"If white women were never attracted to Chinese men, then I would not exist."
In January 2012 I sat in a popular south-western Chinese restaurant on Beijing’s Beilou Guxiang with two other foreign women. One was a friend and the other was a white woman in her early fifties. She was an acquaintance of my friends from home, on a tour of China.
Across the room from us sat another white woman with her baby, who appeared to be half Chinese. Our companion was having trouble comprehending the situation and so we explained that no doubt the child’s father was Chinese, to which she responded “but do you think that is possible?”. I braced myself – what was it about having a Chinese father and a white mother she was going to offer up as an impossibility? She elaborated: ‘well do you find them attractive?’ she said with marked incredulity. It was clear that by ‘them’ she meant Chinese men. We protested politely – after all she was paying for our dinner – but below the surface my mind was racing. My grandfather is Chinese and my grandmother British, my father half and my mother white.
If white women were never attracted to Chinese men, then I would not exist. My very existence was inconceivable to the woman sitting across from me.
The story of my grandfather’s migration from Hong Kong to London came up later in the conversation and I wondered if, in the taxi ride back to her hotel, she had put two and two together and re-assessed the impact of her remarks. I never did find out.
I was reminded of the conversation when several commentaries on inter-racial relationships went viral on the Chinese internet earlier this year. What first caught my attention was Stephanie Naday’s piece in the Global Times decrying the dire dating prospects for western women in Shanghai. I was, initially, pleased to see the piece. I think there is a point to be made about the preference some western men have for Chinese women and I was curious to see how Naday dealt with the topic.
However, the piece turned out to be riddled with contradictions and casual racism. Naday, while attempting to make the case for white women’s difficulty dating both foreign and Chinese men, characterised the latter as “effeminate” and “small sized”. She also branded Chinese women as “inhibited” and “submissive”. Sadly, her perspective is not uncommon – I often heard similar sentiments from other western women living in China who believed me to be a sympathetic confidant.
I grew up a witness to the effects of this particular brand of highly sexualised racism on members of my family in the UK. I am far from sympathetic, I find it heart breaking.
Further controversy followed the online resurgence of China based South African Winston Sterzel’s vlog entry Are Chinese girls easy?. In the video Sterzel points out that, for foreign men, getting a Chinese girlfriend will depend on your skin colour and nationality in as far as they are perceived to be indicators of wealth. His strategic analysis of how ‘easy’ Chinese women are is quite repulsive. And while he is not wrong that who we find attractive is informed by a person’s economic status, it would be unfair to brand this as a solely Chinese phenomenon. In the UK, accent, which alerts people to differing social class and wealth, also informs who is found attractive by whom.
What makes the article and the vlog entry interesting is that they raise important points about the racialized state of who is and is not deemed attractive – points that are rarely talked about openly in more liberal circles. Naday and Sterzel stumbled upon an important social phenomena, though they did not attempt to fully explain it or call it out as the mixture of racism, sexism and classism that it is. All the same they provided a much needed window for discussion.
One particular expat confided in me that she did not find Chinese men attractive because of her relative equality with them in terms of physical strength – she imagined that they would not be strong enough to overpower her.
Sexual attraction is not an isolated compulsion, but directly connected to the way our societies deal with gender, race and class and we need to talk about it.