Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Matchmaking Madness

As I became more and more Chinese in my language, demeanor, and bearing, my Chinese friends began to worry that I would not find a suitable American husband since I was wasting the “springtime of my life” in Taiwan. I was not terribly worried about marriage; at that point, I didn’t really care if I got married or not. I think the fact that I was not actively seeking a life-partner was like a red cape before a bull to the matchmaking instincts of many of the old grandmothers at church. They began, in earnest, to find me a mate.

Not long into my second year, General Manager started to get a steady trickle of proposals on my behalf. Because no male members of my family were chaperoning me in Taiwan, General Manager stood in loco parentis in his own eyes and in the eyes of most of my Chinese friends. I know he screened out many of the prospects without even telling me about them; nevertheless, he began calling me into his office at least once a month to present me with a photo and biographical sketch of another “top matrimonial catch.”

Even though Teacher had begun teaching us about the Chinese view of marriage and the importance of finding a mate who was from a similar socio-economic and educational background to our own families, it didn’t mean that I was ready to believe it for myself. But nobody asked me what I was looking for in a husband; instead, the matchmaking grannies invited my co-workers at the publishing company to dinner or lunch and pumped them for information about me and my family. They learned that I had graduated with honors from a prestigious American university. They learned that my father in America was academic vice-president of a large private university in Seattle. They learned that my mother had graduated from Harvard. They learned that my maternal grandfather had been prominent in state government and that my paternal grandfather was rich. These were all crucial items to them in deciding which boys’ photos to parade before me. Chinese culture loves and reveres scholars; their ideal man has done no labor, has a pasty white complexion with soft hands, and wears glasses. But in a more American tradition, I was hoping for a tanned hunk. So month after month I turned up my nose at pictures of the scrawny, pimply-faced scions of rich Taiwanese families.

In the beginning, they presented me with pictures of people I was acquainted with from college student outings with the student center the previous year. In addition to being scrawny, pasty-white, and pimple-faced, most of the boys they chose for me were totally helpless at doing practical things. They all got good grades, but they had no clue about life outside of their books. I tried to explain to General Manager that it would be very hard for me to be married to someone I didn’t respect, and I expected anyone I would marry to be at least as able as I was to change a light bulb, hammer a nail, go hiking, or travel without his mother. Most of all, I wanted someone who had actually held a job before. Many disappointed mothers and grandmothers put away the pictures of their sons and grandsons. The matchmaking contingent decided that I needed an older man.

Now things got even worse. I was presented with pictures of men as old as forty-five when I was only twenty-two or three. Finally, General Manager found a person I knew well and worked with and started marriage negotiations with him. He was a nice guy; I think we could have done well together, and all my friends at the publishing company were hearing the sounds of wedding bells, when the talks abruptly stopped. The guy was swiftly engaged to someone else at his mother’s insistence because she did not want white blood in the family. That experience on top of everything else totally turned me off to the matchmaking experience. I tried to get my friends to stop, but their efforts kept increasing in intensity.
Finally, I wrote a story based on the Chinese idiom “四面楚歌” (surrounded on all sides by the enemy singing songs of your homeland). The idiom refers to a story from Chinese history, in which a famous general surrendered and committed suicide because of a ploy used by the attacking army. The attackers learned songs from prisoners of war captured in the defending general’s homeland. During their siege, they sang popular songs of his homeland in his own dialect every night around their campfires. He thought that he had lost his support base and that he and his small band were hopelessly out-numbered. In my story, the hero (of the same name as the hero in Chinese history) walks the streets of Taipei with a small dog named Lai-fu, but every alley he turns into is filled with matchmakers singing about the wonderful marriage prospects they have picked out for him. Eventually, the hero is surrounded in a doorway by hundreds of thousands of matchmakers who will not let him go until he marries one of their suggestions. He commits suicide to escape.
I had my friends at the publishing company edit my story for me. They quickly put the word out that all the matchmaking efforts were making me suicidal. It wasn’t quite the message I had in mind, but it did the trick. Even General Manager agreed that American women are different, and they probably have the savvy and life-experience to pick their own husbands.

After my friends, co-workers, and the old ladies from church had stopped their “marry off Teresa campaign”, I showed my story to Teacher at school. She was completely horrified that I had desecrated Chinese history and that I would even put the words to paper that suicide might be better than an arranged marriage. She asked me what had happened to cause me to write on such a radical theme. I explained to her about the efforts to marry me off to rich, scrawny geeks and how finally the one person I thought would be okay had been rushed by his mother into a hasty marriage with a nice, Chinese girl. I told her that I really could not stand the emotional roller coaster. Teacher sympathized with me, but she said that my bad experience did not mean the whole system was as bad as I had portrayed it to be. She also gave me a very good piece of advice to assist me in my quest for a Chinese husband: marry a man who loves and respects his mother but who has his own ideas and is not entirely ruled by her. I protested that I was NOT in a quest for a Chinese husband. Teacher serenely replied that it was too late. I had already been ruined for any but the best husbands, who were by definition Chinese.


Joannalynne said...

ooh. great story, mom. good job fighting off the pasty scrawny guys. I quite appreciate my olive skin and large biceps that my brown and muscley dad has shared with me. =)

Teresa said...

Yeah. I really did find the best gene pool to give my darling daughters good looks, tannable skin, spatial reasoning, musicality, and dexterity. Have to balance out the blinding white genes from my side of the family.

Lyndi Lamont said...

OMG, Teresa, some of this is hilarious. It must have been really tough to live through though. I loved your story about the poor guy besieged by matchmakers.


Teresa said...

Yes, Linda, it was really frustrating at times. They thought they were doing me a favor, and I just could not appreciate it. Sometimes cross-cultural communication is very hard. It took me many years living in the Chinese community before I finally understood how honored I should have felt at their concern and interest. But at 23, one does not always appreciate such things.

murat11 said...

Great fodder in all this for the screenplay. I see a quick montage of the geek squad and all the viejitas in action. And Teacher's "it's too late" comment is hilarious.

Teresa said...

Glad you're enjoying this, Murat. I had fun writing it, although living through it was rather trying.