An American Woman's Experience Using Tantan
Updated: Jun 16
This long-form contribution recounts my experience as a white, American woman using the Chinese dating app Tantan 探探. In this piece, social stigmas about western women in China and cultural, philosophical themes, such as filial piety, are discussed and examined. Originally posted on WeChat (Aug. 4th, 2020) via the independent media group and podcast Date Night China, this perspective piece was also reposted on The Beijinger's (Aug. 16th, 2020) and China Temper's (Mar.12th, 2021) websites with minor edits.
See original Date Night China posting here.
See the Beijinger reposting here.
See the China Temper reposting here.
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: I’m not someone that you could call an avid dater.
I mean, I use terms like “avid dater” and am not at all cognizant about even the dating scene in my own hometown. I’m not even sure if there is one. So, it goes without saying that before 2018 I had never used an online dating app. The idea of judging another human as a future romantic interest based purely on photos and an online profile was and still is off-putting to me. Isn’t there a whole category of memes about judging complete strangers as potential future partners from the comfort of your own toilet? If there isn’t, there should be.
Anyways, I personally cherish intimate, platonic relationships way more than romantic ones. Give me a choice to either hang out with a bunch of friends drinking beer and discussing music, philosophy and language or getting all dolled up to meet some guy at some restaurant or bar to be interrogated, in order to evaluate my value as a potential mate, partner and, maybe, future bearer of his children, and I will always choose the former. As far as the latter goes: Yeah, no thanks. I’ll pass.
Maybe it was curiosity or feeling like I needed to appease my Chinese girlfriends’ endless nagging about dating and their worry that I was becoming a full-blown sheng nv —as if that’s a bad thing — but on one humid summer night in 2018, I downloaded a dating app and created a profile.
Being a foreigner, my friends assumed I’d want to download a foreign app with mostly foreign users (“You probably miss home and communicating with Americans”). But I was in China with a decent proficiency in Chinese and a desire to meet locals, so against their suggestion I didn’t download Tinder. Instead I downloaded China’s equivalent to Tinder, Tantan.
In design and performance, Tantan is pretty much Tinder’s Chinese doppelgänger. You swipe right and left to either like or not like someone and, if you really like someone, you can boost your visibility and over emphasize your fondness towards them by giving them a super like.
I figured at worse this would be a great way to broaden my friend network and help me further immerse myself in the local culture.
Although I received a lot of offers for unwanted hook-ups (why are dating apps synonymous with one night stands?), I did meet a plethora of interesting people from all over China and the world. The Chinese guys I matched with, besides being from different provinces, were also from all different socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnic groups with different occupations and aspirations.
Additionally, they all had different intentions for using Tantan. Some were trying to find life partners, others just wanted someone to talk to. Initially, my intentions were romantic and in the hopes of finding an amorous, loving relationship, just as the app was intended for.
Over time this has changed. I now use it to meet new people to talk to, but the romantic interactions that were experienced from 2018 to 2020 with some Chinese men were either great, horrible, eye-opening, or all the above.
After creating a profile, my phone was bombarded with likes and super likes. After swiping right and matching with a few profiles, the amount of received questions and bragging was overwhelming.
“Where are you from?” “Are you American?” “Are you Russian?” “Is your picture really you?” “Are you Chinese and just using a foreign girl’s photo?” “Can you actually speak Chinese?” “Are you using a translation app?” “Can you speak English?" “Can you teach me English?” “How tall are you?” “How much do you weigh?” “How old are you?” “Are you looking for a husband?” "You’re that old and are not married yet!?” “I have a house and a car.” “I make a lot of money.” “I can buy you whatever you want.”
It went on and on like this for weeks and made me rethink if even downloading this app was a good idea, and then I met a guy who made it seem like it was the best idea ever.
He was a local sound engineer who was very like-minded, had a great sense of humor and whose love for music is as passionate as my own. In other words, we hit it off from the start and talked about everything and anything. Our topics of conversation ranged from music (of course!), cultural differences, personal experiences, taboo subjects, etc. Basically, you name it, we talked about it.
It was perfect. He was perfect.
But, as my time as a philosophy major has taught me, humans are not perfect. Instead, we are perfectly imperfect.
So, as you can probably guess, this happenstance of meeting an uncannily perfect match was way too good to be true. After months of mentally stimulating conversation, top notch, witty flirtation and a handful of almost dates, I discovered that he had a girlfriend and was just looking for someone to be his side chick.
In other words, he was looking for a xiao san.
In China, at least from my experience, men having a mistress or another woman isn’t outright condemned. Presumably this is because of China’s imperial history with concubines.
Before the rise of Communism, polygyny was a symbol of status for high government officials and, of course, emperors. Men with affluence and prestige all had concubines, mistresses and/or multiple wives. It was customary.
Regarding this idea as just normal has led this practice of men being involved with more than one partner to remain in the cultural psychology and rationalized, in modern terms, as nothing to fuss about. It’s just “men being men.”
Several guys I met were either married or in relationships and were just nonchalantly using Tantan to look for potential xiao sans. They weren’t ashamed of this. As far as they were concerned, it was expected.
The notion of foreign women as “open,” or kai fang
From my western perspective though, it shouldn’t be customary. In fact, the few times I called them out on it, I was accused of being culturally insensitive and labeled as just another foreign American whore who’s “too open.”
Like any single western woman in China, especially American, I’ve had to deal with many Chinese men and women thinking that because I am foreign and female, I must also be very promiscuous.
For instance, countless guys I matched with on Tantan skipped right over introducing themselves and instead incessantly pressured me for nudes and to hook up as soon as possible. Because, after all, I am a yang niu and they all knew that sex was all I was really after.
This notion of foreign women as “open,” or kai fang, with our sexuality is, to put it mildly, messed up. Yes, compared to the stereotype that Chinese women are timid, docile, and submissive, foreign women are, generally speaking, more direct about our sexuality.
However, that doesn’t mean we’re constantly lying around with our legs wide open and a flashing neon arrow strategically directed between them. Let’s be real, that’s absurd, no one has that easy of access to neon.
Except, you could probably find it on Taobao.
Jokes aside, the most sobering and eye-opening experiences I had were with men that strictly abide by traditional customs of filial piety. In layman’s terms, filial piety is the principle that children should always be obedient and respectful to their parents.
At face value this Confucius concept is an honorable idea, however, when you study up on it more you discover that it leads to a lot of requirements just to make parents proud.
For instance, there’s a lot of pressure to marry just for the sake of continuing the bloodline; male heirs preferred. Most guys I met on Tantan were not looking for partners to enjoy life with, but instead were looking for someone to fulfill their filial obligations.
One guy I matched with started to pester me with marriage inquiries and how quickly would I be willing to have kids as soon as introductions were over. “We’re both not getting any younger. I don’t want to be a guang gun. You don’t want to be a sheng nv.”
Another guy who I dated last summer started to nonstop pressure me to marry him after about a month of us seeing each other. He wanted me to relocate to his village in the Sichuan mountains and give him a son. That romantic relationship obviously ended there. We still talk occasionally.
Besides encountering the burden of filial piety, I also was smacked in the face with cultural differences. Mostly, guys’ anxieties about what tribulations cultural differences and language barriers would have on a romantic relationship. Their worries are understandable. In any situation where there’s different cultures and languages colliding, we all have this worry. But it shouldn’t be a reason not to try.
I’ve always been someone who puts herself into uncomfortable situations, be it intentionally or unintentionally, that others would find unfathomable. I like going places alone and experiencing cultures that expand my worldview and make me reevaluate any biases I have.
So, I never really thought that cultural dissimilarities between China and America would be such an issue for others. Let alone language. I’ve been studying Mandarin Chinese for almost a decade now and, of course, still have immense language barriers. But they’re hurdles that you overcome and learn from and, if all else fails, mime it. My Pictionary skills are on point.
But for some this really is too much to handle. A personal trainer that I matched with and hung out with a few times couldn’t get past that he can’t speak English and the cultural differences between America and China. He was very worried about being unable to communicate with my friends and family, and, if anything were to develop between us, not being able to fully assimilate into my life. We’re still friends and talk quasi-regularly.
Using Tantan in China
From the personal trainer to the sound engineer, Tantan is an experience. Besides broadening my horizons, I have met some awesome people and made some meaningful friendships.
In other words, after wading through all the zha nans, wife hunters and xiao san seekers, you do find some worthwhile connections with others as humans and have an opportunity for incomparable cross-cultural exchange. So, swipe right.
Used Chinese Colloquialisms Yang niu: 洋妞 yáng niū n. a young foreign female. Usually used towards western women in a derogatory manner. Sheng nv: 剩女Shèng nǚ n. leftover woman; used to refer to a woman in her late 20s and 30s who is well-educated and successful in life but isn’t married. Xiao san: 小三xiǎosān n. mistress or the other woman; side chick. Kai fang: 开放 kāifàng adj. to be outgoing or open-minded. Derogatorily used against women to refer to them as promiscuous and morally loose. Guang gun: 光棍 guānggùn n. literally means bare branch. Figuratively means bachelor but with the implicit nuance of a family bloodline not continuing. Zha nan: 渣男zhānán n. a term used to refer to guys who just like hooking up, in many ways similar to the English term “fuckboy.”