This is how I always imagine my grandfather’s departure from Shanghai: him, a lanky boy of 19, wearing khakis and a pressed shirt, standing near the docks with a small brown suitcase in hand. I imagine the shirt to be white with intersecting gray lines, a series of chess-sized squares on his body. Maybe he’s wearing a matching beige jacket too, or a hat of some sort. I assume that going overseas was probably a big deal at the time, an occasion you were supposed to dress up for.
For some reason, in this scene, I don’t see the man traveling with my grandfather—a friend of my great-grandparents he might have called Uncle. Instead, I see my great-grandmother, small and slightly bent over, her lined face rearranging its features as she struggles not to cry. I see her gazing up at her tall boy, adjusting his shirt, touching his lapel, fussing the way mothers do. I see her pressing a sack of oranges into his palms, worried he’ll be hungry on the boat. Now he’s brushing her fingers away, annoyed, impatient. He’ll only be gone for a few weeks, he reminds her, three months at the most. She tells him not to do anything rash out there. She tells him to listen to Uncle. I can see him barely registering her words. I can see his eyes lingering on the boat and the ocean and the tiny island of Taiwan he can’t yet make out. I can see that his mind is already gone from his childhood home and she can see it too. She takes a deep breath and smiles. She tries to be happy for him, to be proud of her youngest son. She tries to remember that boys his age are fighting wars in the north, and that she is lucky, so lucky, that all he wants is to explore the world. She tries to be happy that her boy will not only be well-educated, but also well-traveled, but he is her baby boy and she is his mother and he’s never traveled so far from home before.
As a 23-year-old only child from a working-class family from Shanghai, I am in no rush to find a girlfriend. But marriage at a young age in China is considered the norm right now. My parents certainly think it should be. Since I got a job, they’ve now and then asked me euphemistically, “Do you have a direction?” By “direction,” they mean a girlfriend—one with whom I’m in a stable and serious relationship, and can bring home to visit at the Chinese New Year.
My mother didn’t force me to go to the matchup event. She just hinted that I should—every time we talked on the phone. “Nothing wrong with just having a look,” she told me. So here I was, dressed decently, and looking at a huge noticeboard, on which I saw my picture alongside hundreds of others, and below it the words:
Name: Mr. Huang
Education: Master’s degree
Birthdate: March 1992
Yearly salary: …
I’m listed on the wall for buyers.
I had filled in my yearly salary when I’d registered online—it’s a required question, along with those about your height, weight, zodiac sign, and whether you have a property or own a car. But I didn’t expect they would make rows and rows of “wanted” posters for every participant with his or her salary visible to every passer-by.
At Quartz, Zheping Huang navigates the highly competitive sea of red tables in search of wife at the Love and Marriage Expo in Shanghai, China.
Over the past decade or more, Shanghai has grown like no other city on the planet. Home to 13.3 million residents in 1990, the city now has some 23 million residents (to New York City’s 8.1 million), with half a million newcomers each year. To handle the influx, developers are planning to build, among other developments, seven satellite cities on the fringes of Shanghai’s 2,400 square miles. Shanghai opened its first subway line in 1995; today it has 11; by 2025, there will be 22. In 2004, the city also opened the world’s first commercial high-speed magnetic levitation train line.