I’ve just returned from spending the Chinese New Year with my girlfriend’s family in Shandong (apologies for the lack of recent updates). A few weeks ago I wrote on China’s marriage trap and over the holiday I got to experience first hand a little bit of why Chinese often rush into marriage.
This was my third Chinese New Year at her home. As is Chinese custom and social assumption, the first time I went was essentially signaling our intent to get married. The idea that I was a just a foreigner with no place else to go for the holiday wasn’t something that crossed many people’s minds. The second year, things were set in stone when one uncle went so far as to host a semi-official “welcome to the family” dinner (unbeknownst to me ahead of time). Keep in mind, we never said a word to anyone about marriage plans. This year, everyone’s attitude was basically, “What the hell are you waiting for?”
My girlfriend’s family is about the most liberal you could ever ask for. Nobody ever gave her one bit of grief about dating a foreigner and we even sleep in the same bed while staying at her parents’ place (completely shocking to most Chinese friends I tell). But that didn’t make us immune to the marriage pressure. There was no playful insinuation or beating around the bush. Every relative’s and friend’s home we visited, we were asked directly, “When are you getting married?”
I would just cop-out with the always useful “我听不懂” (I don’t understand) card and make my girlfriend answer. She’d just say we didn’t have plans yet – that I’m still finishing school and there’s no reason to rush, which is true. That was good enough for most, but not all. We went to visit a friend of the family who’s my girlfriend’s “godmother” and made a critical error.
Godmother: When will you two get married?
Girlfriend: We’re not sure.
Godmother: Then when will you have a baby?
Girlfriend: Haha, I’m not even sure I want a baby.
Godmother: (Jaw drops) But you must have a baby.
Girlfriend: Haha, I don’t know.
Godmother: You don’t have to have it right away. You can just be married for a year and then have it.
Girlfriend: We’ll see.
Godmother: You don’t even have to plan it. Just stop using birth control and see what happens.
…And that’s about the point I decided I wouldn’t be returning to her hometown until I put a ring on her finger.
There seems to be a common fear in China that if you wait one day past your 30th birthday to have a baby, it’ll have disastrous health effects for the mother or child. So now that we’re certain we won’t be breaking up, it’s just baffling to some that we aren’t actively planning the wedding and fixing to get knocked up on the wedding night.
For us it’s not a big deal. We’re strong-willed and most of the family is open-minded enough that we don’t feel tempted to bow to this pressure. We’re all but certain we’ll get married eventually anyways, so it’s easy to brush off. But it’s easy to see how many Chinese just throw in the towel and jump into a life they’re not ready for.