Translator: Nyoi-Bo Studio Editor: Nyoi-Bo Studio
In any case, he had to bear the consequences of his own decisions.
Steve kept the manul out of sheer stubbornness, but in all honesty, it didn’t bother him. He didn’t have to make any special arrangements for the manul permission when went out, unlike Li Du, who had to keep the six little ones happy wherever he went.
Li Du didn’t understand what market there could be in this small polar town, but he saw Steve and his entourage smiling and eager as if looking forward to a really interesting event.
By the time they got to the area where the fair was taking place, he guessed what it was.
There were crowds on the street, which answered Li Du’s unspoken question as to why the city streets were so empty. He knew now that the people were all gathering there.
The middle of the road was full of people who spilled over to both sides of it. The centerpiece of the fair was a group of beautiful young women in pageant dresses.
Steve got out of the car and smiled. “Welcome to the Vorkuta bride fair!”
“So this was your attraction to Vorkuta?”
Steve said, “Yes. Don’t you think it’s an eye-opening custom?”
Annual bride fairs were a newly established custom in several Russian cities. It was a fun opportunity for young women to show up and parade in their most dazzling attire, hoping to catch the eye of eligible bachelors.
That sounded a little disconcerting, with the local men flocking from all over the region to ogle the pretty young ladies. To the Western eye, it would seem like a ripe ground for gender discrimination and sexual harassment, but none of the spectators appeared to be bothered.
The annual event was held in Vorkuta in early May and attracted not only local residents but also people from surrounding towns.
Li Du had read about the local fair in the tour guide he perused on the plane when he was traveling to Vorkuta, but he didn’t expect to witness it, so he merely skimmed the paragraphs that mentioned it.
Steve knew he wasn’t familiar with this custom, so he told him, “Don’t you know? It’s the local annual carnival and one of the most colorful events out here in the far north.”
Li Du squinted at him and said, “I wasn’t aware we were going on a meet-Russian-women tour.”
Steve laughed. “Lighten up, Li. We’re only having a bit of fun.”
Vorkuta was once a penal colony, with poor conditions and poorer families. It was hard for people to get enough to eat, and even harder for them to find a suitable husband for their daughters.
Consequently, the bride fair came into being, and back then it wasn’t as benign as it was now.
Every year the local families took their daughters of marriageable age to the fair, where they paraded in their prettiest dresses, desperately hoping to catch a husband. Marriage was the only respectable career for a young woman from a good family, and the pressure to get married quickly and at a very young age was high, as it was almost a matter of survival.
By now, this tradition has changed a lot. Girls were no longer desperate to get married and had other goals such as higher education and career. Nevertheless, Russian women, especially in the provinces, were usually very family-oriented and most of them dreamed of finding a good husband.
The bride fair operated like a fast-moving mill of blind dates, where prospective couples would get to know each other for a few minutes, and had the option to continue the acquaintance if they liked each other.
Of course, like other large-scale events oriented at dating and marriage, the Vorkuta bride fair, too, attracted shady characters and unscrupulous people, who attempted to charge money for introducing shy bachelors to the “best quality” prospective brides.
With the event being a big tourist attraction, the local administration chose to turn a blind eye to its less savory aspects.
While it was chilly in Vorkuta in May, brides were mostly clad in skimpy, low-cut dresses of thin, clingy material. Some of the girls were actually wearing real wedding dresses, rented or borrowed from friends. Most of them sported elaborate hairdos and heavy layers of makeup.
Steve elbowed his way in, and Little Ford laughed and said, “Pick and choose, right? If we find a girl we like, we can wave a few hundred-dollar bills in front of her. The weather in the Arctic is cold and it would be nice to have a pretty lady around.”
Li Du shook his head. “You go ahead. I’ll just look around. If Sophie knew I was here, she would not let me get out of the house anymore.”
The Ford brothers sneered at him, “Yo, family man!”
Li Du looked around. In a large measure, the event resembled any open-air market, with people chatting and haggling.
Not long after their arrival, a blonde girl nearby struck up a conversation with a tall young man in an expensive suit with a gold watch on his wrist. She clearly had a knack for spotting rich bachelors and was not going to miss her chance.
Li Du was amazed at the rapidity of the proceedings.
In fact, behind all the fun and smiles, some girls came to the bride fair because their families were poor and their life was too hard. Despite the newly open possibilities for women in the modern era, finding a good husband was still considered the quickest and surest way out of poverty.
However, there was no guarantee that every man who attended the event was honest. Some of them were only interested in fooling around, and others were actually married already.
The event was so popular that people were squeezing through the crowd and elbowing each other. Someone pushed Li Du, and he frowned and said, “Hey, watch your step.”
The man paled and pointed at him. “Get lost!” he said.
Steve stopped Li Du, who was angry, and said, “Let them pass, Li. It seems they’re looking for a girl who received an expensive gift from a suitor and ran off with it.”
Li Du said, “Ha, that’s too bad.”
“Either way, it’s an interesting event. Maybe in a few years, it will no longer be the same,” said Steve.
Li Du kind of hoped so. With the increasing awareness of women’s rights, he couldn’t help but think that in a generation or two, young women would think it demeaning and degrading to look for a husband this way.
“It’s not just about feminism, either. It’s actually a lot more serious. The market is increasingly controlled by pimps, giving a cover to prostitution,” explained Little Ford.
He pointed out a few transactions to Li Du. Some girls were obviously prostitutes. The suitor would come up to them and after direct inquiry, both sides would exchange a few words. Then the man would give the girl some money, and they would leave together. After a while, the woman would come back and wait for her next client.
There were people who genuinely wanted to find a bride and had the best intentions. Others were looking for a trophy wife or even a short-term companion, thinking money entitled them to anything they felt like having.
Some girls couldn’t stand being ogled and sometimes groped that way, and would turn around and leave.
However, some men would not take no for an answer. Li Du saw a tall girl who was the target of a nasty-looking man. The girl was shaking her head and waving her hands, but the man kept pestering her and even grabbed her arm.
Li Du felt that this was going too far, so he stared at them with a frown, wondering what he had best do. When the bully turned around and found him looking, he shouted angrily, “Hey, yellow dog, go away, I have no bones here!”
When Li Du came to Russia, he found that racial discrimination was a real thing in that country as well, and the attitude towards Chinese people was often worse than in America.