The price of love

Updated: 2013-01-21 15:10

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

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The price of love

The price of love

Young people under pressure to tie the knot are resorting to the desperate measure of employing fake dates to meet and mislead their demanding parents.

A New Year service with Chinese characteristics is the rental of young men and women who pose as dates to fool parents. It may sound suspicious to a Western ear, but if you look deeper, it's much newer than the world's oldest profession.

Here is an ad on Taobao, the nation's largest online mall: The price for a kiss is set at 50 yuan ($8), and that's for a social kiss, not the French kind. Window shopping costs 30 yuan an hour, dining out is 50 and going to the movie will set you back 30 - or 60, if it's a horror flick.

Or you can pay the daily all-inclusive rate of 600 yuan.

Of course, your companion-for-rent will not share the cost of the meal or the movie ticket. But hand-holding and the farewell peck on the cheek are thrown in as gifts or free samples, for that matter.

This is certainly not the place to look for romance.

A gentleman is supposed to act chivalrous and pick up the bill, not charge 50 yuan for a kiss. If you turn around and see it as real-life acting, you'll understand that China has a market simmering with pent-up demand.

Data published by Chinese media put the number of singles in the country at 180 million.

Although a detailed breakdown by age is hard to come by, it is common knowledge that the number of unwed older than, say, 30, is staggeringly high and growing by leaps and bounds.

Unlike in Western countries, most of them in China intend to marry but are simply unable to.

Most of the hurdles that block a big chunk of the young demographic from family life (other than that of a family of one) can be measured in material terms.

Say, a young man of 25 leaves college and finds a job in Beijing. Say, he makes 7,000 yuan a month. How long does he have to save before he can afford an apartment? OK, even one outside the Fifth Ring Road.

The skyrocketing property prices are probably the No 1 reason people remain bachelors. Some parents use their life savings for their children's down payment, but then the parents would have to be middle-class with wads of cash stashed away.

Why not rent?

Normally, young people should not rush into property ownership because they may change jobs or move from place to place in search of their ideal career. But, with real estate white-hot, one gets a feeling of being left behind if you're not tethered to something that's fast moving beyond your reach.

Besides, rental prices are tagged to those of sales. I've seen a rural young couple squeezed out of their rental unit and decide to go back home. They may not have the excitement of bright lights, but at least they can have a place of their own.

But most youngsters would not choose this path. Or they have tried it and relented. A few years ago, there was a mass migration away from the first-tier cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. But most of those who left soon returned. These megalopolises are where the jobs and resources are.

Another reason is more psychological.

In the old days, people could be coerced into marriages. You would marry to please your parents.

Youngsters nowadays would not compromise on that, and that's good.

But the search for the ideal spouse could be endless because whatever chemistry between the pair might be gone once they get into daily routines, with the pitfalls of personality mismatches surfacing.

On the upside, the window for a potential spouse is much bigger now that the Internet has broadened the horizon from a cluster of villages to essentially the whole world.

Still, geographical and other restraints apply. And anyone who's participated in speed dating will tell you that infinite choices mean you might not be chosen.

The sad thing is, your parents do not see it that way.

They can only understand the part about the housing price and blame you for being too picky about dates.

The Chinese New Year is the season when you're supposed to bring home that boyfriend or girlfriend you've been dating for a while.

As customs go, one would not bring a first-time date to meet the parents. It should be someone who is graduating from date to mate, just a small step before the status of a fiance.

Actually, parental approval is usually the missing link that will elevate the relationship to that level.

If you know how persistent Chinese parents are in drilling piano skills into their toddlers, you can imagine the heightened nagging one must endure - albeit over long distance normally - for "bringing that special one" and, later, bearing offspring.

Well, I can imagine the despair of someone who is considering renting a fake date.

It's a risky proposition in the first place. What if the rental is not a good actor and accidentally exposes the scam when grilled by your parents about such details as how you met? What if he or she is a scam artist on a mission to rip you off? (It's so convenient for a stranger to make off with your parents' hidden heirlooms.)

Of course, there are romantic comedies that turn these bogus courting arrangements into real ones.

But I really doubt the chances of that happening, except onscreen. On the other hand, suspicions of flesh peddling could also be unfounded if you examine the details of the ads.

Take this one: "I will carry luggage for you, but it depends on how heavy it is; I can politely chat with your parents and watch soap operas with them, my knowledge in that arena will astound them; but washing their feet? Do not even think about it. I can be used to put down your former beau or the one your parents picked for you. I can act as a bodyguard and beat up those who rob you, but I charge 500-700 yuan extra for each one I knock down. And I'm not responsible for injuries thus incurred. On the other hand, red envelopes of cash gifts I receive in the name of your date will be turned back to you."

Browsing through the virtual mall, I get the impression that most for-rent ads are put up by males.

Could it be women are more vulnerable in this profession? Or men possess more chutzpah?

The rates vary drastically.

So does the wording. Some seem to be in a competition for jokes - rather than for paid companionship. But all come with the disclaimer that no "immoral" or "illegal" services are on offer.

But is it moral to trick an elderly couple into believing you are the prince charming who is going to take away the treasure of their life? It sounds like a cruel joke to me.

Had it been a trip of convenience home, it might be as innocuous as a buddy movie. But this play-acting involves not just two people but also some undiscerning participants. It has the potential of leading to an unpleasant end.

The pressure to start a family comes from many things.

In China, certain traditions are increasingly misaligned with reality, producing such darkly comic situations as hiring an imposter to get through a festive family reunion. It dilutes the joy of the occasion.

Fast-forward 50 years, there may be robots doing this job. Then it'll be boring when every Mr Right looks like the superhero of the day.

Contact the writer at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn.

(China Daily 01/19/2013 page11)

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