A sad truth about dating in Shanghai

First off I just want to be clear that I’m not writing about all guys and girls in Shanghai. I know that every person is unique and relationships can vary. Having said that, I believe what I’m about to say does apply to a large number of people in Shanghai. I’m basing this on what I’ve seen (and experienced firsthand) in nearly four years here.

So what is this sad truth about dating?

To put it simply… that many young Chinese women looking to have long-term relationships with Western guys are going to fail.

There are multiple reasons for this. One practical reason is that there aren’t enough Western guys here to meet the demand (not a bad problem to have if you’re a Western guy). Another is that Western guys tend to come to Shanghai for a few years or less, and often have no interest in settling down here. Those are pretty straightforward, but there’s another reason that a lot of people think but don’t say out loud because it’s a sensitive subject – the cultural differences.

I won’t get into the myriad of cultural dimensions and how China and the US compare and contrast – to do so would take far too much time and get away from the point. I’ll just briefly talk about some differences in dating and relationships.

In the US, people tend to start dating at an earlier age than in China. Growing up I was encouraged to date girls (by my parents, my friends, my sports coaches and even teachers), and I had my first “girlfriend” when I was 11 (puppy love!). We generally have an idea throughout school that dating is fun, not serious, and is good practice for real relationships later in life. Because of that Americans (and other Westerners) tend to have a lot of confidence in dating by the time we’re in our 20s. Contrast this with China, where until recently it’s been taboo to date in school, and plenty of people don’t hit the dating scene until college or later. And, ironically, as soon as some girls finish college their parents want them to get married! So from what I can tell, relationships are considered a very serious thing and a pathway to marriage for more traditional-minded Chinese. Due to the lack of dating experience, and the fact that many live at home with parents well into adulthood, a lot of young Chinese women come off as childish to Western guys.

On the other hand, I know there are plenty of young people in Shanghai who are less traditional and love to party and have fun and hook up casually. Actually, there seems to be a very clear divide between “party girls” and “traditional girls”. And that’s exactly why it’s hard for a Western guy to find a serious Chinese girlfriend…

If a guy is out looking for party girls, then he isn’t looking for a serious relationship (or he just wants to have some fun while still looking for a girlfriend). If he isn’t a party guy but he happens to meet a party girl, he probably won’t be too interested in her as a serious girlfriend because Western guys usually don’t want to settle down with a girl who drinks and clubs a lot and is easy to take home. A lot of times guys (both Chinese and Western) aren’t even getting to know these girls because they only meet up in noisy clubs where having a conversation is near-impossible.

More traditional Chinese girls also might not snag a Western guy, for a number of reasons. Sometimes they haven’t had as much dating experience and tend to be nervous and shy, which is cute at first but gets old fast. Or she might be so concerned with maintaining a traditional image that she exerts very little sexuality, and a Western guy who is used to more confident girls will be turned off if there isn’t at least some hint of sexuality (this doesn’t mean getting physical, it just means showing confidence in your physicality). Traditional girls also tend to let their dates dominate the conversation – which can be a result of the language barrier (they’re usually dating in English) or she might be comfortable in a submissive role for tradition’s sake. Either way, it’s not the type of girl that Western guys usually go for. The type of girl Westerners will want to date seriously is somewhere in the middle of the party girl and the traditional girl. And she is difficult to find, at least among the under 30 age group in Shanghai!

That previous point about the language barrier is important too. How many Western-Chinese couples do you know who speak Chinese with each other instead of English? Not many, I’m guessing. So the mere fact that a lot of Chinese girls dating Western guys don’t speak English fluently is another issue. As we get older and more mature, so do our conversations – and the type of conversation you can have with someone who is fluent in the language is bound to have more depth and variety than it is with someone who is still learning the language. It goes both ways. If I date a Chinese girl who doesn’t speak English, we can get to know each other because I speak some Chinese. But after a while she will probably get bored of my simple Chinese comments.

Put all this together and what do you get?  A lot of Western guys who do not take local girls seriously in Shanghai because they either can’t find or aren’t looking for serious relationship contenders.

I said at the beginning that “most young Chinese girls looking to have long-term relationships with Western guys are going to fail.” I should clarify…they will fail for now. But as they get older they might grow into the type of women that is more likely to be a solid partner for a Western guy. Plenty of women here do! And of course there are plenty of Western-Chinese couples here that are successful long-term.

I also want to add that I don’t think any of the cultural norms for either side are right or wrong – I’m only trying to comment on the situation as I see it. I also don’t mean to suggest that Chinese women should force themselves to adapt to what a Western guy wants. I think both men and women should make an effort to learn about one another and be willing to change to become better partners. However the fact remains that most Western-Chinese couples tend to speak English and follow Western cultural norms, for better or worse. As more Westerners become fluent in Chinese and learn more of Chinese culture that could certainly change.

And to end on a lighter note… here is John Stamos’ guide to cuddling:


6 thoughts on “A sad truth about dating in Shanghai

  1. touché. I curse the time that I was ever with traditional Chinese ex. I say Stamos’ cuddling fest is surely way blissful with a western partner

  2. I have to say that it is so true there is no crystal right or wrong side, either being ‘party girl’ or being ‘traditional girl’, or in any cultural norms. As long as being ourselves, live for today and try to enjoy whatever the life offers is the case for me at least. It happens mostly that people judge by our nationalities even though some people do not fall into any of the ‘categories’, which is sad.

    • Hey Jade, I agree that sometimes we generalize too much by nationality. It’s only human nature to try to categorize and simplify things, and people of the same nationality tend to have lots of things in common, but of course not always. Girls I’ve dated in Shanghai don’t fall into either of these two categories.

      • Hej Jay, the whole ‘A sad truth about dating in Shanghai’ looks like a sad fact for Chinese girls, so I wonder what about to foreign guys or foreign girls? Sad too? or? Tho, I agree that if the date is no fun, then it is quite sad for both.

      • Hey Jade, it’s not just an issue for Chinese girls… it’s also an issue for foreign guys, especially ones that have been here longer. The fun of meeting lots of easy girls and partying wears off after a while, and it’s not easy (in my opinion) to find a girl that they can really relate to and have great conversation with. This doesn’t mean that Chinese girls aren’t good enough, it’s just that the language barrier and the differences I talked about in the post that make it hard to make the kind of connection that leads to a serious relationship.

  3. I guess this also applies to non-Chinese Asians. I think you captured the notion of why Western guys have a hard time having a relationship with a traditional Chinese/Asian woman bec. we may come off as childish as our culture doesn’t really encourage dating or casual relationships. We’re more inclined to courtship and cultivating serious relationships. I guess it helps if both sides are aware of the cultural differences. 🙂 Communication is very important but you can’t really impose she be fluent in English, can you…

    Nice insight! I like reading your blog, hope you update often with entries like this.

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