In September 1999 -- my first month in China -- I had a huge crush on a guy.
My heart melted at that first sight of his big sesame-oil brown eyes. And I as I came to know him better, he didn't disappoint me. He always opened doors for me and wouldn't leave my side until he escorted me all the way to the entrance to my apartment. He helped me buy a bicycle at the secondhand market and even gave me a ride there on the back of his black metal bike. When I came down with the flu, he accompanied me to my therapy at the clinic and read to me from Chicken Soup for the Soul. He even watched The Bridges of Madison County with me -- one of the weepiest chick flicks ever made -- and actually shed a few tears when it ended. He was more of a gentleman toward me than any other man I had ever known.
He was Chinese, a man named Tian who grew up in Zhengzhou.
When I thought about my burgeoning crush for Tian, I figured it was no different from that college semester when I studied in Spain. All the American girls I knew liked flirting with the local Spaniards, and why not? The experience of being in a foreign country and culture somehow liberated us from our usual American expectations for men and dating itself. We could try new things. We could even reinvent ourselves and what it meant to be in love with someone.
It seemed natural and normal to do the same in China. I didn't know much about China back then -- a time when I could only communicate in Mandarin with a dictionary and lots of patience, and where my entire cultural knowledge was amassed from the library books on China I borrowed during the summer. But I figured surely I wasn't alone in my feelings. Surely the other female foreign teachers at my college had secret crushes of their own.
Or so I thought, until one day when I was sharing lunch with my colleagues.
"Whenever I arrive at the airport in America, the first thing I notice is our men, how handsome and how tall they are," one of my white female colleagues mentioned over lunch. "I'll just stare at them for hours, as if I was Chinese and had never seen a foreign man before in my life."
At least that woman wasn't as blunt as another colleague, who used to bicycle with me through the streets of Zhengzhou. As we stopped on the corner of a side street and watched the mostly-male populous pedaling past us through the intersection, she grimaced.
"Chinese men don't really seem that attractive."
"How can you say that?" I asked her.
"I don't know... they just aren't." She sounded too casual for a woman who just dismissed the entire male population in China.
How could these women just write off all Chinese men as undateable? The question haunted me as I pondered my crush on Tian. But it wouldn't be the last time I would find myself up against these ideas. As I continued to date the locals in China and eventually married a fellow from Hangzhou, I would come to realize that most expat women in China agreed with my Zhengzhou colleagues. And sometimes, their dislike was just shocking. A European woman I worked with in 2001 famously told me that, while she found all Chinese men completely repulsive, she considered Chinese children so adorable.
But some of my most fascinating and educative encounters with this idea of "Chinese men as undateable" happened online, when I came face-to-face with these opinions distilled into the cold, black-and-white reality of blog posts and expat forums.
Back in 2010, I discovered a post on a now-defunct blog authored by expats in Shanghai. The post was written by a white American woman based in Shanghai and titled, "So, how's the dating scene?" The photo leading off the post was a still from the 1980s American movie Sixteen Candles featuring Long Duk Dong, considered one of Hollywood's most offensive Asian male stereotypes. In the still, he's locked in an awkward slow-dance embrace with a girl an entire head taller than him, but that's not even the worst of it. While she leans her head on his in perfect contentment, he has his cheek buried in her bosom while staring at it with a prurient curiosity that surely would have snapped the girl out of her reverie.
At the time I was only beginning to learn about negative stereotypes of Asian men that American TV, movies and the media had perpetuated over the years: effeminate, weak, nerdy and, worst of all, sexless and less endowed in a (ahem) certain department. The woman who wrote that post never specifically said any of these things about local men in China, but she didn't have to. Long Duk Dong took care of that.
Then again, her post appears downright classy in comparison to what I've read in the free-for-all world of anonymous expat forums across China. There was a brief time when I tried combing these forums in search of discussions about dating Chinese men, hoping to gain some insights, but I soon gave that up. Whenever anyone dared to broach the subject, usually someone would quickly pounce on the thread and sully it with some juvenile comment about Chinese men that wasn't all that different from that Long Duk Dong movie still. The worst of these threads generally devolved into a low-brow, expletive-laden conversation more appropriate for a bathroom stall.
Whether in forums or blogs, the negative online discourse about Chinese men is consistent with Psychologist Zhang Jiehai's findings from surveys on "Chinese Men in the Eyes of Western Women" as reported by China's Xinhua News Agency in 2010 (I provided an English translation on my blog). This Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences professor surveyed over 100 Western women from diverse countries including France, Germany and the USA via questionnaires, and then interviewed over 20 of them in a focus group in Shanghai. While respondents praised Chinese men for certain qualities -- "looking after one's family," "willing to spend money on women," and "relatively serious about relationships between men and women" -- the admiration ended there. Negative impressions ultimately dominated as the women criticized Chinese men as "not so gentlemanly," "poor physique, not enough exercise," "no personality, lacking unique opinions," even condemning them on perceived personal hygiene problems. One American participant in the study actually blamed Hollywood for projecting a poor image of Chinese men around the world, and I couldn't help but wonder if she was thinking of Sixteen Candles at the time.
Zhang's findings -- that Western women from around the world have consistently pejorative ideas about Chinese men -- remind me this isn't a problem confined to some insular expat circles in China.
Look across East Asia or, for that matter, any country in the Western world, and you'll notice a very revealing gap in the Asian interracial dating world: lots of Asian women and Western men together, and nary an Asian man with a Western woman in sight. A friend provided some astonishing anecdotal evidence in an article titled "Are Interracial Couples of Asian Men & Western Women Really that Rare? A Field Report from Hong Kong." During his entire 10-day trip, he decided to count the Asian interracial couples he spotted. The result? A total of 114 couples of Western men and Asian women versus only six couples of Asian men and Western women (including him and his Brazilian wife). You could substitute Hong Kong with the name of any country or region in the world and end up with comparable results. Even Chinese-American men don't feel the love from their fellow Americans, lamenting this in essays such as "Are Asian Men Undateable?"
In search of explanations for why so few Western women date Chinese men, some China expats have suggested cultural differences are the primary reason. I agree that culture plays a role when you're a foreigner in China dating the locals. I've experienced my share of cultural misunderstandings in my relationships in China, including my own marriage, and have even blogged about why it's actually harmful to ignore cultural differences in a cross-cultural relationship.
Yet when I think about the global reach of this problem, and the fact that it's even tough for Western-born Chinese to score a date outside of their own race, I know deep down that cultural differences -- as much as they matter in relationships -- cannot alone account for why few Western women date Chinese men. When I think about how a racist caricature from Hollywood gets tossed around among expats as a symbol of Chinese men -- and Westerners from around the world harbor consistently negative views of Chinese men -- I realize there's a dark side to this whole discussion.
So here's where the conversation gets a little uncomfortable. Whenever expats discuss racism in China, we usually focus on Chinese people and their racist attitudes (such as the experience of being black in China). These are very critical discussions that we need and should continue to have. But what about the conversations about expats themselves and their own homegrown stereotypes and prejudices about Asians and Chinese people? When will we as expats begin to confront these, our very own baggage that we inadvertently pack along with us in our overseas journeys to the Middle Kingdom?
More importantly, when we will learn that in any given country and culture, there exists a diversity of individuals and personalities? That's true anywhere in the world, including China. Whenever someone dismisses China's entire male population as undateable, they're essentially denying that diversity. And believe me, there is incredible diversity when you actually open your eyes and your heart to the possibility.
I'm reminded of the many love stories that Western women and Chinese men have submitted to my blog, giving me the honor and privilege to experience that on a personal level. There's the fun-loving fellow from Xi'an who described himself as a "foreign student turned party boy," the beefcake husband from Hebei she considered "China's answer to Arnold Schwarzenegger," the Shanghai-based writer from Anhui who studied English literature and mused about his unforgettable romances with black women in the US.
This fall marks 15 years since I first set foot in China. It's also 15 years since I first learned that most Western women in China refuse to date Chinese men. Yet a decade and a half later, I'm still pondering this issue. And I can't help but wonder how many decades it will take before it's no longer an issue for expats in China.