Living in China,  Studying Chinese

The “clichéd” relationship of Foreign man and Chinese woman


I’ve written posts on dating Chinese men, but how is it like for a a Foreign man to date Chinese woman? That’s an ankle I can’t cover my self, so today’s guest post comes from Hugh who is behind the East Asia Student. He has recently written a good series on how to learn to write Chinese, check that out after the post.

Sara often writes here about her relationship with her Chinese boyfriend and the language and cultural issues they encounter. Sara’s writings about this are particularly interesting for the rest of us because, for whatever reason, there aren’t so many relationships with a foreign girl and a Chinese guy. Thankfully that trend does seem to be changing, but currently you still see far more couples with a foreign guy and a Chinese girl.

Sara and her boyfriend are also a bit more unusual in that they have four languages in the mix (Finnish, English, Mandarin and Cantonese, I believe) whereas a lot of Chinese/foreigner couples only have two. It seems like the result is that neither of them is speaking in their native language much of the time. The “clichéd” relationship between foreigners and Chinese people seems to be quite different to that: a foreign guy and a Chinese girl, who only have two languages between them. I’m in one of those couples so I thought I’d write about being in this “cliché” relationship.

I’m generally quite a private person so this has been quite tricky for me to write! Because I didn’t want to share a lot of personal details about myself or my girlfriend, I’ve only written about this one issue of being in a stereotypical situation, but I wouldn’t want to anyone to think that it’s constantly a major issue in our life or something that we dwell on a lot! Most of the time we couldn’t care less about whether or not we’re a stereotype, but every now and then something crops up in daily life that forces us to think about it.

We live together in a huge Chinese city and generally do most things together everyday. The thing that crops up most commonly is that a lot of Chinese people see this couple consisting of a very obviously foreign guy and a Chinese girl, and seem to make an assumption that my girlfriend is not just my girlfriend but also my guide and translator! I imagine this happens to Chinese/foreigner couples regardless of gender, but I think it’s definitely wrapped up in what the stereotypical version of that relationship is in the eyes of some Chinese people.

Most people definitely assume that I speak no Chinese whatsoever. The result is that people direct questions about me to my girlfriend whilst I’m standing right there. We both find this quite awkward because I feel like I ought to step in and answer the question myself, my girlfriend doesn’t want to answer it for me, but at the same time neither of us really wants to engage with these random personal questions from strangers. Because I feel like this stereotype follows us everywhere we go, though, I really dislike speaking English with my girlfriend when we’re in public (our English and Chinese are very evenly matched, and usually we swap between them quite a lot), because I feel like I’m confirming the cliché.

Something that is related to gender is the perception from a lot of Chinese people that foreign guys are generally ‘unreliable’ (不靠谱), which I tend to feel is code for ‘sleeps around and treats girls badly’. Just knowing that perception exists is quite unpleasant, because I wonder if people make that assumption about us. In general I think people probably aren’t that judgemental (or even that interested!), and even if they are it ultimately doesn’t matter what other people think. But knowing all that isn’t the same as being able to shake off the feeling when people stare at you on the street.

What’s worse is that I know this is also a problem for my girlfriend’s family. People back home often ask how their daughter / sister is doing and if she’s got married yet (a common question in China), and my girlfriend’s family know that if they say “she’s going out with a foreign guy”, people are likely to make unpleasant assumptions. My girlfriend also encounters this herself when she goes home and meets friends from her hometown – when she says her boyfriend is a foreigner, they often try to “warn” her or express doubt that she’s making a good decision.

Again, in the end none of this really matters. What’s important is what we know about ourselves. But however much you ignore the issue of stereotypes and whether or not they apply to you, sometimes you can’t help engaging with them and adjusting your behaviour.

The thing that really strikes me about all this is that it’s my first real taste of having stereotypes applied to me, and to be honest it’s pretty mild. I wouldn’t like to claim that I now have an understanding of people whose lives are really impacted by nasty stereotypes every day, but perhaps I’ve gained a little more insight.


  • R Zhao

    This is so interesting! I feel like foreign women dating Chinese men can relate to a lot of what you say.

    My husband usually isn’t mistaken as my translator, though some people are uncertain of our relationship. When they find out we are married, some people assume I am Russian or they think he is Korean. I find that odd. One time, when we were first dating, we were about to eat at a restaurant. The waitress gave me the more expensive English menu and my (then) boyfriend a local menu. She thought he was my tour guide. We left the restaurant.

    I’m not sure that it’s just foreign guys that are seen as unreliable. Sometimes I feel like foreigners are all perceived that way. I think there is the idea that foreign women also date and sleep around a lot. We are perhaps too wild and not family-orientated enough.

    Another side of the language issue you mention–out of my foreign group of friends, I am the only one that speaks Chinese fairly well. Sometimes when we were are out a cashier or waitress will address one of the men in the group and I will answer. The worker will continue asking the man even through I am the one answering. Seems a bit sexist, but I can’t help but laugh because it’s such a bizarre scenario.


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I have to agree R, It was super interesting to get this guest post from Hugh.

    Sometimes Chinese people also ask questions about me from my boyfriend when they don’t know I can speak Chinese too. Or they prefer to speak in Cantonese which is a bit annoying as I can understand they talk about me, but can’t fully comprehend what they actually say.

    Yeah, there unfortunately is a stereotype of foreign women being more “open”. It doesn’t come up that often, but I know some relatives have been a bit uneasy to accept our relationship because I’m a foreigner.


  • Christoph

    Hi Hugh,

    thank you for your interesting article. I would like to add some personal observations.

    I live together with my Chinese wife, our daugher, and my inlaws in a not-so-big town in Zhejiang province. Usually, people seem to assume that we are a family, at least when my daugher is around. Also when my wife and me are out alone, people normally do not seem to assume that she is my tourguide or translator. But you can’t find a lot of tourists around here anyhow.

    Things change when we have a foreign female visitor. Upon seeing us four people often look at me, my daughter, and then repeatedly at my wife and our friend, trying to find out whether my wife is the mother or a care-giver. It’s actually quite funny. In conversations I sometimes hear that my wife made a good choice since foreigners are supposed to be more faithful than Chinese.

    Regarding the language skills, I’m not sure if people have real expectations. People often ask my wife whether I speak Mandarin and seem to be mildly surprised that I do. On the other hand, local people also address me in Mandarin on the street all the time, especially when I’m out alone with my daughter, and don’t seem to be surprised when I answer.

    Regarding their opinions about my reliability, let my first add that I met my wife while visiting China as a tourist, and that we a has long distance relationship for two years before I came to China. My wife’s best friend told me just recently that neither she nor my wife’s other friends believed our relationship “would work out”, but that they were obviously wrong. I would say that they consider me to be reliable. My wife’s parents are a different story: at first they didn’t know that their daughter was “dating” a foreigner. She told them when I already had the a job in China. I didn’t know them at that time, but I have the feeling that they were suspicious, to say the least. I would say that it took them some time to change this, which is only natural. And on the day after our wedding ceremony they seemed to be really relieved.

    I honestly can’t say whether they ever considered me to be unreliable because I’m a foreigner (in the sense of not Chinese). My wife’s older sister is married to a man from Sichuan province and from the stories I have been told he was also considered by be “foreign”, since he’s not from their hometown.

    I’m not really comfortable drawing any conclusion from this, but it seems to me that your actual actions count more than whether you are foreigner or not, at least with people who have no previous experience with foreigners. On the other hand, my wife didn’t tell her relatives and neighbors that she had foreign boyfriend until I actually walked on the street in front of their house. I’m sure she had a reason for this. Especially since the neighbors used to greet her by saying “Xiao Ma, did you find a new boyfriend yet? You should hurry, you are already very old!”

    Thanks for sharing your insight, Hugh. I really would like to better understand the expectations and opinions Chinese people have about foreigners.


    R Zhao Reply:

    I think it’s interesting how people’s reaction change depending on who you are with. I find that I’m treated better when I’m with my husband compared to when I’m alone. Funnily, I get a lot less attention when I walk my dog, too. She seems to steal the show!


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I have noticed that only when I’m holding hands with my boyfriend do Chinese regard us as being in a relationship. If we aren’t then they think we must be classmates.


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