Interracial marriages consisting of Chinese men and Western women are statistically rare, which is why there is a virtual absence of research literature devoted to this area of study.
What little research exists has focused on comparing views on interracial dating between first-generation Chinese born in Western countries with their non-Chinese Western counterparts. One such study, for example, compared the views of Chinese-Canadian men with those of European Canadians and found that Chinese-Canadians were less likely to endorse interracial dating and marriage than their European Canadian counterparts (Uskul, et al., 2007).
A major explanation for this finding is that Chinese-Canadian men tend to have a greater identification with their heritage ethnic group than mainstream Canadian culture, i.e., they are more likely to endorse the importance of supporting and respecting the views of their parents in regard to marital choice than European Canadians (ibid, p. 901), and Chinese parents (including emigrants to Western countries) ubiquitously prefer that their sons marry within the Chinese culture.
Another factor in understanding the relative dearth of interracial marriages between Western women and Chinese men is the statistical underrepresentation of single Western women in China. According to our survey data, assuming these are representative of the larger population, single Western women constitute less than 20 percent of all foreign teachers in China and are the least likely to remain in China for more than one year.
One explanation offered for this high attrition rate by the respondents themselves is social isolation. Single Western women are less likely than their male counterparts to speak Chinese and Chinese men are less likely to speak English than Chinese women. This reality combined with the enormous pressure on Chinese men to support their parents in their old age (a task that will be perceived as far easier with a Chinese wife who understands this cultural imperative and speaks the same language) accounts for why interracial marriages between Chinese men and Western women, especially in China, are so rare.
While interracial marriage between Chinese men and Western women are rare, they do exist. Middle Kingdom Life had the great fortune of discovering an American woman, Jocelyn Eikenburg, who is married to a Chinese national (in China) and was willing to communicate with us about it. In preparation for the interview, she consulted with three other American women, also married to Chinese nationals, who contributed comments as noted.
We structured the interview using the same questions that we addressed in the Guide's section on Dating, Sex, and Relationships in regard to Western men and Chinese women for the sake of uniformity. As you read Ms. Eikenburg's responses, take note of how this issue of strong identification with Chinese heritage repeatedly reemerges as a central theme and how virtually all the culturally-specific advice we offer about Chinese women apply equally to Chinese men as reported by Jocelyn, Jessica, Melanie, and Susan.
MKL: Are Chinese men generally attracted to Western women? Are they representative of Chinese men in general?
Yes and no.
On one hand, we are attractive. Physically, Western women have some of the features Chinese most prize in a woman such as large eyes or, for some Caucasians, that pearl-white skin. We're often more passionate and emotionally expressive, which may be fascinating to some Chinese men. And, just as all things Western have social status in China, so does dating—and marrying—a Western woman. We make him look more powerful and worldly.
On the other hand, we can be a problem.
Western women are not built like Chinese women, which can make you and your potential Chinese suitor uncomfortable. Jessica recalls her experience: "My first Chinese boyfriend told me to lose weight when, at the time, I weighed all of 55kg. But he probably weighed about 50kg! It was not cool weighing more than my boyfriend, especially when I was pretty thin to begin with." Melanie echoes these same concerns, "I wonder how many Chinese men find Western women physically attractive. We are often taller, heavier, 'curvier.'"
He also might think about the language barrier, especially if you don't know Chinese well. Will she be able to communicate with family and friends? Family and friends are the most important sources of social support for a Chinese man. He may love you, but the thought of feeling isolated or even being separated from family or friends, linguistically speaking, could end the relationship right there.
Speaking fluent Chinese helps, but not if the family says no to a foreign girlfriend. Many families know modern Chinese women expect a lot of their future husbands—an apartment, car, steady job. They believe that you, the foreign woman, will demand even more, not accept, or understand Chinese customs or habits. Some families buy into the myth that foreign women are casual seductresses, uninterested in serious relationships. And if the Chinese man is an only child, they could fear you will whisk him away to another country and they'll have no one to care for them in old age.
Still, love happens between Chinese men and Western women. But, remember, if it does, he's not going to be your average Chinese guy. He's probably bilingual -- he may not be the most fluent, but he can hold a good conversation in your language, and, chances are, he's interested in Western cultures, maybe even yours specifically. He may also be more independent and less likely to care about what other people, including society and his family, think. My husband ignored his parents' suggestion that he could only be friends with a foreign girl, but not date her. Jessica's husband had an independent streak long before they met. "My husband often says, when I worry about him being stared at in public, that he had hair halfway down his back in Yunnan Province, circa 1996. He's used to being stared at!"
Then again, if you're interested in a Chinese man, you're probably not the average Western woman either. It helps to speak at least conversational Chinese, or more, and be curious about China, and Chinese culture.
MKL: Is there anything culturally unique about the psychology of Chinese men, as a group, that Western women should be aware of?
Unfortunately, some Chinese men feel inferior before a Western woman like you. You're from the developed West, and he's from a China, a country trying to play catch-up with your country: a kind of "I'm not worthy" mindset. Some Chinese men take this to an extreme, believing (wrongly) that they cannot even satisfy your libido.
Melanie recalls her experience: "I was falling in love with him and really wanted the relationship to become a romantic one, but he never made a move. Finally I had to ask him to kiss me! When we talked about it later, he said he never made a romantic move because he couldn't believe I would be interested in him. And I thought, 'How could anyone not be interested in you?'"
According to Jessica, "a discrepancy in educational backgrounds may add to the sense of inferiority. Many Chinese people, men and women, do not have even a college diploma. If a Western woman has even a bachelor's degree, her education puts her ahead of the rest. Chinese men do not like to marry women with a higher level of education than they have." Jessica adds that "my friend is working on a Ph.D., and has been told that, in China, a female Ph.D. is practically unmarriageable."
All of this might seem strange, when you've always thought of him as an equal. Just remember—approaching you and taking you out might be harder for him than you think.
Susan notes that "you may also notice that, because of their cultural backgrounds, many Chinese men unknowingly have different expectations compared to their western counterparts. Their expectations of you in the relationship, themselves, and of their place in the world may not match with typical Western assumptions. While differing expectations in any relationship can be a source of tension, they can also be fertile source for conversation and exploration."
MKL: How are dating etiquette and customs different in China in regard to men than in the States?
Susan puts it best: "Dating in China is not recreational, but a pathway to marriage."
This surprised me. Not long after I began dating my first Chinese boyfriend in Henan Province, he began calling me his 'wife,' even though visions of nuptials hadn't yet danced through my mind. I hadn't as of yet realized the truth in China: that dating is much more serious in China.
Melanie was shocked in a different way. "My husband started talking about us getting married very early on in the relationship—maybe in the first few weeks. I was not ready to talk about it at all and asked him to quit bringing it up. We finally agreed that he wouldn't talk about marriage again, and that it was my job to bring it up if and when I was ready. Well, imagine how I felt about a year later when I suddenly had a change of heart and wanted to marry him, and realized it was going to be up to me to propose. Fortunately, he said yes."
If he decides to date you, chances are he's already determined 1) his family and friends have accepted you (or will in the future) and 2) he's considering you as a future wife. Having sex with him will only reinforce the idea that you're already a serious couple—so if you're not sure yet, postponing sex could be a good idea. In addition, as Jessica explains, "having sex early may reinforce the idea that Western girls are 'easy.' Whether the stereotype is right or wrong, Westerners should be aware that sleeping with a Chinese man too early may label her as non-wife material if she's with a traditional guy."
And speaking of sex, he may, in fact, be much less experienced than you. Remember, Chinese schools—sometimes even up through college—forbid or simply discourage dating and sex. Be understanding and discrete about your sexual past in the beginning, until you become more comfortable together. He may never even want to know, as Jessica discovered: "My husband does not want to hear anything about my ex-boyfriends, sexual history, or even 'regular' history."
On dates, don't be surprised if he doesn't let you pay—at least in the beginning. Traditionally, Chinese men have often taken care of the bill and may go to great lengths to do so. When we started dating, my husband borrowed a few thousand RMB from a friend, just to take me out for a romantic evening. As your relationship becomes more serious, he'll be more open to equal sharing of the bill. My husband (then boyfriend) didn't mind when, months later, I bought him some new clothes.
Susan mentions, "another difference you may find is that, once you've started dating, your Chinese boyfriend may want to keep in constant contact with you. He may phone you frequently, expecting to stay aware of your schedule at all times. My then-Chinese boyfriend, now husband, did often call me in the evening to say hello and hear about my day, which I loved!"
Susan also makes another good point. "In dating, as with other interactions, you may find Chinese men mean to tell you something very directly through an indirect statement. For example, if he says his parents can only accept a Chinese daughter-in-law, this may be his way of saying the relationship is over."
If the relationship is over, don't expect to keep in touch. As Jessica shares, "it is rare for 'exes' in China to remain friends."
MKL: What is the best way to find English-speaking Chinese men?
It's not so straightforward. I've heard of well-established networks that bring together Chinese women and Western men. Not so for Chinese men and Western women. From my experience, there is no one 'place' or website to go to if you want to meet English-speaking Chinese men.
Still, there are ways you can improve your chances. Visit an English Corner in your area. You're guaranteed to find English-speaking Chinese men, and you may just hit it off with one of them.
If you have close Chinese friends, have them introduce you to someone. The Chinese act as matchmakers between friends all the time -- if they are willing to do this for you, they will take it seriously, because it means their reputation too. I met my Chinese husband through a matchmaking friend.
No Chinese friends? Get a job in China, if you don't already have one. It's the best way to make Chinese friends. Even if you don't discover your man at work, your Chinese coworkers might just help. Remember, as Melanie notes, that "most Chinese people meet their partners at work, or in social circles such as the badminton club."
Finally, Jessica offers another point of view. "Don't limit yourself to English-speaking Chinese men. If you're living in China, learn Chinese and you'll have more options. Some of the best 'catches' -- including more unconventional and open Chinese men—might not speak English. My husband only speaks the ridiculously bad high school English he learned about 20 years ago, so we communicate 100 percent in Chinese. A friend of mine is married to a security guard with only a primary school education, and they had to rely on a Chinese/English dictionary for their courtship."
MKL: What are Chinese men looking for in a wife?
According to Melanie, "many Chinese men aren't looking for their soul mate or a wildly passionate love: they're just looking for someone normal and kind who they can make a good life with."
In general, he wants someone who can get along with his family and friends. He needs you to understand -- and be understanding -- to China. He hopes you love children, because, chances are, he expects to have at least one (or more).
Susan adds that, "depending on his level of vanity, he'll want a wife who 'presents well' outwardly: pretty, well-educated (though not above him), and with good career prospects."
But Susan does discourage against over-generalizing, "Nevertheless, different Chinese men will have different expectations. If he is more traditional, he may hope for a wife who will cook, depend on him, and let him be head of the household. On the other hand, he might be thrilled to marry someone less traditional who loves and respects him, and acknowledges his many positive characteristics. Approach each man individually, and be sensitive to his background and circumstances, dreams and desires."
MKL: What are the advantages of having a Chinese husband in China?
When you have a Chinese husband, you get so much closer to China. As you meet his family and friends, you learn how to understand the culture and country in a way that most foreigners never will. Susan mentions that "he can also help clarify your questions about China, so you feel less confused about cultural differences. Your life will often be enriched by his presence."
He may want you to speak good Chinese and there's no better motivation to continue your studies than family. My husband has encouraged me, and even helped me with my language studies, including tutoring me and helping me find good resources.
Still, a Chinese husband can also be a barrier to learning Chinese, as Melanie learned: "I rely on my husband in China so I've become complacent about learning Chinese. I speak survival Chinese now and I've plateaued there." He may also be less interested in helping you with Chinese if he plans to emigrate overseas with you.
A Chinese husband provides family and social support that most foreigners don't have. I think about when my husband and I had to move out of China. His father, mother, and brother all came to our apartment to help us pack and clean, and another relative provided a truck to transport all of our belongings and the family to the airport.
If you decide to have children with him in China, you can count on his family to help you raise the children.
Life in China gets a lot easier too. My husband used to go with me to the hospital. He made it easier to find the right department and his presence meant no misunderstandings—especially important if you're still learning "medical Chinese," as I was.
Even if you're no way close to learning medical Chinese, or even reading Chinese, your husband can help you navigate the language, as Susan's husband has: "This makes everything suddenly accessible, from reading restaurant menus to figuring out a train schedule. Exploring less-traveled vacation destinations—those usually inaccessible to Westerners—takes on a whole new dimension."
Susan ends with an important point. "Chinese men take their role as husbands quite seriously. Chances are he'll be a reliable and trustworthy partner, wanting to take care of you just as he wants to be cared for. He aspires to be a good provider, father, lover, and friend."
MKL: What are some common problems Western women face with a Chinese husband?
Location, location, location—as in where to live.
Going to your country might be your first choice, but what about him? Think of it from his point of view. He will become a minority in your country and many Western countries, sadly, have negative stereotypes of Asian men, from the emotionless Kung Fu warrior to the emasculated nerd. He has to negotiate daily life in a foreign language, which adds to his stress. Even with a favorable visa (for example, a permanent resident card), he will face discrimination in hiring for jobs if he doesn't: 1) know how to "perform" in job interviews; 2) have a degree from your country (remember, news about China has primed them to be suspicious about China, including Chinese credentials), or; 3) speak good English. As Jessica explains, "my husband has no marketable skills—he's a career musician—and speaks no English. Guess where we'll be living for the foreseeable future?"
If you're considering moving to your country, graduate school may be the solution, at least to overcome discrimination in credentials and accelerate his acculturation. But don't be surprised if your husband would rather stay in China or move back to China after earning a degree.
Citizenship is another issue because most Chinese men won't give up their Chinese passports, as Melanie experienced: "My husband didn't want to give up his Chinese citizenship because he's proud of his country and he loves it. And I get that. I feel the same way about his country as well as about my own." Personal reasons aside, this may seem bizarre, especially if you've traveled internationally with him before. Practically speaking, there is no such thing as a "visa on arrival" for mainland Chinese and proof of real estate, bank statements, work unit approvals, even deposits of 50,000 RMB are just some of the frustrating hurdles you may face for a visa.
Remember, though, his passport provides benefits too. It could mean better job opportunities in China or the option to retire in China. It could mean a green card for you, eventually, if you and your husband live together in China for five consecutive years. Additionally, as Jessica discovered, "it also means that if you buy property in China, you won't be subject to the same down payments that foreigners usually make. Your husband is the perfect person to have on the deed to your house or to start a business with in China." As you can see, foreign citizenship could complicate his future and yours.
Sometimes the solution is just accepting the benefits and limitations of his citizenship (while leaving the visa hassles to a travel agent).
Another problem is family roles. Chinese and Western societies expect the man, not the woman, to be the provider of the family. When it falls on the foreign woman, you need to adjust your expectations for the family. Jessica has definitely had to adjust hers: "This is a big issue for us because it is a huge pressure on me, knowing that our family's financial stability depends entirely on my rather unpredictable 'career' as a foreign teacher and my ability to find good work back home."
If your Chinese husband is not very highly educated or highly paid, you'll almost always earn more than your husband if you live in China because of the discrepancies between expat and local salaries. A lot of Chinese men cannot handle a foreign wife as the primary breadwinner. Even Jessica's husband, who is pretty accepting, still has trouble with the reality: "My husband is extremely unconventional and doesn't mind being a stay-at-home dad for now. But, even for him, it gets to be a bit of a bummer that I make in a month what he used to make in a year and that he can't contribute meaningfully to our family income at this point."
The same can be true if you move to your home country and your husband's career doesn't transfer well across borders. When my husband and I moved to the U.S., I had to support our family at first because his master's degree in psychology was not valued by potential employers. It was definitely a sore point for him for awhile, because he couldn't contribute as much to our family as I could. We experienced some explosive arguments, often the result of this shift in the family dynamics. If you want to commit to a Chinese man, you may have to be the primary earner for some period of time and possibly your entire lifetime together.
Remember, also, that your Chinese husband probably considers caring for his parents as a primary responsibility, especially if he is the oldest male in his family or an only child, a point mentioned by Susan and Melanie. This often means living with them, either in China, or in your country. Melanie clarifies, "I'm fine with this part, since I love my in-laws dearly and they treat me like their own daughter—but I do wish I could be closer to my own parents in Alabama." Susan adds, "caring for the parents also includes giving them money and/or doing whatever else to help or enrich them. Even if his parents seem to have enough, your husband may want to contribute financially to their lives on a regular basis."
Navigating the in-laws is another challenge, as Susan found: "His parents may openly express their opinions about subjects you might consider off-limits, from how you raise your children to how much weight you've gained. Learning to interpret and negotiate family relationships, especially with the help and cooperation of your husband, is important."
But despite the problems, loving a Chinese man can be a wonderful, life-changing experience as Melanie notes: "I wonder if foreign women realize what great husbands Chinese men make. I think they're an undiscovered, valuable resource."
*About Jocelyn, Jessica, Melanie, and Susan.
Jocelyn Eikenburg is a freelance writer and Chinese translator who writes stories--and answers questions--about love and life in China at Speaking of China. A US native from Ohio and graduate of Marshall University, she spent five and a half years in China -- first as an English teacher, and later as staff writer for an NGO, a Chinese Internet company, and a global media corporation in Shanghai. Jocelyn married her Chinese husband in Shanghai in 2004.
Jessica Larson-Wang, an English teacher for an international school in Beijing, married her Chinese husband in Kunming in 2006. Before to coming to China in 2003, she graduated from the University of Texas with a double major in Asian studies and Radio-Television-Film. In China, she has worked as an English teacher, translator and freelance writer in Kunming and Beijing. She has two children, and writes about the experience of balancing work and family while living in a foreign country at the Local Dialect.
Melanie Gao began traveling at age 17 and since then she has lived and worked all over the world, including in France, Germany, Japan and China. She and her husband Buddy Gao and their two children have lived in Beijing since 2005, where and Buddy work for technology companies and the children attend a regular Chinese school. Melanie blogs about their adventures at The Downtown Diner.
Susan Chi, an engineer, educator, and mother, married her Chinese husband in 1990. Prior to meeting him in her native home of Seattle, she studied Chinese language and history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She returns to China as often as she can, most recently for a six month stay in 2009 with her husband and two children.
Uskul, Ayse K., Lalonde, Richard N., Cheng, Lynda (2007). Views on interracial dating among Chinese and European Canadians: The roles of culture, gender, and mainstream cultural identity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 24, 891. doi: 10.1177/0265407507084189