"The first thing you have to understand about this place," Fan Yuping says sternly, "is that it's much more complicated than you imagine."
Fan is sitting at a park on the south side of Beijing where a group of middle-aged and elderly folks often gather. They chat in groups, smiling, nodding; a handful in the middle of the circle even starts to dance. On the surface, it all seems rather quotidian. China's public parks are havens of leisure, particularly for the post-retirement set. Those present today, however, are not simply here to get exercise or soak up the sunlight: They have come to find a date, or maybe more.
On a spring afternoon at the Temple of Heaven park, rays of dappled light stream through poplar trees. Retirees congregate in a corner of the park: Some sit on short, retractable stools brought from home, others perch on newspapers spread out on the benches. There is perpetual music from a handheld speaker, along with the soft shuffling of shoe soles on concrete as couples dance throughout the day.
Fan Yuping turns her eyes back to the handful of dancers behind her. They bob and turn as old-school erhu music plays. Occasionally the scene is punctuated with moves only the advanced and particularly fit dancers can execute, such as a sprawling backbend or a rapid twirl.
Fan, in her mid-70s, is dressed head to toe in a riot of red, thought to be a lucky color, but Ms. Fan's luck in finding love has not been great.
"I am a pure person; I'm open-hearted. I carry myself with joy," Ms. Fan says. Her posture is curved with age, and a wide grin reveals more than a few silver-capped teeth. Despite the signs of age, she exudes a warm energy and has a pleasant face. When she smiles, her brown eyes go soft and the apples of her cheeks are rosy and round, almost cherub-like. Some Chinese subscribe to the belief that one can read a person's life in their appearance. When crow's-feet collect at the corner of her eyes, you feel that they are really those euphemistic "happy lines."
"In my life, I haven't been involved in any nonsensical things. I've taken the straight and narrow path," Ms. Fan continues. She had thought this would serve her well. Yet now, as she gestures toward the crowd behind her, she admits, "I am not that desirable here. Imagine in the old days, when we cared only about a good class background."
Fan Yuping, a regular at the Temple of Heaven Park, dances and enjoys the sunlight with other local seniors. Fan worries that due to her age and health status, she is not the most competitive candidate for a date. | (Courtesy of the author/Courtesy Narratively)
Ms. Fan and the others of her generation have seen a tremendous amount of national change in their lifetime. Prior to the economic reforms in China in the late 1970s, it used to be that jobs, as well as marriages, were for life. However, as Chinese citizens get richer, divorce rates are increasing across the country.
In the past, jobs could be inherited from one's parents, or assigned to a young person by the head of the community — there was no application, no interview process. In the same way, in China's feudal past, marriages were arranged by the would-be bride and groom's parents. This model, where important life directions were handed down by the seniors in the community, is now obsolete. Today a free-market type of dating arena prevails, and the seniors here must vie with each other for the best mate.
The first question on everyone's mind is their potential partner's hukou situation, or residence status. There is a clear demand for a partner with a Beijing hukou. Being a waidiren (an "outsider"), or someone who has a hukou anywhere except Beijing, is a detriment to one's dating prospects.
This is due to the marked difference in standard of living between first-tier cities such as Beijing (China has an unofficial city-tier system) and rural towns. Taking a waidiren as a partner might mean having to spend time with in-laws in less developed parts of China, a bitter inconvenience that some proud capital citizens aren't willing to bear. Having a different hukou can also mean different cultural backgrounds, different culinary preferences, all of which equate to incompatibility and poor long-term prospects — at least in the mindset of this crowd.
Huang Long, a 70-year-old local Beijing teacher who was widowed in 2004, is upfront that he would only consider a fellow Beijing hukou holder as a partner.
"Since I have more to offer [by having a Beijing hukou], I can also be pickier in my selection. I've had some beautiful waidi women [those with a non-Beijing residence status] ask if I could consider them, and the answer is ‘no.' Imagine in that situation, there may be occasions where I would have to travel to her home, and be a guest in her parents' house, or her children's house. As a man, I wouldn't feel comfortable," he admitted.
Huang Long exercises before heading to the dating corner of the park. Huang says getting his heart pumping quiets his nerves and makes him a better conversationalist. | (Courtesy of the author/Courtesy Narratively)
Finding a date, or something more serious, is difficult at any age. In Beijing, elderly singles face their own complex set of obstacles. Beyond the practical consideration of hukou, there is also a quick and often unforgiving evaluation of a partner's family background.
Zhang Qiuying, a 55-year-old retired office worker, recalls the story of a man she befriended at a singles outing. The man, a retired army general and widower, had caught the fancy of a divorced woman.
The general and this woman were introduced to each other at one of the several "single and retired" gatherings that are held throughout the city's parks. The woman loved how the general looked in a crisp uniform, which retired cadres proudly wear when attending singles events. Serving in the military connotes an ability to endure difficulties as well as a willingness to serve others.
They went on several dates and seemed like a perfect match; some would them call a yin and yang pair.
"Imagine what this man had experienced in his life. He had fought in wars! If in these later years, he found someone that could spark joy in him, who could deny this?" Zhang quipped.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.