In Guangzhou, I know researchers, mostly PhD students, who are interested in inter-racial relationships between Africans and Chinese. Mainly, the focus is romantic relationships or marriages between African men and Chinese women. A documentary is being made on this subject, too. Seemingly, there are few romantic relationships or marriages between Chinese men and African women. I’ve seen an online video of a Chinese man proposing to an African woman. It’s uncertain if anything went beyond that. I’ll discuss this dynamic further below. Here, I’d like to point out that while there’s interest in African-Chinese relationships in Guangzhou, there hasn’t been a whole lot of interest in Chinese-African relationships or marriages in African countries. Researchers, focused on Chinese in Africa, mostly deal with business relationships or economic partnerships; and the actors are presumably all male. Let’s think further about why there is an interest in one and not the other.
“African women don’t like Chinese men,” I’ve heard that tossed around in Xiaobei, a neighborhood in Guangzhou city. But why? I’ve been given a view from African female sex workers. The gist of it is Asian men are not good sex partners. Does this mean that African men are more sexually attractive to Chinese women or they have an affinity for African men? Then there’s one explanation that suggests there’s no mutual feeling of love, and marriages between African men and Chinese women is purely an economic arrangement (see Afro-Chinese marriages boom in Guangzhou). Specifically, Chinese women marry African men because they have money and African men need Chinese business partners to cope with the language and overcome legal barriers in starting up a business in China. This economistic view goes on to say that marriage offers a foundation for trust that is crucial between business partners. This view intimates that Chinese women are “gold diggers,” who’d readily sell themselves to anyone with money. The image could be understood in at least two ways: one, they are easy or two, they are manipulative “dragon ladies” – both are existing orientalist ideas of Asian women that portray us as deviant. It’s also racist, as if African men have no other attributes that make them desirable.
For sure, marriages between African men and Chinese women do entail economic considerations, just as in any marriage in any part of the globe. However, the above explanation doesn’t consider culture to be one of the reasons why fewer Chinese men have crossed the racial line when it comes to romantic relationship and marriage. Courting, as I have come to understand, only occurs when there’s the intention to marry the person. China is a patriarchal society. Men are expected to carry on the families’ bloodlines or surnames. This pressure to continue the lineage, in a way, serves as a hindrance for Chinese men to enter into relationships with and marry outside the ethnic and race group. No doubt, there’s a notion of “blood purity” in the Chinese notion of lineage that resonates with aspects of the idea of race that Euro-Americans were spreading across the globe in the 19th century.
What the above explanation does not also tell us is that the women in these inter-racial relationships are often not local to Guangzhou (Migrant workers in China). This means that they have hukous or registered residences elsewhere in China. They are also “outsiders” in Guangzhou. Very few actually have sufficient resources to transfer their hukou to the city where they now reside. Being “internal migrants,” marriages won’t give their African husbands access to permanent residence or citizenship in China. And, if the couples have children, the women are required to return to their hometowns to register them; otherwise, the children would be in a state of limbo, which would affect them most when they reach the appropriate age to attend school…unless the couples put their children in private schools (“Undocumented citizens”). What the inter-racial relationships can probably tell us is that more internal migrant women are involved in sectors that put them into direct contact with Africans, who are in Guangzhou for various reasons. If one walks around Xiaobei, one would see far more Chinese female translators working for Africans (men mostly), who are in the city for business. One observation I’ve made during my two years in China is that Chinese women are more willing to try to speak English, even if they’re not fluent.
The above economistic explanation further misses the fact that there are emotions behind these relationships and marriages. A conversation I had with a Chinese woman outside a MacDonald’s one day reveals that there’s love. She and her husband were classmates at university before he started to express romantic interest in her. After college, she didn’t get married immediately. The pressure to marry factored into her decision to accept her husband’s proposal – if I recall correctly, he’s from the Ivory Coast. But, more importantly, she thought he was a good person. She said that racial difference wasn’t as much a problem until their children were born. They have two daughters, and Chinese people react negatively to them when she moves around the city with them. Specifically, Chinese people would pinch their noses in front of her daughters. Other Chinese children wouldn’t play with them at school, too. To compensate for the emotional assault that her children experience daily, they go to modeling school to help build their self-confidence. The day that I met her, she was waiting for the older daughter to finish her modeling class and for the second daughter’s class to begin.
Of course, there are also stories of Chinese women being cheated and abandoned by African boyfriends, who some of these women have children with. These stories are being uncovered in Guangzhou. In Africa, Chinese men are having intimate encounters with local African women even if they’re not marrying them and bringing them home to China. However, why is it that fewer researchers are interested in examining these relationships, some of which are romantic? In my own fieldwork, a Chinese man shared with me that he was living with Black woman in one of the townships when he first arrived in South Africa even though he was already married in China. They had an arrangement – money was exchanged so that they’d appear as a couple – that would allow him to gain residence in the country. In South Africa, foreigners could gain permanent residence through marriage or domestic partnership. This man informed me that it’s a common practice for a period of time, and some Chinese men ended up having children in these arranged households. In the event that children are involved, the men’s lives could become complicated when their wives in China finally join them in South Africa. It’s not the best way for new Chinese migrants to become legal even though it’s the easiest, he told me.
In my view, when it comes to Africans, it seems that most researchers can’t avoid seeing “race.” Race has been consciously or unconsciously linked to Black bodies. In the China context, these Black bodies are viewed as being dramatically different, warranting investigation. There’s curiosity as to how Black and Yellow people get along in a way that I have yet to observe around White and Yellow people. There’s also curiosity around the children that African men and Chinese women produce while children of EuroAmerican-Chinese couples are simply regarded as beautiful. In China, there are probably more White (including EuroAmerican, Russian, and even Egyptian) men who have Chinese wives and more biracial children from these marriages. But, the research interest doesn’t seem to match up. And, in Africa, Chinese men and African women are intimately involved with one another. But, there seems to be an imbalance in interest concerning inter-racial relationships. What makes Black men’s bodies exceptional and Asian (specifically, Chinese) men’s bodies so unexceptional? African women’s bodies have long been objects of colonial studies, so have Asian women’s bodies replaced them in a postcolonial world…while Asian men remain “asexual?”