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.

Abroad, too, Chinese society and social mores have garnered interest, but, as so often when dealing with another culture, only the more extreme cases are considered.

When the German media writes about Chinese relationships, for instance, they write about mistresses and er nai (second wives), not the ordinary, often loving couples that make up the norm.

Of course, it’s only natural that the media seeks out the most remarkable events and behaviors. The problem is that it starts to sound as if either the worst cases were the norm, or as if there is only one way in which all people behaved and had to behave.

We have to stop simplifying each other’s cultures. I am a Western man, and as such I sometimes shake my head at topics in China that in Europe were passed by long ago, such as cohabitation before marriage.

Equally, the only way in which the issue of a woman’s virginity before marriage usually surfaces in Europe is in cases of “honor killings” among some immigrant families who murder daughters who’ve had sex out of wedlock, or are merely suspected of doing so.

Talk of “virginity” as an inherent good that has to be protected therefore has a very negative ring for many Europeans.

At the same time, I know traditional European culture well. And what is typical for weddings there? A white wedding dress, signifying purity, innocence, and virginity. (There are still jokes about some brides not being suitable to wear white.) Devout Catholics, and some other Christians, still value virginity too.

Thus, I can at least partially understand the Chinese attitude, which isn’t entirely absent from my own culture.

My personal attitude, too, is that I would rather wait than be with someone just for a little bit of fun – but that’s my way of thinking. Friends of mine think and act differently, and I don’t value them any less for it.

This way, knowing that I am a Western man is not really going to tell you anything more than what my looks may be like.

The problem is that both Chinese and Westerners are often so stereotyped in each other’s minds that both sides make unwarranted assumptions about people purely by their ethnicity. For instance, the US is often seen as “open,” both liberal and with loose morals, by Chinese.

As a result, American women, such as a blonde-haired friend of mine, often have to suffer quite a few unwanted advances from Chinese men.

They assume that just because she’s American she must be sexually easy and available for affairs. Unfortunately for them, she’s looking not for adventure, but a life partner.

When it comes to relationships, we should be thinking about the individuals, not the culture. The most important thing is that the two people who come together are a good couple.

That is one thing that troubles me about Chinese attitudes; the frequent materialism with which young women say they’re looking for a man who can support them financially, or when young men say they want to wait for marriage until they feel they can afford it.

Yet, again, this practical attitude can be found in Germany, too!

Everything depends on the people, not on the country. Certainly, we are all shaped by different cultures, but we also come from different families, have different ideas and personalities.

Don’t miss the person for the people, or vice versa. We think we know what somebody must be like because we know where they come from – but if we don’t take the trouble to find out about them as individuals, we will never truly know them.

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