Section II: Living in China continued—Dating, Sex, and Relationships
Dating and dating etiquette as we know it in the West is quite different in China and therefore—as most foreign teachers in China are unattached men—it behooves us to understand and appreciate those differences prior to finding ourselves surrounded by millions of potentially interested Chinese women if we are to avoid terrible misunderstandings or worse.
For many Chinese girls, especially those who do not consider themselves to be highly competitive for the most desirable men in China, foreign men do provide a very attractive alternative (see unit "Understanding the Attraction to Foreign Men"). Consequently, no matter how average or even well below-average a Western man may be, he can very easily find a relatively pretty girl (by Western standards) to fall in love with him. As one impoverished 24-year old Chinese girl, who was aggressively courting a foreign teacher twice her age, reported: "My mother told me that a poor foreigner is always better than a rich Chinese." During your stay in China, you will hear this culturally ingrained belief expressed numerous times, especially among girls who were raised by poor families.
Casual dating, particularly as it exists in the West, is virtually unheard of in China. The vast majority of married Chinese born prior to 1970 had only known and dated their current spouse. Although this is gradually changing among college age people, especially for those born or attending school in international cities, most Chinese girls simply do not understand or feel comfortable with the Western concept of serial dating.
A potential spouse is selected (or consented to) almost entirely on the feeling the girl experiences in the man’s presence, informed by her understanding of his age, educational level, earning potential, overall personality and temperament, and ability to provide for her and her family. The Western practice of “playing the field” or dating multiple people to learn more about them before making a mutually exclusive commitment does not exist in China. It would be highly unusual for a Chinese girl to agree to meet or spend time with a man in anything but a group setting unless she was certain that she had “strong feelings” for him as a future spouse.
As a matter of practice, what typically happens is that if a man or woman is interested in someone, they will have a mutual friend arrange a group dinner of six to eight people. Sometimes this dinner will be arranged by a mutual friend without the prior knowledge of either party, i.e., the friend decides to play matchmaker and will not announce the real agenda to either intended party. The two interested or intended parties will usually not be seated next to each other but will often be separated by at least two to three other people. This allows them to be close enough to communicate with each other, but not so close that it appears as if they are already a couple. During this “pre-screening” dinner, mutual friends will direct the conversation towards topics that allow the unofficial guests of honor to inconspicuously qualify each other as potential spouses, e.g., current occupation, educational and relationship history, children, family background, present living arrangements, etc. This social arrangement makes it very convenient for each party to save face if in fact there is an absence of mutual interest.
If there is mutual interest, that will be readily apparent to both parties in the context of how they related to each other during this first group encounter in terms of eye contact, facial expressions, the number and types of questions that were asked of each other, how they were answered, and, especially, if name cards were exchanged.
Subsequent to such a group meeting, if a Chinese girl agrees to go out with a man on what we would call a first date, she is formally acknowledging this man as a viable candidate for marriage. If she agrees to a second date, then she is consenting to the distinct possibility of marriage. A third date for a traditional Chinese girl will commonly be perceived as indicating mutual intentions of marriage in the foreseeable future. Western men need to be aware at all times that dating and courtship in China are really this rapid and simplistically linear.
Although an introduction via mutual acquaintances is the most common method for meeting available women in China, it is certainly not the only way.
Chinese women who are keenly interested in meeting Western men will make themselves available in a variety of venues frequented by foreigners, including English corners, expat bars, supermarkets, and even Western restaurant franchises such as McDonald’s (see unit "How or Where Do I Find English-Speaking Chinese Women?").
Generally speaking, if a Chinese woman is interested in you she will make certain you are aware of it. If you look at her and smile, she will smile back even more broadly and this can be safely taken as an invitation to initiate a conversation with her. If that conversation goes well, it is then appropriate to ask her for her mobile phone number (and, more likely than not, she will even volunteer it). Just keep in mind that the aforementioned caution regarding the general absence of casual dating in China applies as much in this instance as it does in any other. The major exception to this rule is composed of highly Westernized girls, particularly those who have a history of dating or living with foreign men.
In the context of such a linear and rapid path to coupling in China, it should be readily apparent that casual sex is virtually non-existent here for all but highly Westernized girls and those born and raised in Beijing, Shanghai and, to a lesser extent, Guangzhou. Although social mores in this regard are slowly changing, it would not be unusual to find even a 30-year old virgin in China for—although it doesn't mean very much in the West—virginity at marriage, still to this day, means something in China, very much so. In a study conducted by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, 60 percent of 500 single men and women between the ages of 20 and 30 years, living in 25 neighborhoods, reported that virginity is a marriage requirement, while only 16.5 percent claimed that it didn't matter (People's Daily, 2003).
Much to your surprise, and, paradoxically perhaps (in light of the relative importance of virginity at marriage), you will find that many girls are actually eager to sleep with you on the second or third date (in fact, they are often the ones to initiate it), but you should exercise extreme caution in how that apparent sexual aggressiveness is interpreted: For most "good" Chinese girls, an offer of sex is almost always a gesture of good faith in contemplation of marriage. It's intended to be a binding dealmaker and that is how it should be responded to, one way or the other. Above all, always be honest about your intentions—whatever those may be.
A sure-fire way to confirm that the girl is quite serious about you is if you learn that she has spoken to her mother about you. As a rule, girls will not discuss any man they are seeing (not even with their girlfriends) unless they have decided that this is the person they want to be with. Related, if the girl invites you to meet her family, this is symbolically equivalent to a formal announcement of engagement in the West. It would be best not to agree to meet her family unless you have marriage in mind.
Finally, keep in mind that words are not used nearly as casually in China as they are in the West and that physical displays of affection are relatively uncommon. If the girl expresses verbal affection to you, e.g., "I miss you," or displays any physical intimacy at all (taking your hand in hers, rubbing your shoulder, etc.), you can safely assume that she already views you as her future husband. By the way, and as an aside, the SMS text codes for "I love you" and "I miss you" commonly used by Chinese college students and young adults are "520" and "530," respectively, and are often sent combined as 520530.
Responsible Western men will bear in mind that Chinese girls who have lived with or even dated foreign men are extremely limited in their future marriage options if the relationship doesn't last. Most traditional Chinese men will immediately eliminate a woman as a potential future spouse if and when they learn she has had a former foreign boyfriend, even in the absence of sexual intercourse. This rather strong bias often then leads to a forced pattern of serial monogamous cohabitating relationships with other foreign men exclusively.
Outside the three major international cities, it is highly unlikely you will encounter an unmarried Chinese girl, under the age of 35, who is only looking for a "friend with benefits." Anecdotal evidence suggests that middle-aged women, whose husbands are out of town on business for days at a time, overrepresent those who are seeking casual sexual relationships as they are driven by loneliness and the belief that their husbands are doing more than just discussing business during their frequent late night outings. If casual sex is all you are interested in, then you must be abundantly clear about that from the outset. Low-class, immoral, and unscrupulous Western men who publically boast about all their recent sexual exploits at the bar each evening are often later found beaten into a state of coma by the locals.
One such foreign rogue thought it would be a good idea to publish a blog on the Internet about his sexual exploits with women in a major Chinese city while he was teaching at a university there. His entries were so sexually explicit, graphic and demeaning that they soon caught the attention of a university professor who spearheaded an intensive citywide manhunt for this foreigner. What incensed the professor more than anything else was this character's detailed descriptions of how he was deliberately exploiting and manipulating the emotions of his own students (i.e., boasting about how he was able to get them into bed without promising them anything). Soon thereafter, this foreigner would be forced to shut down and go into hiding.
Whether we like it or not and even if we are not willing to accept responsibility for this fact, each of us is something of a goodwill ambassador of his respective country in China, especially in areas where foreigners are relatively scarce. Wholesale judgments regarding what an American or Brit or Australian is “really like” are often permanently ingrained in the minds of the locals based on the behavior of just one foreign teacher. Every single one of us needs to bear in mind, at all times, that our individual behaviors often affect how the rest of us as "foreign men" will be regarded and responded to.
Foreign men who indiscriminately sleep with as a many relatively naive and innocent Chinese girls as possible (or far worse, deliberately seek to deflower virgins), as if this were a type of sport or recreational activity, do far more to hurt international relations with the local Chinese than any one of our governments possibly could. We as foreign guests in China have a moral and ethical responsibility to treat Chinese women with the same honesty, respect, and dignity that we would want our own sisters or daughters to be treated with.
Western men who are not interested in marriage or are planning to spend only a brief period of time in China may wonder if their only options are to seek the company of prostitutes or remain celibate. As one reader put it " ...your guide seems to leave the only option as a serious girlfriend with marriage potential or the right hand" (see Casual Dating and Sex in the readers forum). Generally speaking, there is a great deal of truth to this conclusion although, as is always the case, there are exceptions to this rule that warrant some discussion.
Keep in mind that, aside from what are typically regarded as more esthetically pleasing facial features, e.g., "tall nose" and "big eyes," the main attraction that Western men hold for Asian women is greater future stability and dependability. If you take away the promise of a better tomorrow for the girl and her family, most Asian women would just assume take their chances on men from their own culture who can speak the same language and have established long-term roots in the same community: It's just a lot easier and simpler on so many levels.
However, while the vast majority of women in China are marriage-minded, not all are and, in addition, there are many women who had once hoped to find the man of their dreams but have long since abandoned that aspiration in lieu of more attainable short-term goals. Examples of such women include, but are not limited to: former prostitutes and aging karaoke (KTV) girls; divorced women with school-aged children; women with a history of having dated and lived with other foreign men; those regarded as unattractive or "too old" by Chinese standards, and, as alluded to above; terribly bored middle-aged women married to men who are away on business trips for days at a time, especially if the women suspect infidelity.
Completely aside from these aforementioned types who are considered uncompetitive for the best men in China, there are a relative handful of well-educated, young, pretty, and upwardly mobile Chinese women (Chuppies)—found mostly in such international cities as Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, and, to a lesser extent, Guangzhou—who have no current interest in marriage and, uncharacteristically so for Chinese women, have no plans to ever have a child. These women are in fact interested in casual dating and sex without strings but, and this is a big "but," they will generally apply the same criteria in mate selection employed by women in our respective Western countries. Such that they are only looking for a "good time," they are going to seek relatively young men who would be regarded as handsome and very desirable anywhere in the world. Quite surprisingly, and paradoxically perhaps, even though these young professional women tend to possess some of the best English language skills in China, their general preference seems to lean in the direction of Chinese men, almost exclusively. Unless a Western man were relatively young, above-average in physical appearance, and had a lot of cash at his disposal, it is unlikely he would catch the fancy of such a Chinese girl.
Simply stated, when you factor out the wish for a better future and the desire for a long-term commitment with a man who will be there 20 years from now irrespective of how financially successful he might be at that time, Western men mostly lose whatever competitive edge they may have in China unless they are already highly competitive in the dating scene back home.