Laowai Life is a new article series from Baopals where we tackle difficult topics that are important and relevant to foreigners living abroad in China.
Today we are going to talk about dating in China; more specifically, expats and their Chinese partners. There are over 1.4 billion Chinese, so it shouldn't be hard to find that special someone, right?
If you've been in China for some time, you've probably learned a lot about Chinese people and their culture. And if you're currently single and looking for someone, you may have gone on a date or had a romantic relationship with a Chinese person. We spoke to Elvis and Jessica, two expats, and Tao and Chris, two native Chinese, to get their takes on the ups, downs and in-betweens of these cross-cultural relationships.
While some cultures encourage their children to be independent of their families and stay out of each other's personal affairs, other cultures prefer to be very involved and make their opinions known when it comes to their family member's lives, regardless of the individual's age. Chinese culture definitely leans towards the latter.
Elvis N. grew up in Cape Town, South Africa and Windhoek, Namibia. He met his Chinese wife in primary school after her family moved to Windhoek, and next month they will have been married for 15 years. The couple moved from South Africa to Shanghai in 2002 and experienced some culture shock.
"When I first arrived here and met the rest of my wife's family, they looked at me like I was an alien and couldn't understand why my wife Jenny had married me of all people," says Elvis. "Back then if you told a Chinese person you were from Africa, they thought you would have a lion as your pet! I remember thinking, 'What the the hell is wrong with these people?' but as time went by I came to understand that they only wanted what was best for their family."
"In Western culture we can't wait to move out of our parent's homes, but here in China the kids prefer to stay with their parents. I remember when I was 14 years old I told my mother 'I'm moving out and and living with my girlfriend (my wife now)' and she said, 'I thought you would leave earlier!' In China, if a kid told their parents that they would go insane."
This closeness between Chinese people and their parents can seem strange from an outside perspective.
Jessica D. moved to Shanghai in 2014 and met her Chinese ex-boyfriend at a party. They dated for a year and a half. Jessica's mother is from Panama so she understood the concept of having a large, closely knit family, but she was still surprised by how close her boyfriend was with his family. She noticed that he would include his mother in some of their activities, like dinner and shopping, and she was often around when they hung out at his home.
But while Jess got along with her ex-boyfriend's mother, his father was not accepting or supportive of their relationship because of her Caribbean Latin background. "We discussed this openly, and I felt sorry for him because he was young, an only child and he felt very conflicted about it. He respected his dad but also wanted to say 'screw him'".
Chris Y. moved from a small city called Huzhou to Shanghai when she was 11 years old. She met her German boyfriend on Tinder and they have been dating for over one and a half years. "Our attitudes about our families are quite different. He respects and loves his family as much as I do. But when it comes to making personal decisions, I'm much more easily affected by my family's opinion than he is."
"In China, we don't normally take our dates home to meet our parents unless they might become their future son/daughter in law. Parents take this meeting very seriously, so normally the girl/boy will bring them a nice gift as a sign of respect. My boyfriend had no idea about this custom and I remembered at the last second, so we ended up going to a shop to buy some flowers at 6:30am before meeting my parents together for the first time."
Communication is arguably the most important element of a relationship, and a wide variety of issues (both funny and not-so-funny) can be triggered or exacerbated when cultural differences come into play.
"My ex was very honest with me about certain things," says Jess. "If I asked him, 'Do I look fat in this dress?' he might say, 'You know, maybe you should consider working out some more.' But I didn't get mad because I understood his culture and I knew it wasn't said with malice. He would follow it with 'But you are so active I’m sure you can lose the weight very easily.' We were both very open minded and communicated well with each other. We would tell each other if the other person did something that could be perceived negatively in other cultures."
A common theme for communication issues in relationships between native and non-native Chinese people is how to communicate when you need help.
"If my boyfriend asks me to help him to do something, I'll do it even if I don't want to," says Chris. "But he's of the belief that if you don't want to help someone, you can say no and it's completely fine."
Jess has had similar experiences. "My ex-boyfriend would always try to hold my purse for me, and didn't understand why I would prefer to hold it myself. I told him that if I needed help, I would ask him."
Even after 31 years of marriage, Tao W. is still getting used to having to ask for help. She met her husband after she moved from Beijing to California in 1984. "Sometimes I expect my husband to offer to help me without me having to ask him. The Chinese like to ask for help indirectly. Instead of asking you to close a window, they might say that they prefer the window to be closed or that they are feeling cold. In American culture, you don't beat around the bush like that and you have to be very direct."
The ways one expresses romantic feelings varies from individual to individual. However, a lot of this can be influenced by how and where the individual was raised. If you've ever dated someone from another country, you have probably experienced some differences in how they show their affection for you. And if you're living in China you have probably witnessed a wide range of expressions, from a couple that is popping each other's pimples in public to a couple that seems really shy around each other and can barely make eye contact.
"I think Chinese show romance through buying gifts, and they aren't super into PDA," says Jess. "But my ex was a bit different. He would hold my hand and kiss me in public."
This type of behavior can be considered unusual for a more traditional Chinese person.
"When it comes to romance, many Chinese people are relatively shy, and a man probably would never kiss you in front of his girlfriend's family. I felt a bit awkward when my boyfriend did that, because I didn't know how my parents would feel about it," says Chris. "My boyfriend also started holding my hand in public from our third or fourth date, and was very comfortable with that. I think German people are more straightforward about their feelings, while Chinese people are more likely to take it slow."
While dating someone from a different culture is by no means easy, it comes with endless rewards and opportunities.
"Before I left Beijing in the '80s, I was told by the matchmakers that I would have trouble finding a Chinese husband because I spent so much time studying and didn't care much about my appearance," says Tao. "Back then, they said that Chinese men weren't attracted to women with higher education and I should find a foreigner to marry because they 'cared more about personality'. It seems ridiculous to be worried about something like that, but I ended up leaving China and now I have been married for 31 years!"
Chris is now learning German and has plans to go to Germany with her boyfriend next month. "I'm so excited for my trip! We are going to the Peter and Paul festival in Bretten, which dates back to 15th century Germany. People will wear medieval costumes and put on different performances, and they will have campfires at night and do some traditional folk dances."
"I am glad that I was able to clear up some misconceptions my ex-boyfriend had about black women," says Jessica. "Black women are often over sexualized in the media, with booty shorts, and boobs everywhere. When we first started dating, he was surprised I didn't own more pairs of shorts! I was able to teach him that there's isn't one definition for a black woman. He also helped show me that you can be independent but also be cared for, and there is nothing wrong with letting someone help you."
Elvis has seen a lot of improvement in the way Chinese people perceive Africans. "I have two daughters, 12 and 15 years old, and they used to come home telling me that other Chinese kids made fun of them because their father is from Africa. I had to talk with them a lot to make them understand that there's nothing wrong with being from Africa. But China has changed so much in the last 10 years. We are very happy here now and there's really nothing to complain about anymore. This is our home now."
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