An article in Chinese Cosmo grabbed my eye last week — “Should you marry ‘weird uncle’?” In my Friday column, I mused over popular conceptions of the May-December romance in China and elsewhere. Read it here, or on China Daily:
I came back to Beijing after three weeks away to find my mailbox stuffed with newspapers, bank statements, and miscellaneous mail. Pawing through the pile, I found the brown envelope that holds my monthly guilty pleasure: a glossy frivolous women’s magazine. As I flipped through the issue, one headline leapt out. The English title read: “What if he is much older?” but the Chinese one was much more intriguing – “Should you marry ‘Weird Uncle’?”
The “May-December romance” is talked about so much that it has become rather mundane, but the “weird uncle” phraseology grabbed me. As I studied the article, which featured a love guru’s advice and intimate interviews with three women who married older men, I was surprised by how much this Chinese take differed from American viewpoints I have known.
While living in the US, I heard and read plenty about the perks and pitfalls of younger women dating older men. I even learned a scientific term for the trend in developmental psychology class – the “marriage gradient” describes men’s propensity to “marry down” (i.e. younger, poorer, less educated) on the social class continuum. Although a fair share of American women rant about the leery older men who once ensnared them, there seems to be a greater number – or at least a more vocal group – raving about the benefits of “dating up.” Despite the occasional snafu – He’s still married! He’s hiding a teenage daughter! He has bizarre fetishes! – the older man generally gets a good rap in the US.
A current sampling of the most popular online opinions on the subject (from media outlets like Huffington Post and CNN.com) reaffirmed my impression. The older man is routinely and flatteringly referred to as a “silver fox.” Images of George Clooney or Anderson Cooper come to mind. The silver fox is a sexy sophisticated figure coming to sweep young women off their feet, relieving them of years of frustration with uncouth younger “frat boys.” One American blogger drew up a truly enthusiastic list of “11 Reasons Dating an Older Man is Awesome,” inspiring her readers to leave enraptured comments, like “I’m sold! Sign me up!” My favorites among her reasons: “You get off,” “He knows cool stuff you’ve never heard Of,” “He’s super supportive,” “Someone has already fixed him up,” and “No more going Dutch.”
This impassioned endorsement of “May-December romances” is quite different from the Chinese take I read in the glossy magazine. “Older man, younger woman” is culturally enshrined here, as most Chinese girls (and their parents) think marrying older is wiser than being with someone your own age. Urban legend has it that a Peking University professor once even lectured male students to focus on their studies and save the romancing for later with this rousing speech:
“Research shows that successful men are, on average, older than their spouses by 12 years; exceptional men, by 17 years; and Nobel laureates, well, they can be 54 years older than their mates Why date now when your ideal wives are still in kindergarten!”
Aside from this bit of humor, I found little to smile about in the article. If you haven’t guessed from the name “weird uncle,” older Chinese men aren’t exactly coveted for their physical appeal. They’re generally made out to be tasteless and unattractive, but financially successful. Further, the three interviewees gave glimpses into their May-December marriages that were quite depressing. One reported, “We’ve never shared experiences that ordinary couples have together – travel, shopping, visits to the park He forbids me from seeing my friends, male or female He comes home only a few days a week (because of a demanding job).” Another confides: “We probably have sex once a year In another 10 years, my life will consist of taking care of three elderly people, my parents and husband.” After these sad tales, the complaints of the third interviewee seemed trite: “He never celebrates my birthday, so I’ve gotten used to going to my parents’ house for dinner and coming home to watch a DVD with him.”
Wow. Hardly the cultured, supportive, and sexy silver fox of the American mold!
If the romantic bond between the older man and younger woman is so dismal in China, then why is the pairing still prevalent and the topic relevant? What binds these women to their tacky, controlling and cold husbands? The answer lies perhaps in economics. Two of the three interviewees spoke at considerable length of the financial assistance that their older husbands give to their extended families – from buying a house for the in-laws to setting up jobs for cousins. Without a doubt, feelings of gratitude and kinship, more than passion and romance, seem to hold some May-December relationships together.
This reminded me that I was indeed back in China, where, for better or worse, money still trumps love.