On November 10 last year, I began an English class at the Chinese university where I worked with an American culture lesson. “Who knows what American holiday is happening tomorrow?” I asked my students. There was always a chance someone could have heard of Veterans’ Day, maybe from a movie or a foreign news website, if they’d snuck onto the real internet.
Several students piped up, with a enthusiasm that I didn’t normally get when trying to pry answers from their tight lips: “Singles’ Day!”
I was baffled. I asked them to explain.
It’s the day when everything goes on sale online.
It shouldn’t necessarily have surprised me, even the fact my students thought Singles’ Day was an American creation. I remember another day in class when I asked my students, “What is the type of government called where people vote to elect leaders?”
And the only response I got was – without a trace of sarcasm, “Capitalism…?”
The real history of Singles’ Day is that it started in 1993 as the singles’ answer to Valentine’s Day – a group of university students in the city of Nanjing celebrating and/or commiserating being single on a date that’s all ones – 11/11. Then, like lots of things in China, such as communism, it turned into another commercialized mess.
Alibaba, the Chinese company that owns the Chinese equivalents of Amazon, eBay and who knows what else, got involved in 2009 and turned Singles’ Day into a day of devotion to online shopping.
Last year, Chinese shoppers spent about $8 billion just on Alibaba’s websites. In a single day. This year they spent $14.3 billion.
And it’s not just singles “treating themselves.” (As if being single is something Chinese people should cry over and buy themselves a treat to feel better.) Everyone takes part in the festivities, buying everything from clothing to Tasmanian baby formula.
Meanwhile, there are at least 190 million single people in China between 20 and 35, according to China’s own state-run CCTV News. And they mostly spent their special day at home – shopping alone.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.*
In my year in China, I’ve realized Chinese people are often really shy. The dating culture here seems much more reserved than in the west, and frankly not very sexy. There’s basically no social dancing in Chinese culture, for example. (Also no cat calls when I walk down the street, which is wonderful and one of my favorite things about living here.)
But the Chinese are also more obsessively concerned than any group of people I’ve ever met with finding boyfriends and girlfriends, and eventually settling down. Preferably sooner rather than later, as family is the most important thing here. One of my teachers once mentioned how stressed she was about being “almost 30” and not married. She was 24.
*(Nothing wrong with that except, while there are still too many people in the world, there soon won’t be enough in China to support the old folks, which is at least part of the reason China just ended its one-child policy after 36 years. One of the law’s troublesome consequences is the huge gender imbalance it created, as some parents killed or abandoned baby girls in hopes of having a boy as their one and only child, leading to lots and lots of single men in China today. None of these are problems that will likely be solved by shopping.)