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Opposites Attract
Mixed couples are on the rise as China embraces globalization
By Jacques Fourrier | NO. 47 NOVEMBER 19, 2015

A German husband purchases lanterns with his Chinese wife and their daughter in Liuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, on January 23, 2012 (CFP)

Nowhere in Beijing are mixed-race couples more conspicuous than in the Sanlitun neighborhood, once known for its seedy bars, now home to top international brands and trendy restaurants. Hidden behind a pillar near the Apple Store, and holding a professional 300-mm lens, Mr. Zhang is taking photographs of mixed couples.

"It's a hobby. I come here every weekend," he explains unabashedly in his broad Beijing accent. "Some of us have a blog and we post the best pictures," he says, pointing out a group of amateur photographers in the distance.

James Huang and his wife Viola (JACQUES FOURRIER)

A popular trend 

Since China adopted the opening-up policy in 1978, marriages between foreigners and Chinese nationals have increased dramatically. Figures from China's Ministry of Civil Affairs show that the number of such marriages as well as those involving Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan residents and Chinese living overseas approached 80,000 in 2003. Since then, this trend has bottomed out at about 50,000 per year in recent years. Mostly specific to large cities, mixed marriages are now ubiquitous in China.

Although mixed couples are predominantly composed of Chinese females and foreign males, the big picture is more complex. For instance,

Viet Nam is known for providing "mail order" brides to regions in China where gender imbalances are alarming. Moreover, women from Russia are much sought-after partners in north China. From 2004 to 2012, the number of Chinese men marrying Russian women was double that of Russian men marrying Chinese women in Moscow, according to a report from Russia's news agency RIA Novosti, which called the former the "perfect match under the sky."

James Huang, 31, an entrepreneur from Beijing, met Viola, 21, a fashion student from Vladivostok, three years ago. They have been married for over a year and are perfectly happy. "We met through a website. He sent me nice messages. We met in a cafe in February in Beijing," says Viola.

They communicate in English, a non-native language for both, but they don't think it is a major hurdle. "She has learned Chinese very quickly," explains Huang.

What is their recipe for success? "Learn the culture, learn the language, and learn to know each other," says a beaming Huang.

Siya Wang is a real cosmopolitan. At 24, she already has a master's degree from a prestigious business school abroad and works at a Hong Kong-owned bank branch in Shanghai. She met Barak Hurvitz, 23, from New York, a couple of months ago through common acquaintances. Hurvitz has been in China since August, working in higher education.

"There's a lot to learn from each other. We come from different backgrounds," Hurwitz says and adds that even two people from the same country have different life experiences. "Siya has studied in France for two years and I have family in Israel, so I guess we're both international and we've been able to connect that way," he says.

"It can be very difficult if neither have lived in another country or culture," said Wang. "There are lots of things you won't understand. Asian women need a lot of attention; they are not that independent," she commented.

Pride and prejudice

There was a time in China when it was inconceivable to marry a foreigner. However, after China opened its doors, marrying a foreigner was viewed by some as a way to emigrate and bypass the family-planning policy of the time, which limited most urban couples to one child.

Tiffany, 35, from Beijing, divorced five years ago, but was adamant about wanting to remarry and have more children. "I had just divorced and had had a one-year-old boy. I wanted him to grow up in a better environment, but I also wanted to live a better life," she explains. "I joined a dating website and paid for VIP access to profiles of Western men." She eventually chose from three men who traveled to Beijing to meet her over a period of six months. She now lives in Australia where she has given birth to two children.

Envy and contempt go hand in hand. "These Chinese women marrying foreigners are shameless," says a disgruntled Mr. Wu, a man in his 50s. "They just do it for the passport and the money."

Ms. Lu, 31, from Beijing, is more circumspect about saying what she really thinks. "Maybe they want to feel special, but I must say that I would be pleased if I had a mixed-race baby!" she admits.

Deeply ingrained prejudices and misconceptions related to education, manners, wealth and sexual performance cannot change overnight. According to a 2013 Internet survey published by news website, respondents believed that Chinese women were attracted to foreign men for reasons such as sexual performance (35 percent) and financial wealth (31 percent). Further down the line, love and culture ranked poorly, at 6 percent and less than 2 percent respectively.

Conversely, according to the same survey, respondents believed that Chinese men marry foreign women for their beauty (over 30 percent) and the social status such a relationship confers, the so-called "trophy wife" (22 percent).

A psychoanalytical explanation 

Dr. Eric Smadja is a French psychoanalyst. His book, The Couple: A Pluridisciplinary Story,  will be published by Routledge in 2016. According to Smadja, it is necessary to make a clear distinction between a short-term sentimental relationship and a long-term commitment leading to marriage.

"The relationship of short-term couples is mainly based on erotic satisfaction and is associated with a narcissistic component. That's why breakups occur frequently," he noted. "However, in a long-term relationship, when two people live together, there are fundamental mechanisms of defense and protection at play, which will benefit the couple."

Foreigners have become a common sight in China, many of them being single men. "Men may either feel the need to break away from the restraining realities of daily life or react against norms, practices, ideals and values for the sake of adventure. They believe they will find what they are looking for with a Chinese woman," Smadja says. "In China, [the foreigner] can break free from unconscious taboos and constraints and do what wouldn't be tolerated in his native country."

For Smadja, the representation of the Chinese woman in Western eyes is linked to sensuality, but also to her devotion to a husband or her role as a "good mother." "Some men would just allow themselves to behave differently from an erotic and social perspective and thus feel 'liberated' from internal constraints," he said.

From the Chinese woman's perspective, Smadja thinks that their image of the Western man is often idealistic and overrated. "Being seduced by a Western man would therefore reinforce self-image. The benefit is mostly narcissistic, whereas for the Chinese man, it is both narcissistic and erotic," he said.

As for mixed couples that become parents, Smadja sees other key factors. "It is possible to imagine some sort of unconscious opposition to a [traditional] parental model, a display of hostility and rebellion to family norms and values. We could put it down to counter-identification to the father and the mother. But it might also be an attempt to protect oneself from an emotional dependence through geographical and cultural distance," he adds. "In that regard, marrying a foreigner would be a defensive solution to oedipal anxieties."

The author is a French journalist living in Beijing 

Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan 

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