“Do you have a boyfriend?”
No, no I do not. And as soon as I hear that first question, I prepare to answer the predictable string of inquiries to come, most of which revolving around whether I plan on finding one or how I intend to do so. Within my first few weeks in China, I lost count of how often I was asked about my relationship status or how worried I was about finding a boyfriend in China. To put it simply, it’s really not on my list of priorities, but it was something that was almost always mentioned whenever I met – and continue to meet – someone new. Maybe it would have been easier to explain to myself why people seemed so curious if the questions were tainted with an attitude of “why is this woman working when she’s old enough to be married and have a toddler hanging from each arm?” That wasn’t the case though.
Admittedly, these questions aren’t exactly new – I encounter them in the United States and even from other Westerners here – but there were stark differences in how I was asked and who was doing the asking. What was most surprising to me was the fact that the people more likely to ask were the Chinese women I met. As I mentioned already, I was expecting elderly businessmen to be the ones asking. I thought I would face a situation where it would be easy to identify the people who questioned my involvement in business and I could step forward and do that whole “do twice as well to be thought of as half as good” thing. At first, I wasn’t entirely sure how to interpret a situation where it was predominantly the women who were asking me questions about my personal life. Seeing an opportunity to use that lovely liberal arts degree and think about a situation critically, I started paying more attention.
I’d like to say I figured out all the social dynamics and so I can tell you what it is that makes China work, but I didn’t. Of course I didn’t. What I did realize, however, is that there is still an expectation that the women stay home and take care of the kid while the father works. What originally caused me some confusion was that I was surrounded by female employees, but I was forgetting the other factors: those women in the offices I met with were usually single. The ones who weren’t single had a whole house full of extended family to take care of any children. The women asking me about relationships were those who were only planning to work in their job until they started a family. Thinking back, I realized I had never been asked those questions from women who had a family and were still working – they obviously didn’t consider it an “either/or” situation.
Even once I started seeing more of the expectations many of these women had for their own lives, it was still difficult or me to wrap my mind around, however. I blame it on my own bias. I know few women who would be willing to become housewives, and I spent a good portion of my life judging those women who did desire such a thing. While my opinions changed over time thanks to a greater understanding of just how exhausting raising a kid can be, it was still difficult to adjust to an environment where the predominant view was that being a housewife was the most desirable option for a young woman. Thankfully, it was an adjustment that didn’t require me getting used to being questioned about whether or not I belonged in a meeting or looking over important documents.