Every time Benjamin Zhang talks about marriage, he uses the following words in abundance: "job," "duty," "my parents," "problem," and "urgent".
"The most urgent matter for me now is to find a spouse. I'm not young anymore. I see my peers getting married one by one and having kids, and I have nothing. I just feel very dejected," said the 31-year-old native of the northeastern city of Harbin -- who also admits he loves children and hopes to have his own one day. "When I'm married and have a child, I'd have done my job as a son. That's most important for me."
Benjamin shares the anxiety of millions other bachelors in China, where it's almost a given that people of a marriageable age set off to start a family.
But unlike most of them, Benjamin is looking for a lesbian wife.
Benjamin is gay, and he's trying to obtain a xinghun - a new Chinese term coined to describe a "cooperative marriage" between a gay man and a lesbian woman. The marriage, essentially, is a sham: both the husband and wife continue to have their own same-sex partners and may not even live together.
Experts and members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community say that the fact LGBT people still feel compelled to conform to social norms, marry someone of the opposite sex and bear a child proves that they still have their work cut out for them in trying to change traditional societal attitudes and eliminate discrimination against homosexuality.
For decades, closeted gay men have married unsuspecting straight women to hide their homosexuality. Zhang Beichuan, a professor at Qingdao University's Medical School who researches gay issues, estimated that there are 20 million gay and bisexual men in China, of whom around 80 percent have married straight women. This means that around 16 million heterosexual women in China today are married to gay men. Typically experienced behind closed doors, the issue was thrust into the spotlight last June, when a 31-year-old bride from Sichuan Province jumped to her death after discovering that her husband was gay.
Not all gay people in China are satisfied with this arrangement. "It's very irresponsible. You know you can't have a normal sexual relationship with the woman. You're hurting her," said Benjamin, whose parents and colleagues, unaware of his sexuality, have tried to match him with about 20 girls over the years.
"I'll agree to go for the blind date, and I'll come home saying she's not suitable. Every time I reject a girl, I feel like I'm helping her, because I ... there's nothing I can do," he sighed.
Xinghun is seen as a less hurtful and an increasingly popular way of dealing with societal and parental expectations for LGBT people to enter into heterosexual marriages. Chinagayles.com, one of China's earliest and largest online portals for xinghun match-making, has more than 160,000 registered members and claims to have successfully matched nearly 20,000 couples since its establishment in 2005. As in other social networks, individuals upload personal details like their occupation, monthly income, educational qualification, and hukou status.
"If you ask me whether I feel helpless, yes, of course I do. But what can I do? If I got together with my male partner, what would my parents do? They are very traditional. They won't be able to accept it," he admitted. "I also want them to be able to tell their friends that their son is also a 'normal' man, is married and has a family."
The pressure from his parents became so overwhelming that Benjamin ultimately moved to Malaysia.
The cultural concept of "continuing the bloodline" is of paramount importance in Chinese culture. Mencius, the ancient philosopher, argued that of the three ways a son can be disloyal to his parents, the worst is to have no offspring; in the Chinese language, to curse that someone dies without a son remains a strong profanity.
The One-Child Policy in China further complicates matters.
"I'm the only son in the family. I have to carry on the family line. I have to answer to my family," said Benjamin. "Sometimes I'll wonder, if my parents had two kids, what would happen? But because they only have me, if I selfishly insist on maintaining my gay lifestyle and remain single, I feel like I'm letting them down, that I'm hurting them."
Patrick Cai, 27, remembers how pained his parents were when he came out to them two years ago.
"They refused to believe it. They broke down and cried so hard and were so hysterical and flustered that it's almost like they just heard their loved one had suddenly experienced a major disaster," said the Zhejiang native, who has a boyfriend of three years. "They're more rational now, but at that time I really didn't expect their reaction to be that intense."
It doesn't help that in China, homosexual content in movies and on websites is usually censored. But Geng Le, CEO of danlan.org, China's largest gay website, said there's already greater room and scope for the discussion of LGBT issues and same-sex marriage online than off in China, because the government's control of the internet is weaker than that of newspapers. A poll this February by Sina.com, a popular news portal which also runs China's Twitter-like Weibo service, showed that a majority of respondents support same-sex marriage. QQ.com, an instant messaging site, conducted a similar survey, and more than 90 percent of the respondents said yes to the legalization of same-sex marriage.
A common refrain, however, among LGBT activists is that even the well-educated, web-savvy urbanites who profess to be understanding towards homosexuals are in fact not all that accepting.
"Many parents say it's the personal choice of those people, but when it happens to their children, it's immediately a big no-no for them," said Dian Dian, a graduate student in Hong Kong and a volunteer at the Beijing-based lesbian, bisexual women and transgendered rights group Common Language.
"For the families of many LGBT people, the heterosexual nature of marriage is non-negotiable. They are thus expected to marry someone of the opposite sex to give themselves 'family and social cover,'" said Rebecca Karl, associate professor of East Asian studies at New York University.
"Most of the gay couples I know, even if their parents know that they're gay and are perfectly ok with that, experience pressure to have a formal marriage to a member of the opposite sex that that results in a child," Karl explained.
"Many parents say it's the personal choice of those people, but when it happens to their children, it's immediately a big no-no for them."
Dian Dian is one such example.
"My uncle thinks I'll 'change' one day. He very clearly told me that I can date a girl, but one day, I have to get married and have my own family, by which he means a heterosexual marriage," said the 24-year-old.
Dian Dian's mother, on the other hand, has never objected to her daughter's homosexuality. But even she thinks homosexuals don't absolutely need to marry.