Anyone who’s ever been part of an inter-racial couple will know how it can be a headache on occasion; not only do you have to deal with curious looks on the street from other people, but even friends will sometimes ask ridiculous questions such as “what’s it like?”, as if you happen to be dating an alien. In the relationships I have had with Chinese women, to be honest, there have been occasions where I have felt they were from another planet.
We all know Chinese culture is different, but it’s the degree of difference that creates the problems. In America Caucasian males and Asian females make up the vast majority of the known inter-racial marriages; obviously it can be taken as a given that a large number of those Asian females are Chinese in origin, bearing in mind China has 1.3 billion people, not even including other countries nationals born of Chinese ancestry. Having a relationship with a Chinese female either within China, or outside of China can bring up a multitude of unforeseen problems, yet it’s not as if inter-racial dating and marriage is anything new.
China has a history that spans thousands of years (as we are often reminded). Some of the first recorded instances of inter-racial marriage occurred during the Tang Dynasty with the arrival of Islam. During this period large number of Arabs, Persians and Turkish males migrated from central and western Asia and married with Chinese females. Although this was initially discouraged, it was later encouraged during the Song dynasty, which allowed third-generation immigrants with official status to inter-marry with Chinese princesses. I have no idea how difficult relationships at that time must have been with an inter-racial couple, but knowing Chinese women, possible arguments that might have ensued might have been something like this:
Song Dynasty Inter-Racial couple
Arab male in China: What I wouldn’t give for a kebab right now!
His Chinese wife: We invented those you know.
Arab male in China: No you didn’t!
His Chinese wife: Yes we did!
Arab male in China: No you didn’t!
His Chinese wife: You don’t know anything!
Arab male in China: Aren’t you supposed to be submissive?
His Chinese wife: Like I said, you don’t know anything about Chinese culture!
Finding and marrying a Chinese girl is one thing, but in my own personal experience, and many other westerners I have known, actually maintaining and creating a harmonious relationship where both partners feel happy and content is quite another. One of the initial problems is the choice of partner; a westerner will often view a Chinese girl from his own cultural context seeing certain cues and signs as proof that the female he is with is loving, responsible and definitely a good prospect for marriage; this may be especially so compared to western females he may have dated before.
This is based on certain assumptions that a western male gets from his own culture which are not often considered. For example:
1. Chinese women must be somewhat the same as Western females, in thought and action, therefore it’s easy to judge what kind of person they are by using western females as a bench-mark, and…
2. After knowing a Chinese girl/woman for a period of months to years you will really know her true character and desires.
Honestly, neither of those assumptions are necessarily the case. There is a reason why over fifty percent of marriages between Canadian males and Chinese females end in divorce within two years, and it’s not because Chinese girls dislike Maple syrup or were only looking for a passport. It’s a rare Chinese woman who will ever initiate divorce proceedings, and even if she did, her family would try to strongly advise her against it (I say advise, what I really mean is ‘tell’).
Apart from the initial choice of partner, communication is by far the biggest problem in a relationship with a Chinese girl. This may at first seem to be a rather trite statement on my part, but I am not referring simply to the ‘language barrier’, which can be fairly easily remedied on both sides. I am actually referring to the way the Chinese mind works which can often be diametrically opposed to the way the western mind works.
The East-West Dichotomy
The east-west dichotomy has often been noted by scholars; the general idea being that westerners focus more on rationality, material and technical dynamism, and individualism, whereas those of the east have more of a focus on familial social orders, traditions and collectivism. The concept of the ‘east-west dichotomy’ has been challenged on various occasions, and in fact the gap is most definitely closing.
It should be no surprise though, that out of all the East Asian countries, China is the country that still retains its culture and traditions to a very strong degree. This has a large effect on relationships between western men and Chinese women and is something that can’t be ignored; this obviously is not a problem where a Chinese girl has a relationship with a Chinese man (both mainland born and raised) as the understanding between them is intrinsic and based on certain culturally accepted precepts.
Subjective speech Vs Objective speech Patterns
Out of all the relationships I’ve had with Chinese women, one of the things that often made me want to pull my hair out in frustration is this difference in communication. Basically put, due to the western education system, culture and language, westerners focus on specifics and direct response answers to questions, whereas Chinese people focus on generalities in their answers, in other words ‘non-specifics’.
So, for example ask a westerner “what are you doing?” and they will reply exactly by telling you what they are doing, e.g. “I’m doing some cooking”, this is not always the case with someone born and raised in China (not impossible though). I remember one of many occasions I had a conversation on the phone with my then Chinese girlfriend that should have lasted approximately thirty seconds and no more (it really would have with a western girl!). I had called her up to find out what time we were meeting that day and the conversation went like this:
Me: What time shall we meet then?
Her: I’m doing the housework.
Me:…..er, ok…..so what time shall we meet?
Her: I’ve still got a lot to do.
Me: Ok, so what time do you think you will finish?
Her: Even when I finish it’ll still take me time to put my make-up on.
Me: You don’t need make-up. What time?
Her: Why don’t you think I need make-up?
Me: You’re beautiful enough already. What time?
Her: Do you think all men think like that, or is it just you?
Me: Look! Can you just tell me what time we will be meeting please?
Her: You’re in a bad mood today!
Me: !!! I just want to know what time we will meet so I can prepare and not be late.
Her: What do you need to prepare, you’re a man, you don’t need make-up.
Her: What time do you want to meet?
Me: (sighs’) Ok, six o’clock.
Her: I won’t have finished the housework by then.
Me: Look, all I need to know is what time you will be there so I won’t be late. That’s all, nothing else. Just give me a general idea; it’s not much to ask is it. I mean you don’t want me to be late do you?
Her: No. Well, I have the usual amount of the housework so you can work it out.
Me: I can’t! I can’t work it out! I don’t know what your average amount of housework is, your house is not my house; how can I know?
Her: Well my ex Chinese boyfriend would know.
Me: Well he must have been psychic then mustn’t he! Not to mention a saint!
Her: (ignoring my last comment) Well, I’ve already finished the dishes.
Me: ………..just call me when you’re done ok.
Her: What time?
The above conversation is actually the abridged version; I didn’t include the parts where she asked “where shall we meet?”, as that would make it twice as long. Now if you are a westerner you may be forgiven for thinking my then girlfriend was either
A. Incredibly stupid or B. Deliberately annoying,
but neither is actually the case; she graduated from one of the top ten universities in the United States and was (and is) by far one of the most intelligent and articulate Chinese female I have met in my time in China. This type of conversation is one of many I have had with her and other Chinese women (and men for that matter).
This difference in communication is based on China being what is called a ‘high context’ culture; in high context cultures not as much detail is given in the written or spoken level, much is implied or assumed based on the fact that the speakers hold similar views due to their upbringing within the same culture. America, in direct contrast, is what sociology terms as a ‘low context culture’. Within low context cultures exact details and specifics are given within the language, and this itself has greatly effected the development of the language.
For example, the word ‘anger’ in the English language has many sub-dividing quantifiers such as ‘irritation’, ‘rage’, ‘frustration’, ‘exasperation’ to name but a few, each with a slightly different meaning, but all with the root feeling of ‘anger’ connected. In the Chinese language however, this is much less the case, with the word ‘anger/sheng qi’ being a sufficient description in most cases, with the responsibility placed firmly on the listener to decipher the exact kind of the anger implied, based on various factors such as personalities involved, situation and cultural norms amongst others.
This in itself can cause ridiculous amounts of misunderstandings and arguments amongst a Chinese and western couple (regardless of the sexes of the parties involved). A westerner may on many occasions feel his Chinese girlfriend or bride is being deliberately obtuse, yet this is seldom the case.
Much of the details in communication between Chinese people are given as a generalization and it is assumed you will simply be able to guess the answer you are looking for upon hearing a general response. The truth is, if you were Chinese, you would actually be able to do this! After living in China for many years I one day realized I had acquired this ‘mysterious’ ability when I asked a girl I knew what she liked to do in her free time, her response was “oh, the usual”, to which I replied “shopping, watching T.V, going to K.T.V and eating”, “Yep”, she said, totally unsurprised that I knew the exact answer, but then chastised me by saying “you forgot to mention sleeping.”!
In Western society individuality is held up as a kind of ‘sacred cow’, something that should be developed in every person to a high degree. The truth is, if you don’t develop individuality to a high degree in western culture it’s very unlikely you will ever be successful in your chosen career, let alone be attractive to women or be able to go about your daily life without encountering numerous problems you cannot, yourself, deal with. The total opposite, however, is usually the case in China with its focus on familial and social relationships and ‘guanxi’ (social connections).