My sweet and sour dating experience: An expat career woman on Beijing flings
By Nikki Aaron
PUBLISHED: 19:01 EST, 23 November 2013 | UPDATED: 19:23 EST, 23 November 2013
When Nikki Aaron moved to Beijing six years ago, she fell head over heels for the city – but failed to find Mr Right. Here she reveals what it’s like to play the dating game as an expat in China
Nikki today: ‘Chinese men represented adventure and a way to escape the status quo’
Living as I do in a city as vibrant and bizarre as Beijing has its good points – and its bad. Although exciting and unpredictable, from its fascinating culture to its mind-bending language, it’s certainly not an ideal place to find long-term love, no matter how beautiful, smart, successful and hilarious you may be. So at the ripe age of 30, I have given up on trying to find my Mr Right. For now, anyway.
In Beijing, even the most average Western men are able to attract pretty Chinese girls, who seem to be under the impression that they have all the style and sophistication of Daniel Craig. As a result, the streets of the city are filled with smug-looking Western guys holding hands with their pint-sized Chinese princesses. Petite and eager to please, these girls are so cute I don’t blame the guys for being attracted to them. After all, when a Chinese girl pouts, a million hearts melt; when I pout, I resemble a fish.
So where does this leave the expat women? Gorging on crispy duck and splurging on pirated copies of Downton Abbey? Well, yes, but also having to open their eyes to the possibility of romance with expat men that under any normal circumstances they wouldn’t go near. Quite why I once agreed to a second date with a guy from Sweden who wore white socks that came up to his mid-calves and who rattled on endlessly about his Chinese ex-girlfriend, I can’t be sure. And I went on three dates with a New Yorker who proudly boasted of a book he kept that contained the names of every woman he’d ever slept with (with scores).
However, unlike the majority of Western women living in China, who watch bitterly as
the egos of below-average men swell from the admiring looks of Chinese girls, I took an altogether different approach and chose to date Chinese men instead.
Most Western women shy away from the prospect of having a Chinese boyfriend: they
find them too traditional, overly effeminate (it doesn’t help that many carry handbags and adore boybands such as Westlife), and the cultural barrier too immense to overcome.
To me, though, these obstacles seemed like things that would make a relationship more interesting. But then I always have had an unusual taste in men. Even as a teen, instead of practising my snogging technique on a poster of Nick from the Backstreet Boys, I would be daydreaming of Lister (Craig Charles) from Red Dwarf. By my late teens, when my friends were chasing football players, I had developed a thing for men with long hair. This is a period that my friends tagged my ‘yeti’ phase.
By the time I arrived in Beijing, I found Chinese men a fitting replacement for my ‘yetis’
– they differed from what Western society deemed conventionally attractive, and to me they represented adventure, rebellion and a whole new way to escape the status quo. I’ve had two Chinese boyfriends while I’ve been in China and the second relationship was serious, the kind in which the idea of marriage and children wasn’t petrifying.
Nikki with her Chinese ex-boyfriend
Having a native boyfriend was like being given a key to China. I learned so much more about the country, its people and their values during the three years we were together. It was fascinating to be with someone from whom I learned something new every day. Thanks to that relationship, I can speak colloquial Mandarin (including the kind of swear words that one should never, ever use) and prepare traditional Chinese dumplings with the speed and skill of Ken Hom.
I also understand what really makes Chinese people tick. I know that when I have dinner with my boss, it is best to make sure that his cup is always filled with tea, and that the quickest way to impress someone is to ask whether they have eaten. Give lots of gifts, pay for dinners and, oh yes, remember to acknowledge that the Chinese invented pretty much everything.
However, as in any relationship, small things – which at first made our relationship unique and extraordinary – started to become exasperating after a while. His mother, although I adored her, was overbearing. She would call him several times a day with the most useless advice, to instruct him to wear a coat because it was cold outside, or to remind him to drink more water and ask him endless questions about his health.
‘His mother would call him several times a day with the most useless advice’
To me, it seemed like mothering had been taken to a whole new level, but it’s the kind of mollycoddling that’s common between mother and son in China. It has given rise to a cultural phenomenon dubbed the ‘Little Emperors’ – spoiled boys who expect to get everything they want, and whose parents break their backs trying to make their precious heirs happy. Although I admire the strong bond people here have with their parents, being with a man whose mother plays such a fundamental part of his life undermines any sense of a mature relationship.
My Chinese girlfriends often moan about their exhausting mother-in-laws, who become jealous if their son pays his wife too much attention. There’s a common joke here that a girl should never ask her boyfriend who he would save first if she fell into a lake with his mother. These girls are already aware that if you want to be the number one woman in a man’s life, you’ll just have to wait until you have a son of your own.
But it wasn’t the problem of my boyfriend’s mother that ultimately destroyed our dreams of a future together. It was an accumulation of things I found increasingly hard to ignore, such as his criticism of Western women (who he would condemn for being overweight, aggressive and too easy) and my deteriorating patience with his personal habits (the stomach-churning sound he made as he spat in the bathroom sink – a daily habit of most locals – or his insistence on wearing the same unwashed clothes for several days in a row).
We Brits have been brought up to consider personal hygiene and table manners as second nature. So when you move to a country where talking with your mouth full of food, street-side nasal cleansing and communal squat toilets are a feature of everyday life, you have to develop higher tolerance levels along with a strong stomach. But in the end the sight and sound of my beloved slurping his way through a dish of noodles, his face half an inch from the
bowl as he sucked the meal into his mouth like a top-of-the-range Dyson, was enough to extinguish any flames of passion.
I have now come to the conclusion that my romantic endeavours will always be severely tested while I remain in China.
I am faced with two options: either scraping the bottom of a metaphorical barrel of Western men, or dating local guys, with all the challenges that entails. My extended stay in Beijing has also rendered me a complete misfit back home. After six years away, my speech has become a cacophony of English and Chinese, decipherable only by fellow bilingual expats.
I have picked up lifestyle habits most Westerners would find bizarre – the weekly cupping therapy that leaves me looking as though tiny spaceships have landed all over my body, the flask of hot water and green tea leaves I religiously carry around with me – and I find little in common with those who have no experience of a culture outside their comfort zone. I am not only an alien in China; I have become an alien in my home country, too.
It takes a very peculiar person to be willing to pack their bags and relocate to a country as curious as China – I should know, because I’m one of them. But I wouldn’t change the experiences I have had for anything – least of all to bag myself a man.