I first signed up with a matchmaking agency two years ago. At the time, I was 34 years old and not getting any younger; besides, I was busy with work, and the chances of me finding a life partner by simply letting nature take its course were only going to drop as I got older. If I was going to find “Miss Right,” I needed to adopt a more efficient approach and cast a wider net.
The agency I settled on is an industry leader in China. In operation for over a decade, it boasts more than 30 offices in 18 cities across the country, from which it assures clients it provides “accurate” matchmaking services leading to “high-quality” marriages.
Their vetting process was certainly rigorous. After submitting a host of personal details via their website, including my age, height, education, and income, a staff member contacted me to request documented proof, ranging from my ID card to diplomas, property deeds, and even bank statements. Was I a little offended? Sure, but it wasn’t too bad. I know how materialistic and cruel the dating market can be. If anything, these kind of background checks made me more confident in my choice of organization — I could rest assured that other members’ details would be equally reliable.
After my identity had been verified, I was invited to the company for an interview, where I was told that for the price of 8,000 yuan ($1,140), I could choose six female agency clients to meet over the next three months. That was far more money than I’d been expecting to pay, and after giving the matter some thought, I decided not to continue. I later found out that 8,000 yuan was the price of their cheapest package, available only to men. Female clients, who far outnumber their male counterparts, might pay up to 50,000 yuan for the same deal.
Perhaps this is why, not long after informing the agency of my decision, I received a surprising counter-offer: I could access their services without spending anything. All I had to do was agree to take part in what they called daikan — for every woman I chose to meet, I would also have to take one or two women who weren’t on my list but had expressed interest in me on dates arranged by the agency.
I was confused. Why would the company be willing to waive my membership fees in exchange for going on more dates? According to the staff member I spoke with, it was because there are a lot of people in the current marriage market who have their aims set too high. Lacking a clear understanding of their own “conditions,” they overestimate their desirability and don’t understand the type of partner they’re capable of getting.
“The men that they’re attracted to aren’t interested in them, but we can’t tell them that directly,” a different staff member explained. “So, we have to find a couple of guys they like to reject them and allow them to discover it for themselves.”
In other words, my role is to turn down women who are interested in me, thereby cluing them in to their supposed shortcomings. Then, the agency can swoop in and upsell them some “love lessons” or “image management” courses. Even if the women choose not to pay for additional classes, they’ll at least know that the organization has the type of men that they’re looking for and will keep renewing their memberships in the hopes of meeting a suitable match.
Speaking like this makes me sound like a plant put there to scam women, but I don’t really see it that way. All my information is real; I really do want to find a wife. And if I do hit it off with one of the women the agency sets me up with, there’s nothing stopping us from starting a relationship.
And I quickly discovered that there wasn’t any real difference between the women I’d chosen to meet and those I’d been set up with: The former might be a big letdown, while the latter might turn out to be pretty good. Perhaps all our supposed conditions and requirements are ultimately spurious. People often fall in love with someone who doesn’t meet any of their requirements or feel indifferent toward someone who might tick every box.
That doesn’t stop some from chasing the illusion, however. For those truly desperate for the perfect partner, the agency offers a high-end custom service called “marital headhunting.” For 400,000 yuan, you can have them find you your ideal match: a Chinese-American in business, say, or a military brat with high-ranking parents. As long as you’re willing to pay, the agency will find you the partner of your dreams. Of course, they’re only responsible for making the introduction; whether it goes anywhere is up to you.
For my part, I haven’t developed a relationship with any of the nearly 30 women I’ve been introduced to over the past two years. This is probably because the blind dates are so unromantic. What the agency calls a “date” tends to feel more like an interview.
A few days before a pair meets, an agency staff member will call to give some advice or guidance on what to wear and what to talk about. Instead of a restaurant or movie theater, the dates take place at the agency, in special cubicles, each of which has two armchairs, a coffee table between them, and nothing to drink except water. The female members often arrive early to get their makeup done by professional makeup artists provided by the agency, and each date lasts half an hour. As the clock ticks down, a staff member comes in and asks: “Your time’s almost up. Would you like to extend it?”
Given the atmosphere, my “date” and I usually end up exclusively talking about each other’s jobs. Having met so many professional women in this way, their ability to bear hardships often leaves me feeling somewhat inadequate. One woman’s family lived in a city neighboring Shanghai. Every day, she’d commute over four hours round-trip, mostly via subway and high-speed rail. Another woman, who told me she heads up research and development at a communications equipment manufacturing company, routinely works overtime; once she worked 27 hours straight.
The more I learned about these women, the more I began to see myself in their eyes — we’re all 30-somethings, under pressure in our daily lives and chasing success in our careers, but still eager to find love and get married.
I know commercial matchmaking agencies aren’t the best way of finding a partner. Ideally I’d get together with other young people and let feelings develop naturally in a relaxed, pressure-free atmosphere. But I’m 36 and have neither the time nor the energy for such luxuries; if I want to have any chance of meeting the right woman, I have to do what I can.
Sometimes I wonder if some of the women I’m picking out for my dates took the same deal I did and are only there to help the agency force me to come to terms with my poor prospects. Regardless, meeting such a wide range of interesting women has led me to rethink what’s really important in a partner. Before, I was dead-set against marrying a divorcee, for example. Now I believe that, as long as they’re the right person for me, their past shouldn’t matter as much.
So I’ll keep working with the marriage agency, even though I know it may never result in anything. Besides, I don’t have to pay anything, so why not?
(Header image: Fu Xiaofan/Sixth Tone)
Translator: David Ball; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.