Meimei makes a New Year's Resolution: Find a husband
By Emily Ford
IT'S my first Chinese class of the year with my Mandarin teacher, Meimei. We are discussing New Year's resolutions. Meimei's is to find a husband.
"2013 is the year I will meet my husband!" she declares. "And in 2014 I will get married!"
My resolutions are to take more pictures and order food delivery less often, but I admire her ambition. "You're right!" I tell her. "Perhaps I need to think bigger."
Being the same age and single, Meimei and I have great empathy with one another, although our circumstances are not exactly the same. Like most unmarried Chinese women nearing 30, she comes under intense pressure from her parents to find a husband. My mother, by contrast, takes the subtler approach of simply wondering out loud whether she will ever become a grandmother.
Today Meimei is full of romantic optimism, because the day before our class was January 4, 2013. In Mandarin this sounds a bit like Yi Sheng Yi Shi (201314), which means "Love You All My Life," she explains. Apparently 10,000 Chinese couples chose the day to get married.
"Maybe January 4, 2014, will be your turn!" I say.
She shudders and I realize I have committed a terrible faux pas. "That sounds like 'I want to die'," she says in a horrified whisper. "That wouldn't be a romantic choice for a wedding date."
China's obsession with auspicious-sounding numbers never fails to tickle me, given that so many words in Mandarin actually do sound the same. In addition, there are a whole host of superstitious homophones that it seems only Chinese can hear. My birthday, May 20, is also a good day, according to Meimei, because it supposedly sounds like the Chinese for 'I love you.' Except that it really doesn't.
"Why is it that no one can understand me if I use the wrong tone for shi, even when it is completely clear what I mean?" I complain. "Yet they hear resemblance in words sounding totally different!"
Being female, 30 and unmarried in China is not considered lucky. Meimei uses the English counting system because it makes her 29, instead of the Chinese system, where babies are born aged 1 and she is already past it.
For months her concerned parents have been sending her on blind dates, which inevitably fail to live up to expectations. She delights in regaling me with tales of these boring men, including the latest, a public servant whose sole topic of conversation consists of asking her what she has eaten that day.
"One day he wanted to go out for rice porridge. In the evening!" she says.
With the 30 deadline fast approaching, Meimei has decided to take fate into her own hands and pay large sums to a professional matchmaker, who has promised to introduce her to hundreds of suitable men.
Dating in China involves a minefield of complex requirements. According to Meimei, men are supposed to be Gao Fu Shuai - tall, rich and handsome - while women should be Bai Fu Mei - white, rich and beautiful. Men have the added responsibility of securing a car, a house and a promotion by the time they reach their fourth decade if they are to have any hope of finding a wife.
"Everyone says Shanghai women are so superficial," she sniffs. "But I don't mind at all if my future husband doesn't have a car. Or a house. As long as, you know, he was going to buy one at some point."
The matchmaker asked Meimei for a list of her criteria and she said that he should be kind and earn a minimum of 5,000 yuan (US$804) a month. The matchmaker took one look at clever, beautiful Meimei, and told her she was setting the bar too low.
"You need to double the salary requirement to at least 10,000 a month," she advised.
Meimei is a bit put out by this.
"Any nice man with a house and a car has definitely gone by now," she says gloomily. "If my expectations were really so low, doesn't she think I would have found one already?"