Letter from China (7): Happy Valentine’s Day

I was supposed to meet someone at Xintiandi, the part of old Shanghai that has been resurrected for tourists. While I was waiting between the cute little brick houses, I took a look around the shop windows and restaurant menus, until the entrance of the Munich brewery Paulaner caught my eye. In front of the door, a young Chinese man clad in Lederhosen stood at attention next to a big white sign with red hearts floating all over it. „Chinese Valentine’s Day“, it said. „3-course set menu“. I was surprised: First of all I had never thought of Paulaner as a romantic venue – and then: Wasn’t Valentine’s Day in February?

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The Chinese Bavarian explained it eagerly. „There is an old story in China“, he began. It is a story about two lovers, a heavenly fairy and a farmer’s boy, who were allowed to meet only once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar, which happens to be on August 6th this year. If you ask around, not many people older than 35 had previously ever heard of this day. For years now, China has been sticking to the Western date for Valentine’s Day, February 14th. But of course this is not satisfactory for this proud culture with thousands of years of history – and the potentially biggest consumer market in the world. So it only makes sense that China now has two days a year, on which young men are expected to spend money on their sweethearts.

This also means that it has two days to make singles feel miserable. In the U.S., Valentine’s Day is certainly the day where you better have a date – or die. How much worse must the situation be in China, where being single past the age of 30 already means you are a 剩女, a left-over woman. „Sex and the city“ was a popular TV show here as well, but just as popular was the Japanese format 败犬, „Failure dogs“, another not-so charming expression for a bachelerette.

As in the West, the women who have a hard time finding their 白马王子, their prince on the white horse, are the professional ones with a high salary and good career opportunities. And as in the West, the debate is over whether the fault lies with the men who just can’t accept a successful woman or whether the women have unrealistic expectations towards the men.

On my second day in Shanghai, I meet a therapist who thinks that first you have to create opportunities for these women to meet men. “Many just go to work and back, they don’t have a private life”, she tells me. She sends her patients to salsa classes – undercover, if you will, since only the dancing instructor knows who they are, and I, the secret observer for one evening.

At around 6.30 pm, the first students amble into the studio. It doesn’t need explaining who the dating students are. They are not the glamorous looking women, dressed in tight pants and shirts with bare backs who come in groups of two and gossip about men. They are the ones who have come alone. There is the tall girl in a business outfit, a black skirt and a blouse with blue and white stripes; her hair is neatly pulled back to form a bun. Another one is slightly chubby, but she wears shorts and a shoulder-free shirt, for her salsa shoes she went for blue and black glitter.

The class begins at 7 pm. The teacher turns on the music, a salsa song with Japanese lyrics, and starts swaying his hips in front of the mirror; his students try to sway with him. The chubby girl has a good sense of rhythm, but the woman in the business dress has problems, and it is not clear whether her tight skirt is the reason or her lack of coordination. When she tries to raise her hip, the whole leg goes up, she looks like a stork wading through high weeds.

When it is time for everyone to find a partner, the women with the bare backs and long legs draw the men into their orbit with one flicker of the eyelid. The dating students are left over, but then the teacher intervenes and makes new arrangements. The office stork lands in the arms of a blond foreigner with two left feet, who grabs her clumsily around the hips. But who knew? A few beats into the song, she smiles for the first time, and the foreigner seems quite engaged as well. I see them exchanging words and cracking a joke.

I will leave them here, but if they asked me for my advice on where to go this Saturday, I could recommend Paulaner at Xintiandi: Oxtail soup, Valentine’s Love Platter (sharing style) and Tartufo Kiss, all for RMB 599.

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