China’s Leftover Women: What its really like being Unmarried at 30


A 'leftover woman' in the SK-II ad

A ‘leftover woman’ in the SK-II ad

 By: Yuan Ren/Beijing

As I turn 30, I am left wondering what it means to be a Chinese woman – and a well educated one at that – entering her third decade. One thing is for sure: if like me, you’re unmarried at 30, your life “is over”.

Just last weekend, taking a cab in Beijing with two single female friends, our driver went off on one about how it’s “game over” – “wan le” – for single women and men at 30. For women though, it’s just really over, he said. Funnily enough I didn’t feel like giving him a tip.

No surprises there, given more than 90 per cent of women marry before 30 in China. Single at 27 and you’re a “leftover woman”; single at 30 – well, you’re as good as dead.

The first time I heard such a comment was in 2008, when I was 22 and fresh out of British university. At the time 25 had seemed far off, not to mention 30. But my auntie still warned me of its dangers: “If you are a 30-year-old unmarried woman in China, life’s over. You’ll forever be a spinster”.

Yikes.

So as I enter spinsterhood then, it’s comforting to know that questions like ‘hair up or down for a lunch date’ as well as pensive (or frivolous) thoughts like ‘will our children be short if I married this guy’ still naturally occupy my mind, (alongside reminders to exercise and never miss a work deadline).

But while I’m stressing about these things, Facebook and WeChat (a popular social media app in China) tell me my friends are busy organizing play dates, mortgages, and of course, weddings.

A woman’s early twenties in China are considered her most attractive. It’s also when a woman is most “tender” (implying that dating is basically a man eating steak) according to my 24-year-old female friend Zhao, fresh back in town from a Master’s degree in Vancouver.

Zhao tells me that even girls her age are experiencing marriage anxiety; their parents worry they’ll miss the chance of finding a suitable boy before they’re past their prime.

I remember my own mother suggesting that I learn a new musical instrument when I was 25, because “boys like girls with musical talent”. Wow, I thought. And what about all the maths I know, mum? No response there.

I’m regularly asked today if I’m stressed that I’m still unmarried, or if I just don’t plan to ever get married. The idea that I would wait is hard to understand for many Chinese people.

But apocalyptic references to single life at 30 don’t really hit a nerve with me: I’ve heard the same remarks so many times I know I what to expect, and I’ve learned not to take it personally. Among well-educated circles, so-called “leftover women” are very common now; the bad news is that 30 is just the new 27.

For me, it’s the vicious attack on single Chinese women that really smarts. If you look at the latest SK-II ad on Leftover Women, which aims to break the stigma around single women, close family is usually where the most hurtful jabs fire.

Just last weekend, taking a cab in Beijing with two single female friends, our driver went off on one about how it’s “game over” – “wan le” – for single women and men at 30. For women though, it’s just really over, he said. Funnily enough I didn’t feel like giving him a tip.

No surprises there, given more than 90 per cent of women marry before 30 in China. Single at 27 and you’re a “leftover woman”; single at 30 – well, you’re as good as dead.

The first time I heard such a comment was in 2008, when I was 22 and fresh out of British university. At the time 25 had seemed far off, not to mention 30. But my auntie still warned me of its dangers: “If you are a 30-year-old unmarried woman in China, life’s over. You’ll forever be a spinster”.A still from the ad

A still from the ad

Just last month, after a minor disagreement with my father, he tossed out this charming line: “Looks like women who are over a certain age and unmarried develop temper issues.”

But however shocking this might seem, it’s just the tip of the iceberg compared to what other women go through. My family is pretty easy going – relatively speaking. For so many women, familial harassment can be relentless and abusive. Not to mention boring and repetitive (the whole ‘leftover’ argument has been going on for too long). The fact that “leftover” women actually signal social and economic progress is rarely mentioned. Anxiety is all the hype.

But how much easier do unmarried women in their thirties have it in the UK? While the judgements are lot more subtle and silent compared to Asia, I would argue that plenty of stereotyping and prejudice still exists. If you Google “percentage of unmarried women in the UK at 30”, and the first phrase that autocompletes in the search box is “thirty, single and depressed”. Nice.

 

I remember a British male colleague once describing his Saturday night as spent: “in a room full of single women in their thirties”. His disdain was clear for these desperate, sad, Bridget Joneses. In China, unmarried women at 27 are depicted as “picky” due to being over-educated and they’re told flat-out it’s not acceptable; while single British women in their thirties get bitched about behind their backs.

Take American writer Meg Jay’s 2014 popular book Why 30 is not the new 20. It argued that finding the right partner in your twenties is crucial, since the pool rapidly shrinks in your late 20s. Statistically, women ( especially in China) are far more limited for choice than at 25, which is no good if you don’t believe in polygamy.

“Catching” the right man while you’re still young – a popular Chinese mentality – doesn’t seem so ridiculous in this context.

My younger self was averse to being helped to navigate this pool of “choice”. Traditional ‘match-making’, the way young people in China still meet their spouses today, seemed against my principles. Now, I welcome family and friends’ “introductions” because it’s access to a more diverse network and operates in a modern way. It’s not dissimilar to online dating, but with a human intermediate who knows you.

Women celebrating Chinese New Year
Women celebrating Chinese New Year CREDIT: FIONA HANSON/PA WIRE

Today’s me is more open to tradition, to new ideas, and even suggestions from relatives whose opinions I still – largely – ignore. I will at least listen when my aunt tells me I’ll need someone to take care of me, and agree she has point – if a highly pragmatic one.

My twenties taught me why certain considerations are particularly pronounced in China: society strictly relies on offspring to be all hands-on-deck. I have emptied urine bottles of my grandparents countless times in hospital without a second thought. Family is family.

But filial duties aside, today’s me want to lie that I’m 27 not 30 because comments such as: “Even boys who are older than you want wives younger than you” are hard to swallow – no matter how much I tell myself it isn’t personal or meant maliciously.

What bothers me more is that Western-educated women like my friend Zhao so readily accepts the erosion of their youth and liberty without batting an eyelid. When I prompt her, she responds wide-eyed and wondering: “But that’s just the way it is.”

It’s even harder when such discrimination thrives in the workplace. A friend in HR at a China government-owned company says there are certainly “reservations” when hiring unmarried women of my age, due to the “lack of stability” that comes with family.

My twenties turned out very differently to what I imagined – not to say that it’s better or worse. Did I want to be married by 30? I genuinely can’t remember, but I do remember wanting to chair meetings in power suits.

What I should enjoy at nearly 30 is the ability to say what I want – without being called too ambitious, too manly or too idealistic. I want to enjoy going to a wedding without hearing “and when will you be getting married?”.

Maybe I will marry soon; maybe I won’t. But one thing’s for certain – we Chinese women have a long way to go before we arrive at where we wish we could be.

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