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On China's Singles Day, the Lonely Eat Fried Food and Spend Billions Online

Singles Day is the Chinese counterpart to Black Friday, except that it also involves eating fried dough sticks, being obsessed with the numeral one, and commiserating about not getting laid.
Hilary Pollack
Los Angeles, US
November 11, 2014, 7:17pm
Photo via Flickr user Robyn Lee

Black Friday and its digital counterpart, Cyber Monday, are still a few weeks away, but America already feels a little tense in anticipation of the oncoming trampling, grabbing, website-reloading-at-midnight holiday shopping rush. The price dips, the stampedes, the massive crowds eagerly awaiting unlocked big-box store doors after Thanksgiving dinner; we think of these things as quintessentially American. But today, on November 11, consumers abroad are engaging in the same type of buying hysteria on an even larger scale—and in the name of singlehood. Welcome to Singles Day.

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With the same aesthetic characteristics as Black Friday but an underlying anti-Valentine's Day concept, Singles Day first started in Chinese college dorms in the 1990s as a positive, tongue-in-cheek spin on lamenting your romantic deficiency by partying with your unbetrothed buds. (The date, 11.11, signifies four singles.) But in 2009, it was popularized by Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba with the purpose of converting the concept of bachelordom (or bachelorettedom) into a kind of mass consumerist celebration. Sort of like an even larger-scale version of Target or Kmart, Alibaba sells everything from clothing and jewelry to home appliances, although Singles Day also sees gargantuan sales of food, electronics, and even diamonds and houses. Since 2009, other companies—including American retailers such as Costco and American Eagle Outfitters—have followed suit, seizing the opportunity to shill goods in the pre-holiday season to an emotionally vulnerable, object-hungry global audience. This year, sales have broken records for reaching more than $9.3 billion in just a single day.

Treat yourself, Alibaba says. These discount goods love you no matter how much emotional baggage or back hair you're burdened with. And the people love it.

Ben Cavender of China Market Research group tells CNBC that unlike Black Friday—which is historically dominated by slashed costs on video game consoles, flat-screen televisions, and cashmere sweaters—"the most popular items [this year] will probably be various food products, like baby formula." Alongside Alibaba, sites such as Tmall and Taobao have staggering deals on cereals, soft drinks, and even fresh seafood and produce.

And in addition to loading up on tubs of Gerber and barrels of gummy candies at bargain prices, it's also customary on Singles Day to start your day by eating four youtiao, fried dough sticks that are similar to churros (the reason being that they sort of look like a numeral one) and a round steamed bun, or bao, to visually mimic the dot between each eleven in the date. There's also an abundance of singles-only parties in the evening to round out the non-consumerist aspect of the holiday.

Korea has a similar holiday on April 14 called Black Day, wherein singles—who were alone and disgruntled on Valentine's Day or its regional counterpart, White Day—wear all black and gather to commiserate about the injustices of love (or lack thereof) and eat black foods such as jajangmyeon, a dish of noodles and pork smothered in black bean sauce. Black coffee is also often consumed. There's nothing like a little goth food to assuage a lonely heart.

America often feels like the most feverishly consumerist global entity in the world, but never underestimate the power of retail therapy—or retail frenzies. Though America is still left out of these single-friendly festivities, we have our own black holiday to deal with come November 28, and it's a lot scarier than eating noodles with your friends.