Monthly Archives: October 2011

Where have all my sisters gone?

The mystery of few foreign women living in China explained
As I embark on a second year here in China, I often take a look around me and wonder why I as a Western woman am so underrepresented here.Of the twenty foreign English language teachers working this semester at my university,there are only two of us women, and even then, my fellow female teacher is originally from Nanjing but is now a citizen of New Zealand. Other foreign female teachers I have worked with have also left and returned to their home countries, usually due to unhappiness, loneliness and lack of fulfillment here.Meanwhile, many of my male counterparts have seemingly lived happily here for several years. True- I know it isn’t always a bed of roses for the Western men here but there are still more of them around here. This phenomenon has me and others often scratching our heads wondering why China is perceived as a haven for so many Western men but simultaneously is such a hardship for Western women.
I have heard several thoughts and ideas on this. One was from a Chinese student who occasionally helps me with errands and small tasks.She thought it might be because Western women are not as adventurous as Western men. I also have heard that it could be because we don’t have a lot of the comforts of home- such as cooking ingredients and cooking utensils and make-up.I myself have lamented many times to the point that it’s even comical how impossible it is to buy clothes here especially for a woman of my size. Looking for bras, underwear, and jeans is not even worth my time (In Hong Kong last year, a Guess? store employee suggested I try on men’s jeans). Getting used to the public restrooms here, in particular the squatty potties, is not easily done by all women or men for that matter. It took me an entire month last year before I ventured into one the squat toilet stalls and admittedly it is sometimes a lot to stomach. But in spite of the occasional frustration with lack of clothing options, limitation with food ingredients, and the bathroom situation here, I really have not found it to be a hardship living in this part of China in this day and age. It would be a different story if I lived in a rural area but I live in a very modern, progressive city with a public transportation system that puts that of Seattle, where I used to live, to shame. Living in Nanjing even 10 years ago would have been different but now I really can find a lot of my home comforts and I hardly feel like I am a pioneer women trying to survive in the Wild West. Surely there must be other reasons why Western women are underrepresented here.
Dating here in China might be a tricky issue for single Western women. Indeed this is a new realm that I am adventuring into myself this year and experiencing its challenges. Many of us Western women see our Western brothers show up here in China and within what seems like a week, have a cute Chinese girlfriend by their side. Where can we meet prospective mates other than at our workplaces and Western bars ? That’s not to say that some Western women are not open to dating Chinese men. That is however a lot less common than Western men together with Chinese women. Why is it so uncommon? Blogger Jocelyn Eikenburg, an American women living in China with her Chinese husband and indeed an expert on matters of love and relationships in China attributes this anomaly to some negative stereotypes- such as the unfair geeky portrayal of Asian men in movies. Other reasons could stem from difference in family traditions and expectations Chinese men’s families have for their sons and that Western women may be seen as too modern and progressive. Many Chinese families still hold views that would be conceived as old fashioned now in the West- such as a couple not living together until they get married.
Indeed there are challenges for a Western woman who wants to date here but then again, Chinese women are also experiencing these challenges. More and more Chinese women are getting married later while some also pursue careers over family. A new Chinese acquaintance told me that there is a name for such women- Sheng nu- which means “Left-aside woman”, a term for very well educated women who are financially stable and very accomplished in their careers but are too old or too picky to find a husband and start a family (this is how it was described and explained to me). Also, as far as the difficulties go for dating- whether you’re a Western woman, Western man or Chinese woman or man, don’t most people the world over lament how difficult it is to find a mate and date, no matter where they live? I seem to remember complaining with a girlfriend a few years back that Washington DC was a terrible city for dating and then hearing girlfriends in London complain of the same thing!
But back to the challenges facing Western women living in China. Some of us find it difficult to develop friendships with Chinese- especially Chinese women. My greatest challenge in this factor is my lack of Chinese language skills. Recently I have made some wonderful Chinese friends. However, these friendships are with people who speak English fluently and also have an understanding of the US and my cultural background.Friendships with Chinese people with limited English skills seem very superficial. Of course that’s no one’s fault. Slowly but surely I am meeting more Chinese people and have the odd opportunity here and there to practice my Chinese. As for other Westerners, there are a lot of us around. Meeting other Western women is difficult though if you consider the very problem that we are underrepresented.
Dealing with concerns in the workplace and in daily life in China means a careful balance of patience, charm and assertiveness. When it comes to problem solving,my observation of many Chinese is that they are non-confrontational and they want as little grief as possible. This means that a person you go to with a problem may likely not want to get involved and may try to refer you to someone else. Getting what you want as well as help on a problem requires a little bit of coaxing, apologizing as well as effusive thank-yous. However, this may backfire if you are perceived as too nice because then your problem will likely not be seen as urgent and you may likely be seen as a person who won’t make a big fuss if nothing is done right away. So I have taken the lead of some of my male colleagues and have carefully selected the times I make a stink. I don’t like to make a stink because it is not my way but sometimes it’s necessary. For example, last spring I hadn’t gotten my end of the semester pay after more than a week of turning in my grades while a male colleague got his pay right away. Similarly, I was told I couldn’t use the university’s van when I moved to the other campus even through my male colleagues had been offered this service when they moved. I finally got fed up with the rules magically changing on me when I asked for the same benefits and made a stink and even dared to ask if I was getting different treatment because I was a woman. Low and behold, my stink-making got me the moving van the next day as well as my pay. So I have learned here to be more assertive, a trait that doesn’t come easily to me. Some Western women may feel that they are not taken seriously enough and are the subject of sexism. So it’s understanding that this could be seen as a turn-off for many of my Western sisters and it maybe just another nail in the coffin for them here in China.
Friendly folks await foreign women who would like to seek adventure here in China

Depending on how one looks at it, there are some advantages to being a woman here. Although most of my fellow foreign teachers at work are men, I find that sometimes students are pleasantly surprised to have a foreign female teacher walk in on the first day of class or attend an organized speaking or cultural event. Maybe we are perceived sometimes as kinder, gentler and more patient. Many Chinese families,for example, prefer to have female native English speakers tutor their children in English on the weekends. For example, last week I got a phone call from a student whose teacher was looking for a tutor for his 11 year old daughter. I told him that although I wouldn’t have time to tutor the professor’s daughter,they should ask the foreign affairs office to send out an email to the other teachers. Soon after I got a polite email from the students thanking me for the suggestion but his professor was really only looking for a female teacher and I was the only option at our university. So interestingly enough, being a woman seems to be an appealing factor to families because we may be seen as gentler and more benign. This is not to say that my Western male counterparts are not gentle and patient but women seem to be seen as more approachable here.

As a woman here, I also feel incredibly safe. At times I stay out late at night, take buses and taxis and walk on streets by myself(Mom, don’t worry, it’s really fine). Sometimes I go to little hole in the wall restaurants to order dumplings. Maybe I’ll get curious looks but nothing where I feel threatened. I feel that my belongings as well as my personal safety are always in check.Language is the only barrier to my safety here but as long as I have an address in Chinese for where I am going and have a phone and dictionary with me, I feel the world is my oyster and I can only discover new things.
It’s true that this is an incredible country to live in in this day and age. There are days I wake up, venture outside, walk around my neighborhood and just watch the show in front of me unfold. The everyday things I see still amuse and fascinate me. Curious looks and friendly children coming up to shake my hand still tickles me pink and leaves me feeling like a minor local celebrity. I sometimes can’t believe my luck in being here and wonder if other Western women who have toughed it out here feel the same way.
I will say that China is not for everyone- whether you are a man or a woman. But if you have a sense of adventure, want to learn to be more patient and assertive, want to get a taste of what it’s like to be a minor celebrity and see things on a daily basis that inspire and awe you, it’s well worth it. I hope that other Western women will come join the ranks here and find out for themselves what China has to offer.
What are your thoughts on why Western and foreign women are underrepresented here in China?
Do you have an inspiring story or tale of living in China or abroad as a woman? As a man?