and I overheard your conversation.
You told your friend about how dissatisfied you were with your boyfriend. You said his salary of “only” 8,000 RMB a month wasn’t good enough. You flicked your expensively dyed long hair aside with great disdain as you said, “He can’t possibly support me.”
Your girlfriend, wearing black faux-leather leggings and stiletto-heeled boots just like you, nodded in agreement.
The two of you went on to belittle this young man, who you fell in love with in college, for another reason. His hometown was somewhere outside of Hangzhou. It was yet another black mark against him. Yet more proof he would never be “rich enough” for you.
I’ve heard this sort of thing before.
Years ago I learned that, for many people in China, marriage is all about having a home, car and money. I understand that women often evaluate men based on these marriage must-haves. I’m aware that there was even a girl on TV who once famously said she’d rather be crying in the back of a BMW than smiling on the back of a bicycle.
There’s a woman in China who once told me, “The purpose of life and marriage is to make money.” On the surface, she has it all. She and her husband own at least five apartments, drive a brand new BMW, have a son, and earn lots of money through the family business.
But privately, she is the saddest woman I have ever met.
She is bitter and constantly complains. Despite her huge bank accounts, she is stingy to the core. Her husband has cheated on her; she fights with him all the time. Her son is on the way to becoming a juvenile delinquent. For a time, things were so bad that she actually threatened to commit suicide.
I would not be surprised if she had cried in the backseat of her shiny new BMW.
Never would I wish to change places with this woman, even though she has so much money. I’ve realized I’m actually happier than she ever will be. There are far more important things in life her money can never buy. A peaceful, happy marriage. Love. Friendship. Kindness. Generosity. The ability to see hope in the darkest hours.
You can’t measure these things in dollars or yuan. I don’t care what that woman once told me – money isn’t everything. It never was.
So if you decide to break up with this guy just because he makes ￥8,000 a month and isn’t from Hangzhou, there’s nothing I can do to stop you.
If you end up marrying a wealthier man, maybe you’ll get lucky. Maybe he’ll be a nice guy who just happens to be rich.
But if he isn’t so nice after all, then maybe you’ll discover what it’s really like to have tears in your eyes in the back of your luxury car.
And if that happens, believe me when I say this: I won’t be crying for you.
I was shocked to learn your steady Asian boyfriend of several years had left you.
Even though we’ve never met in person, I feel like you’re an old friend. Maybe that’s because we’ve both been in interracial relationships with Asian men. Or because I came to know you through what you shared with me over the years. Or even because you’ve supported me when I needed it most.
So I don’t think it’s enough to just say, “I’m sorry.” Sorry is such a small word, and small comfort. Honestly, I would rather give you hugs, just holding you the way friends have for me when I’ve weathered breakups.
Although I wasn’t the one on the receiving end of this experience, I could feel your heartbreak in the messages you sent to me. I know what it’s like. I’ve had Asian boyfriends break up with me out of the blue. I’ve spent days, even weeks, mourning the loss of a relationship.
One Chinese guy left me after studying abroad in Europe; he just couldn’t manage the distance. Another said goodbye to me because his parents could never accept a foreign girl. There was also that young man studying in Nanjing who I was smitten with for months; things never got off the ground because his parents insisted he marry a Chinese girl. That felt almost as bad as a breakup.
All of these were relationships I desperately wanted to continue. They did not.
With every breakup or rejection, my heart shattered. Somehow, it felt even harder to carry this sadness with me in China. When these Chinese men said goodbye to me, sometimes I wondered if the country was doing the same. Especially when family got in the way. Why did his family have to stand in the way of love?
If you’re single in China — and interested in using dating apps to meet people — this guest post is for you. Nicolas Chan, a communications professional based in Shanghai, gives you the scoop on dating apps in China.
Do you have something to say about dating in China — or another guest post that would fit this site? Check out the submit a post page to learn more about how to have your words published here.
These days, dating and sexuality in China are big news. HIV, sex education and abortion were at the forefront of last November’s popular Economist article “Dream of the Bed Chamber.” But there’s also a softer side of the story, as described in an article published last month by 1843, the Economist’s new culture and lifestyle publication.
In “Whan, Bam, Tantan,” 1843 journalist Alec Ash describes China’s changing attitudes toward dating and casual sex – spurred on in part by an explosion of Chinese dating apps.
As a foreigner living and working in China, I’m intimately familiar with the apps that Ash describes. I’ve met locals on Tantan, wooed fellow expats on Tinder, and tried my best to meet that special someone on the overwhelming large, multi-faceted Momo.
Dating apps in China might resemble their Western counterparts, but the rules of engagement can be completely different.
In Western countries, Tinder is a popular tool for one-time hookups. In China, however, this is not the case. As Ash explains in 1843, Tinder is linked to Facebook, which just so happens to be banned in China – giving the app little foothold in the mainland. Instead, mobile users looking to make a connection will choose Tantan. And when I say “connection,” I’m not being euphemistic. Few online daters in China are after one-night stand. They want a new friend, or a basketball partner, or even a spouse – especially if they are one of China’s more than 20 million single men.
The way in which men and women interact on dating apps is also different than foreigners might expect. Women in China rarely describe themselves on an app or post lifestyle pictures that offer insight into their hobbies or interests. Instead, they opt for touched-up selfies and a blank profile – the idea being that if a guy is interested, he’ll make the effort to learn more.
Indeed, he probably will. The plethora of single men in China is a result of sex-selective abortions in the 20th century, and dating apps offer an exciting new avenue for these “bare branches” to find a partner. I’ve looked at far fewer men’s than women’s dating profiles, but I have no doubt that the 1843 article is correct in its findings that men on dating apps in China try to overcome the gender gap by exaggerating their salaries or showing off their flat or car.
Whatever you’re looking to get from your dating app experience in China, I recommend keeping an open mind. Dating apps are a great way to make friends from different industries and different walks of life. Just remember that if you’re on the app, there’s a good chance someone you know will be on it too – so if you don’t want your office mates gossiping about your dating profile, don’t post anything that would make Betty in Marketing blush.
Nicolas Chan is a communications professional based in Shanghai. In this guest article he takes us on a tour of the local dating landscape and offers pointers to those hoping to ‘swipe right’ in China.
Cross-cultural misunderstandings are a huge pitfall in dating abroad, including here in China.
Just imagine what it must have felt like for Ava Ming, the English blogger behind My Oriental Life, when she heard these words from her date for the evening, a Chinese guy she met in Shenzhen: “I really want to kiss you, Ava, but I’m scared that I might get AIDS because all Africans have AIDS.”
Read on to learn the whole story of how things fell apart between her and Larry.
Do you have a shocking tale of cross-cultural misunderstandings or other guest post you’d like to see featured here on Speaking of China? Visit the submit a post page to learn more about becoming a guest poster for this blog.
I’ve often considered telling the story of my first Chinese date. But usually I’ve declined, thinking it was too personal, perhaps too upsetting and might also give the impression that I dislike Chinese men, which is really not the case at all.
But the event occurred a while ago now back in 2013. After reading about others who’ve braved their souls on Jocelyn Eikenburg’s fabulous blog, I’ve decided to share. Besides, who knows, maybe someone else could have or has had a similar experience?
I met Larry at the terminal subway station. There were very few commuters around. I was curious as to why he came so close, sitting right next to me on an empty train, leaving a small space between us.
I noticed his glances in my direction, wondering if he was trying to work up the courage to ask if he could practice his English with me. Pretty soon he introduced himself and asked me where I was from, which led to a conversation.
He told me that he was a professional who’d travelled to various European cities but never England. He was 37, unmarried and feeling the pressure from his parents to change his single status. I enjoyed our talk during the long ride but initially didn’t read anything into it. Around that time I seemed to be making a lot of new Chinese friends while on various subway rides. I guess I must have exuded an approachable air!
As we approached his stop he told me that he thought I was pretty. He couldn’t believe no other Chinese guy had made me his girlfriend. Then he asked for my number and if we could go to dinner.
Have to admit I was pretty surprised. Until then I’d been under the impression that Chinese guys would never be so forward due to a natural or cultural shyness. I said I wasn’t sure about a date but we could talk from time to time.
Over the next fortnight he sent regular messages via text and email usually beginning with ‘hello, my angel.’ Yes, Larry was a charmer but the messages did make me smile.
Eventually we set up a date and met on a hot and sticky Friday evening. By now I knew that I wasn’t romantically attracted to him, but I did like his personality and I was interested in meeting more people and expanding my circle of Chinese friends. I also assumed that he didn’t have intentions of getting serious with me either. His parents probably weren’t expecting him to marry a foreign girl.
The date was nothing special. The best word to describe it would probably be ‘nice,’ well up to a point anyway. We ate rice in a Japanese restaurant and then went for a walk in the park. He kept guiding me towards secluded places, which I thought was a bit strange. But then he’d comment on the sculpture, or lotus flower pond, or round leafy bush we’d stumbled upon.
I still wasn’t feeling any chemistry towards him. But he had a gentle humour and I thought perhaps we could be friends in the future.
Approaching 10pm I wanted to leave, having made plans to go dancing, but Larry wasn’t ready. He insisted on ‘just ten more minutes’ and took me to a bench by the side of the river, again another secluded place. When we sat down he made a confession.
“I really want to kiss you, Ava, but I’m scared that I might get AIDS because all Africans have AIDS.”
I was literally struck dumb at his ignorance. Then I became so angry I actually felt tears welling up. Angry tears have a whole different feeling to ones of sadness or joy.
We’d already discussed my family history, him being impressed that my parents were from Jamaica and that I was born in England. But regardless of place of birth, how could he be so naive? In addition, was there no filter in his brain to tell him exactly when to shut-up?
I told him that AIDS didn’t originate from Africa, but was initially a disease among gay white men in New York. I pointed out that he should really think before he speaks and that he shouldn’t believe so strongly in stereotypes. On top of this, why on earth had he asked me out if he’d thought I was ‘unclean?’
Seeing my distress he insisted that I’d misunderstood when we both knew that I hadn’t. To make matters worse, he then pulled me close and tried to kiss me! Saying; “look, see, I know you don’t really have AIDS!”
I wanted to storm off in a huff, but it’s kind of difficult when you don’t know where you are, so we caught the bus back together. He begged me not to tell anyone because he didn’t want to lose face. I made no such promise. If he’d just ended the date at 10pm before his confession maybe we would have become friends, although then I would never have known what he was really thinking.
For a long time I dismissed the idea of dating another Chinese guy. If this was the common school of thought then what would be the point?
A short while later I discussed his theory with my Chinese friends, many of whom also believed that AIDS originated in Africa, but none of whom believed that all Africans have it.
As for Larry, he called and emailed several times to apologise for upsetting me. I accepted his apology but declined his offers to go for a drink. Making someone cry on a first date, even if they were tears of frustration, is really not an auspicious beginning!
As I mentioned this was a while ago and I have since relaxed my guard, becoming more open to Chinese men who just want to talk. But as for dating? Not sure. For that I think I’ll need a little more time.
I’m Ava Ming, born in England to Jamaican parents and currently living in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China where I write and teach English.
One of my favorite stories from when John and I started dating is the day when he moved into my apartment without any “should we move in together” conversation.
In America, we all know about the conversation, even if we’ve never had it before. We’ve seen it on TV and in the movies, that pivotal moment when someone says, “Let’s move in together” – a simple question that’s never all that simple. People agonize over this, to the point of proliferating totally conflicting advice (from “You’ve got to move in with him to test things out!” to “If he moves in with you, he’ll never propose!).
Well, we never had that conversation. Instead, I came home one day after work and, lo and behold, there was a duffel bag lying in the guest room of my apartment, filled with a soccer ball, a pair of soccer shoes, and some rather familiar T-shirts. When John returned back later that evening, the conversation went like this:
Me: “Is that your bag?”
John: “Uh, yeah.”
Me: “Oh, okay.”
You might wonder, why did I just answer “okay” and not grill him about furtively depositing his things in my apartment? Well, for starters, I did give him a key to my place and told him to come over whenever he wanted. I figured he just interpreted that more liberally – that “whenever he wanted” could mean all the time. (And, besides, I was under the deep, romantic spell of love, which has a way of clouding your judgment, especially whenever you think of that hot weekend the two of you just enjoyed at your place.)
Years later, when I asked John about this “moving in without a discussion” thing, he had a very simple explanation for it. “Our relationship was already settled. We didn’t need to discuss things like that.”
I discovered that the fact he kissed me beside the West Lake – and later spent the night at my place – qualified as evidence of our relationship as the real deal. We didn’t have to hash out our relationship status over coffee, debating whether we should just “keep it casual” or “make it serious.” In John’s eyes, we were a serious couple.
This was like a revelation to me – that people could actually enter into a relationship, secure in what it was without ever having some big, nervewracking conversation about it.
Why do Americans have these big relationship talks?
Well, there are so many types of relationships in the U.S.: dating, casual dating, relationship, open relationship (this one does not make any sense to me), serious relationship, etc. It’s easy to see how people could be confused about which stage they are and which stage their partners are….
In China, and I believe in other Asian countries as well, there is only ONE type of relationship. You are either boyfriend and girlfriend, or pure friends, so there is no chance to be confused. In other words, when it comes to V-Day [Valentine’s Day], people either have it for sure, or don’t even think of it. No discussion needed.
It’s fascinating that a relationship could either be really simple and obvious, or incredibly complicated and worthy of long discussions, depending on who you are and the cultural background you grew up with.
As I was reading her article, I suddenly realized that I too had a pre-China backstory worth sharing – one of relationships that never came to be, and what ifs that point to my own prejudices. So here goes:
“You don’t have to worry about the students falling in love with you.”
Before I embarked on my first trip to China, where I would teach English at a college, I met up with one of the former teachers several times for dinner or drinks. And when the subject of student crushes came up – something he had been forced to navigate very delicately – he negated the possibility of anything similar happening to me.
Of course I didn’t question his words. Hadn’t I already envisioned my year-long assignment much like a vow of chastity? I spoke to friends of my interest in studying Tai Chi over there and visiting some local temples, as if I were about to spend my months as a nun instead of an English teacher. It was an opportunity to travel to a new country, a way to postpone my post-graduate dilemma regarding career decisions, and nothing more than that.
Or so I thought.
Then I moved to Zhengzhou, China – and found myself with a crush on one of the first guys I met there, a former student from the program I would teach for. Over a month later, he introduced me to his friend, a guy who was also a former student – and would become so much more to me in the weeks that followed:
Yao came into my life, in all of his sleek, sexy and sullen James Dean perfection, dressed in a black leather jacket as dark as his mysterious melancholy. When my heart raced after our first dinner together, I thought it was just another adolescent crush. Embarrassed, I wanted to just box my feelings away like all of the Barbie Dolls and little girl hairclips of my past.
Then he took me to that teahouse one Sunday afternoon. Over two Taiwanese bubble teas, the truth bubbled through to the surface of my own heart — I loved him with an uncontrollable depth that plunged far beyond the bottom of my tea cup. And, I began to realize, so did he, because he overflowed with confessionals that he had never before poured over with anyone else.
Not long after, our our passions percolated over into romance — a real boyfriend/girlfriend love that translated into steamy weekends at his apartment, hand-in-hand walks around the gardens of Zhengzhou University, and the occasional afternoon out at the Taiwanese teahouse, his favorite in the city. Bubble tea never tasted so sweet.
In his arms, it was so easy for me to forget that I had once secretly declared this year a lonely one without a single chance for dating. And it was also very easy for me to turn a disdainful eye to my female coworkers at the school, all Americans who had no interest in the local men.
I couldn’t help but wonder, why did I assume that I would be single in China? Why did I think I would never date Chinese men? Was it merely that I grew up in an incredibly white middle-class suburb (I could count on one hand the Asian men I knew from kindergarten to high school graduation)? Was it the overwhelming absence of positive images of Asian men in the whitewashed world of American popular culture?
I think back to my college years, a time when I met many foreign Asian men – including Japanese and Cambodian. I called many of them close friends, yet why did I never let them get any closer to me? Why did I always immediately relegate them to the “friend zone” and nothing more? Why did my white girlfriends and I only giggle over white celebrity heartthrobs in high school, like Tom Cruise?
Over a year ago, I wrote a post titled What’s the big deal about Asian men and bags? Even though it’s not a custom in the America where I grew up, after coming to China I came to love how men (including my husband) would gladly hold my bags for me when we’re out and about.
Lena, a Danish woman currently studying in Beijing, feels exactly the same way. She has dated the men here — and in the process, she has come to love some of those cultural differences in dating (including carrying bags for women). But the thing is, her foreign friends don’t always understand.
This is an old saying that makes perfect sense. When going to another country, it’s important to associate with the culture and the people. I don’t mean it’s necessary to change the way you are personally. But when you’re placed in another culture, there are some differences. And some of them, I do think, are important to recognize and follow so you won’t make trouble every time you walk out the door.
I’m in China right now and the dating rules here are a bit different from my home country of Denmark. Because of this, my friends and I love to discuss how “Chinese” or “Western” a boy can be. Races are also a big topic. It has nothing to do with racism towards anyone, but just about what is more attractive to us — in this case, my friends from South Africa and Italy, and me. And yes, most of my friends have different preferences.
So intercultural dating is a hot topic these days. Many people traveling abroad meet a handsome boy or beautiful girl who they fall in love with. But when reality hits them, they realize that dating between different cultures isn’t always that easy. Love is one thing but culture is another, and our own culture and behavior are very difficult to change. Furthermore, I don’t think we should try to change, but we also need to accept the other person as well and realized that they don’t necessarily need to change, even if their habits annoy us sometimes.
So last night at dinner when discussing the Chinese dating culture with my friends, we ended up talking about the classic “carrying-the-bag” issue. What is that about? Let me explain. Chinese guys are supposed to carry their girlfriend’s bag. This is the rule no matter how small, purple or bling-bling it is. My friends in this discussion are all foreigners (both boys and girls) and none of them like this. I wasn’t sure I agreed because I realized that I actually do expect the boy to carry my bag. I carry my own small fake Gucci purse but if I carry something just a bit bigger without bling, I would expect my male friend to ask if he should carry it for me. Maybe I’ll give it to him, maybe I won’t. It depends.
My friends were laughing at me when I told them the story of me and a male friend out shopping. I was carrying my bag and he had bought something. Because he didn’t have a bag, he asked if he could put his stuff in mine. I took his things and suddenly my bag was quite full. He didn’t notice. I tried to tell him, and still no reaction. I even told him that he wasn’t a real gentleman, way too Western (my other way of saying he wasn’t a gentleman) and not caring at all. He laughed at me as well and I realized that I was actually annoyed by this English guy who obviously didn’t know anything about Chinese culture. (How could he? He had just arrived and my face is pale and Scandinavian. How would he know that I expect this from every man I meet these days? It came as a surprise to me as well).
Another day, my stomach wasn’t quite well, and my Chinese male friend automatically took my little fake Gucci out of my hand immediately and carried it for me the rest of the day. I tried to take it back a few times but he was afraid of me being in too much pain. I don’t think the little purse would have made any difference but I liked his way of thinking.
After listening to these two stories, my Western friends told me that I was way too Chinese. I thought about this afterwards and I know that I am, but is it that bad then? I’ve been in the middle for a while because I know that there are some Chinese cultural behaviors that I’ll never associate with. But there are also others that I haven’t even realized I’ve already taken on my shoulders a long time ago. One reason is the fact that I actually hang out with Chinese people for fun, while many of my foreign friends don’t. It’s interesting to see this difference in our discussions. Things I never would’ve done before suddenly come so naturally now.
I’m not sure how Asian my future husband will be. But I know that if he won’t ask for my bag, I’ll probably teach him to. Not because he has to carry it around, but because it makes me feel like he’s thinking about my well-being.
Lena is a 20-something Danish girl currently studying for a semester at Renmin University in Beijing while writing about China, travel and love at http://www.lenakina.tumblr.com/.
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