This post is part of a short series split into expats and locals. Find Part 1 here.
Local Friends – Struggling to Connect
One point that I always feel a little ashamed of is the fact that I have a Chinese husband, and it makes me feel as if I have an obligation to also have local friends. However, to me building meaningful relationships with locals has proved fairly tricky, maybe due to a number of cultural differences.
Chinese Female Friends
When it comes to Chinese women, finding friends my age has been a struggle because they almost certainly will have a young baby of which to take care. In any culture, this is something that leaves little room for social contacts, especially those without children themselves because we might struggle to understand what being a parent is like. While previously you might have met up for a couple of drinks and a night on the town, this becomes quite difficult with young mothers, and understandably so. An added problem, though, is that still for many women in China after childbirth, the offspring becomes the sole focus of their lives, while career takes a back seat and having conversations about anything other than husband or junior just doesn’t seem to happen as much as it used to.
Nvqiangren 女强人 – Strong Women
Luckily in Beijing, it is easier to encounter so-called “nvqiangren”, or “strong women” who focus on their career and refuse to marry just any guy because their parents pressure them. In second tier cities it is much more difficult to find single career-minded women in their late 20s since traditional ideas around marriage are much more enforced. However, I did meet many such women in Nanjing; the difference was they often dated or married foreigners.
In conversation with some of these fabulous women I have found they face the same issue in relation to their married peers; most of their former friends now only meet up to show off their husband, their family or their house.
“Nvqiangren” on the other hand can be an inspiring group of people with which to hang out, usually being quite independent and in my general experience with a host of diverse issues to talk about.The most interesting discussions about politics, culture and society I have had were with these independent women.
Whether it is exciting hobbies or business ventures, they generally always seem to be on the go and highly active. What this can mean though is that it can prove a challenge to build a long-term relationship, since they already have a very flourishing private life and usually a strong circle of (often also single) female friends.
Opposites Attract? Male Mates in China
So what about hanging out with mates of the opposite sex? Well, due to comparatively traditional ideas about gender roles, especially in more conservative second tier cities, it is incredibly uncommon for members of the opposite sex to actually “hang”. Especially if either of them has a partner. It is rare to find a Chinese woman who would be cool with her boyfriend meeting up with another girl (in particular one of those loose laowai lasses), but it is probably even rarer to find a Chinese boy who would accept his mate chilling with a mate. Don’t ask me how I managed to find Mr Li – he is truly a progressive superstar when it comes to this.
The gender segregation is so pervasive in China that even at university large groups of locals will usually end up being split down the middle with the boys sitting on one side and the girls on the other, as an international student I spoke to recently observed. So no male friends then.
Of course there are locals who actively seek out foreign friendships. I admit that this was something I also did when I studied in Newcastle, where Chinese students are as plentiful as rain and cider. It can sometimes feel a little awkward, because one tends to wonder if this is positive racism, i.e. are they only trying to practice their English, or in some cases even, just find a foreign partner. At the end of the day, one should definitely try and be open minded, since their interest in foreign culture often means that you will have a lot to talk about, most typically American or British TV shows.
From my experience over the last 5 or so years I have to admit I tend to get on best with locals who have spent time studying abroad just because their frame of reference matches mine most; they often have a grasp on international culture and references, understand my type of humour but also know local culture, are happy to go for hot pot or pizza, feel comfortable at a KTV as much as they do at a bar, and are just not quite that worried about what others tend to think of them.
That is not to say locals who haven’t spent time abroad are not able to do this; that is simply not the case. But looking back at my closest and longest friendships, there has always been an international element.
Different Ways of Socialising
If you do manage to find your local soulmate (with a capital M), you do need to be prepared for the fact that hanging out can work in very different ways from back home. Grabbing a pint at the pub is still a very uncommon thing for locals to do, unless they belong to the Beijing underground. Most of my local acquaintances would spend quality time with their friends playing card games at Korean coffee shops, especially in Nanjing, or if they were getting really rowdy by hanging out at KTV.
Bars and clubs still have a certain reputation as being dangerous and full of gangsters and deadbeats. Admittedly, in my time clubbing in Beijing and Nanjing, I did tend to notice that many of those who do go to night clubs often do so multiple times a week and rarely have a very traditional career path. I do think that locals in larger cities are starting to distinguish between nightclubs and just a drink in a bar but it is still highly likely that if you invite your new local acquaintance to join you for a drink, they will decline. There are a few more other rules with regards to socializing, and who to invite when an how. You can find them here.
WWAMs – Stuck in the Middle with You
This is probably more for the expat section but then again, is it?
Being in Beijing has also incredibly enriched my social life because most WWAMs (Western Women with Asian Men) congregate here. If you are a woman dating a local then this is a circle of people in which you might want to get involved. The women I have met who are dating or married to locals are an incredibly colorful bunch of stunning, strong and courageous women with the most fascinating stories to tell; and one thing is for sure – due to your shared experience of having Chinese in-laws you never run out of stuff to talk about.
What has your experience been with making friends in China? Especially in lower tier cities?