Those of marriageable age who return home for the Chinese New Year reunion tend to hear the giant sucking sound of the institution of marriage, reminding them that to be single is shameful.
The Lunar New Year is the most festive of all Chinese holidays, with family reunion as the centerpiece, somewhat akin to Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one.
Now that the twin pet peeves have receded into the background－the massive human migration has been made easier by the nation's fast expanding high-speed train network and the New Year's Eve Gala has exhausted all forms of grumbling－there is renewed interest in the age-old custom of pestering marriage-age children with a weeklong bombast of questions and advice.
Isn't it time to consider settling down with someone? I know someone who knows someone in your city who can fix you up with someone of your choice. Why are you so picky? Once you are over a certain age, your value will plummet in the eyes of those looking for a spouse. Be realistic! Find someone, even if he does not meet all your requirements.
While the advice may sound well meaning, some exasperated parents may issue an ultimatum: Bring back a regular date or a fiance(e), or I'll disown you!
Grandparents are usually less straightforward. But there is equal or more weight in their veiled threats: You know I'm getting old. Can you satisfy my wish of seeing a great-grandchild before I breathe my last?
The Chinese parents' urge to dictate their children's lives is legendary. I don't know if this is a match for the fabled Jewish mom, but it definitely does not pale in comparison.
While most parents will discourage their children from dating while in college, they expect the youngsters to find an ideal partner a year or two after graduation. And many find it unsettling for them if you show up for the all-important Lunar New Year without even a date when you are approaching 30.
And it is not just the parents; it is the whole village, so to speak, that can come out and join the chorus. Your high-school buddy may visit you with a toddler in tow; your neighbours may greet you with a friendly "Are you home by yourself?" And someone with the virtue of frankness could simply blurt out: "You're not getting younger. You should consider the institution."
I made up the last one. We Chinese don't use the word "institution" in this sense. We say "the big issue of marriage", which is probably the closest to "institution" as I see it. My response is to recommend American actress Mae West's famous quote: "Marriage is a great institution, but I'm not ready for an institution yet."
The word "issue" works when the quote is rendered in Chinese, and could go something like this: "Marriage is a big issue. I'm not ready for the big issue. I'd better off focusing on the trivialities instead."
As a matter of fact, Chinese netizens have distilled their collective wisdom into a comic strip. It uses the strategy of preemption.
Before your relative opens her mouth, you fire off a volley of questions: "Auntie, how are you? Has your daughter started dating? Have you bought a wedding apartment for your son? Do they own a car now? Did you make money from the stock market last year? How much is your pension? How does your kid perform in school? Hey, have you stopped going to the square dance? You seem to be gaining weight. Bye now, auntie."
Call it "Do to others what they will do to you". Let them have a taste of prying into others' personal affairs. I'm sure the stock market question will kill whatever interest they have in you. Their answers could drag on for hours, or they may weep and flee in humiliation.
Honestly, this strategy can work only with people who don't have close blood ties with you. But I have yet to see a ruse that can shut up a parent or grandparent. And the reason could be: You care about them and you know they care about you. And it is the way they show their care that makes you uncomfortable. This is part of the generation gap.
So, many on their trip home resort to procrastination as a kind of placebo. "Oh, I'm dating someone, but (s)he cannot be here because (s)he has to visit his or her parents." Then will come the coercion to produce a photo as evidence.
Eventually you'll have to show them the real person. You cannot put it off year after year. Hence the cottage industry of temps who act as your date. The temp can use the experience as a springboard to an acting career, but they could turn out to be scam artists.
In my hometown, a take-home date automatically gets cash gifts from older relatives. So, it's not a ruse to be taken lightly.
It is truly a virtue to be thoughtful and consider your parents' situation. The smaller the town they reside in, the more peer pressure they face, which they pass on to you. So, one solution is to move them in with you－to the bigger city where you work, where they can witness first hand that you are happy with your status, and your friends and neighbours do not stick their noses into your business.
And don't avoid the sit-down talk where you can explain to them how you feel. It may help them a little in understanding the young generation. Late marriage or singlehood can be perfectly valid options for some, and there are many examples in the big city.
In a word, expose them to your circle and lifestyle rather than wade into their jungle of human entanglements.
But that would imply the unfilial choice of avoiding the hometown journey.
The most pathetic parental act of nudging grown-up children down the aisle is surrogate dating. Some Chinese parks have corners devoted to the elderly who hold up plaques of personal ads for their children. They are under the illusion that their kids are too busy to date even though the youngsters could be capable of finding a dozen dates just by pressing a button on their smartphones.
If there is a social segment which needs such help, it's not the busy white-collar worker, but stay-at-home singles who insist on living in a virtual reality cocoon. But then one should reach out only when one is asked to.