Women in China
I thought perhaps it was a reflection on me that I found the behavior of young couples in China a bit abrasive. After all, there are so many people in Beijing, that means the number of clingy couples would also be on a high. So I left it for a few days and didn't really mention it - After all, me and Helen had much more interesting subjects to discuss! However, eventually I broke and I came up with some highly intelligible comment like 'Is it me or... are they? Well, you just wouldn't do that here! Not here - In England I mean, or Leeds in any case. Right?" Which Helen (luckily) was able to understand as my asking why so many men in Beijing felt the need to open every door for his girlfriend, carry her bag and stand in the middle of crowded streets hugging and kissing? And why do their perspective partners seem to encourage this behavior??!
On the night Helen and I went for hotpot we'd been walking on The Great Wall, so we looked windswept, cold and tired; I felt out of place in comparison with the 'Hello Kitty' army. Hotpot is a trendy meal out at the moment - so Helen informed me that a lot of first, second and third dates would be taking place within the walls of the Hotpot restaurant. In Chinese popular culture, the most important thing to establish on a first date is that you are in touch with the current fashion (I'm very glad that us British folk don't need to live up to these expectations!), so in comparison to England where you are encouraged to go 'some place special', the Chinese will take their date to the same place that they hang with their friends: Wherever they've recently decided is the 'it' place. It's the same with the clothes fashion, Chinese girls will flock towards a trend (Hello Kitty is a perfect example) and will feel no tension if more than one in the group is sporting the same logo. In comparison, even England's notorious 'topshop' girls will ensure they are wearing contrasting samples of the topshop repetoire before a night out! In British (and perhaps even Western) culture we are encouraged to be individual. However, Chinese fashion at the moment seems to be about looking cool together, which currently means a lot of Hello Kitty, for everyone. In the current social fashion, girls are encouraged to be 'cute' above all other characteristics.
Back to the couples - So, here we had in front of us a display of the finest Chinese courting. Helen, who watches the occasional trashy Chinese soap opera to 'improve her language', has commented that the stereotypical couple (as depicted to Chinese youngsters through media) displays very traditional male/female ideology. The climax of one episode she's recently watched showed the man holding his girlfriend close saying 'I want to look after you and keep you safe forever' - to which the girl melts into his arms accompanied by soft lighting and shameless close-up camera shots no doubt. At this point she switched channels and came across an episode of Glee (that's my girl!), and in a very similar set-up, whereby a boyfriend tells his girlfriend he wants to be the one to keep her safe... the girl sharply steps away and tells him that she can look after herself, thanks.
So there you have it folks: An absolute contrast in female identity. In the case of Glee there was no offence caused; the boyfriend simply smiled in response, and remembered that his girlfriend is one of those 21st century women who does not see 'looking after the girlfriend' as one of the boyfriend's roles in a couple set up. She will rely on herself and if she's ever in trouble she has many friends she can turn to as well as the boyf. It doesn't mean that she doesn't love him - And no doubt we'd have experienced soft lighting and close-up camera shots later in the episode, perhaps during a romantic meal together (split 50:50 of course) or during an awesome trip to the mall...
In the case of the Chinese soap opera however, the ideology of 'man protect woman' is endorsed, which seems to have filtered down to 'man carry woman's bag'. And somewhere between fashion meaning 'the same' and couples wanting to be 'in trend' we established 'couple' t-shirts too! Oh yes. Differing slightly in size and shape, the shirts carry complementary designs of the same logo and the same colour - you buy them as a pair. Now that just wouldn't happen in my country (I hope!!). Walking Qianmen Avenue I even saw 2 couples wearing identical shoes - Now, 2 couples is a small minority, admittedly, so I'm not going to claim this is another Asian trend. Instead I'll offer a nervous joke about how embarrassed they must have been when they met up that day and realised they both owned the same pair of shoes and had individually decided to wear them, on the same day! Obviously.
Apparently Helen and her course mates brought up the topic of male and female roles in a relationship in class once with a Chinese lecturer. He claimed that in Chinese culture the female will act like the male's 'little girl' during courting, and until she has her own little girl in fact, then she becomes a mother and is expected to be mature. Well that explains not being able to open a door or pour a drink for yourself, for sure; but I find it highly discomforting. Surely the point of those awkward 5 years between primary school and sixth form is that (as well as learning to write essays, not blow up your house and gaining a vague understanding about our ancestors and our fellow human beings globally) we learn how to stop behaving like children, and how to make the most of our maturing personality, tastes and interests? Adolescence is about learning about yourself, and not about making yourself into the ultimate girlfriend. Granted, girls in England learn that at slightly different times, but it's an important part of growing up and learning to respect yourself. So, as I mentioned earlier, being 'cute' is a major character trait impressed on the girls over here, hence in not developing into adults they remain in the 'cute' category for longer. Moreover, to encourage young women to remain infantile to impress their male counterparts is, in my opinion, a dangerous game to play. After all, young women are susceptible to all kinds of pressure, and I've seen the effect of this culture first hand - They become very annoying!!
Correction: They become very annoying to me, a Western girl. No doubt the Asian men enjoy it, because they are absolutely the driving force in the relationship; and as long as they're prepared to carry her bag and play soppy every now and then, they've got a simple and passive girlfriend, who is very cute, just like their friend's girlfriends. I'm not saying there are no girls in England who are like this. And I don't want to cause offence in writing this (although it's pretty obvious where I stand in the matter!). Admittedly, in England there is some pressure on girls to conform to being the passive girlfriend; certain chic-flicks and female literature suggests this is the better persona to take on during a relationship. But we also have Glee, Cosmopolitan magazine, and feminine icons such as Katy Perry and Lady Gaga (fear not, readers and friends - not everything within these 4 examples are to my tastes!) but the obvious female equality ideology expressed by the above, and others, demonstrates that Westerners have access to opinions which stand against the traditional 'man protect woman'. In essence, the most liberating idea expressed in modern media is that girls should just be themselves. Pure positivity. Whatever you want from your relationship - that's what you should take.
On the back of the (recently new and still growing) feminist revolutions in the West, it is disconcerting to see the Beijingers, in one of the most developed and intelligent regions of China, playing to the gender stereotypes of roles within a relationship. That said, China is a country of old and new cultures being juxtaposed. With all this in mind, women in China is a perfect example of the contrasting ideology. After all, Helen's tutor said, '...then she becomes and mother and is expected to be mature', which brings us on to the other side of Chinese women. My my, the feminists would be proud! These girly young women do eventually grow up, and when they do, an impressive amount go on to secure jobs. We're back to the subject of Chinese work ethic here, aren't we? Girls study hard. Girls succeed in exams just like the boys do. So why would they be expected not to get a job to bring back money for the family? After all, violin lessons are expensive, so are English tutors, and if the Chinese middle class want to take advantage of these opportunities for their young one (as we are lead to believe), they will want the dual income. So there are gender stereotypes upturned in China when women take jobs.
Statistics about Chinese people are difficult to come by, there are SO MANY citizens that unemployment figures are difficult to publish accurately. (In any case, I don't think they'd be very pretty if they were published). But we do know that of the working population of China, 46.7% are female (so 53.3% are male) - A difference of 6.6%. If you compare this to the 65.4% of British women who work and 75.4% of men who work (a difference of 10%), we can see that China's women have, indeed, taken a modern (gender neutral) approach to the work/life balance. After all, if they're beating us in this round of the feminist game, maybe I should end my preaching here!
It might be that, with continued social growth, the next generation of Chinese women will no longer feel the need to conform to gender stereotypes - personally I hope that's the case. However, it's safe to say that although social behavior of couples in Beijing has remained very traditional, the employment/gender statistics are impressive, and this demonstrates that Chinese women have a lot to give to the world and deserve respect just like every other.