On last week’s trip to Yunnan we visited Tiger Leaping Gorge near Lijiang. We drove through the gorge and stopped at a viewing platform where – as I know from past experience – you can happily climb down hundreds of steps to the riverside, before turning around and unhappily huffing and puffing your way back to the top. The Gorge lies at 2,000 metres (6,500 feet) and the exertion of climbing steps at this altitude gets very sweaty very quickly. Fortunately, a group of local gentlemen provide a sedan chair chair-lift back to the top for tired tourists, with two men grasping the poles at hip height while their passenger reclines, at occasionally alarming angles, on the padded chair.
We were only stopping for a short visit and didn’t intend to go down far, but an enthusiastic Naxi sedan chair carrier still approached and accompanied us. “Isn’t it very tiring, carrying that thing?” I asked.
“No way – I used to be a farmer downriver, and that was much harder, and much worse paid,” he said. Upon discovering that I speak Chinese, he hesitated, briefly, and asked, “How old are you?” I told him that I am 32. “Are you married?” he then asked (32 being a very advanced age for unmarried girls in China), and I told him that I was. “Ah… Can you introduce a girl to me then?” Surprised, I asked if he was sure he wanted to marry a foreigner. “I want to marry anyone – I’m 41 and I’m tired of living alone. Now I make a good salary, 4,000 to 6,000 yuan a month, and I can finally afford to get married. Do you think a foreign girl would like to live here?” He gestured back towards the gorge, and added, wistfully, “You all have such nice figures…”, this being code, I believe, for having curves in certain places. “I’m not sure,” I said, “It’s pretty here, but it would take her an awfully long time to fly home…”
In China, in places, there’s an unspoken ranking of minorities, determined by how good their land is and how wealthy the minority is as a whole. Women often marry into a ‘better’ minority, but men seldom do. For example, in the Dong areas of Guizhou where I travelled last month, Dong men occasionally marry Miao women. The Miao are used to farming rocky, mountainous land, which they were pushed onto during the Qing dynasty as the result of one rebellion too many, while the less troublesome Dong were able to live and farm on the more fertile valley floors. As a result, Miao women apparently work harder and complain less. I’m really not sure that taking a foreign wife would benefit the husband in the same way, but perhaps her figure would make up for any shortcomings in the farm-work department. However, if any ladies out there thinks they have the makings of a good Naxi wife, head to the viewing platform on the north side of Tiger Leaping Gorge, and ask for Mr Ma…
P.S. Although unconnected, this reminds me of a story I heard from a taxi driver in Guiyang. He had met his former girlfriend, who was German, while studying at university. After dating for six years, she returned to Germany to be closer to her family, while he stayed in Guiyang to be close to his. They’d made a deal – à la ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’ – that, if neither of them was married by the time they were 40 then they would get back together and marry each other. He is 36 this year, and very much hopes that they’ll both make it to 40 without getting married. Who says romance is dead?