You’re not Western Enough: How I Got Kicked Out of My First Shanghai Apartment

You’re not Western Enough: How I Got Kicked Out of My First Shanghai Apartment

Beijing Hutong

“Mary, I published a book about teaching foreigners in China and I wrote almost an entire chapter about you.”

My Chinese teacher from Tsinghua University suddenly e-mailed me with the news, and I was completely caught off guard.

Me? …..In a book?

Impatient, I opened up the attached word file and scanned through the chapters hurriedly.

When I turned to the chapter about me, I realized that she retold one of the bleaker moments during my stay in Shanghai about…

My First Roommate:  The Leftover Woman

Shanghai Night City

In Chinese, there’s a word for a woman over thirty and still single:


…which literally means, a leftover woman.

From a western perspective, I think the term “leftover woman” is offensive. Being over thirty and single is not a disease, nor should a phrase be coined to equate women to unwanted scraps. Often times being over thirty and single is a choice and it should be respected—a man over thirty is desirable, why can’t a woman be?

While I have no qualms with a woman being single and over thirty (which I will most likely be, by the way), many Chinese women develop a complex with the word. The stress from parents, friends and society become too heavy to mentally shoulder and they crash. After a certain time, some women cave under this monumental pressure and start to lose their sense of identity and mental well being. They become lost in the race to lead the perfect Chinese life of finding a stable husband, having a nice home, and starting a family.

This was my first roommate.

The Roommate

Shanghai Suburb
The neighborhood of my first apartment

Ideally, I wanted a Chinese roommate—so when I found a 32-year-old woman named “Lin” looking for a foreigner to live with, I was elated. She could not only speak English—she completed her postgraduate studies in Japan and could speak English and Japanese fluently. After we exchanged a few messages, I thought I had finally found my perfect roommate. My match.

We cooked Chinese food together. Went shopping together. Stayed up late watching movies and TV shows in her room, laughing and giggling. I even met her parents.

Yelled at for making food like this
My first roommate taught me how to make meals such as the above

Then, we started talking about love.

I found out that she had a tendency to like western men. She told me about all of her boyfriends and lovers, and this is when I started to worry about her well being—basically, she only liked western men that were using her for sex.

As the days went by, we grew closer and started to open up more about our love lives. She told me about how she lusted after a certain American man and how he continually pushed her away and continued to sleep with a slew of Chinese women. She admitted that in Japan she was engaged to a Frenchman, but days before the wedding he cancelled the ceremony, which brought shame upon her entire family.

“Please help my daughter find a good man,” her father told me when I went to her family’s home for dinner. “She likes American men—and since you’re a good American girl, I know you will help her find someone with a good heart.”

I was new to Shanghai and had yet to make any foreign friends—but I saw the desperate look in her father’s eyes, and I dearly wanted to help.

But after two weeks of living together, she began to grow cold.

Old Streets of Shanghai

“Don’t use my cooking oil,” she barked at me when I was whipping up fried rice one day. “Buy your own.”

Our nightly chats after work ended. She shut herself in her room. I heard her crying through the wall and I knocked on the door, asking if she needed to talk.

She told me to go away.


My warm and friendly roommate began to turn ice cold and downright hateful.

“Why are you so negative all the time,” she snapped at me. “Quit complaining about your job.”

“You take too much room in the fridge,” she yelled at me. “Stop buying so much food.”

Then, the comments started getting weird.

“What’s wrong with you!?” she screamed. “Why do you make Chinese food every night!? Why don’t you make steak or hamburgers or pasta?? Why do you continually make Chinese food?”

“Why are all your friends Asian?” she scoffed. “First your friend Chen, then your Japanese friend K. Where are all your white friends?”

She yelled at me on a daily basis. About my food. About my life. About how terrible my Chinese was and my awful choice in men.

Finally, she stormed into my room and said:

“Mary, you’re a disappointment.

I brought you into my home thinking that you would be a blonde haired, blue eyed American girl. I was excited to have a real westerner in my home, but instead I have you—you with your black hair and brown eyes. You cook Chinese food and you study Mandarin all the time—it’s boring, it’s tiring, and it’s not what I want.

I like western men—and I wanted you to find me a white husband.

Obviously, though, you can’t perform such a simple task. You have nothing to offer me and I want you to move out. I’m going to get a Russian roommate that’s tall, thin and has golden hair. She’ll help me get what I want.

Mary, you’re not a real westerner.

In my eyes, you’re a 小人.”

I don’t know how to translate the insult 小人—but it’s really, really bad. It was like she plunged a knife into my heart and turned the blade. These are two Chinese characters I will never forget for the rest of my life because she screamed them right into my face when I was most vulnerable.

I was emotionally struck by a crazed woman driven mad by the standards of modern Chinese society. Her fear of being alone, of letting down her family, of becoming a failure in the eyes of her friends and acquaintances had overruled all of her rationality and any sense of self-respect.

Instead of the strong and motivated 32-year-old woman I met during my first few days in Shanghai, I saw a shell of a woman that was now hollow and empty. Shallow and desolate.

Maoming road
The new road I lived on
Shanghai apartment
My new Shanghai apartment… and quite possibly, my favorite apartment of all time


My new Shanghai apartment
My new Shanghai apartment

The next day, K came over and helped me move out. Although she promised to return my deposit, she never did. I tried to report the incident to the police, but they wouldn’t listen. K clapped me on the shoulder with a sigh and told me to let it go.

“Forget about her, Mary” K commented as he handed me a Tsingdao beer—we had just finished moving all of my things into my new apartment. “It’s time for a new start to your Shanghai life.”

We clinked our beers together with a ‘ganbei’ (cheers). I looked up to the moon and took K’s words to heart:

Things can only get better from here.

Chinese Women

Z was worth it all
Z was worth it all

When I retell this story to my American friends, many are appalled that I had the gall to trust Chinese people—especially women—ever again.

But shortly after my roommate incident, I met Z—my Shanghai soul mate.

Aside from Z, I met countless Chinese women with big hearts and even bigger smiles. They locked arms with me and took me shopping. They taught me how to cook Chinese dishes and bargain at the market. They patiently showed me me how to speak, and even swear, in proper Chinese.

So yes, I was kicked out of my first apartment for being Mary—

–but I met even more Chinese friends throughout my stay in Shanghai that loved me just for who I was.


If you can read Chinese and you’re interested, check out my teacher’s book on douban. Aside from the story about me, there are countless stories about foreign students in China and they’re highly entertaining. She also writes in simple and easy-to-understand Chinese, so it makes good practice! (e-mail me if you would like a free copy!)

Do you have any similar stories about horrific roommates or Chinese women desperate for marriage?

22 thoughts on “You’re not Western Enough: How I Got Kicked Out of My First Shanghai Apartment

  1. Good thing you didn’t put everyone into one box! I don’t know any stories about Chinese women desperate for marriage – I’ve met quite a few women who are actually the opposite and don’t want to marry too soon or at all. I do know a few who married because they got pregnant, though. They probably weren’t desperate to get married, but they needed to get married for the child (to get the child a hukou and access to social insurance, public schools, …).

    1. Yeah that first roommate was more than just desperate for marriage, I think she was a wee bit crazy. That’s really interesting you haven’t met Chinese women desperate for marriage, because I would say at least half of the ones I knew in Shanghai were on the prowl for a man and they were as young as 22 (they were all my classmates at Shanghai International Studies University). I did have some friends that steered very far from marriage and wanted nothing to do with it haha. All depends, I suppose! My ex roommate was 32 when I met her and so I think she felt like she was ‘running out of time.’

  2. Wow! You had me on the edge of my seat with that story. It doesn’t exactly surprise me, but it’s strange, sad, and a bit infuriating nonetheless.

    I never have really understood what 小人 exactly means other than being really bad. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard someone use the term. Anyways, I wonder if this woman will ever look back at the awful things she said and feel some remorse? Or maybe she is just too far gone?

    I’d be interested in reading your friend’s book. I will email you!

    1. Haha yeah it’s a pretty intense story, not a very happy one but it is true!

      I don’t really know what ‘xiao ren’ means, but when I tell Chinese people they kind of gasp and take a step back–it’s just a really bad insult.

      I think she was so fargone that she felt like everything she did was justified. I think it was more like, ‘I have to watch out for myself and do what’s best for me–and Mary’snot doing it.’ It’s a shame because when I first met she seemed like such a wonderful person, but taking my money at the end really made me upset. I was extremely bitter with her (still am!).

      Thanks for the comment!!!

  3. Oh my, what a story! You are too kind, saying that this girl’s behavior was due to family and society pressure, but… I think there’s something else to it, all the young people in China have a lot of pressure and not all of them act this crazy. I am convinced her plan from the beginning was to use you, so she was super friendly and stuff and then suddenly became a witch when she realized she wouldn’t get what she wanted out of you… So I think apart from feeling desperate because she was single, she was also not a good person.

    I’ve never had a bad roommate en China. The first time I shared (and a room in a students dorm, not a flat!) was with a woman from Tanzania and we got along very well. The only complaint I had was that she snored like a lion, haha. So I got used to sleeping with earplugs. The second time I shared (this time a flat, in Shanghai) I found the best roommates I could have ever imagined, they became my very good friends (two are Filipino and one is Malaysian). My current flatmate is a Chinese girl and she is ok, but she is way too dirty and messy… she cooks and then leaves the dishes in the kitchen for days.

    I have a crazy roommate story though, but it happened in Spain. Once I shared an apartment with a Cuban girl and she was completely nuts. She believed in some kind of traditional Caribbean religion and her “god” was a coconut with eyes and mouth, like if it was the face of a child. Well, she would make offerings for the coconut, with candles, incense, etc. I was fine with that. But one day, in the middle of the summer (which is very hot in Spain), the offering was a plate full of fresh shrimps, which stayed there on the floor for several hours. I still don’t understand how our apartment didn’t get infested with all the cockroaches and rats in the neighborhood…

    1. OMG Marta that is such a crazy roommate story!!! haha!! Sacrified shrimp!? Really!? I could make a TV episode out of that story ahaha. That shrimp must have stunk so much!!

      Yeah I think my roommate was just crazy, I don’t blame it solely on societal pressure (although I think that brought out the worst in her). I think because all of her friends were getting married and having kids, so she was jealous and kind of went crazy lol.

      Your roommates in Shanghai sound so nice!! And yes that apartment was SO AMAZING!!! It was right in the center of the city, 10 min walk to nanjing west road and shanxi south road. It was on Yan’anxi road x maoming road. Omg. Really great apartment. I used to have the landlord’s phone number, he was the nicest man ever too. If I could I’d recommend the apartment to you! It was only 3000 too!

  4. BTW, that room looks AMAZING! Look at those shiny floors! Give me the address and I will check if it is available next time I need a room in Shanghai, haha 😉

  5. Chinese society is still sickly oppressive towards women. Even though urban population adore their only children regardless of sex, but we still see abortions to make room for boys.

    1. Yeah Chinese women get the shaft when it comes to equal rights. There was that law that said women can’t really have any part of ownership in a home with their spouse?

      China is nicer on women when it comes to equal working rights. I was surprised at some of the maternity leave benefits (which I think are mandatory?). And I saw more women CEO/managers in China than I’ve ever seen before.

      1. Sorry to butt in, but the housing issue you speak of is really complicated. Part of the problem is that the husband’s family is expected to purchase the apartment as a sort of prerequisite for marriage, as well as providing other gifts like cash, a car, and paying for the wedding ceremony. If the couple divorces, the woman gets half (or at least used to) which can cripple the man and his family financially. I don’t know what the best solution but I do think it’s unfair that there is such a heavy burden placed on a man in order to get married. Not only is there a lot of pressure on women, but guys too.

        1. Yeah I agree with you there, the men have it extremely tough–especially with the current housing prices in China! There’s no way I would be able to afford an apartment in Shanghai (or even surrounding areas) with my “foreigner” salary, which means the local Chinese men must really be struggling! Usually the husband’s family helps pay for the house just for the sole purpose of being able to snag a wife.

          In regard to the property clause, I’ll have to look that up. I remember that law passed while I was in China and the women were furious about it. I think it basically says the property can’t be in both person’s name, even if the woman helped pay for the property? Must research!

          Anyway, maybe I’m opening up a can of worms here, but… there were quite a few Chinese women I met (that were near 30 or over 30) and fretting about becoming a leftover woman–yet they were EXTREMELY picky! Women not only expect Chinese men to own a house, have a job with a rockin’ salary and ideally a car, but they also want him to be tall, good looking and with a ‘clean’ family history (whatever that means). One of my Chinese girlfriends was fretting about turning 30 and being single, and when I tried to introduce her to a Chinese man with a house, salary, and good personality, she totally gave him the smack down because he was too short! Crazy.

          Anyway thanks for your input!

    2. In the US, 20% of women on university campuses have been sexually assaulted.

      In high earning countries (US and European ones), that figure is a third.

      Please do not use your assumed superiority to tell others that Chinese society oppresses women, when yours does exactly that on a daily basis.

      1. I never said Chinese society oppresses women, but rather, due to some social stigmas they feel pressure to perform duties that are expected of them (in particular, getting married young or even at all). While the government won’t penalize them for being single, it still makes Chinese New Year harder to go through 😉

        I think Chinese working rights for women are amazing. I read a statistic somewhere that said 1 out of every 2 managerial positions in China was filled by women? Compared to the USA and Japan, that number is amazingly high!

        Trust me, I do not think the USA is better than China, especially for women. You’re absolutely right, crime in the USA is ridiculous and those rape figures are spot on. My cousin also lost her job because she wanted to stay at home and spend more time with her baby. There is no protected leave here in the USA… while in China, I remember some of my colleagues taking 6 months to a year off wrk, then came right back.

  6. What an interesting read. Those things happen so that you can tell the story afterwards, I guess 😉 But I am glad that you also got to meet some nice women afterwards that! When I was studying in Tokyo as an exchange student, I got placed in a room with a chinese exchange student.
    Although she was really nice, I got stressed a lot because she never ever cleaned the room, and always let her leftover bento boxes from dinner in her bed after eating, which is not the best thing to do, considering there are so many cockroaches in Tokyo. I might also be a little bit obsessed with cleaning, though, so the combination of the two of us in one room wasn`t good at all^^;

    1. Haha yeah it was a horrible experience at the time but I guess it makes a good story later 🙂

      I can totally relate to you with the Chinese roommate–I am also a neat freak! I always do the dishes right away and do my best to keep my room (somewhat) orderly. If I had to deal with that I would also freak out too, especially with all the cockroaches in Tokyo! eek!

  7. It sounds like she was just using you. She thought that if she associates herself with a Western woman, it would be easier for her to meet Western men. When she realizes that is not happening, she lashed out in frustration.

    1. She was using me, but in a way I think she put far too many hopes on just getting a date out of a roommate. I actually did take her out on an outing with my western friends, full of all these western men that she desired–but no response.

      Anyway I felt bad for her and I wanted her to be happy, it’s a shame things had to end so badly.

  8. Surely more concerning wasn’t that she thought of herself as a “leftover woman”, but that she was so whitewashed into believing that she needed a cheating white man to be her dream guy????

    1. Yeah, I shouldn’t really equate my former roommate with all women in China, because my former roommate was super crazy. There was a time she knew this white guy was sleeping with another woman, so she went to his house and screamed and pounded on his door, then tried to get in through the side window, etc.. It was crazy. I had a talk with her and tried to convince her this guy wasn’t worth her time, but she wouldn’t hear of it.

  9. Hi Mary. I am sad to hear your childhood was peppered with racial tones.
    You are Asian not Chinese,half to be exact.Next, when people say you are Chinese, please tell them that many Chinese died during the building of the Trans Pacific Rail Road in the Rocky Mountains and many contributed to the development of the USA of the past and today.Don’t feel sad.

    Tell them that I am the product of the USA government abandoning their Allies during times of need and supporting corrupt Asian governments.It is not your fault being half of this and half of that. I am born like that.

    Your former mad Chinese roommate is a product of Communism not ‘Chinese actions per se’.
    She just wanted to use you to get what she wanted-a white husband so that she could show off and emigrate to her new domicile in the West.

    The Chinese of PRC today are Communists, no more human values,and morality of the old but utilities.You are no longer useful to her to get what she wanted, she kicked you out. All commies are like that.

    What 小人 exactly means you are her nemesis, jinx and what a troublemaker for her.You bring trouble to her, gossiped behind her back, slandered ,defamed, talked bad about her behind her back and do things that are detrimental to her.

    When I was a kid people called me ‘a yellow bastard’ and I was 20 to 40 years old people called a banana.I got used to it all.No need to gloat or sulk.I am one half of this and that, so what.
    Be happy who you are, you don’t live for other people.Who cares what they think! When I am sick who pays for my medical bills or insurance?

    1. I am very happy who I am, and I’m glad you are too! I think being born biracial is truly a blessing, and I’m so happy that I have two cultures to share. It’s really made me who I am.

      Anyway, it’s true, Chinese (and all immigrants) have shaped America into what it is. I think aside from the small towns, though, most big cities in America are very international and “white people” are actually becoming the minority.

      I often think about what if Mao lost, the nationals won, and China wasn’t communist? I think the country would be so different. I asked my Chinese friends what China was like before the communists and how they feel, and they said that way back when Chinese were full of culture, manners and a high level of tradition and morals. I think during the cultural revolution it all went haywire–families and relatives betrayed one another, and for a while it was survival of the fittest. China was harsh and cruel. I think many Chinese people are still a product of what happened all those decades ago.

      Anyway, that’s a super deep topic and for another time. Plus, I’ve met SO many wonderful Chinese people. My roommate was just one bad egg–and even today, I wish the best for her.

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