The marriage trap

Posted: January 16, 2012 in Chinese Culture
Tags: ,

Recently many of my girlfriend’s single acquaintances have been scrambling to find spouses. They’re all around 25 and have entered the 2-3 year window before they’re at serious risk of being “leftover.”

In her increasingly frequent role of matchmaker, a few months ago my girlfriend was given these requirements by a friend for a potential husband:

  • Has Beijing hukou (residency card)
  • Rich family with capability to buy a house
  • Has “ambition” (doesn’t need to have a high-paying job now, but must be on the track to one)
  • 1.8 meters tall (5’11”)

But now the girl’s mother has given her the “final notice” to find a man. Hitting 25 was like watching from the terminal as your plane’s propellers start to spin. So her standards have become much more modest. This is all after long ago breaking up with a boy that she actually liked because he didn’t quite live up to all the previous requirements.

On the other side, a guy friend broke up with his girlfriend whom he really loved last year.  She was from the south and his family wanted him to marry a hometown girl so he wouldn’t ever be tempted to move. Now he’s set to marry a local that his family introduced him to just a few months ago. He’s already bitter about it, always changing the subject whenever the topic of his fiancée is brought up.

Once my girlfriend set up two friends with each other who actually hit it off. The guy was rich, the girl was pretty and they seemed to get along really well. So I was surprised when the girl ended it. She was from the countryside and felt inferior to the guy. She thought marrying him would permanently cause her family to lose face to his.

All these cases have been thoroughly depressing to watch; especially after seeing a window into their future. When I worked at an English mill, several students were affluent middle-aged housewives studying English as a kind of status symbol and way to meet people.

One day, one of these women was laying on innuendo pretty heavily with one of the older foreign teachers. When he failed to respond she began crying and flat out asked him to sleep with her. The teacher tried to console her as she went on about how her husband hadn’t touched her in months. He’d just come home late and slip into bed, then leave the next morning without saying a word.

This is what frequently happens with these kinds of rushed marriages where meeting and engagement are just weeks (sometimes days) apart. Another of my girlfriend’s friends has never so much as kissed a boy, but now she’s going through suitors like job applicants – desperate to fill the open position. With the perception of a ticking clock that stops at age 30, there’s only room for social and economic considerations.

Housing prices are ridiculous and inflation is pretty terrible in general, so the concern for economic security is somewhat understandable. So is considering implications of the marriage on the family, given China’s Confucian filial piety tradition. But when you see someone who’s rich financially and in filial duty burst into tears begging a near stranger for sex, that’s a pretty good indicator of misplaced priorities. And she didn’t even get the worst of it.

A friend’s aunt quickly married a man who, on paper, seemed pretty suitable.  Then she quickly found out he was a sociopath who kept tabs on her 24/7 – beating her severely for talking to any other man. The stories go on and on…

Some of these kids today will luck out and end up with someone they really like, or can at least tolerate. But unfortunately, a lot won’t. It’s a problem one would hope can improve with economic development and women’s empowerment, but I’m not so sure. In a country with such a skewed gender imbalance and emphasis on face, I think we’ll be seeing plenty of miserable marriages for a long time to come.

  1. Photo_LA says:

    Pretty amazing to watch it happen in person. I was riding a bus with a local friend, nice looking chap from Harbin. On our 15min bus ride he was approached twice by women asking him the standard questions. No not his name….
    1. What do you do
    2. How much do you make
    3. What kind of car do you drive

    Good thing he is liberally thinking and never answers girls like that, but still he goes through life wondering if he will ever meet the girl of his dreams or a pre-qualified applicant.

  2. Lorin Yochim says:

    Good anecdotes. I hate to burst the bubble, but the slip into bed late without saying anything is unrelated to semi-arranged or desperate marriages. It happens in the best of them.

  3. kingtubby1 says:

    Combine this pretty gross marriage horse trading with Beijing’s air quality and you have a major league quality of life issue.

  4. syy says:

    I wonder what kind of life circle are you in…not saying it is a low class or anything bad. but i think you shall get to talk to ppl who have much different background in china…many girls i know they are not like this,fx my cousin who is nice,kind,pretty,polite,down to earth & with a master education from one top 100 uni doesnt care whether her bf got a house or not….and many other girls i know are the same

  5. Lorin Yochim says:

    Personally, I find the forthrightness of Chinese people about their expectations for marriage partners quite refreshing. The idea that there is something called a “love marriage” that predominates (and is desirable) in other parts of the world is preposterous. We really need to make an effort to distinguish between reality and ideology.

  6. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    But whose reality and ideology is under discussion here – the parents’ or the children’s? It’s increasingly common for young people to rent a partner to take home for Spring Festival. How come the mothers never notice the deception? Or do they realise but do not challenge? When life takes on such an element of fantasy, marriage stands no chance however it occurs. For marriage to succeed, there must be mutual respect and the willingness to allow the partners to grow emotionally and change. People never stay the same. I should know – I’ve been married for over 40 years!

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I would agree with your comments in the last two sentences, Meryl. I’m sure that you wouldn’t disagree that such “harmonious” marriages occur in China as they do in places where partners exercise more “choice.” One of the cautions I’m hinting at, however, is the idea that marriages of love or choice allow the range of options suggested by some. Alternatively, the critiques of parental involvement in Chinese marriages are living an unself-reflective cloud, blind to the ways in which choices in love marriages are guided and channeled by forces beyond the everyday perception of the lovers.

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