Modern Love in China: Shaking Your Smartphone To Find Your Soul Mate
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We've been on the road this week with NPR's Frank Langfitt. Who knew Frank used to be a Philadelphia cab driver? And he's been making good use of that experience while reporting in China. Frank's been working on a series called "Streets of Shanghai," where he drives people around to learn more about the lives of ordinary Chinese. He spoke with our colleague, David Greene.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Yesterday, we heard about the wedding of a farmer's kid who grew up to become a Shanghai lawyer. And today, we're going to hear the surprising story about how another of Frank's passengers found his mate. Frank's on the line from Shanghai. Hey, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, David.
GREENE: So remind us who we're going to meet today.
LANGFITT: Well, today we're going to talk to a guy named Charles. He's 29. He works in a Shanghai factory that makes ship parts. And I drove him home to Hubei province in central China for Chinese New Year and to get married, as you were saying. He grew up in this farming village. But like millions of workers who've moved to the big cities, he really struggled to build a career and to find a wife.
So earlier this month, I drove Charles and his fiance - her name is Xiao Fang - to pick up their marriage license at a government office. The place was jammed. And so as we're waiting, the couple tell me how they first met. This was a couple years back. The story is even one their parents don't know. Here's Xiao Fang's version.
XIAO FANG: (Through interpreter) I'd just bought a smartphone, and I felt it was pretty novel. I had just downloaded WeChat. Then I shook the phone, and he added me. I found him by shaking my phone.
GREENE: Now, wait a minute, Frank. What does she mean there, that - found him by shaking her phone?
LANGFITT: WeChat is China's go-to social media app. And they have this function where if people shake phones at the same time, they can find each other. Charles was home that night for Chinese New Year. He was depressed. He was 27 years old, and all of his relatives were asking, as everybody always does over Chinese New Year, when are you going to get married? He was sitting in the family apartment, and Charles shakes his smartphone. Now, at the same moment, six miles away, Xiao Fang shakes hers. And they connect.
CHARLES: (Through interpreter) This is a type of fate. There's no other way to describe it.
LANGFITT: Actually, there is. Xiao Fang says that night, Charles was trolling for prospective girlfriends.
FANG: (Through interpreter) He didn't just choose me on WeChat. He selected a lot of people.
LANGFITT: It's true, Charles says. But as he got to know Xiao Fang through text messages, he liked her more and more.
CHARLES: (Through interpreter) I always wanted to find a local girl, someone with the same cultural background, the same taste in food, who speaks our local dialect. The second reason is she's a chicken, and I'm an ox.
LANGFITT: And as Charles says, a chicken and an ox are a...
CHARLES: (Through interpreter) Perfect match.
LANGFITT: That's what a fortuneteller told him based on when they were born according to China's zodiac. Now, this may sound strange. But China today is a blend of modern and ancient. And so using social media and a fortuneteller to find a spouse has a certain logic. Now, after several months, the couple finally met face-to-face. Charles' first thought was this.
CHARLES: That's the girlfriend candidate.
LANGFITT: But Xiao Fang wasn't blown away. And like many Chinese, she's not shy about saying so.
FANG: (Through interpreter) Actually, he looks different in real life than he does in his picture. In his WeChat picture, he's better looking.
LANGFITT: But she liked him. The couple was afraid their parents wouldn't approve of them meeting online. So they told them they were introduced by friends.
So we're just rushing up to get the marriage license.
Congratulations, the clerk says, adding this old Chinese saying - I wish you can live together until your hair turns white. It's a nice moment. But for Charles, getting here was an ordeal. In fact, it took him three times to tell me the story 'cause he kept breaking down and crying. And it really shows how hard it can be these days to make it in China. Charles got out of college in 2008, and global financial crisis was in full gear, throwing millions of people here out of work. Charles and his classmates went from job fair to job fair.
CHARLES: (Through interpreter) At that time, I felt especially desperate. But I needed to feed myself. We were college graduates with normal intelligence. And we were willing to work hard, but no one gave us a chance. The competition was too intense.
LANGFITT: Charles roamed the country doing dead-end jobs, making plastic handles for Mr. Coffee makers, waiting tables at a Holiday Inn. Finally, he did land a good sales job. Still, though, he couldn't find a wife.
CHARLES: (Through interpreter) Some girls said I'm too short. But they aren't tall, maybe just five feet. They have all sorts of requirements - for example, job stability. And the guy needs to be very handsome. I wasn't handsome then, and I'm not really handsome now.
LANGFITT: As Charles kept looking for a girlfriend, the family's fortunes plummeted. His dad, Shenhua, spent years away from home, working in big cities, mostly as a barber.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAIR RAZOR)
LANGFITT: The afternoon before Charles' wedding, Shenhua cuts his hair on the apartment balcony. Shenhua says two years ago, he and a friend got drunk one night in western China. After cooking, they forgot to put out there coal stove. Carbon monoxide filled the room.
SHENHUA: (Through interpreter) The guy who was with me died. I didn't wake up. Other people rescued me. When they found me, I had been unconscious for more than 20 hours.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCISSORS HITTING THE GROUND)
LANGFITT: As he tries to trim Charles' hair, Shenhua drops his scissors. He doesn't have much grip left in his right hand because that night two years ago, he slept on his arm, cutting off blood to the muscles. Carbon monoxide damaged his brain. Now he can only work as a security guard. Charles has asked his dad to cut his hair today to buck him up.
CHARLES: In order to give him some confidence and rehab his hand a little bit more, I ask him to do this work. I think it also gives me some pride.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV NOISE)
LANGFITT: The next day, the wedding day is both tradition and quirky. Late morning, guests lounge around the family's apartment, smoking and chatting while "SpongeBob" plays in Mandarin on the TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV NOISE)
LANGFITT: In the afternoon, I drive Charles to Xiao Fang's farmhouse to pick her up for the wedding. She emerges, her face hidden behind a red veil.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS)
LANGFITT: A posse of friends and relatives walk her down a narrow road past rice fields. She and Charles climb into my rented van, and we head back into town.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED EMCEE: (Speaking Chinese).
LANGFITT: The wedding's in a restaurant, but the banquet room has been double-booked. It's kind of chaotic, with dueling emcees. But Charles doesn't seem to mind too much. He's all smiles. Finally, he's got his girl.
GREENE: That's the voice of NPR's Franks Langfitt, who drove two young Chinese men into the Chinese countryside and ended up going to both of their weddings. And Frank, what a journey this was. What did you learn from these guys?
LANGFITT: I guess I was really struck by how these two farm boys had leapt basically from the countryside to professional lives in Shanghai, which is this huge city. And in other countries, this might take two or three generations. And they did it in a really short period of time. The other thing, though, is making this leap still in China - it's an incredibly competitive society. It's not easy. So finding these jobs, building careers, finding spouses is very tough. But both of these guys just had the will to make it happen.
GREENE: Frank Langfitt, former cab driver in Philadelphia, now NPR international correspondent in Shanghai. He's been driving people around to learn more about Chinese society. And Frank, we hope you stay on the road. This has been fun to listen to.
LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.