- Taobao, China's version of Amazon, advertises "virtual girlfriends"
- For $3 day, you can hire a boyfriend or girlfriend to talk on the phone or chat online
- Psychologist says this appeals to men who lack confidence to enter a real-life relationship
When I first came across a "virtual lover" service on e-commerce site Taobao, China's version of Amazon, I thought it was hype.
For an average of 20 yuan ($3) per day, it claimed you could hire a boyfriend or girlfriend to talk on the phone or chat online to make you feel like you're in love.
The service varies but it includes wake-up calls, text and voice messages, phone calls and goodnight wishes.
As the largest online shopping platform in China, Taobao vendors sell anything they can think of as long as it's not illegal.
Usually I would be skeptical about such a service but I was drawn to a comment left by one "virtual girlfriend" enthusiast.
"It was awesome -- she shared my happiness and cheered me up when I was down. She has a beautiful voice, and an intelligent mind... I so don't want to leave her."
This glowing review got me interested in having my own "Miss Right" on my smartphone. I contacted the Taobao vendor and she asked if I had any preferences.
Options included "doll-like girls" and "mature women," while ladies had the choice of different types of "boyfriends," including "comforting man," "funny lad," and "understanding uncle."
I said that I'd like the girl to be cheerful but not too "doll-like."
Then she asked for my WeChat number, an instant messaging app with 450 million users, and told me there was no refund if I changed my mind.
'Journey of love'
It wasn't long before I got my first voice message from my own virtual girlfriend, called Maopi, outlining the terms of our relationship: "Hello, this voice message is to prove that I'm not a boy, nor a robot. Also, please leave out anything erotic in our conversations. I'm very much looking forward to our journey of love," she said in a business-like voice.
She told me she was a college student majoring in design, liked painting and hated pineapples, although she didn't know why.
Then she briefly lectured me on some ground rules of the game: No private information, no photos and no video chat.
Normally, I would much rather have a conversation with my date across a dinner table but her voice was intriguing and I spent a few hours chatting with her about food, music, relationships and our favorite TV series.
A virtual girlfriend may sound seedy but psychologist Paul Yin says this kind of service appeals to men who don't have the confidence to enter a real-life relationship.
"They can gain confidence and feel loved through this experience and there's no risk in getting frustrated from setbacks," he told CNN.
"Many young men can't find enough courage to approach girls they find interesting because they fear to be rejected."
I also wondered whether a person could really make a living from being someone's virtual boyfriend or girlfriend and asked Maopi to share her side of our virtual love story.
She said people sign up with her for different reasons: Some feel lonely and want to have someone to talk to, some seek comfort after breaking up with lovers, and many just sign up out of curiosity.
"I've had some quite dedicated 'lovers' who would sign up for months just to chat with me," she said.
She said business had been good since she started working as a virtual girlfriend in July. However, she said she couldn't remember how much money she made. For her, the job is more about hearing different stories.
The next morning, I woke up to find 24 unread messages. It was my girlfriend's attempt to wake me up.
We exchanged a few more voice and text messages but it didn't feel long before my day-long "virtual love affair" came to an end.