One of the oddest things I observed in China was the difference between men and women. I arrived with an open mind, ready to observe and absorb as much as I possibly could. One of the first things I noticed was this difference, which at first presented physically – they look different – but afterwards the differences seemed to go further than merely skin deep.
Not long after I arrived in Beijing I had someone explain to me the different ethnic groups of China. By far the largest group was the Han, but there were also the Mongols, from whence many of the Chinese emperors had come. Around the borders there were different ethnicities, and throughout the country many different physical types – the taller, more robust, Mongols, the round faces of those living near the coast, and so on.
Obviously there are great variations then, but by and large Asian women are reasonably attractive, and Chinese women no less. I walked the streets looking about me. As a heterosexual male my eyes were drawn to the women, but I observed also the men going about their business. To my surprise I found the men seemed different from the women, almost made different it appeared. Of course there are every type, but the women were finer boned, delicate, obviously feminine; the men trending towards the portly as they aged, their skin more coarse, their frame stubby. It seems a strange situation where they both come from the same stock that on the one side they can be pretty, and on the other often downright ugly. God knows how many times I saw a 6/7/8 rated woman walking down the street with a 4/5/6 bloke.
It’s not always the case of course. There are good looking Chinese men, and occasionally very good looking men, but there are far fewer in proportion than there are women. A lot of Chinese men start off well, but age far worse that their female counterparts. A lot of that is how they look after and present themselves. In youth there appear many fresh faced guys who look destined to be attractive men. In the many taxis I caught in my travels I would look upon the identity card fixed on the passenger side sun-visor and generally observe there a young man with a smiling face and a full head of hair. Not bad. Turning to my left I would then look upon the same man 10 years on, balding, pot bellied and poised to spit out of the car window. Not good.
Though there is a distinct physical gap, there appears a gap in attitude also. I probably spoke to twice as many Chinese women away than I did men, and before you go and tell me that’s because I’m a randy male the truth is that the women were so much more open to conversation, and so much more curious. I can’t explain it, but in general the women seemed more spirited, and often with a cheeky perspective to share. The men seemed generally uninterested, and turned inward.
How do you explain this? Well, I have theories, some of which I’ll get to later, but the leading idea right now is that the women are more outgoing because they have to deal with Chinese men. Chinese men appear often as sexist, close-minded and bad mannered. It’s not necessarily personal, but cultural. They inherit a philosophy where women come second, and are treated as such – even though many will readily admit that at home the missus rules the roost. In comparison Chinese women see western men as more gentlemanly and considerate, rightly or wrongly. They are open to the possibility then, and curious to discover when western men become available. They cop some bad press for this, but is there really any wonder?
My friend Fong went to China about 18 months ago to teach English. She’s an ABC – Australian born Chinese – and actually had to learn Mandarin again before going there. She is an Australianised Chinese then, with a very modern sensibility. She’s quite assertive, even for a western woman, and outrageously so for an Asian. On her return she described her romantic adventures to me. She’d been with about 14 men while away, and not one of them Chinese. This she explained dismissively – Chinese men were ill mannered and uninteresting, and furthermore she scared most of them. That I could understand – she scares plenty of male caucasians too. To a Chinese man looking for a submissive partner she’d have seemed terrifying.
I found much of this disturbing while I was in China. So many men appeared as chauvinistic oafs with terrible personal habits and insubstantial personality. I found myself stopping so many times to take in the unexpected. Once in Hangzhou I was at the bus station to go to Huangshan. Every transport hub in China has the x-ray machine in which you must place your bags before proceeding. I was approaching this at the same time as a girl of about 16. I gestured for her to go ahead of me, which is how we’ve been brought up, to which she responded with a surprised and delighted smile, so unused to it she was. Fancy that! But before she had a chance to proceed a group of four Chinese men about 20 years old jumped in front of her without a thought, one even unconsciously shouldering her aside. How typical it was.
I know I sound disdainful. Often I was. I remember another time waiting in a queue for a taxi at a railway station. It was a long, but orderly queue. Then, as I’d observed previously, one guy who had joined the queue at the back sidled up to the front and pushed in. Though everyone else was observing the courtesies of the line no-one demurred as he stepped in front of them, except me. I’d seen this maybe 8-10 times before, and each time a bloke. This time I’d had enough. Somewhat futilely I yelled out to him in English, “hey, the line starts back here.” He looked at me uncomprehendingly. Others looked at me too, understanding I think, but unwilling to make a fuss. To them I was just an eccentric gaijin. They were used to this casual rudeness and accepted it.
If no-one ever protests or complains nothing will ever change. By and large Chinese men have it good, and know no better. I remember in Shanghai speaking to a young bartender there. He was a university student by day, and complained with a smile that Chinese universities are no good because all the students play on their PS3 or Xbox all night and barely bother attending class. He also said that when he gets married and has a child he hopes it will be a girl. “Why?” I asked him. Because boys are too expensive. He went on to explain to me how boys are looked after by their parents, and properly set-up when they venture out into the world. “That doesn’t happen with girls?” I asked. “No,” he said, smiling.
Maybe that makes the girls more spirited and self-sufficient, and the boys complacent?
Though I wished it different I struggled to take many Chinese men seriously. Some of that was purely superficial. So many times I would look at them and think they were no bigger than a 15 or 16 year old back home. For the most part I was a good 5-7 inches taller than the average. They seemed like boys to me. And while that seems a trite observation often their maturity seemed to match. It’s often the case that men mature later than women, but in China there were few men under 30 I met who had the gravity of true maturity. They seemed lightweight, when so many women seemed full of interesting substance.
There were exceptions of course. In Beijing I spent an evening at a very cool cocktail bar (Mei) chatting with the owner while he mixed a succession of very interesting cocktails for me. He was urbane, intelligent, obviously ambitious, and very curious. He plied me with questions all night and the conversation zigged and zagged in different directions. In Shanghai I had a similar experience with another cocktail bartender. On the train to Shanghai I met a software developer, and at a restaurant the manager who was full of ideas. They seemed modern men, models for the new China. They were exceptions though. For every man like this I met half a dozen vibrant women. The women are freer I think, without the pressure of expectation and therefore more open to ideas and opportunity, and more curious about what may come.
Am I being harsh? I’ll let you be the judge.