Women’s group: on love and relationships

My women’s group has been going well. Numbers are down due to some combination of flakiness, busyness, and priorities, which is annoying, but which also makes for a more productive discussion usually.

When I arranged the schedule for the semester, I buried a couple of the meatiest topics—love and sex—in the middle, for once the group had gotten more comfortable. This meant that last week was one of the big ones: Dating and Relationships.

Most of the session was led, and led well, by the discussion captains of the day. First off, they surveyed the crowd: How many of the 13 girls in attendance had a boyfriend? Two. How many, additionally, had ever had a boyfriend in the past? Two more. This means that it’s a fair bet, given the China situation, that the rest have probably never been on a date or been kissed or the like, since for “good girls” those are things that really only exist inside relationships. Onward.

How would you describe your ideal boyfriend, the leaders asked, and had each girl say a few words. There was the expected, and the same kind of thing you’d expect an average American woman to say:

Kind. Honest. Loyal to family, friends, and girlfriend. Same interests. Humorous. Energetic. Responsible. Easy-going. Outgoing. Not too serious. Likes sports. A little older than me.

There were the appearance-based comments, both the standard:

Looks tidy. Tall. Taller than 1.75 meters (about 5’7”). Handsome. No acne. Cute.

And the Chinese:

Big eyes. White skin. Not too fat.

There are the oblique nods to money:

Ability to make a comfortable life. Steady job. Generous. Smarter than me (!).

It wouldn’t be uncommon for American girls to say they were looking for a boy who was sensitive, but usually you would hear descriptors that sound quite so, mm, effeminate to our ears:

Sunshine[-like]. Gentle (this was mentioned several times). Comfortable. Gentleman.

And nowhere but China would I expect to hear so much emphasis on:

Cares about his parents. Filial.

Filial? Put that on a dating survey, all right. The rest of the meeting featured some fairly standard discussions about topics like healthy versus unhealthy relationships (Saying you’d die without each other, healthy or unhealthy? Yes, most of you are right, it’s unhealthy!). There was a discussion of who pays in a relationship: girls from southern China tended to say it was OK to split it or whoever invited pays, whereas girls from the North said it’s more customary that the man pays, and the Kazak girl from Xinjiang explained that in her culture, the man must pay or expect to be mocked.

But perhaps the other most interesting topic was the issue of marrying for money. In China today, as one might expect from what is essentially a newly-capitalist economy that has experienced a sudden and dramatic rise in both standard of living and cost of living for many, many people—money can be a big, big deal. It’s now expected that a man should be able to buy an apartment (or get his parents to buy him an apartment) when he gets married—and if he can’t, well tough luck finding a decent wife. Cars and iphones cost more here than they do at home, even excluding the difference in the value of the money. And the cost per square foot of an apartment in Beibei is not too different from a house in Redlands, as per Roberta’s calculations on visiting my former host LL’s house here. However, the average salary ranges from $1000 to $2700 per year.

So, asked the leaders in slightly couched terms: what of marrying for money, yay or nay?

Jojo: It’s realistic. My mom says a boy must own a house when I get married. But I’m more practical about it.

Sunny: Money’s not the only thing, but it is a need. Marriage and love stories are not the same thing—now we can enjoy love things, but when it comes to marriage I’ll think about family background. It’s realistic. A good wife is useless when there is no rice in your life.

Jane: Money is not all we have, but it’s something we need to survive. For some poor girls without much when they were little, when they’re adults they want more, and a higher living standard. We have no right to criticize. We should respect girls’ decisions. It’s our right to choose the way we live and our focus.

Sunshine: If I’m lucky enough to find a rich man, it’s great. But if he doesn’t respect you, give up the money. He doesn’t deserve your love. [For example,] I can’t have a man who is smoking, or critical—it’s unbearable.

I wonder how such a discussion would be different with American 20-year-olds. My suspicion? Some of the same feelings deep down, but less willing to admit it outright. Or, maybe among American college girls more in-good-faith idealism.

Tomorrow’s meeting is the big Sex and Our Bodies day. Remember how I said that it seems the majority of the girls have never been on a date? Yeah. This is going to be so, so painful for them and so, so amusing for me. I’ll report back.


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