One comment on my article about intercultural relationships asked the rather loaded question “why don’t you see more foreign women married to Chinese men?” This is a question that gets asked a lot, and there really is no simple answer. It is obvious to anyone living in China that the number of foreign men with Chinese wives or girlfriends drastically outweighs the number of foreign women married to or dating Chinese men. This discrepancy is so large that websites and forums devoted to the discussion of intercultural relationships in China almost always assume that the foreigner in the relationship will be a man, and the very idea of a foreign woman being involved with a Chinese man is sometimes met with ridicule, as if it were impossible.
However, marriages and relationships like my own are on the rise. When I first arrived here nearly seven years ago, I did not personally know of any foreign women who were dating or married to locals, whereas now I know many. Even in the media, it is becoming more and more common to see a Western woman paired with a Chinese man, so obviously relationships like mine aren’t as rare as they once were. Partly this is due to changing expat demographics: foreign females in China are no longer rare. Male expats still outnumber females, however, which means that there are simply more men out there on the market.
Long-standing was the myth that foreign females simply wouldn’t date Chinese men. This was a myth with some basis in reality, as the physical differences between Chinese and Westerners are more marked and sometimes deal-breaking between Chinese males and Western females. It can be hard to date guys who weigh less than you or who only come up to your chin
Still, there are Chinese guys who would like to date Western women, and there are Western women who are willing to date them. But why are these relationships still so rare? And what can a Western woman who might be willing to date a Chinese man do about it? For starters, acknowledge the cultural realities before stepping into the dating pool.
First, Chinese people generally do not date casually. Dating is seen as a means to an end, the end being marriage. And although you’re certain to find guys and girls who do not fit that mold, and who are looking for a bit of “fun,” do not be surprised if your fun relationship is not granted a lot of respect by your partner or the rest of China.
In addition, Western women in China probably all realize that they’re fighting against the stereotype of the loose woman – the buxom blonde who gets drunk and will go home with anyone. As Western women, whether we like it or not, casually dating and sleeping with local guys only reinforces a stereotype that is not particularly flattering. Which isn’t to say that we should conform to local standards, or that the view of a woman who enjoys dating, hanging out, and maybe even sex with guys who are not her long term partner is the correct one, but simply that we shouldn’t be altogether surprised if one night stands with Chinese guys don’t turn into long term relationships.
Another obstacle to dating local men in China also has to do with traditional ideas about who should wear the proverbial pants in the relationship. As expats, whether we are male or female, we by default usually have higher salaries than all but the wealthiest of locals, and often have higher levels of education. Most Chinese men are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of dating a woman who has more education or who makes more money than him. This attitude isn’t just sexism on the part of Chinese men, but something that has been reinforced by Chinese society as a whole. Many Chinese women look to a man’s financial assets first and foremost. Even during the initial dating phase, they expect a man to shower her with gifts. My husband told me once about his ex-girlfriend who, when he was making a pitiful 1300 RMB a month, pounced on him every payday and demanded he take her out shopping.
It is not uncommon to hear Chinese men say that they can’t afford a girlfriend, or that they can’t get married until they can purchase a house for their future wife. So while it might seem like landing a “rich” foreign girl would be the solution to all their problems, in fact the opposite is true. When my first boyfriend in China and I were living together, I remarked casually to another foreign friend of mine that I was “supporting” my boyfriend while he was still in school. This sent my then-boyfriend into a fit of anger, and he didn’t speak to me for three whole days. I was absolutely clueless as to what I’d done wrong, but my ex- was so shamed by my statement that he only left me a letter telling me how I’d injured his pride, essentially emasculating him.
For most Chinese men, being able to take care of their girlfriend or wife, or, at the very least, take care of themselves, is a sign of being a man. It might cause your relationship a load of stress if you find yourself dating someone who is too far below you on the socio-economic ladder.
Almost all of the relationships between Chinese men and Western women that I know of which have actually worked have had one thing in common – the male half of the relationship has been rather non-conventional. Take my own husband, for instance. He's a guy from a rather nondescript village outside of Kunming, who left home after high school and, after a brief and unsatisfying stint in a factory, took off with his guitar and amp to tour Yunnan. He eventually returned to Kunming, where he sold guitars and did bar gigs for a living until we met, got married, and moved to Beijing.
Other friends’ husbands have been overseas returnees, fluent in English and used to Western ways; artists and performers who live on the fringe of society; divorced guys who were disillusioned about conventional Chinese love. For the most part a Chinese guy who decides to be with a foreigner for the long term is not going to be someone who is deeply attached to traditional ideas about marriage and gender roles, and often are men who deeply question these and other social norms.
There is no doubt that dating is hard as a Western woman in China. Choices are limited and Chinese society works against us in a way it doesn’t for our male counterparts. However, there are happy endings to be had, and I encourage any Western women who are willing to give the local dating pool a chance not to give up so easily. My marriage is a happy one, and, since we defy the odds, maybe we simply got lucky. Maybe, as my husband likes to say, it was fate that brought us together. No matter, because I firmly believe that there is no reason a Western woman can’t find the same romantic happy ending in China that Western men have been finding all along.
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