I was mercifully nearing the end of the daily hour-and-a-half of pain when the 11-year-old Korean boy I tutor, Yang Hee, looks up at me and asks me what I thought was a sweet and innocent question.
“Christina, do you like me?”
“Of course, Yang Hee,” I said.
I shouldn’t have encouraged him. I could see the wheels turning in his head, searching for some newly acquired English he was hoping to practice on me. Finally he spit it out.
“Do you is want to marry me?”
I laughed. “Sorry, Yang Hee, I think you should find someone your own age.”
The same night during the cab ride home I’m in the middle of sending a text message to a friend about my recent “proposal” when the cab driver asks me how old I am.
This is always an invitation to further questions about my life, particularly the lack of husband and child. I thought for a second about lying to him, but instead told the truth. As if cued by some invisible director in the back seat of the car, he promptly asked me how I can be 27 years old and not married. I’m asked this often enough in China to have a few stock answers that I rotate between – usually something about living abroad for a long time or not meeting the right person yet or that “foreigners” often get married later.
I think it’s because most of my friends in Nanjing are younger than me, but this question, which usually does not bother me, made me suddenly feel like I should be living in an apartment overrun by cats. I feel like this question in China has a lot to do with the age of the person you’re talking to. My 40-something cabdriver came from a time when getting married young was just what you do. The generation born in the late 70s and 80s generally has a different attitude toward marriage. Though I meet plenty of young women who got married in their early 20s, I also meet many people who are putting off marriage for a career, or just because they can, because they have more choices. But they still have to deal with their parents – about the same age as my cab driver – asking the same questions.