Wednesday, April 18, 2012

I Want a Boyfriend!

It is not me who is looking for a boyfriend. That cry resounds all over campus, especially from the older students who remain unattached. Of late, my favorite Cookie Cutter girl, Zhanny only ever talks about all things boyfriend: how to get a boyfriend, a longing for a boyfriend and wondering why she doesn’t yet have a boyfriend.

Quite frankly I’ve wondered about that too. This girl is flat out gorgeous – remember: she is the one who resembles a young Audrey Hepburn, and she is smart, sailing through her classes with high marks. She has never had a boyfriend, although she has fallen for a boy who already has a girlfriend.

When I first came here two years ago many of the kids were unattached and wanted to remain that way, as instructed by their parents. Public displays of affection around campus were few and far between. It was shocking to find the occasional couple holding hands while strolling around. At the time I found that rather surprising, seeing as college is the time when kids start breaking from tradition. That was my first taste of exactly how deeply rooted tradition is in this culture.

Nowadays, freshmen are falling in ‘love’ and pairing up just about as soon as they get here. They are not shy about flaunting their status as a couple, either: nestling on park benches, necking, walking hand in hand and arm in arm, even wearing each other’s clothes to the extent that fashion and gender tailored wardrobes permit. The sophomores are doing their best to catch up, although they are being more conservative in their parings-off and manifestations. Some of the juniors, Zhanny and Dash included are left out in the cold.

Why don’t these lovely, smart young women have boyfriends? They are in college, away from home and surrounded by males suffering from testosterone overload. I decided to find out.


The courtship dance is much more involved in China than it is in the Western world. Over here, a girl cannot (or should not) simply approach a boy and ask him out. Neither is it acceptable for a girl’s friend to approach a boy on her behalf, as would be common in the States. Here, girls are expected to remain passive and wait for the boys’ approach. They do have the right to accept or reject an offer.

It is not common for a boy to approach a girl while she is with her friends. Such approaches are made one-on-one. That puts the boys in somewhat of a conundrum because, generally, the girls travel in gaggles, or at least in pairs. Once a boy does manage to approach a girl it is generally with a harmless invitation, such as a walk after dinner, a game of badminton or maybe to study together (if they are classmates).

Another challenge the boys face is that a lot of these girls are shy to the point of being unapproachable. They wouldn’t yell ‘fire’ if their hair was ablaze and they would simply die of mortification if they were seen in any way other than beautiful, haunting and unattainable. This model of womanhood is ages old here, and pounded into these girls from day one of cognizance. To walk around holding hands with a boy or even be seen in the company of a male would guarantee they would shrivel up and blow away from shame.

This phenomenon goes so far as to include the boys in my sophomore class. Recently we did an activity in which the kids mingled about the room, asking each other questions I had prepared in advance. Harmless, innocent questions that had nothing to do with love or lust, in case your were wondering. My two male students were left talking with each other while the girls bounced from crowd to crowd, chattering away. When I encouraged a few girls to go speak with the boys, they blushed furiously and squealed “No! I’m too shy!”

Remember Evan, from speech competitions? He and Jeremy had to be prodded and led by the arm to a group of girls. Even then they stammered and stuttered out their questions until they got into the spirit of the game. After a few minutes they got much more animated, but I did notice they stayed with the same group of girls for the entire activity.

Interesting to note that, when I conducted the same activity in both my freshman classes, the girls did not have a problem engaging the boys, and the boys had no problems approaching the girls. In fact, any activity I’ve assigned my freshmen, neither gender had a problem approaching or working with the other. Some girls even prefer working with their male classmates.

We’re talking about a one-year difference in age. Why are the freshmen so liberal while the sophomores are so much more grounded in tradition?


Traditionally, relationships are arranged. The whole family gets in on the act, arranging meeting after meeting and pairing after pairing until all parties, including boy and girl are satisfied with the match. Youths do not bounce from person to person, dating, sampling, ‘hooking up’ or gaining experience. Generally a person has only one or two relationships in their lifetime. They usually marry the first lover they have. It is very uncommon to have had more than one lover before marriage. I’m not saying that many are virgins when they marry (as was the case a mere twenty years ago) but they are certainly not wildly experienced in love or relationships.

That’s rather refreshing, isn’t it?

Now that so many more people have access to extra-familial experiences – college, work or living with relatives other than parents, and far away from home, the introduction method still prevails.

It would be acceptable for Dash to introduce Zhanny to a relative or someone from her village, for example. Or, I could introduce her to a student in another class. Or, a male relative who is studying at a different college in Wuhan could introduce her to a roommate. The important factor seems to be that introductions must be made.

Bottom line: one cannot just walk up to someone who is unknown or unrelated and strike up a conversation. Meeting someone on a bus or while out shopping is completely out of the question, no matter how the pulses race. The whole Western ideal of love at first sight or ‘eyes meeting from across the room’ is virtually impossible in this exceedingly traditional society.

Makes you wonder how anyone ever manages to find a mate and actually move into the marriage stage, doesn’t it?


Chinese law decrees that males are eligible for marriage at 22 and females may marry at or after age 20. This is to ensure that people will complete their education and at least get started on a career. Before a girl’s family will consent to a marriage the boy must prove that he at least has an apartment and a job that pays enough to support a family. If he has a car, all the better.

It is of paramount importance for all parents – the bride’s and the groom’s to agree to the match. If, for whatever reason one set of parents is displeased with the match, most likely the marriage will not take place. There are exceptions to that, though. For example: Sam was introduced to Penny by his orthodontist. His parents did not think too much of her but noted how devoted the young couple was to each other, so they let the marriage take place. Penny’s mother was satisfied with the match. Usually, if the girl’s parents are displeased no amount of swaying, begging, pleading or convincing by either party will change their mind.

Upon marriage a woman does not take her husband’s name. The child of that union will take her father’s name, especially if that child is male.

If a woman is not married by age 30, she is generally considered unmarriageable and will remain single for the rest of her life. A divorced woman stands little chance at remarriage, no matter what age. If a man is unmarried by that age he is under constant pressure to do so. Gary, at 32, routinely fends off his relatives, pleading business concerns and a recently broken heart. Being as his business is doing so much to support the family financially his marital status is excused but the family tortures him at every occasion nonetheless.

Daisy, one of my colleagues (See Daisy, Helen, Hellen and Mouse entry posted June of last year) is unattached and 28 years old. She badly wants a boyfriend and would love to get married. Her family is going to great lengths to ‘make an honest woman out of her’. She had a boyfriend earlier this year, introduced to her by another colleague but it didn’t play out. She wants me to introduce her to Gary. I thought about it but decided it wouldn’t be wise on my part. What if it didn’t work out?


I cannot comment on the role of sex in relationships because talking about sex is not done openly here, as it is in the States. I can attest that sex happens and, as I am given to understand it does not play the same role in the relationship as it does in the west. Here, relationships seem built more on the idea of companionship.


One could describe China’s love, dating, courtship and marriage rituals as archaic as best. Imagine love in the ‘40’s in America, add a double dose of tradition and you’ll have the way things go around here.

As I write this entry I keep thinking of more things to talk about, but I’m already running a bit long. So, in parting I will talk about Martin, a sophomore who lives with his girlfriend off campus, without his parents’ knowledge. And Tony, who has a lovely young woman named Joanna to share life with, but they live in their dormitories and do not put on public displays of affection. Nor to they do everything together or make each other the center of their lives. There’s Stephanie, whose boyfriend had a previous lover. She cannot stand the idea that he is not a virgin and is considering breaking up with him because of it.

Love, sex, marriage, tradition… what a salad! What is going to change? What will prevail? Things are changing so fast I can’t begin to tell you. I will wager that Zhanni will ask about boyfriends again next time I see her.

Wanna bet?

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