My first date with Cai involved a lot of tongue. Not the fun kind—like, a literal plate of seasoned duck tongues on the table between us. But that wasn't the weirdest part of our date, because I swear duck tongues are delicious. The weirdest part was my coworkers, all gathered together at another table, watching us.
In China, where I teach science to middle schoolers, there is minimal separation between work life and personal life. I knew this going in. At my first job in Beijing, I was provided housing in a dorm made specifically for employees, and my current job near Shanghai is no different. The extent just didn't quite hit me until one smoggy afternoon chat at work.
"We think you're very clever, maybe too clever!" said a school administrator sweetly. "We think maybe you won't stay at this school very long."
I smiled and thanked her for her kindness. Then she continued: "The principal and I were talking. We are getting together to find you a Chinese boyfriend."
This wasn't a joke. Like the nagging relatives I never had, my superiors at work consistently hound me about my love life. Recently, this has resulted in a series of dates that I have unwillingly and unknowingly been thrown into. Take the birthday dinner I was invited to, for example. The woman who teaches me Chinese in exchange for English lessons reserved a private room for ten of us, including her sister, a gamut of school administrators (including the man who hired me), a PE teacher and me.
"Noelle!" she yelled as soon as we sat in the room. "Would you like to sit next to a handsome man?"
I barely had time to let out an uncomfortable laugh before she sat me next to the PE teacher, Cai. Then, as if we were fighting crickets in a bamboo cage, our every interaction was watched by our superiors.
I went with it. Cai is a nice guy, after all, and the food was incredible. Ever the gentleman, Cai snared bites with his chopsticks and put them on my plate as food rolled past us on the lazy susan. Ever the lady, I ate. I then said the one Mandarin word I knew ("Thank you") and he said the one Mandarin word I understood ("You're welcome"). That would have been the entirety of our tolerable, if dead silent, date—if it weren't for the pictures.
Yes, pictures. Mid-bite, I heard a snap, and then another. Several people at our dinner party, some of whom I just met minutes before, were taking photos of Cai and me.
Shortly after, I heard nearly everyone's phone go off at once. My Mandarin teacher had made a group chat including all of us, as well as the school administrators who couldn't make it to the dinner. She then sent a message about the "beautiful couple" and attached her stealth photos.
The text chain blew up. Educators all over Hangzhou, China chimed in to say "How happy the two look together!" and "They are so lovely!" and "Best wishes for their future together!" A woman I'd just met took it upon herself to send an edited version of the photo over the group chat. The edits were a pink border and cartoon hearts with the caption "A Happy Time."
But the date wasn't over. My principal, the boss of bosses, expressed his hopes for a bright future with Cai. Another schoolteacher then stood and raised his wine glass in a toast that went like this: "Noelle, our friend is such a good man. Strong, wise, hardworking. He has all the potential for a happy life. He just needs to find his Mrs. Right."
Then a wink. "Can you help him?"
I had never seen this man before the dinner party. On the outside, I was giggling politely and cheers-ing him with my wine. I was also gulping said wine because, on the inside, I was screaming WHAT THE FUCK.
This turned out to be date number one of the weirdest relationship I've ever had. Despite my best efforts, more dates ensued. They included:
(A) a movie date, at which Cai didn't know how to handle me crying at Interstellar, and at which I tried to explain myself with a mixture of horrifically rudimentary Mandarin and gestures, and ended up tearfully exclaiming something along the lines of "THE PAPA LOVES MURPH"
(B) a badminton date, at which my Mandarin teacher—who was present, of course—said Cai's athleticism would help me lose weight and took more photos to send to the group chat
(c) a dinner date, which was actually kind of fun since I got to ride on the back of Cai's scooter.
All of these dates were foisted upon me by my bosses, but it was by no means malicious. My bosses are not only kind people, but my real friends. What would most certainly be an HR nightmare back home is what they merely consider a personal favor.
And second: Cai is legitimately hot. He's muscular in a perfectly proportioned kind of way and, excuse me while I get creepy for a second, has really nice calf muscles.
On the surface, these dates have only been a minor annoyance and a funny story to tell. But when I think a bit harder, they're troubling. All this began because my bosses wanted me to stay with their school longer. To me, the bargaining chip would be simple: a raise, right? But rather than money, they chose to give me what they think I need: a man. It makes me remember how many people think the worst thing a woman can be is single—not to mention happily so, à la yours truly.
In China—and in a lot of places, to be fair—many women still view marriage as an economic arrangement. Marriage, not necessarily a career, is how you move up in the world. Marriage is how you afford designer handbags and trips abroad. Marriage is how you get a car and a dope-ass house in the suburbs.
The idea of the man serving as monetary provider is so entrenched in much of China that my coworker once complained about the high price of having a son.
"It's so competitive," she complained. "If I want him to marry someday, I have to pay to send him to English lessons, private schools, chess lessons... If I had a girl, I wouldn't have to do all that."
It's tough to make generalizations. With China's enormous population comes tremendous variety. I know plenty of kick-ass Chinese women, my best friend included, who take their careers seriously. But the population size is exactly what makes understanding China's culture so important. Not only is the country's geopolitical sway majorly on the rise, but there's just the basic fact that one billion of all humans are Chinese. That's a lot of humans.
As for this human, I have now managed to turn my bizarre relationship with Cai into a pleasant friendship, and for that I'm happy. I've also managed to stay away from any further embarrassing dates, and my superiors eventually picked up on my stance toward this whole set-up situation and accepted that I'm happier single.
Most importantly, when my Mandarin teacher asks me what I did over the weekend, she no longer gasps when she finds out I did something alone.
"I can find a handsome man to go with you," she calmly suggests instead.
(Handsome man is a Mandarin phrase I now know, thanks to her.)
Noelle Mateer splits her time between freelance writing, teaching and slurping noodles in Hangzhou, China. She is really good at eating and mostly writes about food.
Flygirl is Jezebel's new travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We're always taking submissions; email us with "Flygirl" AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.