In China there is a popular saying 入乡随俗 (rù xiāng suí sú) – the Chinese equivalent of the medieval proverb: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” When you are in a new place, adhere to the local customs. Simple!
After a year living in China, I consider myself pretty decent when it comes to assimilation. I know my way around Beijing; I can more-or-less understand TV news without difficulty; I prefer to use chopsticks when it comes to dining; and I no longer feel like people stare at me when I ride the subway (though they still do). I was feeling very at home until friends recently asked about my dating life in China. If I have failed at anything, it is surely the China dating scene. And I often find myself wondering why.
Lacking luck? Probably. Need more opportunities? Maybe. Cultural clash? Definitely. Dating a Chinese guy has never been a hot topic to discuss with my friends. Some of these, I have found, have been harsh and unfairly judgmental. One even tried to warn me: “Don’t even think about it.” Their reason: they simply found the cultural differences too large. Even too large for them to be friends in the platonic sense.
But most of them are too quick to judge. They overheard nightmare stories, but haven’t much experience themselves, primarily due to their inability to escape from their expat bubbles. A bubble I sometimes think I would like to prick. Asian myself, I don’t think I need to draw a line between Chinese culture and my own (Indonesian). It shouldn’t be too hard: when in China, do as the Chinese do, right?
The first Chinese man that I dated was far from traditional. A 20-something restaurant and bar owner from Beijing who grew up in Hong Kong, until he moved to Korea, and then England for college, and finally back to the mainland to start a business. His international flavor gave me the confidence to take a chance. As friends we had got along pretty well, and he was a funny guy – different from the stereotype of Chinese men – he was not shy, but talkative.
Unfortunately, it only took me all of one date to notice the cultural barrier between us. The guy was in full show-off mode, trying to impress me by turning up at the university in a Lamborghini to drive me for a dinner just 15 minutes away. It was at a hot-pot restaurant where he proceeded to lavishly order vast expanses of food that were way too much, including exotic cuisines such as cow intestines and pork feet, while showing a bad attitude to the waiters. As he double-dipped, loudly slurped, and toothily chewed on his noodles I began to lose my appetite. As if that was not bad enough, he picked his teeth and burped in front of me after eating. I began to think it unbelievable that this man gave even the vaguest pretense of being worldly. Is this what an English education gets you these days?
I brought this particular dating experience up with another friend, my Canadian mate, Jen. She had a similar experience. She thought her Chinese man was in another relationship that was more important than her – a relationship with food: “I found it hard to date a Chinese man because eating was such a big part of his life. Every dinner we would feast big, and I could not recall any time I was with him without involving hours in restaurants.” Adding, “It was really nice of him that he never let me pay, but the food was too much. We had so much fun and got along just fine, I just didn’t think our lifestyles fitted at all.
Food isn’t the only problem either. At least not for handsome Aksel, 24, a Shanghai-based architect from Sweden. In Sweden, feminism is a big thing. Women are independent and proud of it. When it comes to dating, they appreciate personal space, and nobody is being pursued or pursuing anybody. Everything is equal, from texting to paying the bills, no-one has to put more effort in than anyone else. “It did not work out with my previous Chinese girlfriend in the end, beautiful, sweet and caring a lady she was, I realized that even from the beginning, there were just too many differences. She would be upset if I already planned occasional ‘bromance’ weekends with friends, or, get tardy in replying texts, and always demanded that I pay for everything, comparing me to the Chinese men. I just think a relationship should be based on mutual friendship, and she had different idea about it,” he said.
Having failed for the first time, I figured I should try again, and breathed a sigh of relief when there wasn’t a Lamborghini in sight or pork trotters on the table. The date was fairly successful. However, after getting to know each other, I found that perhaps I was too liberal, and again cultural clashes were inevitable. Considerate caring, chivalrous, sweet, and gentle, he would buy me endless nice gifts such as chocolate and flowers. He texted me “good night” every night without fail, but after just a few weeks, instead of having an interesting discussion on intellectual topics, he dropped the three words – yeah, the L-bomb – and I couldn’t help but think that the relationship did not have potential. It felt too clumsy, teenage and lovey-dovey, not a mature, mutual friendship.
Other cultural clashes might also be a huge factor: “I am aware that we are in China and we’re supposed to live how the Chinese live. With my last boyfriend, I always tried to mingle, in every KTV, Chinese dinner, I even came home with him during Spring Festival to meet his family in Shenzhen,” said Amy, 26, who dated her colleague while working as English teacher in Nanjing. Adding, “I just think, at the end it was not reciprocal. As he would prefer to not go to bars to hang out with my colleagues, and he seemed uncomfortable when it came to joining activities involving my expat life here in Nanjing.” After 18 months of dating, they decided to split.
It would be unfair of me to judge an entire nation just on my personal involvement and a few anecdotes. And I’m certainly not trying to stereotype the Chinese or their culture, here. Despite all the cultural clashes and obstacles, I have also encountered multi-cultural families who started dating and ended up with marriage and cute 混血- hunxue mixed-blood kids. As a matter of fact some of my friends, such as Fanny, are luckier than me when it comes to local love life. Fanny, a fellow Chinese language student, from France, met her Chinese beau, a Chinese student studying French, in the campus’ French library.
Fanny and her Chinese Beau, Rafael (French name) during their last vacation in France
“At first we were language partners but then we started dating each other. I kept my guard in the beginning because I assumed Chinese guys would think western women were easier to sleep with. But I gave it a chance and I was wrong. In the beginning we had a lot of communication problems because we both are in the process of learning each other’s language, so we had a big communication problem, ” Fanny said. Adding, “But throughout the challenge of understanding each other, we fell in love with each other. Now we can speak to each other in French, English and Chinese. A multi-cultural relationship is a really amazing thing, surely is not boring!”
With an open-minded attitude, based on tolerance, insight into the two cultures, and strong chemistry, a multi-cultural relationship can be an amazing. At the end of the day, it’s all down to our own personal preferences, and for that, whether it is in China, Japan, England, or anywhere else, it won’t matter if the two are the perfect match for each other; love always prevails.
Director Jason Lee Wong and producer Marras Martine created a series of web documentaries interviewing numerous successful European-Chinese couples.