The Secrets of Understanding Chinese Women
If you have a Chinese girlfriend who you think the world of yet are baffled many times by how they react to ordinary circumstances that occur in life, you are not alone. Rest assured there are ways to solve these behavioral mysteries – you just need a few basic “insider” explanations of where your girlfriend is coming from; culturally, as a Chinese woman and daughter from ancestral roots that have been patriarchal for thousands of years. Even if your woman appears to be a thoroughly modern lady, with a great career, killer business instincts and a fierce independence, deep down inside she may be protecting a culturally submissive girl who follows a strict and unyielding set of rules that have somehow been hardwired into her psyche.
In order to give you practical advice I have formatted this article as a series of commonly experienced scenarios, involving everyday situations that can quickly escalate into full blown conflict if you do not understand your Chinese girlfriend’s cultural identity, regardless of whether she is new to the western world, or American born Chinese. As you read through these scenarios, imagine you and your girlfriend experiencing this situation, consider the information that is imparted and the suggestions of how to understand and rectify the situation, so you don’t have to replay these unpleasant series of events over and over again. If all goes as planned, these nuggets of cultural insight will save you hours of conflict and confusion, and, quite possibly, your relationship!
Scenario #1: I’ve been going out with Dawn for about 6 months now. It’s truly been the best relationship of my life, but I have to admit, I seem to make her mad at the most random times. We’ll be out having a great time or hanging out at her house just chilling, and I’ll say or do something (I wish I knew what it was, so I’d never do it again!) and she just gets weird. Sometimes her anger comes out in this picky, bossy way and other times, she just goes quiet and cold. I need help figuring this out. I really love this girl, but I seem to piss her off more than I should!
The Deconstruct: From what you are describing, I’d say there are two things going on in this situation, both of which, I believe can be explained by looking at some pretty basic Chinese cultural norms.
First, the picky bossy thing: Would you be surprised to learn that this is actually a sign that your girlfriend genuinely cares for you and thinks of you as an intimate in her circle of friends and family? One of the general cultural attitudes of the Chinese is a painful honesty that westerners may find literally breath taking! This “tough love” can come out anytime your beloved thinks you aren’t presenting yourself in the best light possible. Examples can range from something as banal as getting mustard on your shirt at a baseball game to drinking one too many at your friend’s wedding or confiding to your buddies during a night out that you cheated on a math test in sixth grade. The reaction is swift and can feel very harsh, especially coming from the woman you usually think of as your admirer.
You need to understand that she is not picking at you to humiliate you, although that is probably how you feel when she berates you, either when you are alone, or worse, in front of friends and family. In actuality, she is trying to get you back to being your best in the quickest, most honest order. Her overriding motive in this short, sharp reprimanding behavior, is to right any wrong that has threatened to lose you “face”.
Losing Face is the term Chinese use to describe a loss of reputation, or any thing that lessens your good name, whether it be something small, like a rip in your jeans, or something big, like people thinking less of you. One’s reputation, as far as the Chinese are concerned, is undiscernible from one’s identity. Is it any wonder then, that your girlfriend is on the case at the very hint that your reputation may be at stake?
Now, that you understand this, you also need to know that if she didn’t consider you one of her most precious relationships, like family or the closest of friends, she wouldn’t bother to come at you in this brutal manner. The quick, honest, sometimes annoying attack on whatever has diminished you in the slightest way, is her way of showing you just how much she loves you, painful as that may be in the short run.
The funny thing about this behavior, is that when her family does it to her, which they will do relentlessly, she will be as annoyed as you are when she does it to you! And therein lies something you will have in common. You can commiserate on what a pain the neck your loved ones can be, when they pick at you, ridicule you and tell you like it is because…they love you! Finally, the only time you need to worry is if she STOPS the bossy pickiness!
Now let’s decipher the quiet and “cold” behavior…This actually may happen when you have said or done something, probably without malice or negative intention, that goes against some traditional male/female behavior she has been instilled with by her family and/or Chinese culture. It may seem like nothing to you, but it is creating conflict in her about you, her and your relationship. It may be something as simple as the fact you didn’t bring her a little gift when she thought you should. This is not her being a princess – this is Chinese tradition, that when you visit someone you bring them a small but meaningful token of your affection and gratitude for your host. It may be that you haven’t taken the wheel enough when it comes to planning an event or organizing a date. Traditionally, in Chinese relationships, the man takes the lead in these things. Your intention to make her feel an equal or a partner, may actually blow up in your face when your Chinese girlfriend misconstrues this as meaning you don’t care enough about her to figure out all the details! Finally, you may have innocently challenged her strict code of relationship behavior, by suggesting something “western”, like going away on a holiday instead of spending it with her family or taking your relationship to the next level by living together. No matter how independent and feisty your Chinese girlfriend may seem to you, there are certain lines she will find very difficult to cross. When faced with them, she may distance herself to give herself time to think and resolve her inner conflict.
Basically, when your girlfriend goes quiet and cold, give her a bit of space and time, and then ask her honestly and gently what you’ve done to upset her. Remember that phrase: “What you’ve done to upset her”. NOT “what’s wrong with you?” See the difference? Good!
Scenario #2: The other day, my Chinese girlfriend and I were having kind of a nice but serious talk about our future and when I suggested that we should start thinking about living together, she just started to cry! It wasn’t loud or dramatic – it was just sort of silent and intense. I tried to get her to stop because it was freaking me out, but it didn’t seem to help. She couldn’t tell me why she was crying or what I had said wrong and later when she was ok, I brought it back up and she said she had to go see her Mom. I wish I could tell you this is the only time this has happened, but I’d by lying. There have been other times and it’s weird, because it happens sometimes when we’re arguing — when most girls would start getting all defensive and cutting me down – but she just starts up with this weird awful silent crying thing. It makes me feel awful, like I’m some kind of a creep and like everything is out of control. A few times I’ve even ended up yelling at her to cut it out…you can imagine how badly that goes.
The Deconstruct: Ok…so if you read the first scenario, you already have a bit of insight into the behavior described in scenario two. This guy has asked his Chinese girlfriend to live with him, and she is experiencing conflict between her feelings for him and her traditional Chinese mores. But what’s with the crying?
The crying signifies so much! Generally, your girlfriend is literally flooded with emotion when she cries like this and most likely if you ask her what’s the matter, in the moment, she honestly won’t know why she’s crying. Frustrating as this may be for you, you must think of her. You can only imagine just how frustrating it is for her, experiencing it directly. So, going all Sherlock Holmes when a Chinese woman starts this intense, silent crying is the worst thing you can do.
Still, you can ask yourself what the reason behind these nonverbal but expressive tears might be. Here are some possibilities:
- She’s embarrassed – going back to the “face” concept. There may be something that was said or expressed that has made her feel that her reputation has been questioned or that she is being asked to do something that could diminish her reputation in the future.
- She’s confused – she may not understand why she has reacted to something so intensely. It’s one of those vicious cycle things…the more she tries to figure out what’s happening in the moment, the more confused and upset she becomes. This is similar to the crying that happens often in a therapy session. The emotion is available, but the memory may not be. Time and patience are needed in this scenario. The Chinese cultural norm of traditionally submissive women can be thanked for this!
- She’s really angry – yup, repressed feelings that have been culturally stuffed down inside a traditionally raised Chinese woman can result in angry tears, because tears are the only expression marginally accepted by a lady. The worst thing you can say to a woman who is “angry crying” is “Don’t be sad”. I cannot stress this enough for your own safety! Save yourself and never assume a crying woman is a sad woman.
- She’s actually sad – or ashamed or guilty or regretful…. You get the picture.
The one thing you can be sure of when your Chinese girlfriend cries like this, is that she is NOT happy. The best way to handle this situation is not to react, hard as that may be, and unless she asks you to, not to run away. This is difficult, but sometimes, just being a quiet presence can be the most comforting action you can take at a time like this. What you are conveying when you actively listen to an emotionally flooded person is that you are there for her, you care for her, and you aren’t annoyed, disgusted or afraid of her tears. And that says a lot, without speaking a word.
Scenario #3: My Chinese-American girlfriend Julie is the bomb! She’s smart, tough, funny and gorgeous and most of the time she makes me feel like I’ve won the lottery of life. There’s only one little fly in the ointment: she can’t seem to ever give me a straight answer about anything. Because she’s so intelligent and funny, she’s an expert at avoiding issues, changing the subject, deflecting a serious query and making me laugh and feel like an idiot for getting worked up in the first place. I’m probably over thinking this, but sometimes I worry why it is she can’t give me a definitive answer to any question, especially the ones I have a hard time asking. And sometimes I start to wonder, if it’s all about hiding something from me, which is a thought I really don’t want to be having about the first girl I’ve ever been totally in love with…
The Deconstruct: From the description above, I think it’s pretty safe to say that in this case, we are dealing with a woman who has whole-heartedly embraced the American side of being ABC (American Born Chinese). She identifies with a Western name and she’s certainly living her truth as an outwardly smart, tough, funny modern woman. So why all the deflection?
Simply put, Chinese American women like this have decided, probably during adolescence of playing down the traditional Chinese components of their identity in favor of presenting as western. This conscious decision making can result in some passive or latent guilt and shame, because whether we choose to honor them or not, ancestral roots are indelibly part of who we are. Have you realized yet, that Julie’s behavior has nothing to do with how she feels about her boyfriend, and all to do with her fear that “acting” Chinese will drive him away? How conflicted is that? Still, for the most part this plan works for Julie and many other ABC women.
The only time it blows up on them is that as a result of them denying their Chinese heritage, they end up seeming to be “hiding something”. The boyfriend above certainly gets that message. Hopefully, he will read this and understand that the only thing Julie is hiding is her traditional roots.
The other interesting take on this scenario, is that in trying so hard to be American, Julie has ended up creating her own slant on being a traditional Chinese romantic partner, in that her primary motive in deflecting any situation that may cause negative feelings by changing the subject and laughing problems away is EXACTLY what traditional submissive Chinese women are taught to do in order to please their men! So, in truth, she has more in common with the very women she is desperately trying not to be than she will ever know.
The best advice I can give to any man troubled by a girlfriend in this manner is to let their woman be who they want to be and armed with the knowledge I’ve just offered, rest easy knowing that she has genuine feelings for him but may need to show them through her actions rather than her words. Oh. And do yourself a big favor and keep the analysis to yourself. She will NOT react well to you telling her that she is denying her Chinese background!
Scenario #4: OK. Confession time. Somehow, I have managed to end up with the Chinese woman of my dreams. She is magnificent, and I adore her, and she seems to feel the same way about me. And that’s the thing…I hate to admit it, but I don’t trust her feelings for me. To be completely honest, I’m not the best-looking guy or the life of the party, but this woman dotes on me. I’ve even had guy friends say “jokingly”, ‘Hey there guy, Suzy sure is a knockout…are you sure she isn’t into you for your money?’ I do make a decent living and have lots of disposable income cause I’m a bachelor…I ‘m ashamed to admit, sometimes I wonder too. Like I say, she seems totally into me and I haven’t gotten a whiff that she’s seeing anyone else behind my back, but still… How can I prove to myself once and for all, without coming out and basically accusing her of hanging out with me just for what for what she can get from me, that she truly loves me?
The Deconstruct: This scenario is a fascinating one, and one that needs to be handled with kid gloves on all sides. What we are dealing with here are not one, but two cultural and societal stereotypes: 1. All Chinese women are gold diggers looking for a western chump with buckets of money to latch onto. 2. All Western men have an “Asian fetish” and are looking for a beautiful, submissive Chinese woman to add to his collection of possessions. What a delicate and prejudiced mess! I present both sides of this unpleasant coin in order to make men understand that if they are entertaining thoughts that their Chinese girlfriend is using them, she may very well be worried that his feelings for her are also less than pure.
Both of these cultural urban myths are, thankfully more often than not, just that. Ugly misperceptions based on racist stereotypes. If you are at all worried about your girlfriend’s motives or relationship agenda, please consider the following:
- Has she introduced you to her family? If she has, you have nothing to worry about, but be prepared: They do care about your career and your ability to take care of their daughter (and future grandchildren) financially. This is part of their culture and any man being seriously considered as a partner for a Chinese woman must be prepared to face this gauntlet.
- Does she let you take the lead in your relationship? If she does, she is simply following the rules of traditional Chinese custom. She is not just going along with you, so she can get your money.
- Is she vigilant about keeping up your physical appearance, and is she sometimes brutally honest about the things you say and do? If she tells you when you have hat head and complains when you wear high tops with dress pants, she is not making fun of you – she is showing her love! If she speaks her truth without subtlety, she is not revealing her disdain for you; she is keeping up your “face” which is also her “face” because she loves you.
All you can do in this scenario is work on your own self-confidence, based on the fact that this wonderful woman has chosen you as her partner. That’s probably the easiest assignment you’ll ever get!
Scenario #5: So, I work in the Financial District in a well-known investment firm. There’s this ABC woman who works in my department. She’s one of the top, top earners, tough as nails, and as is happens, drop dead beautiful to boot. To put it lightly, she both knocks me off my feet and literally terrifies me! She doesn’t really pal around with anyone at work; she’s all business and at times she can be really aggressive and intimidating. I fantasize about getting up the courage to ask her out for a coffee someday, but at this point I’d be delighted just to be able to be in the same room with her without feeling like she might turn around and vaporize me on the spot with her beautiful, cold eyes. I’m a smart, funny, sophisticated guy in his early thirties, but this woman has managed, with her mere presence to turn me into a babbling idiot. Help!
The Deconstruct: This is a situation that has several goals attached it to it, but all are attainable with a certain amount of skill, patience and “insider information” when it comes to the dilemma of being a modern ABC woman in the workplace, especially a competitive one that has been, historically masculine dominated.
As fierce and aggressive as the object of your interest may appear, she may, ironically be suffering from something called “Imposter Syndrome”. This syndrome has nothing to do with her actual capability to perform her job. It is rather, the result of growing up as part of the “model minority” in western culture. In other words, merely because of her ethnicity, it has been assumed that she is super smart, highly talented at math and uber competitive, which…she may be. Whether she is, or she isn’t is not the point. The point is because of this reverse prejudice, she has most likely been judged as over qualified for any position in the financial industry that she’s applied for; gotten it fairly easily and is therefore resented by others and expected to excel, without support or help ALL THE TIME. Is her behavior and attitude towards her business associates becoming more understandable now?
On the flip side of the coin, she may also have to contend with the expectations of a traditional Chinese family, who while they will certainly be proud of her work success, also expect her to follow the patriarchal demands of home life, switching her work persona on and off like a light bulb as she co-exists at home and at work.
That’s a lot of pressure to have to deal with. Knowing this, may help you to understand where she is coming from and also diminish your fear of her. If you want to become a business ally with her, try to keep this backstory in mind when you have business dealings together. Don’t get defensive when she snaps, don’t get shy when she questions you and don’t try to out intimidate her when she’s under pressure. Try to be even keeled, honest and available. Try bringing humor into the situation – you may get the surprise of your laugh, when she responds positively and starts being a bit kinder to you.
If the workplace relationship improves, after a suitable amount of time, invite her out for that cup of coffee – you may be the first person, friend or otherwise who’s actually dared to do this, and she may be thrilled with your “bravery”.
Take things slowly and let time be your friend. If you do you may just crack this complicated veneer and end up with a friend as well and perhaps, even more!
I hope these five scenarios have spoken to your particular issues as you learn to understand the unique challenges that your Chinese girlfriend deals with day in and day out. You must always keep this in mind: At the end of the day we all have unique “stuff” in our background that we have to keep in some sort of balance in order to exist. It’s what makes us human; it’s what makes us who we are…it is what makes us attractive to our romantic partners.