“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
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
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.