February 12th, 2011
Valentine’s day is in two days and this year I have to buy a present for my new boyfriend. That’s right I have a boyfriend! And it gets stranger; my boyfriend is a Chinese guy. Those of you who know me well know I vowed I would never date a Chinese boy. But my reasons are mostly because I felt like I could never act like the girls on Chinese tv (super thin and super super cute) and if I started dating a Chinese boy I thought I would feel pressured to fall in line. But also because most Chinese boys seem to be completely disinterested in foreign woman and my reaction is to reject before I get rejected.
The funny thing about Xu (my boyfriend’s family name) is that in behaviour he is completely Chinese (he obeys no traffic rules when he drives, he smokes, litters, spits, drinks baijiu and plays majung till early hours of the morning) but then the way he thinks is very Western. He is very open-minded and has little of that judgemental and traditional side I have seen in so many of my students. And now he has a foreign girlfriend. Ha!
You may wonder how we communicate. Because I mentioned that his English is not good. Well first off I like to teach him simple phrases in English, like now he knows “Have a good night!” and “I miss you.” But mostly we speak in Chinese to one another. He speaks slowly and simply to me and that’s all that’s needed. In fact that was one of the things that drew me to him at the very beginning, his incredible patience with me; he speaks slowly and clearly without a hint of condescension. In fact, he has a lot more patience with me than I have with myself. He will explain a concept several times over and over, way past the point where I have given up on myself.
Violet (ZhangYi) and I suddenly have a lot more in common. She dated a Canadian boy before and would complain about some of the cultural differences. But surprisingly, she and I face completely different stereotypes. Violet tells me that sometimes when she was out with her boyfriends, local people would swear at her and accuse her of being a gold-digger and a slut. She said that this made her not want to go out in public with her boyfriend anymore. Many Chinese people view Chinese girls with foreign boys very harshly. They think the girls are looking for a passport and a way out of China. Chinese view Western culture as being loose and fast and many people don’t like to think of their women being wrapped up in that.
For me and Xu on the other hand the stereotypes are not as harsh, though China is still a judgemental place so no one escapes without someone laughing at them. Xu is slightly shorter than me, not noticeable to me, but he thinks people laugh at us. But as far as he being a Chinese and me being a Westerner the stereotypes are not as cruel. When we are out together, I have heard people ask him if he has a lot of money. They are sure he must be some sort of high-roller. On my end well, the foreigner always escapes without much judgement. The foreigner’s very identity means that they can’t be held by the same standards as the locals.
I find it interesting that Xu was more than excited to meet any and all of my foreign friends regardless of whether or not he would be able to speak to them. But when he met Violet for the first time he got really nervous. He explained to me that Chinese girls are different and that I don’t understand. “They are very traditional; they will have lots of questions for me.” And Xu was right, not about Violet, but about most Chinese people. When I tell them I am dating a Chinese guy they start asking all kinds of questions. “How old is he? What do his parents do? What kind of job does he have? What kind of car does he drive? Where does he live?” The questions are all revolved around a central theme “How much money does he have?”
But foreigners, the questions are concealed in a sly smile that after a few drinks finally gets formulated into words and they all revolve around a central theme, as our reputation would have, – the bedroom.
Recently, I met Mike, a Canadian-born Chinese who told me how good it was to see Xu and I together. He had questions of his own; pulling me aside he asked “let me guess you were one of those girls who said they would never date a Chinese guy right?” I laughed and admitted that he was right. “It’s not easy growing up Chinese in Canada,” he admitted. “It’s a terrible stereotype over your shoulders especially as a man. We’re shown as being feminine nerdy losers.” I looked at him and tried to deny it, “That’s ridiculous…” But I realized that he was right and I didn’t really know what to say.
I had just finished reading Obama’s memoir about growing up black in America. It was very insightful and that paired with watching “The Wire” and living as a minority in China have made me think more deeply about the crippling power of racial stereotypes. Stereotypes aren’t truth, but they are there, they exist and somehow we have to live in spite of them. Let them laugh, I am not getting are shorter and he’s not getting any whiter.