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Gender and Relationships: Reflecting on Experiences in Asia

Christoffer Birch-Jensen & Matt Gantz


As part of our semester abroad programs, the two of us - Christopher Birch-Jensen and Matt Gantz - studied in China and India, respectively. Reflecting on our time in Asia, we realized the concept of relationships came up more often than anything else. Our backgrounds and lives in the West allowed us to interpret these Asian countries' relational norms from a more critical standpoint. We were two Caucasians immersed in culturally walled Asian cultures that have only recently begun hesitantly accepting Western influences. The signs of this intrusion are clear in advertising, business cultures, and now there is even a growing detachment from original cultural values as people begin accepting Western ideals in their daily lives. This transition is prominent in the context of relationships. What follows is a split narrative of our attempts as Westerners at understanding male and female relationship practices, illustrations of how they are constructs of both regional and Western influence, and assertions of how these relationship norms affect gender equality in China and India. As will be discussed, much of what we experienced in our respective countries was unlike what we expected. To begin, Christoffer expands on his experience as a Swedish native introduced into Chinese society. Matt then follows with his views on Indian society as an American entering the country. 


I am not a big fan of the relationship-forming methods used in China because it has on more than one occasion caused confusion and frustration for me as I try to determine what the "right thing to do" should be. Its counter-intuitive rituals and its "one step backwards, two steps forward" process can be a major source of headaches and anxiety. Still, it has been something I have had to learn our of necessity: the law of the jungle applies to dating as well. Swedes, a heavily Americanized people, are especially fond of the concept of relational freedom and independence. The result is that they are masters at causing relationship confusion with the unlearned mind. 

To my relief, after having spent four months studying, living on campus, becoming a part of campus life, and teaching English at a Chinese College in Zhuhai, China, I have noticed that the relationships develop in a different way in this Middle Country. To the unexposed, strangely reasonable. My own prejudice, born from living in both the U.S. and Sweden during my adult life and combined with my (un)fortunate luck of being considered close to the beauty ideal, laid the basis for my experiences in China. Although limited in terms of time and depth, during my stay in China I spent most of my time on or around my college's campus witnessing how students akin to my age progress through the different stages of a relationship, from the awkward first date to the painful breakup.


The relationship model in India, too, is its own unique an­imal, though it seems to be much more intricate than Chi­na's, and more analogous to many U.S. facets. As a part of the new Global Business in India program, I spent four months working with five other male business students in the state of Karnataka. Suffice to say that during marginal free time I was determined to vary any gender interactions. Through a combination of volunteering and miscellaneous happenings in Bangalore, I managed to make solid connec­tions with two female twenty-somethings living in the city -Deepika and Madhura. I will explain my new

connec­tions for what they truly were: friendships, and nothing more. They never matured beyond that point for multiple reasons, which will be outlined below. 

Romantic Pursuits

(MG continued) As Deepika, Madhura and I were first becoming acquainted, my experience with their potential courtship rituals seemed similar to those utilized by Americans, albeit American teenagers. Young American teenagers. During our first few encounters, I listened to an overwhelming number of he's-so-cute-but-you 're-good­looking-too stories. Their intent was explained toward the end of my time in India -an attempt at combining jealousy and flattery. This wicked concoction certainly exists elsewhere, and it evokes memories of middle school trysts and romantic pitfalls I thought had previously been blocked from my memory. It seems like this type of com­parative flirtation is a dominating aspect of all forms of communication for younger generations in India. However, considering the overall conservative culture, face-to-face exertion of this style tends to take people aback, male and female alike. Instead, the younger population utilizes its new sense of online independence through smartphones and mobile applications such as Facebook chat and Whatsapp messenger service. Both from my experiences and local accounts, this mass of mediated connection does eventually turn into a very tame form of legitimate dating. The goals of initial dates here pertain to genuine knowl­edge of the other person: they want to learn about each other's past, families (which are of the utmost importance here), interests, and even more serious subjects. Because of this information-gathering dating style, those first dates can be extremely long, ranging from being the last ones to leave a coffee shop to "it's 6:00 a.m. and we might as well get breakfast because we've been talking since dinner." The latter can actually happen quite often, and it never ceases to shock me. Long walks through one of Banga­ lore's many gardens are also considered a part of this list, as well as anything generally in the public's eye - so that people never have a chance to get the wrong impression.



In some ways, social media in India and China seems to be to dating what training wheels are to the inexperienced bi­cyclist. It provides a comfortable means of communication and a certain level of anonymity. It also makes looking for a partner a little less intimidating, giving even the shiest and most insecure person the chance to flirt, socialize, and creep on a person of interest.

Similar to India, WeChat is the bread and butter of relationship-seeking youngsters. It has a match-making feature where you shake your device and WeChat finds other users nearby. WeChat is widely used as a form of staying up to date (read: creeping) on someone, and also as a casual way of getting to know others. Once a sufficient amount of chatting has been carried out, the next step, the first date, often takes place at a cafe or pastry and dessert place where the relationship can continue to grow with the aid of the initial social media chatting as fertilizer. The usage of social media for courtship is not exclusively a Chinese phenomenon -ask any Facebookjunky - but it hints towards the maturity level of dating and courtship rituals in China. 

From the interaction I have had with universi­ty-aged youths in China, most have had very little experi­ence with relationships: the majority are just now starting to look. To an outsider from a very liberal country such as Sweden, the stories I have been told bring back the

memo­ries of middle and high school drama. Recently, a Chinese friend of mine told me that one of her best male friends has stopped talking to her, all because she unknowingly 
invited his ex-girlfriend's friend to dinner, and the friend proceeded to tell him what a bad boyfriend he had been. I have a hard time following the train of thought that leads the blame back to the organizer of the dinner. This petty thinking and blaming stands in stark contrast to the very tangible expectations of long-term relationships, but I suspect that just like the middle and high school drama in Sweden and the U.S., it is all about figuring out the rules, and how to progress in the relationship from there.


Women's Views on Relationships Moving Toward Marriage

(CBJ continued) Being foreign and Caucasian means that I was automatically considered beautiful and handsome. For me, this has resulted in several rather un­comfortable moments. 

"Why are you so handsome today?"

"Your nose is really handsome."

Oh my god are you Chris? You are so handsome!"

This attention is more than enough for me to lose my cool, fumble with a reply and then resort to nervously laughing it off. Less extreme examples are invitation to get coffee, go to singing competitions (which are very popular) and dinner. The directness and boldness took me back at first; it dido 't seem to coincide with the otherwise roundabout nature of the dating scene. Joyce, who is one of the few women I have met who has actually dated a for­eigner, told me, "You are a foreigner. Girls know that you will not stay in China, so they are not afraid to ask you." Although I was considered handsome and interesting, I was not thought of as potential long-term dating material. As Joyce explained this to me, it made sense. Why com­mit to someone if he or she going to leave in the future? That would force one party to forgo his or her country and assimilate into another. What Joyce explained to me next was more surprising: ultimately, parents want their child to marry someone from China. Even though the daughter might be okay with marrying someone non-Chinese, most parents would not allow it - and this holds true for sons as well. This is due in part because children are expected to take care of their parents and in part because foreign­ers are often not thought of as stable life-partners -and hence not suitable for marriage.


The implications for foreigners are obvious: developing a long-term relationship will not only require an open-minded partner, but also parents-in-law who are convinced that the foreigner can support and provide for their child. 


Although I, like Christoffer, was seen as a point of in­terest due to skin color, my newfound Indian friendships grew because of the conservative nature of relationships in India. A foreigner is a rare thing here, and an intimate relationship with a foreigner is necessarily ever rarer. Unlike the Chinese, casual dating is not common, so J was never seen as dating material. A serious relationship with a foreigner would be frowned upon in many Indian circles. 


Arranged marriages still exist in some parts of the country, which can include dowries of money, land, or livestock assets. This is important because it highlights the weight of parents' thoughts in the marriage process. Deepika and Madhura are on the cusp of what I deem city thought, as both had permission from their parents to find their own husbands, and neither could even contemplate being tied down in their early twenties. Based on their avid following of the TV show Friends, they had developed some notions of what was considered common in Amer­ican culture. A major relationship-oriented note was that both found the thought of a live-in relationship fascinating, though they admitted it was nowhere near a tried and true method in lndia. The rarity of that proposal makes it entic­ing to them, but Deepika also countered with the benefits of a marriage orchestrated by parents. The logic here was that it is boring to take the time to fall in love, decide it is time to marry, and then hitch and spend eternity together; it would be more of an adventure to meet a man during wedding preparations and then spend the rest of their lives learning about one another. That noted, she still could not see herself married to one person for an entire lifetime - she'd be bored after four or five years. In most cases, marriage is a largely familial affair, and most Indian families would have objections to any marriage involving foreigners. As Christoffer noticed in China, parents tend to be supported by their kids in old age, and there are comparatively few examples of inter­national weddings: the clash of cultures is just too large. For Indians,

long-term relationships with foreigners would necessarily involve open minds and a certain international mindset that is not common in an elderly population that lacks global experience.


Gender Marriage Expectations

(CBJ continued) One day in China, a female friend showed me a picture of her 6'2" boyfriend, and I replied that he was a handsome looking guy. "Really? I don't think he is handsome. But he is nice, and he treats me well." Although I was surprised by her honesty, it seemed like a very mature answer coming from someone who is still in college. Qualities other than physical appearances, such as personal wealth and education, are seen as crucial to relationships in the Chinese dating and marriage culture. A person with financial means and an accompanying stable profession will appear more attractive because of the promise of being able to raise and support a family. Describing these qualities as bare bone fundamentals is not an exaggeration because without them the prospect of find­ing a partner is slim. Parents spend a great deal of time and money trying to prepare their child for this harsh reality by saving up for both an education and a first apartment.


This does not mean that physical appearances do not matter. In China, gender expectations are quite clear. Gao Fu Shuai (tall, rich and handsome) for men and Bai Fu Mei (white, rich and beautiful) for women are well­known sayings that carry a lot of weight. However, that Fu (rich) is an ideal attribute of both men and women alludes once again to a key aspect of the dating culture in China: money means freedom and stability, an important detail of the dating culture to remember. Money will translate into a secure upbringing for their child, having the financial means to put him or her through college and, if it is a man, afford to buy his first apartment, something that will aid him in finding a wife of his own one day. But of course, having money also means being able to afford the good things in life, something the Chinese are well aware of.



For most individuals living in India, being Indian is necessary before a relationship can even be pondered, let alone pursued. Such is the case with the women I was fortunate enough to meet and befriend during a process I can now safely deem as my induction into the India Friend Zone. This was completely welcomed, but even so, one of my nights consisted of a conversation with Madhura in which she explained how her parents would go mad if she attempted to marry a foreigner. To add to that, her parents wouldn't even accept her desire to marry someone outside their caste, a system that was outlawed during the emer­gence of India as a free state but is still informally used to segregate communities.


During our initial meet-ups over coffee and lunches, I found it odd that Deepika and Madhura were very keen to learn of my strength - my physical strength. This desire soon subsided when they learned that I am a runner and am, according to most Indians I've met so far, unhealthily skinny. They believe a healthy amount of fat means a well-fed individual. Never mind the fact that my lean exterior was often holding a Coke or Snickers bar - they still tended to believe I was malnourished.


The focus on strength takes other forms as well: questions like "Do you know any kind of karate? Jiu-jitsu?" were due to a desire for protection. Recently in r ndia there have been many horrifying accounts of sexual and physical abuse of women by men. Anything from rape to acid torture has been scribed over local newspapers and broadcasted on national television channels; these cases are usually prominent subjects in the news on a near-dai­ly basis. I cannot even imagine living in this culture as a woman. Madhura recounted a late-night motorcycle experience with her ex-boyfriend: they were followed by a car on a highway, and only through some clever turn signals and a quick getaway was the boyfriend able to lose the pursuers. She claims her life was saved that day as she exhales deeply. When confrontation is necessary, these women would prefer to be with men capable of defending any sort of attack. I do not know jiu-jitsu or karate, and frankly confrontation in this matter is not something I will actively seek out.


From a more superficial standpoint, a major attrac­tion factor for these women is whether a guy is good-look­ing or not. Unlike Christoffer's experiences with women who prefer genuine nice qualities, truly attractive men, in their minds, receive what equates to movie star compli­ments - they swoon over tall men with white smiles and gelled, healthy hair. And if those men can dance or utilize some other unique talent, the women are completely smit­ten. Deepika's heart skipped a beat - apparently - when I was able to recite the first few lines of Sir Mix-A-Lot's Baby Got Back. I cannot claim to be terribly proud of that moment. To be fair, the Indian view of relationships is almost entirely long-term, whereas in China, as di;cussed, there exists a casual nature to some dating. But with all of this discussion of the opposite sex, I noticed Deepika and Madhura were also incredibly hesitant to talk to men. They may find one attractive, but that attraction only amounts to watching from afar, too afraid to break possible social boundaries and establish a conversation out of the blue.



It is almost impossible to discuss courtship and marriage in China without bringing up the country's one-child policy. When faced with an exploding population in 1979, Beijing decided to limit couples to only one child, which has had foreseeable as well as unexpected consequences. There is a disproportionately large male population due to the fact  that, in many parts of China, boys are considered more de­sirable since they carry on the family name. The one-child policy has also made the competition for suitable partners tougher. Since couples only have one child, they are most interested in making sure he or she finds a suitable partner. Characteristics which we in the West might view as only "bonuses" of dating someone, such as a secure income and high social status, are fundamental requirements for marriage in China. As in many developing countries, the male and female roles in life are more rigid than what they are in the West. Women are first and foremost caretakers of the household and, given the regulation on childbirth, there is a sense of "having to get it right the first time" when it comes to the upbringing of children. This mindset results in the full-time job of raising, educating, and guiding the child through life falling on the wife.



In India, after all the courtship - or lack thereof - has taken place, the topic of marriage in India becomes one of long-term expectations. These expectations, from both parties involved in the typical Indian marriage, involve hefty sacrifices and necessities. In the most conservative frame of thought, there is no sense in pondering marriage as a male if you do not make a sum of money large enough to support you and a possible wife. Christoffer noted the importance of monetary wealth in Chinese society for dat­ing prospects, and stability is key in India as well. Males should be prepared to shoulder the monetary commitments of a two-person household, and they should probably be prepared to add a couple children to that list, though not many more: the average household statistic seems to be leveling off at the 4-5 range. Women sometimes must prepare for a big sacrifice: if a marriage is dependent on the man's income, she must be ready to move to wherever his job sends him. Madhura described an old friend who abruptly moved from Bangalore to Chennai as a newly­wed. This was so abrupt that Madhura only learned of the immediate move two days after the fact-via text message, no less. This sacrifice embodies the sometimes assumed fe­male role in a marriage: the housewife. Cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children. Men are the bread winners and women are the child bearers. As the woman takes care of the house, the man provides stability.


Patriarchal Thinking

(MG continued) Although not all gender interac­tions in India are poor, what was elucidated from my time with Indian females was the dominance of patriarchal thought and how that in turn shapes characteristics that are considered ideal for male spouses. Women need the protection of men, and they need men to make money. This assumed reliance only serves to circulate an outdated mindset. Before India can grow and develop holistically, it must first continue to foster a sense of gender equality that is already beginning to show in some areas, most notably the large, urban cities. As a part of the old mindset, some areas of lndia still have intolerably high female mortality rates. This stems from a number of issues, including the arranged marriage notion of a dowry provided by the family of a daughter to the family of the groom. In some cases, this marital burden imposed on women makes them a less­
than-desired outcome of pregnancies. Much like the issues faced by the Chinese and the

one-child policy, this cultural value has caused so much of an issue that sonograms were outlawed in the entirety of lndia in order to prevent sex-re­lated selection processes. 

As for the present, what remains is an abnormal man to woman ratio. Walking through the streets and pass­ing dozens of men while only seeing a handful of women is disconcerting, but very real. India is at a pivotal point in its nation story in many ways, but the role and view of women will play an integral part of the country's further development.



It is abundantly clear that relationships in China are part­nerships. Despite China's phenomenal growth (the fastest of any country ever to exist, including the U.S.), marriage expectations have not necessarily undergone the same progression. As discussed, although some changes have happened, women are expected to labor at home while the man provides for the family. Some of the college-aged men that I have talked with said this is exactly what they want -a wife whose job is to stay at home and take care of their child. This is the woman's part of the partnership, while the man's part is to provide for the family by mak­ing enough money to support all three of them. Although the male standpoint on this seems somewhat unyielding, women are becoming more independent and more inclined to pursue a career of their own.


As China becomes more open, I would expect 
the patriarchal view that right now exists to change in a direction that benefits women. If the latest easement of the of the one-child policy, which allows families to have two children if one parent was an only child, will speed things up, then the change is yet to be determined. It might be too little, too late.


There are many fascinating changes taking place within these two distinct Asian societies, and we have experienced only a limited immersion due to time and cul­tural constraints. Although some nuances were left undis­covered during our time in China and India, one certainty is that gender plays a significant role in daily life and how community members are treated. Gender expectations and behaviors are at the roots of individuals' views of marriage as well as how individuals of opposite sexes interact with each other. We have experienced many beautiful cultural components, and we have witnessed some of the cultural underbelly either directly or indirectly. As these two countries mature and develop cultural bonds with Western countries, it will be crucial for regional thought leaders to develop a sense of gender equality that is not yet universal in these areas. 

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