I'll admit: I went to the marriage market in Shanghai to gawk. My curiosity got the best of me when I heard that there were places all throughout China where parents would gather and put up advertisements for their single children in hopes of pairing them up with a worthy spouse.
Hoping for some sort of scoop, I went with a couple of friends and a camera in hand.
The market sprung up in Shanghai in 2004 as parents noticed that they were all conveniently gathered anyway at People's Square for dancing and martial arts sessions.
Parents started tacking posters of children's statistics onto cork boards, on umbrellas, on the ground. Every weekend, hundreds of parents and grandparents gather in one general area off subway exit nine at People's Square in Shanghai to browse the selection. Many of them will group together to chat; others diligently browse around with a pen and paper in hand.
The postings are straightforward: age, height, zodiac, weight, job, accomplishments, where their kid was born. Birthplace is rather important, as it determines where someone can get health benefits and property rights. Rarely do you see a photo, hobbies, personalities traits, and quirks.
"I'm really worried," a Mrs. Tsai tells me, as I crouch down beside her to chat. Tsai seems to be channeling her anxiety into her knitting, madly spinning out an electric blue scarf as fast as she talks. She has a posting for her daughter, taped on an open umbrella.
"My daughter is approaching 26 and she still doesn't have a boyfriend! All my friends have married children; I really don't know what to do," she laments. "26 is so old."
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I try to comfort Tsai, assuring her (but mainly myself) that 26 is still quite young.
Tsai won't have it and goes on, bemoaning the lack of prospects for her daughter.
"Does your daughter know you're here?" I ask.
"Yes. But she hates it. She tells me to go on the dates myself. Kids these days hate parental involvement in these matters," Tsai says.
Parental melding in marriage matters is an integral part of Chinese culture. Marriage in China extends far beyond romantic compatibility. Marriage also serves to codify or heighten the social status of a family. This is a practice that dates back to imperial times where weddings were arranged principally on a monetary basis. A good marriage includes financial stability for both parties.
In China, a wedding is designed more for the parents than it is for the children. It's a way to show off to business partners and friends. It's a statement event that represents how parents have done well in securing a steady and prosperous future for their children. It's always paid for and organized by the families. Familial compatibility is just as important, if not more, than a couple's dynamic.
The family unit among the Chinese is also extremely tight-knit, even between generations. Most children live with their parents until they get married and it's not uncommon for in-laws to move in eventually in old age. My family is not an exception to this trend: my paternal grandmother lives with my mom and dad and when I'm not traveling, I live at home with them all in the States. This is not weird; it is tradition.
In mainland China, the stakes are even higher. The one-child policy that began in the 1980s means that most of the kids of marriageable age right now are facing intense pressure from their parents to be paired off properly. After all, each household only has one child to put all their hopes and dreams on. Marriage already is such an important part of a Chinese family's reputation but parents these days only have one chance to get their future planned out right.
I can relate. Four years ago, my dad and his business associate in Tianjin had arranged a blind date for the associate's son and myself in China. Neither of us knew we were on a date. I had a boyfriend at the time and the son was also clueless. We had simply all went out for lunch with our respective families.
It wasn't until a year later, when I was newly single and mending a broken heart, that my dad had told me that the lunch in China was arranged to see if we were compatible and "would you be interested in dating that guy?"
I was angry with my dad for a quite a while after his confession. I had a boyfriend at the time of meeting, one that my parents had even liked. The lunch was the associate's idea and agreed upon by my dad purely because he wanted to appease the associate. Even though my dad admitted that whom I married and if I married was ultimately my decision to make, the fact that he even meddled made me feel intensely violated.
I sit in silence watching the scarf grow along with my guilt. I shouldn't have gotten that angry with my dad; I am one of the lucky ones.
When it comes to affairs of the heart, my family sits on the milder end of the meddling spectrum. They came to the States by way of Taiwan, where they met and fell in love on their own accord, not their parents'. They own a successful business and have enough financial clout to hold themselves over a couple lifetimes without any assistance from my brother and me. And though mom and dad occasionally get weirdly preoccupied with the occupations of the men I date, where they were born, and their parents' professions -- by and large – my parents are mostly hands off. They make a conscious effort to hold back their reflex to interfere, even though sometimes that doesn't always work.
The marriage markets in China were no doubt birthed out of insecurity — a growing sense of anxiety as moms and dads age and their children remain single. A highly disproportionate amount of males in the country, also a byproduct of the one-child policy in a society where boys are more favorable than girls, means more desperation for parents of single men. According to projections, by 2030, more than 25% of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married.
Quickly I realize the market is not so much an actual marketplace as it is a safe place where parents can congregate to soothe their anxieties and relate to each other. Walking past the umbrellas with their boastful pieces of paper, I feel a pang of guilt about coming here to gawk.
I watched as mostly moms and the occasional dad stand there, hopeful for a worthy match. Grandparents crouched over, comparing notes, chattering excitedly when they find numbers to their liking. It is a bit adorable; they come from a place of love. This is a space for parents – not outsiders, not even single folks. Whenever young Chinese bachelors waltz through in inquiry, they are met with skepticism.
Near me, a young Chinese man hesitantly approaches a sign and its owner. "Your family is from Jiangsu?" he asks, referencing a province of China not all that far from Shanghai.
The mom looks at him, bewildered, holding him in suspicion, everything in her eyes says that she does not want to engage in this conversation.
"Yes," she responds, curtly.
"I'm from Jiangsu too!"
She smiles, half-heartedly. The conversation dies fast.
The market has the occasional bachelor, but rarely a bachelorette. I was told that it's embarrassing for single Chinese women to be there. I believe it; even the most determined suitors seemed nervous approaching a parent. These men have courage; they are going directly to the gatekeepers. In China, no one judges a single person harder than a proud mom.
As I walk through the masses, observing it all, I feel a guy breathing heavily next to me.
I look over, confused.
"Hello, my name is David," he says in broken English, refusing to look me in the eye. His glance remains, weirdly, on my shoulder.
I step away. David is uncomfortably close.
I oblige in conversation, more curious about the interaction itself than I am in the actual person. David had heard me and my friends speaking English and was curious what we were doing at the marriage market. He is one of the few single bachelors who has come over to the market to scope out prospects. He insists that it is his first time here and that he was, like us, just curious.
David was born and raised in Shanghai. Predictably, he begins to talk about his job. He is a real-estate agent; I begin to zone out. Eventually, he senses my boredom and asks if I would be interested in going out for lunch whenever I was back in Shanghai.
"You're not expecting me to marry you right?" I tease.
"No, no, just lunch," David says, quickly getting my contact information.
I thought back to my parents, back to when I had asked them, months ago, what would happen if I never found someone I liked.
"Well then, you'll just live with us forever," my dad joked while my mom laughed, nervous but lovingly, in the background.
I never responded to David's messages.