Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Leaders Urge me to get Married

Every culture has its socially accepted small talk topics of conversation.  In the USA, we tend to discuss the weather.  In China, polite small talk questions that Americans often feel are too personal are asked by complete strangers on the train.

How old are you?
What is your job and what is your salary?
Are you married?
Do you have children?
How much did your cell phone cost?

In China I have had several conversations with male leaders telling me that I should get married soon.  I can't tell if this topic of conversation is socially accepted small talk or is a type of patriarchy of father knows best; however, it does reflect Chinese values where a woman's social position is directly related to her marriage status.  With my female teacher colleagues, I have not felt the pressure to find a husband nor is marriage or finding a boyfriend a typical topic of conversation.  My curious students who have few unmarried female role models often ask, "When are you getting married or why aren't you married?  Don't you want children?" 

At official banquets that are usually made up of male leaders where token Chinese female guests are rarely seen, my younger fellow volunteers often get teased with "We'll help you find a Chinese boyfriend," which receives a polite smile and a joking reply, "I'm too tall for Chinese men."  Are the dating habits and future wedding goals of a female colleague a socially accepted topic of small talk?  In America we would never discuss this with the dean of a department and if given dating or marriage advice by our boss we would think how inappropriate.

Every Monday afternoon, during the 10 minute break, I sit in the teacher's lounge and practice my Chinese.  There are only two of us, my Kung Fu teacher from last semester and me.  He is in his late 50's and is the dean of the P.E. department.  Can you guess what we talk about?  Somehow the conversation moves towards marriage and boyfriends. 

He says, "You should get married." 

I reply, "All the men in our city who are older than me are already married with children, and if there was a single male I doubt he would want a wife who has a PhD in chemistry." 

"Yeah yeah," he nods in agreement.  "That is true.  There is a woman in the P.E. department who is 30 years old and has a PhD.  It is not impossible but hard for her to find a husband.  Maybe in a bigger city you can find a husband."   

(I have spoken to many Chinese women who fear getting higher degrees because it will make them less desirable and make it harder for them to find a husband.)

We have this conversation every Monday.  Maybe it is a socially accepted topic of conversation in Chinese, but then with a different dean I also have had long English conversations about the pros and cons of finding a Chinese husband versus an American one.  He sits me down regularly and tells me that my next priority after Peace Corps should be finding a husband.  "You're not getting any younger," he says.  "Women's biological clocks are ticking.  You want children right?" 

I don't think in this instance it is just polite small talk.  It is more of fatherly advice where he is concerned and knows what is best for my future.

I wonder, "Why is it the male leaders who are putting pressure on me to get married?"  I find it curious that it isn't women who are pressuring me.  I would have first assumed that peer pressure would come from one's female peers.  Instead, it seems like the pressure is coming from the patriarch.  Why does it matter so much to male leaders whether or not I get married?  Are unmarried women somehow a threat or abnormal?  Is it seen as the male's duty to make sure there is harmonic balance in society where all females become wives?

I am probably reading too much into these finding a husband conversations with men who are twice my age; however, by observing Chinese culture where a person's marriage status has turned into a socially acceptable small talk type of conversation where instead of having conversations about my thoughts and opinions, we are having conversations about finding a husband,  we can see that as a female I am reduced to the status of single or married.  This shows how important one's marriage status is to one's gender identity in China receiving more respect married rather than as a spinster.  This seemingly innocent socially acceptable topic of conversation about finding a husband reflects Chinese values where having a family is extremely important.

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