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The single life - love it or hate it
By Wang Jie

When Tan Wenying divorced her husband at the age of 35, she didn't expect that she would be living alone for the next five decades.

"I have no children, it's difficult to describe what I have undergone these years," says the 85-year-old Shanghai native. "There is no one I can turn to, and everything depends on myself.

"The night especially gets longer when I think about spending my remaining days on a 2,000-yuan (US$320) monthly pension. Miserable days for a lonely elder!" she adds.

In Tan's day, there were not too many solo dwellers (du ju zhe ?à?ó??) in China, since traditional culture places a high value on big connected families, which dominate the fabric and customs of the country.

But after the nation adopted the opening-up policy in the early 1980s and since it has been increasingly exposed to Western culture, more and more people today are living alone, whether by choice or by circumstance.

According to market research firm Euromonitor International, the number of people living alone globally is skyrocketing, rising from about 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011, a 55-percent increase in 15 years.

"My wife died two years ago, and now I live alone," says Xu Huaiyu, a retired professor in his 70s. "I have a son with his own family. He wants me to live with them, but I refuse. It's clear that the living habits and values of the young and the old are widely different. I don't want to get involved."

Xu says he has his own plan. "When I get older, I may go to a nursing home. Some of my friends suggested a new marriage, but I have seen too many family conflicts on TV shows. The relationship between stepchildren, my inheritance and savings, my apartment - it's all too complicated. I am now an old man, what I want is a peaceful life."

For many elderly people living alone, insecurity and an uncertain future are their biggest concern.

Although his son takes his granddaughter to visit him every Saturday, Xu still feels lonely most of the time. He misses his deceased wife. "But I have to adapt and I have a small dog that at least will make some noise."

He has hired an ayi to help with chores by the hour. "I have heard disturbing stories about nursing homes," he says, "so living alone like this is my only choice. After all, everyone has to die, of course, without a companion."

But Christine Liu, a 38-year-old HR manager for an international company, enjoys living alone.

"I am one of the so-called sheng nu or 'left-over ladies' - good looking, with good pay and good taste," she says. Six years ago, she bought herself a small apartment downtown to escape her smothering parents. She's busy in her spare time, taking tea break with friends, practicing Chinese painting, doing yoga, having spa treatments and traveling "whenever and wherever I like."

"Some of my friends with children envy me because I am a free person without any ties. If I said I never felt lonely, that would be a lie, and I do have some weak moments, but I get used to them and work it out," Liu says.

She appears younger and more fashionable than many of her peers. Her life mirrors the Chinese saying, "If one person is satiate/full/satisfied, the whole family is not hungry."

She spends a lot of time and money on herself to convince herself "that I still can live better than others."

Thomas Wu, a 38-year-old financial consultant at an auditing firm, is a so-called "diamond bachelor" meaning that he's a handsome single man with a decent job and a high salary.

Unlike many of his classmates who married after graduation, Wu lived the single life for a long time. "Most of them envy me for my single life. I have more flexible time to work at home. I have money without a family burden. I date to explore more of life.

"Frankly, I don't hunger to get married and be tied to only one woman. Life is full of possibilities. Maybe when I get older, my ideas will change, but the bachelor's life is damn good," he says.

Feng Yalan, a local psychologist, says there's nothing wrong with living alone. "The single lifestyle won't definitely lead to psychological problems," she says, referring to the common perception among family-oriented Chinese that there's something wrong with living alone all the time and that the single life can cause mental or emotional problems.

Due to the communications revolution, new media and social networking, people can socialize while they are holed up at home.

Microblog weibo (Chinese Twitter), iPhone, Skype and Facebook all shorten the distance between people, and change the way people understand themselves and their most intimate relationships. Of course, it's no substitute for flesh-and-blood relationships.

"If a person living alone can well organize his/her life with the social network, that's quite okay," Feng says. "Even those who are not good at communication and live alone can have a rich spiritual life and enjoy themselves. But for those who tend to isolate, living alone may result in depression, anxiety and neurosis."

In her view, living alone is particularly harmful for couples living apart.

Iris Zhao is an example.

"I fell in love with my husband at first sight when he bought an airline ticket in my office," says Zhao, who is in her 30s and works for a travel agency. They started a six-year romance based on e-mails and telephone calls since the man works in Canada.

"Today it is incredible to think how I could have endured such a long-distance relationship. When my parents and friends opposed our marriage, I ignored them." However, she began to feel the pressure and lack of security of a live-at-home spouse. She wasn't satisfied with seeing him only on their vacations.

"I don't remember when we started to lose trust. I suspected he had another woman in Canada, and he suspected that I dated another man when I was not at home. Finally the marriage ended, due to the thousands of miles between us. I was sick of living alone as a married woman in my own home," she says.

"Each couple needs intimate interaction," Feng says. "It's impossible to maintain a relationship by only telephone and Skype. There's no blood-tie as a natural bond between them; a long-term of separation in a marriage is hopeless."

Many Chinese parents are concerned about their children living alone. "I won't accept that my daughter will live alone forever," says Li Suran, a retired worker. "She is perfect except for being single and living alone."

Li is eager for her daughter to marry and produce a child. "Only through this process could life become complete ... Life is long, it is too difficult or tragic to go through everything alone, without sharing with another person."

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