Now that many non-Chinese have moved to China and many native Chinese live throughout the world, cross cultural dating has become far more common. For someone leaving mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore and moving to a western country, what are some of the cultural pitfalls and traps you need to avoid and adjustments you need to make? For someone moving to any of those four areas, the same questions apply. Are the “rules” different for Chinese women dating outside their culture as compared to Chinese men doing the same?
My direct experience isn’t too pertinent since I met my wife in Phoenix and she had already been living in the States for nine years, but there were still many adjustments we (mostly I) had to make. She was the first Asian woman I had ever dated so I didn’t fall into the “yellow fever” category. However, when I was living in mainland China and Taiwan, I had a chance to observe, ask questions and learn more from others involved in cross cultural relationships.
I am hoping this is more of a “reader contribution” forum rather than just one man’s opinion, so feel free to chime in with your own experiences and observations. I was able to find this reference paper online, studying the “cultural impact upon the dating scripts, perceptions, and behaviors of college students from the United States and Taiwan in their cross-cultural romantic relationships”. Click on the green link for the Adobe Acrobat file.
It’s important to note here that I am talking about true cross cultural relationships, not people from different ethnic groups within the same country.
Here are a few things I noticed:
1. Both parties had better like and respect each others culture, because we are all a product of our cultures and we can’t expect the other to become like us. A successful cross cultural relationship meets in the middle, not on one extreme.
2. There are cultures within cultures. I’ve noticed that couples who are from more educated, successful families tend to have an easier time adjusting to another culture. On the upper level, it’s really one world culture with subtle variances. Taking someone from a very poor family and moving them to another country can be extremely tough on that person and they tend to pick up the worst habits of the new culture. I’ve observed that there are exceptions to this rule but not many.
3. Learn each others cultural nuances. When I began to date my wife, I was kicked under the table more times than I can remember as she wanted my Chinese manners to be perfect when I was in Chinese company. I tried my best and picked it up pretty quickly. It has proven very beneficial over the years, in both business and social situations. Yet I have seen expats in China who have lived there for years, speak the language reasonably well, are in a relationship with a Chinese person yet routinely commit cultural faux pas. They have lived not in China but in expat China, and expected their Chinese mate to adapt to their situation and not the other way around. This can later cause problems in the relationship when dealing with in laws and other Chinese in social situations. As a spouse, you are expected to know Chinese mores and folkways and will embarrass your spouse if you do not. It’s not hard, just watch and imitate.
4. You don’t have to “go native” but you do have to respect the native traditions. The fact that you are from another culture gives you some leeway when it comes to certain subjects. But it’s still best to just plunge in and not worry too much about how you’d look to your friends back home. I’ve been in situations that would have been impossible to conceive in my younger days.
5. When things get a little crazy, don’t condemn! Just because its “wrong” to you doesn’t mean it’s wrong in that culture. I used to pull a little trick where in those situations I’d say to myself, “That’s very interesting!” Sometimes I’d have to say it three or four times but it kept me from passing judgment on a different culture. Eventually, I’d get used to it and it wouldn’t be such a big deal.
6. Never compare cultures. If you do, you won’t be happy and he/she won’t either. Always accept a culture as an intrinsic whole. There are heads and tails on a coin but in the end, there is only one coin and you can’t have just the heads or the tails. Cultures are the same, you accept them as a whole and not in parts. In fact, that applies not just to cultures but also to relationships; there are no “good” and “bad” points to another person, just different manifestations of the same intrinsic qualities. Splitting a person or a culture into parts makes for eventual disappointment.
7. Revel in rather than complain about the differences. My wife has an accent; she’ll always have an accent since she came here as an adult. She has a huge English vocabulary and is easy to understand, but for me her accent is charming and I could not imagine her without it. Plus, I always feel that her English compared to my Chinese is so superior that I would be an idiot to find fault with her.
8. Parents: This can be a tough one. Many times couples will have problems with either set of parents not approving of the relationship. I never had this problem but it can be pretty common with some. Some are into the “pure blood” grandchildren idea, while others feel the cultures are just too different for a successful marriage. I know in Taiwan, many women there have complained about marrying the firstborn son and being poorly treated by their in-laws, since that son is supposed to take care of his parents. I know quite a few divorces that later took place because of this situation.
When I lived in Shanghai, many of the women in my office were curious about my marriage and how my wife and I got along, being from different cultures. As it turns out, we have more in common in terms of attitude, lifestyle and outlook than anyone I’ve ever met, so it’s been pretty easy in terms of adjustment. But I also asked them about what they expected in a boyfriend/spouse and what they thought of foreign men they had met. Their answers were interesting. It’s important to note that these women were from excellent universities and very intelligent.
They didn’t date in high school, they studied in high school. They didn’t date in college, they studied in college. Dating begins after college and most importantly, they didn’t believe in casual dating. What I mean by that is that they expected to be friends first until they knew each other well, then the man would ask the woman to be his girlfriend and if she accepted, they were not only dating but seriously dating. I remember one friend telling me she had accompanied an American work colleague shopping and when they were done, he asked her if she considered this a date. She said “of course not” and was surprised he had even considered it so. The older generation was more conservative in terms of sexual mores while the younger generation (one child) went from their first kiss to well beyond in a relatively short period. Marriage was expected to occur and several told me that if they dated two different people and neither worked out, they would let their parents find a spouse for them.
This was where a lot of westerners got confused. They expected the dating rules to be the same as home, and would try to “pick up” girls at bars and when successful, would wonder why the girl was a ‘gold-digger’. They’d also wonder why many girls would get annoyed when they asked them to dance at a club. I was told that nice girls don’t dance with strangers and to ask them is kind of an insult. When some of these western guys would ask me where they could meet nice girls, I always told them, “anywhere but in a bar or club”. I constantly heard the women in my office describe others as either “good girls” or “bad girls”.
I was told by a younger lady in Shenzhen that the rules were different there and that most girls in high school were already dating. Different parts of China might have different cultural standards so again, this is just what I heard from others when there. Standards might have changed since that time so today’s world is probably a little different.
I once ran into an interesting situation that showed me the difference between polite behavior in Taiwan vs. China. I was with a group of Shanghainese men and women, and it started to rain. I had brought a very large umbrella with me so I was sharing it with one of the women. As we got to a busy intersection, without thinking I extended my elbow since this is considered polite in Taiwan. She took it but when we had crossed the intersection, she immediately let go and said that she didn’t want others to think she was a “bad girl”. I was confused and asked why. Well, she was a “poor” Chinese girl and I was a “rich” foreigner so they’d see her taking my elbow and assume she was a “bad girl”, since that was the stereotype. I’m not sure if her attitude was widespread but after that I was more hesitant to do something that would have been considered impolite NOT to do in Taiwan.
So in the end, it is important to understand that there are cultures within cultures and it’s best to observe and imitate. But remember to protect your shins. 😛