Dear Ms. Wai: Am I Being Culturally Insensitive?

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Dear Ms. Wai,

I have been dating a Chinese man for a little over a month now. We are both 26 years old; this is my first relationship and only his second. We both live and work in Seattle, I am from here and he is from Shanghai where the majority of his family still lives. Things have been wonderful, he has been attentive, kind, and loving for the most part. We have had small disagreements here and there but have always been able to move past them. Until yesterday. Yesterday was our biggest fight and I don’t know how to handle it. A couple things came up that make me really insecure, not about our relationship, but about whether we can compromise with our cultures. 

1. Firstly, something I have always been extremely self conscious of is my weight. I am overweight by western standards and I’m sure I am obese by Asian standards. It has taken me years to finally be ok with how I look and even now I still struggle with it. I have talked about this with my boyfriend and he says he loves me how I am and that if I want to change to get healthier I should do it for myself and because I want to, not because I think it will make him love me more. However, I found out during our fight yesterday that people on his social media have commented about my weight and appearance (fat, ugly, curly-haired) including his father. He told me, after me insisting to know, that his father called me fat the first time he saw my photo. 

I know that Chinese people are much more forward when talking about people’s weight, but some of the comments have gone beyond observation and crossed over to being incredibly judgmental and mean. I have grown to have the mentality where I don’t care about how random people think about me, if they want to dislike me because I am overweight, I don’t want to associate with them. I will be polite but don’t feel the need to change to suit their desires. I have a core group of friends and family who love and support me and that is enough. I want his parents to like me (I have met his mom over video and she seemed wonderful) but how do I deal dating a man from a culture whose beauty standards I don’t fit into? How can I be overweight and date a Chinese man? I worry that, although my boyfriend loves me, when his friends and people on social media talk about me like that, that he is embarrassed. I have asked him why he pays attention to those comments and why not just stop posting on social media. Why not just ignore those people because those comments aren’t worth entertaining? And he said that is exactly where I am going wrong, that I am ignoring them. I think it is unhealthy that he pays attention to them and yet he says that I am doing the wrong thing.

2. Going along with that, another big issue in our argument was about me not compromising to his culture. He said I don’t know a lot about it, which is fair since I have only been dating him for a month and have never lived in an East Asian culture, but what his idea of compromise sounds like is me bowing to his will. I have asked for a level of respect that I deserve: saying please/thank you, acknowledgement of my feelings and ideas without dismissing them, not being called ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ even in a joking manner. And his response was that if I think those things are disrespectful then I am ignorant of his culture. I grew up raised by a single mother to be a strong and confident woman and I am so happy with how I became. I am willing to compromise on most things but not on what I consider respectful. 

He has told me that I am stubborn and that he has given me hints about his culture that I don’t take. For instance, he asked me to stop posting so much on social media about our relationship. I have only posted twice over a two week period which I don’t think is a lot, especially since he does the same on his social media on WeChat. The difference is I use a longer caption and hashtags while he doesn’t. According to him, it is about privacy, and yet it seems like a double standard. I don’t even know where to start learning his culture when we live in the US and his hints are implicit. I prefer direct communication and have told him so, and yet it seems like it is held against me when I don’t take the implicit hints about culture. I want to learn about him, where he came from, his language, his customs/traditions. But I don’t want to compromise my own values to conform to things that seem very judgmental. How do I stay true to myself and my own beliefs while still showing him that I want to learn and compromise to his culture as much as I can?

3. Lastly, do you have any advice about communication? We tried to come up with a word to say whenever either one of us is truly serious so the other person knows not to make light of the situation. Yet, he uses the word really often and then says it was a ‘test’ (part of the reason for our argument yesterday) so it makes the word invalid. I have only used the word once to show I am very serious about something and it is important to me. 

He has refused to meet one of my male Chinese friends who I am very close with. My male friend and I are ONLY friends and I have made that very clear to my boyfriend and have asked for them to meet several times. My friend is excited to meet him but my boyfriend refuses. I even used the word to show that I am serious and it is important and yet my boyfriend still won’t do it. I will not give up my friends for the sole reason that my boyfriend doesn’t like the fact that they are male. Just like I don’t expect him to give up his female friends just because they are female. If something else happens where friends get in between a relationship, that is different. But just because they are the opposite sex… that is not a reason to give up a friendship.

I don’t know how to get across that this is really important to me. I have tried and yet he refuses to compromise on this. I feel like our communication has suffered because we are coming from incredibly different places and have a hard time seeing the other side. 

I am sorry this message is so long. I don’t know who to talk to and I want to show him I am 100% invested in our relationship but yesterday’s argument really showed how vastly different our upbringings are. Please help.

 

 

 

 

There are two major blocks in any relationship: personal differences and societal pressures and expectations. But in a multicultural relationship you add a third problem to that: cultural differences.

When there is a problem in a multicultural relationship, almost always the first scapegoat is “culture” as it is the easiest and most logical choice. But many times it’s not cultural differences at all. So you need to stay really vigilant and look at each situation or argument on their own and decide for yourself which category it falls into.

Like your social media argument. That’s clearly personality differences. Everyone uses social media different, even in the same country, and some people, like you, think ignoring the trolls are better. Others, like him, thinks replying is better so they don’t think you agree with their insults.

When you come across a personality difference it’s best to make an agreement going forward. You can make some privacy rules you both agree with, or you can decide to each do whatever you want and the other can’t criticize your choices and style.

Some things, like “please/thank you” you might be unclear if it is a personality thing or a culture thing. A quick google search (or asking an Chinese friend) will show you that saying please and thank you in China isn’t that common between lovers or family. Knowing that, you can decide how important it is to you vs. respecting his upbringing.

But ignoring your feelings, or trying to control who you are friends with, goes beyond culture or societal differences. That’s when the cry of “you don’t understand my culture” becomes a false cry and way for him to try to force his manner on you.

He lives in America, and he has been exposed to American culture even back in China with American entertainment. He’s seen Friends, or Big Bang Theory and even in his life he must see that guys and girls can be friends without being attracted to each other. So him using the culture card is really just an excuse to try to control you and who you an be friends with. Sometimes in China jealousy can be seen as proof of love while in the west we see it as a lack of trust. But he’s living in America and dating an American, so the onus is on him to accept the change and not try to force everyone in his life to change for him.

But him calling you names or making you feel bad and laughing off your protests by saying you don’t understand “his culture” is total BS. While a generally more patriarchal society China is still a modern country with successful, well educated women. They would never be with a man that disrespect and insults them and to imply it’s okay in his culture is frankly an insult to China and Chinese women.

It’s actually a common problem, where “culture” can be used to gaslight someone. You are fairly ignorant of Chinese culture, which is okay, you haven’t had much exposure and you are trying to learn as much as you can, but he’s taking advantage of that. It sounds like you are trying to be as culturally sensitive as possible, so he’s using that guilt against you to get his way.

For sure he is at a cultural disadvantage living in a foreign country and it’s good you are sensitive to that and trying to learn as much as you can. But he choose to come to America and he choose to date an American girl. He knows he can’t expect to live a traditional Chinese life (probably doesn’t want to), so he can’t just expect you to act like some traditional old fashioned Chinese woman when it suits him. And in fact, by dating an American he gets a release from a lot of pressures dating a Chinese women would bring so dating you brings a lot of advantages he maybe isn’t mentioning.

I like that you seem to have a strong sense of self, and don’t want to lose yourself in the relationship. Hold onto that. You deserve respect in a relationship, and you know it. Good for you!

But if you continually communicate it to him your true needs and feelings, and he doesn’t listen or take you seriously now, in the early stages of the relationship, then maybe you aren’t cut out for the long term. This criticism and intensity would step up 1,000% if you ever moved to China and lived with his family and if he’s not on your side now, he won’t be later.

Try to show him all the ways you care about his culture. Cheer for the Chinese team at the Olympics, follow English websites that take about modern Chinese pop culture and what’s going on. Watch some CCTV news and try to attend cultural activities with him. He probably does feel a bit out of place in America and seeing that he has a partner who is willing to try and learn more about his country might help him relax a bit.

But don’t lose yourself, don’t accept things that hurt you and don’t make excuses for him when you feel insulted. In a relationship it’s important for you to both respect and honor each other, as people, first. Then you can respect and honor each other’s culture.

Ms Wai

One comment

  1. These arguments of you and your boyfriend definitely are concerning.
    I’m the same way, having male friends who are just friends, like my brothers. My bf knows of one of my bros who lives in China and met me when we all went to high school together. (BF is Vietnamese, bro is Chinese).

    I would say if you value your friendship more with that Chinese male friend, then I would definitely break up with your boyfriend. I also agree with Ms. Wai about the gaslighting. You’re not familiar with Chinese culture so a lot of the things he is doing is definitely trying to make you believe in something that isn’t true.

    Wish the best for you <3

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