Tea Leaf Nation
Flushing’s Lonely WeChat Sisterhood
China's hottest social networking app has become a way for some divorced Chinese émigrés to find love.
QUEENS, New York – On any given Saturday afternoon in Kissena Park, a central gathering place in the New York borough of Queens, it’s not hard to find a group of middle-aged Chinese immigrants wearing traditional dress and doing a photo shoot, just for fun. Later, the mixed group might play badminton, or hit up a karaoke bar to belt out a few songs. These images sound stereotypical enough, but this is no traditional gathering among old relatives and friends. They are, in many cases, strangers — brought together by love, loneliness, and the power of a Chinese mobile chat app on American shores.
WeChat, which boasts over 650 million active monthly users worldwide, has become a way of life among young, connected, mainland Chinese youth, who use it for almost everything: chatting with friends, making a doctor’s appointment, and hailing a cab. But it’s also become a way for middle-aged Chinese singles in the sometimes isolating diaspora in and around New York City to find their next soul mate. Rekindling love can be difficult for divorced Chinese women in communities like Flushing and Forest Hills, which have large and relatively insular Chinese immigrant groups. According to the New York City Department of City Planning, Chinese immigrants are the second largest foreign-born group in New York and comprise 49 percent of the immigrants in Flushing, a part of Queens, and they traditionally view divorce with disapproval. A smartphone app allowing them to get to know perfect strangers opens up new romantic possibilities — but also proves that social mores can remain stubborn even in the face of new technology.
Lily Li, 53, is the co-founder of a popular WeChat group aimed at divorced and single Chinese immigrants in New York. She has been matching people up offline for years — for free, she said, in contrast to many matchmaking services — after a 1998 divorce left her depressed and suicidal. But Li’s ambitions were limited by the fact that single Chinese immigrants are busy working and don’t have much time to meet new people. So in September 2014, Li and her friend Grace Chan, 45, a single mother from Flushing, decided to go digital.
The group they founded, “Home Sweet Home,” attracted 100 members on its first day, Li told Foreign Policy, and has been successful enough to spawn online imitators. Home Sweet Home allows single WeChat users to chat online first, without the anxiety or pressure associated with a first date. Members also have the opportunity to meet in person at group events; one-on-one encounters are another option. Numerous long-term relationships have sprung from Home Sweet Home, Li said, and the presence of similar WeChat groups has led to a thriving social scene among Flushing’s middle-aged Chinese singles. In November 2015, Home Sweet Home threw a party to commemorate Singles’ Day, which has morphed into a massive online shopping day on the Chinese mainland. And in late December, they hosted a Christmas party in Flushing in partnership with another WeChat singles group. One hundred twenty people attended, many of them meeting each other in real life for the first time.
In China, those dating and socializing via mobile device are usually urban millennials using messaging apps like TanTan, the Chinese equivalent of Tinder, and Momo, an app once known for facilitating casual hookups that has since rebranded itself. But in an outer borough of New York, divorced and middle-aged Chinese émigrés hop on WeChat along with upwardly-mobile twenty-somethings. This makes a certain amount of sense: middle-class husbands of migrant women often remain in China, according to Professor Yu Zhou of Vassar College in New York, who has studied the experiences of Mainland Chinese immigrant women in the New York area. The distance fractures some families irreparably, Zhou said.
This can put the Chinese women of Flushing in an isolating predicament. They are often the sole providers for their children, leading busy lives not conducive to finding companionship and community when they need it most. Add, these women say, the burden of living in a foreign land, far from what’s familiar. It all makes WeChat, where companionship is a finger swipe away, very attractive.
Of course, the possession of a smartphone isn’t enough to completely erode inhibitions. Li sometimes nudges potential couples together by sending private messages to two people to introduce them. If either is interested, he or she can add the other as a friend and start a conversation in private. If they discover they aren’t a match, they can delete each other from their WeChat contact list, avoiding the embarrassment of a failed in-person date.
That doesn’t mean all awkwardness has been banished. Wei Gong, 52, a member of Home Sweet Home, laments the prevalence of materialism in online interactions. “A lot of people are only about money. Oh my God, money is everything. It’s the culture,” Gong said. She said a man introducing himself online will often start by stating his occupation and what car he drives, a first move off-putting to educated and self-sufficient women. For their part, some men ultimately conclude a younger woman, or someone back in China, is easier to deal with.
Minnie Yu, 53 years old and married for 24 years, also founded a WeChat singles group, only to encounter a generation clash. A recruiting consultant and New Jersey resident, Yu is the general secretary of the New York alumni association of the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China. After being approached by alumni struggling to date in New York, Yu set up a singles WeChat group exclusively for them. She gave it the somewhat unwieldy name “U.S.-China International Professional Singles Friendship Platform.”
Yu was keen to distinguish her group by the caliber of its membership and the type of immigrant it attracted. She only accepts members who are graduates of Chinese universities or affiliated with alumni associations, and gives preference to professionals in New Jersey and Manhattan. Ages among the 220-plus group members now range from 23 to 60. This has presented a problem: a number of older Chinese men, many with American green cards or U.S. citizenship, are only approaching younger women. Some of these women have complained to Yu. She believes the mismatch is due not just to ageism, but the stigma Chinese culture still attaches to divorce.
Chan, who works two jobs, said she is grateful for the sisterhood she’s found through WeChat. In many ways, the group she helped establish is successful. Would-be users are constantly requesting to join. But she has been troubled to find that Chinese men of her age and social class prefer younger women of lower social status. “It’s hard. I talk with guys, but you know the problem is my age. I don’t want to date very old Chinese men,” she said. “But the age I want to date, they look for younger women.” With deep-set cultural expectations working against her and other women, Chan’s hope that people would use WeChat to get married and find stability has proven elusive. “Right now it’s hard to find true love,” she said. “People want to get; they don’t want to give.”
However technologically disruptive they may be — and however astonishingly far their reach across oceans — platforms like WeChat haven’t been able to upend entrenched cultural attitudes toward money and family. But the singles groups continue to proliferate. For many women, they provide a much-needed source of real-world companionship, romantic or not. Members of Home Sweet Home are currently planning their Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations in early February; later this month, they will hold a mixer with other singles groups. While romantic success eludes most, they continue to chat and socialize, if nothing else; it’s better than staying at home. “Our goal is to find the right man,” Chan said, “but also to build friendships.”
Image: Mario Tama/Getty