After China turned into a popular migrant destination, foreign-Chinese couples became a common sight on the streets of Chinese cities. In my early years of living in China, as a language student in Beijing (2005-2009), I already developed an interest in the romantic relationships I would later study as an anthropologist. My circle of friends included many Chinese-foreign couples, and our love lives were a favourite topic of conversation. These conversations were often marked by circulating beliefs about dating in Beijing for foreigners, such as the idea that Chinese women liked white men, but white women did not like Chinese men. This idea was both widely shared and regularly challenged by couples who proved the opposite. We also debated the contentious position of the white man in the Beijing dating scene. Was he wildly popular for being perceived as rich, handsome and worldly by Chinese women? Or was he regarded with suspicion for possibly being a player or a benguo luse (本国卢瑟)? This term translates to ‘loser back home’ and is popularly used to undermine the admiration that is perceived as being extended to white men too easily.
As an anthropologist, I am interested in questions about mobility and identity. How does mobility lead to new ways of thinking about who we are and affect how we make sense of each other? The ChinaWhite research project led by Shanshan Lan at the University of Amsterdam gave me the opportunity to consider these questions in relation to Chinese-foreign romantic relationships. In this project, researchers Ke Ma, Raviv Litman, Christina Kefala, Aldina Camenisch and Ed Pulford explore the reconfiguration of whiteness in the Chinese context, looking at whiteness in fashion, business, education and romance.
My work, including my recently published Identities article, ‘Breaking all moulds: racialized romance between white/Yang women and Chinese men’, focuses on relationships between white women and Chinese men and analyses how different racial frameworks interact when the meaning of race is negotiated in romantic relationships that are not only racialised, but also international and multilingual. I pay special attention to the yangxifu (洋媳妇). The term yangxifu is broadly understood as referring to white women married to Chinese men. It exists of two parts: xifu means ‘wife’ or ‘young, married woman’ and yang translates to ‘foreign’ or ‘western’. Yang does not explicitly refer to skin colour, yet it is only used to refer to foreign wives who are perceived as phenotypically white. What does it mean, then, to be yang? How is it similar or different from being thought of as ‘white’?
The literature on racialized romance has shown that instead of blurring racial boundaries racialized relationships evoke reponses that demonstrate the pervasiveness of racial divisions and beliefs (Childs 2005; Perry & Sutton 2008; Osuji 2013; Steyn, McEwen and Tsekwa, 2019). My Identities article supports that finding and analyses how white/yang women in China confront racism evoked by their relationships. It finds that racializing language is sometimes reproduced through these responses. However, while writing this article, I also experienced the difficulty of writing about race without falling into racializing language. How to analyse the workings of whiteness without reifying whiteness? This question, which still haunts me, will possibly resonate with the women whose writings I analyse in my article.
Image credit: Photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash
Blog post by Willy Sier, Utrecht University, Netherlands
Read the Identities article:
Sier, Willy. Breaking all moulds: racialized romance between white/Yang women and Chinese men. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2022.2154013
Read further in Identities:
What’s love got to do with it? Marriage and the security state OPEN ACCESS
Disjunctive belongings and the utopia of intimacy: violence, love and friendship among poor urban youth in neoliberal Chile
From Modern Loves to Universal Passions: Ethnographies of Love, Marriage, and Globalization
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