China, May 29, 2000
It ain't easy being laowai, even in Beijing
When I was living in Russia, I
noticed the skewed dating scene the first rime I went partying in
There, all the hot Russian women were on the arms of older, fatter Western
men while the Western girls were wallflowers, beating back the Russian
At first, following the worldwide consensus, I looked down on the local girls, wondering how they could degrade themselves with such losers. Then, as I looked closer at Russia, I noticed the huge economic incentive and social encouragement that drove these women into the arms of postmen from Ohio.
If you were a beautiful girl from dirt-poor Tomsk, you'd jump at the change to be Mrs. Thompson of Cleveland, for not only would you get out of cash-starved Russia, your parents wouldn't be far behind, and the rest of your fam and friends still in Tomsk would be kings. Russian girls, with not much else to offer, are proud to use their beauty to secure a good life for them, their family, and their kids.
With all that sex politics in the background, I stayed out of the fray by only dating fellow expat girls. This worked fine till the economic crisis of 1997 sent them all packing. Then I went Russian and had to live in that stereotype I despised so much. Luckily, Lidia was nothing like the stereotype and together we didn't get too much flack, with me secretly cheering each time we were mistaken for an all Russian or all Western couple.
After all that shit in Russia, you can understand why, when I got to China, the last thing on my mind was a Chinese girlfriend. I kept my expat-only rule going till an amazing lady slipped past my defenses. Even when I first met Jingmei, and that thunderbolt, as romantics say, hit me, I tried to deny it.
In the beginning, I even told Jingmei that I didn't want to see her anymore, attempting to erase her from my mind. When that failed, for I dreamed about her often, I came back to Beijing and decided to give this Sino-American relationship a try.
On my way back I tired to warn her, to give her an escape, for I knew our relationship wasn't going to be easy. I knew, from Russia, from Southeast Asia, and from my earlier trip to China, that a Sino-American relationship was not gonna be accepted by the majority of Chinese. Hell, if they can't accept me alone, how could they ever accept me with a local girl?!
At first, Jingmei was shocked by the stares we'd get, especially since she'd never been stared at before. See, when I'm alone, I get around an 80% stare ratio, with only 20% of the passerby's not giving me an open-mouthed gape. When we are together, that ratio jumps to 95%, but unfortunately for her, only about 10% give me even a cursory glance. It's all eyes on Jingmei.
She would walk with her head bowed until she started wearing sunglasses in public, so she didn't have to look at the swiveling heads. Now, after two months of stopping traffic, she's abandoned the shades and just ignores the looks. Unfortunately, she can't always ignore the comments.
The first time I knew she'd been insulted was a trip to a Korean restaurant by her old University. There, when she paid the bill, the waitress said something about Jingmei being so desperate for a foreigner, she'd even pay for his meals. Luckily, Jingmei didn't tell me this comment until she'd driven, mad as hell, a few kilometers, or I'd have stormed the shop and made one nasty scene. Since then, I've paid for all our public expenditures, even if I get the cash from her purse.
Jingmei thought it was just an isolated incident, that this woman was some poor, ignorant country girl, and an educated Beijinger would not think that way. I smiled, knowing that a local woman with a foreign man is a prostitute or very desperate, is a more widespread idea than China's 1.4 billion non-Beijingers.
Jingmei tested my belief with a taxi driver a few weeks later when she needed a ride across town. traveling alone, she asked the driver about his feelings on cross-cultural relationships. The driver, not knowing Jingmei was with me, said he really disliked foreign men with Chinese women.
He said he'd pass up a mixed couple, refusing to give a ride to anyone who 'deserted her race.' He never gave Jingmei a logical reason either, just saying he felt it wasn't right for a good girl to degrade herself with a foreigner.
Jingmei then asked him if foreigners were welcome in China. He liked the idea of Americans sending money and high tipping businessmen, but that they should stick to their own place and kind. Japanese and Afrikans were equally disliked for historical and racist reasons, while he was ambivalent about Europeans and tolerant of Russians. (Remember, the Soviets were one of the very few friends the PRC had before the 1970's.)
When she asked about Chinese men with foreign women, however, the whole scene changed. This, the taxi driver said, was something he could be proud of: China screwing the West, literally! Hmm.. That confirms it: men think with their dicks a bit too much.
Anyway, Jingmei, now aware that even native Beijingers didn't accept the idea of our relationship, still had confidence that educated Beijingers would understand. I was skeptical, for it's the educated middle class that flee the area first when a poor family moves into an American suburb. Unfortunately, her friends proved me right last night.
We met one of her girlfriends and two of her University classmates in the afternoon. We played video games, having a great time as Jingmei showed her true driving skills by finishing last every time we played a car racing game. After our eyes glazed from the on-screen action, we raced for real through downtown Beijing rush hour traffic in our Volkswagens. Not all that dangerous since traffic kept us in the 0-50km/hr speed zone.
It was over dinner that danger first appeared. In Chinese so I wouldn't know, the guys started to harass Jingmei for her 'Western food', i.e. me. She told 'em to quit, but they redoubled their efforts, beyond what Jingmei could stand. Out she went in a flash of furry, with me not far behind. Screeching up to the front door, her friend jumped in Jingmei's car, and we tore off into downtown. Only later, after she'd cooled, did she tell me why she was so mad.
Again, it was good I didn't figure it out till later. For if I'd know that these guys who'd been so nice to me earlier, were just putting on faces, and thought me the fool in their minds, more than food would've been spilled. Especially since they'd been too chicken-shit to say it in English.
Thinking that was the end to the hostilities, we agreed to meet her friend's new beau. Only when he met us, told her to get into his car, and sped away telling Jingmei he didn't approve of mixed relationships, did Jingmei finally accept defeat.
Through the tears, she gradually understood why I'd tried to end our relationship before it began. Only then did she realize why I had such an issue with cross-cultural relationships. Only then did she know why everyone stared at her when we're together. Only then did she stop getting mad when I called the majority of Chinese small-minded, ignorant, world-stupid.
Now Jingmei knows why I get funny when she talks about living in China forever. I know our relationship would be tested daily. Tested in ways and means I'd rather not have her deal with. As a foreigner, I take it as foolishness of the locals, but as a local herself, Jingmei takes it personal. And personal it would be.
Very personal, and very intense. If a Hong Kong movie throws 'half-breed' around as an insult to adult British/Chinese mixes, what would a relatively un-liberal mainland Chinese say? Not to mention kid to kid insults, the horror of grade school.
Luckily for us, Jingmei is blessed with a very liberal family. Not only do her parents and her brother accept me as a laowai, not a Chinese man, they accept me living with Jingmei as a boyfriend, not a married man. An allowance unheard of even in modern China, and a blessing that we are eternally grateful for.