China’s New Material Girl

This post was migrated from my Lifeblog.

I woke up this morning to find a surprise email from a friend in China. He had sent me a very interesting article titled,

“China’s housing boom spells trouble for boyfriends: Many women won’t marry a man who doesn’t own a home. This recent shift, along with soaring real estate prices, has created a woefully frustrated class of bachelors.”

It proceeded to describe the rampant materialism that has become the norm lately in the Chinese dating market. Gone are the days that my parents described, when families were so poor, nobody bothered to lock their doors and everyone helped each other out. (Of course, it wasn’t all roses: My mother’s family of seven shared a 200 square-foot room without plumbing, and they were considered middle class.) Nowadays, with the freer economy sweeping in a new era of prosperity, but at a steep cost, everything has changed, and many young men find themselves ineligible simply because they cannot afford to buy into the horribly inflated housing market. A typical female online dating profile now reads

I’m 25 years old, looking for a boyfriend…. I want you to have an apartment and a car…. The apartment has to be built after 2000 and the car has to be better than a minivan.

So much for romance, eh? Here’s another great snippet:

Growing male frustrations have given rise to a new female archetype: the bai jin nu, or gold-digger.

On the wildly popular TV reality program “Don’t Bother Me Unless You’re Serious,” one woman tried to size up a suitor by asking matter-of-factly, “Do you have money?”

The man cut to the chase: “I have three flats in Shanghai.”

The hard-boiled bachelorette, Ma Nuo, has gone on to become one of China’s most recognizable bai jin nu. Marry for love? Fat chance, said the material girl: “I would rather cry in a BMW than smile on the back of my boyfriend’s bicycle.”

The article is riddled with the sad stories of young men who were dumped by their long-term girlfriends after not being able to afford a flat, which is a little crazy considering that homeownership runs 22 times the average yearly salary. Wow!

I think that China’s going through the equivalent of our materialistic 80s, except even more so because their memory of poverty is so crushing and so recent. I also think the material girl trend is a bit of a fad, because a big part of it is saving face:

“A man is not a man if he doesn’t own a house,” said Chen Xiaomin, director of the Women’s Studies Center at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. “Marriage is becoming more and more materialistic. This is a huge change in Chinese society. No matter how confident a woman is, she will lose face if her boyfriend or husband doesn’t have a house.”

So it’s another case of keeping up with the Joneses. That makes me skeptical that this is going to make anyone happy, least of all the women. My mother’s friends in China tells her that it’s an embarasssment for a woman to “marry down,” but there simply aren’t enough high-achieving men to go around. The result is a lot of aging women with no marriage prospects. There’s an urban legend that the parents of these despairing young singles will congregate in parks with signs boasting their child’s credentials and look for a suitable mate among the other signs. It’s kind of darkly funny, but also sadly desperate.

As for the bachelors, I feel bad for them, I really do. But part of me thinks they had it coming. After all, Chinese men are pretty materialistic themselves, especially when it comes to what they want in a wife. I married a white man1; and as much as I would like to pretend that I turned away a sea of adoring Asian faces, the truth is that Asian men have never expressed much interest in me. This may be because I knew so few of them; the odds were simply not there. But the other thing is, I’m not exactly marriage material by Chinese-American standards. No Ivy League degree, no six figure salary, and overweight besides2; well it’s a bit hard to bring me home to Mom and Dad.

What can I say? No girl wants to be treated like a collection of cocktail party bragging rights. My current in-laws, who are conservative Christians, were a whole different story. My mother-in-law encouraged my (non-monetizable) interest in crafts and homemaking, and my decision to drop out of college was met with concern but understanding. Had they been Chinese, they would’ve blown a gasket. It’s nice to be treated like a human being. Really nice.

And my husband? I often joke to myself that Spencer couldn’t have married me for my looks because at the time, I was thirty pounds overweight and had terrible acne. Neither was it for my sparkling personality under extreme stress and poor health. Perhaps it was the money; after all, a few thousand dollars (saved from birthday money and scholarship kickbacks) is a lot for a college student. (I’m joking.) Nope, I’m pretty sure that he married me for me.

So to my Asian brothers out there, do treat your women well. You reap what you sow.

  1. It turns out that, for once in my life, I’m actually in style: Almost three quarters of white-Asian interracial marriages are between a white man and an Asian woman. There is an opposite gender skew among black-white interracial marriages. A fascinating and bittersweet topic. Here’s an article to get you started.

  2. I sound like Bridget Jones, yes? One of my urban heroes. :)