No matter where you fall on the relationship spectrum, today might very well mark the loneliest day of the year. November 11th, with two sets of “ones” in the date, is celebrated nationally in China as Singles Day. With a population of over a billion, you have to expect that China has both the largest number of couples and single people of any other nation in the world. And where the former gets Valentine's Day—a holdover from Western globalization—weddings, and anniversaries, today is the sole acknowledgment of the latter.
Legend has it that the pop culture holiday began in the mid-1990s by a group of Nanjing University students who have since carried their tradition into mainstream society. Traditionally, singles eat a big meal together—either to commiserate or celebrate their singleness—but pay their own way to show their independence. Though the holiday isn't celebrated outside of China, it may be gaining increased prominence on the mainland. According to a recent study, more than 24 million Chinese men could find themselves without spouses by 2020. But as it turns out, most people relish the single life. Another survey conducted by zhaopin.com found that 70% of married office workers in Beijing miss being single. In an informal study conducted in my own classes, I've noticed a similar trend.
The speech bubble reads, “November 11th, how will we celebrate our Singles Day?” The brown-looking thing to the left of the bottle of baijiu is called youtiao, a deep-fried dough stick that is customarily eaten on the holiday because of its likeness to the number one (comic strip courtesy of Xin Hua News).
In honor of the holiday, I am mid-way through a relationship unit for all of my graduate classes. I started it last week by going over the requisite vocabulary and asking my students about dating customs in China. Most of their answers were not all that surprising—ideal qualities as far as partners go were almost identical to American sentiments, dating a friend's ex was seen as off-limits, and most found cheating sufficient grounds for breaking up. Nothing was that surprising, save, ironically, for the act of dating itself. As compared to Americans, Chinese are late-bloomers, with most young people only breaking into the dating scene until after college. Blind dates are the most common form of dating, followed closely by online dating and arranged dates set-up by one's parents. Physical intimacy is rare but not uncommon due to the lack of privacy, but rumor has it that the winter months see the greatest number of abortions on campus.
Don't get me wrong, Chinese students are just as sex-crazed and libido-driven as Americans—the only difference is they have a much harder time expressing it. College becomes a veritable “Mecca of Love” for Chinese students after having to put up with overprotective parents who remain prudish about sex education and strictly forbid all attempts at romance. With China's one-child only policy in full force, it is becoming increasingly hard to find love in a society of singles. And while some bask in the freedom of being single, others can only find solace in the comradely league of bachelors that offer small comforts of belonging.
Following up on my dating norms discussion, I thought I'd try something different—by having my students write mock “dating profiles” to be used for a round of in-class speed dating. I was impressed with their creativity. When I jokingly asked them at the end if any of them found true love, students feigned shock, having had to choose between 11-year old girls with children, 65-year old retired grandfathers, and female police officers who like boxing. Though I meant the activity simply as a fun exercise, there were some who looked like they could have been making real connections across the seated divide. I look forward to the day when they might eventually have me to thank as matchmaker.