Couples like Rupert and Wendi Murdoch make sense when you understand the Chinese approach to love.
Media Baron Rupert Murdoch's wife, Wendi Deng, made international headlines last month after fending off a pie-wielding attacker from coating her husband in shaving cream and embarrassment while he testified before Parliament about his company's phone hacking scandal.
Part of the reason Deng's "slap heard round the world" made such an impact was that it seemed to suggest "I love my husband," rather than "I love my husband's money"—the latter being the assumption many could make about a marriage with a 38-year age gap, especially when the older person is wealthy and powerful. In China, the reaction to that slap was no less surprised, but unlike in the West, this was not the first time the Chinese masses found reason to praise Deng's marriage to Murdoch and his business empire. The first came when she married Murdoch in the first place.
Several years ago, I moved from New York to Beijing. Within a few months of my arrival, I started to notice the differences between Western- and Chinese-style dating. For one thing, men carried their girlfriends' purses—little fake-Chanel pocketbooks, black leather sling bags, enormous pleather numbers with ruffles and rhinestones and tassles. No matter how ridiculously girly it looked, it was always slung over a male shoulder, or dangling from his fingers; with the other, he held his girlfriend's hand. The funniest moments were always when you spotted a guy momentarily alone: maybe waiting for his girlfriend outside a shop, or the women's bathroom. Then what you'd see was a Chinese guy in unassuming clothing—t-shirt, button-down shirt, jeans—holding a frilly bright-pink purse. Then there was the conversation I had with Lu Bin, my first Chinese guy-friend in Beijing. He was a little older than me—in his early 30s—and my go-to source for any and every question I had about this crazy place I'd moved to.
"I definitely approach foreign women and Chinese women differently," he told me over Sichuan food one evening.
"Well, if I ask for a foreigner's number, I don't call her until a week later. But if I'm trying to go after a more traditional Chinese girl, between getting her number and going on our first date one week later, I should have texted and called her at least ten times."
I nearly choked on my Kung Pao chicken. "Ten times in a week?" I sputtered. "Before you've even gone on a date? That's insane! I would think you were a total stalker if you called me ten times in a week!"
I'd had a serious boyfriend for four years in New York, and even at the height of our romance, I'm pretty sure we talked on the phone just under once a day.
"I know Western women think that way," said Lu Bin. "But with a Chinese girl, if you don't call and text her that much, she'll think you're not interested and won't go out with you."
"Wow," I said. "That’s crazy." I was still confident at this early point in Beijing that the Western way was the superior one.
Third, there was the refrain that always came up amongst Chinese girlfriends: "Do you like handsome men or not?" Chinese women ask this question the same way Americans might say, "Are you a dog person or a cat person?" or "What's your sign?" The first time I heard it, I said, confusedly, "What? Of course I like handsome men. Why wouldn't I?" Then the other women around the table chimed in with a conviction that made me realize that they spent a lot of time discussing this topic.
"No, I don't like handsome men. You can never feel secure with them. You never know when they might cheat," said one woman, firmly.
"I like handsome men—I can't help it!" said another woman, with an impish grin.
In Chinese class just a few weeks later, my teacher went around the room asking all the women to say in Chinese whether they liked handsome men. When we'd finished, she shook her head at those of us who'd said yes, and declared emphatically, "Handsome men are bad. It's better that your husband be bald or fat." The Brutal Reason Strong, Independent Women Can't Find Love [VIDEO]
And finally, there were the inordinate number of Chinese artists and musicians I met who all seemed to be married to Western women. The long-haired guitarist who was drunk more often than not, with the pretty German wife. The DJ I always ran into at 4 a.m. whose wife was a high-powered American executive. The abstract painter, the video artist, the singer. All of them had British or Belgian or French wives.
At first, I thought this meant that only Western women were open-minded enough to date and marry men with untraditional lifestyles and without a steady source of income. And the things that Chinese people themselves said seemed to corroborate this theory. My Chinese teacher, Chinese girlfriends, even some of my own relatives in Taiwan—they often like to say that "Western women marry for love." Then the more cynical ones will add, "Chinese women marry for money," while the less critical ones might put it more mildly: "Chinese women marry with their parents and family responsibilities in mind." And both would add, "Chinese women are more pragmatic."
Once again, I believed the Western mindset was superior. Chinese people often point to the high divorce rate in America as a sign that something is amiss, and I, in response, would point to the high prevalence of extramarital affairs in China as sure proof that the Chinese didn't have things figured out either.
And then, over time, my outlook began to change. I got older, for one thing. I was 26 when I moved to China, prone to falling head over heels for the odd German artist or Chinese guitarist, blind to the challenges presented by, oh, drug addiction, depression, or general nihilism—and blissfully ignorant that 1 a.m. is, in fact, not a perfectly acceptable time to receive a drunken call from some handsome devil, suggesting we meet up.
Now, I am closing in on my 31st birthday and my fifth year in Beijing, and find myself looking distantly at the perfectly handsome Danish b-school student or Algerian drug dealer-turned-medical equipment supplier trying to chat me up in a bar, and thinking, "What's the point?"
Then too, I observed one "Western" relationship after the next—among both my expat friends in China and the friends I still kept in touch with back in New York—flounder and fail. The chorus of complaints rang to the same tune: "I'll think things are going great and then suddenly he'll disappear for like, weeks, and then start texting again out of the blue." "He seems all cuddly and into me when we're together, but keeps saying he's not ready for a relationship." "I thought for sure he was going to propose this year. If he doesn't do it by next fall, I'm going to give him an ultimatum."
The excuses my friends gave for their boyfriends also seemed of a similar ilk: "He's really messed up from past relationships and hasn't gotten over them yet." "He just wants his career to be more set before he commits." "It's really my own fault, because I'm not totally sure I want to settle down either, right?"
And finally, I watched those romantic-seeming Chinese-artist/Western-wife combos begin to unravel. The DJ—and increasingly, I have started to read "DJ" as a euphemism for "unemployed"—moved out of the posh digs he'd enjoyed through his wife's well-remunerated career, and started sleeping on a friend's couch. A music producer left his pretty Norwegian wife just after she gave birth to their first child, and took up with someone younger. This or that painter seemed to be spending more and more time in Beijing while their wives stayed overseas with the kids, and often appeared out late at night with pretty young things in tow. And why were all these men always out until 5 a.m. anyway? Single In Beijing: Do Chinese Men Cheat? [VIDEO]
Suddenly, I started viewing their marriages less as examples of Western women's greater open-mindedness, and more as evidence that we Western women were suckers, willing to put up with crap that no Chinese woman would ever tolerate.
My Chinese girlfriends, by contrast, seemed to know exactly what they wanted, and made it happen. Two women I knew had "the talk" with their American boyfriends of 5 or more years, and when the men confessed they still weren't sure, broke up with them and within a year were happily pregnant and married to someone else.
Those were the women who went the love route, but even the girlfriends who, by American standards, "settled" and went the "pragmatic" route had a certitude I envied. A sweet coworker at my magazine job quit and moved back home when she turned 30 because, she said, it was time to get married, and she needed to go home and meet the lineup of men her parents had in mind. She seemed to have no doubt that she'd pick someone (no doubt bald and fat), marry him, and be perfectly happy.
It's not that love isn't enough. To say that would be cynical, and I don't believe the Chinese attitude is cynical at all. It's more that my definition of love could expand to something more mellow, something involving a lot less intensity and fevered bouts of poetry-writing on my part, and a lot more serenity and partnership and camaraderie. And yes, perhaps a little thinness of hair and largeness of girth. And a lot less guitar. Maybe I can live without swooning over yet another artist I've convinced myself is the next great mind of our generation, and think more about whether I'll be able to stand having a conversation with this person every morning for 40 years, and how he'll handle a flat tire or the horror-show of what I look like when I have the flu. Can An Artist Love A Diehard Football Fan?
I say all this perfectly cognizant of how anecdotal and flimsy all this evidence is. My attitude towards relationships has changed, so the examples I see among my friends inevitably slant towards cases that support my changing ideas. And there are other factors in play too—New York is always a special case, with its oversupply of women, undersupply of men, and generally skewed air of perpetual youth and singledom. And China distorts the opposite way: it has too many men, which means women can be more demanding there.
But still, no matter where you live, it's good to be reminded that all the things we take for granted about how relationships should be approached, about what we should expect from men and love and marriage, about age differences and levels of attraction—as in the case of Wendi and Rupert Murdoch—are mere accidents of life and experience and culture. There are other attitudes about which other people feel equally certain, and maybe they are worth examining and borrowing from as well. Well, maybe except for the part about making some poor guy carry your purse.
Eveline Chao is the author of NIUBI!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School.