Matchmaking Events a Shot at Love for Chinese With Disabilities
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2017-03-02 07:53:18

Li Mengqi was already reliant on screen-reading software — a limitation his girlfriend had come to accept. But in 2014, a vision test found that he had macular degeneration, making him disabled by Chinese standards. His girlfriend was devastated. Just a few days later, she called Li and ended their five-year relationship, saying circuitously that her mother had been pressuring her to break things off.

Two years later, Li and around a hundred other young people attended a xiangqinhui, or matchmaking event, specifically organized with disabled people in mind. The biannual mixer was organized by the Jinguoyuan Matchmaking Agency. Most of the attendees were born in the 1970s or ’80s; there were also about three times as many men as women. Everyone sat in specially designated areas depending on their disability: visual, auditory, physical, or mental.

Statistics about disabled people in China are hard to come by. According to a 2006 sample survey, 83 million people, or around 6 percent of the total population, live with some kind of disability. Of the disabled, just over 61 percent of adults were married — a significantly lower proportion than the national average of 74 percent.

Disabled people share their understanding of love at a matchmaking event in Shanghai. By Shao Yuanyuan and Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone

Many married people with disabilities said that their quality of life had increased since finding a spouse, according to a 2012 survey about the marital status of disabled people conducted by researchers at Jilin University, in northeastern China.

But while many disabled people long for a relationship and hope to start a family, a considerable number in every age group are unable to do so, according to data provided by Xie Tao, a demographer at the Guangdong Academy of Social Sciences in southern China.

When it comes to the disabled, men outnumber women, the young outnumber the old, and those from the countryside outnumber their urban counterparts. 

Life at 20: The Search for Love Begins

Wang Yiwen was in high spirits when she arrived at a matchmaking event for disabled people. Her eye-catching wine-colored jacket, however, could not hide the fact that she had problems with her limbs. Wang was born prematurely in 1990. During her birth, the doctor clasped a pair of forceps around her foot and disfigured it as she was pulled from her mother’s womb. Five minutes later, her twin sister Yifei was born.

As Wang remembers it, there was a world of difference between the way her mother treated her and Yifei. “If your foot had been fine, we’d be living happy lives,” Wang’s mother told her when she was 12 years old.

Although the twin sisters started out from the same place, their lives are now completely different. After graduating from Shanghai Maritime University, Yifei now works in a technology park, where she earns more than twice as much as Wang, who works as a carer for other disabled people.

Left: Wang Yiwen, who works for her local neighborhood committee, poses in her office; right: Wang’s father is pictured holding his twin girls, Jan. 23, 2017. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone

Left: Wang Yiwen, who works for her local neighborhood committee, poses in her office; right: Wang’s father is pictured holding his twin girls, Jan. 23, 2017. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone

Wang’s physical disability has taken a toll on her love life. At first, she looked for potential mates in non-disabled circles, but with little success. Even when she met men who accepted her disability, their parents invariably did not.

On the news, Wang heard about a matchmaking event attended by around a thousand disabled people. Thinking things might flow more naturally in a group of people with disabilities, Wang reached out to the organizer, Xu Wenhong, who had been running the events since 2013. Xu, who previously worked at a marriage agency, usually arranges the meet-ups at cafés or karaoke rooms. On average, between 20 and 50 people attend.

In the disabled marriage market, Wang’s age and gender put her at an advantage, as many of those who come to meet someone have already passed the age considered “suitable” for marriage in China; moreover, men almost always outnumber women, and by a wide margin. Wang now just wants to find a steady, considerate, independent-minded partner.

Life After 30: From Hope to Hardship

Most people with disabilities in the matchmaking market are between 30 and 40 years old. “People need to stay realistic” is an oft-repeated mantra.

When Li attended his first matchmaking event, he was already in his 30s. But in a market saturated with men, he stands out thanks to his good looks and gentle voice. After being diagnosed as visually impaired, Li left his former company with a 10,000-yuan ($1,450) compensation package. Now, he works at Shanghai NGS Supermarket making 2,190 yuan a month.

Left: Birds rest on bare tree branches; right: Li Mengqi poses by a river in Shanghai, Jan. 23, 2017. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone

Left: Birds rest on bare tree branches; right: Li Mengqi poses by a river in Shanghai, Jan. 23, 2017. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone

Xu the matchmaker introduced Li to a woman with a slight mental disability, but he found it difficult to develop a rapport with her. According to Jilin University’s research, people with mental disabilities have more trouble than other disabled people when it comes to finding someone to marry.

Many who come to the matchmaking events have no prior relationship experience, Xu told The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication. Some with cognitive or learning disabilities struggle to broach the subject of romance, she added, and have even been known to turn up to dates with their parents in tow as chaperones.

Chen Difei, who has cerebral palsy, works in Shanghai as a carer for the disabled, earning less than 3,000 yuan per month. He’s 39 and still single. Four years ago, Chen started going to the matchmaking events for the disabled, and he continues to do so whenever he has time. “I don’t care about looks or family environment now,” Chen says. “As long as I get along with her, that’s all I want.”

Life After 40: Happiness at Last

Xu Hao says that he came to grips with the prospect of a life of solitude a long time ago. “If I hadn’t found anyone, I guess I’d just have ended up in the old folks’ home.”

Xu Hao, who has a motor neuron disease, also happens to be less than 1.5 meters tall. His mother died in 2006, and after his father was admitted to a mental health center for dissociative identity disorder — an affliction previously known as multiple personality disorder — he was left without any parental care. That was 14 years ago. Today, the 41-year-old lives alone. Knowing other elderly disabled people — and their often fraught marriages — Xu Hao once thought his own future looked bleak.

Left: A poinsettia plant sits on top of the refrigerator in Xu Hao’s home; right: Xu Hao looks out a window, Shanghai, Feb. 4, 2017. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone

Left: A poinsettia plant sits on top of the refrigerator in Xu Hao’s home; right: Xu Hao looks out a window, Shanghai, Feb. 4, 2017. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone

But then at a matchmaking event, Xu Hao met Xiao Xiang, a woman with polio. Xiao, who hails from the northeast and had divorced the previous year, lived in Shanghai, where she had her own house. She was also a great cook who enjoyed taking care of others. For his part, Xu Hao says he likes her open personality — and doesn’t even mind that she is six years his senior.

The two hit it off right away. Not long after their first date, they got married. Though the pair have not moved in together, Xu Hao now has a fresh definition of what personal happiness means to him: “Two people cooking together, keeping each other company.”

Reality: Trapped Individuals, Impotent State Organs

While there is high demand among disabled people in the marriage market, spreading awareness of their situation remains a problem, Jinguoyuan and Xu Wenhong both told The Paper.

Chen and Wang both feel that the events they frequent, organized by the Shanghai Disabled Persons’ Federation, are too often only attended by other disabled people and play only a tiny role in bringing couples together, given that everyone already knows everyone else. In the last few years, although the federation has invested a lot of effort into tackling welfare problems, it has not been able to effectively address the issue of marriage.

Left: Chen Difei lies in his bed at home; right: a wedding photo of Chen’s mother, Shanghai, Jan. 24, 2017. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone

Left: Chen Difei lies in his bed at home; right: a wedding photo of Chen’s mother, Shanghai, Jan. 24, 2017. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone

The federation says that finding the right person to marry is an issue as much for able-bodied people as for those with disabilities, and that it cannot be expected to make people’s love lives the focal point of its work.

Chen Tao, a doctoral student at Peking University’s Institute of Population Research, has compared the marital status of disabled people in different countries to find that in developed countries, the proportion of unmarried disabled people is lower than in developing countries.  Chen believes that while promoting marriage for the disabled should be underpinned by economic and legal support, ultimately, its success depends on a wider cultural shift.

Translator: Matthew Walsh; editors: Denise Hruby and Dong Heng.

(Header image: Xu Hao looks out a window at his home in Shanghai, Feb. 4, 2017. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone)