Home. Car. Money. I first heard these words strung together — fangzi, chezi, piaozi — around 1am in July 2007, while loitering on the stairs outside a Holiday karaoke bar in Hangzhou with my Chinese husband and his friends.
The friend who spoke these words, a guy named Jiang, sighed almost immediately afterwards, before forcing up a grin to hide the frustration he felt about it. “That’s married life in China,” he shrugged.
I had just married John — for the second time, if you consider our ceremony at the Shanghai Marriage Registration Bureau a sort of wedding — and suddenly Jiang’s words seemed to be the fluorescent lights in the reception hall after hours, making an otherwise beautiful thing look cheap and ugly.
By July 2007, it’s not as if John and I hadn’t wrestled with these issues before. We faced “Money” all the time — hadn’t we survived summer 2006, when some months I never knew when the checks from my new business would come in, and wondered what bills to pay and what to leave aside? Hadn’t we just managed to scrounge the cash together for plane tickets? When it came to “Car,” we were just grateful that our secondhand 1991 Toyota station wagon — teeter-tottering with every bump on its barely-there shocks — still ran after some 170,000-plus miles. And as for “Home,” we felt lucky to manage the rent on our place — owning just wasn’t in the cards for us yet.
Jiang’s face was etched with worry — perhaps from the loans he’ll spend most of his life paying off, or perhaps the child on the way that he seemed ambivalent about fathering. I knew Jiang once loved his wife. I saw them once together, hands locked and smiles on cue. Now, though, love seemed to take a second place to home-car-money.
I never believed our marriage could be distilled into these three material things — something that has become the new engagement ring in China. I knew many Chinese women expected the home, car and good salary before saying “I do.” But was I crazy to believe that love mattered more?
I smiled at John, as he put his arm around me and pulled me to his side. My body fluttered with warmth all over, as if we were sitting next to the West Lake all over again, and he was just on the verge of kissing me.
What do you think? Is marriage in China really just about home, car, money?