Love lost in translation

16:47, May 14, 2010      

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Getting into an intercultural relationship in Beijing is as easy as letting an indiscriminate eye wander during happy hour at Xiu, locating a language exchange partner on online classifieds, or logging onto the many dating websites that cater to English-speakers looking for Chinese love.

But getting into a fulfilling - not frustrating - intercultural relationship with a Chinese "other half" requires a little more thought and effort than goes into clicking a mouse. Although the contemporary Chinese conception of romance has changed radically from a generation ago, the norms of male-female relations here are still rooted in traditional gender roles.

The Chinese view of relationships is very different, and in unexpected ways, to the pragmatic egalitarian approach that Westerners are used. A brave lover in Beijing must be prepared to accept a paradigm shift to enjoy the cross-cultural dating experience.

Forget everything you learned about love from your British boyfriend or American girlfriend and get schooled in these essential Chinese concepts of love.

First and foremost, you know you're in a Chinese cross-cultural relationship when sajiao rears its pretty, or ugly, depending on your taste, little head. This distinctive set of behaviors, perpetrated by Chinese females, often takes the unsuspecting Western male by surprise. Sajiao is hard to define, but you'll certainly know it when you see it.

Its literal meaning - "to unleash coquettishness" - doesn't divulge much. Ask a fan of Chinese coquettishness and he will probably tell you that he just "can't get enough of the stuff", referring to the feminine voice, tender gestures, and girlish protestations. Talk to someone less keen on the sajiao and he's likely to shudder and say, "I can't stand it!" citing the whining, clinging, and childish tantrums as just some of the annoying features of sajiao.

Why does sajiao produce such polarized opinions? I think it's because the behavior involved is based on gender norms that are completely opposed to Western post-feminist social sensibilities.

To better understand sa jiao, and, hence, to better understand why your Chinese girlfriend sometimes acts like a spoiled child, or understand what kind of feminine mystique your Chinese boyfriend is looking for from you, you should familiarize yourself with a few other key Chinese relationship concepts.

One of the fundamental concepts in a Chinese relationship is zhaogu, or "taking care of". Although Chinese women take care of their men, the implicit and explicit cultural consensus is that it is a man's job to take care of his woman with the attentiveness of a father doting on his little girl. Therefore, sajiao manifests as a means of inducing zhaogu behavior when it is lacking, or to pander the male ego as a reward.

Taking zhaogu a step further, some Chinese other halves strongly believe in "spoiling" - guan. It's not uncommon to hear Chinese girlfriends asking their western boyfriends to spoil them. While the request sounds unreasonably absurd in English, in the Chinese language and to the Chinese frame of mind, it's as natural as asking your partner for "support."

Thus, you see Chinese men willingly shelling out for gifts, entertainment, and otherwise indulgencing their ladies. This social norm can be a source of tension for the intercultural couple. Western men may find the request for "spoiling" a little too materialistic, while Western women can take the lavish attention as chauvinistic or overbearing.

Before the age of the market economy and commercialized love, there was a more tender version of guan that served as a Chinese relationship norm. It was known as xinteng, or heartache. To have your heart ache for someone in the Chinese romantic sense is to love them so dearly that you feel compelled to do small caring things for them, from pouring a glass of water, to offering a piggyback ride when she's tired.

Again, from a pragmatic Western perspective, even xinteng can appear excessively pandering. But from a Chinese perspective, when you do something without being asked to do it, it shows that your heart truly aches for someone.

Now that I've explained a few basics of Chinese dating, the cultural experimental daters can decide for themselves whether sajiao, zhaogu, guan and xinteng are right for them. If things don't go well on these fronts, don't be surprised to hear your Chinese other half complaining of feeling weiqu - indignation at being wronged and mistreated.

Source: China Daily


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