Over a glass of sauvignon blanc in my Shanghai loft, Christine struggled to find the right words in her faltering English. She pulled out her pocket translator and showed me a phrase on the screen: matron of honor. I hesitated.
"Please?" she said.
"Of course!" I hoped my response didn't sound too forced. I hadn't included Christine in my own upcoming wedding, but I was more concerned with the fact that I'd never tried to talk her out of her engagement in the first place. I had just agreed to be the maid of honor for a mail-order bride.
When I arrived in China for work a year before, with my fiancé, Gregg, in tow, I'd heard about some peculiar local courtship rituals: parents gathering in parks with their children's résumés to orchestrate matches, high-maintenance Shanghainese women openly seeking wealthy foreign men and the designer bags they could provide. Christine seemed to be none of these — we met while waiting in line to buy tickets for an Olympic soccer game. She had the fresh, creaseless skin of a schoolgirl, a diamond solitaire resting on her collarbone. She'd worked as a model in her 20s, and, now 31, she was a secretary at an export business. We decided to be language study partners, and exchanged numbers.
Over the next several months we grew close. She took me to markets on Shanghai's outskirts and introduced me to duck's blood soup, laughing as she watched me choke down the gelatinous chunks. After I'd mentioned my search for a wedding gown, she surprised me with a qípáo, a figure-hugging, traditional Chinese dress. It would bring me luck on my wedding day, she explained.
We often studied together at one of our homes. She lived in a colorless neighborhood in the south of Shanghai, sharing a cramped three-room apartment with a roommate. One day, when the vocabulary word xinmù, or "to envy," came up in my Chinese book, she repeated it: "I envy you."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because you marry."
Several months later, after quitting her job and disappearing for a while, Christine reached out. "I have boyfriend," she said. "We will marry." She explained that she'd been to Hong Kong to meet a Chinese-Canadian divorcé in his mid-40s whom she'd flirted with on an Internet dating site. They stayed in a five-star hotel, ate at pricey dim sum halls, and expanded her wardrobe — all on his credit card. She had agreed to marry him, and he had promised her a car and a $3000 wedding dress — unthinkable for most brides in Shanghai, where the average monthly income is $300. At his request, she would enroll in cooking and English classes full-time until the wedding.
As I pressed her for more details, the website where they'd "met" began to sound more Buy-a-Bride than Match. It was for people "ready to marry immediately," Christine admitted, and Chinese men weren't welcome — only foreign passport holders. I got online and learned more than I wanted to know: The men were required to have a considerable income; the women were told to post pictures in which they appeared "attractive and happy." (Christine showed me professional photos of herself smiling in black lingerie, her hair falling seductively over one eye.) Testimonials celebrated Asian brides as "petite, soft, and gentle," and one guy added, "They don't bust your chops when you are home a little late or forget an anniversary."
Seeing it written so plainly hit a nerve. Was that all marriage was to her, a business arrangement? In my mind, Western men who bought foreign wives were insecure losers at best, creeps with fetishes at worst. Christine deserved more. During the four years Gregg and I had dated before he proposed, we'd supported each other through the stress of new jobs, at family funerals, in the close quarters of our car on cross-country road trips. I wanted to share her excitement, but the wedding felt as phony as the Prada bags being hustled on the streets of Shanghai.
In the weeks before both of our weddings, the perils of such a blatant arrangement surfaced. While I planned my centerpieces and bridesmaid favors, Christine's fiancé reminded her in daily phone calls not to gain weight before the big day. She was looking for him to hold up his end of the bargain, too, informing him that she preferred Louis Vuitton to Coach — a request he hesitated to fulfill, as his design firm was suffering in the gloomy economy.
But then, haven't plenty of American women made secret compromises that were no less crass at their core? And isn't every marriage a gamble? The more I talked to Christine, the more I realized that I needed to back slowly away from my Western mind-set and see her situation for what it was: She was a Chinese woman with little education and few options — her career wasn't stable in a city where ads for secretaries often include the footnote, "Women over 30 need not apply" — who wanted security, a family, and a comfortable life. And as she talked about her impending marriage, it became clear that she wasn't naive about the challenges. But instead of waiting around to accept her fate, she had taken it into her own hands. Maybe there was something powerful, even brave, about that.
After agreeing to be her matron of honor that night, I typed risk into her pocket translator and pushed it across the table. She smiled. Christine knew she was taking a risk, but it was worth it to her for the chance at a better life and, just maybe, love.