I was walking down Beijing's Sanlitun Village when I heard a voice call out, "Meinu! (Pretty girl) Meinu!" I turned around to see a young woman exclaim, "I've been following you since the traffic light, meinu! Are you single?"
It was an odd question, but as a matter of fact, I was, so I answered honestly. She smiled and introduced herself quickly. She worked for a company called the Golden Bachelor Dating Agency, which finds matches for "high-caliber men."
How high-caliber? To join this dating service you need a wealth of at least RMB 2 million (approximately USD $292,000) or a background, when I later checked the company website, that is "extremely superior, wealthy and aristocratic". And suppose you don't have millions in the bank? You could try being "young, talented and beautiful."
She continued, "... all of the men with our company are very superior. Would you like to come in to our office to talk more about finding love?"
Embarrassed and still not sure whether this was a joke, I said no, but she left me her card anyway and told me to call if I changed my mind. Surname, Zhou and her official job title? Love-hunter -- with two little loopy hearts around it. "Hmm, well that was strange," I thought to myself as I pocketed her card. It'd be a good joke to tell at dinner though and I did. "There's actually a service that helps gold-diggers reach their victims?" My friends and I ate it up. But the next day, curiosity also got the better of me. I decided I'd contact love-hunter Zhou to play along. I wanted to see what kind of hoops they'd make me jump through to date these wealthy bachelors.
When I called, Zhou was jubilant and we made arrangements to meet at their office. She hushed, "Because we have such high standards for the men on our dating site, we have to be very selective about who we bring in." I'd first have to pass an audition and show documentation about myself--things like passports, university transcripts, even proof of hobbies like my piano certification and scuba-diving license.
Armed with all my "talents," I went in and Zhou brought me to meet a matronly lady who introduced herself as Wang Dong, senior marital advisor. She studied me with a steely gaze and the first thing out of her mouth was, "Are you always that tan? Is that natural?" I was slightly taken aback. I've never made an effort to tan. Being Chinese, I've felt that I had a good color going on naturally so there was never any real need to. However, this being a country that prizes fair tofu-like skin, I was positively Ethiopian in her sight. Answering "natural" might have been a death sentence so I ventured, "I like being outdoors a lot."
"Well, this is enough. Don't go outside too much."
For the next thirty minutes, Wang in her thick Beijing accent, grilled me on my parents' occupation, interests, ideas about love, previous relationships, education, career objectives and the reason for my singledom. As a company that caters to such high-rolling clients, money was definitely not off the table either. She wanted to hear a breakdown of my finances.
Between her stream of questions, Wang would sometimes cock her head to the side and remark out loud how she'd change up my appearance, smiling extra wide for the harshest comments. It was a kind of scrutiny that I thought only existed in modeling. Uncomfortable and with a steadily-deflating self esteem, I worried that I had underestimated what this little experiment would involve. Wang was so severe I began to wonder if I'd even get past her. I knew I didn't fit the Chinese beauty mold. I was too tan. As an ABC, I was also too "foreign" and did not act as the cutesy, girl-next-door type that you see promoted in advertisements everywhere in China.
But Wang suddenly got up and left the room. Zhou re-entered. It appeared I'd passed. Zhou copied my documents then sat down with me to fill out my profile and talk to me about the type of man I was seeking. At 5'10, did I want to dictate a certain height requirement? Most of the men were 35-45 so how big of an age difference was I okay with? Did I prefer old money or self-made millionaires? Many of the girls liked to make that distinction. I also had not thought this part through. For the hell of it, I said that I wouldn't date someone who lived off their daddy's money. I declared I liked self-made entrepreneurs only. Was I willing to date someone the age of my father, my grandpa even? Sure, tick. Tick. I checked all the boxes. Finally, she took a few snapshots of me -- "Smile, smile sweeter" she cooed while she focused the lens -- and my profile was complete. She'd call if any men were interested in meeting me, but there weren't any guarantees for my prince charming.
Even though I went into the audition convinced it was a gold-digging ruse -- by the way, if I had given off the least bit of a gold-digger vibe I am sure I would've been out the door so props to the dating company there -- I came out struck most by what Golden Bachelor's idea of what a woman should be. Zhou and even the imposing Wang Dong seemed to sincerely want to help me find marital bliss. The only thing was that their vision of happiness was also straight out of the 19th century. If I needed it, I could sign up for their "Better Wife classes" to learn to cook, dance, and groom myself better. And what do the men do while the women are perfecting their hosting skills? Well, nothing because they're rich remember?
I was called back two weeks later by Zhou, not for a date but to compete in one of the agency's matchmaking contests. There I came face to face with the other girls who were in this thing for real. When I asked contestant number 42 (I was number 35) why, she replied, "I'm 26 years old already. When you're my age, you'll understand." I looked around the crowded waiting room and watched as women adjusted their skirts and reapplied makeup. All of a sudden I felt very depressed.
Not that a union resulting from the agency is necessarily any worse or better off than meeting your spouse via other means. (For the record, the company claims an excellent success rate.) Sure, Golden Bachelor's beauty pageant-esque practices make for fantastic headline fodder, but its existence shouldn't be shocking. The sex ratio imbalance from the Chinese government's draconian one-child policy has left many men without wives. The current male to female birth ratio stands at 114 males to every 100 females. (On average in the rest of the world, 106 boys are born per 100 girls.) Then consider China's hyperactive economy. China currently has more billionaires than any other country besides the U.S. so some of the oversupply of single men are bound to be rich.
But as the media continue to hype up Chinese economy growth rates, glimpses of an agency like this point to a society with cultural values that lag far behind. The time it takes to raise up a new crop of billionaires is nowhere near long enough to transform societal attitudes towards women and marriage. We're talking about a country with a long tradition of arranged marriages after all.
Anti-feminist? Check. Shameless? Check. But practical and generally effective? Check and check.
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