Jun and I have a fascinating history with eggplant – specifically, a Chinese-style dish I’ve nicknamed “Italian Eggplant”. It’s one of the first dishes I ever prepared for him when we started dating years ago. It’s also a dish that led to one of our first heated (no pun intended) arguments.
I had spent the evening making one of my favorite dishes for Jun, and found myself shocked by his reaction:
“Too sour. Too much soy sauce. Too much tomato,” he said. Jun grimaced with every bite – and I could feel my anger rising with every complaint. How dare he insult the food I so lovingly prepared for him! Where was his appreciation for my hard work?
I was steaming almost as much as that dish fresh from the kitchen — not what I intended for a romantic dinner at home, and definitely not one of my proudest moments. But behind our spat wasn’t merely a difference of opinion, but rather one of culture and upbringing:
[My reaction] had to do with how I’d been raised – to always say thank you to the chef, even if you didn’t like the food. It was a lesson I’d learned well after years of dining at my paternal grandmother’s house. She was a notoriously horrible cook who would entertain us with things like soggy, tasteless macaroni and veggies from a can. Even though I could sometimes barely stomach the stuff on my plate, I would force myself to say how good the food was.
When I told Jun about this, his face turned as red as the tomatoes in the dish. Turns out, he had a completely different experience growing up at the table. Every dinner included a course of blunt feedback about how everything tasted – even if that meant saying the food was unequivocally bad.
I apologized for my outburst, and he apologized for criticizing my food, instead of saying thanks.
Thankfully, we were able to share our own perspectives and ultimately recognize where each of us went wrong in the exchange. And in doing so, we also learned something about our own respective cultural backgrounds. At the same time, it reminded us that the taste preferences we bring to the table reflect the respective cultures of our upbringing. (Jun did in time come to embrace my “Italian eggplant” dish — so much so that he has actually learned how to prepare it for me later on!)
But such a realization and reflection requires a willingness to see cultural differences and, in some circumstances, recognize there isn’t always one “right” point of view. This especially holds true when it comes to what we regard as “strange” foods. The macaroni and cheese that my mother often made us for dinner growing up seems bizarre to my husband, who never consumed this dairy product in his childhood in rural China, let alone with noodles. Meanwhile, the tofu and seaweed dishes my husband enjoyed as a young boy would appear odd or even downright unappetizing to many of my relatives in the US.
I wonder, what if that eggplant clash had happened between people with more rigid views about the world, believing their cultural upbringing was the “right” one? He might have branded her eggplant dish as “weird” and told her to never make it again. She would have become even more enraged — and perhaps might not have told him that his behavior violated the mealtime manners her parents had taught her growing up. Likewise, he probably wouldn’t have acknowledged that his family did things differently. Perhaps one of them might have stormed out of the apartment. And if the two couldn’t reconcile their differences over a simple meal, how could they possibly navigate the even trickier issues that arise in a long-term relationship?
Sometimes, two people of two distinct cultures might sit down to dinner, smell the eggplant, and discover they smelled something different after all. And that’s OK, so long as they make room for those differences at the table.
A few weeks ago, a fan wrote to me asking, “Do you and Jun ever fight?” She mentioned fighting on occasion in her own intercultural relationship — her husband’s Chinese, she’s a non-Asian woman from a Western country — and sometimes it was not easy for her to resolve the tension because they had different ways of arguing. While she wanted to talk it out, he just stonewalled her.
One thing I’ve never written about is that, in some ways, movies have helped us overcome fights and open up conversations, especially about cultural differences that could potentially cause a snag or too in a relationship. Call it my intercultural love hack, #108.
I’ve always been a huge fan of romantic comedies on TV and the big screen, which meant my husband and I would often watch them when we declared it a “movie night” (or “TV night”). In the early years of our relationship, we lived together in China, and at the time I was desperately missing my home country of America. Movies were a way for me to vicariously visit the US in the comfort of my own home, so I often chose titles set in America. And hey, it was great for both of us, since English is my native language and Jun’s second language.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but in choosing these English-language romantic comedies from America, I was inadvertently schooling Jun in dating and relationship culture in the US.
See, Jun and I had met in China, and while he’d studied European-American culture in college, he’d never traveled or lived outside the country before we met. Meanwhile, my two years of living in China, plus previous relationships with Chinese guys, gave me a leg up that he didn’t have when it came to my culture. (I’m the first and only woman he has ever dated, so it’s not like he had other women, or even foreign women, to compare with me.)
But movies stepped in to fill the gap, in ways I never anticipated.
The thing that first caught his eye in American movies? Kissing in public. Name me a romantic comedy from the US and there’s a more than 90 percent chance the couple ends up locking lips among a crowd of people (often their friends or family), and probably a more than 50 percent chance that said crowd showers them with applause. It was fascinating to Jun because…well…that’s not how it’s done where he grew up, where people prefer to kiss in more private places and spaces. And so it opened up a whole conversation about public displays of affection, and differences between our respective countries and cultures.
But of course, all movies – even romantic comedies – thrive on tension and drama. Which means many, many films had couples arguing about all sorts of things. Even stuff that was eerily similar to things we might have been hashing out on our own.
Here’s the thing, though. When you see people fighting about something that you’ve encountered, but it’s in a movie, it gives you a certain distance to talk about it in a more nonjudgmental way. It’s not the two of you doing it, it’s the characters.
Not everything is about culture, either. Sometimes it’s just a matter of personality too. But either way, seeing it reflected on screen can provide an opening to talk, where you’re discussing the characters instead of fingering the other person.
It’s also really helpful if you can find examples that encompass each of your respective “argument styles”, because everyone has a different approach. Bonus if they portray the fights in a humorous way, so then the two of you can laugh at them (and hopefully, later on, yourselves).
While watching a movie won’t magically solve all your intercultural marital woes, it could raise the kind of awareness — cultural and otherwise — that opens up possibilities for resolution and understanding. Plus, it’s fun and who wouldn’t want an additional excuse to prop up their legs, bring out the popcorn and declare it a movie night?
So maybe that old cliche should be updated to, “The couple who watches movies together, stays together”?
What do you think? Have you found movies to be a beneficial way of encouraging mutual understanding across cultural or racial lines?
The other day, you told me how people constantly ask you, “Why would you date Chinese men?” You recalled that girl who grimaced at you just because you dared to date men in China. You said you felt like you were spending so much energy and time trying to defend your choices. You sounded tired of it all.
Believe me, I understand. Your comments brought me back to my first year in China, when I was sitting around the lunch table with my foreign female colleagues. One woman said, “When I arrive at the airport in America, the first thing I notice is the men, how handsome and how tall they are. I’ll just stare at them for hours, as if I were Chinese and had never seen a foreign man before in my life.” I knew what she was getting at, though another foreign female colleague put it more bluntly. “Chinese men don’t really seem that attractive.”
Even though I understood their every word, I couldn’t understand how they could brand an entire population of men as undateable. China is, after all, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people – and more people means more diversity and, ultimately, more great men.
But what do you do when the people around you just don’t get it? When they keep annoying you with the same worn-out questions about why you’d dare to date Chinese men?
Then again, who says you have to justify anything?
There’s nothing wrong with your decision to date Chinese men. Love is love. In a world rocked by so much hatred, fear and uncertainty, shouldn’t we all be delighted when someone gives their heart to someone else? Doesn’t that tiny act of goodness make the earth just a little bit brighter for everyone? Why should it matter that person happens to be a Chinese man?
It’s sad when people are so caught up in their own stereotypes about an entire group of people that they’re blinded to the possibility of happiness for someone like you.
But what’s worse is when they try to verbally walk you into a corner, putting you on the defensive for something nobody needs to defend in the first place.
So next time someone asks you “Why would you date Chinese men?” it’s time to put their proposed conversation in perspective. You might start with, “Why don’t you have something better to say?”
What if the love you always hoped for never came to be, despite how hard you tried to make it happen? That’s what happened to an anonymous woman who desperately loved a young Chinese man who went to her university. She shares their story in this emotional post.
Do you have a powerful story you want to see published here on Speaking of China? Visit the submit a post page to learn more about how to have your words featured here.
Five and a half years ago, I met you for the first time when I went out to eat at a small Chinese restaurant with my grandmother. It was a magical moment to me even still today.
I was much younger then, fresh out of high school and going to a little community college. You had just moved to America to start at the university soon. I was in the same boat; about to transfer into the same university, but also in a poor and unhappy relationship.
The moment I saw you, you looked at me and smiled, even though it was an obligatory smile to the customer, I felt that smile all the way to my toes, and I remember blushing so hard I thought my head might pop.
You wore glasses just like me, I still remember they were circle frames, and you looked so handsome. You kind of reminded me of Harry Potter, because that was still pretty big then, right? But you were also Chinese, and you didn’t speak much.
Oh, but I tried so hard to talk to you. I tried really, really hard.
I had already learned some Chinese beforehand, but you renewed it. I started bringing a dictionary every time my grandmother and I ate there. When I turned 20, I wrote it out, in Chinese, telling you it was my birthday. I remember you smiling a little but you still never talked to me.
Then one day you did talk to me. As we talked a little bit, you made me love a culture I knew so little about a little bit more, because you were a part of it. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know you.
I fell in love.
My relationship ended. I looked for you. I tried. I couldn’t have done more than if I waved a flag in your face that said, “Please, ask me out!”
I knew you liked me. I saw it on your face. The way you acted. How you talked when you said hello. How you smiled at me differently than the other customers when I would come in. How you would ask the other servers to trade with you so you could have me at your table and you could sit and talk. How close you would get to me even though it was in front of my grandmother. You even started testing my Chinese, seeing what new I might have learned on my own.
But, you never asked me out.
Then someone else did, someone else took the chance and asked me out. I remember thinking about you. I thought about how no matter how much I tried, or poked, or talked, or bugged, or wrote sweet things in my poor attempts at Chinese, you didn’t want to ask me out. So I said yes.
Then you actually asked me out, after I had already said yes! You asked me to go shopping with you, because you needed a new jacket for winter and didn’t know where to go. You waited too long and I said yes.
But I went shopping with you anyways. I explained that since I was just helping you find a good store, it would be ok. I remember how fun we had had. How well we had gotten along. All the misunderstandings when we tried talking but you would reassure me that it was ok. It was so perfect and fun.
But I had already said yes to someone else, and it ended that day.
When I told you that I intended to go out with the guy, because I had said yes, you never talked to me again. Never.
Then I had gone to the college with the one I said yes to one day. I was helping him reregister for school because he wanted to go back. You were there in the office, and you looked up, surprised to see me there with him. I remember seeing you, and remembering how hard I had fallen for you. I made myself swallow it all down, because I cared about the man I was sitting next to as well. I had already made my choice and commitment. But you smiled at me, and came over to us, and talked to us. You mostly talked to him, I remember that. But it made me so happy to talk to you again. And then you let me exchange phone numbers with you again. Our friendship felt like it was at least renewed. I tried to approach it as just friends.
But for three years, we never really talked again. Not much. We ran into each other often, chatted a little, and would catch up.
Then last year, you surprised me. You did something out of the ordinary. You called me on the phone, and told me that you had a gift for me. It was so surprising. You wanted me to go out to lunch with you and catch up.
My god, I said yes! I didn’t care, I missed you so much.
We talked for hours, all night. We went out again, and again, at least 5 more times. We talked about the past, about everything we had done. We talked about the one time that we had gone out and how awkward it had been.
Then I told you how badly I had wanted you to ask me out. Then you confessed that you had thought I was so cute and it was sweet that I would eat every Sunday with my grandmother. You told me that all your coworkers had teased you and questioned you why you had never asked me out. Who cares if I had had a boyfriend at first, they told you. I clearly liked you more and I was unhappy. You even told me, you remember seeing us together and that I never stopped looking at you the whole time. You said how mean he had been towards me from the moment I had come inside. You remembered all of that.
You told me you had never realized how much I had liked you. You always assumed I wouldn’t want to go out with you. You laughed as we talked, because you couldn’t believe how foolish you were to not have noticed.
But now it was too late.
Every date we went on, you were more attentive then the last. You went back to teaching me about your culture. You told me things that I should know before I went to China. You even scolded me for using my chopsticks improperly but were impressed that I could use them so well. You called me a Chinese girl in disguise when I explained some of my beliefs and dreams and hopes. I told you how my number one dream was to be a mother and good wife. You liked that. You didn’t think many American girls wanted that anymore. You liked that I wanted to be a teacher, and I liked you just sharing things with me about your childhood and your past and what your home was like.
Then you came to me one night online, after seeing me so often now. I wanted to go out again soon. I wanted to show you a great place to go hiking and have picnics. It was my favorite place in the world. I told you, you could bring friends here. We could bring friends too.
But you stopped me.
You told me you had gone to talk to one of your professors. “I asked my professor if it was wrong for me to want to try and take a girl from her boyfriend,” you said. “I never hung out with you in the past as much as I have these last few weeks. I never realized what a great a girl you are. You are a lot like Chinese girls. I really like you. I want you to be my girlfriend.”
You said that to me, and I didn’t know what to say at first.
Then you continued, and told me, “But I respect your boyfriend. I like him. He is a good man and you seem happy with him, I’m not going to talk to you anymore after today. We shouldn’t be friends. I had fun together though.”
I cried for hours. Every time I thought about you, my eyes watered and I had to swallow the pain I felt deep in my chest. I cared for and loved my boyfriend. But my feelings for you had never changed. They had never died. I know and feel I can only blame myself. But I’ve chosen my path and I can’t stray from it. Some things have to be set in stone.
But here I am writing this right now. That’s because tonight, tonight I re-lived that moment I first met you 5 and a half years ago.
You walked into the store I work at now. You turned and looked at me, with shock in your eyes, and a smile creeping onto your lips. A smile spread across mine, and I felt the tingle in my toes again. For a brief moment, I felt that giddy feeling again of seeing you.
And you talked to me.
I told you it was my last semester of college, and it was yours too. But I had customers I had to take care of. You wanted to linger. You skirted around, trying to talk to me. But I was busy. So I smiled, and I said, “You can message me online.”
But then your smile was gone.
You looked away, just briefly and told me “I can’t, not anymore.” The pain came back again. My hurt came back, but I just smiled it off. “Are you seeing someone now?” I asked you. You said yes. “That’s great,” I said. You still lingered though, you wanted to talk to me more. I could see it. When the line formed again you apologized and left, with a short good bye. You didn’t even buy the thing you had come in to buy.
So I swallowed my pain.
The customer looked at me and asked, “Is he your boyfriend? You two really seem to have a connection.” I didn’t know what else to say but, “No, we just used to be good friends.
Tonight, I am here crying over you again.
I don’t know what else to do but to cry and accept the fact that all that remains between us is gone. Not even a friendship remains. In a year I will leave for japan. I don’t know where you will be after your graduation. You were still trying to stay in America, but you know you may return to China for good as well.
I can only hope and pray you are happy, and that I made the right choices. That, eventually, whatever it is that I still feel for you will go away one day. That it will become just another fond distant, sometimes painful, memory.
It’s funny how things in life mysteriously collide – that two seemingly unrelated events I’ve heard about recently actually have something in common. Specifically, the concept of people who feel like they own the opposite sex of their race or culture.
In the discussion in the comments section, I noticed that people started linking this murder to the idea of people who feel like they own the opposite sex of their race/culture. See this comment from A. Madhavan:
I can’t help but notice the deep misogyny in this murder – many times when we date out of our race/nationality, men of our race will try to “claim” us and shame us for dating/marrying outside of it. As if we are pieces of property and only belong to them. I have seen this happen with white men to white women; black men to black women; Indian men to Indian woman – how dare a [sic] we women marry outside her race and have complete autonomy over our decisions? It is threatening to A LOT of people…
This sometimes happens in America, too. It happened to me when I was dating a black American man. I was accused by a small group of black women (who I didn’t know) of “taking one of theirs.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think there is a lot of frustration. Black women face a lot of discrimination while dating and have a significant smaller dating pool than white women do because of cross-race dating preferences. This happens to Asian men as well.
To be sure, there is a shortage of women here in China because of the gender imbalance, leading to a growing population of unmarried bachelors in China’s countryside known as “bare branches”. According to this article from Tea Leaf Nation, “an estimated 12 to 15 percent of Chinese men — a population nearly the size of Texas — will be unable to find a mate within the next seven years.” Personally, I’ve even heard Chinese men who lament that China is “exporting” far too many of its women overseas.
The Shanghaiist confirms in a recent story that the Sanlitun killer “said he ‘hated Americans’ before attacking Chinese-French couple in Beijing,” specifically asking the woman’s husband if he was an American before stabbing him and his wife. And while it’s never explicitly stated, I can’t help but wonder, does this man represent the anger and frustration of millions who feel a certain entitlement to Chinese women over foreigners because of the shrinking dating pool?
Obviously, this is an incredibly complicated and potentially delicate issue, depending on who you are and whether you’re one of the folks facing a more limited dating pool simply because of your race and/or culture.
What’s your take on this? What do you think about the idea of people who think they own the opposite sex of their own race/culture? Is it ever justified? Sound off in the comments.
UPDATE: I’ve edited this post because that some of the content was inappropriate and insensitive towards the Jewish community. I made some poor choices in what I had written and failed to consider how my words might actually come across to readers (including the individuals I had specifically mentioned in this post). I want to apologize for this mistake.
Thank you to those people who were courageous enough to reach out to me to point out the errors in the original content. I wanted to append this apology to let you know I’ve learned a tremendous lesson in the importance of being sensitive about how groups of people are portrayed on this blog, as well as what should and should not be quoted in posts.
Exploring cultural differences in my intercultural and international marriage has long been at the heart of my blog. Which is why, when Yuta Aoki contacted me about his new book exploring cultural differences for mixed couples dating in Japan, I jumped at the chance to do an interview.
There’s Something I Want to Tell You: True Stories of Mixed Dating in Japan profiles 15 different people (spanning eight nationalities, both straight and LGBT) dating across racial and cultural borders in the country. Yuta’s deeply personal interviews touch some of the most private and intimate details of their love lives. He follows up each of the stories with a discussion of the cultural dynamics going on between the couples, which makes the book even more valuable. Whether you’re curious about intercultural dating in Japan or already in an intercultural relationship, you’ll find this a fascinating addition to your library.
I asked Yuta about everything from how he was able to get people to speak so candidly about their love lives, to his response to people who think culture doesn’t matter in intercultural dating:
Tell us about the inspiration for writing this book.
One huge inspiration was my friend’s story about how she met her husband. She is African-American and her husband is Japanese.
One day, she was walking down the street of Gunma, a Japanese prefecture where she liked at that time. A car approached behind her and pulled up.
‘What’s up?’ the man inside shouted in English. He was Japanese.
‘Uh… good evening,’ she replied in Japanese, hesitantly.
He smiled, wanting to continue the conversation.
But she wasn’t up for a random chat. It was already getting dark. The sun was going down. She walked away.
She would have forgotten him, had it not been for the birthday party she was going to the same night. The party took place on the 2nd floor of a building where there were several bars.
During the party, her phone rang. It was her friend.
‘Hey, can you come downstairs? There’s someone I want to introduce you to,’ her friend said.
When she came downstairs, she noticed a familiar-looking man.
‘Hey, you are the guy from the car!’ she exclaimed.
That was how she met her husband.
This story made me realize that people had unusual dating stories. I also remembered a friend who had made countless crazy boyfriend, one of which had run 40 kilometers (25 miles) just to see her. I wanted to know more.
You share a variety of stories about dating in Japan from people of different nationalities, racial backgrounds and sexual orientations — many of them diving into very intimate and personal details about the relationships. How did you find the people to interview for this book? And how were you able to get them to speak so candidly on the record?
Finding people to interview was quite easy as I already knew very diverse people who lived in Japan. All I had to do was ask around. Then some of them introduced me to other people.
I think the reason why those people opened up was that most people actually want to talk about their relationships. Often, we are afraid of being judged. But once someone stars actively listening to you, you can’t stop.
I think being interviewed is a very interesting experience. I encourage you to try it if there’s an opportunity. If you have an interesting dating story, contact me!
What’s your favorite story from this book and why?
Every time people ask that question, I come up with a different answer because there are so many interesting stories.
There’s an American girl called Lily, and I loved her quasi-relationship with a dorky, smart, obsessive Japanese guy called Aiba-kun. Lily wants to be his friends because he’s a smart guy and likes Japanese literature which she likes a lot. He’s also one of few friends Lily made back in university in Nagoya. But Aiba-kun doesn’t seem to be able to shake off his romantic obsession. There have been countless misunderstandings—both personal and cultural—between them.
Once, Lily decided to go on a “date” with him. She knew he hadn’t dated any girl before, so she wanted him to experience what it was like to go out with a girl. She was always clear that she wasn’t interested in him, but it was difficult for him to hold back his feelings.
Lily had to go back to the States, but they continued exchange emails even though she found it difficult to write long messages in Japanese.
Eventually, she came back to Japan and started living in Tokyo, quite far from Nagoya. One day, Aiba-kun showed up in her house unnoticed. It was an awkward meeting. Lily had to take him to a nearby café and convince him to leave because he kept insisting on dating her.
But their (sort of) friendship still continues. Lily thinks that once he gets over his infatuation, they can be really good friends.
I like this story because it has several layers of misunderstanding. On one hand, there is American dating culture that tends to be more casual and relaxed. On the other hand, there is an awkward boy who is not experienced with women. I find their friendship kind of cute.
Was there anything you learned about dating in Japan in the process of writing this book that surprised or shocked you?
It’s not so much surprising as curious, but so many Japanese people in those stories are, well, Japanese, in their way of thinking.
Western women who date Japanese men often find it confusing that Japanese men don’t always express their emotions and thoughts verbally.
Michelle, a Finnish girl, says her Japanese ex-boyfriend didn’t want to talk about bad things because he didn’t like confrontations. He wasn’t a talkative guy, and when they went on a date, he didn’t have much to say. She wanted him to talk more.
Kala, another African-American woman, talks about the ‘automatic translator’ that she invented to decode her Japanese husband’s non-verbal messages. When her husband is hungry, he comes around the kitchen, where she is cooking, and asks, ‘Do you need any help?’ But Kala knows he is not really offering help. It’s his indirect way of saying, ‘I’m hungry.’
Lack of verbal, direct communication is just one thing. There are a lot of recurring themes about dating in Japan: mind-reading, passiveness in bed, accommodating personalities, private nature of dating, etc. It was interesting to re-discovering my own culture.
What would you say to people who claim that culture doesn’t matter in intercultural dating?
I think what they really mean is that cultural differences can be overcome, which isn’t false.
But some people overlook or simply don’t notice cultural differences and that can be a problem. I remember Andre, a Jamaican man, who dated a Japanese girl who had a completely different communication style.
When she wanted to stop seeing him, she simply stopped answering his text, which confused Andre a great deal because he needed a verbal, explicit explanation. The more he pushed, the more irritated she was. It wasn’t necessarily his fault because from her part, she was unable to communicate with him effectively. Instead, she just became angry and passive-aggressive, which confused him even more.
It turned out their relationship had been fraught with misunderstandings, which neither of them fully understood. I think a little understanding of cultural and personal differences would have made their relationship much more pleasant.
What do you hope people come away with after reading your book?
I hope that people come away with a good understanding of what to expect in dating in Japan. At the same time, I hope people notice that there are many Japanese people who don’t fit the Japanese stereotypes. I included very diverse people in my book, so I you can understand dating in Japan from different angles.
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