A couple of months back, one of my Chinese friends came to visit. We were enjoying coffee and conversation when, all of a sudden, he pops off with: “I'm getting married.” Color me poleaxed! Isn't that the sort of announcement one rushes to tell friends, breathlessly and full of excitement? That wasn't the case here. Joe dropped his news casually, mid-conversation, as though he were telling me he would eat dinner out that night.
Much is being made of romance, finding one's true love, and 'love conquers all' in China these days. The divorce rate is staggering, reportedly because there is no love to the union or the romance has faded, although other factors also make the list: deceit, or getting a better apartment, for example. Meanwhile I, romantic at heart but disbelieving of the soulmate myth – there's someone for everyone or the German version of it: for every pot there's a lid... I, long-time single, ponder the marriage question.
Marriage, by definition, is the union of two or more complementary elements: pork and peppers, peanut butter and jelly, jazz and blues, man and woman. However, one can enjoy jazz and not like blues, eat peanut butter with bananas and serve pork with other vegetables. Human marriages are stretching traditional definitions: America has recently legalized homosexual marriage, a step behind other countries. But human marriages almost always come down to love, don't they?
Or do they? Why do people get married these days?
About a month after Joe's marriage announcement, we were again enjoying a visit. He started talking about wedding plans and asked me to attend his wedding in October. Of course I agreed and, since he opened the subject, I asked a few questions.
“What about your new apartment that you are decorating to suit your tastes? How will your wife fit in it?”
“She will keep living at her house and I will live at mine.”
“What about when you have a baby?”
“Baby will live with my mama. Mama lives close to me.”
By this time, I'm not exactly understanding this marriage. He explained:
“She loves her work, and earns a lot of money. She does not want to let her life go just because she marries. Her work is close to her home now, and far away from my home or work. It is better this way.”
I can certainly understand her wanting her independence and not give up her work but I can't understand how this marriage is going to work.
I think about all of the good marriages I know: Chuck and Marjorie, George and Chris, Ann and Ron, Sam and Penny. These are long-time married folks with the exception of Sam and Penny, but those 2 are no less devoted to each other than my other friends who've been in it for the long haul. All of the good marriages I know of are true partnerships that require a lot of compromise and a lot of work no matter how long they've lasted.
Contrast that with this young couple I'm acquainted with, who got married last year and now have a 2-month old baby. He went to another city for work because there are no good teaching positions in his village. His wife had the baby on her own, and then moved back in with her parents so they could help take care of baby. The new father returned home, his teaching done for the summer and, rather than seek out his wife and child, he headed to his parents' home and agreed to a divorce via text message.
What did they get married for???
Perhaps it is my mindset: one should fulfill one's obligations and keep one's promises. Maybe that is what makes me shudder at how this marriage died. And maybe there is a dash of hopeful romantic in me. He married her, after all. He should have brought her to the big city and been there to support her, instead of chastising her for weakness when she cried, long-distance, that she needed him. He should at least meet his baby, if not commit his life to her. Shouldn't he?
The Chinese Formula for Life:
From birth to early 20s: education.
After graduation: find a job.
Once established in a career: get married, have a child.
This formula, once successful in this society is now damaging it. These days, people are not happy to just do their duty and bear the burden of convention. More and more, couples want romance, love, and status brought by material things: a fine home, a nice car, the latest gadget. They drive themselves to the very pinnacle of success, sacrificing everything in the process, including the possibility of lifelong partnership and the emotional/psychological well-being of their offspring.
Offspring: in spite of looser social standards, having a baby out of wedlock is still taboo in China. Thus, people get married, have a child and then split up. Sometimes, both parents leave, and the child is left with an older family member, or maybe even just a villager. We already see the damage done to 'left-behind' children. Suicides, attachment issues, psychological problems such as depression and fear of abandonment. What about this new generation of children, foresaken by one parent or the other in favor of a better life?
What does this mean for the future of China? Do Chinese sociologists have to rethink what it means to be family? Maybe if the stigma against divorce and bastard children is lifted... Or should the government step in and enforce family values over emotional ties and/or materialistic desires? Is this yet another birthing pain of modern Chinese society? Are marriages of convenience becoming the norm?
Is that what Joe and his intended are doing?
Possibly. Joe is a mid-30s businessman. Regardless of his professional success, his family is continuously hounding him for a daughter-in-law and an heir. Maybe her family is raining the dreaded 剩女 'sheng nu' – 'old maid' phrase on her. Perhaps the two know each other professionally and have entered a pact of sorts to help each other save face with their respective families, without changing their lives as they are now.
Is there any love between them?
I don't know. Even though Joe is a weekly visitor here, I've yet to meet or even see a picture of this girl, and he doesn't talk about her much.
I wonder why a person in this day and age would have to marry, but then continue to live a single life that has worked so well for him/her.