Monday, October 10, 2016

Leftover at 27?

You would think that in this, the seventeenth year of the new millennium when the United States will soon decide on whether they get their first female president, strong, independent, smart and successful women can choose to live their lives on their own terms. But in the largest country in the world, any Chinese woman over the age of 27 who is still single is referred to as sheng nu, or leftover woman. With all the rights that women everywhere have fought so hard for and won, it’s disheartening that so much of society still thinks that if you’re not married, you’re doing something wrong.

I recently spent an idyllic Sunday morning walking through Shanghai’s People’s Park, a sprawling urban park right in the heart of the metropolis. Admiring denizens intent on practising their tai chi moves and improving their folk dancing prowess, I came upon a sight I had heard about but not expected so early in the morning. Dozens of what were parents had set up chairs and umbrellas, upon which they had written notes with particulars of their offspring. This is the Shanghai marriage market, held on weekends where parents hope to make a match for their child. In all likelihood, the said child probably has no inkling of what is going on.

Raised in a conservative Chinese family in an Asian country, I understand all too well the pressures facing single women. No matter how well educated they may be and what great jobs they may have, they still cause their parents sleepless nights the longer they remain unmarried. Even in this day and age. The cause is probably a combination of a few factors.

The role of family is integral within Asian culture. We do our best to uphold the family name, honor our parents and be dutiful children. We avoid doing anything to bring shame to the family. Although many parents, no matter how educated and sophisticated, will not admit it, having a daughter remain “on the shelf” is somehow still considered shameful in many Asian cultures. Relatives, peers and the rest of society rub it in that their daughter is a spinster, perhaps unwanted and somehow missing out. To many parents, a slowly ageing, unmarried daughter represents loss of face.

Perhaps the more altruistic reason parents want to see their daughter married and settled is their hope that there will be someone to take care of her in her later years, be it her husband or children. I know that that was what my own mother hoped for me, despite my having gone through a bad marriage and being more than able to look after myself and my son.

Among my circle of friends, a surprisingly significant number are single women. Some may have faced pressure when we were younger to find a man and settle down, but I do know that the majority of them had the support of loving parents who respected their choice to remain single.

Initially, when I was confronted with the sight of so many of these parents in the park trying to market their unmarried children, I must admit that I was amused. Who were all these people, I thought, who would hawk and peddle their children like fruit or trinkets?

The more I find out about these marriage markets, the more my heart goes out to all these parents who obviously just want the best for their children, and go about trying to match them in the best way they know how, without the knowledge of the internet,, tinder and whatnot.

I also ache for all these still-young women in China who face tremendous pressure not only from their parents but even the government in trying to get them married. Concerned with creating a so-called “high quality” workforce that can compete in the global marketplace, the government may have encouraged the use of the phrase sheng nu or even coined it to coerce educated women out of the workforce and into matrimony and motherhood. With falling birth rates, young women are frightened into believing that if they delay marriage, no one will want to marry them at all.

In the old days, parents got together and decided the fates of their children, making matches for them that suited the needs of everyone. A woman either got married and had children, or remained a spinster or old maid, to be pitied and disdained. We may have come a long way since those days, but sometimes, it just feels like nothing has changed at all.

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