Why I have no female Chinese friends

The other day I shared a story about forging some special friendships in China, and in it wrote, “I have always had trouble making female Chinese friends.” I was hoping I wouldn’t have to get too into this — mainly because it is very difficult to write in a way that will not illicit angry, politically-correct responses — but one commentator called my bluff. So I’ll do my best. This is a slightly longer post than others.

First, let me clarify that I am a female, and that my “friends issues” are largely personal rather than cultural. Of the handful of Chinese people whom I would consider real friends — not just a language partner, co-worker, or someone to eat meals with — there may be just one female.

My particular manner of befriending females is the biggest factor. I’ve never had the patience for frivolous banter, and tend to give the initial impression of bitterness rather than sweetness — opposite to many women. In friends, I look for the ability to have a deeply philosophical conversation as well as the wherewithal to be active and adventurous: to play a sport, or go to a party, or to basically be spontaneously silly. In high school, I had very few female friends for this reason: the girls at my school were just more of the frivolous banter-types than their male counterparts. Since getting closer to adulthood, that has changed, and I have made many intriguing, daring, and fun female friends.

In China, I feel somewhat like I’m back in high school.  I have trouble finding a Chinese female who has had the similar extent of life experiences that I have had; someone who can not only understand me, but who is interesting to be understood; someone who will not judge me for my opinions or experiences, and who will not be afraid of being judged herself. The sports and partying is all a side note: the biggest factors seem to be simply understanding and judging.

Understanding: By the nature of being a foreigner in China, it is already difficult to find someone who understands you enough to be patient with your differences. I really appreciate those who have shown this patience; among them, many (if not most) are female. We tend to lose the potential for connection early on, however, with the inevitable Boy conversation. It goes like this:

Potential Chinese female friend: What type of boys do you like?
Me: <blah blah blah>. What about you?
PCFF: Oh, I like <blah blah blah>.
Me: Have you had a boyfriend?
PCFF: Yes, I’ve had one boyfriend.

Every country has its own dating culture, but China’s and America’s are pretty distinctly different. I feel absolutely uncomfortable talking with a Chinese person about America’s “hook-up culture” that permeates colleges these days. And even in the rest of the US, where the preferred method of dating is something a little more PG, Americans still tend to have several significant others before tying the knot. In China, it is shameful to date too much, and people are very private about their sex lives, especially the women.  The conversation about dating boys — a subject that is universally a topic of bonding and interest for heterosexual females — is therefore uncomfortable, one would even say a lost cause, from its outset. This is one cultural difference that may be too great to overcome.

Judging: The fact that I am being judged in a language and culture not native to me is part of the fun, but it is also highly uncomfortable and often inaccurate. On the last day of my study abroad program in college, my female teacher told every student in the class what she thought of them (in front of everyone). If that was not tactless enough, she was also terribly inaccurate. When it was my turn, she said: “Hannah, you are like a Chinese flower; shy, pretty, and traditional.” My friends had a good laugh about that one — traditional? She must have confused my inability to communicate in Chinese (and her own inability to connect with her students in a meaningful way) with “shyness.”

I often find PCFF’s saying things like this to me, thinking they are flattering me. Why this phenomenon *seems* particular to Chinese females moreso than Chinese males is worth exploring. Perhaps some terrible combination of Asia’s value of “face” and women’s traditional subservient position in society make it difficult for women to be as spontaneous, daring, and “in-the-moment” as their male counterparts. Like in most societies, she is systematically taught to be subservient to men in many subtle ways — to be quiet in a group, let the men do the talking, and to act cutesy. She is specifically and systematically encouraged to focus on finding a husband who can take care of her [financially, not so much emotionally], to provide a grandchild for her parents, and basically to be a desirable, attainable — even purchasable — object, even as she is also a full-time worker. There is little room in that trajectory for a girl to become worldly, comedic, philosophical, or brazen.

These are generalizations and of course we can all think of exceptions. The bottom line is, I have more Chinese male friends because they are overall easier for me to talk to. They don’t talk to me much about dating or gossip about other people. The conversation is usually something more interesting, or at least has an edge of daring and humor that I find less often in PCFF’s.

I wonder now if foreign men have a similar experience or not. While foreign men are more likely than foreign women to find a Chinese lover, friendship may be a different story. What’s your experience?

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12 Responses to Why I have no female Chinese friends

  1. lostnchina says:

    What an interesting topic to write about. I think that difficulty you’re having with making female friends in China is not just due to the male/female stereotypes, but also the current economic-social situation that the Chinese find themselves in. Having come out of decades of poverty and oppression of harsh a communist regime, I find the Chinese to be more concerned about their immediate environment and how to better it, rather than philosophical or spiritual issues that we in the “West” may think more about. I hire only Chinese college-grads in my company, and my company has more women than men – with women in middle-management positions – and yet, they have not shed these stereotypes that you’re talking about. Although they are tough and bright women, their number one concern is to get married (and marry well), have the kid(s) and all the trappings of wealth. And all of them are very secretive about their romantic lives. One of my female managers has been living with her boyfriend/fiance/husband for the last 3+ years with her “in-laws”, but they haven’t had a wedding ceremony. And now she’s trying to get pregnant (but not get married). I’ve stopped trying to figure it all out. I don’t even know people are dating and the next thing I know, they’re ready to have a baby. But I guess that’s China for you.

  2. Great Article, and it’s nice to hear about friendship in China from a female perspective. Most of the articles on relationships in China seem to be dominated by male experiences. Me being a male myself, I’ve had a very different experience then you of course. While its easy for me to make friends with females, its been extremely hard to make any male friends. Woman have always been more interested in me as a foreigner, and seem more patient and eager to interact with someone from another culture. They will seldom introduce me to any of their male friends though, and there are plenty of reasons for them not to do this. Similar to your example, talking about relationships, and girls, with other men seems much more precocious for me. I always feel as if I’m walking on eggshells and can’t really just be open and honest without risking offending someone.

  3. Ivan says:

    I have the same experience as Chris, very easy to make female friends at first, during the first weeks, but extremely difficult to make male friends. Most of them have been employees, which I would not call friends for obvious reasons. Another problem I find with potential male friends is their eager to always talk about other women or even how they talk about women in general. I guess my environment is not really healthy when referring to human relationships.
    Substantial philosophical topics? I wish, one of these days…
    Lostnchina, I would not call their relationships secret, but rushed. Many woman I’ve met or I know about, have many relationships over the course of a year. If things go bad, read, get pregnant, then they rush into marriage. More often than not, it ends in a “miscarriage”, then usually the couple splits. While on the topic, I don’t understand the need to have a baby with the current couple, when one or both of them have kids from former partners or previous marriages. It’s like having a kid with your current partner is the bowl of rice of any relationship. Not everybody is like that, but my anecdotal evidence points that way.

  4. James says:

    From a purely biological view, women have about a 20-year window in which to find someone to have children with.

    In China a very high value is placed on having children, personal freedom is assigned a lower value. (by most people)
    In the North America, a very high value is placed on personal freedom, and having children is assigned a lower value. (by most people)

    This is a deeply held, bedrock-of-beliefs conflict. No amount of conversation will alleviate this tension.

    From a social status / face view, the two sets of values are similarly at odds.
    In China, wealth trumps love. (for most people)
    In North America, love trumps wealth. (for most people)

    So: a North American woman looking for a mate will take a longer time, and do it while working / building a career, and date many men looking for what she wants, since there is no social stigma that will lower her social value / face for dating 35 to 45 men until she chooses one and marries at age 28. Her mother may pressure her to find a mate after she hits her 20’s, but the pressure isn’t high, comparatively. She will choose a man who loves her, and meets her needs over others who could provide more material goods

    In China, the pressure after age 20 rises hugely each year. Social value / face is lost for taking too long to find a mate, and for dating too many men. Ideally, she will find the perfect mate within 3 or 4 tries, and marry by age 24. She will choose a man who can provide well materially, and who will raise her social value.

    You are simply not going to get past the vast differences unless the person has lived in both cultures. We all wear our world-view tightly. Too tightly to see until we see the contrast personally.

  5. sarahinguangzhou says:

    Thank you for writing a very honest piece. I also find the gap to wide to cultivate strong friendships. I am not a very tolerant person for giggly girlie chats and I’m afraid I find that cultural divide too massive to bridge..

  6. Pudding says:

    James’ general view is right. That’s the way it is. And I can say that from living in both cultures, being an extremely objective and open person, I have to say that most do view their worlds too tightly.

    I don’t have many Chinese friends, if any at all. I have to also say that when I lived in the States that I didn’t have too many either. I knew a lot of people but only had a few very good friends. I don’t see myself making a very good local Chinese friend. I’m open to it, but it seems that from their perspective I maybe have nothing to offer, or perhaps it’s not worth the trouble.

    Think of it too socially. I can be viewed as too high of class for lower Chinese to make friends with. I don’t think so. Think about someone in the States that is next to the boss everyday and you are the mail room guy. Can you realistically be friends with the upper management.

    I have varied interests that most don’t have. It bodes well with girls. I’m a creative, I’m more arty then most. Guys here are not really into that. They view being creative as a step process. It’s not talking about what the object makes you feel it’s the computer you used to make it and how you did it. This is one reason it’s easier to be friends with girls here.

    Pop culture doesn’t exist. In fact it would be easier for me to list what I might have in common with a guy here.


    Most everything else they have yet to study, live, experience, etc.

    Snowboarding, only a small group know what that “really” is. I already know most of them. But they live in a different city.
    Photography, they may have a camera but I’ve been at it a very long time. We still won’t connect.
    Design, still how do you talk about complex objects, concepts etc, when they themselves don’t know the Chinese words. In fact I think most don’t care.
    Anything we grew up doing they probably didn’t. So.. can’t talk about that can we.

    I could go on.

    There are some more things that rub me the wrong way and make myself chose not to be friend a local person. And I’m not talking about just Chinese people. But it seems to be more prevalent here.

    Time. I don’t have much time. I plan everything. So.. if I say 6pm we meet and we agree. Then that’s the time. But most won’t be on time. I can’t stand it. Also plans change all the time here. It becomes more of a hassle to meet up. Never a problem with Western educated people.

    The face thing. I have it too, but the acting like nothing is amazing, like you should be given everything, boasting, etc. I don’t like that. I’d rather not hang with people who themselves are like that.

    I find most here just want to learn English. I am not an English teacher. If we can help each other fine, but it’s a one way street most of the time.

    Guys here seem to resent foreign guys. They shouldn’t. I know a few Chinese guys that put most foreigners to shame with getting girls and what not. But it seems that most guys I meet think my life is awesome and that they should have it not me. I’m special and that puts a chip on their shoulder. Girls tend to not do much of that. They think it’s cool and trendy to have a Western friend. But again, most of use will not settle here so we will never really have friends that are long lasting and meaning full. It’s not a Chinese thing, it’s a transient thing. I’ve lived in resort towns in the States. Those are the same way. You don’t really have friends because people are in and out every year..

    Also the way Chinese are closed. And it is. It’s a very class driven, power driven, and racist society. Of course it’s going to be hard to make friends. It’s just the way it is.

    I find it easier to mingle with open business people that know how the world works on average, rather than a local kid that just graduated college. But that’s just me.

    Anyway, it’s an interesting topic to think about.

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  8. JulieAnne says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Hannah. My experience has been a little different. The “What kind of boys do you like?” conversation is very familiar; I’ve had it many times myself. But I’ve also had a lot of great conversations about shared interests and experiences. My female Chinese friends have helped me out of tight spots, cheered me up on bad days, and been incredibly loyal. I think two things make a difference for me. Most of my close Chinese friends have been coworkers, so we’re equals and have work in common. Also, all but one of my close Chinese friendships happen in Chinese, or at least a mixture of Chinese and English. It’s just hard to share your heart in a second language, so most of my English-only friendships don’t get very close. I think cross-cultural friendships take more work on both sides, but my life is so much richer for it!

  9. redblondey says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one to have observed this, and I feel like what I’ve noted is what amounts to a maturational development disparity between many of the (mainly) Western foreigners and their Chinese peers in China which may be part of the challenge some people have in relating across cultures. I myself can be a rather “brazen, sassy, saucy, irreverent, outrageous” etc. character at times, in either my own or the Chinese culture, but many of my Chinese friends delight in this, making me a bit of the ‘class clown’ in some cases, or just genuinely fun to be around, I hope, most of the time. Thanks for the honest and interesting post, H!

  10. Anonymous says:

    I think once you start saying ‘Oh I can’t make any Chinese friends because the Chinese are like this or like that’ your thinking about it in a weird way. There are plenty of Chinese out there that are cool by any cultures standards. You just haven’t found them. It’s never that easy to find best friends. I’d suggest finding a hobby like martial arts or hiking.

  11. meigui80 says:

    Interesting article, I myself have had that problem too,being an English female.And its not just with Chinese women, but the men too, and ones who I was quite close to. This always makes me wonder what happened, but one of my male Chinese students says the reason the males have stopped speaking to me is that I am married. I’m not sure how accurate that it, but I have heard it before. It only seems to happen with me and my Chinese friends, and I’ve always wondered why. A shame really, because I liked them and wish there was some explanation as to why they stopped talking to me, perhaps they are not very good in keeping in touch? Or maybe I’ve offended them in some way, but havent been made aware of this. I’m glad I found a topic on this, and I’m wondering how long you were in China for and were you working/studying? I’d be very interested to talk to you again. Feel free to email me if you have time.

  12. Tiffany says:

    I had some different experiences while studying as an overseas exchange student. The differences probably lies in the fact that I was at an international school with other foreign exchange students like me there. The Chinese students were well-adapted to Western culture, either through popular American TV shows or what they’ve learned previously from interacting with other foreign student. Although I did find a big emphasize when girls and boys dated. Most of the time, my female peers were already discussing about the prospect of marrying her boyfriend at the beginning of the relationship.

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