Dear Ms. Wai,
I’m a Canadian in a fairly new relationship with a Chinese guy. I’m 31 and he’s 37. He’s lived overseas before, works in a foreign company, and rents an apartment with an ever-changing collection of international housemates, so he’s got lots of experience with other cultures and is much more relaxed about cultural differences than most Chinese. I feel really comfortable with him and things are going really well in most ways, except for two areas where I feel the pace of the relationship is either too fast or too slow for comfort. This has left me feeling confused and unsure of how compatible our needs are. I really care about this guy and I want to stay with him, but I don’t want to commit to a pattern I can’t sustain. I know I need to talk to him about these issues, but I don’t know how.
First, the “too fast” problem – before we were even officially on boyfriend/girlfriend terms, he’d already introduced me to his parents, who are extremely anxious to get him married and settled down with a house and a kid. His parents are lovely and I really like them, but they are very traditional and just don’t understand the concept of dating. They are treating me as their future daughter-in-law, which totally freaks me out. They were introduced by a matchmaker and agreed to get married after a 30-minute conversation (a story they recounted in detail the second time I met them, presumably in an attempt to convince me that I’m more than ready to marry their son). I’m in no rush to get married – especially to someone I’ve only dated for three months. I’m now trying to politely avoid engagement with my boyfriend’s parents, because in their world, the only reason we’d be hanging around together so much is because we’re preparing to get married. Hanging out with them, joining family dinners they invite me to, and accepting the little gifts they inevitably offer me just seems to feed their false hope that marriage is imminent – and that’s unfair to everyone! My boyfriend and I have talked about the pressure from his parents and he’s assured me it’s nothing to worry about – he knows I’m not in a rush to get married, and he claims he’s not, either. But he continues inviting me to family dinners. I suspect his intentions may be more marriage-oriented than he claims. What’s going on here? Why would he introduce me to his parents so early on? Why is he so willing to expose me to this family pressure? And how can I continue dating this guy at my own pace without a) offending the family by appearing to reject them and their values or b) inadvertently creating the impression that we’re preparing to get married?
Next, the “too slow” problem. I’ve been dating this guy for three months, and there is zero physical intimacy beyond hugs and cuddles. He barely even kisses me. I don’t really understand how intimacy and sex correlate in Chinese culture, but for me, they have a very close mutual relationship – there’s no sex without intimacy, but there’s also no intimacy without sex. I am terrified of the possibility that he views sex as something “bad” or simply unnecessary and that this will ultimately be a sexless relationship, which is incompatible with my needs and not something I’m willing to commit to. I’m also terrified of raising this sensitive topic only to fumble and cause an irreversible misunderstanding. This is not about physical needs. I believe sex and physical intimacy are an essential part of how I share, communicate, and let myself be vulnerable with a partner. As long as the role of sex in this relationship remains uncertain, I’m afraid to let the relationship progress further. If it was just an issue of waiting a little longer than in typical western-style dating patterns, I’d be willing to accept that. But a sexless relationship is a deal-breaker for me, and I need to know sooner rather than later if I need to break this deal. Are sexless relationships normal in Chinese culture? Or is sex something that only happens after marriage? How can I have an honest conversation with my partner about this without being threatening? What do I need to know before attempting to initiate this conversation?
Thank you for your wonderful column and for taking the time to read and answer my letter.
Dear Too Fast,
Your first problem — things going too fast towards marriage — is completely normal and common. Of course younger people can be a bit more relaxed about it, but to Chinese people his 37 is ancient and your 31 means old, dried out ovaries that need to push a baby out immediately before they shrivel up. (Having a baby when you are older is not only not common in China, but many people think women over 30 just can’t physically do it, despite all the evidence to the contrary.)
I have no doubt you are reading his parents correctly, and they ARE treating you like a daughter-in-law because they hope it will happen soon. Their son has been making them wait longer for kids and marriage than all their friends, and they might have a bit of embarrassment about that. (They too are certainly getting pressure about it.) So they feel like they need to lay it on thick to “close the deal,” not even thinking for a second their smothering might scare you off. And your guy might not even notice. After all, he expects it. In Chinese society it is polite and welcoming to shower you with attention and gifts. Even with all his experience with foreigners he might not truly know how loaded it feels to you. After all, he’s lived with this expectation of marriage his entire life. He might think that simply because his parents don’t actually say the word “marriage” that you shouldn’t feel any pressure.
If you do want to see where things could be heading with this guy, the family needs to stay in the picture because when you marry a Chinese guy, you marry his whole family. It sounds like they live close to you too, and perhaps your boyfriend lives with them? So you can’t cut them out completely. But maybe you can ask to have a family monthly dinner instead of weekly, and make it a plan (Like the first Monday of the month or something) so his parents won’t be anxious and insist you come more often. As for their pressure and expectations, that boat has sailed. Just be grateful they aren’t openly bringing up marriage every five minutes and are keeping it a bit more subtle right now. And of course if you DO happen to get married someday, then expect baby pressure right from the start too. “In your face” in-laws are just part of the package when dating a Chinese guy. The good news is at least you like them!
As for the second problem, going too slow in the bedroom department, I admit I’m baffled. While there are some traditional beliefs that a woman should remain a virgin until she meets her husband, there are no such traditional beliefs about men. In fact, even the woman remaining a virgin is very rare in modern culture so I don’t see that as a factor at all.
The only other explanation would be if he was too shy. If he heard all the stereotypes about western women being “hard to please” or “having too much experience” and he’s nervous about being a good lover. But with all his experience abroad and with foreigners I’m sure he has dated foreigners before and he knows the stereotypes are just that — stereotypes. But even if he was nervous three months is a very long time with no physical affection.
Chinese people can be shy about being affectionate in front of people, but sitting at home, alone on the couch watching a movie? There is usually no shyness there.
I don’t know if you have talked about past relationships, but that might be a good place to start the “sex talk.” You can ask about past girlfriends, what countries they were from, if he ever was close to marrying, thing like that. Some guys don’t like to talk too much about it, but if you ask very basic questions you should get some info out of him. Then you can kind of lead it towards sex and ask him how many women he’s slept with and kinda go from there.
Or, just “Netflix and Chill” with him next Friday night and take the lead. If he physically stops you that opens you up to ask why. Maybe he joined a church in his time abroad that forbids premarital sex? Maybe he has some physical or psychological condition? Does he just not like intimacy? Whatever it is you deserve to know up front. There isn’t anything “culture-wise” holding him back, so you need to ask him directly (in a kind manner because it might be something he is embarrassed about) because what you said is true. Sex and physical affection is an important part of a relationship and if it is out of the questions for him, then you need to know now so you can decide what to do next. There is no ancient Chinese sex taboo that you will break by asking him about it, so be brave and just ask him directly so there will be less of a chance to misunderstand each other.
Good luck! Hopefully with some open communication you will get the relationship back to the speed you feel comfortable at.
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