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?