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December 21, 2011

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Twin-city love and wedlock

CHINA'S population is more mobile than ever and that means more married couples live apart as "twin-city couples" facing special problems depicted in a popular TV drama "Twin-city Life." Zhang Qian tunes in.

When it comes to love and marriage, many people say absence makes the heart grow fonder and couples are supposed to yearn to be together, languishing when they are apart. But sometimes absence isn't all bad and there are definitely long-distance marriages that work as well as long-distance love affairs that fall apart.

In any case of separation, there are issues of loneliness, intimacy, communication and practical planning and coordination to be worked out. And in-laws.

The topic of long-distance or "twin-city" (shuang cheng) marriage is widely discussed these days since China's population is increasingly mobile and more and more couples are living apart, at least for a while. Sometimes dual careers keep couples apart, when women stay in one city to pursue their own career. Transport, telephones and Internet can narrow the distance and make it bearable, but there's nothing like looking straight into someone's eyes and holding hands.

A popular new TV drama "Shuang Cheng Shenghuo" ("Twin-city Life") explores the phenomenon through the adventures of one couple.

There are laughs, tears, anger and frustration, plenty of missed communication and lonely nights. There are choices to be made between pursuing personal satisfaction and being together. There are problems of managing extended families and putting up with nagging parents and in-laws who want them to be "proper" couples.

Shanghai Daily talks to a few twin-city couples, two married and one a romance that just broke up.

Together at last

Depending on the distance separating them and their finances, weekends and national holidays are much anticipated reunions. Some independent and pragmatic partners consider this state of affairs acceptable, while many more seem to struggle to get together and fret about the marriage and whether it can go the distance.

After three years' living apart, 29-year-old banker Jack Liu really enjoys going home, turning the key in the lock, seeing his wife's high heels at the side of the door and hearing her call to him from a back room. Sometimes he can smell dinner. And of course holding his wife in his arms beats cradling a telephone.

"The tough days are gone," says Liu who was joined in Shanghai six months ago by his wife who had been working for a real estate company in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province. She finally managed a personnel transfer. The two graduated together in 2008 and planned to stay in Shanghai but only Liu could find work and she had to find work elsewhere.

The TV series "Twin-city Life" features a couple that goes back and forth between Beijing, the hometown of one, and Shanghai, the hometown of another. They can't decide where to move and which in-laws to leave. For Liu and his wife, it was not difficult to decide to live apart, but the daily reality has been difficult for three years. They go back and forth between Shanghai and Changzhou as much as possible on weekends - it's an hour by high-speed rail - and they talk on the phone and chat online.

"We didn't think it a big deal at first but we found that saying good-bye was always so difficult and reminded us of the distance," Liu says. On Sunday nights they always take an hour's walk before one has to take the train.

"She said what a happy life it would be if we could walk together like this after dinner every night," Liu says. "It may be a common habit for many ordinary couples but it was an extravagant hope for us and that was frustrating."

For the past three years, Liu's wife was unsuccessful in finding work in Shanghai, but her company finally decided to open a Shanghai office.

"It was like winning the first prize in the lottery, and we were indescribably happy when we got the news. We always knew it would happen but didn't dare set a day. The day just came."

Can't leave mom

Absence doesn't always make the heart grow fonder, as 26-year-old investment advisor Trisha Hu found out recently. The Shanghai native fell in love with a successful businessman in Beijing while she was taking post-graduate courses there. After Hu graduated last year they commuted in a long-distance romance.

But Hu is very attached to her parents and they urged her to return to Shanghai and stay, looking for a Shanghai man to marry.

"I'm their only daughter; they have always protected and cherished me, so I just cannot leave them behind and pursue my own happiness," Hu says. Shanghai is where her heart is.

She urged her boyfriend to move to Shanghai, saying he would be successful anywhere, but he refused, saying he could not abandon his business network in Beijing and that starting all over in Shanghai would be too risky and costly for him, even for the woman he loved.

They agreed to carry on with their relationship despite the distance and at first took every opportunity to fly between cities.

But in a year, the time and distance had diluted their affection.

"I think knowing that we could never reach an agreement prevented us from investing too much in the long-distance romance from the beginning," says Hu. "I cannot convince myself to marry a man whom I hardly see and that one year of twin-city life was actually a cushion, so it didn't hurt too much when we broke up."

Not seeing her husband frequently isn't a big problem for 33-year-old public relations manager Vivian Dai who considers herself and her husband both very reasonable people.

She met her husband in Beijing when she was working there, but she didn't hesitate to move to Shanghai in late 2009 when she got a better job offer. Her husband works in the cultural exchange field and chose to stay in Beijing where there are more opportunities.

Beijing and Shanghai are not that far apart and they see each other at least two or three days a month; often there are business trips to the other city.

"I don't think there is a big difference between living in one city or two. With so much work pressure, many couples don't have much time for communication, even in the same city. That was the situation when we both lived in Beijing and worked late, and we were fine with it," Dai says. "We are just not the clingy type."

The couple held their wedding ceremony early this year and think the twin-city life is just fine.

The increased mobility of China's population gives people many more chances to meet and fall in love with people in different cities, and transport and technology bring people together to ease the loneliness.

But there's no substitute for sex and loneliness is a problem. Fidelity is an issue for some couples, while some are more open-minded and pragmatic.

Another problem is what to do when starting a family, how to manage a child's education and in which city a child will be registered - household registration (hukou) is an important issue in China and benefits like public education and health care are linked to it.

In some cases, couples remain apart for their careers' sake and grandparents care for the child. Which in-laws usually depends on which city has the best education system. But most couples give up the twin-city life when they become parents.

Remaining confident and upbeat about the marriage and the future is essential for a long-distance marriage, according to sociologist Gu Xiaoming of Fudan University.

"It's the choice you made for your life. If you cannot deal with it, you should not have chosen it in the first place. Or you can correct the choice."

Psychologist Xie Rong says that though being together is important to happiness, long-distance life doesn't necessarily end up in failure. Mutual trust, frequent and effective communication and joint goals in life can keep couples together regardless of distance, she says.

As he looks back on his life shifting between cities, Jack Liu observes that it really wasn't so difficult. Feeling support while apart and cherishing every moment together made powerful bonds and sweet memories.

"My wife now often complains that I don't cook as well today as I did during our reunions," Liu says. "I think the 'spiritual seasoning' perfected my cooking at the time."


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