If you're not in an intercultural pairing yourself, you know somebody who is. This in itself isn't so surprising, nor is it in itself condemnable.
Or is it?
"When you're walking on the street, people think, 'Oh yeah, another Chinese girl with a foreigner,'" griped 21-year-old Shao*, rolling her eyes. Her boyfriend of two years is Caucasian. They met at a concert shortly after she had moved from her native Kunming to Chengdu to attend university.
It's not a new fad, and it's certainly not unique to China: Numbers (tabulated this year based on 2000 U.S. Census data) indicate that Chinese Americans (immigrants and descendants) who marry non-Chinese people are far more likely to marry white people than they are to marry members of any other race, including other Asians. White male-Chinese female couples constitute 13.9 percent of all marriages involving Chinese women (another 81.5 percent is comprised of Chinese male-Chinese female pairings, leaving just under 5 percent divided among all other combinations). See Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America.
So far discussion among China's foreign community revolving around the topic of intercultural and interracial dating as it pertains here remains limited to personal anecdote and questionable reportage such as this, but it's a longtime favorite conversation among Asian Americans living in the States, where defamatory terms like "race traitor," "banana," and "yellow fever" are flung about. Many of these discussions are flamed by fury, a rage that's perpetuated not only by the trend itself but also its side effects—particularly the creation of a "desirability hierarchy" that leaves certain racial groups at the bottom and members of those groups perpetually dateless.
One explanation for the phenomenon relates to the woman's desire for heightened socioeconomic status for oneself or future generations by marriage into the racial group that holds the most wealth—deemed either a pragmatic means of survival or a form of racially based self-hatred, depending on how you look at it. But there is perhaps another sort of status-building partly driving the trend worldwide: In forward-looking societies, praises are sung of multiculturalism and "colorblindedness," as if these notions themselves are enough to mitigate centuries of racism—and that by being in an intercultural relationship you're washing your hands clean of conservative, static values and adopting a worldly, cosmopolitan lifestyle. In this view, mixed-race offspring would be the ultimate testament to one's open mind.
Of course, other explanations have been offered, none of which are flattering to anybody involved: chauvinistic stereotypes of the Chinese woman as submissive versus the "feminism-liberated" western woman as dominant and aggressive; lower expectations for partners among Chinese women than among foreign women; and simply "personal preference" (always justified by its promulgators as "natural" but more likely due to influence from prejudiced portrayals in media and society).
Whatever the reasons might be, in a China that's seeing more and more foreigners coming to live temporarily or long-term, the issue is raised with increasing frequency, bringing with it many questions. After all, to some, the whole notion of intercultural relationships is taboo; others ignore the issue entirely; and still others take pride in intercultural involvement.
While every person I talked to about this subject denied seeking out their partner on the basis of race or culture alone, they all contributed to the list I was keeping of reasons a Chinese woman might prefer to date only foreign men. These included the afore mentioned desire for elevated wealth or social status as well as hopes of moving abroad; new and potentially better sexual experience; and even free English lessons.
The one reason that nobody failed to mention was the desire to sample the exotic or "different." Many, in fact, seemed adamant about justifying exotification: "It's human tendency to want to experience different things," Ling, 22, told me. To 25-year-old Huang, dating foreigners, for both men and women, represents "experience." She continued, a hint of indignity in her voice: "Life is about experience."
Another trend that emerged as I talked to people about their own relationships was their willingness to draw sweeping (and dare I say at times absurd?) generalizations based on limited information. "Americans are pretty easygoing; British, a bit conservative and nervous; French are also easygoing, their personality is a little bit like Chinese, I think," rattled off Kelley, 23, a Chengdu native now living in Shanghai who dates mainly Caucasian males.
Of course, within foreign circles, too, we hear plenty of stereotyping of the other—usually unconfirmed allegations about behavior, reasons for said behavior, physical attributes, etc., sexual and otherwise.
Huang has been in a relationship with a French man of mixed white/Latino ancestry for the past three years and has had other foreign boyfriends in the past. She has never dated a Chinese person, estimating that she might find "1 percent" of Chinese men good-looking while "for westerners ... 30 percent are OK." More importantly, though, is her perception that her goals in a relationship are different from that of every Chinese man. "Those rich [Chinese] guys, when they know I have a foreign boyfriend, the first question they ask is, 'How much does he earn?' They want women to submit to them. I think westerners respect women," she said adamantly. "Chinese guys think the base of relationships is economic." Later she added, "One thing I feel with western guys is they don't cheat on you. If they want a one-night stand, they tell you."
I did talk to one foreign woman, a Caucasian American, who has been in a relationship with a Chinese man for the past half-year to see how her responses might differ from those of the Chinese women. Like most, she denied that race or culture played any part in her decision to embark on the relationship ("It wasn't like I thought, 'Oooh, he's Chinese' or anything like that") or that having a Chinese partner is in any way related to assimilating to the majority culture here ("Assimilation implies losing something, giving something up"). While such views might easily be delivered from a position of privilege, she's not entirely uncritical, admitting that dating a Chinese person in China has its benefits and that she has felt the pressures of stereotyping, causing her to think twice before spending time with his friends or family—and maybe, just maybe, there was an element of othering: "I'm the first foreign person he's ever dated. I got the impression that that was cool, but not why he was doing it. And it was cool—the difference ... . Yeah, there are lots of bonuses, but it's not the reason why."
The implications of intercultural and interracial coupling become more relevant than as the world virtually shrinks and groups that formerly had little contact with each other can easily relocate halfway around the world. While within China the trend is too young to statistically analyze, it's almost certain numbers of mixed unions will rise. Whether this means China will see generations of racially ambiguous citizens who struggle to straddle racial lines, or if mixed-race faces really are the ambassadors of an unracialized world remains to be seen.
*All names have been changed at the request of the interviewees. That's what happens when you're reporting in a place where everybody knows your name.
This article by Xiao Zhen was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 7 ("Culture Hopping").
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