If you’re a foreigner with a Chinese spouse or loved one, should you learn some Chinese? Even just at a conversational level? Do we have an obligation to do so because we’re intimately connected to this country and culture?
This idea came to mind while pondering my own past, and first steps, in China many years ago, a time when I began dating a local Chinese man in Zhengzhou and couldn’t speak a word of Mandarin. He and I eventually broke up after six months, yet during our relationship, his presence in my life served as a spark to prod me into learning (along with other more practical reasons, such as being more independent). Deep down, a part of me felt that because I loved him, I should make an effort to study his language, even if that simply meant mastering the most basic conversational phrases.
Ironically, he didn’t encourage my efforts, suggesting my afternoon tutoring sessions were just a waste of time. Of course, he said this late in our relationship, which means it potentially reflected the growing rift between us, more than his genuine thoughts on the subject. Nevertheless, some people out there would agree with him – and I’ve met some or even heard about them, including those who have lived many years in China and, yes, have Chinese spouses.
Most people who argue against learning Chinese turn to two primary arguments: One, that it’s too difficult, and two, that it’s not necessary anyhow.
We all know Chinese remains notoriously difficult to learn. A few months ago, during a business trip at a conference, Chinese academics from some of the most celebrated institutions in China admitted to me in private conversations just how challenging the country’s official language is. Still, nobody says you need to emerge as the next Da Shan, have absolutely perfect tones, or reach the highest level in the HSK. Merely choosing a more reasonable “conversational” level can make the task more doable and less daunting. (That’s exactly what I did when I began learning Mandarin.)
I found an entire article devoted to why foreigners in China often don’t learn Chinese, and it adds an explanation unique those who speak English: “The main reason why more expats don’t speak much Chinese is this: we don’t need to learn it. China caters to English speakers.” This would fall under the “not necessary” arguments many put forth, including that their job doesn’t require it or the employer provides a translator.
For those of us with a Chinese spouse, our loved ones from China invariably end up helping with all sorts of errands, even if you can speak Chinese. It makes sense for a number of reasons, including the fact that they understand how to conduct business much better than we do because it’s their native country and culture. But of course, this gives the foreigner less motivation to learn – and bolsters the “not necessary” side of the argument.
Still, you could argue there’s a “need” for foreigners with a Chinese spouse. Given we already have an intimate relationship with the country, we’re going to encounter the language for the rest of our lives through family. When you can’t communicate with your spouse’s parents or grandparents or other relatives, it’s that much harder to forge a meaningful bond with them and makes holidays with Chinese family more challenging.
Besides the two usual arguments – “too hard” and “not necessary” — an additional barrier exists among cross-cultural couples. Whatever language you use while falling in love with someone becomes the language you prefer to use for communication (see The Relationship Between Language and Falling in Love). For those foreigners who start a relationship with their future spouses in English or another non-Chinese language, this serves as a psychological barrier to trying out their fledgling Chinese with their loved ones. Still, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn; you just might need to find yourself a supportive tutor or a language school or university program to fulfill your goals, instead of relying on your spouse, who might not be the best teacher anyhow. (See my post Why It’s a Really Bad Idea to Teach Your Spouse Your Language.)
So, let’s consider all of these factors together.
#1: Chinese may be difficult, but you can set a more reasonable goal (such as learning a set of useful conversational phrases) to put learning within your reach.
#2: While Chinese might not be a requirement for work or even running errands, foreigners with Chinese spouses may need to know some Chinese because they’ll encounter the language for the rest of their lives, through family.
#3: Foreigners who never spoke Chinese before with their spouses might feel challenged to learn, but they can choose to find tutors or language programs to study, instead of their spouse.
Ultimately, foreigners with Chinese spouses have a really strong excuse for learning – family. And they can overcome the barriers, if they set a reasonable goal and recognize their spouses can’t always be teachers.
So perhaps we shouldn’t ask the question, “Should foreigners with a Chinese spouse learn the language?” Instead, maybe it’s time we start talking about how to learn – and when.
What do you think? Do you agree that foreigners with a Chinese spouse should learn the language?
A couple weeks ago, I happened to share a Global Times article titled, “When a Chinese Man Loves a White Woman”, which mentioned me and this blog. Naturally, it generated some conversation on social media. One of the comments came from a guy, asking why the author hadn’t mentioned the preponderance of male foreigners as a reason for the rarity of couples of Western women and Chinese men in China.
It would be tempting to point to this gender imbalance as the primary explanation for why couples of Western women and Asian men are such a minority. But if you did, you’d be missing the big picture.
After all, this gender imbalance fails to explain why there are so few AMWF couples around the world, and why even Chinese American men don’t feel the love from their fellow Americans (see the essay “Are Asian Men Undateable?”). If Asian men who were born and raised in the West have it tough in the dating world, we could hardly expect better for Asian foreign men who come to the West for work or education.
I would argue, then, that even if the foreign population in China was equally split among gender – 50 percent female and 50 percent male – you would still see an imbalance in the interracial dating world in China. You would still see far more couples of Western men and Asian women, and far fewer couples of Western women and Asian men.
Going abroad can change you a lot — sometimes, enough to realize you were never meant to date your own countrymen.
That’s the conclusion Lena, the blogger behind Lena Around, has come to, who believes the cultural differences between her and the local Danes are too great for her to go out with them. Read on for her story!
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I’ve been at home for a few months now. 2015 was a crazy year. I started out with a broken heart and a lost soul. But there wasn’t much time to think about it because I was going to Australia and then moving onto China. My heart was growing back together during the month in the beautiful nature of Australia, and when I came to China I was getting stronger again. I started to believe a little bit in love or I thought so.
I met a great guy in Beijing and I was determined to move on from past experiences and be happy with this person. He was a great match for me and he loved me just like I am. I should have been happy and I tried. I fought for him for a long time while I kept wishing my heart would open up, but I was afraid. I wasn’t ready to open up yet so I had to move on again.
I travelled through China, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea, Thailand, Laos, Hong Kong and Taiwan, I met loads of amazing new friends and hot fellas I could fall for, but I didn’t. I was just having fun. I told myself it was okay to still be nervous about the pain another person could cause you, so I let it go and travelled on my own discovering, exploring, thinking, learning and growing.
Coming back to Denmark, I was tired. I was just exhausted after 10 months on the road. I’d seen so many things and now it was time to sit down, relax and reflect. But it didn’t take long before my wanderlust came back with even bigger power than before. I felt the need to do something, so I quit my little vacation at my parents’ house and moved back to my university town. I thought to myself that now everything would be nice and I could be happy with friends around.
The problem is just that when you come back from such a long trip, not many people are around anymore. Or if they are, they are doing tons of other things. So I sat there in my new apartment thinking, Why not try Tinder? I’d tried before and it was a fun way to meet nice boys. I’ve got to be honest and say that I was pretty bored, which was probably the reason why I turned to Tinder.
After a few days, I had a match. You see the problem here is that I just do like the Asian look. I’m not saying that I only date Asian guys but I am just quite fond of them. So if I see an Asian-looking guy, I’m just more curious than a blue-eyed, blond-haired tall Dane. But anyway, the match was with a Vietnamese-Chinese guy born and raised in Denmark. I know from experience that this doesn’t mean they have any interest in Asia but I always hope a little bit anyway.
We started talking and the conversation quickly turned to the topic of Asia. I said that I’d been around. I didn’t want to mention all the places because I wouldn’t want to sound like a show-off, but he insisted on me telling. I told him about my last trip and he asked me if I spoke Mandarin. I said yes. He himself had only been to Beijing and Hong Kong for a week like most other tourists and I felt a little disappointed deep inside.
I knew I was comparing him to my first and only great love. He had the same background as this guy. But instead of not giving a s… about China, he was totally in love with China, just like me.
In the end, this guy left me hanging. Twenty minutes before meeting up, he told me he was going to play football instead. I was furious. I told him what an ass he was and deleted his number. Even though he chose to screw things up, I think it was for the best anyway. I should not date around here. My China stories can be pretty overwhelming. I don’t know why this guy didn’t want to meet. Was it because of my greater knowledge of Asia or did he really just want to play football? Who knows?
Now I know that I shouldn’t try to find a guy in this town. With a big population of pale people and no Asian studies at the university, I don’t think there’s much for me here. Also, I’m planning on moving back to Beijing immediately after graduation so why start a relationship here, right? I think it would be better to just deal with the boredom myself, become stronger, and not think too much about boys right now. I’ll just have to wait for my prince charming, who’s probably sitting on a subway in Beijing hoping for my arrival.
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.
While I’m married without children in China, many foreigners — like American Charlotte, a freelance writer in small town China who blogs at Chinese Potpourri — have chosen to start a family here. (Longtime readers might remember Charlotte from her unforgettable love story titled “I Want To Be Your Slave For The Rest of My Life”.) But as Charlotte has learned, having kids in China with your Chinese spouse involves a lot more than just “basics like a starry night themed nursery versus a jungle one.”
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Most Chinese couples want a child, if only to make their parents happy. My husband was no exception, though he was in more of a hurry than I was due to his old-by-Chinese-standards age of 32 at the time of our marriage. And he did truly want kids. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that our son was born just four days after we celebrated our first anniversary.
One thing I didn’t anticipate is all of the decisions that we’d have to make. I’m not talking basics like a starry night themed nursery versus a jungle one. That’s ridiculous, Chinese typically co-sleep with the baby. Nor am I talking about the never ending debate of breast feeding versus formula (news of the formula scandal broke when my son was less than a week old and I was glad that I’d chosen to breastfeed; for those who choose formula, please do due diligence and find a reputable brand).
No, these questions are a bit more serious than that. Once you and your Chinese husband decide to start a family, a few more things need to be discussed. In a perfect world, you’d sort out all these questions as you dated. In reality, we rarely get past the decision to have or not have children before we say “I do.” Here are six questions that are worthy of some serious talk time as you ponder the joys and challenges of parenthood:
1. Which maternity and post-partum customs will you follow?
This goes from quitting your job and not having sex once you know you’re pregnant (first and third trimesters are a “no-no” when it comes to being intimate) to wearing a radiation smock for the duration of the pregnancy and eating dumplings made from insects your mother-in-law picked out of a pile of manure from a farmer’s barnyard to improve your milk production. Nope, not kidding on that. Luckily it was my sister-in-law that got those delicacies; I’m quite the milk producer.
Sometimes it pays to insist on your traditions. But sometimes you need to know when to give in to win. I’ve finally figured out that sometimes I just have to humor my Chinese family. They don’t have as much knowledge about the world as I do and just aren’t capable of understanding some things. Like the fact that rollerskating did not cause my miscarriage. Really, they simply don’t get it. I also assured them that I will not blame them for any ailments I have in old age. Once I came to the realization that I can’t change what my mother-in-law knows and understands, life became easier.
2. Which nationality will the kids be?
I attended school with several military kids and they’d talk about their dual citizenship because they were born abroad and when they were 18 they could choose which nationality to keep. This was interesting to me, and when I found out we were expecting, I looked up the requirements of getting that for our kids. The friendly person at the American embassy informed me that China doesn’t recognize dual citizenship and that all babies born here are Chinese citizens. So these half-Chinese kids are in a sort of nationality purgatory; they can get a passport from their own country but China will still want to count them as one of their own.
3. Who and how will you name the baby?
When I taught English at a local college I always did a unit on names with the students. It was a chance for me to learn more characters and for them to explain something pretty basic in English. I was surprised to find that most students were not named by their parents. Grandparents seemed to be the most common person giving names, but fortune tellers and aunts and uncles were also named as the origin of their moniker.
Once we decided that our kids would get American citizenship, we felt it best that they had a Western sounding name as their given name, their Chinese name makes up their middle and family names. So their names are something like this: Andrew Lingfeng Wang. It helps that both sides of the family can call the kids by names that they understand, even if their Chinese birth certificates are quite a mess due to their strange names. Fortunately, when it was time to get their citizenship changed at the embassy, I wrote up an explanation of why my son’s name is partially illegible and tried to offer some reasoning as to why my daughter’s names start with lowercase letters and have periods at the end of each one and their paperwork was processed easily.
4. How many kids will we have?
Coming from three-child families, my husband and I knew that we wanted more than one. But there are so many questions that come up when having a second child while the one-child policy is still in place for the majority of the population. The authorities consider my son Chinese, so we went to the other hospital (only two hospitals, of a dozen, in our town have maternity departments). Technically it’s illegal, though I was told that giving birth in a foreign hospital is never a problem for couples having subsequent children in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Actually, any child born in China is Chinese regardless of whether one or both parents are Chinese or not.
5. Will you return to work or will one parent stay home with the child?
I returned to work when my son was 34 days old. The basic laws for foreigners don’t allow for maternity leave like our Chinese counterparts, but I have heard of foreign women successfully negotiating maternity leave into their contracts if they’re planning to have kids. Chinese women get six months to three years, depending on their job and desire to take advantage of it. I wanted to stay home, but as in many situations, we needed both incomes. My in-laws are very traditional and watched my son on days that I worked.
Since my last job ended, I’m home everyday. I frequently hear comments about how I’m lazy and don’t work or don’t care about my family enough to go find a job. That seems to be the general consensus about women in my town who don’t work: they’re lazy, they don’t care or they’re rich. It’s true I won’t move to a bigger city to find foreigner-friendly job, but they don’t see that I’m up at the crack of dawn and burning the midnight oil freelancing.
6. Where will they go to school?
I can count on one hand the number of Western families, whom I know personally or through someone, whose kids go to Chinese schools. The easiest way to explain it is that Chinese schools produce robots who aim to be number-one. Everything, starting from first grade, is about being the top student. Parents go to school on weekends to clean to earn points for their kids which puts them in better standing with the teachers. Teachers teach to the top of the class and shame the parents of kids who are at the bottom, since their salary is in jeopardy if the class scores aren’t high enough.
I’m not implying that other types of education are flawless, and the Chinese style of education does have it’s good points, but kids in Chinese school have little free time. Every weekend and holiday is packed with extra homework to “make up” for the days away from school. Overseeing nightly homework is like a part-time job.
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/.
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.
Some of the most bizarre first encounters I’ve had with people happened right here in China. When you’re a Western woman in this country, it’s amazing – and even shocking – what some people (especially Chinese men) will say to you in the very first moments you meet.
Want to make that great first impression with a Western woman in China? Don’t ever say any of the following things to her on that first meeting:
1. Will you be my friend?
I’ll never forget that one morning when I attended an English corner in Zhengzhou, China all those years back. Once I arrived at the appointed place, I was completely mobbed by a crowd of English enthusiasts, all hovering around me as though I was a Hollywood movie star who had magically descended into the park. Of the many questions that they rained upon me that day, one stunned me above all.
Will you be my friend?
It wasn’t just one person who asked me this – it was several of them. And to be honest, it was kind of a scary question. I think I flashed back to some safety town movie I watched as a little girl, where I was taught to be weary whenever some stranger approached me and offered to be my friend.
Even worse, I didn’t know what to say. It’s not exactly the kind of question you want to answer “Yes” to, because who could know they want to be friends with a total stranger? On the other hand, nobody likes to tell someone – who ostensibly offers a friendly hand out to you – to go away.
The thing is, most Western women will hear this question a LOT. It’s troubling to us for the reasons I mentioned above. And it’s totally improbable. After all, if we’ve just met, you don’t know us and we don’t know you. How can either of us know we ought to be friends?
If you’re a Chinese man, it’s even more critical that you exercise caution. When you ask for our friendship without even really knowing us, we might wonder in the back of our minds if your idea of “friendship” is really just a euphemism for something totally inappropriate.
Instead, if you want to be friends with us, don’t ask for it directly (especially the first time you’ve met us!) – behave like a friend. Listen to us, instead of talking over us. Show genuine concern for who we are. Take your time in getting to know us. Only time will tell if we will finally be friends.
2. Can I have your phone number?
One lazy late summer afternoon many years ago, I was strolling beside Hangzhou’s West Lake by myself, basking in the beauty of the willow fronds swaying in the wind and the delicate stone bridges of Su Causeway. And it was a perfect moment, up until this middle aged Chinese man suddenly stopped in front of me and began asking the usual number of questions in rapid-fire sequence (from “Where are you from?” to “What do you think of China?”). I felt a little restless, mostly because he was disturbing the solitude I had hoped to enjoy that afternoon, and offered up vague, short answers that were polite all the same – but that I also hoped would send him the subtle message that I wasn’t really interested in conversation.
Instead, he threw a bomb of a question my way: Can I have your phone number?
It startled me completely. Here’s a guy who I had never met until this moment, and he expected to have a direct, personal line to me? Once again, I was totally put on the spot!
This sort of thing happens a lot to Western women in China, where people we’ve just met are suddenly asking for very personal contact information – which we’re not sure they merit, and we don’t really feel comfortable providing. Especially because, as women, we’ve spent some portion of our lives fending off unwanted attention from weirdo guys, and become very protective of our privacy before strangers.
Now, this middle-aged man could have avoided all of this weirdness of the situation by simply doing a very different thing. He could have handed me a business card of his – or a piece of paper with his contact information – and simply invited me to contact him if I was interested. And if he had done that, I might have been impressed – that here was a man in China who, for once, didn’t press me for personal information I might not have been willing to give him.
“Beauty” could barely describe the two girls hovering over me for a makeup session two weekends ago. Both had smooth black hair reminiscent of a calligraphy brush dipped in black ink, eyes the color of pu-er tea and lips more brilliant than the fiery red pomegranate blossoms. Their smiles illuminated the entire room.
But in their minds, they weren’t the real beauty. I was.
“Look at her eyes! So big!” one of the women squealed, after powdering my face.
“Her nose is so straight,” the other sighed. She then squeezed it gently a couple of times, giggling like a schoolgirl.
But when they moved to my eyes – and specifically, my mascara – the excitement waved over the room in sudden tsunami fashion. “Her eyelashes are curved. Can you believe that?” Several women from outside rushed in to take a peek. A makeup artist next to me and even her client pulled the curtains back and lunged their heads to admire my lashes. “She doesn’t even need an eyelash curler!”
Laying there on the table, I felt like some sort of model woman from another world on display – and given my sweltering palms and the way I kept crossing my feet, it wasn’t an easy job. If anything, I didn’t understand them at all, or the way they told me “you’re so beautiful” the moment I sat down next to them, before going over to the makeup room.
It was a reminder of how China values someone with my looks: the pale white skin, large round eyes, and a straight foreign nose. While back in America people thought of me as a plain Jane, many of the people I’ve encountered here will dote upon my looks as though I were a beauty queen.
Being a white foreigner, with long blond hair, I was prepared to receive some attention.Every foreign visitor to China should be prepared for the not so subtle stares and sneaky – or sometimes blatant – pictures of you being snapped without permission. I was not prepared, however, for all the attention I was to receive from the young Chinese guys.
Travelling on my own clearly gave them the courage to approach me. I wasconstantly being told how piao liang (漂亮: beautiful) I was. As much as this flattered my ego, I was well aware that this was more due to the lad points they would score for getting lucky with an ‘exotic’ blonde, than it was down to my actual appearance. This was clear to me after being hit on having just cycled 20k on a rented bicycle in the heat of the South China sun.I was pink faced and dripping in sweat, in stark contrast to immaculately made-up pretty Chinese girls (I still haven’t figured out how to stop the makeup from simply melting off my face when it’s so hot and humid).
Men in China who she had never met before in her life were suddenly calling her beautiful, and in the back of her mind, she wondered just what these men REALLY wanted with her.
That’s why it’s incredibly dangerous to walk up to a Western woman you’ve just met and suddenly praise her as beautiful. Because we’re going to wonder, are our looks the only thing that’s really on your mind? Are you just another one of those Chinese men who thinks Western women are sluts?
Instead, if you’re thinking “She’s beautiful” the first time you meet us, the most beautiful thing you can do is to wait until we’re friends before you would even think of telling us.
4. A creepy version of “Hello!”
When I first came to China in 1999 and roamed the streets of Zhengzhou, I soon discovered that my wanderings in the city didn’t go unnoticed. Of course, every foreigner reading their trusty China travel guide usually discovers that it’s not uncommon to hear the term “Laowai!” (one of the Chinese term for “foreigner”) shouted when you’re around. But what the guides often don’t mention is that you’re also subject to something I like to call the “creepy Hello”.
“Creepy Hello” is when someone yells out “Hello!” to you in a voice that sounds completely unworldly for what is supposed to be a friendly greeting. Sometimes it’s like hearing someone do a horrible impression of a cartoonish voice. But the reason it’s usually horrible for us is that it sounds frighteningly like a catcall – as in, those loud whistles or comments of a sexual nature that we were forced to endure in our home countries, and rather wished we didn’t have to be reminded of while we’re in China.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re smart enough to know that no woman – especially us – would want to be greeted in this way. Still, it happens on occasion in China, where Chinese men we’ve never met will give you a “creepy Hello” in passing. So guys, if you actually want to get past “Hello”, don’t even think about making it a creepy one!
What do you think? What other things should Chinese men never say to Western women in China they just met?
After years of living in China, there’s one thing I’ve learned – many of the locals, including the local men, have some rather fascinating ideas about Western women. What stereotypes come into their minds when they look upon a face like mine? Here are 5 stereotypes about Western women that I’ve personally encountered during my time in China.
Stereotype #1: Western women are sluts and like to sleep around.
Many moons ago when I first set foot in China, I went with an American female colleague I’ll call Sheila to a nightclub just around the corner from the school where we taught. The plan was to relax over a few beers, maybe dance, and just try to unwind after the end of an exhausting semester.
What I didn’t count on, however, was all of the leering we were subjected to in that club – especially when we decided to dance. There was even a guy who kept purposely trying to touch me in ways that, well, were completely out of bounds for a stranger. I remember storming into the bathroom, where I took refuge for part of the night (before deciding to ditch the place…something I should have done earlier). All the while I kept wondering, just who do they think I am?
It took me years to learn that some Chinese men automatically assume Western women love to sleep around or are simply easy sex for the taking.
I blame it in part on the ubiquitous Hollywood movies and TV you’ll find in China at the local DVD vendor or online, where Western women’s sex lives often turn into a revolving door of one-night stands and disposable boyfriends.
…the majority of Western women are just looking for that ONE guy we can settle down with. A soulmate. That best friend we can fall in love with. Or, to borrow from Jerry Maguire, someone to whom we can say “you complete me.” And that takes time — as in, getting to know someone as a friend first, and then upgrading to “dating” that person. But sorry, that usually doesn’t happen in one date, or even one week.
But it’ll take some time before everyone in China gets that message.
Unfortunately, I personally knew a Western woman who was almost raped by a taxi driver in Shenyang. I was also once sexually assaulted in China.
So, to all the foreign ladies out there in China, please be careful whenever you’re out and about.
Stereotype #2: Western women don’t care about family as much as Chinese women do.
There could be a lot of reasons why the family would be against us. Certainly if they buy into the above-mentioned slut stereotype, that wouldn’t exactly make us your number one choice for a new daughter-in-law. Sometimes it’s just a matter of worrying about those cultural differences (i.e.: how will we raise the future children?). But I believe sometimes Chinese families don’t want Western women coming into their lives because of another stereotype – that, supposedly, we don’t care enough about family. Not like the Chinese do.
Well, it’s not hard to imagine where people would get this idea. The same aforementioned Hollywood movies and TV – promoting “the Western woman as slut” stereotype – do us no favors in this department. Add to that the popular belief that Westerners toss their elderly into cold, impersonal nursing homes instead of caring for them in the family. Plus, the Chinese people often see Westerners — including women like me — as more independent. Surely, the independent young woman who left her family back in America to come to China couldn’t care that much about them?
The fact is, most of us are just like the Chinese – we care about our families too…sometimes, even, in ways that seem very Chinese. For example, my paternal grandfather lived with my father and stepmother for the last years of his life, and my maternal grandmother still enjoys care at home from her children. My dad and stepmom also provide day care for their granddaughter during the weekdays, echoing the way Yeye and Nainai often take care of the grandchildren here in China. And there have been times in my life when family members helped me in times of need with a little money.
Nowadays, though I live far away from my family, they still remain close to my heart. I regularly Skype with my dad and stepmom. I send gifts and greetings back home to my relatives, and e-mail with them from time to time. Though I wouldn’t easily admit it, I do look forward to the day when I can return to Cleveland, Ohio once again and see them all.
I’d like to think there’s a deeply filial side to my personality. Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that during our wedding ceremony, John’s father actually called me “filial” in a speech welcoming me into the family.
Stereotype #3: Western women don’t care that much about material things (like having a home, car and lots of money upon marriage), so you don’t have to work as hard.
We faced “Money” all the time — hadn’t we survived summer 2006, when some months I never knew when the checks from my new business would come in, and wondered what bills to pay and what to leave aside? Hadn’t we just managed to scrounge the cash together for plane tickets? When it came to “Car,” we were just grateful that our secondhand 1991 Toyota station wagon — teeter-tottering with every bump on its barely-there shocks — still ran after some 170,000-plus miles. And as for “Home,” we felt lucky to manage the rent on our place — owning just wasn’t in the cards for us yet.
Even today, we still don’t own our own apartment. We’re far from wealthy. We sold our car before moving to China and still haven’t the means to purchase one yet.
People who know of all this often say my husband is so lucky to have me as his wife. After all, they believe my story proves what they’ve thought about Western women — that we don’t care about all those material things.
That if you’re a guy like John, you don’t have to work nearly as hard as you would for a Chinese woman.
(It’s totally nuts!)
Maybe I am different from many Chinese women, who expect their men to have a home, car and enough money before marriage. But that doesn’t mean I never want a home, car or money. I’m just willing work with my husband to get there — because he has always wanted to work hard for our future together.
In other words, I wouldn’t be pleased to be with a guy who just wanted to freeload on me.
When I first met Guo Jian, he was one of the few Chinese people I’d come across who had a car—young people, that is. Especially in the world of musicians who make so little per gig, cars are rare here. He was working with a famous Chinese rock star at the time, though, and he had become pretty famous himself as a result of that initial association, so I figured he just made a fair bit of money and that he was able to afford it. It wasn’t a new car, but it was his.
I also discovered early on that the apartment he lived in was also his. He owned it, he told me, when he first invited me for tea and I had a glimpse at his spotless abode. (Oh, how he tricked me into thinking he was a neat freak!) And, about his possessing property, I am a bit ashamed to say that I was impressed. I knew even then that housing is very expensive in Beijing, particularly compared to the average wage. I immediately viewed him as stable, mature, and financially secure.
There you go.
So to all the would-be bums out there, sorry – we’re not interested!
Stereotype #4: Chinese men will never be able to sexually satisfy Western women.
A driver in Beijing once told me about how he broke it off years ago with his Russian girlfriend. When I asked why, he provided a shocking reason – her supposedly insatiable libido. He even told me that Chinese men could never possibly satisfy Western women in THAT department, so why even try?
Ridiculous, I know.
It’s bad enough that Westerners promote that incredibly offensive sexless/dickless stereotype of Asian men. Men in Asia don’t need to pile it on by essentially shooting themselves in the genitals.
Trust me guys, judging by my experiences and those I’ve heard about through the hundreds of Western women with Chinese men I’ve connected with, your member can rock our world just fine.
Stereotype #5: Western women are stronger than Chinese women.
A Chinese female friend once said to me, “Western women don’t need to do zuo yuezi because you’re much stronger than us.”
Zuo yuezi, for those of you who don’t know about this, is the month-long confinement that new mothers generally observe in China after birthing their child. During that time, they rest, eat nourishing foods, and usually have assistance with the new baby (often from their mother or mother-in-law). It’s an extremely important recuperation custom for new mothers in China.
When I first began writing about zuo yuezi, some readers were aghast at the cost. One friend, with whom I shared my post about the cost of postpartum confinement centers, thought that the hotel-like accommodation was only for the extremely wealthy. Actually, while the per night tariff is not cheap, many people I know have stayed at them for a month or longer after having a baby. Others have spent between US$1,000 and US$2,000 a month on special home delivered postpartum meals.
Why is there instead a perception in Western cultures that it is wrong to spend money (and time) on a woman’s recovery? If a husband loves his wife, why wouldn’t he want her to have the best care? And if she loves herself, why doesn’t she demand it?
….getting someone to come in and help the mother with cooking, cleaning and looking after baby so that she can get some sleep? What extravagance! Why, people would think she was lazy, or that she was a negligent mother who could not perform her duties. Real mothers prove themselves by feeding through the night, changing dirty nappies, cleaning up vomit and doing several loads of washing. Then they put on some lipstick and try to look glamorous as they entertain guests.
Unfortunately, most supermums fizzle out eventually. In my case, it took less than a month with first baby before I began to get worn out and very cranky.
Taiwanxifu, who is Australian, clearly wasn’t some “supermum” who could just power through things after giving birth (which is why she did a modified zuo yuezi for her second baby). Canadian Ember Swift also did modified zuo yuezi after giving birth both times.
It’s kind of crazy that the absence of zuo yuezi in Western countries could lead people to conclude Western women must be stronger – though it’s not the first time I’ve heard this sort of thing.
People in China also claim Westerners are tough because we’re taller and larger than a part of the population here in China — with some even attributing this physical difference to diet (that Westerners supposedly consume loads of dairy and red meat). Naturally, this leads to bizarre conversations among friends. For example, one of our friends here in China proudly announced she planned to feed her toddler lots of cheese, because it’s supposedly the “food of champions” for foreigners. All the while I kept thinking to myself, where did she learn this nonsense?
Trust me guys, we’re not superwomen…though we can be “super women” to date and marry! 😉
What do you think? What stereotypes have you heard about Western women when you’ve been in China?
But then, there are the experiences you get to be privilege to — and wish you weren’t. Like a funeral in China.
How could I have been married to John for nearly 10 years (yes, that’s right, nearly a decade) and never experienced a funeral in China? Luck, perhaps. Or great genes. Sometimes, after seeing many of my close relatives pass away earlier before his — like my paternal grandfather in 2003, and my maternal grandfather in 2011 — and remembering how I lost my own mother at the tender age of 17, I would think of his family somehow like a giant, extended version of the Energizer Bunny that just kept going and going. Of course they would always be there when we returned. Of course everyone would be fine. John’s family was somehow different. (Or at least, I wanted to kid myself into believing that was true.)
But then this morning, our smartphone rang and on the other end was John’s oldest brother, with the news that would usher in my unwanted invitation to this one experience I had never had before (or wanted).
John’s maternal grandfather — his only remaining grandfather — just passed away.
But shouldn’t we have seen this coming? Once the 2014 horse year galloped into our lives, grandfather kept trotting in and out of hospitals month after month. First it was that Chinese traditional medicine hospital near one of his daughters’ homes. Then it was the hospital in the county seat, where John’s grandmother — who has a heart condition — also joined him for a week or two. Then both of them once again went back into the hospital in the county seat for several weeks in May, only to return to their home the very afternoon before we moved to Hangzhou.
I remember squeezing in that last minute visit only two weeks before to Grandma’s house (Grandma was always the more talkative one, cracking jokes and her lovable grin, so we aways associated the place with her). It was just like any other visit in the past few months, where we found Grandpa lying in his bed in the far corner, looking a little beaten down from his many health concerns (heart, lungs, even his stomach) but still kicking and having survived yet another stay in the hospital. He only flashed us a weak smile from beneath the covers, with his leg akimbo. I told him, “Don’t worry, Hangzhou is so close to here. We’ll be able to visit you often!” Did I see relief in his eyes? A sense of comfort knowing we cared about him? Or maybe just the exhaustion from his time in the hospital? I couldn’t tell. But more importantly, I never realized that this would be the very last thing I would ever say to him, and the very last time I would ever see him alive.
Deep down, a sense of dread surrounds me with each passing moment. A part of me wants to believe it’s my fear of the funeral itself — that I’ve never before experienced a funeral in China, in the custom of my husband’s hometown. That my husband has only shared tidbits and small anecdotes that never even began to paint a picture of what it means to participate in a funeral. But I know that truthfully, what I fear the most is what that funeral signifies — that Grandpa is officially no longer with us.
And even though I’ve never felt as close to him as Grandma, I worry about her as well. We’ve all watched her health falter throughout the year and breathed a sigh of relief every time she returned home with the same grin and the same unexpected quips and jokes in her local dialect. But what now? How will she cope with an empty home? Will this be the experience that breaks her as well?
I remember how she told us earlier in the year, “I don’t want to die this year.” She’s 81 and for whatever reason, passing away at this age is somehow inauspicious. Personally, I think any passing is inauspicious and especially the people closest to us, the people we love most.
Grandpa’s passing has summoned us back once again to John’s hometown, just at the very moment when he and I seemed to be settling into life here in Hangzhou. And now I’m on the verge of experiencing a Chinese funeral and the loss that comes along with it.
But I’m also married to John and have the support of his family through this all — people who have experienced many a funeral in their lives. While I can’t say it’s a privilege to go through all of this, it is a relief and comfort to know I’m not alone in this process.
While a cold, misty rain hung over Hangzhou that February morning, in my mind there was nothing but sunshine. A feeling of happiness surrounded me as John and I left that building, a jubilant couple bounding down the street hand-in-hand.
“How could it have been so easy?” I wondered.
We recalled the smiles from the woman at the front desk, who helped us rearrange our materials. We remembered the uniformed officer who told my husband how to write up an invitation letter, word by word. And when we left, both of them offered us a warm farewell, with the officer even complimenting my husband on how outstanding he was.
To think that we had just left Hangzhou’s Public Security Bureau (PSB), and felt as if we were VIPs once John introduced me as his foreign wife needing to get a residency permit.
And what about those calls John made in advance to the PSB? The moment John mentioned he was inquiring about residency permits for his foreign wife, that person on the other line transformed instantaneously. They became a friendly and helpful voice on the phone, as if John had just dialed customer service.
All it took was one magic word: yangxifu.
In Chinese, yangxifu (洋媳妇) means foreign daughter-in-law. But people here — including my husband — commonly use the term to refer to any foreign woman (like me) married to a Chinese man. And sometimes it seems like the very mention of a yangxifu can light up some of the toughest people you’ll encounter in China. Meanwhile, my husband’s friends have called him a “legend” from the time he married me, and his cousin even wanted us to find him a yangxifu.
To many Chinese, having a foreign girlfriend or wife is the best bling money can’t buy. Like cruising in a BMW or popping open a bottle of Moet (part of the worship of all things foreign in China, chóngyángmèiwài or 崇洋媚外) , we suggest he’s truly “made it.”
With a foreign woman by his side, that Chinese man casts a powerful aura around the world in China. People crown him as lihai (厉害, awesome), gaping in awe at his good fortune — and his social status soars.
My husband also believes that China’s love of yangxifu has something to do with how his country views marriage. The traditional view is that when a woman marries, she leaves her family to join his for good. So from this perspective, while a yangnǚxu will theoretically take his Chinese wife away from China to his foreign family, a yangxifu marries into a family in China (and thus, it’s a “gain” for China). Yangxifu are also much less common than yangnǚxu (as I’ve written before and a reader recently confirmed during a trip to Hong Kong), making us more of a novelty in China.
But really, when I think about it, the real wonder of being a yangxifu is not in enjoying a little VIP treatment from the PSB or making my husband a “legend” among his friends. To think that I could travel thousands of miles to from the US to China — a country I barely knew most of my life — and find a wonderful husband here, living happily ever after in his rural village. Now that’s magical!
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