I was at Mao, apparently the current “it” bar in Shanghai’s rapid turnover nightlife scene, with Judy and four girls living in the city. All were Chinese, one was from the Netherlands, one from Taiwan, and the other two were Shanghainese. All of them had (or normally have) foreign boyfriends: in this case, Dutch, Dutch and Italian.
For anyone whose been in China for a while, this shouldn’t strike you as surprising at all.
“Chinese guys don’t like it when a girl knows more about something than they do,” Liza told me, when I asked why she only dates foreigners.
“I don’t care if they don’t know about Western culture, but they don’t even know about their own culture…all they care about is money, a car, a house.”
When I asked whether such things–a house, a car, significant income–were a major factor in who she chose to date, she acknowledged that they were. But still, culture matters.
Watching couples dancing and making out at Mao, I had to realise that this much derided relationship–White man, Chinese girl–has its own legacy, it’s own place in China’s modern history; as gingerly as many would admit to it. Shanghai may have been known as the “Pearl of the Orient,” but it was just as commonly known as the “Whore of the Orient” too.
Such relationship norms aren’t exclusive to China. In former European colonies throughout Asia, Africa and South America, intermarriage occurred between European men and occupied colony women. You see the same in non-European mercantilist/trader scenarios, such as the Baba-Nonya mixed descendants of Chinese merchants and their Malay wives in Malaysia. Given the mix of power distribution and traditional gender roles, it makes sense for women from poorer, less powerful host societies to have relations with single (wealthier, powerful) men living away from home.
Meanwhile, why don’t we see the opposite as often? I believe that a mix of both current business staffing and traditional roles lies at the core of the answer.
At present, I think it’s safe to assume that the majority of expats–classically defined as those being sent to China by their employer and making former national salary–are men. There are simply more foreign men than women in China, and thus less women for Chinese men to date. And what of those expat women who are indeed working in China?
Well, I would also imagine that they would have to be highly educated, skilled people who are of some standing within their companies, if not society. In other words, they’re quite a catch, for both foreigners and Chinese. It’s quite safe to say they absolutely wouldn’t fit many traditional Chinese notions of what a woman should do: focus on the family, provide a supporting role to her husband’s career, as opposed to potentially eclipsing it, not travel and work in other countries by oneself. And though many Chinese men don’t require their wives to fall into such old-fashioned gender boxes, many still do.
On top of the smaller foreign woman pool to begin with, the character and lifestyle found within such a community and its conflict with traditional Chinese (and other) beliefs on female gender roles is the issue of male gender roles. Chinese men, bless our hearts, largely do not adhere to the classic, “manly man” stereotype: tall, rugged, athletic, a streak of Holden Caulfield or Steve McQueen rebellion, the primal intensity of Brando’s Stanley Kowalski. Most Chinese guys don’t possess such qualities, and their cards–loyal, responsible, good at making/saving money–don’t really get them as far with many foreign women in China.
Dating, far from the romance of escapist plot denouements and the heady swooning of early love, is, like any other piece of society, a reflection of power, social roles and desires, well beyond matters purely of the heart. It is this way everywhere, but is particularly clearly displayed here in today’s open China.