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Gareth is an Australian who has lived in JiangSu, SuZhou (Heaven on Earth) for a few years - he is a keen observer of the Chinese people, Chinese culture and the changes that are occurring in China at break-neck speed. He can often be found on his a nightly 'perch' in front of his bar in the famous Bar Street in Suzhou, talking to the locals in his bad Mandarin, teaching the 'flower-selling girls' English, eating street food and smiling at the local chengguan (neighbourhood police). Gareth also has several other businesses in China around Business and English training. His experiences have been varied and interesting and his years in China have taught him to be wary of promises but excited about prospects, not a bad situation to be in!
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Closeness and Distance    

By Garreth Humphris
3105 Views | 10 Comments | 6/17/2013 4:26:07 PM

One of interesting interactions that goes on in relationships that I grapple with the most is the idea of closeness and distance. I am of the opinion that you can be close and distant at the same time - and that these 'boundaries' move constantly and maybe at different speeds for different parts of my psyche. and for different people.

I will give you an example - I think that we can step closer and closer to intimacy with each meeting, but the barrier to commitment to the full relationship may be much further away...my adjustment time goes beyond the first kiss.

My dilemma is that when dating Chinese ladies, these relative distances may not be as far as mine - for example, when a Chinese lady has decided to 'end her singleness’ then this 'commitment to relationship’ distance is actually pretty close to the ’you can kiss me now!' signal! It is instant life partner on the second meeting! Apparantly this doesn't occur so quickly between Chinese dating couples (so I have been told!), there is usually a 3-6 month dating period - or maybe this is the time in which ’acceptability to family’ is made or possibly, both partners (and indeed their families) are entering the relationship with the idea to get married within a short time frame so that there is actually a continuum rather than a chasm to cross.

Now, some people would claim that I have a commitment-phobia! And they might be true...but, labelling the condition is one thing and exploring the possible reasons and conclusions is another!

I can give another example; I can become close to your family...I can happily visit them, spend time with them, help them spiritually and financially...we can be very close! But there is also a distance - one that says that my privacy and my immediate family are very important to me and that your parents living in our home is too close for comfort and my sanity! And your extended family visiting every day to leech of my hospitality is a definite no-no!

So there is closeness in being a family unit, respecting your needs and your family needs to have quality time together, but distance in making sure that quantity does not exceed quality. Part of the issue is that in many family situations, the gulf between the two partner extremes will be very wide! You want them nearby out of ’duty' and my reasoning is that while your parents are healthy and perfectly able to look after themselves, they should! If the become infirmed then there is no question about helping them...but not before! It is not that I am a cold and heartless person, it is just that my 'distance' on extended family (especially one with minimal respect for on interaction with me) will be much further than yours!

It boils down to this...My argument would be that if you are going to marry someone from outside of your culture, you have to expect that there will be some significant differences in ideas and approach and to assume that your partner to comply to your cultural ’norms’ implicitly and without question is a least a little naive.

There are other sticking point, the 18 month baby target! Somehow not having a child in the first 18 months if marriage is a deadly sin in China! Agreed, family cohesion is an essential element of Chinese society but, if I and my partner are older, the risks of childbirth to her is much higher, as is risk to the child so that approaching pregnancy without higher medical care and mental preparation is a mismatch of me! Also combined is the issue of how long I have to work to support my family - my child would be a teenager (and arguably entering ’maximum expense mode' for food, education and shoes) when I was hoping to retire! Selfish maybe, but a consideration not necessarily taken in the midst of passion or when the ’In China...’ argument is the only beguiling path presented!

I also have a geographical incompatibility with the whole disclosure/non-disclosure of relationship issue. The idea of ’face’ and ’being a good woman’ is extremely important but I also have a bit of an issue that a ’good woman’ would so knowingly lie to their family as to her whereabouts and intents - when we talk about ’trust’ there seems to be a divergence here! I am good but I intentionally deceive all those who love me because I don't wont to hurt them...sure, a white lie is not so bad...nor is a guilty pleasure but a constructed deception is neither! Maybe this is closeness and distance coming into play again...wanting to be close to a person but needing distance to ensure no besmirching of ones’ good name! I get that, but maybe my closeness and distance is not as aligned as yours on this issue!

The key point here is that when your partner says ’yes’ on one small issue in the Chinese Life Dynamic, it does not mean that they agree to every additional permutation or conjugation and that winning a battle definitely does not equal winning a war!

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Comments
(Showing 1 to 10 of 10) 1
#2013-06-17 18:29:12 by kingm @kingm

Hi Garreth

I enjoy reading your blogs. You observe your surroundings and others very well. I may be wrong but I sense a mismatch between your blogs and your profile. Your profile says you want to have children.

To have a child or not have a child? Is that the big question for you? All your possible partners (inside or outside your culture) have already answered this question. When you finally answer this question you will be in a much better position to find your life partner.
I have been with my Chinese partner for three years. She is too old to have children but tells me she would have loved us to have had children. We have a relationship that other people envy. I know that we would have tried our best but I doubt that we would have the quality of relationship that we do have now if we had met in our younger years and had children.

#2013-06-17 19:13:07 by woaizhongguo @woaizhongguo

A fascinating topic. I find the whole closeness/distance thing one of the most confusing parts of Chinese culture for a foreigner to negotiate. It is not only women who will want to discuss marriage after a second date (interesting to know it is different with Chinese-Chinese dating). I can't tell you how many times someone has said i am their "good friend" after one or two meetings. Of course, you are not really a 'friend'. My sense is you are sort of a trial friend at that part. You enter the guanxi circle, where if you do something for them, they will do something for you. But a true friend is somoeone who you do not even think 'what's in it for me' when you act. And I truly doubt that is possibile between a foreigner and a Chinese. I have doubts whether that is possible between a Chinese and a Chinese. I've gotten a little off topic from the notion of relationship, but I think the same basic reasoning applies. Perhaps the most that a Chinense relationship is capable of is the guanxi ideal, where you do something for someone if they will do something for you (hence the notion that you will help their family, for example). But that to my mind is not true closeness, which comes only when you are able to act without consideration of your own interests. And that is what gives many Westerners trouble, I think; is that we have an ideal of true closeness, not the pseudo-closeness that is guanxi. We sense when that is what at issue and have a problem with, whereas I think there is not such a problem with a relationship being a pure exchange of self-interest over here.

#2013-06-17 20:40:15 by panda2009 @panda2009

"There are other sticking point, the 18 month baby target! Somehow not having a child in the first 18 months if marriage is a deadly sin in China! Agreed, family cohesion is an essential element of Chinese society but, if I and my partner are older, the risks of childbirth to her is much higher, as is risk to the child so that approaching pregnancy without higher medical care and mental preparation is a mismatch of me! Also combined is the issue of how long I have to work to support my family - my child would be a teenager (and arguably entering ’maximum expense mode' for food, education and shoes) when I was hoping to retire! Selfish maybe, but a consideration not necessarily taken in the midst of passion or when the ’In China...’ argument is the only beguiling path presented!"

Hey, Gareth,
I read your profile again, the line of "want children", you say "yes". May I think that if your wife is young, healthy and richer than you, so you would so fortune to get your offspring? After all, doesn't a man want his own child? I would write a blog to expond monogamic family deeply. Please wait being patient.

#2013-06-18 10:17:51 by 345 @345

I wish you happiness, refueling

#2013-06-18 21:30:15 by prana @prana

是的,东方、西方的文化不同。
交友、约会、婚礼、生儿育女、照顾老人……这是中国的传统。
你我在世间不是一个孤独的、单独的人,我们的父母养育了我们,我们的朋友帮助了我们。
我不相信一个人生下来就什么那么聪明,什么都不用去学习。
年长的人的经历,身边的朋友们的经历,都会引导我们不要去重复同样的错误!
你如果喜欢一个人,就不要有太多的顾虑。
真正相爱的人,上帝会保佑他和她的。
但前提是:在对的时间里,找到了对的人!

尊重传统,这是没错,但是有些事情不是我们自己能左右的。

关于孩子,我的年纪大了,不可能有自己的孩子,但我可以帮助其他的孩子,孤儿也好,贫困的家庭的孩子也好,自家兄弟姐妹的孩子也好,他们是人类的孩子!
人的肉体是父母给的,但是,完美的灵魂,却来自于一位好的老师,一个良好的教育,这是我能给予的。

#2013-06-18 22:43:27 by aussieghump @aussieghump

The issue is not 'to have child' or 'not have child', the issue is are we (my partner and I) compatible enough to civilly and respectfully discuss important issues of our married live in a responsible and meaningful way! Taking into account cultural, social, medical and other risk factors affecting our family!

The trouble is the assumptions people make based on a profile page...with no consideration for my family's current situation.

If the argument is 'In China, ...' or there is particular risk to mother and child. Then the desire to have one's own children may not be there. There are other options - adoption for example.

Seriously, I am likely to date women from their mid-30's, already have a child who is maybe already grown - to ask an older woman to carry a baby without significant medical supervision (brutal C-sections from 1CP etc) is indeed a risk and the answer should not be 'assumed' because of some outdated idea related to men needing to sir their own young for the good of the country!

The main point of my blog is the fact that when each partner 'assumes' that the outcome will be as they expect without discussion - then there are bound to be wildly differing opinions on what is to happen!

#2013-06-21 10:55:49 by aussieghump @aussieghump

@woaizhongguo
I think that is is much 'easier' for a Chinese family to ignore a foreigner in their midst - maybe through language divides, but also as you say, through Guanxi/relationship divides, cultural, societal tolerance and traditional divides.
If they choose not to communicate, there is little you can do! If they choose to continue the 'traditional' family hierarchy your partner will be the whipping-girl for you both!

My understanding talking to foreigners married to Chinese ladies with family living with them is that in general, they are the 800lb grilla in the room! The family does as it sees fit, extending hierarchy and respect order as if everyone were Chinese, and ignore the foreigner! His status is at the family level of his wife (if she is low, the greater wishes of the family win), but they treat it as a 'cohesive unit with Chinese characteristics' - diminishing further the foreigners' wishes - you will do what we tell you to do!

They also talk about the 'emotional blackmail' side of things where people do things for their own self-interest...claiming they are helping others (i cant go back to my hometown now, the baby needs me!)

Even if you have some understanding and agreement with your partner - he/she may be 'duty bound' to do different! Not an easy nut to crack!

#2013-06-22 23:39:24 by sandy339 @sandy339

I think closeness and distance should be or could be quite simple.
People should keep a certain distance with each other for sure.

#2013-10-04 20:44:52 by RobertB @RobertB

@woaizhongguo
I think you nailed it. Although I understand very well why there is a distinct difference between foreigner Chinese and Chinese and Chinese.
First the Chinese for the last 30 years learnt to trade with the West.
Actually we have exceptionally good relationship. So, what follows is the lady knows that foreigner is far and we know the rules.
We both want to get together and it is just different.
Also, the lady who decides to go online is adventurous more and determined more than someone that is not doing that.
Also she expects that. She knows that those men are different and that is the very reason she is there.It is a mixture of trade relation and less fear of rejection and there are only two people involved. Whereas in "normal" dating, the whole neighborhood knows. I know it as I went through it.
Everyone watches your move. Your target, your feelings, your investment your mistakes. Many may hope for failure. That is in my culture. First parents are afraid that you will get in trouble. Then your peers are there to for a cheap laugh or maybe they are personally interested. So, online dating is safer. Also in real life, people are afraid of saying things that are known from the start on the dating website. It is much easier to start with website. That is why in the West many people meet someone next door through it too.
Now saying "YES" can have very different meaning and I would say you cannot draw any generalizations, hence the idea of lawyers.
So, when I say "YES" it means first and foremost-- I am not saying "NO" and that means I want to keep you interested. I want to say that I agree to agree with you and I am willing to cooperate. That means I am all yours as far as further discussion relates to the matter.
I do not know where this attitude comes from but this is how I operate.
So, I have to be careful as many Westerners jump into conclusion that it means YES to all conditions. That would have been absurd.
Specially marriage. That is journey, ideally through eternity. At least till death. So, when we know the ideal assumptions of marriage, as far as time is related then we need to look at other aspects. First is that it comprises of two parts. One internal, that includes only two people and even children are out of it. That is the core. It does not matter what happens outside, this core is decisive in many ways. Then the outside shells. Starting with children and parents.. extending to other family, friends, neighbors and so on.. government of'course etc. If core is strong, the rest has less power over it.
As Gareth pointed out, it is different when two people are let us say two young people, bred and raised in one province under keen eye of their parents and peers, the other is when they are product of many years of varied life experience.. Experience that for years not only forged their characters but created their belief system, that is amalgamation of every possible facet of life as it is experienced on both sides of the globe. Knowing that Possibly two Americans and two Chinese can be as different in some aspects as Italian restaurant owner is different to Australian outback trucker. That even complicates even further. So, if you think that you know the West you need to be further instructed. The same goes for the East. Apart from that, I think we have this situation:
China seems to me a country where there is a tradition pressure on one side, on the other side there is a pressure to survive and prosper. also, there is a pressure to limit population growth, in the culture that has been promoting family for ever like no other.
Tough cake. I think the most important is the health of the people in this case. Having children in such situation is an ice topping.
For most, because in normal circumstances none of them would have been married anyway. If two older people, let us not be afraid of that harsh statement meet, that means they had difficulty to make it happen when they were younger. That gives them 50% certainty that they fail. By failure I mean not to get together in the first place.
So, once they have managed to do it, and there is some fate in it (so, it means that both wanted and there is enough support from others for this venture) they should think this way:

We have scored, because we are together and the most important is love, that means acceptance and enjoyment of another.
Now, whatever happens we need to make sure we survive and get stronger, financially and so on..
If something happens we will accept it. Meaning if wife gets pregnant we will be happy. We will make sure is is healthy and so on.
If not, we already have a positive score.
Chinese are probably the most adaptive people, so do not think that they cannot take it. Everyone is resistant to change so it is perfectly normal. Once you get going it becomes fine even very nice.
As for the rest, I think that we are all afraid that our aims and goals can get torpedoed or compromised at some point and we all would like to say :
I am going to start this venture or that adventure and watch my success.
Yet if you think that this is not 100% sure, then you are afraid that others will scoff at you, once you have failed. Culture of competition is there still. So, this way they hope to discourage you from further tries. And chances of failure are high.
You need to prepare very well and be flexible then determined and trust fate. You should be careful otherwise indomitable.
You must convince yourself and then others,starting with your wife that you are , you have succeeded already.. In the thing that is already done or even in the future..Yet, you need to know that, not presume that.
SO, if you do not know that they you might seem vague or hide some parts or all of your life and intentions.
@sandy339 Everyone needs space to do their own thing.
Yet, it should be done is a fluid way, otherwise first thing that would go is sex. Definite NO NO> Second is marriage. So, two people have no boundaries at all. Then start building boundaries to allow normal operation.
This is what happens when a couple is very hot towards each other.
Like young people. They may do that. Later to function they have to back off a bit.. If they still are interested then their marriage will work.
Or alternatively, I think better option: Start squishing boundaries until all operates well and better. When starts to interfere with individual life too much, then you know you need to stop.. Or even back out a bit.
I think that rule applies to anything. Not just marriage or being together.
Good luck we all need it.


#2017-02-01 12:19:55 by Anniehow @Anniehow

The way I see it, "instant life partnership" expectation is not the reserved right for Chinese- foreigner dating. It has a lot more to do with age and life stages. With young couple in their 20s, extended period of relationship before marriage (2to3 years) is normal. When you are in your 30s and above, especially for divorcees, the expected duration for relationship before marriage is much shorter. There are regional and individual differences as well. Generally speaking, the pace to marriage is much faster in the countryside and small towns. Exposure to Western culture makes a difference in this regard too. 

 

Cohabitation before marriage is common in China nowadays. However, cohabitation without marriage is frowned upon. It is an indication of lack of stability and genuineness, which violates the number one requirement in relationships and marriage. In many countries in the West, " cohabitation" appears on legal documents in marital status while it is non existent in China. The tradition and legal system simply does not  acknowledge it. With its long history and tradition, women's reputation is tarnished and at stake in such circumstances.

 

As Gareth pointed out in other blogs, meeting important family members is an important signal rather than a casual " let's get to know each other's family". There are important milestones which seem insignificant to foreigners yet understood in high-context Chinese culture. Poor clueless foreigner's might scratch their heads due to failure to meet the requirements. 

 

As far as closeness is concerned, many Chinese couples are not comfortable living with their parents either. It is important that the couple have a common ground in terms of distance and closeness otherwise it is a recipe for disaster.

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