So, you’re in trouble with your girlfriend again. Odds are, if you’ve been in a relationship with a Chinese girl, you’ve said or done something at least once that had you suddenly apologizing profusely, with your best Chinese, to a locked door, a stone face, or into a cell phone. There may have even been some shouting about how Westerners don’t understand Chinese culture or have as much love for their families either. An argument with a girlfriend or wife is never pleasant, but interracial relationships in China have a few unique issues, compounded by the fear that these unexpected reactions may be part of a greater campaign to bring you under her thumb.
Of course an irrational fear that your sweetheart is in fact trying to control you is sure to produce unwanted conflict in the relationship, and plenty of perfectly reasonable issues can generate problems when integrating two cultural traditions in something as significant and love and marriage. Still, a Western husband can be something of a prize for Chinese families who think a foreign passport is a meal ticket out of the country and into a carefree life of luxury. So how can you tell if your new squeeze is a regular Chinese girl or plotting to turn you into her personal ATM? The trick is to keep in mind that, although things might have to change out of respect for each other’s cultures, some things really are crossing the line.
1) Who’s in charge of the money?
The Chinese and English speaking worlds see few things more differently than money. A culture of thrift, years of living in uncertain times, and an inadequate social welfare system have created a nation that stresses saving and rationing money to a degree not seen in the West. The carefree spending habits of an American who makes four times an average Chinese salary but seems to spend it all on pizza, beer, andChinglish T-shirts can cause extreme discomfort to someone accustomed to tightly managing money, and fair compromise means cutting back on some of those things.
Making an effort to save more money can actually be a positive change, but it should be mutually agreed upon and reflect each person’s contribution to the household. Some beleaguered husbands complain about turning their monthly salaries over to their wives and getting a monthly allowance (100 RMB a day is popular, as well as 25% of the salary). A common excuse cited by the Chinese wife is that the decadent Westerner is inadequate at saving compared to a rational, experienced Chinese saver. A real partner should have faith that you can decide your own level of involvement in managing the household, and only take over with your consent: anyone who continually questions your budgetary competence may be just looking for an excuse to wrest control of the checkbook. Just as you should be willing to compromise with her, she should be willing to discuss financial issues on even ground.
2) “Buy me an apartment”
Probably the biggest conflict that arises in long-term relationships with Chinese girls is the ultimate demand to buy a house for marriage. Not all girls ask their husbands to buy houses for them, but it is often expected in Chinese culture and every girl receives some pressure from friends and family to push for the highest level of (material) commitment possible between two people – investing in real estate together. In fact, there is an increasing trend in modern Chinese society to express success and status through material means, and it is not uncommon for a foreign boyfriend to receive a request for an iPad, new cell phone, or even a car.
While such demands are not necessarily out of the question, it’s good to keep in mind that no reasonable girlfriend would ask for such a large show of a monetary commitment, unless she was getting a lot of grief from her parents, co-workers, and friends. A thoughtful and considerate request should reflect your real financial means (it’s not OK for her to assume your parents have money and will buy you a house), and include your interests and ambitions.
That being said, if you’re planning on going back home, considering moving to another city, or have more pressing financial matters, asking you to buy a house is likely more out of concern for her own needs than yours. She should not ask you to buy and iPad if you have to buy a plane ticket home for Christmas. Likewise, she should not ask you to put a down payment on a house while you’ve still got student loans. Conversely, if you’ve got a comfortable job and can dedicate to many more years of living in China, then perhaps it’s not so out of the question for your significant other to suggest settling down in a place of your own. Her demands from you should take your situation into account.
3) “Aren’t you tired of that job?”
Such considerations should extend to your job as well. Many foreign residents came to China specifically for a particular job, and are content with their working situation. For some ambitious and money-driven Chinese workers, however, advancement is a crucial part of developing a career, and they expect frequent promotions or even a change of job. This can lead to another potential source of conflict: insisting that you ask for a raise, work more hours, or look for a new job.
Again, determining whether or not your girlfriend is trying to control you depends on how much she has considered your desires into suggesting you change your job. One hapless teacher left a comfortable university job on his girlfriend’s advice, only to be told to move again and again after a few months. If you’re comfortable with your work situation, and your girlfriend still keeps insisting you get a job with a higher salary, it’s likely that she’s more concerned with how much money she can get out of you than your own well-being.
4) “All my friends are getting married…”
It’s probably true that Chinese girls get more pressure from their parents to get married than Western girls, but it’s important to remember that women incessantly nagging their boyfriends to tie the knot is a common occurrence the world over. Just because your steady girl of several years keeps asking you when she can expect a ring, doesn’t mean she’s a control freak. This decision, however, should only come after carefully considering whether you’re really ready to commit and start a family.
If, after a short time together, she’s already telling you that her mother thinks you need to get married or break up, but refuses to discuss tough issues like where to settle, how to get a visa, and what schools to go to, you might just have a control freak on your hands. It is unreasonable to assume that a university-educated foreigner would stay teaching English in the same provincial city just because his girlfriend lives there. Even traditional Chinese parents can understand practical considerations like where and when you want to raise children.
5) “You just wouldn’t understand”
One issue common to expats is not knowing whether a seemingly unreasonable behaviour is acceptable in the local culture. Some, taking advantage of this insecurity, try to convince people to do what they feel is wrong by suggesting they are simply unaware of deep-seated customs. An accusation that you don’t understand Chinese culture should never be used as an excuse to push you into something you don’t want to do. It should not be the end of a conversation, but the beginning of one.
There is no issue in a relationship, cross-cultural or otherwise, that cannot be resolved by both parties with sufficient discussion. Both of you should be willing to put in the time to work through your problems, and make sacrifices if necessary. All relationships need give and take from both parties regardless of cultural background. Fair compromise is a key to every good and long lasting relationship no matter where you are in the world.