I was born in Beijing, and after attending grade school and college in the United States, I moved back to China. One of the first things I noticed was that people kept asking me if I was married.
I was 22 at the time, so, by American standards, it wasn’t surprising that I was single. But then I was 25, then 28, and now I’m 30. And though my answer hasn’t changed, the looks I get in return have gotten more and more concerned.
When I visit my grandmother, the first thing she asks is if I’ve gotten married. She’s slowly losing her mind, but her primary concern is still my bachelorhood.
“No, I haven’t gotten married,” I tell her.
Then she turns to me, eyes completely lucid, and asks: “Why not?”
It seems that I have found the cure for dementia: intense disappointment.
Past 30, China is a terrible place to be single. Societal and familial pressure mounts once you hit the big three-oh. It’s a number that comes up again and again in my discussions with friends, who are all college-educated American and Chinese urbanites. Thirty, they agree, represents some kind of cutoff point between youth and spinsterhood.
Perhaps this stigma is what spurred the creation of an informal holiday called Singles Day in the 1990s, Nov. 11 being chosen because of all the ones. No one knows exactly how Singles Day got started — the accepted origin story is that it was hatched in a Nanjing University dorm room. But in recent years the holiday has been co-opted by online retailers who have turned it into the world’s biggest shopping day, with deep discounts on almost everything. This year, Alibaba alone broke records and is expected to hit $13 billion in sales. (Full disclosure: I took a break from writing this to spend $350 on Taobao, a Chinese site similar to eBay and Amazon.)
But what singles need most on Singles Day is acceptance, not reasonably priced refrigerators.
Indeed, many treat Singles Day not as an occasion to celebrate being single, but as an opportunity to rid themselves of that label. Some have rebranded the holiday as Shed Singles Day (a catchy name, since it’s a homonym for “undress”) and argue that the original intent of those Nanjing University students was to find girlfriends on Nov. 11. An ugly piece of revisionist history, if you ask me, but the date is now being used as an excuse to host matchmaking events and single’s mixers.
The metamorphosis of Singles Day into a holiday focused on no longer being single mirrors the black-and-white attitude toward relationships in society at large. Most Chinese children are forbidden to date in high school and college, sometimes under threat of expulsion. But after graduation they’re immediately expected to start looking for a marriage partner. There’s no middle ground.
Thus, dating in China is often burdened with expectation. People date to marry, so relationships that don’t end in marriage are viewed as a waste. Of course, this obsession with results is sometimes the very reason such relationships end.
Born in 1985, I’m part of the first generation of single children raised under the One Child Policy. Our parents married in their 20s and didn’t have much choice during the Maoist period, either in who they married or where they were sent to work.
But just one generation later, China is rich enough for people to pursue the relationships and careers they want. The post-80s and post-90s generations have been influenced by Western culture and are more open to casual relationships and dating for dating’s sake. Traditions, however, don’t change quite as quickly — the expectations of family continue to weigh heavily on a child’s life. Thus, single people are sometimes caught between pursuing the life they want and the life the older generation expects.
My buddy Chris Liu, a 25-year-old teacher, doesn’t get any pressure from his parents, but with his other relatives, it’s a different story.
“My paternal grandparents are from rural Tianjin, so my relatives are very concerned,” he said. “They see marriage as something you have to do at a certain age. Just like you have to start school when you’re six and go to college when you’re 18.”
“Who you marry, the quality of your marriage, whether you want to marry — and if you don’t why not — they don’t care about any of that,” he said. To them, the “married” label is all that matters.
This generational gap partly explains why the pressure to get married is so intense. Add to this the Chinese emphasis on family and the fact that we’re only children. If we choose not to have children, we can’t count on our siblings to pick up the slack. Marriage is seen as a family matter: By choosing to not have children, you’re pruning an entire branch off the family tree.
In the course of grilling my Chinese friends, I was struck by how many of them were willing to sacrifice their own desires for their family.
“Chinese women might have their own independent belief that marriage is not necessary, but there are objective factors that you have to face,” my friend Sally Liu, who’s 32, said. “Like your environment and your parents and your grandparents and their subtle influence on you.”
“If it were up to me, I might not get married,” Chris admitted. But he conceded that he’ll probably end up getting married, if for nothing else than to make his relatives “feel secure in their late age.”
I couldn’t help but admire his selflessness, a kind that I don’t seem to possess. I don’t want to marry and never have, and I can see the distress it causes my relatives. “Irresponsible” is the word that’s commonly used.
In an attempt to convince me to get married, an aunt once explained how happy she was to be married. I told her that I was happy for her, but that I didn’t want the same thing.
“But getting married was one of the best decisions of my life,” she said. “When you get older, you’ll change.”
Maybe I will, who knows?
My dad’s side of the family, for one reason or another, has been staunchly unwed. When none of my four cousins was married, my older cousin, who is 35, was the main worry. But this year she got hitched and so, being the second-oldest, the spotlight fell on me.
“Now it’s your turn!” was the chorus I heard at her reception. I told them not to hold their breath.
After the ceremony, my younger cousin, who is 28 and ambivalent about marriage, asked me to do her a favor.
“Never get married,” she said. Now that all the family’s disappointment was trained on me, she was hoping it’d stay there. She was next in line. As long as I didn’t get married, she’d have an out.
“Of course,” I told her.
I was happy to take the heat, for her and all my other unmarried cousins. After all, isn’t that what family is for?