Melissa Schneider to Lecture on China’s “Romantic Revolution”
When Melissa Schneider moved to Shenzhen, China, with her husband, she was “staggeringly unprepared” for the differences she encountered in local attitudes towards love and marriage. Schneider, who holds a Masters in Clinical Social Work from Columbia University and works as a couples therapist, became curious about Chinese relationships after hearing some eyebrow-raising tales as she was getting settled in.
One of her husband’s new colleagues, for example, had married a woman after meeting her only three times. Then there was the story relayed to Schneider and her husband by some American associates, the one about the willowy businessman who made it clear that he was “married but available” for the weekend. Later, a friend of Schneider’s, a twenty-five-year-old university graduate, told Schneider that she was going on a blind date—a date that would be chaperoned by her mother and her date’s aunt.
Her curiosity piqued, Schneider teamed up with a new friend, Lin Ling, to explore the subject of love and marriage in China. The pair interviewed forty-eight locals and then Schneider compiled twenty-seven of the stories into a newly released book called The Ugly Wife is a Treasure at Home: True Stories of Love and Marriage in Communist China (Potomac Books, 2014). On March 24, she will visit Carnegie Mellon to discuss her findings in a lecture titled "From Rooster Weddings to Aesthetic Fatigue: China’s Unfolding Romantic Revolution."
During the lecture, Schneider will take her audience on a journey that will move from a world where “nobody says ‘I love you,’ sex is a mystery until the wedding day, and romance has nothing to do with the serious business of marriage” to a place where “teenagers hold hands in public, young parents go out for dates—by themselves—on Valentine’s Day, and grandmas dream of having ‘that spark’ with someone before they die.”
While Schneider says that “no collection of stories could ever speak for so many” in a country as “vast and varied” as China, she made sure to interview men and women of all ages and backgrounds. In her book, she gives readers a bird’s-eye view of her subject by tracing love and marriage through the decades, beginning with the founding of Communist China and ending in the present day. She sat down with everyone from cabdrivers and factory workers to scholars and businessmen, posing questions such as “What did you learn about love and marriage in your youth?” and “How did you meet your spouse?” Her interviewees’ responses shed light on the nature of relationships in China, and on the factors that shaped and influenced their attitudes toward love and marriage.
Schneider was touched by how frank her interviewees were when telling stories, and was surprised by some of the things they had to say. Going in to the project, she assumed that her own relationship wants—for example, the inclusion of love and romance—were universal desires. When she began conducting interviews, however, she realized that wasn’t the case. Many of the people she spoke with considered romantic love ephemeral, and therefore not a good basis for a long-term relationship. They chose partners instead with more practical considerations in mind. What surprised Schneider was not only that romantic love could be viewed as a trivial part of the marriage equation, but that many people were OK with that. For those who did enjoy romantic love at the outset of their partnership, a transition from romance to friendship was considered normal and acceptable. A lack of romance later on was not necessarily seen as problematic or as a reason to divorce.
These revelations altered Schneider’s perspective and left her with “more than one working model of a successful marriage.” This comes in handy in her line of work as a couples therapist. These days, Schneider feels better prepared to work with international couples. She understands that there are “other ways to do marriage,” and she keeps this in mind when she’s helping people build the kind of relationship they want based on their needs and values.
Schneider thoroughly enjoyed working on the project and is considering writing a similar book on India. Another idea floating through her mind is to keep it local. She’s thinking of compiling a collection of stories about the love and marriage experiences of New York City residents not usually featured in glossy magazines or on Sex in the City: homeless folks, Orthodox Jews, Somali immigrants, young men and women who grew up in the projects, et cetera. But for the time being, she is busy giving lectures and doing readings from her recently published book on China. Soon she will visit Carnegie Mellon, where students and others will have a chance to hear her relay her findings in person, and to ask questions.
Says Schneider in the introduction of her new book: “The experiences recorded here are merely a peek into the richly checkered landscape of the heart in the world’s most populous nation. I hope they will bear witness to the tumultuous fate of love in this unique country, build our sense of shared humanity, and strengthen our conviction that the freedom to love is a precious thing indeed.”
Date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Location: Steinberg Auditorium
Time: 4:30 p.m.
Note: A limited number of signed books will be available for purchase.