Monday, 8 October 2012

Useful Chinese for hopeless romantics

So it’s October already. Leaves are changing, Beijing is shifting all too quickly from “revoltingly humid sticky season” to “painfully dry frostbite season”, and consumer havens all over the western world are gearing up for Halloween and then (or, in the UK these days, simultaneously) for Christmas.* But not in China! Here, we’ve just had two of the big three autumn/winter holidays smushed into a compact two day package- it’s an occupational hazard when your country reckons some of its holidays by the lunar calendar and some by the Gregorian- and with it, a week’s holiday for pretty much everybody in the country. Despite having only been back at university for three weeks, my entire class were fully in need of this break, myself included.

However, where the rest of my acquaintance were off to do terribly uninspiring things like visit their faraway loved ones or hang out on tropical islands or cycle through the desert, I was off to prove my extraordinary strength and sporting prowess and general Waterbender street cred in my first ever dragon boat race, down near Shanghai. Sure, I’d only taken up dragon boat racing three weeks earlier, but that was not going to stop me from paddling to victory in the Wujiang Rural Business Bank Cup! As it transpired, pitting Beijing’s international dragon boat team (heavily padded out by a group of hilariously immature 18-year-olds from a local university) against several groups of tall, muscular, men-only university crews meant that the only victories we won were moral ones, and there were a couple of near-death experiences with the steering which left me missing the days of eights rowing, where it is nearly impossible for a boat to twist 90 degrees within ten strokes and plough through all of the adjacent lanes** before grinding to a halt beside an island full of local dignitaries.

Things off-water were equally hilarious and a little less fraught with danger. As I mentioned, I’d only been paddling with this crew for about three weeks but luckily I had happened across what must be China’s most welcoming and entertaining dragon boat team, so I got to skip the usual several week process of standing on the edge being awkward and weird and go straight to imposing my awkward weirdness directly onto others. Much of the “banter” (I know, sorry) of the weekend revolved around H., our male boat club captain and one particular female member of our team, M., whose entire relationship apparently consists of finding ways to abuse each other, and particularly the former’s attempt to find a “shuaige” (帅哥,fittie) or preferably a “zhangfu” (丈夫,husband) for the latter. This desire was then extended to the rest of the single women on our team, and led to various jokes about searching the hotel we were sharing with various other teams in search of marriageable shuaiges to proposition.

Whilst outside the hotel, the main effect of the marriage joke was H. marching up to various teams in whom M. may or may not have expressed a vague interest, saying “that foreign woman there finds you very attractive”, and then getting the whole team over to take photos or swap shirts (an endeavour with interesting implications for women in a public place in China) or generally stand around and admire the foreigners. Given that we were already the star attraction of the races- never mind who was actually winning the darn things, hilariously slow foreigners are here!- this involved a lot of reserved and largely gender neutral curiosity from the propositioned teams; to China’s credit, whilst it has its fair share of creepy entitled men of all ages, they are outnumbered at the university level by a lot of shy and well-intentioned young guys.

I learned several things from this. One, that it’s probably quite telling that none of our largely bilingual team were able to translate the word “subtle” from English to Chinese in order to explain why marching up to strangers and going “please come and take pictures with that admiring foreigner” might be slightly strange. Two is that H. has terrible taste in Chinese men, and kept invariably bringing over the wrong ones. Three, a Beijing XL shirt is significantly bigger than a Jiangsu XL, and the latter looks less good on me than it did on the six-foot tall ripped man who gave it to me. Most interesting, however, is four, which came across through various comments throughout the weekend: even when finding your future husband amongst the dragon boating undergraduates of south China is a joke, it should also be a mubiao.

Mubiao (目标) is the Chinese word for “target”, both in the literal sense of a thing you might shoot arrows at, and also in the sense of a life goal. It literally means “thing you have your eye on”. As a twenty-three year old expatriated masters’ student, my personal mubiaos, in order of importance, can be summarised as follows:

1)      Be awesome
2)      Learn more Chinese
3)      Get strong enough to crush a human skull with my bare hands***
4)      Get a decent degree

As a female existing in China, however, I am missing that most important mubiao of all- the importance, magnified by my advanced age and insistence on pursuing advanced education, of finding a sexy and appropriate life partner before I join the ranks of one of China’s most interesting and, on the surface, paradoxical phenomena: the shengnv**** (剩女) or “leftover women”.

The paradox is, of course, that in a country with about 116 male births to every 100 (thanks, sex selective abortion!), where there are about 24 million men of marriageable age who literally do not have an equivalent woman, there are a growing number of successful urban women who have not settled down with a before their, uh, “expiry date”- which can be either 27 or 30 or even 25 depending on who you ask. The societal view of this is of course that these women must have in some way priced themselves out of the market and therefore been passed over by men, even those who will also otherwise be facing permanent single life- the “leftover” concept. There’s societal evidence of this, for example in the Chinese equivalent of that most horrible dating show, “Take Me Out” (although I literally cannot imagine anything worse from either a gender or an entertainment perspective than the British version of Take Me Out, so the Chinese one surely must be a step up), there’s also physical evidence of the “plight” of Shengnv in unlikely places, like the enormous outdoor dating agency that is Shanghai People’s Park. I found myself there a couple of days after racing, and here’s what it looks like:

First I found a few personals...

Then I found all these stalls of the things...
Then I found this enormous tunnel full of them!
And here's what they all look like.
As you can just about see on the last picture, the character 女,which denotes woman, is on about 95% of these posters- the others are , which means STRONG AGRICULTURAL LABOUR or, as we like to call them, “men”. I made the mistake of stopping in front of one of the male posters for thirty seconds to see how good my personal ad Chinese is (answer: not too bad!) and was immediately accosted by a woman trying to get me to also “make an introduction”, although whether this meant to get introduced to the handsome 30-something divorcee whose poster I was trying to translate or to generally try my luck getting matched, I don’t know. In some of the more informal corners of the pseudo-meat market, there are paper bags being watched over by hopeful looking elderly women who are apparently trying to advertise their hopeless granddaughters. Pretty much all of the adverts show years of birth as 1982 or earlier, making these all 30-something women looking for love with men of approximately the same age, whilst the few men are apparently being matched up with hapless 23-year-old foreign women trying to find blog material.

Poor Shengnvs! Trapped alone in a society which is even more attached to gender roles than the UK or other western countries, where their qualifications and high-paying jobs and general life success has also translated into a life of loneliness, because what man would ever choose to spend his life with a woman who is his superior? They got their mubiao wrong, believed in gender neutral success when they should have been women attracting men, and now they will pay the price. One of the staff on my program once berated me for not having secured a mate before coming to get a graduate degree, telling me “there are three types of people in this world: men, women and female doctors.” A lot of articles about Shengnv blame “hypergamy”- the idea that women need to marry up in China, perhaps even more so than in most cultures. So the most successful men in China marry slightly less successful women, and the most successful women have no one to go to and thus have no choice but to remain unwed and unhappy.

That doesn’t seem to be the whole story, however. The hopeful grandmas in the park and the walls of hundreds of personal adverts tell one story, but they hardly tell the story of seven million women. In a lot of cases, it seems like the implications of being passively “left over” are rather misleading- many of China’s successful women are also defining their own destiny when it comes to love, and the message is that if there isn’t a suitable man, why settle?

Take, for example, this song- actually identified in the title as “by Shengnvs”, good word reclamation there dudes- in which the message is “if you do not have a car or a flat (like I do), you are a girly-man and unworthy of the love of beautiful women (like me).” That’s a really strong message and it’s certainly not passive. Or the quote from Chinese author and Cosmopolitan writer, Wu Di in this article: "Those who can bear the shortcomings and sufferings of men will get married. Those not, single." The problem here doesn’t look like hypergamy, it looks like a simple balancing of an equation: men need to offer more material possessions in order to be masculine and worthy enough to marry attractive and materially successful women. It is implausible that just being a pleasant and interesting person who is attractive to your potential life partner and wants roughly the same things from the future might be enough to build a marriage around- we must also balance Sexy and Successful and Manly/Womanly (or, let’s be honest, Manly/Girly to the kind of people who make these equations) and Does My Mother Like You.

It sounds empowering, in a way. It’s nice to know that the dream of achieving your gender neutral mubiao is out there, being lived by Chinese women who then go home and put on the nice clothes they bought with their own money and make internet videos for nobody’s entertainment but their own. But it also sounds like an exhausting calculation, especially for the many women for whom material success does start to ring hollow. Suddenly, the act of searching for somebody you love becomes some sort of weird Mating Bingo- it’s no longer just that men don’t want successful wives, it’s that you as a woman have failed if you cannot find an unsuccessful husband. No, I don’t care if you want to spend every minute of every day with him having sex and doing Sudoku, if his job title doesn’t sound as good as yours you shouldn’t be settling. In the end we just empower women to reinforce the same stereotypes about relationship power distributions that have kept them on the back foot for centuries.

So, maybe this is one of those moments where we go “oh, so that’s just how gender relationships should be”! But that doesn’t seem like the right conclusion. Perhaps it is just my age, or perhaps I am too inexperienced to make such judgements,***** but two Venn diagrams spring to mind. One is the Venn diagram of “absurdly satisfied coupley people who give me hope for humanity” and “coupley people I know who have carefully balanced their individual material and sexual assets in making a relationship commitment”. That one has no overlap whatsoever. The second is “people I know with flats and cars” and “people I have idly considered spending the rest of my life with”, also with a complete lack of overlap- which is frankly the least of my problems. Generalising about the human condition from the experiences of millions of Chinese is one thing, but I’ll stick with my friends on this one. Self-improvement can be a mubiao, but let’s keep love as just A Thing.

(NOTE OF IMPORTANCE: Yeah so I screwed up quite badly on timing this week, even compared to the late schedule I set myself. I'm all ready to go for this Wednesday though so fear not!)


*If you think I missed something out there, I point you firmly to the fact that I am English, and Thanksgiving does not exist in my world. Deal with it.

**We were saved from actual carnage by the fact that we were so slow that all the neighbouring crews were 
already a boat length ahead of us.

***Or, perhaps also with other body parts. I’m thinking of two in particular.

**** “v” in pinyin, the standard Romanisation system for mainland Chinese, is actually pronounced “ü”- it was originally written with the umlaut as well but as “v” is the only English alphabet letter not otherwise used in pinyin, the rise of typed Chinese on American keyboards has made this a logical substitution.

***** And perhaps I have spent too  much time today helping a friend of a friend with her UCAS Maths personal statement, hence the following example…