It’s no secret that women in China worry about getting married. Sometimes it’s because she’s approaching 30 – China’s unofficial expiration date for single women. Sometimes it has to do with parents and relatives raining that “why don’t you have a boyfriend?” question on her over and over again like neverending debris from Chinese New Year fireworks. And sometimes, in the case of my 22-year-old cousin Mei, the problem isn’t age or being a chronic singleton, but marriage itself.
“I don’t really want to get married. I’m afraid!”
Moments before Mei confessed her fear of an institution as integral to Chinese life as chopsticks and rice, I had told her she looked beautiful. Her navy-striped ruffle-trimmed blouse and khaki mini shorts accentuated her lovely Pippi Longstocking freckles, and she had long, creamy legs that could have stopped even high speed trains, perched atop patent leather high heels. If she had told me she had a boyfriend, I would have started teasing her about some imaginary hot date she didn’t have that evening. But she had no boyfriend, and no desire to find one either.
“Everyone around me is getting divorced,” she sighed.
“Who is getting divorced?”
She frowned. “Oh, my friends. My classmates. Now 50 percent of marriages end in divorce.” I knew the divorce rate in China had crept up over the years, but last I remembered, it hovered somewhere around 20 percent, give or take. “Everyone I know who is married fights. My parents fight, relatives fight. It’s too bad. So I think marriage is not for me.”
“Not everyone has a bad marriage,” I interjected, mentioning my husband and I. “I think the important thing is to marry someone you know well, someone like your best friend.”
But to Mei, my advice was no better than throwing rapeseed oil in my Chinese family’s wood-burning stove. “Best friends are not good. My best friend asked me to date him and I turned him down.”
If I had been a cartoon character, my mouth would have dropped to the dusty concrete below. “What?”
Mei smoothed her ponytail back as if declining the most important guy friend in her life was no big deal. “We were classmates and know each other’s personalities very well. He has a good situation – he owns two apartments. He asked me to date him and I outright refused.”
“When someone knows you and your personality too well, they know just how to hurt you. It’s easier for them to hurt you.”
I knew then that a simple conversation on the patio before my family’s home wouldn’t even come close to changing her mind. Just how had her loved ones stung her as a child to turn her away from marriage? I sure wouldn’t get to know then, while Mei’s mother lingered on the other side of the patio chatting up my Chinese mother-in-law. And I wondered – just how many more women, like Mei, can’t imagine a happily ever after in someone else’s arms?
Have you ever feared getting married? Do you know someone afraid of marriage (in China or elsewhere)?