Thursday, June 2, 2011

Romance in Asia: Where East Definitely Does Not Meet West

By Jamaica Layne

I recently returned from a trip to Southeast Asia (Hong Kong, to be exact).  My husband is originally from there.  And no, he’s not a British colonial, either.  He’s a native Cantonese man, and though he’s very Westernized in many ways (and a naturalized American citizen, too), he has a very different way of looking at the world---and romance---than the way that I, a Westerner (and a romantic Irish girl at heart) do.

Indeed, what is considered romantic in Asian culture is quite different than what we Westerners would call romantic.  Asian cultures (and the Chinese in particular) are very, very pragmatic people who often have no use for trivial things like romance, at least in the Western sense. 

To give a very personal example of what I mean, my Chinese husband proposed marriage to me by unceremoniously dumping a binder full of diamond investment research in my lap. How did that happen, you may ask?  A few months into our relationship (which became very serious, very quickly), I asked the proverbial question, “So, um, honey, where do you think this relationship is going?” (I had just come out of a short live-in relationship that had ended in complete disaster, and therefore had decided not to invest unnecessary time and energy in any relationship that didn’t seem have a long-term future). In response to this, my husband got red in the face and very flustered.  He balled his fists, then stomped off into the other room.  He returned carrying a fat green binder full of computer printouts, which he then dumped into my lap.  With that, he said, “Well, I’ve been doing some research, and a decent engagement ring costs at least $10,000!”

I stared at him gape-mouthed for a moment.  Then I responded, “Is THAT your version of a marriage proposal?”

Apparently so. Not only that, proposing marriage by offering a detailed inventory of valuable material goods (i.e., a “bride price”) is standard in most Asian cultures.

To illustrate what I mean, take a look at these photos. What you’re seeing here is real 24-karat gold jewelry and statuettes.  (That’s PURE gold, just like the gold bullion locked up at Fort Knox; most Western-style gold jewelry is not 24K gold, because pure gold is actually quite soft and fragile, and therefore not practical for wearing as jewelry because it gets damaged too easily).

This incredibly gaudy, fragile (not to mention EXTREMELY expensive) jewelry and decorative stuff is offered to Asian brides by the groom and/or his family as part of her “bride price.”  Sometimes the gold isn’t even given to the bride herself, but rather to her family (specifically, her father) as a dowry of sorts, but in many Asian cultures it becomes the bride’s personal property---outside of the marital property---which serves as a sort of insurance policy for her in case of divorce or widowhood (in most Asian cultures and countries, widows do not inherit any of their deceased husbands’ property; rather it goes to her husband’s next oldest male relative instead).

These jewelry and solid-gold figurines are not meant to be worn or displayed.  No, they’re intended to serve purely as an investment, which can be liquidated in case of emergency.  Presenting the bride price to a bride is a groom’s way of saying, “Look kid, don’t worry, you’ll be taken care of no matter what.”  Not only that, the Chinese spend a great deal of time on matters of “luck,” such has consulting expensive astrologers for “lucky” days, months and/or years on which to get married.  These “lucky” days/months/years are tied directly to the Chinese lunar calendar and zodiac; indeed, I was in Hong Kong on Easter Sunday (Easter is also tied to the lunar cycle), and saw dozens of wedding parties out and about in the city that day, since under the Chinese calendar Easter Sunday was a very “lucky” day on which to get married.  Unlike the West, where people try to avoid getting married on the same day as others, people in China go out of their way to get married on the same day everybody else does (picking an obscure day for your wedding isn’t considered smart there at all, quite the opposite). Everything is planned wayyyyy in advance in these cultures---even sex (people actually consult astrologers on the best days on which to conceive a child, or even go into labor, and get busy/induce their labors accordingly).

The lack of spontaneity in Asian courtship customs might seem very abrupt and un-romantic to us, but once you understand the motivations behind them, they can become quite romantic indeed.  Don’t most women at heart want a man to take care of us and make us feel secure?  And what’s more security-inducing than a valuable pile of gold that belongs to us alone? (Or a binder full of diamond-investment analysis that shows just how much time and energy, not to mention money, a man is willing to devote to making an important purchase----your engagement ring, likely the most valuable gift you’ll ever receive?)  You have to look beyond the impersonal-seeming surface and spend more time thinking about the intangible, unspoken reasons behind these regimental and overly materialistic-seeming gestures.  When you do that, you realize that what might seem completely unromantic and sterile on the surface is actually more romantic than any cheap bouquet of roses or flattering words could ever be. 


Maureen said...

Really good perspective on this. I always find it interesting how cultures differ on these things.

Barbara Elsborg said...

Very interesting, Jamaica. Your husband sounds as romantic as mine but you actually got an engagement ring? Wow, you beat me!!! My other half bought me a cut price wedding ring that sent my finger green. Needless to say, I don't have that on my hand!