Also from The Guardian – New year, new fake partners for China’s young singletons with parents to please. It’s about twenty-somethings renting a boyfriend/girlfriend to take home with them for Spring Festival in order to stave of constant pressure from parents to find a partner, get hitched and reproduce.
I had a bit of a flurry of thoughts about this article after I read it which can be grouped roughly along the lines of 1) soaps versus reality 2) parental pressure across cultures and 3) avoidance masquerading as filial behaviour. Unfortunately, the thoughts associated with number three really got up my nose, so I blabbed and ranted a lot in a really round about way. If I get this post out on the same day I started it, it will be a complete miracle. Just in case I forget to say so later, although I’m not keen on the headline of this one, I really like reading Tania Branigan’s articles. I’ve heard her a few times on Sinica podcasts too and have always found her interesting, thoughtful and well worth listening to.
Right. To start off with, the idea of hiring a partner to hoodwink parents intent on match-making is not a new one in Asian pop culture. I guess the first time I ever heard of it was almost ten years ago when I was still living in Taiwan and studying Chinese by watching Korean soap operas. The soaps were dubbed into Chinese, had Chinese subtitles and were surprisingly addictive, so I used them for listening and reading practise. The one that comes to mind is My Name is Kim Samsoon where a guy signs a contract with one of his employees to fool his mother. It was hugely popular in Taiwan at the time. The idea became a common one in a lot of Korean and Taiwanese soaps that I saw in the years that followed. Then, a couple of years ago, I watched a soap from China (mentioned in Tania Branigan’s article) called Renting a Girlfriend to Take Home for New Year (not sure what is happening but my QQ pinyin input bar isn’t working properly so I can’t put in the Chinese name) where a woman who was researching this phenomenon hired herself out as a guy’s girlfriend to trick his family into believing he had a partner and stop them from marrying him off. My point is this idea is actually a fairly common theme in soaps and has been for a long time. I just didn’t think it was really happening. I thought it was something way out there that people put into soaps as a plot device. For this reason, the article shocked me.
Mind you, now that it has been brought to my attention, while I am struggling not to roll my eyes, it is hardly surprising. I haven’t searched adverts or forums to check that these people do actually exist, but given how large China’s population is and how just about everything exists in Chinese cyberspace, why not people who rent fake partners to deceive their families? I would be very interested to see some numbers (e.g., advert numbers on popular sites) and not just vague statements about what twentysomethings or singletons are doing. I’ve heard a lot of shocking things when talking to my Chinese students and friends, but none of them has every said anything about a friend of a friend, or somebody they know off the Internet, who has done this, so I guess I am inclined to think that while it might happen, it is not common. Of course, if I do actually search on Sina or something, I might have to eat that statement! Anyway, I think this article outlines a pretty bizarre practice, but the title and some of the language give a false impression of young Chinese people in the same way that a lot of Chinese people think all Western women are easy because they’ve seen Sex and the City and have extrapolated from some of the more outrageous behave they see in it. I worry that people will generalise and think that most young Chinese people do this, whereas I would guess the actual percentage is tiny. Of course even a tiny percentage in China is a huge number of people, but even still…
That also makes me wonder how renting a girlfriend turned up as a plot device in TV soaps. Was it already a happening and that was why they put it in the soaps? Or did it only become quasi-acceptable in a certain segment of society after it because a common plot in TV soaps. If it was the latter, that is really dodgy. Not that I blame the soaps at all. They are created to be entertaining, not act as a guide for moral behaviour. What is dodgy is that anybody would look at a soap like that and be either stupid or superficial enough to emulate the behaviour of the characters, particularly when the soaps themselves present this behaviour as below the belt and something the characters later regret. Perhaps the practice came before the soaps.
Next, is the issue of parental pressure to pair off. As a Western woman from an unconventional family, I feel absolutely no parental pressure whatsoever to marry, despite being thirtysomething, which is well and truly over the hill by Chinese standards. Perhaps there is more pressure in other families in Australia. I couldn’t say. While the search for a true love may cause a lot of people some angst, I don’t think this is grounded in familial pressure or expectations. To be honest, I think it is mostly self-imposed.
This is not true in China, nor in a lot of Asian countries for that matter. Friends and students of mine from Korea, Taiwan and China have often complained about the nagging they get from parents and other family members to hurry up and get married. Then, once they are married, to hurry up and have kids.
Male Chinese friends have told me they are under excruciating pressure to earn enough money so they can buy an apartment and car before they get engaged. One friend who got married a few of months ago used to tell me he felt depressed because all his family and friends made him feel like he had failed his long-term girlfriend by not being rich enough to buy an apartment. He said he couldn’t get engaged until he had one. The woman in question professed not to care about any of that, but used to get upset because her parents kept telling her she was getting old (she was 27) and hinted that her boyfriend was not committed enough to her if they hadn’t yet set a date.
Once, after drinking or two, this friend of mine (usually a big advocate of marriage – in fact, he always used to nag me to find a nice man and settle down) told me he didn’t want to get married, buy a house or have children just because he was expected to do it. He felt like he was in a trap. It was a pleasant enough trap because he loved his girlfriend, but it was a life he felt was forced upon him and that made him frustrated and angry. Just not angry enough to do anything about it but huff and puff a bit when tipsy.
What I am trying to say is the pressure on young people in China to pair off is incredible. A lot of people are probably like that friend of mine – they will do what is expected of them. My impression is that most Chinese parents feel they have a right to push their kids kicking and screaming into marital bliss. It’s not like they are sadistic or anything, they truly believe that happiness = marriage + children. Anything else is inconceivable. If their kids didn’t get married they would probably spend their days worrying about them – Who will keep them company? Who will take care of them when they are old? Will they be lonely? Forcing them to marry is parents’ way of taking care of their kids. I guess they think it is for their own good.
I think the feeling of obligation to follow their parents’ wishes is stronger in China than in Western countries. I’ve taught many Chinese students whose parents chose their major. A lot of them ended up going to a foreign country to study. For most of these, their parents decided they would study overseas and in which country. The fees and usually living expenses were all paid for from their parents savings. A lot of young adults in China are extremely dependent on their parents, not just financially, but also to make any important decisions.
On the other hand, society has changed at an astounding rate in China over the past 30 years. Accompanying changes in technology, the populace has been swamped in information there is now a lot of discussion about things that would have been unheard of,not too long ago. Older generations may be slower to embrace change, but societal change is happening. And rapidly. The changes which have taken place during the lives of the current twentysomethings is unbelievable. There is more choice in just about everything and more acceptance of doing things in different ways. Including marriage. Obviously, this exaggerates the usual misunderstandings that occur between members of different generations. In one generation, traditional Confucian family values are backed by a mindset that it is wrong to question authority which I believe is an important part of what underpins the political framework of Chinese society. The next generation has suffered less, has experienced increased opportunities from China’s rise in prosperity, but has also seen the uglier side of what people can do to get ahead. Many parents who grew up in harsher times have tried to protect their children from hardship. Unfortunately, I think one result is young people want to do as they wish, are not used to responsibility and have little desire to be held responsible for any problems their actions may cause. They are not particularly independent but have learnt that money can solve most of their problems. It is no wonder there is an enormous generation gap, nor that a practice like the one this article is about would be a plausible result, where people use money to deceive their parents, avoid stress and conflict and still get to do what they want.
It is laughable to me that some people seem to think it is more filial to lie to their parents by bringing home a fake partner than to disappoint them and telling the truth, but some people do actually think like this. My ex was just like this. He didn’t seem to grasp that the disappointment of being lied to my someone you love and trust far outweighs the disappointment that someone you love is not living up to societal expectations. It is never filial to lie to your parents. Deceiving somebody implies a lack of respect.
My ex didn’t fib to his parents to avoid upsetting them, he did it to avoid having them upset at him, to avoid being held responsible for things he had done wrong and to avoid dealing with the disapproval and conflict which would result and would make him unhappy. He was being gutless because lying was easier for him than having to justify his perspective. For some reason lying hurt his conscience less than being criticised would have hurt his pride. It wasn’t just his parents either. His tendency of neglecting to mention or misrepresenting things that I had every right to object to, but he didn’t want to compromise on was another example of the same deceit, selfishness, lack of respect and weakness he showed when dealing with his parents. In case you’re wondering, it is also the reason I broke up with him – you can’t have love without trust.
I think there is a link between his behaviour and this article. Perhaps I took the article a little personally because of this. Dishonesty gets up my nose and I have little time for people who are too gutless to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Particularly when the people involved are those they profess to love.
To sum up, what I see in this article is people without courage, conscience or integrity. I certainly don’t think parents should put this kind of pressure on children. It causes unhappiness and stress in a society which is stressed and unhappy enough. However, dishonesty, particularly to those who love and trust you, is never OK. I value honesty and loyalty above most things, so this kind of deception offends me. I seriously hope this phenomenon is not as common as the article’s headline implies because it is indicative of traits that I hate. A society of weak, selfish, deceptive bastards is not one I want to be a part of.
Beam me up, Scottie, this planet’s dodgy!