Never having lived in a sub-tropical climate before, I’m amazed at the speed of change from one season to another. Spring seems to have come and gone in two or three days. Magnolia blossom lasts a matter of hours before falling. And with spring a young person’s fancy turns to love, as the poets say. During the week I’ve had several conversations with young Chinese about their plans for getting married. The pressure is on for young women to be married by the time they are 26 or 27, otherwise they are considered to be ‘left behind’ – too old to find a partner. Of course, no such time limit appears to be applied to men. Although the young women will leave UNNC exceptionally well educated, some cynical colleagues suggest this is so that they will be more likely to find better husbands. The convention is that women ‘marry up’.
We have recently been told a fascinating statistic by an economist no less – 70% of the foreign (i.e. non-Chinese) teaching staff at UNNC are married to Chinese women. The reverse does not seem to hold – foreign women do not appear to pick Chinese partners. The feminist in me fears the worse; Western men choose Chinese wives because they think they will be submissive and attentive to their every whim. It may also be that Chinese women want to marry foreigners because this will enable them to travel and/or live outside China and have more than one child. And they think it likely that Western men will be rich.
I’ve recently started having private Mandarin lessons – an extra 3 hours one-to-one tuition a week. This has made all the difference to my speaking and listening skills and I can now actually say and hear the four tones. My vocabulary has grown exponentially. The lessons have also given me the chance to get to know a feisty, young Chinese woman in her mid 20s. She runs the language teaching as a small business with one other person in an office in Laowaitan, in central Ningbo. Her parents aren’t pressurising her to get married – she’s 27 – but she has a boy friend and expects to marry soon. But first they must buy an apartment in Ningbo. Chinese parents expect their daughters to be taken care of, and renting a flat is not good enough. The man must have bought the apartment before the wedding.
In a car on the way to the archive this week I listened in to a conversation between two young men – one a teacher and part-time student and already married, and one a PhD student. For my benefit they spoke in English some of the time. The married man (it was his car) had bought a flat and his friend quizzed him about how much it had cost. Chinese people have no inhibitions about speaking about money and will ask you upfront about how much you have spent on something in a way that Westerners can find uncomfortable. Property costs less in Ningbo than Shanghai, but is already expensive; the one bedroom flat had set him back £120,000.
On the way back another, younger undergraduate joined us for a lift back to UNNC. She was one of the most confident young women I’ve met so far, with near perfect English. She told me she’d gained a place at UCL for her Masters and was looking forward to living in London next year. She also described her experience of middle and high school, where she was a boarder – the norm in China. Her school days had started at 6am and finished at 10pm because of the amount of lessons and self-study expected. At UNNC she had felt ‘reborn’ – for the first time she could study what she wanted in a more individual style. Then, once again the conversation turned to wealth, property and marriage. She had a wealthy, and benevolent father. He had already bought her a flat in Ningbo, so it wouldn’t matter if her husband-to-be could afford to buy one or not. She felt she was unusual to have such freedom.
I didn’t think of it at the time, but I could have told her that I owned a flat when I married – 25 years ago – or at least had a mortgage, acquired with help from my father. Fintan’s PA seems slightly bemused by our intention of celebrating the occasion (the marriage rather than the property, I hope). Although she has helped us with the arrangements, we get the impression that she finds our planned trip to spend the weekend in Suzhou, a water town with famous gardens, surprisingly romantic at our age.