Tonight after 10 o'clock, Beijing's bars and club will come to life, celebrating the official start of the weekend once again. The lighting will be ambient, the music beating a stimulating tempo, and, with every glass of liquid courage imbibed, the night owls will start prowling. Guys will be hitting on girls, girls will be hitting on guys, and all the permutations in between.
One group of lonely, frustrated folks in the corner won't be participating - the Western women.
A 20-something American friend complained to me recently, "I feel invisible in Beijing. The other day I walked by a table of Western men at a caf and nothing happened. Back home, I would've expected at least a head turn!"
Is it true? Are Western women "invisible" in this town?
I've heard this complaint often - that male expats find no trouble romping around their new host city while female expats are perpetually hanging out in the dating doldrums.
As I set out this week to investigate the truth - or myth - behind this urban tale, I initially came across this scathing review of the gender and cultural inequality in our beloved city.
"Men come to Beijing and they fall - it is a city of fallen men," said a female professional.
It's easy to set the blame squarely on the men. Most of the women I talked to banded together to bolster their claim that it's a simple case of Western men having no standards when it comes to romance in Beijing.
But that sees like a sweepingly unfair judgment when we stop to look at the many fair ladies here gracing the arms of Chinese and Westerners alike.
The men, of course, see the matter in a different light. They say they're just taking "cultural exchange" very seriously during their time in Beijing.
One man told me, "Some of us are here for the whole experience, so we experiment with cultural and ethnic diversity."
Another put it a little more bluntly: "I think white girls here are at a disadvantage because a lot of white males here have some degree of yellow fever. There are Western guys that are only into Chinese girls."
Perhaps this explanation, although unfair, is somewhat understandable. After all, do we blame the gourmet traveler for sipping champagne when in Champagne?
But, if yellow fever is the culprit it does beg the question, "Don't Western women catch the yellow fever too?"
Apparently not. At least not according to the popular opinion in my survey sample. Some female expats themselves readily admit that they just aren't attracted to Chinese men, much to the dismay of some of those men.
An Asian-American told me his woe of being part of an unloved cohort: "The media just doesn't portray us as sex objects. It gets even worse with Western women because the height factor alone is a problem. Women want to date tall guys and a lot of us Asian men are smaller than the white girls."
Physical attraction is certainly important, but it isn't everything, even in the fickle mood that seizes the bar crowd late at night. There seems to be a cultural factor that plays to the advantage of Western male-Chinese female relationships, but doesn't translate well into Western female-Chinese male pairings.
Quite simply, the issue is that "Chinese guys are just less aggressive."
This culturally gentler approach becomes a double whammy - against the favor of female expats - when a Chinese man considers his approach in a social setting.
One man broke it down for me as such, "I think Chinese guys are intimidated by white girls, all the while being curious about them. I don't think they have the guts to approach them."
There are exceptions to the rule, but overall, the young Beijingers I grilled about gender, culture, race and dating agreed that acceptable levels of "aggression" is a big part of the problem.
One European woman, who has had plenty of luck in love in the capital, told me her secret: "One thing that almost every Chinese guy has told me is, 'You're so quiet and soft. You're not like the other Western women - they're so frightening.'"
But what about women who, like me, are naturally more assertive? Her other secret is not quite simple: "I think I haven't had any problems dating here because I'm actually looking at the Chinese guys when I go out."
There you have it. While physical and cultural factors are behind the distorted dynamics in Beijing's pick up scene, it doesn't hurt anybody's chances to try something new.
For the Western friends who complain of a tough time finding a man in Beijing, maybe looking at a Chinese man tonight is a first step. Proactively striking up a conversation is perhaps the next logical one.
(China Daily 04/09/2010 page29)