Three Conversations All Foreign Women Have Had in China

Sometimes, “Will you marry me?” isn’t really a compliment.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

December 25, 2020
By May Guo
Not the amazing ChinaPedlar, but her slightly less talented friend.

At least once a week, I try a thing that scares me, just to make sure my heart gets a workout. That thing is speaking Chinese.

It can lead to cultural insights, friendships, and a reinstalled faith in humanity. Mostly though, the conversation follows the all too familiar template of those outlined below, and I end up with an extremely awkward compliment.

Disclaimer: my Chinese is far from expert, so more nuanced parts of these conversations may have been lost in translation. However, all stories are true.

Conversation 1
Stranger profile: Chinese male, post-high school, profession unspecified

Man: “You are tall/beautiful.”
Me: “Thank you…..that’s kind.”
Man: “Are you married?”
Me: “No…..”
Man: “Would you marry a Chinese man?”
Me: “Yes.” Assuming we are mutually attracted to each other and could settle balancing our careers, and come to compromises on international living, having multiple definitions of home, thoughts on kids, and the possibility of a long distance relationships.

(FYI, these caveats are beyond my Chinese level.)

Man: ” Would you marry me?”
Me: “…….ha..ha.. Maybe?”

The first time this happened, I thought it was an outlier. By the 10th, I had started to question whether I was being seen as some sort of magic unicorn. 

Normally, this conversation sends me on a rollercoaster of emotion something like the 7 stages of grief: shock, guilt, anger, depression, testing, acceptance. Where do these phrases come from? Some archaic textbooks written in 1986 after the modernization of Chinese grammar?

My phrases are controlled by the Confinusis institute/HSK system that often makes younger Chinese people say I sound like their grandparents, or name my textbook. Do these men think these are ok questions to ask a stranger? Are they actually curious? Would they ask them to a Chinese girl? Am I actually a magical unicorn?

Conversation 2
Stranger profile: An Ayi (literally “Auntie”, an affectionate term for an older woman)

Ayi: “You are tall. Is your hair real?”
Me: “Yes, very tall. My hair is real.”
Ayi: “Your legs are long.”
Me: “Yes, very long.”
Ayi: “Your Chinese is good!”
Me: “No, I …” 
Ayi: *grabs my arm* “Let’s take a picture! Smile!”

At this point, there is no escape, as I do not punch the elderly. To earn my freedom I need to smile, before saying “thank you” and making a run for it as they check the pictures. Beware of any friends they may have and particularly of  five-star cultural heritage or natural parks, as many can be found in these locations.

I am always confused about why they would want a picture of me. Reflecting on the question, I remember that 98 million foreign nationals visited China in 2018. If this sounds like a lot, I must remind you that only 60% of China’s population lives in cities, usually the only places foreigners can be found (Shanghai alone holds 25% of all foreigners in China). Then you add in the fact that a “foreign national” means from any country, and of any decent; most Chinese I have talked to don’t consider you a “foreigner” if you look Asian. Was it really that I was as rare as a magic unicorn?

Conversation 3
Stranger profile: Middle-class mother and child 

Mom to the child: “Talk to the foreigner!”
Child:”…… No.”
Mom to the child: “Say hello, and your name!”
Child: “….. No.”
Mom: *stares in disappointment, probably cursing the thousands she has spent on English tutoring*
Child (eventually): “Hello! My name is Mike / Sarah / Dragon / Blue / Flower. What is your name?”
Me: “Hello! My name is May. How old are you?”
Child: “I am 5. Nice to meet you.”

At this point, I realize the child speaks more English than I speak Chinese, and I don’t know what else to say.

Me: “Do you like cake?” 

Mom: “Thank you for talking to my child. I am constantly trying to have them practice. Are you an English teacher here in China? My child loves their teacher Michael/Sarah/Michelle. Do you know them?”

At this point, I realize the mother speaks English better than I do.

Me: “Your child speaks well! Actually, I’m not a teacher, so I don’t know Michael/Sarah/Michelle, but they must be a good teacher.”
Mom: “Wow, that’s very uncommon. You must be very intelligent and driven.”


Maybe I actually am a magical unicorn. But until I grow a sparkly horn to prove it, I’m just going to talk more with children.


  1. A good chuckle! I can well imagine how any foreigner travelling in China outside the obvious places must be an item of great intrigue.

    Even in my ordinary holiday times in the 60s mostly I was always fascinating to the country folk because I was interested in their regional food and not the ‘English’ food they thought they had to provide.

    Over Christmas we watched a film about Maria Callas (a well known opera singer of 50/60s) she was mobbed wherever she went. Of course it is true even in these days that Opera Singers and musical performers are always travelling and live in hotels and probably never have a normal relationship with anyone, being constantly on the move. What price fame eh?

    Simone XXX 34 Jesmond Park Court Newcastle upon Tyne NE7 7BW


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