Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Women in China. It is difficult to generalize about any group of people in any society, and this is especially true about China. China is a very, very diverse culture and an even more diverse society. There are the very very rich, and the very, very poor. Given the varied socioeconomic strata, anything I could say about women (or any other group of people) would be more or less true depending on which group those women belong to. That being said, there are several things one can observe about what life is like for women, which would be true for them because they are women.

I became aware of this issue before I came to China. During the years that I lived in Arizona, I noticed that women from Asia usually don't want to return to Asia. Of course I met men from Asia who didn't want to return either, but the feeling seemed to be much less intense on the part of men then women. Since I have come to China, I have noticed that most of the sea turtles are men. There are lots of men in China who return to China alone. Their wives or ex-wives choose to stay in Canada or the United States. I knew this was true before I moved to China, but I wasn't quite sure why it was true. Having been here for a year, I think I can identify several reasons.

First of all, China doesn't seem to have a strong tradition of chivalry like that which exists in western culture. The idea of equality in an economic sense has been in place in some measure since the founding of New China, because Mao said that "women hold up half the sky." But respect for women as people who should be protected just is not part of the social ethic. The first example that comes to mind is my experience with the tour I took with Linda and Ida last May, when the men who were operating the bus they rented actually threatened to beat them up if they didn't pay more than the amount they had originally agreed to. The lack of respect for women in China is very similar to the lack of respect for men in America. I believe this is why so many of the sea turtles are men. They get more respect here. But their wives feel greater respect in the West.

Another issue is cleanliness. Toilets are filthy. That isn't any more pleasant for men than it is for a women, but most of the time it isn't as big a deal for men. But no woman should have to put up with the kind filth that is a matter of course in most public facilities. And you have to use them, because many of the small restaurants and shops do not have toilets.

Then there is the issue of marriage. In China, as in other Asian cultures, there is a lot of pressure on women to get married. Because of this pressure, many women get into a situation that is not really good for them, because their families are pushing them to marry before they get too old. More and more career women are resisting this pressure, but it's not easy. And many, many women are separated from their children for long periods of time. I have never seen or heard of a daycare in China. Most children are cared for by their grandparents. Better grandparents than daycare, I suppose, but the down side to this is that it is far easier for parents to rationalize a lifestyle that includes very little contact with their own children.

Of course, I have generalized about Chinese women. But not all women in China are Chinese. Among foreign women, I have met several who seem to like it. Most of these are living in a foreign community on an expat salary. Another group of women who seem to like China is young women. There are many young women who come to China either as students or English teachers. I met one of them one evening as I was leaving the North Gate of my university. She was from England, and she was here teaching English in a kindergarten. She looked pretty forlorn as I heard her asking the security guard for directions. She was obviously quite lost. I told her to follow me, and I would lead her to where she needed to go. As we were going, I asked her how she liked China. She said, "I love it!" Perhaps the reason young people tend to like China is becuase there are so many young people here from all over the world. Another reason, perhaps, is that most of them come here for a short time to develop some language proficiency, or get a unique cultural experience, so it is easier for them to be philosophical about the things they may not like.

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