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Love in Beida

It’s summertime, the PKU campus has been alternatively balmy and sweltering, students are finishing up their exams, and it’s the season to buy cheap cherries. Add the final ingredient of testosterone, shake well … you get where I’m headed. Love is in the air (along with the potentially fatal pollution particles).

A bashful Brit, I’ve always been rather shy when it comes to talking about love and sex with my Chinese friends. But I pale in comparison (unintentional pun) with their own willingness to broach the topic. There are some questions which will only illicit a blush or an awkward brush-off. When I asked Marie if she had a boyfriend (she doesn’t), she gave new meaning to the phrase ‘red China’. Physical contact like hugs is no-go territory. And I’ve seen none of the ‘conquest’ bravado between guys at Beida that there was, for instance, at Oxford.

But does this mean there’s no sex on campus? Of course there is! As there is on every bloody campus. It’s obvious from anything from a quick kiss in the canteen, to the playful groping-slapping game of couples on the subway. But this ‘less sex than the British’ idea about China’s ‘army of heterogenous youth’ is as false as it’s magnetically opposite stereotype: that young Chinese attitudes towards sex are now exactly the same as American or ‘Western’ ones.

Matilda was telling me about dating culture in Beida, over a tea/coffee (respectively) in the university’s ‘Café Paradiso’. I asked if you could ask a stranger on a date here, like they do on TV in Friends. She loves the show, and remembered being surprised at American boldness in that respect. If someone pulled a stunt like that here, she said, “I’d think he’s crazy”.

Most Beida students are in a relationship, she said - half with students here, half with “people outside”. And the most common way of finding your partner was online, on BBS (Bulletin Board Systems, wildly popular across China, and especially so on campuses). I asked how that worked. A bit like this, she said, launching into what she considered a typical relationship-in-bud:

1. A guy posts an article on a popular college BBS (his opinion on a current affairs story, a composition, a rant, whatever).

2. Other students comment on his post, and the guy notices one particular (female looking) ID who has responded positively.

3. The guy contacts the girl, she writes back, they exchange QQ numbers (China’s MSN-like instant messanging service).

4. They chat online for anything between one day and one year before deciding to meet up and beginning to ‘date’.

5. After half a year or so after meeting, they sleep together. (NB this could also happen on day one, but that’s unlikely.)

Don’t think of that as a ‘model’ … it’s just Matilda’s account of a run-of-the-mill romance. There are love at first sights and one night stands, too, although the most common ‘how we met’ story I’ve heard over the last two years is the perennial tale of ‘classmates … slowly friends … then …’

That’s not unlike how Matilda and Leonidas first got together. Matilda had broken off with her long-time boyfriend because they shared no common interests, no real communication. She was arts; he was computers. But with Leonidas, she could discuss classical Chinese poetry and the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky. I remember when she first introduced me to him, two autumns ago, in the first flushes of excitement at their relationship.

It didn’t last. Matilda’s version is that they had no connection at a deeper level; Leonidas’ is that she talked endlessly about, and with, her old boyfriend. Both are likely true. Now Leonidas is a dashing bachelor once more, and Matilda is back together with the ex, complaining again that they have nothing in common. But he loves her, and she clearly loves him.

Of course, there’s a whole back-story to that relationship itself, with twists, turns and a lost love, all worthy of Matilda’s novel. But it’s not for here.