how to really #GetAtHome in this world

Yellow Fever, and other ways of not seeing the world

As Google is making its gambit in China, as the relationship between China and the West (or the rest?) is seen as one of the pivotal issues of our times, relationships seem paramount. They don’t only exist in these levels of pundits pondering and politicians pontificating, however. China-Western relationships also, increasingly, exist on the very personal level.

There is not much that makes my emotions go high. Rather, it is a Buddhist equanimity I seek. For being in China, and seeking to understand and maybe improve relationships between China and the West, it is a necessity. I do, however, feel strongly about relationships, of us humans to the world, of myself to my significant other; and I have a rather passionate problem with ignorance.

When my students don’t know something, I don’t have any problem with it. They know different things, are educated in different ways, so I can’t presume they have to know and think the same way I do. (Of course, I will still try to educate them; that’s what I’m here to do.)
When somebody simply presupposes to know, based on stereotypes or cliché, however, I passionately object. This is true ignorance. It is particularly irksome when it comes to my personal China-Western relationship, my love with a Chinese woman: There are only comparatively few intercultural couples, though their numbers have been increasing. Amongst people with an interest in China, they seem rather common (but of course, an interest in a country and culture will lead to increased contact). And still, there is such predominance of Chinese female–Western male couples that many seem only too quick to judge that it’s a matter of “yellow fever:” the Western males’ fascination with the Oriental woman.

Orientalism has been around for a while. It is, I would say, a selective misunderstanding of the East, interpreting it in ways that turn it from cultures and people that are somewhat different into a true ”other” that is more of a Western dream world than based in fact. First, it was the mythical origin of spices, silk, and porcelain; later, it became the home of Shangri-La and people who were either much better or much worse than “us,” in all their “otherness.”

Even the anthropological interest was, at the beginnings of the discipline of cultural anthropology, a male gaze fixated on the extreme, the allure of the exotic. Something of that is still around (albeit, I’m happy to say, tends to be found and rooted out in the academic discipline):
• Not so few documentaries suggest that Asians, uninhibited by Christian ideas of (sexual) mores, would have a very different approach to the subject.
• Not so few Western men study Japanese because they want a Japanese girlfriend, for example.
• Even more in general, there do seem to be enough men who have an ideal image of the women they want. For some, it’s busty blondes; for others, the Oriental beauty.

I was asked by one of my students in Latvia whether I preferred blondes or brunettes.
I asked him if he had ever heard of hair coloration… it’s a question that simply does not compute for me. Why would I put on blinds when the world is colorful, especially in the unexpected corners? (Although I must say, I also don’t understand people who are just after affairs, collecting experiences as if relationships didn’t count, only themselves.)

Thus, I’m amused – and appalled – by two observations surrounding that issue:

For one, people get blinded so easily by their own fantasies. We are the species that has the capacity to think. We much prefer having the feeling that we know without expending the effort of too much thought, however. And thus, we go chasing after dream images we have built up on the basis of little fact.
Ask somebody what it means when a Western guy is with an Asian woman, and it’s yellow fever. And for the woman, it means that she is after money, or a foreign visa, or the idea of a better life somewhere else. Ask what these women are like, and people will probably get back to you with notions of slender body, black hair, almond eyes, demure behavior, gentleness – and at the same time, if they have heard about the whole issue of “ no Christian ideas about sex being sinful here,” there will probably also be some idea about a lack of inhibitions, and fear of “gold diggers.”

Amusingly, Chinese seem to fall into very similar stereotyping: Not only are Western women tall and curvy vixens; ideal Chinese women – or women ideal in the Chinese mind (?) – are slender, gentle, demure and also refined beauties who will be true to their husband (even if he is unfaithful, it sometimes seems) and good as a mother. Japan and Korea sometimes come up as the home of the Chinese man’s ideal woman, by the way. [Update: As Jocelyn pointed out, Vietnam should be added to the list. And there, it’s not just an issue of character or body. Rather, the often-quoted aspect of economic status between the countries/people is in favor of the Chinese males.]

Most amusingly to me, in a very mean way, is the simple observation that many people are in for quite a surprise.
Japanese may not have inhibitions to portraying sex, at least in manga, but even here the social norms are very strong. What you can and cannot do, and especially that you cannot talk about it, are things to better consider. China has kept to its traditional mores even more strongly, and those value family and a distinctly non-cavalier attitude towards relationships very highly. Yes, there is still prostitution and extramarital affairs, but that does not change the attitude. And thus, a man who finds his ideal oriental beauty willing to jump in bed with him at once probably has not found a woman who is an ideal in too many other ways…
And yes, of course, there tend to be almond eyes, black hair and slender bodies. Those are just the outside attributes, though. There is also a way of dressing and acting that is feminine to the point of being cutesy, and it seems to put many men at ease with their male identity opposite a demure woman (and to some extent, that seems to hold true for both Western and Chinese men) – but depending on the person, that gentle phoenix might easily be reborn into a fierce house-dragon.

Images can be deceiving, haven’t you heard?

In relationships, going into them with preconceptions and blinds is particularly silly. If you are just looking for a quick adventure and a certain body type appeals to you, it’s a different issue. (A very different one, perhaps.) Bringing the attitude that this were just normal from one social and cultural context into another could be more than problematic, however. Especially in a place like China, where relationships are typically nothing that is taken lightly. – But I should think that this would easily become a problem in the American Bible Belt, just as well (and people there would have guns…).
Ultimately, even people who may be adamant they’ll never marry probably will, however.

Looking for a partner for life, images we hold are like maps that don’t point north.
Perchance, you will still find the right place for you. There is at least as good a chance, if not a much better one, that this map will lead you astray, however. Some value the adventure and experience that this can bring, and I’m enough of a liberal European to think that, as long as they don’t hurt others on their way, so much the better for them. In China, though, they should better be aware that carefree behavior – even if it seems to be heard about a lot – is a surefire way to social ostracism. (This seems to be part and parcel of why it’s heard about so much, just as “only bad news is good news.”)

To me personally, that has been one of the main issues in the relationship: To make sure that even suggestions of a carefree attitude towards it would be avoided; to act in accordance with the strictest – best? – traditional, conservative ideas about the progress of a relationship. Admittedly, the Chinese conservatism suits my thinking on relationships. I may seek adventure and experience in going to live in different places, but am looking for a partner for life, to share life with, not for a collection of relationship experiences. That is yet another issue of image, at least as others come to see it, though: you can do your best, but if somebody wants to presume the worst, it’s hard to change fixed attitudes. It is not impossible, though.

And ultimately, beyond all the images, the important thing in the relationship is the two persons that make it up, and whether they fit together and are happy with each other. Or actually, since this is China we are talking about, it will also be an issue of how happy the parents are going to be with the relationship… but that’s a somewhat different story, and it seems that Chinese parents (as much as they want to have a say) will also come around if they see that it is a good relationship…

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