By now, most of you are trying to recover from the excesses of the Chinese New Year holiday and are perhaps setting ambitious fitness goals to regain a slim waistline lost to a week of excessive eating, popping pills to get over a lingering cold brought on by the stress of travel or reeling from the utter loss of privacy and dignity suffered at the hands of visiting too many relatives.
Of the trials and tribulations that come with Chinese New Year gatherings, I find the latter the most difficult, especially in a small city where your business is everybody’s business. And the most important business in the life of a young Chinese woman (and to some extent, a young man) is love, of course.
Here in Beijing, like everywhere else, singles suffer the obsessive matchmaking efforts and prying questions of their parents, parents’ friends, and elderly neighbors all year round. But in a small city – like the one where I spent the New Year – the pressure to fall in love, marry and procreate is truly unbearable.
In the big city, my friends (in their late 20s) are quite good catches, but in a rural setting, they would be called shengnv (leftovers). Last week, I watched with helplessness as a younger cousin sat through the onslaught of criticism about her “situation” with every wave of visitors arriving in our home:
“You can’t be too picky at this age. A so-so candidate is good enough.”
“What happened to that policeman you were dating last year? You never even brought him home for us to meet.”
“Do you have any prospects now? There’s a single in my work unit. He’s a little short, but who cares about height? As long as he’s a good man.”
Those who are romantically involved aren’t spared scrutiny either.
Before the masses left their work in Beijing to head to remote hometowns, I watched another cousin deftly handle the delicate issue of what to do with her boyfriend. Bring him home for the holidays? Accept his invitation to visit his folks? In the end, she took the most prudent option, stayed in the city and spent the holiday alone.
It seemed like a harsh choice, but it was for the best. Going home together – to either home – would’ve set off a firestorm of small town gossip (“Did you see so and so’s boyfriend? A Henan man!”). It also would’ve spurred overeager parents into pressing for a wedding date.
I thought the presence of my still-single cousins and a wedding ring on my hand this year would deflect attention from me. Alas, I learned that even the married don’t have it easy. My female relatives used any male-free occasion to remind me of the deteriorating state of my uterus.
While peeling potatoes: “Don’t wait too long. The longer you wait, the harder the pregnancy.”
When washing fruit: “Women aren’t like men. A man can have a child when he’s 60, but you, you have to hurry.” Setting the table: “I don’t understand young people these days. How much money do you need to save up? A child hardly costs anything in the first few years.”
Faced with all this talk, my single female cousins and I resorted to the only politically correct response. We hung our heads low and muttered vague syllables of agreement while shoveling food into our mouths. Boy, I am glad to be back in Beijing where my business is still my business and even the nosy grandmas know when to stop chattering.