at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Tag: intercultural relationships (Page 2 of 2)

What’s in a Name?

It was – as happens every now and then – a talk with Ellis which made me throw the question to Jocelyn: What’s your opinion, considering Chinese-Western marriages, about name changes? Now that her answer is here, it’s time for me to come clean…

In traditionally-minded China, if a relationship is to be considered the real thing, it’s considered as a pact for life. Marriage is not a question of wanting to or not, deciding based upon personal feelings about it. It’s a matter of when – if that.

Trying out different people, making lots of experiences, is diametrically opposed to the Chinese idea of what makes for a good partner, especially a good woman. Hence – or so it seems to me – the parent’s strong desire to be involved or even in control when it comes to their daughter choosing a life partner… There are not supposed to be any second chances.

[Mind you, I’m in a part of the country that is particularly conservative. And there is still considerable diversity, of course.]

Now, China used to have the tradition that the woman entered her husband’s family, took his name, and furthermore had only tenuous ties to her family of origin, if those. Things have changed quite a bit, with the daughters also supposed to care about (and for) their parents in their old age – and with both husband and wife keeping their names.

Austria, like Germany (and others) used to make the wife change to her husband’s family name. However, things here have also changed considerably, and it’s basically up to the couple’s choosing now.

In spite of all feminism, the old tradition is still dominant; hyphenated names have been somewrat on the rise. My brother was one of those, still truly few, men who took their wife’s name – basically, because our family name is as common as, well, Smith. (It is the German version of Smith, and therewith one of the most common family names in German).

When he married, a friend of his asked if I now had to keep the family line, name-wise. My mom stood by and shook her head vigorously “no.” Somehow, it was clear that  I would probably find a wife somewhere outside. It was clear enough that my parents sometimes joked that they would be happy enough if only she spoke English…

So, to me, in deference to my significant other’s culture and the challenge she is also willing to take on by  having me as her partner, I’ll want to take on my girlfriend’s name whe we marry.

It will hardly be a change for a less common name – to one of the names of the 老百姓 (“old/honorable hundred names,”  as the phrae for the Chinese common people puts it). It may even be a part of nearly going native, and it could be seen as just trying to counter the common notion that the men take, the women are taken – especially when intercultural issues are of effect in the relationship. (More on that later.)

Yet, it’s our plan. It will certainly be something of a logistical challenge, but I see it as my responsibility to make a family and become a part of her family.

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…

Blogging a China Relationship – Chinese Characteristics, Indeed

As everywhere, there are lots of stereotypes about people from different places. Hunan, as I recently came across, is said to produce good politicians – because Hunan people will first hold back and listen, rather than simply blurt out their own view.

Of course, Chinese in general aren’t exactly known for their liberal stories about personal life. Sure, a foreigner may be asked about his salary right after “where are you from?” and “what are you doing here?” (it has happened to me). Chinese also feel free to comment on foreigner’s foreignness and everybody’s apparent physical attributes – a fat person will be called a fat person, and you are somewhat fat very quickly, to Chinese eyes.

Interestingly, this openness seems to translate to the blogosphere rather too well. Opinions which might not be freely voiced in real life (yes, yes, also because you aren’t supposed to, and so on) will be debated vocally on-line, anonymously, and in strong language. Chinese who take foreign citizenship, Chinese women who are with foreign men, the few Chinese men who are with foreign women, officials who are corrupt and womanizing, women who are not acting like the demure Oriental fairies even Chinese (or particularly them?) seem to expect, children who want to grow up to become a corrupt official… you name it, it’s fair game (check ChinaSmack or ChinaHUSH for English translations of such stories).

Private life is just that, however. Private.

In part, that’s the factor explaining why the majority of blog posts I have been publishing here have been commentaries published elsewhere, too. I’m not Chinese, but I’m still rather private. My parents and I see it as a good thing that we can talk about nearly anything, and of course I have seen them kiss and say I love you to each other often enough. – Not something the typical Chinese child will see. It’s at least unlikely even for Chinese children and their parents to talk about things that are too private, except in circuitous ways.
This mixture of openness and reluctance makes blogging an interesting exercise:

Jocelyn, for example, is pretty forthcoming (at least at a certain distance in time) about her life – and her relationship with a Chinese man is basically the raison d’etre of her blog; Ellis strikes a balance that works in her case, telling personal stories to the extent to which she wants to, and making it so that you would have to know her pretty well to know who else she is talking about when things get into rather private matters.

In my case, it may be interesting to hear more about personal life, as I am in a relationship with a Chinese woman and it’s providing all new insight. There are rather too many people around here who know of the relationship and do not need to have their fantasies fed (they seem to run somewhat wild anyways, it seems – or so I can assume – and without much basis). I am also not willing to lay open details of the relationship to the whole world simply because I would not want to do that (and my girlfriend, much less so) – but, of course, it is a great influence on the topics I think and write about, and in the China-related virtual circles there is rather too much that is out of balance. Particularly when it comes to discussions about relationships, whether it be that of China and other countries, or Chinese people and non-Chinese ones.

Balance. Maybe that’s the key word. Isn’t that what makes for good relationships, good lives even? So, how about that for a guideline: more that is personal, but nothing that is (too) private?

On Inter-Cultural Relationships [Global Times commentary]

“Cultures are often more alike than they seem, ” Global Times, Sep. 24, 2009

Recently, the opinion pages of the Global Times have seen a lot of debate over such thorny issues as the relationships between older Western men and young Chinese women, and the tricky subject of living together before marriage.

Relationships, especially families, form the basis of society, and so it’s no wonder that they draw a lot of attention, especially in a rapidly changing society like China’s.

Read More

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