Being Gay and Expat in China

Foreign gay men share their experiences living and dating in the Middle Kingdom

By Yin Lu

Source: Global Times 

When Nick, a 26-year-old chef in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, first moved from his native Russia to China seven years ago, he was seeking out more than job opportunities and an overseas adventure – he was looking for a chance to be himself.

“The gay culture is not very open in Russia,” says Nick, who says he already knew he was gay by the time he was a teenager. By contrast, Shanghai, where he lived for his first few years in China, is home to a vibrant gay scene, with a number of active gay bars and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community groups. Although the community is smaller in Shenzhen, Nick still has a number of friends with whom he feels comfortable sharing his sexual orientation.

But it isn’t just the community that keeps him here; Nick admits that he has a certain predilection for Chinese guys, which has served as another motivation to stay.

“I like Asian people. I like foreigners too, but only as good friends,” he says. “I feel Chinese people are hotter. I can’t say it’s [them being] exotic. I think the reason I like them is they are always happy to meet foreign people, always smiling and being nice.” 

China’s gay culture has come a long way over the past couple decades. It was only in 1997 that homosexuality was decriminalized and in 2001 that it was removed from the list of mental illnesses in the third edition of the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders (CCMD-III). According to the United Nations Development Programme’s Being LGBT in Asia: China Country Report released in 2014, social and cultural attitudes toward homosexuality have begun to shift in China, moving from the less tolerant attitudes linked to traditional Confucian and patriarchal values to greater openness and tolerance.

This is in line with a blossoming of LGBT communities in major cities across China. Beijing, for example, has seen the emergence of a number of gay clubs such as Destination in Chaoyang district, as well as NGOs such as the Beijing LGBT Center.

Changing attitudes toward homosexuality, as well as China’s maturing LGBT community, have also had an unintended effect: making it easier for gay foreigners to establish full lives in China, whereas they may have previously found it too repressive a place to live.

Luke is a popular video blogger on Blued, a dating app for gay men in China. Photo: Courtesy of Luke

Sparks fly when opposites attract

“I like modern guys with a good sense of style, who aren’t afraid to wear makeup, who don’t just work every day but actually go out and do things,” says Nick, who’s currently in an open relationship with his Chinese boyfriend.

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Lucky for Nick, he can afford to be choosy; as an expat, he’s a hot item on gay dating sites and apps. Nick estimates that he receives dozens of messages every day on Blued, a Chinese dating app for gay men along the lines of Grindr or Jack’d. Among them are requests to chat, invitations for dates and snapshots of their private parts. He also does video blogging on Blued, where he sometimes garners up to 1,200 viewers. Broadcasts on the app often feature people talking, singing or dancing; Nick even likes to show off his professional cooking skills on camera every once in awhile.

As with so many foreigners in China, Nick says a common icebreaker among Chinese guys is asking him to teach them English or Russian. Unfortunately, that isn’t the only dating stereotype that carries over into the world of gay romance. In his experience, Nick says it’s also common for Western men to be targeted as potential sugar daddies, recalling one first date in which the guy queried Nick about his income, and then asked that Nick buy him a new phone.

Nick said while some expats feel used when Chinese dates approach them for their language skills, “exotic” looks or presumed wealth, Nick himself is holding fast to his predilection for Asian guys. But he says it’s less a fetish as it is a personal preference. “We are all people. No matter whether you are white, yellow or black. It’s just about what you like. Some like muscles; some like tall people.”

Nick has plenty of time to find his perfect guy. With a stable job, a solid group of friends and a comfortable home complete with a cat, he’s committed to living in China long term. He doesn’t even mind that he can’t get married. “I am young,” he says. “I don’t want marriage yet.”

Thanks to growing mainstream acceptance of China’s LGBT community, including an increase in services like dating apps aimed at this demographic, it’s become easier for gay expats to live and date in China.

The perks and pitfalls of dating as a foreigner

Luke, a 28-year-old Brit living in Nantong, Jiangsu Province, was enjoying a stroll through the park with his new friend, a cute young Chinese doctor, when their conversation came to a screeching halt.

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“He suddenly said, ‘You are from England; they are very open in England. Maybe you could be my boyfriend.’ I was like, ‘No…we just met,'” Luke recalls.

Luke, who works in education, has traveled and lived all across China since coming here in 2012, most recently settling in Nantong.

In that time, he’s found that being young and foreign not only attracts the attention of locals, but adds to his popularity in the gay dating scene, which can sometimes lead to cultural misunderstandings, or, as in this case, an excess of enthusiasm. “Usually, guys want to instantly be your boyfriend,” he said.

Sometimes, instances of Chinese guys coming on too strong, he says, stem from a misapprehension of Western culture.

The doctor, for example, having heard that Westerners were more “direct,” assumed this meant that he should “directly” ask Luke if he wanted to be his boyfriend.

Like Nick, Luke says he often draws more attention than locals on dating apps, which he has mixed feelings about. “There are not a huge amount of foreigners in China compared to my country, so they are just intrigued,” he said. Still, he admitted, the fact that his popularity derives from his “foreignness” makes him feel uncomfortable.

Although Luke is open about his sexuality and is out to all of his family and friends in the UK, he doesn’t plan to come out to his Chinese colleagues. “It would be interesting to tell them and see how they react, but you never know if they will treat you differently.”

Growing acceptance of gay communities

After several visits to China, American Brandon Kerr, 23, decided to move here for good in May to improve his Chinese and explore the job opportunities. According to him, China’s LGBT scene is changing for the better.

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“I’ve noticed more gay couples in public than when I first came, especially downtown and in more international parts of Beijing,” he said. Among his gay Chinese friends, he adds, many have come out to their families without being rejected.

Of course, culture shock still exists in intercultural dating scenarios. For instance, Kerr said, while in the US, it’s still strongly expected that the dominant or more masculine partner foot the bill, in China it’s rare that he’s allowed to pay, as he’s considered a guest in the country. Another big difference is attitudes toward sex. “It’s been my experience that most Chinese people don’t like to discuss it beforehand,” he said.

And like others, Kerr has experienced the mixed blessing and curse of being a foreigner: “There’s still a pretty large part of the LGBT community in China that exoticizes Westerners, so I tend to get a lot of attention from people in clubs or online just because I’m obviously foreign. Sometimes it can make people seem insincere.”

Wei Jian’gang, a gay rights advocate and the managing director of the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute, agreed that people are often attracted to unfamiliar, exotic features. Yet a more positive spin on many Chinese men’s attraction to foreigners is the fact that it allows them to escape the baggage of their own culture, and express themselves in a whole new way, he said.

He said terms such as “potato queen” (a gay Asian man who prefers to date Caucasian men), “rice queen” (a non-Asian man who prefers to date Asians) and “bean queen” (a gay guy with an attraction to Latino men) have been adopted in the community to describe interracial preferences, but added that these distinctions are beginning to fade away.

“Now people have chances to communicate in a multi-cultural background,” Wei said. “In a city like Beijing, people don’t freak out too much about cross-cultural relationships anymore.”

He said foreigners have been actively involved in China’s LGBT community as far back as the 1990s. “I think many of them are pioneers, who are willing to go out there and explore the differences between nations and cultures.”

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