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The Other News Round-Up: Money for Nothing

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you an offbeat look at some of the lesser-reported happenings in South Africa and further afield. This week: partners for hire.

It’s easy to forget, when the country is in flames, about the smaller, everyday troubles that still plague the human heart. Like why, despite the fact that we need them every single day, we never seem to be able to put our keys in a sensible place. The cruel irony that is misplacing one’s spectacles: you can’t see them, even if they’re two metres away from you.

Or what is apparently an ongoing annual trial for many young people: the droves of pesky aunties who still nag about when they are going to get married when they go home for the holidays.

Luckily, there’s a solution: partners for hire.

I want to state at the outset I took one for the team writing this. I’m working in a public place, so every time I flip over to the myriad “rent a boyfriend” pages I’m scouring, I’m subjected to pitying looks from passers-by. It’s only the last shred of pride that stops me from yelling after them, “It’s research, dammit!” (You’re welcome.)

Anyway, Reuters reported this week that a young woman had dashed the hopes of her would-be mother-in-law by blogging about the experience of playing rent-a-girlfriend. Zhao Yuqing, a recent law graduate in China, was intrigued by the host of websites and mobile apps popping up to solve intergenerational conflicts that come to the fore over the Lunar New Year, she said, and wanted to try posing as someone’s girlfriend to see what it was like.

I guess maybe, like me, she didn’t watch the 2010 romcom Zu Ge Nv You Hui Jia Guo Nian (a.k.a. Rent a Girlfriend Home for New Year).

Snicker if you must, but my heart broke a little for the bloke’s mother, who was excited enough to present the “couple” with a red blanket to celebrate their union. The colour red symbolised celebration and joy. She seemed crestfallen rather than angry when she found out about the deception, saying only: “I didn’t know they were cheating me. I’m over 50. I don’t understand what these young people get up to, but I wasn’t angry.” She said she was moved by the blog. Not moved enough to stop lecturing him about getting married, though, said her son.

If this seems to you like a situation in which, I don’t know, everything might go wrong, then you and I are on the same page.

For starters, it would be so easy to get caught out. Sean Lee Baker told of his experience as a rented boyfriend – and how his family and friends knew immediately.

We first met her friends, but they saw through our ruse within a minute or two,” he wrote on Al Jazeera.

Then there were her parents – lovely people who took less than five minutes to work out that something was amiss. ‘He is too tall and too handsome for you,’ her mother said. ‘You need a shorter and more plain man’. It seemed a bit harsh.”

But desperation is an interesting thing, because rent-a-boy/girlfriend has exploded in popularity. Agreements are drawn up, for example: no alcohol, no kissing, no sharing of beds. A frequent condition: eat whatever your “in-laws” give you. For these small courtesies, one might get paid as much as 10,000 yuan per day during the festive period.

In perspective, this is more than the average monthly household income.

It’s not only the festive period that capitalises on the stigma of solitude. For enough schmaltz to fry 10,000 family dinners, cast your eye over this Valentine’s Day advert, featuring sensitive lads just waiting for you to heal their heartbreak.

And if you think this is just a Chinese phenomenon, or just geared at romance, you’d be wrong. People going the gratis route and joining Meetup are way behind. You can make money off your friend skills, people. suggests abandoning the traditional route of doing other people kindnesses because they’re your friend or, heck, just because they’re a human. That’s very outdated.

Perhaps there’s a wedding coming up for someone you know and you were invited with a guest, maybe you want to show off to someone. No matter what the reason,” it explains cheerfully.

Weddings and proms are the most common reason why people are renting boyfriends, but there are tons of other reasons why as well. Here are some of the other reasons why girls or guys have rented [friends].”

These reasons include if you need help moving, if someone at work is annoying you, or “[t]o show off. Perhaps you have a business party coming up and want to show off to your co-workers.” (I’ll bear that in mind for the next office party, eds. Although I’m still not 100% sure what would qualify as impressing one’s colleagues. “Look, I have a friend!” Maybe set the bar a little higher.)

RentAFriend operates worldwide, and in South Africa promises to find you a buddy chop-chop near your location. Friends offer services as diverse as bowling, photography and comedy club. They’re also available for “Teaching Manners (eh?), Baking, and Wingman/Wingwoman”. Winning 10 out of 10 for tact, the site also promises “Friends with Disabled, Friends with Seniors”. “Sightseeing, Prom Dates and Religious” are on offer. The main advert shows young, joyful people eating popcorn and seeing sights, laughing merrily. This life could be yours! Joining is free, but hiring an actual friend starts at $10 an hour. The website is very clear: it offers platonic friendship only.

I suppose one shouldn’t find it strange, when professional cuddling is a thing. But has solitude really become a swearword? Are we really buying fake friends? Call me old-fashioned, but I still don’t understand this world we have created, where we believe more in what our lives look like than what they have become. DM


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