ONE HOT, SUNNY AFTERNOON IN June 2008, I found myself on an airplane heading from Los Angeles to China. I was excited, especially about seeing my grandparents, aunts, and cousin—the extended family I grew up with before immigrating to Boston at the age of eight. Moreover, I was excited about the prospect of starting a new research project. At the time, I was a first-year PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego and embarking on a research journey that explores global internet dating and cross-border marriage between Chinese women and American men.
On the plane, I picked up a Chinese newspaper left in my cabin seat and started browsing. Soon, the personals section, which featured photographs of a few middle-aged women, caught my eye. The women described themselves as caring, gentle women who sought financially stable, family-oriented men residing overseas. At this point, Jeff, a businessman from Beijing with whom I had chatted earlier, glanced over my shoulder and said in a cynical tone, “Don’t believe in those ads for a moment. You know, those women are all lao you tiao [deep-fried dough sticks], exceedingly difficult to date.” His words struck me, particularly his use of the term lao you tiao, which in Chinese refers to people who are slick, cunning, and worldly. In the context of dating and marriage, the term is usually used to describe sexually experienced men who prey on young women. Somehow, I could not associate lao you tiao with divorced mothers seeking to rebuild their families.
Now, readers may wonder how a young graduate student such as myself became interested in this niche-sounding topic prior to my airplane encounter with Jeff in 2008. Having majored in business administration during college, I entered my PhD program with an interest in economic sociology and hoped to examine Chinese business culture. Yet, my plans changed unexpectedly because of an old family friend named Helen. Back in 2005, Helen was in her mid-fifties and had just gotten divorced in China. She decided to join an internet dating company that connected local women with men from English-speaking Western countries. With the help of translators at her agency, Helen exchanged hundreds of emails with a retired American engineer. Yet, when he asked to meet in person, she hesitated, as she had never dated a foreign man before. Feeling nervous, she called up my father, her old friend who had immigrated from China to the United States twenty-some years ago.
The next time I heard about Helen, through my father in 2007, I was shocked to learn that she had married and moved to Seattle. She completely reversed my previous assumption of a so-called mail-order bride as someone young and never married, based on what I had seen on TV. Beyond my interest in economic sociology, I was also fascinated by China’s gender issues, so I decided to give Helen a call to learn about her experiences. I was pleasantly surprised by her warmth and eagerness to share, and we engaged in a series of telephone conversations over the next few months. I learned that the other women Helen had met at her dating agency were also middle-aged and divorced. Moreover, some of them valued Western men for being less promiscuous and more family-oriented than their nouveau-riche Chinese ex-husbands, even though the Western men were less wealthy by comparison. Intrigued, I asked Helen if I could visit her agency.
Helen soon connected me with Ms. Fong, her agency owner. Introducing myself via email as a Chinese American PhD student, I expressed my desire to interview her clients and possibly publish a research paper based on my findings. Although Ms. Fong agreed to let me visit her company, her replies were lukewarm, often just single-word responses such as “okay,” “yes,” or “maybe.” While Ms. Fong’s agency was headquartered in a major coastal metropolis that I call “Lingshan” by pseudonym, she co-owned two other agencies, both of which were in my Chinese hometown, a mid-sized inland city that I call “Tunyang” in this book. Ms. Fong also put me in touch with Ms. Mei and Mr. Li, the managers at those two agencies.
Right after classes ended in June 2008, I was China-bound. At this time, I had secured travel funding from my school to conduct pilot research on this project. My research journey began on my third day in Tunyang, on a hot, humid summer morning. I had barely slept the night before, thanks to both jet lag and bloodthirsty mosquitoes that buzzed in my room all night. As soon as dawn broke, I hopped in a taxi and headed toward Ms. Mei’s agency, thirty minutes away from where I was staying at my grandfather’s home. Her office was located inside one of the tallest skyscrapers in Tunyang’s central shopping district. A giant billboard featuring Kate Winslet in a Lancôme ad hung outside the building, while various department stores, bars, lounges, and business offices occupied each floor.
Upon my arrival on the twenty-eighth floor, I saw an open office occupied by young women sitting in cubicles, typing away on their computers. Inside, another suite featured two mahogany desks, a flimsy-looking orange couch, and a floor-to-ceiling window that opened partially to the smog-filled air outside. This was Ms. Mei’s office, which she shared with her secretary, a bright-eyed young woman in her early twenties who wore large, black-rimmed glasses and spoke fluent English. Ms. Mei was a voluptuous lady in her fifties, with shoulder-length hair dyed chestnut-brown. She was dressed tastefully, in an expensive-looking black suit along with fine jade jewelry. Although her formal attire made her look unapproachable, her voice was cheery and earnest. Unlike the more standoffish Ms. Fong, Ms. Mei was extremely warm and receptive to having me visit as a researcher. Before leaving the office that day, she even treated me to her homemade pancakes and stuffed some in my purse, as if I were an old friend from abroad.
MY FIRST SUMMER ON-SITE
I spent the first two weeks of June at Ms. Mei’s agency, which was always crowded with clients. Just as Helen had said, most of these women were middle-aged (older than forty) and divorced (for more detailed demographic information collected in 2012, see figures 1 and 2). I had my first on-site conversations with Joanne, a tall, elegant lady in her forties who wore a Louis Vuitton necklace and a special fragrance. When I complimented Joanne on her perfume and jewelry one day, she smiled and said she had received both as presents from an American man she had been dating for the past year. Surprisingly open to sharing intimate aspects of her life with me, Joanne told me she had had difficulty becoming aroused when her American beau visited China. Joanne, who was undergoing early menopause at the time, attributed her sexual problems to the stresses she had endured as a single mother over the years, after her Chinese ex-husband had gambled away her business.
At that moment, Scarlett, a skinny woman in her fifties who wore heavy makeup and a form-fitting black nylon dress, chimed in and said, “Ladies, I’m past menopause, but I have still got strong desires! So many men tell me my body is amazingly sexy and they all want to make love to me!” Scarlett made a few erotic dance moves around the room before sitting down to tell us about her experience dating Western men. The first man she mentioned worked for the American FBI, and she supposedly rejected him because he was too stingy. She liked the second man and wanted to marry him, but failed her fiancée visa interview at the British consulate in Beijing because she forgot how to pronounce his last name. At Scarlett’s admission, everyone in the room broke into hysterical laughter. They were so loud that Ms. Mei rushed over to remind us of the translators working next door.
As I spent more time on-site, I noticed that the women I met were extroverted, worldly, and perhaps even a bit jaded with life, far from the stereotypical Western media image of an Asian “picture bride”1 as introverted, girlishly innocent, and sexually inexperienced.2 Moreover, their desire to seek marriage migration was rooted in their grievances with Chinese society. In particular, they were frustrated by China’s rising rate of extramarital affairs and divorce, exam-focused system of education, and privatization of social security and health care, which made these services increasingly unaffordable. Specifically, those concerns came from three distinct groups of women: ex-wives of nouveau-riche men who were financially well-off but emotionally disturbed by their ex-husbands’ infidelity; single mothers who wanted their children to study overseas but could not afford it; and lower earning women who were approaching retirement age and sought better social services abroad. Soon, I realized this was a robust place to observe how macro-level structural changes in postreform China fostered women’s desires to migrate. Their stories and narratives shed light on the aftermath of sweeping policy changes and social transformations in China, including the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution,3 the collapse of state-owned enterprises during the 1990s,4 and the meteoric rise of new rich businessmen and their mistresses.
Interestingly, the dating agencies provided much more than just networking opportunities for these women. In fact, they served as important relationship counseling centers. This became apparent when I visited Mr. Li’s agency, which had far fewer clients than Ms. Mei’s agency, even though both were in the same city and followed the same business model. Later, I learned that Mr. Li’s agency was less popular because many women felt uncomfortable sharing with a man the intimate details of their dating life. In contrast, Ms. Fong’s and Ms. Mei’s position as previously divorced women enabled them to build excellent rapport with their female clients, thereby putting them in a better position to market their businesses. Unlike transnational dating agencies in other countries, such as Ukraine or the Philippines, which offer free membership to women,5 the agencies I studied charged their female clients US$1,000 each year. Hence, Chinese female clients were valued not only for their ability to attract revenue from Western men, but also for their own purchasing power as rising consumers in China’s new market economy.
Beyond the lives of the couples, I was also curious about how their translators facilitated their email exchanges. I gained a concrete understanding of the translators’ work during the last few days of my 2008 summer research trip, when I visited Ms. Fong’s agency in Lingshan. Since Lingshan is located six hundred miles away from Tunyang, I traveled there by train with my father, who happened to be in China and decided to come on this excursion with me. While Tunyang is considered a “second-tier city,” Lingshan is a “first-tier city,” meaning that it is a wealthy megalopolis with huge economic, cultural, and political influence in China. Clean and modern, Lingshan had wide streets and a newly built subway system. While bicycles and motorcycles weaved between cars in Tunyang, here they stayed in their own lane and pedestrians actually used the crosswalk.
Ms. Fong’s agency stood in a tall commercial building at the city’s edge. At her suggestion, my father and I checked into a hotel where Western clients who visited her agency often stayed. That evening, we met at a small restaurant specializing in northern Chinese cuisine of buns and spicy cabbage with pork. Ms. Fong was a shapely lady in her early forties, with creamy white skin and almond-shaped eyes. That day, she came in a gray jogging suit with her long black hair tied back in a high ponytail. She was much more outgoing than I had expected, with a radiant smile and lots of energy. While she initially held some reservations, worried that I was a Western reporter who might portray her agency in a negative light, she relaxed as we got to know each other. Like my father, Ms. Fong was born into a Communist cadre family in Tunyang, the city where she had spent much of her youth before moving to Lingshan. As we chatted further, she came to realize that my uncle was her former neighbor and supervisor at the state-owned enterprise where she once worked before quitting to pursue a career in business.
The next day, Ms. Fong took me to her office, which looked much more spacious than Ms. Mei’s and Mr. Li’s agencies and had twice as many translators. However, fewer women came on-site, while most of their communication with their translators took place via phone or instant messaging. According to Ms. Fong, most women in Lingshan were busy career professionals who worked during the day and took part in the city’s bustling nightlife, thereby having little time or interest in using the agency as a social space. Nevertheless, she arranged for me to meet with some of her clients. To help me learn more about their mate-selection criteria, Ms. Fong had me converse with them and then help them write introductory emails to Western men.
After spending three days on-site and writing more than one hundred letters, I was surprised and embarrassed to learn that I could not elicit a single reply, despite my native command of English. By contrast, the translators’ letters, filled with grammatical errors and Chinese-style “teenage talk,” fared much better with the men. These translators, mostly female, were fresh out of college. Some had never even been involved in a romantic relationship. Ms. Fong told me she liked hiring young women, particularly those from rural areas, because they were creative and hard-working. As rural migrants hoping to make it in the big city, they worked late into the night, on weekends, and during holidays. Interestingly, this group of youth born in the 1980s and 1990s took charge in brokering the desires, aspirations, and dreams of middle-aged men and women across cultural and geographical borders.
Throughout my three-week stay in China that summer, I was on-site at the dating agencies from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., and then stayed up well past midnight writing up fieldnotes in my hotel room. Despite the long hours, it never felt like grueling work because I was utterly fascinated by the material. I knew I was observing something socially significant, and I felt compelled to record my findings. After getting a glimpse into China’s social problems through my initial observations in 2008, I set out to formally research these dating agencies.
1. The term “picture bride” stems from arranged marriages in which families sent pictures of brides in their home country to foreign men looking for partners. Nowadays, the term references the multimillion-dollar industry that uses images to market women from developing countries as potential brides to men from industrialized nations, largely presenting these women as “Pearls of the Orient” or “Gorgeous Pacific Women” (Chun 1996).
2. Tajima (1989); Villapando (1989); Constable (2003).
3. Launched by Chairman of the Communist Party of China Mao Zedong in 1966, the term “Cultural Revolution” refers to a series of sociopolitical changes that sought to amplify communism and eradicate capitalist influences in the region. From eliminating material incentives such as production bonuses to forbidding material displays of status difference, the movement sought to achieve widespread social equality by leveling down the elites to the masses (Whyte 2012).
4. Yang (2007).
5. Meszaros (2018).