Money can't buy you love, but it can let you rent a girlfriend to take home for Chinese New Year.
Every year, newspapers in January report the latest examples of a modern tradition with decidedly Chinese characteristics. Single men and women in their 20s and 30s across China post Internet ads to hire a make-believe girlfriend or boyfriend to meet mom and dad for this country's most important holiday for getting together with relatives.
It seems modern Chinese parents still make old-world demands on their adult offspring to hurry up and marry and produce offspring. The pressure is greater in rural areas than it is in urban cities.
So, the pressure is on to arrive home for the holiday with a girlfriend in tow. I say girlfriend because, statistically, marriageable-age men now outnumber women of that age here.
For much of the past decade, the media each year has reported on who rents girlfriends, how much it costs to rent a girlfriend and how they carry off their holiday-only charades in small towns and big cities across the country.
Those stories reported by the Chinese media are repeated in English-language newspapers around the world, from the Independent in the UK to the New York Times in the US.
There was the story about the fake girlfriend who refused to return the money from "red envelope" gifts handed out at a Chinese New Year party in Zhengzhou. The police broke up their argument and persuaded the couple to split the money.
There was the story about an engineer in Shanghai who rented a girlfriend, but whose parents found out at the family reunion. There was the story from Changsha about a "girlfriend" who kept forgetting her lines, to the consternation of the young man who had hired her and trained her what to say to his parents.
One fellow told the media he attracted 400 applicants in three days when he advertised on his Internet blog for a girl to take home to Xuzhou. Daily pay rates, according to a variety of media reports, can range from 80 yuan to 3,000 yuan.
There are professional men in their 20s and 30s who tell the media they're too busy to find a real girlfriend, or who can't afford a girlfriend because they just graduated from college. Instead of telling their parents that entry-level jobs for college graduates generally come with low salaries around the world, they're apparently more willing to pay for a fake girlfriend to avoid the conversation.
Young men in search of a fake girlfriend will tell the media they just broke up with their real girlfriend and haven't found a replacement in time, or that their real girlfriends refused to go home with them to meet the parents. One young man told the media he's gay, but isn't ready to tell his family yet.
Every media report I've seen translated from Chinese to English emphasizes that the ads insist that there will be no hanky-panky, even when the fake girlfriend or boyfriend must share a room during the family reunion.
If I was a Chinese mom I might say, "Welcome home, dear. Is this your real girlfriend or your fake girlfriend" when your son arrives home with a good-looking girlfriend of just the right age who has the perfect answers for all the anticipated questions.
If I were a Chinese mother, I might say, "Dear, I'd like a 50-50 share of the fee you paid your fake girlfriend, because I'm the one who also has to pretend she's real in front of your father, uncles and cousins."
I'm a mom, too, and I suspect that our lie-detector skills are universal. We start by learning what our babies' faces look like when they need to burp. After more than 20 or 30 years of practice, most of us have come to know what our children's faces look like when they tell a lie.
Think of all the money that could be saved for real romance and marriage if young men and women didn't have to spend extra cash each year on lying to avoid disappointing their mothers, and if mothers didn't have to pretend to believe them to avoid being disappointed that their children had to lie about it. Truth can be a bargain.
But then, there's dad. This is the 21st century, and the whole world has changed. No one expects young people in a tough global economy with a high cost of living to find a mate and get married right away.
Isn't it time to tell fathers the truth about fake girlfriends and mothers who pretend to believe it? I suspect I might say, "No, not this year."
For China Daily
(China Daily 01/20/2011)