The Difficulties of Being a Female Expat in China

The Difficulties of Being a Female Expat in China
May 05, 2010 By Jessica A. Larson-Wang, eCh ,

Women are a minority in China and this is true no matter whether the women are foreign or Chinese. There’s no doubt that being a woman in China carries with it some significant challenges. Chinese women have grown up with the remnants of Confucianism creating barriers that modern society has tried hard to knock down, but even for foreign women, who are not as affected by Chinese societal issues as local women, stepping into this environment can be a difficult experience. Most of your fellow expats are males so you have a shortage of girlfriends to chat with; dating can be a bit of a minefield, with male expats usually more interested in local women; relationships with local men bringing their own set of challenges; and to top it off, Chinese society has certain misconceptions about Western women which can affect how we’re viewed professionally as well as in social settings.

Being socially isolated is no fun whether you’re at home or abroad, but having a strong support system can be crucial to survival in a foreign country. The world of expats in China can be a bit of a boys’ club, and it can be hard for a woman to find her place. While on the one hand China is a good place to develop friendships with the opposite sex, everyone longs to have friends who “get” us. Chinese women can make good girlfriends, but every once in awhile you need a good gripe session or a shoulder to cry on or someone to share happy news with, and you want to do it in your own language with people who understand your culture. In smaller towns where you might be the only foreigner around expats of either sex can feel lonely and isolated at times but even in larger cities with thriving expat communities women can often find themselves on the fringe of a large group of foreign men. This can be less than convenient when the night’s plans involve getting drunk and picking up girls at the club. While playing ‘wingwoman’ for your guy friends can be fun once in awhile, it certainly can get a bit tiresome and there are times when one really feels the lack of a close group of female friends.

Then there’s the issue of dating. The differences between the dating scene for foreign men and women in China have been discussed before, with the dating scene for Western women in China often portrayed as some sort of wasteland. While this is less and less the case, as more Western women open themselves up to the possibility of dating Chinese men, the dating scene for the Western woman in China remains uncertain territory. It can be especially hard on one’s ego to be compared to local women constantly and always seem to come up lacking. Particularly if one frequents certain online communities, one will find no lack of disparaging remarks about Western women. Some men comment that Chinese women, as opposed to Western women, “know how to treat a man,” and others comment that Western women are too heavy. Although usually the reasons why Western men in China tend to prefer to date Chinese women are not particularly malicious (the majority of women in China are Chinese, afterall, so statistically anyone’s chance of finding a Chinese partner is higher than that of finding a fellow expat), the fact that many Western women would prefer to date other expats if given the choice means that expat women in China get used to rejection.

However, both of these issues can be tackled and if a Western woman in China is committed to living here she will make friends, maybe not loads, but she’ll make some, and she will figure out how to navigate the dating terrain (after all, not all Western men are opposed to finding a fellow Westerner, nor are Chinese men undateable). But what a Western woman is not able to change, at least not directly or entirely, is Chinese society’s somewhat prejudiced view of Western society. Western society is often portrayed as loose, morally bankrupt and hedonistic and much of the blame for this seems to fall on the shoulders of Western women. Often implicit in China is the attitude that men – Chinese or foreign – will be men. They might keep mistresses or gamble or drink too much, but as long as they do their duty to their family their shortcomings can be set aside. Women, however, are held to a different standard, and foreign women often seem to represent everything that good Chinese women aren’t. Foreign women fail at being virtuous and pure, fail at being long-suffering self-sacrificing upholders of family and tradition. Foreign women date around before marriage, have sex with whomever they feel like (and enjoy it), they drink, they smoke, and they don’t obey their husbands or their in-laws. Almost any foreign woman who has been in China for any length of time will have come across the stereotypical attitude from certain people – from the guys at the club who assume you’re theirs for the asking, to the co-worker who asks if foreign women all sleep around after marriage, to the guy who asks you out and wonders out loud if he’ll be able to satisfy your voracious sexual appetite, to your Chinese boyfriend’s parents, who tell him that you can play with foreign girls, but they aren’t marriage material. It is these sorts of attitudes that are the truly infuriating part of being a female expat in China, not the problems with Western men or the lack of datable guys, but how you are looked upon.


A foreign woman in China has to be on her toes constantly. If she dresses or acts like she does back home she’s likely to be labeled a slut. Back home you can be a “good girl” and still have a drink now and then, have a tattoo, or wear eyeliner and short skirts. In the West, the girl who is saving herself for marriage might wear fishnets and the church-going girl who dresses in modest cardigans might have slept with half the football team, but in China the good-girl mold is very well defined. China has not yet had a sexual revolution, and women here are still very constrained by traditional boundaries which define womanhood. It is not okay to have too many boyfriends before marriage or to put off marriage for too long. Watch any Chinese dating show and you will see men turn down women for being too independent or for wanting a life outside the house. While Western society accepts that there are no absolutes when it comes to sex and love, that there’s no magic age by which a woman has to get married nor is there any magic number of boyfriends after which a woman becomes a tramp, Chinese society does not. So a Western woman in China finds herself judged by a set of standards to which she was not raised to meet. In short, when we arrive in China the rules suddenly change, and much to our chagrin we suddenly find ourselves condemned before we even know what our crime is. As one Western woman put it, “I just thought spaghetti straps were cute, I never knew I was sending out the ‘whore’ signal to all of China by wearing a tank-top”.

All of this is not to say that foreign men in China have it easy. There’s a different (yet related) set of stereotypes regarding foreign men, but those stereotypes and negative attitudes arise largely from the relationships foreign men have with Chinese women, not from anything inherently wrong with the men themselves. Many foreign men have been victim to territorial attitudes about Chinese women and judged for their relationships with them, however the problem is not the relationships per se, but who the relationships are with. Foreign women, on the other hand, are pre-judged based largely on knowledge that comes from the media, or from an incomplete and erroneous understanding of Western society and culture. Sadly most people here will come into contact with hundreds of stereotypical images of Western women portrayed on TV and the movies before they ever come into contact with even one female expat in person, so it is hard to combat these negative stereotypes. That doesn’t mean we stop trying. At least my little corner of China knows that the American wife and mother in Building One somehow manages not to fling herself at random men, despite occasionally wearing low-cut tops.

Related Links
Boys, Boys, Boys: Dating Chinese Guys
Yellow Fever: Why Western Guys Date Chinese Girls
How to Get Married in China

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When you're used to being put on the pedestal, it's hard to get accustomed to being treated like a wallpaper. Welcome to every man's reality ladies. Just suck it up, stop complaining and "be a man".

Apr 11, 2023 07:56 Report Abuse


I find that most articles on expat women deal with women dating while abroad. Sure, it is difficult, but as I live abroad in China, I find it one of the things I don't worry a lot about. I'm content to just kind of explore... the thing I've had a lot of problems with is figuring out how to fit in and make friends (that are trustworthy, easy to get along with etc.). There's an interesting blog post ( done by another women living in China that explore what it's like to live in China and other abroad communities as an expatriate!

Apr 24, 2016 21:52 Report Abuse