A decade ago, my plans for coming to China included teaching for a year, two…maybe even three, before returning to the US to start my teaching career.
Dating was not part of my plan, so when it happened, I was completely unprepared for it. Looking back, I would have loved to know what I was getting myself into or at least some advice on navigating Chinese dating culture.
Since my experience was limited to just my husband, I got some additional input from two American bloggers living in China: Jocelyn Eikenburg writes Speaking Of China and Jo Kelly-Bai writes Life Behind The Wall. Both talk about their relationships with their Chinese significant others.
P.S.: Yep, it has been another insane week as we finish up the move and I prepare for a big trip in China in a few days — hence the break from blogging. But I’ll be back next week, promise! In the meantime, please excuse me as I collapse into bed right now… 😉
Reinventing yourself abroad is practically an expat tradition. Whenever I sit down with foreigners here in China, more often than not they have a story about how the Middle Kingdom unexpectedly transformed their lives, forging them into the fascinating person they are today.
Writer Ray Hecht, who hails from my home state of Ohio (he’s from Cincinnati and I’m from Cleveland), is no exception. But he has a different kind of story to share. After all, how many have you met who took the “go to China” plunge in a psychedelic haze in the Nevada desert (Burning Man)? Ray does have an easier time meeting Chinese and foreign women for dates, but he never turns into another “charisma man” (or worse, Chinabounder) because of it.
From the girls he could have loved forever to the “just sex” moments to the one who stalked him (yikes!), Ray doesn’t shy away from letting you into his utterly imperfect love life. He’s refreshingly self-deprecating about it all and ultimately comes across as a genuinely nice foreign guy just looking for love in China. (Note that, besides graphic descriptions of sex, this story does include a lot of recreational drug use, so reader discretion is advised.)
Ray Hecht was raised in America, from the Midwest to the West Coast, on a starchy diet of movies and comics and science fiction paperbacks. Mostly writing about such states as California and Ohio, and such provinces as Guangdong. Lived in Shenzhen, China since 2008, that Special Economic Zone & Hong Kong-bordering chaotic city of the future, occasionally partaking in freelance journalism for various local publications.
I asked Ray about what it felt to have such personal stories out there for people to read, how he ended up with such a fascinating mix of women, what regrets he has (if any) and much more:
What inspired you to write this memoir?
I went through a lot of drama back in 2013. While my writing career was going up, my love life suddenly exploded. I briefly thought I met a perfect girl abroad, one Chinese woman I dated basically turned out to be a stalker and caused me incredible stress, and then it culminated in having my heart broken.
I often write private journals. It helps me process.
This time, I thought it would help if I put it all out there as a blog. It may have been a rash decision. But it did give me some inspiration to further write, and a lot of the conversation it ensued really helped me think about things. I found a lot of supportive people in the WordPress blog scene, and I’m glad I did it.
I finished the blog at a certain point, because I didn’t want people who personally knew me in Shenzhen to know all of my business. I share a lot, but I do have limits. However, at least making it an eBook seemed the thing to do, and for that project it wouldn’t be freely on my blog. It would cost just a few dollars, and I could share even more…
I don’t know if this is was a bad idea or not, perhaps putting these revelations out there will come back to haunt me one day, but too late now.
Your stories get incredibly personal and intimate at times, sharing details that would make many of us blush! How does it feel to have these stories out there for anyone to read (including your former girlfriends/lovers)?
As said, the blog was less blush-worthy than the finished product memoir. I’m fine with acquaintances and stranger readers out in the world reading about my personal life. I’m much more hesitant about people I personally know well — especially if they were there in some of those experiences!
Surprisingly, I haven’t had any negative feedback from ex-girlfriends. A few said they liked reading. I even pointed it out, in the name of honesty. There’s really just the one girl I hope doesn’t read it…
You described yourself as “a nerdy American boy from Ohio” who wasn’t “particularly good with girls” and yet your dating life was transformed in China, where you ended up dating many women and found your stride. Still, you write that “I was lucky to date anyone who would have me.” How were you able to keep such a humble perspective about it all?
I don’t know if humble is the word. Self-loathing at times? Realistic?
I try my best not to be one of those obnoxious expats who think they god’s gift to (Chinese) women. And I have been rejected so many times. I have to have a real perspective. It’s not like I’m the one-night stand kind of guy, but I was persistent for a while there and I kept trying no matter how many bad relationships I was in. More than half were due to online dating, I admit, which is easier than the confidence it takes to pick up women in bars and that sort of thing I’ve never been good at.
Mainly, racking up all these stories shows there’s something wrong with me in that my long-term relationships were so seldom.
Over the course of the book, you write about being with a variety of women — from those you could imagine spending the rest of your life with to someone who actually stalked you for months. I was so surprised by the wide range of personalities and the drama of course! Why do you think you ended up with such a diverse (and fascinating) bunch of women?
Hey, diversity is the spice of life. I’ve always been open to having friends from different backgrounds, why not give anyone a chance no matter where they’re from? That’s one of the opportunities that comes from the expat lifestyle, I suppose. Ultimately I learned through trial and error that Chinese women may not be my type. No offense meant to any great Chinese people out there!
It has been just my luck that I got to meet so many fascinating people in the world.
Looking back on your dating experiences in China, do you have any regrets? Anything you would have done differently?
I have so many regrets. I don’t want to get too specific, sorry. I guess I basically wished I knew what I was doing. I could have been more honest about the relationships that were to be short-term. I could have treated women a lot better when I wanted something deeper but couldn’t get that to happen.
But it’s not good to have too many regrets. Life is a series of harshly learned lessons, and I hope to move forward.
Social skills take a while to learn for someone like me.
What do you hope people come away with after reading your memoir?
I don’t know what people should think when they read my work. Feel some empathy with me? Simply be entertained by the more wild parts? It’s hard to say. I emphatically do not want to be giving out any pickup advice. I do hope that people who might like Chinese/Asian girls can read it and see that women are individuals and cannot be stereotyped. If anyone is an expat, I hope they can relate. If anyone is interested in becoming an expat, especially in first-tier cities in China, I hope they can see what they would be getting into with the social scenes.
Mostly, it but is what it is and if you like reading that kind of thing then more power to you.
A few years back when I co-wrote an article titled Western Wives, Chinese Husbands (exploring what it’s like to date and marry Chinese men), we touched on the subject of money — specifically, that sometimes Western women end up being the breadwinner in the family.
I was reminded of that when I first read this post from Judith (who blogs in Dutch at Judith In China). She’s from the Netherlands and currently dating a Beijing local (who she considers her perfect match). But, “Even though I don’t earn much at all, own a house or car, or have savings worth mentioning, I am much more economically stable than he will probably ever be.”
I grew up in a middle-class family in a small town in the Netherlands. My two siblings and I basically had everything we could wish for. We went on modest holidays within the country once a year, got nice birthday gifts and our parents supported us throughout our studies. My boyfriend was born a one-child-policy son and grew up in Beijing’s hutongs. His parents are real lǎobǎixìng; his mother used to sell bus tickets and his father worked as the repair man for a large hotel. Although his parents cared for him much, they lived in one room without private sanitation. Some days all his father could afford for lunch was to share a pancake with his son.
Although our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different, we really are a perfect match.
I have been interested in Chinese language and culture since I was a little girl, and he has been crazy about Western music and culture since he first encountered it in Beijing’s early nineties. I have never had a preference for Asian men or an interest in the AMWF community, on the contrary: if you would have told me a few years ago that I would end up with a real Beijing boy I probably wouldn’t have believed you. When we met, my Chinese wasn’t that great and he didn’t speak much English, but we have been in a loving relationship for over five years now. He is very caring, makes me laugh, and makes me feel like the most beautiful girl on the planet despite being so much whiter, taller and larger than those cute Chinese girls. Most of all, he makes me feel safe.
There is one thing that keeps coming up in our relationship though. I wouldn’t call it a problem, but it is definitely something coming from our different backgrounds that will probably always linger right below the surface. Even though I don’t earn much at all, own a house or car, or have savings worth mentioning, I am much more economically stable than he will probably ever be. His attraction to Western music made him choose to become a professional musician. And although I really believe he is one of the most talented musicians in China and truly has the talent to make a stable income from his profession, it’s not easy in this industry and especially not in China.
When we met, my boyfriend was the member of a rather famous band, but he quit shortly after we became a couple. Since then he has been working on various projects on and off, some of which are more profitable than others. This means that his income was quite OK for the last two years. Although he didn’t earn millions he had frequent gigs, and combined with my stable salary I felt we were quite well off. This year however, there have been some changes in the projects he has been working on and he has barely made any money. At the same time we are looking to get married, but the only thing holding us back is not wanting to spend all my savings on an (even simple) wedding.
In some ways my boyfriend can be very traditional. As the man in the family, he feels horrible about me being the main breadwinner, and this year even supporting him to a certain extent. He doesn’t want to speak about it too much and doesn’t want to let me know how he feels, but I sense it more and more. I don’t mind sharing my income with him. We’re a team and should he one day become world famous I’m sure he would share his wealth with me just the same. But if I offer to buy him new clothes as a present, nicer lunches for him when we don’t eat together or suggest to go on a weekend trip, he says he doesn’t need it. He prefers to wear the same old shoes, eat a 10 kuai bowl of noodles for lunch and not travel much.
I feel this also has to do with a Western approach to finding a good balance between saving and enjoying your money, while he feels that we should not spend much until we’re in a better financial position. And then things such as marriage and buying a house would come first. Whereas I feel that although we shouldn’t spend all our money on an expensive holiday abroad, we can allow ourselves to enjoy an occasional weekend away within China, for example. He doesn’t want me to spend that kind of money for the both of us if he can’t contribute much or anything at all. Which means that I visit friends in other cities and he doesn’t join me, or that I go to a café to work while enjoying a latté and a sandwich while he just eats his bowl of noodles for lunch. He simply does not want to join me, even if I explicitly say I want him to.
I feel bad for him feeling this way, because I don’t see his financial situation as a problem. I fell in love with him because of the man he is, not because I thought that one day cash would come flowing in because of his profession and I wouldn’t have to worry about money anymore. I guess this is a very different perspective compared to many Chinese girls, as they often think in practical terms first when it comes to relationships (such as Ted highlighted in his excellent guest post on this blog titled “What I’ve Learned from 15 Blind Dates in China”).
I hope my boyfriend will someday get used to how I feel and that he can find a way to accept that his girlfriend’s income will probably always be more stable than his.
Judith lives and works in China and blogs about her daily life and the special things she encounters at judithinchina.com(in Dutch).
What do Chinese men face today when they go on blind dates in China? Just ask “Ted”, who has had 15 blind dates over one and half years and lived to tell his own surprising tales. Read on to find out what he has learned from his own blind dating experience.
After using a mainstream dating website in China for one and a half years, I successively met 15 different Chinese girls in China. If blind dates are like interviews, then you could say I’m an “interviewee” with a lot of experience. In sharing my own “interview experiences” here through my blind dates, I hope it might help you find your own true Mr. or Mrs. Right in China.
1. Dinner and Payment
Chinese girls are usually not willing to pay the bill for dinner. In fact, one of the most important consideration factors for girls who are dating is this: Will the boy actively pay the bill for dinner? If a guy pays the bill without prompting or reminding, he’s considered a gentleman. Among the 15 girls I have dated, only 1/4 were actually willing to share the dinner expenses with me. The most expensive dinner I have had was with a girl who returned from a stint abroad. She said that she never brought her wallet with her when having dinner with guys because the guy would always take care of the expenses. Most of the girls let me choose where to have dinner. But for my most recent blind date, I decided on a fast-food restaurant for our first meeting. The girl expressed her dissatisfaction very clearly: “It’s not polite to invite a girl to have fast food on a date. Such bad taste. You should take a girl to elegant places such as a nice cafe.” Meanwhile, she was puzzled with my backpack. “As a guy approaching thirty, you need to learn how to dress yourself.” I was so confused – I work in the education field and here I was, being evaluated by a new graduate. As far as I know, a lot of office workers outside China use backpacks and so do professors in universities.
2. Salary and Apartment
The questions I frequently encountered on blind dates with Chinese girls include the following: How much is your salary? Do you plan to buy an apartment? What is your future career plan? Of course there are many girls who would ask private questions such as what happened in my previous relationships or why I broke up with my ex-girlfriend. As to my own experience, most girls hope that the guy’s salary will be 1.5 to 2 times higher than their own salaries. Most Chinese girls also regard owning a home an important guarantee for their sense of security. They even have specific requirements regarding where the guy needs to buy an apartment. Almost all girls consider the home a non-negotiable for marriage. Therefore you have no way to get married if you do not have an apartment in China, because you cannot give them the sense of security they require.
I also asked some girls whether they would ask for a house from an American guy. Their answer is, “Maybe not.” They think that getting married to an American guy means immigrating to the United States and living a good life, and most Americans have houses. An American passport is the ultimate worldwide passport, so they don’t care whether an American guy is rich or not. But when turning to guys in China, most of the girls I have met expressed different opinions. Guys should support their wives financially and they should surrender their ATM card to the girl after marriage.
3. Daily life and House Keeping
Another strange phenomenon is that I’ve found a lot of Chinese girls are not able to cook, nor do they know how to do housework. They think hiring a maid is the way a husband shows his love for his wife. In my family, my parents share the household chores. I am sure the girls I met are much different from our elder generations. For example, a pretty girl I met recently insisted she should not cook or do housework, and she should spend her own money while her husband supports the family.
Some of my female classmates got married to Americans. After marriage they are virtuous, domestic and share family expenses. I am just wondering whether all the sensible girls have gone to the United States or whether Chinese men are too obedient.
4. The Merry-Go-Round of Blind Dates
“You are the fourth guy I met today.”
“I met one guy in the morning and another in the afternoon. You are the third one.”
This is so awkward to me, a guy with a devoted heart. But the interesting thing is that a lot of girls I met showed great loyalty to their ex-boyfriends. It is not easy for them to forget the past heartbreaking relationships and they will usually mention their ex-boyfriends. By the way, girls love sweet talk; serious topics will make them unhappy.
In my opinion, compared to my father’s generation, these girls have really changed a lot. So now I’m shifting my focus to foreign girls and I wonder, will they be different?
“Nervous” doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt when I was about to meet John’s parents in rural Hangzhou for the first time. After all, once John told his parents he was dating me, his father famously told him that while he could be friends with a foreign girl, but shouldn’t date her.
Meeting the parents inspires all sorts of anxiety no matter where you live in the world – but even more so when you’re a foreigner and you’re about to meet the parents of your Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend here in China. On top of all the usual pitfalls, you’re also dealing with a different culture, language and living customs. It’s like getting ready for an exam when you don’t even know the entire curriculum.
Fortunately, I’ve survived meeting the parents. And I’ve heard from a lot of others who have successfully made it through. Here are 6 tips I’ve learned over the years to help you prepare for meeting the parents in China:
1. Ask your girlfriend or boyfriend all about their parents
There’s always a story behind everyone’s parents. Why not find out? It’s a great way to get to know them before you actually meet them and figure out potential ways to bond with them.
I always wish I had done this before I first met John’s parents. Maybe then I would have figured out how much his mom loves to cook – just like me — and asked to watch her in the kitchen more? Or that his dad likes to read classic Chinese texts – which I’m always interested in — so I could have asked him about, say, Confucianism or Taoist stories.
2. Learn everything you can about the hometown
One thing I’ve learned from years of living in China? Everyone has a little hometown pride. So if you want to get a little closer to the parents, what better way than to learn about their hometown?
Start with your boyfriend or girlfriend first – they’re your closest experts – and also don’t forget to consult travel guides (which, depending on what attractions/history the hometown has, might tell you something). Most Chinese cities and counties even have Wikipedia pages in English, which might even teach you something your significant other doesn’t know.
3. Prepare gifts for the family
Gift giving is such an important thing in Chinese culture – so important, that you don’t want to show up to your first meeting with the parents without a gift in your hands. Chances are, they’re going to entertain you with a home-cooked dinner and even put you up for the night. There’s no better way to show your appreciation from the moment you enter their home than bearing a present for them.
But if they can’t think of anything – and you’re still stumped about what to purchase – repeat after me: fruit basket. You really can’t go wrong with buying them a nice fruit basket. You’ll find fruit baskets at any major supermarket in China or those fruit stores on the street. Everyone loves them.
4. Learn a few phrases in the local dialect
Mandarin Chinese may be the official language – but chances are, it’s not your girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s mother tongue. The vast majority of people grew up speaking a local dialect. It’s their linguistic equivalent of that comfy pair of jeans you love wearing around the house, and that’s what you’ll probably hear around the dinner table.
Just think how amazed they’ll be if you can master a handful of simple words or phrases in the local dialect! Even if it’s as elementary as “Hello” or “Thank you” you’ll probably have everyone in smiles. Or laughing! After all, you’re probably the first foreigner they’ve ever seen speaking it. (My husband always giggles whenever I try out his local dialect!)
5. Dress casual, comfortable and err on the conservative side
Still, if you want to give Baba and Mama a great first impression, you’re better off leaving your Daisy Dukes and ultra mini-skirts behind. Many Chinese parents feel wary about having foreigners in the family, and stereotypes about foreigners (such as the idea that Western women are promiscuous) only fuel their concerns. Yeah, I know it’s unfair, but that’s the reality.
Look at it this way. Even in Western countries – like the US, my home country – people agonize over what to wear to meet the parents for the first time, enough to write articles about it. Here’s what one of them wrote: “No matter how classy your mini-dress is, his mom will say the skirt was too short.”
Instead, go for something that’s casual, comfortable and on the conservative side. Think nice jeans and T-shirts (with long or short sleeves) or sweaters if it’s cooler out; for summer, you can do nice shorts or skirts just above the knee or below.
My husband is still shocked that I never used to wear long johns under my clothing while growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. Even though I faced a winter that could last as long as four months or more, with below-freezing temperatures and tons of snow, staying warm was never an issue. We had central heating at home and pretty much anywhere we traveled. Even our car had heat.
Meanwhile, my husband’s hometown sits at the very same latitude as New Orleans and Houston, and he’s spent his entire life counting on long johns to help stay warm through the fall, winter and spring. Why? Because he’s used to having no heat inside the house, wherever he is – even in school.
So don’t just look at the weather when you’re packing your bags – ask your girlfriend or boyfriend what it’s actually like in their home. Find out whether they have any heat, including hot water, and if it will be available when you’re there. Also, ask him or her what they usually wear around the house at home.
Here’s a good general rule of thumb – China’s Yangtze river is like the Mason-Dixon line of heating through the country, where North of that people usually have some form of heat provided by the government (they turn it on sometime in November and off sometime in April) and South of that people do without. That said, there are ALWAYS exceptions and it pays to ask ahead of time.
And please, if you’re traveling during the winter months, don’t forget your long johns – trust me!
6. Bring photos
As the old cliché goes, a picture’s worth a thousand words – and who couldn’t use an extra thousand words or two when you’re in front of two parents you’ve never met? Photographs provide a perfect way for you to connect with your significant other’s Baba and Mama without saying a lot. You can show them your family, pictures from your hometown and even the beautiful places you’ve visited. Thanks to the photos I lugged around to my first visit to meet John’s parents, I was able to break the ice with his dad and finally make a connection – enough to make him realize I was the kind of foreign girl worth dating (and, later, marrying).
What has been your experience with meeting the parents? What advice do you have?
Years ago, before I had finally met John (my husband), I recall spending an evening in one of Hangzhou’s many teahouses with my friend Xiao Yu, a male colleague I met in my company.
Xiao Yu always felt like a brother to me from the first day I entered that company. Maybe it was his near-flawless English, his easygoing smile that always seemed like an invitation to sit and chat, or his self-effacing personality. Whatever it was, he was the guy I felt like I could talk to about anything.
Well, as a young single woman in her twenties still new to dating in China – and still occasionally baffled by the way Chinese men behaved with me – I was desperate for a male perspective on it all. Or rather, a male perspective on one specific thing:
Would Chinese men really date a white Western woman like me?
After my recent bad luck, I was starting to believe this might be mission impossible. In the span of one month, a guy I hadn’t even been dating (but wanted to) rejected me by saying he could never marry a foreigner, while another fellow simply didn’t return my texts or phone me – even though every time I ran into him at the gym, he kept promising nights out that never came to be.
“Maybe I’ll never be welcomed with open arms by any guy in China,” I said to Xiao Yu with a sigh.
As usual, Xiao Yu served up one of his comforting smiles to ease my pain. “No, no, not at all! Of course many Chinese men would be proud to date you. Maybe their family would even be proud, that their son could understand foreigners. It’s just, well, you’re an American. You’re from one of the most powerful countries in the world. They just cannot believe you would ever want them.”
I cocked my head and raised an eyebrow at his surprising explanation. “Are you kidding me? They actually think a woman like me wouldn’t want them?”
He shrugged. “Some just cannot overcome their feeling of inferiority.”
I was stunned and had to take another sip of my tea to mull it all over. It sounded crazy to me. To think that some Chinese men thought I wouldn’t want to date them just because I’m an American woman!
If I had known about the interracial dating reality for Asian men the world over – including Chinese men – I wouldn’t have been surprised at all. (See my article in the Huffington Post on this titled “Why Won’t Western Women Date Chinese Men?”). But it would take me years before I learned the truth – and before I began to understand part of the reason why Chinese men might rather refuse a woman like me than face the possibility of being refused by a woman from, as Xiao Yu put it, “one of the most powerful countries in the world”.
Reporter: Your survey is extremely interesting. I want to ask you, how did you first come up with this question?
Zhang Jiehai: “Chinese men in the eyes of Western women” is one of my starting points in research. In some places, it is common for Chinese to have an attitude that Western is better. This leads to a sense of inferiority before Westerners. I chose to look at Chinese men according to Western women, because, in terms of confidence and self-respect, we have higher expectations for men than women. For many Chinese men, when faced with international criticism, there are two themes that arise — one is inferiority; the other is concealed inferiority. For example, you might say to a person that something about him is not so good; his first reaction is to jump up and attack you, but really, this reaction is caused by a sense of inferiority. He’s angry because something someone else said touched something he is sensitive about. So, to solve the “inferiority” problem, the most essential first step is for you to admit inferiority. We did this survey because we wanted to look at the international world, to see if Western women already realized the inferiority of Chinese men. If so, I will once again turn around and tell everyone, your inferiority is already known, you don’t need to hide it.
As much as it pains me to read Zhang Jiehai’s translated words, I realize the truth in them. I’ve lived them through my own experiences in China. And while no Chinese man has ever admitted that they felt inferior before me and thus decided not to pursue me, I’m sure that’s exactly why some of them never did.
Since I’m now happily married to John, a native of the Hangzhou region (we just celebrated our 10th anniversary), those dating days are long behind me. But I have to wonder, what will it take before Chinese men no longer feel inferior before Westerners, including Western women? When will we finally meet each other as equals in the dating world in China?
“I’d never dated or been attracted to Chinese men before,” writes Marissa Kluger — not until she met ZJ in Xi’an, a city that stole her heart away.
Marissa’s blog Xiananigans has been a pleasure to follow over the years (right down to her “explosive” Chinese wedding, where she dons the most gorgeous red wedding gown I’ve ever seen). Here’s the story behind it all, from how she discovered Xi’an and ZJ to how they eventually moved it to her hometown in New Jersey.
My first trip to China, in 2007, happened to be a three week intensive course abroad, a general education requirement instituted by Goucher College, my alma mater. Xi’an ended up being one of our destinations. Besides inspecting the soldiers at the Terracotta Warriors, bicycling around the Xi’an City Wall, and navigating the alleys of the Muslim Quarter, we met with an alumnus teaching at Xi’an International Studies University.
The city of Xi’an compelled me to return four years later to teach at Xi’an International Studies University. I’m a fairly indecisive person but I had made up my mind after listening to the alumnus’ anecdotes about his job, travels, and experiences. Meeting his students further cemented my longing to come back; they were inquisitive, interested in cultural exchange, American politics and exposing me to as much Chinese culture as several hours would allow.
Although I knew they would show us around their dorms, the campus, and give us small gifts, I was overwhelmed by their warmth, affection, and extroverted personalities. In many ways, they toppled every notion, or better yet, stereotype I read about Chinese students. We met students from universities in other cities during our travels, but XISU students left the deepest indent.
I also saw it as a one-year opportunity to do something outside-of-the-box before starting a career, although at that time I had little idea about what I’d be doing; I hadn’t even declared a major, still opting for that looming “Undecided” title. My parents thought I’d give up on the idea as I still had three years of schooling. They were supportive of the decision, also seeing it as a good opportunity, hoping I’d pick up the language and gain other valuable experiences that could propel whatever career path I chose forward.
In 2009-10, my final year at Goucher, I applied for a position at the university. Three months went by without a word, so I began applying for jobs in my chosen field in the Greater New York City area. A ray of sunshine appeared just a week before commencement…I had received an email from the university offering me a teaching position for the next academic year! When my college girlfriends offered their congratulatory sentiments, they also foreshadowed that 缘分, or fate would lead me to at least date, perhaps even settle down in China. I dismissed this as I didn’t really put much stock in fate.
I arrived in Xi’an in late August 2010, and luckily I had the first month of September free, as I had been assigned freshman. Freshman have mandatory military training, and four years ago, this lasted an entire month. I took this chance to meet up with a very good friend of my former private drum instructor and his Chinese wife. Lu Min Lu, I called her Daphney, helped me settle in and introduced me to the nightlife Xi’an offered. She took me to Park Qin, a bar frequented by Xi’an expats. ZJ worked at Park Qin.
The first time ZJ and I met, I insisted on getting his phone number on behalf of a British girl. I initially cut in for several reasons: I was looking for Chinese acquaintances who might become friends, most of my college friends were guys, he was easy to talk to and charming. I, of course, did all of this not knowing anything about Chinese dating culture, or that ZJ considered himself “traditional.”
After getting his phone number and exchanging texts, we agreed to meet up on his next day off. Shortly after that first meeting, I went back to Park Qin and spent hours talking to ZJ about movies, music, college, culture and more. We had a lot in common, he spoke directly, didn’t seem shy or introverted, much like the students I met in 2007, but I didn’t see this going in a romantic direction. The American girlfriends I emailed back home were elated: “I told you.”
It was about a month later that ZJ and I began dating. In the early stages of our relationship, we looked more like friends. We weren’t affectionate in public and our relationship remained a secret. In February 2011, I met ZJ’s parents during our Chinese New Year visit to his hometown. He prepared me very well for that first visit, explaining that to his parents, bringing a girl home, let alone a foreign one, meant to them we were serious.
I met his best friend from high school as well as extended family from both his mother’s and father’s side; I felt more comfortable than I initially thought in an environment so different from Xi’an and New Jersey. ZJ cared, translated and interpreted for me; his way to show affection manifested itself unlike any previous relationships. I liked the nuances, subtlety of it all, and more importantly, started to fall for him, and so upon returning to Xi’an, ZJ moved in with me.
When the holiday season approached, ZJ fostered my homesickness by taking me out for Peking duck on Christmas, a tradition commonly observed by Jewish-Americans. I went home for three weeks in January 2013; I wished he could have traveled with me, to meet my family and friends. I missed him when I went home for two months in 2011, staying in touch via Skype, however, those three weeks felt utterly painful. I enjoyed my time at home, but a sense of relief washed over me when I touched down in Xi’an a week or so before heading to his 老家 for Chinese New Year.
We had already started discussing getting engaged and this discussion was met with approval by 老爸, 老妈, 大哥和二哥. ZJ proposed to me on June 8, 2013. The timing of the ceremony, the set-up, and the ring were all a surprise to me. He told me we were celebrating his birthday; I saw this as slightly suspicious, but didn’t give it a second thought when he shot me down over WeChat when I asked if he planned to propose.
I wore an ankle-length red gown, one of three dresses purchased on Taobao for the ceremony held in the countryside. I opted for a red princess-poofy gown, complete with fur-like trim, flowers, taffeta-like mesh, all in red. I changed into a red lace qipao in order to toast the guests, wearing it with a qipao-style top as a jacket in hopes of keeping out the cold. I even wore all red undergarments. My youngest sister made the trip from the US, served as pseudo-maid of honor, taking on my hair and makeup. We also had a few foreign colleagues from the university attend. 爸爸和妈妈 Zhang, my brothers and sisters-in-law ensured the shindig, a once-in-a-lifetime affair, could be watched over and over again (there’s a video!). We had a honeymoon of sorts, to Lijiang and Dali, and I say of sorts, because my sister and friends of ours tagged along.
We had traveled to Guangzhou for the petition in January and a couple of months after all the wedding excitement died down, we traveled back again for the medical and interview portions. ZJ didn’t pass on the spot, as we had to send additional documents. A week or two later, we had ZJ’s passport with the appropriate visa in hand. I couldn’t believe how relatively quickly and pain-free the process had been! More foreshadowing…
We’ve now been in the US for two and a half months. We live with my parents in the house I grew up in. I work part-time for Starbucks while I pursue other avenues. This is the first encounter ZJ’s had with my parents and friends, with the exception of my youngest sister, who also lives at home. He just received his social security number last week. When we went to the department of motor vehicles earlier in the week, they weren’t able to verify his status, meaning we have to wait before he can obtain his driver’s license. In other words, the ease we experienced during the DCF process meant more obstacles after landing stateside.
It’s not all bad news, though. I never imagined I’d be a 26 year-old “we”, returning from four years in Xi’an, and struggling to figure out what comes next. I would never take it back, or trade it in for an “easier life.” Much like the processes we’ve gone through in the last year: getting our red books, preparing for our Chinese ceremony, navigating the DCF process, prepared us for the ups and downs of a new life. I underestimated the adjustment moving to the US would be, but my husband never did.
This is why I love him. When I’m losing it, he remains calm, rational, and thoughtful. When I’m overly emotional, which is pretty much all of the time, he’s calculated and prepared to counteract my moodiness by jokes, sarcasm, or a story. He knows exactly when I need solitude, a hug or a kiss, encourages me to not only pursue my dreams, but to do so independently.
His sense of humor is infectious, and he’s grown into a more talkative, outwardly affectionate individual. He supports me in all my endeavors. Our marriage and relationship may not be conventional in the eyes of some, and we may be opposites, but I always foresaw, if I did marry, ending up with my “other half.” You see, I didn’t think I would marry, especially in my mid-20s, not because I don’t believe in the institution of marriage, but after a failed serious relationship in college, preferred to bask in dating solitude.
It’s laughable that there are Western women in China who write off Chinese men. I’d never dated or been attracted to Chinese men before, but I’m very attracted to my husband: appearance, intelligence, and personality-wise. If I had written them off, the handsome, caring man sitting to my right reading the local paper wouldn’t be in my life.
Marissa Kluger married her Chinese husband ZJ a year ago. They live in New Jersey. She reminisces about Xi’an and muses about life in the US at Xiananigans.
Are you in Beijing? Or will you be there on July 26? Would you love to hear a performance of fabulous monologues about love, sex, marriage and relationships in China? One that includes an AMWF love story?
Then you don’t want to miss the “Leftover Monologues”! Here’s the scoop:
Join us for an evening of sparkling entertainment that unites a dozen brazen Chinese (and foreign) in rousing adaptation of the “Vagina Monologues;” a play which provides stirring new insight into the complexities of love, sex, marriage and relationships in China.
We’ll regale you with tales of lost innocence and sexual discovery, embarrassing blind dates orchestrated by bumptious matchmaking mothers, and electrifying, but ill-fated love stories. Candidly, viscerally, and ardently, our performers will convey their battles with duty and desire, passion and practicality, and of course, give you an earful of the triumphs, travails and tribulations of being/fearing/or totally loving – being a leftover.
When? Saturday, July 26th, 7:30PM.
Where? Meridian Space
English address: Building 8, C&C Park, 77 Meishuguan Hou Jie, Dongcheng
Chinese address: 美术馆后街77号77文创园8号楼
Seating is limited to 80 people. Admission is free, but please RSVP to [email protected] so as to ensure a spot!
This production is brought to you by the good folks behind Chaoji Shengnü (aka 超级剩女 or “Super Leftover Woman”). If you’ve never heard of Chaoji Shengnü, then you’ve been missing one of the coolest and most ingenious online comics ever penned about love, dating and marriage in China!
(Note: I’m excited to be giving away one FREE copy of Good Chinese Wife! Want to enter the giveaway? Scroll down to the end of this post for details!)
Susan Blumberg-Kason’s new memoir Good Chinese Wife comes with a revealing subtitle: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Before you even open the book, you already know what kind of love this is – a marriage between a white American woman and a Chinese man that doesn’t end well.
I’m calling it the AMWF memoir of 2014 and you shouldn’t miss it.
This book has it all. A Chinese love interest with movie-star looks. A romance set in glitzy Hong Kong. A huge red wedding in Wuhan. A fascinating journey across China in the mid-1990s. And a transformative tale of how one shy young woman eventually finds the courage to make a dramatic escape.
But most importantly, Good Chinese Wife is just an incredibly entertaining memoir. It’s the kind of book that you’ll open, thinking you’re only going to read for a little while, and before you know it you’ve devoured the whole story in one sitting.
As someone who has known Susan for several years, I’ve had the privilege to witness the inspiring metamorphosis of Good Chinese Wife from manuscript to published memoir. It is an extraordinary honor to introduce you to Good Chinese Wife and Susan through this interview.
A freelance writer in Chicago, Susan has written for the Chicago Sun Times, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, and Chicago Parent magazine. Her essay “Ninety Minutes in Tsim Sha Tsui” is included in the fabulous new anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit. She also wrote All the Tea in Chicago, the ultimate guidebook to the city for tea enthusiasts.
I talked to Susan to learn more about her memoir – from what inspired her to write it, to her experiences as a yangxifu (the foreign wife of a Chinese man) in the mid-1990s, to what she hopes readers will come away with from her story.
When did you first realize you wanted to turn your story into a memoir? What ultimately inspired you to write it?
I first thought about writing this memoir after my divorce attorney in California asked me to write out everything that went wrong in that marriage. She needed all the details in case we went to trial. It was 14 years ago and I was living with my parents. They didn’t have a laptop connected to a printer and I wasn’t in the mood to camp out in front of the basement desktop—after having felt so isolated for the past five and a half years—so I hand-wrote it over the span of a week in the company of my family. This document was sixty-seven pages! When I proofread it before sending it off to my lawyer, I thought, “Wow! This would make a great book.”
A week later I saw the movie “Not Without My Daughter” for the first time. It was about a woman who almost lost her daughter when her family traveled to Iran to visit her husband’s family. The husband had lived in the US for 20 years, but when he returned to his motherland, he suddenly wanted to stay there and keep his daughter there. I cried because the same thing could have happened to me. I wanted to share my story with others and hoped it would give parents in cross-cultural relationships something to think about if they’re in similar situations.
Your love affair with Cai, a man from Wuhan, China, takes place in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, at a time when you were mainly a graduate student. What are some of your most interesting memories about dating in Hong Kong back then?
Hong Kong was magical back then! I was so happy to be back (I’d lived there for a year in 1990-91) and open to new opportunities, including dating. Maybe it was the thrill of being back and the comfort I felt around Hong Kong people, but I definitely took more chances there than I had back in the US. There was a new confidence in the air as people who had left Hong Kong in the 1980s were returning. One was a friend of a friend who confided some pretty heavy personal history to me on our one and only date. At one point he became violent as he grabbed my arms and squeezed them as if in a vice. I was scared about leaving that bar—we were out in the middle of the New Territories—but in the end he paid for my taxi ride home, which was two hours away. I also went out with a television anchorman who promised a weekend away in Macau, but canceled at the last minute. And then there were the two guys I wrote about in the book, the two I went out with before I met Cai.
How did people react to yangxifu back in the mid-1990s?
It was a novelty for Chinese men to have a foreign wife. In Hidden River, Cai’s hometown in Hubei province, his parents had a friend whose son had married a Japanese woman. She was a legend in that danwei—whether or not people had met her—because she was a foreigner. So my inlaws were very accepting of me and liked to brag about me with their friends. When I walked around Hidden River, people were all very polite, even when they stared and pointed at my curly hair and western nose.
Your wedding in 1995 was special compared to the average wedding banquet in Wuhan. Could you share with us some of the things that made your celebration different?
Well, back then children of Communist Party members had to have modest wedding celebrations. For instance, they could only use a couple of cars in their motorcades and could only have ten tables at their banquets. But because I was a foreigner, those rules didn’t apply to my wedding even though my father-in-law was a Party member. We had twenty tables at our wedding and five or six cars. Traditions were still low key in China then, so weddings were simple and quick. There weren’t tea ceremonies and the like. And women in Hubei didn’t wear red qipaos. It was all big poufy white wedding dresses. I had a difficult time finding a red qipao in Suzhou!
Cai’s parents also play a major role in your story. Give us one of your favorite scenes from the book featuring your inlaws.
I think my favorite scene in the book was when they were leaving San Francisco to return to China. They had lived with us for ten months and after many clashes about childcare, I realized too late, of course, how much I had appreciated their presence at home. Every night we watched Chinese soap operas and news from Beijing while Cai went out. And they were often my only adult interaction at home. As we said goodbye at the airport, I also thought about how difficult it must be for them to leave Jake, their beloved grandson. So this scene is full of contrasts and difficult emotions.
Your book includes many memorable characters, but none more so than “Japanese father” — a rather unconventional father-figure to Cai. Without giving everything away, could you tell us something about this fascinating character?
Japanese Father was a music professor who visited China one summer and met Cai in Wuhan. The two became pen pals and wrote long letters to each other almost every week. The Japanese economy was so far ahead of China’s at the time—it wasn’t even comparable—so the opportunities that Japanese Father could offer Cai, and later his friend Rui, were very attractive to young teachers who had no other way of making more than US$75 a month. Japanese Father had a lot of time to spend on his Chinese protégées because he was estranged from his wife and son. His daughter still spoke to him, though.
As the subtitle explains, your story is “a love affair with China gone wrong.” Some people may see your book as yet another story that casts Asian men in a negative light, as well as AMWF relationships and even China itself. How would you respond to those concerns?
The subtitle refers to my initial attraction to China and how that all changed. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just didn’t go according to plan. As for a negative portrayal of Asian men, I can only see two Asian men who don’t come out looking great. Some reviewers think that Cai is sympathetic, and I can see that, too. But the others—Baba, Cai’s friend Rui, my former brothers-in-law, and even the guys I dated in Hong Kong—are portrayed just as men in any other countries. They have a variety of positive traits and aren’t lumped into one general category. And as one friend pointed out, at the end I go to lengths to protect the Chinese male who matters most to me—my son Jake. As for AMWF relationships, I clearly do everything I can to make mine work. In writing my story, I hope that people will see how not to conduct an AMWF relationship! And as for China, I felt aligned with many young Chinese at that time. Every time Cai and I returned to China, he was heartbroken that it was changing so quickly and wasn’t like the China of his childhood. I echoed his feelings and could see how things were different even from my first trip to China in 1988. To me, that’s not being anti-China, but rather wishing for a smoother transition, for China to have eased into the twentieth century instead of leaping into the twenty-first in one blink!
Could you share some of the lessons you’ve learned from your courtship and marriage to Cai, and what you hope readers take away from your book?
From the courtship, people will probably conclude that I married Cai too quickly. But I think it’s more than that. He told me from the get-go that he had certain conditions for our marriage. Those are things I ignored or thought I could eventually get him to change. That should have been my red flag, not the time in which we became engaged and married. And from the marriage, I hope people can see that it’s not a good idea to justify bad behavior in the name of cultural differences, whatever those may be. (Unless we come from the exact background as our partner, we will have cultural differences. My new husband and I are from different religious backgrounds.) If something doesn’t sit well, it doesn’t sit well and shouldn’t be tolerated. It doesn’t matter if the person is from Asia or the US or wherever. One more thing: just be yourself and you’ll be fine!
When Marghini wrote that her Chinese boyfriend “just never thought a Western girl could ever be interested in him,” it was as if she channeled my good buddy Xiao Yu from 2002. Back then, he offered a nearly identical explanation for the frustrating experiences I had with a number of Chinese men who drifted in and out of my life — and never responded to my subtle flirtations. (I would meet John only months later, who ended all of those frustrations for good!)
Marghini’s story speaks to a reality that, like it or not, exists not only in China but around the world. But it’s also inspiring to see how she and Mr. B still managed to fall in love in spite of it!
The first thing I thought when I met Mr. B for the first time was that he looked very weird. I had arrived in Beijing only few days earlier and I quickly noticed how Chinese guys usually looked, behaved, dressed, and spoke English. Then I met this guy, who didn’t look, act, dress or speak they way the other Chinese boys did, yet sported a Chinese looking face.
Coming from a small Italian city, I was never really exposed to Asian Americans or simply to people with a very international upbringing. Therefore I just assumed that face and identity had to correspond. That is the reason why I was so confused at first; I couldn’t fit that funny looking guy into any of the categories I was used to. This confusion quickly turned into curiosity, which quickly became attraction. I was captured by the fact he looked so different from anyone else and my inability to decipher him just added to my attraction. His reserved personality, coupled with my inability to fully comprehend his American accented English, didn’t make it any easier for me to understand who this charming Chinese-non-Chinese was.
Time went by and slowly I got to know the guy better. I discovered why he looked so “mixed”, being born in Hong Kong but raised in Singapore, New Zealand and the US. My attraction grew bigger and bigger and I started thinking about how to show my interest to him. Being a hot-blooded Italian lady, I was used to being very direct and open about my feelings, but this time I found myself scratching my head. I didn’t know if I had to consider him Chinese or a Hong Konger or a New Zealander or an American, and I didn’t know if any of these identities would require a different approach from what I was used to. Groping in the dark, I decided I had to keep my Italian outgoing nature at bay. I bit my tongue and tried to approach the guy in a more delicate and indirect way — just few glances here and there, a couple of sweetish emails and a lot of eagerness to engage in conversations with him. Yet I felt so lost in translation! This soft strategy kept going for longer than a month and even though I sometimes felt like I spotted some sign of interest in me, nothing really meaningful happened. Then I tried to be a bit more direct, leaving a small present on his desk with a nice encouraging note, obtaining no reaction but a “thank you”.
I started considering the idea that maybe he was just not that into me. I tried to feign indifference, but in reality I felt incredibly sad and disappointed that the Chinese-non-Chinese boy didn’t share my same interest. At some point, I just stopped trying. I thought that my attempt to date out of the box just didn’t succeed and that maybe it was not my cup of tea. Maybe I had to stick to Italians as I always did.
I would have never ever guessed that Mr. B was actually very into me! He just never thought a Western girl could ever be interested in him, so therefore he just assumed he was misunderstanding my behavior. Funny enough, this handsome, smart, talented, kind and well-educated boy was convinced he was not attractive enough to date out of his race. His upbringing in New Zealand and the US, where he had to face some nasty jokes about his ethnicity, made him believe that Western girls would never even consider dating an Asian guy. He had been struggling for his whole life, feeling too Chinese in the Western world and too Westernized in China. He felt like he never really fit. Therefore, during the whole month I spent trying to communicate my interest, he was just trying to convince himself it was not possible that a girl like me was actually attracted to a Chinese boy.
Long story short, eventually Mr. B woke up and realized that he had to take a leap of faith. So he finally invited me out. We have been together ever since our first date.
Sometimes I still don’t understand whether he is more Chinese or New Zealand, or American. I would say that different sides of his personality reflect different cultures and identities, like a crystal prism projects different colors according to the edge. That is why I fell in love with him, and why I choose him everyday — because he is offbeat, different from anyone else and really unique.
Marghini is an Italian architect who accidentally stumbled into a life in Asia and has never been the same since. She currently lives in Hong Kong with her boyfriend while they figure out what’s next for them.
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