Guest Post: Larry – a Short Tale of Ignorance or Cross-Cultural Misunderstanding

Ava Ming

Cross-cultural misunderstandings are a huge pitfall in dating abroad, including here in China.

Just imagine what it must have felt like for Ava Ming, the English blogger behind My Oriental Life, when she heard these words from her date for the evening, a Chinese guy she met in Shenzhen: “I really want to kiss you, Ava, but I’m scared that I might get AIDS because all Africans have AIDS.”

Whoa!

Read on to learn the whole story of how things fell apart between her and Larry.

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Shenzhen, China (photo by Ramon Boersbroek via Flickr.com)
Shenzhen, China (photo by Ramon Boersbroek via Flickr.com)

I’ve often considered telling the story of my first Chinese date. But usually I’ve declined, thinking it was too personal, perhaps too upsetting and might also give the impression that I dislike Chinese men, which is really not the case at all.

But the event occurred a while ago now back in 2013. After reading about others who’ve braved their souls on Jocelyn Eikenburg’s fabulous blog, I’ve decided to share. Besides, who knows, maybe someone else could have or has had a similar experience?

I met Larry at the terminal subway station. There were very few commuters around. I was curious as to why he came so close, sitting right next to me on an empty train, leaving a small space between us.

I noticed his glances in my direction, wondering if he was trying to work up the courage to ask if he could practice his English with me. Pretty soon he introduced himself and asked me where I was from, which led to a conversation.

He told me that he was a professional who’d travelled to various European cities but never England. He was 37, unmarried and feeling the pressure from his parents to change his single status. I enjoyed our talk during the long ride but initially didn’t read anything into it. Around that time I seemed to be making a lot of new Chinese friends while on various subway rides. I guess I must have exuded an approachable air!

As we approached his stop he told me that he thought I was pretty. He couldn’t believe no other Chinese guy had made me his girlfriend. Then he asked for my number and if we could go to dinner.

Have to admit I was pretty surprised. Until then I’d been under the impression that Chinese guys would never be so forward due to a natural or cultural shyness. I said I wasn’t sure about a date but we could talk from time to time.

Over the next fortnight he sent regular messages via text and email usually beginning with ‘hello, my angel.’ Yes, Larry was a charmer but the messages did make me smile.

Eventually we set up a date and met on a hot and sticky Friday evening. By now I knew that I wasn’t romantically attracted to him, but I did like his personality and I was interested in meeting more people and expanding my circle of Chinese friends. I also assumed that he didn’t have intentions of getting serious with me either. His parents probably weren’t expecting him to marry a foreign girl.

The date was nothing special. The best word to describe it would probably be ‘nice,’ well up to a point anyway. We ate rice in a Japanese restaurant and then went for a walk in the park. He kept guiding me towards secluded places, which I thought was a bit strange. But then he’d comment on the sculpture, or lotus flower pond, or round leafy bush we’d stumbled upon.

I still wasn’t feeling any chemistry towards him. But he had a gentle humour and I thought perhaps we could be friends in the future.

Ava Ming
Ava Ming

Approaching 10pm I wanted to leave, having made plans to go dancing, but Larry wasn’t ready. He insisted on ‘just ten more minutes’ and took me to a bench by the side of the river, again another secluded place. When we sat down he made a confession.

“I really want to kiss you, Ava, but I’m scared that I might get AIDS because all Africans have AIDS.”

I was literally struck dumb at his ignorance. Then I became so angry I actually felt tears welling up. Angry tears have a whole different feeling to ones of sadness or joy.

We’d already discussed my family history, him being impressed that my parents were from Jamaica and that I was born in England. But regardless of place of birth, how could he be so naive? In addition, was there no filter in his brain to tell him exactly when to shut-up?

I told him that AIDS didn’t originate from Africa, but was initially a disease among gay white men in New York. I pointed out that he should really think before he speaks and that he shouldn’t believe so strongly in stereotypes. On top of this, why on earth had he asked me out if he’d thought I was ‘unclean?’

Seeing my distress he insisted that I’d misunderstood when we both knew that I hadn’t. To make matters worse, he then pulled me close and tried to kiss me! Saying; “look, see, I know you don’t really have AIDS!”

I wanted to storm off in a huff, but it’s kind of difficult when you don’t know where you are, so we caught the bus back together. He begged me not to tell anyone because he didn’t want to lose face. I made no such promise. If he’d just ended the date at 10pm before his confession maybe we would have become friends, although then I would never have known what he was really thinking.

For a long time I dismissed the idea of dating another Chinese guy. If this was the common school of thought then what would be the point?

A short while later I discussed his theory with my Chinese friends, many of whom also believed that AIDS originated in Africa, but none of whom believed that all Africans have it.

As for Larry, he called and emailed several times to apologise for upsetting me. I accepted his apology but declined his offers to go for a drink. Making someone cry on a first date, even if they were tears of frustration, is really not an auspicious beginning!

As I mentioned this was a while ago and I have since relaxed my guard, becoming more open to Chinese men who just want to talk. But as for dating? Not sure. For that I think I’ll need a little more time.

I’m Ava Ming, born in England to Jamaican parents and currently living in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China where I write and teach English.
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