Dating a Chinese Man (and the unwanted presents that come with it)

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“How are things with you and your Shanghai man?” I ask J on the phone as I slurp some coffee and munch on toast.”I hear you have dinner with his family every weekend?  Seems like things are getting serious.”

“Mary, I’m going to have a breakdown,” J sighs heavily on the phone. “His mom did something that REALLY bothered me these last few weekends.”

“Oh no,” I set my coffee on the table and leaned in, almost as if J were really sitting across from me.  “Did she say something about you being a foreigner?  Or maybe about your family?”

“No, even worse.” J pauses.  I pause.  Silence.  I hear her sigh again.  I’m unmoving.

 

“She gave me tomatoes.”

 

I sit back in my chair with a sigh of relief.  J seemed perplexed by my nonchalant response.

“No, Mary, you don’t understand.  His mother gave me not just one tomato, but over a dozen tomatoes!  And eight potatoes to go with it.”

“Well, why did she do that?  Seems a bit random.”

“She asked me if I cooked,” J begins.  “I said that I did, and she kept questioning me about what I cook.  I felt really uncomfortable answering, but I said I made a few salads, soups and sandwiches every now and then.  After I told her my usual cooking menu, she told me that she would go to the store and buy vegetables for me.  I told her no, but she wouldn’t listen.  The next day I went to their house, and she had not one, but TEN tomatoes and EIGHT potatoes!”

“Well at least you don’t have to buy tomatoes,” I laugh and take another sip of coffee.

“It’s not funny, Mary!” J refutes.  “How am I going to eat ten tomatoes in a week!?  I live alone!  And it’s weird!  I feel really uncomfortable having her buy my food!  I feel bad–I want to buy my own food, I don’t want anything from their family!”

“Oh J,” I shake my head.  “We’ve both dated Chinese men, so I know this isn’t a first for you.  Every visit, your Chinese boyfriend’s family is always going to give you enough food to feed Noah’s ark.  That’s just how they are.  I remember when I got 5 bags of chicken feet once.  Chicken feet.  In a bag.  You think I ate that?  I dumped it on Z and she ate chicken feet everyday for a month.”

“I know,” J sighs in frustration. “But it makes me feel extremely uncomfortable.  I don’t want them to do things like that for me.  I want to buy my own vegetables.  Whether it be a bag or a potato, I don’t want to feel like I owe them something.”

“It’s just weird,” J continues.  “In the west we don’t do that, you know?  We don’t give random presents.  Christmas, my birthday–ok, maybe, but buying my vegetables or other personal items, randomly, is just strange.  It would never happen in England.”

“You’re right,” I said after thinking for a moment. “But just calm down, J.  Take the vegetables and think on the bright side–maybe you can open up a vegetable market in the hallway of your dorm.”

“Ha, Mary.  Very funny.”

A Culture of Gift Giving

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This conversation made me realize just how accustomed I had become to dating Asian men.  When J told me her boyfriend’s parents gave her boatloads of food to take home every visit, I was not only in lack of surprise–I thought it was somewhat normal.  I mean, what’s wrong with the ‘ol in-laws giving you some food?

But when she asked me to imagine how awkward it would be to do that in the West, I did find it quite hard to imagine my friend’s western mom handing me a box of chicken feet or fresh celery after every visit to their house.  In the west, the constant act of giving food and looking out for your every need and sense of well-being is, just, well… not there.  I think in the west, we call it “over-bearing”–or really, to be more blunt, it’s just nosy and intrusive.

My first shock of the ‘gift giving and receiving’ came in Japan, where going to anyone’s house empty handed (no matter the occasion) was almost as bad as leaving a bag of flaming poo at their doorstep.  It just didn’t happen.  You always brought food/snacks, and they always brought it to you.  And since I was the only foreigner in town, I was treated like the emperor–the families in my community always sent me home with at least 10 boxes of food and 3 bottles of alcohol (sometimes food went to waste, but never the home-made sake).  Let’s just say, as a foreigner in Japan you will never go hungry.

When I met the families of my Asian boyfriend’s parents, they not only stuffed me like a turkey and filled me with delicious cuisine, but they always sent me home with at least one suitcase full of food.  After visiting Z’s family in Ningbo over new year, her mother sent me home with enough fruit to sell in the market and a supply of walnuts and sunflower seeds that would last through the apocalypse.

And when it’s someone you’re dating?  Oh man.. when I was sick in Shanghai once, my previous’ boyfriend’s father made fresh pigeon soup and goose egg porridge and had it taxi’d to my house.  On regular visits they didn’t send me home with just food, but also socks, toothpaste, shampoo, and–get this– a brand new down feather coat.

In the USA?  I’d be lucky if my dad brought me cough syrup from the kitchen.

I remember at first I felt terribly awkward receiving all these foods and presents, but at the same time I knew that it would be equally or even more disrespectful to turn it down.   I took the food with a smile and thanked them for their generosity–even if Z did end up eating it all.

The Oddities of Intercultural Dating

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In this interconnected world, it’s hard to imagine just how strong the cultural barriers still stand.  With our background in Chinese study and our long-standing experience in China, J and I thought we could brave anything when it came to dating Asian men–but we were so wrong.  It’s not as easy as it looks.

Unlike J, I do not discriminate and will date anyone (Asian or not), but for some reason or another (or maybe it’s a cruel destiny), most of my boyfriends end up being Asian.  Really, In all honesty, dating a white dude would probably save J and I from a hassle of problems and a headache of confusion.

But sometimes, you just fall for somebody.  Of course you do have options when it comes to dating and love, but sometimes there’s just something special about a certain somebody you can’t seem to put your finger on.  If he’s Chinese, or African or Korean or Spanish or whatever he may be, that makes him a part of who he is.  He is special because of who he is–which includes his parents, his background, and yes, of course, his culture.  It is one of the many reasons that makes him special.  That explains why you love him.

Although we may end up with twenty pounds of sunflower seeds and ten ears of corn in the end, we take it all with a smile and know that, well, it comes with the package.

8 thoughts on “Dating a Chinese Man (and the unwanted presents that come with it)

  1. bunnybuntales says:

    I’m Western and I love giving food. I just sent a friend (not a boyfriend) a box full of homemade cookies, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit. I give what I know the person will like or I give small samples of a variety so if one doesn’t like one thing, at least I can hope something will be liked among the other small samples. I also love giving non-food items like dental floss—well I guess it’s related to food.

    I’m not rich so I can’t give trips and jewels but I like to give little things. As a Westerner, I do think others especially of the opposite sex, can get the wrong idea. It doesn’t mean I feel romantic. I think partly is that I’m not well off and can’t treat others to a few drinks or a nice dinner so I give what I can. Also I’m healthy so if someone has a bad diet but I find out the person likes some healthy foods like fruit and nuts, I give healthy food so they can eat less junk. I’m thinking about their health. I want them to stay healthy and alive so we can continue being friends.

    • rubymary says:

      Aw you’re very sweet!! I think it’s great to give food as a farewell parting gift or just as a gesture (cookies or fruit make great gifts!). You have a great point there about how they can be taken the wrong way though (i.e. I don’t want to date you).

      I guess I shouldn’t say western, because I know in cultures like Italy and other parts of Europe they give food as a gesture of good health and showing care. I guess here in the USA (and in England, apparently) it’s just not super common to give food like that–but I’m the same as you, I love to give food (and healthy food at that).

  2. autumnashbough says:

    This is fascinating. I’m finding all these blogs about how Chinese parents give their sons’ white girlfriends stuff, especially food. Fruit! Chocolate! And now tomatoes! (I’ll pass on the chicken feet.) My experience is the reverse. I give my Chinese-American boyfriend’s parents gifts when we visit them. There’s the ritual fight for the check at restaurants, which my significant other always lets his parents win. We stay at their house when we visit. But no after multiple visits, I’ve received exactly one box of chocolates. At first I figured it must be because these China-born folks now live in Hawaii and you can’t fly any food off the islands. (Not unless you pay $30 for an airport pineapple.)

    But now… Now I’ve seen the red envelopes. I know they exist! Where the heck is my red envelope?

    Alas! I am clearly unworthy. 🙂

    • rubymary says:

      Autumn, I just want to say: YOUR BLOG IS SO AWESOME. I flew through it. Your writing is hilarious.

      Anyway, don’t worry, my current Chinese boyfriend’s parents specifically gave me chocolates too (although they shoved a ton of food into my boyfriend’s luggage). Good job on bringing them presents, though–brownie points! In America I (think?) it’s not an ABSOLUTE necessity to bring a present when you meet your SO’s parents, but in Asian culture its do or die.

      Oh no you didn’t get a red envelope!? Maybe after you two live together they’ll give you one to say ‘take care of my son.’

      I think my bf’s parents wanted him to marry some ivy-league, six-figure salaried, smokin’ hot Chinese chick and are probably disappointed to get me (since I am definitely not any of those things, haha), so I feel ya on the constant worry of “am I good enough for his parents?”

      • autumnashbough says:

        Thank you for saying my blog is awesome. I love you forever.

        Someday I will catch up on the blog and discuss the whole present thing — see some future blog on Daughter-in-Law Tea Ceremony — but no, no envelopes for years.

        But you are totally on target with the dad — last words he said to me as we left Hawaii for the first time were “Take good care of my son!” I’ll have a blog on that, too. Someday.

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