It was a warm night. I was sitting with a friend on the terrace of a bar in town, enjoying the balmy evening air, listening to soft jazz, and sipping beers. All was good. Until my friend raised her eyebrows in the direction of the table beside us. A portly western chap of advancing years was balancing a nymph-like Chinese girl on his lap, and they were kissing lavishly. Their arms and hands seemed to be everywhere, and she was giggling like a pre-teen. (If my better judgement hadn’t prevailed, I would have guessed she was a pre-teen.) My friend and I glanced around uncomfortably, wondering if anyone else was witnessing this display. Everyone was. At one point, a collective gasp rose, as the girl was seen to lick the eyeballs of her corpulent swain.
My friend and I looked at each other in horror. Then she sniffed in disdain.
“As if he’d get anyone as cute as her back home.”
“Or as young,” I added.
And it is. The sight of a mature laowai with a nubile young Chinese girl on his arm is as common in Shanghai as Haibao. And it’s not just the older chaps that are at it – most of my younger male friends have, at some stage, taken up with local girls. There’s even a saying in Mandarin along the lines of “an old bull eating green grass” (老牛吃嫩草) which describes the situation exquisitely.
So what attracts western men to Chinese girls? Asking around, I’ve discovered that the reasons are as manifold as the couples. One guy told me, quite perceptively, that the Chinese female is the epitome of femininity – petite, smooth skin, almond eyes, lithe limbs, sweet demeanour. Another friend waggled his eyebrows lasciviously and uttered a phrase that makes my skin crawl – “yellow fever”. My American neighbour said that having a Chinese girlfriend was great for his Mandarin, and she cooks amazing Hunan beef. How mercenary! But I guess we all choose our partners for reasons that benefit us in one way or another. My friend Jack told me that he enjoys flings with Chinese girls because he doesn’t want to get into a long relationship with a western girl that might prove serious, since he is leaving Shanghai at the end of the year. According to him, Chinese girls are more accepting of one night stands and brief affairs.
And likewise, Chinese girls repay their western suitors with equal enthusiasm. Is it the allure of foreign paychecks that swell their partners’ wallets? Is it the promise of marriage one day, and a one-way plane ticket to Europe or the States? Is it the more worldly outlooks that foreign guys are supposed to have?
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Perhaps it’s because western guys are perceived as being more faithful than their Chinese counterparts (although this, of course, is highly debatable). Chinese guys have a reputation for juggling multiple women. My French boyfriend presented me with a bouquet of roses on Valentine’s Day this year in which each flower was individually wrapped. Was this an example of the typically Chinese way of using twelve sheets of plastic where one (or none) would suffice, I wondered? No, my boyfriend told me. In his opinion, the flowers were thus wrapped so Chinese men could give an individual flower to each of their many girlfriends.
But deep-seated views are difficult to challenge, especially where parents are concerned. My friend Echo has been seeing her German boyfriend Georg for three years. They live together, and are planning to move to Germany next summer. “My parents aren’t too happy that I’m with Georg,” she says, “They’re afraid that he is going to take me away from them forever. I’ve tried to explain how much I love him, and how I will always be their daughter even if I move to Germany, but they don’t seem to understand.”
Photo: Jacob Montrasio
Indeed, it’s the parent factor that scuppers many an interracial relationship. My friend Rob was happy with his Shanghainese girlfriend of two years, 24-year-old Summer, until her parents started to put pressure on him to make an honest woman of their only child. “I just wasn’t ready,” Rob explains, “I loved Summer, but I wasn’t going to marry her, so her parents did everything in their power to turn her against me.” Sadly, they were successful, and Summer ended things with Rob.
It’s easy to generalise about western guys’ reasons for dating Chinese girls. Whether it’s to boost their egos, to improve their Mandarin, or simply to have fun, as long as it’s consensual, it isn’t really anyone else’s business to judge.