(A story by one of our readers, Patrick)
It started like most any week, with a failed bet among friends.
Since my Spring Festival plans to go to India fell through at the last minute, I made a classy cultural wager with a fellow American comrade here in the ‘jing.
If the Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Divisional Playoffs [American football] game, I would attempt to become one of those “rent-a-boyfriends” we’ve heard so much about in recent years. If they lost, my buddy would take the plunge.
In fact, the odds were heavily in my favor, and I was surprised he took me up on this action. The sport gods, on the other hand, were not. They were looking down on us and chuckling a big god-sized chuckle.
Lo and behold, against all common sense, the Packers won. By less than one touchdown. In a last second field goal. From 51 yards out. My luck was sealed by the tiniest guy on the team.
I really don’t have a good history with kickers in American football.
We sat there in disbelief and my friend turned to me with a big nasty grin that only a brother can give. Coincidentally, he had his computer right there ready and he immediately started Taobao yi xia-ing…
Fate is a fickle thing, as they say, but I’m a man of my word.
Taobao wasn’t much help so we turned to a local web forum in town. Gold! We had multiple ones to choose from. Many were asking for “white,” so I skipped over those… others were asking for “under 30” so I reluctantly skipped those… but there was one thing they all had in common: they needed someone urgently.
The Chinese Lunar New Year was approaching quickly, and the requests were all for someone to accompany them to their hometowns to meet with their family and friends.
In the back of my mind, I knew that was part of the deal when I made the bet, but now the reality of what I was actually expected to do was slowly sinking in.
I was going to need to act and fool some random lady’s entire past guanxi network. Can I even do that? Guess I could give it a shot.
You only live once, right?
We finally found a good option without those picky requirements and to my utter surprise, within a few minutes she had already replied and agreed to meet. We were scheduled to have coffee the next evening. (I’m very tall and quite a strong build; the photo we sent must’ve showed off my best features.) 😜
We met on time, and I admit, she was absolutely stunning in person. She must’ve just gotten off work, because she was wearing a very professional dress with a business suit jacket. She was taller than the average girl and had long black beautiful hair. She spoke gracefully and smiled at all the right times.
You know those people who you want to ask, “How do you NOT have a boyfriend!?” but quickly realize how rude that is? Yeah, that’s her. I just kept it to myself.
We hit it off right away, and this was starting to sound more fun, kind of like a game. She had it all planned out and sort of felt like she’d done this before. I didn’t ask.
She laid out the rules which were everything you’d expect in this sort of situation: she’d pay for everything, some light PDA would be required, but obviously no intercourse, and whatever happened – do not admit our scheme to anyone. I didn’t feel that needed extra clarification.
I asked if we should have a contract or something? She said no and that she had a good feeling about me. OK.
So there we were… Her: a driven, successful 28 year old mid-level executive at a startup. Me: a stalled, somewhat unlucky 30-something low-level laowai. A perfect match for a wild new year ride, eh?
Let’s just say that I owe this gig completely to my genes. Thanks, Mom & Dad! They would be so proud, I’m sure. Too bad I’ll never tell them this story.
We were to meet at Beijing East Train Station very early on that Friday morning to take the overnight slow train to Tongliao, Inner Mongolia. Ever heard of it? Neither had I. And frankly, I didn’t even know that Beijing had an east station, either.
Turns out, neither did my taxi driver. While he was asking his Bei Jing Si Ji Wechat group how to get there, I quickly found it on the map and pointed him in the right direction. It’s very tricky to get to.
Beijing has an East Station!?
I arrived outside the platform and she was happily there waiting for me. But she looked completely different. No fancy clothes, no makeup, she didn’t even seem like the same style of person. For some reason, this made me feel a lot more comfortable with the situation. Cool.
Now I hadn’t taken a slow train in China for many years, and I’d totally forgotten how cozy they were. Thankfully, she’d bought two tickets a long time ago and had gotten us both sleepers (hard), so I could somewhat stretch out. We were to hit the hay for a few hours then start hashing out our fictional love story.
As we started moving, the smell of ramen and secondhand smoke lined the halls of the train cars. I could only imagine the stench from the toilets. I managed to wiggle my way up to the top bunk, only kicking one unsuspecting bystander on the way.
I laid there in silence regretting my silly decision to agree to this. I sent a message to my friend with a series of facepalm stickers. He knew exactly what I meant.
No turning back now.
We woke up about half way through our and she had her notebook out in a flash. She’d already started taking notes.
How did we meet? On a blind date from a mutual friend. What was my job? A manager at a competing startup. My name, family, and hometown could all be real. Anything we didn’t have an answer to, I was to say nothing and just nod to her for the answer.
I started asking her some more personal questions like all of her favorite things and we like a lot of the same stuff, so that part should be easy.
She gently reached for my hand… and started laughing.
What did I do now? Apparently I have really big hands and it made her uncomfortable. So she laughed.
I asked her why a girl like her needed a fake boyfriend and she simply said how much she cares for her parents’ peace of mind. She admitted how she really isn’t ready to settle down and has no plans to get married any time soon.
But her parents are from a different generation, and any girl that reaches her age is soon to be considered leftover, or shengnu. At least having a boyfriend and bringing him home for the holidays sends all the right vibes to her filial figures.
Of all the pressures she felt in her life and work, this pressure from her parents was the biggest.
Then she told me a secret. I wasn’t the first fake boyfriend she’s had. Strangely, I started to feel jealous.
Two years prior, she had another guy from Russia, and it was disastrous. She tried to assure me that I was better in almost every way. Almost? Oh, he was more handsome, that’s all.
We arrive in Tongliao and the station reminded me of every other small town station around the country. A few platforms with way too many people on them.
Next, we had to take a minibus to an even smaller town a couple hours further away, but she didn’t have tickets for this leg of the journey. She knew exactly where to go and this is when I noticed her accent coming back in full force.
She finds transport and we’re off again.
I ask her what her dreams are for the future. Contrary to what almost everyone else says, she doesn’t want to get out of China or get married and have kids. She has her eyes solely on her career and moving up the ladder of success, whatever that means.
She wants to stay in Beijing, continue building her company and learning everything that she can. Seems motivated enough. I’m feeling a bit inspired myself.
We arrive outside her parent’s home and I realized the fun hadn’t even begun.
It being Spring Festival Eve, the big variety show had just started on TV and they ushered me to the sofa. Before I could sit down, I had a cup of hot water in my hand.
I sheepishly tried to introduce myself to her sweet mom and dad. Her father shook my hand firmly and her mother seemed quite pleased with me.
I met all the grandparents and Uncle Zhou, Uncle Li, and Aunt Su. (Hey, I have an Aunt Sue, too!) There was Big Cousin Bing and Little Cousin LuLu. They had a ridiculous-looking dog named DuoDuo, which they told me means “ugly and lazy.” How appropriate.
Although the gala was on the television, no one was paying attention to it, as the kitchen was abuzz with excitement. We were given snacks of nuts, seeds, and fruit, to go with our hot water, and they said we’d be eating dumplings right at midnight.
As the lackluster program was counting down to zero, my stomach started grumbling. They had prepared a feast, outdoing any expectations I had. There were dumplings on top of dumplings, there were legs of lamb and ribs of beef, there were fish heads and chicken feet. Where do I start?
With the baijiu, of course. Uncle Zhou had at least two bottles up his sleeves. He undid his sweater to reveal, I can’t make this up, a white t-shirt with a green mj leaf printed on it. Uncle Zhou had come to let loose.
I’ve been to enough official dinners to know to go easy on the rice wine, but this was new year’s eve and I needed to impress the fam!
Next, I choose a plump mutton dumpling and place it in my mouth. But something didn’t feel right. There felt to be a metal object inside of it. What is going on? I pull it out of my mouth and it’s a 1 yuan coin.
Everyone stood up and cheered. I guess that meant I get more baijiu? The mother smiled at me in an approving way and said that I must be one lucky guy. I replied that I was only lucky to have met her daughter. They ate that up.
After dinner, and after everyone’s faces were beat red, we made our way outside where the fireworks were waiting.
Great Great Great Uncle Zhou
The next day, we wearily made our way to her father’s parents home for more food and fanfare. The day after that, to her grandma on her mother’s side’s old home to what appeared to be a cemetery. Family gathered, prayed, and burned things. I didn’t quite understand.
The fourth day in, I got to go to dinner with her high school classmates. The moment we walk in, one of the guys ask if we’re faking again. Speechless, I turned to her and tilted my head. She busts out laughing.
It was all just for her parents.
Her friends start telling us that all of them are in the exact same situation and that in Chinese culture, respect for your parents go before literally anything else.
I told them I hadn’t even talked with my parents in months. Maybe I should give them a call.
The following day is our time to head back and when we’re leaving, her mother gave me a surprise hug and told me I’m a good guy. I didn’t know what to say, so I just smiled.
The uneventful return journey was mostly quiet and as we got off at Beijing East, I awkwardly asked her if I could see her again some time. She said that probably wasn’t going to happen.
I should have seen that coming.
Overall, it was quite the experience. I got to see what normal lunar new year celebrations are like here, and I really got a glimpse into the pressures young people are faced with.
Would I make this bet again? Not a chance! I think it’s time I find a real relationship.
And hopefully her parents won’t compare me to any more of her future fake boyfriends.
Thanks to one of our readers, Patrick, for sending us his story! He wishes to remain anonymous and just needed “to get this off his chest”… unless, he said, you wanna turn this into the next rom-com blockbuster or something~
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