Since giving a lecture about bike touring at a jam-packed Nordica gallery two weeks ago my social life here in Kunming has really taken off. I met two fellow tea nerds and together we are exploring tea culture and learning as much as we can on what is hopefully going to be a weekly excursion. More about that in a later blog post. I also met a lot of cool ladies, so the last week I have been meeting up with them for bike rides, a glass of wine, dinner great conversation.
S. is 32, works in finance, rides a bike and wants to train for an Iron Man race. K. is a glamorous 25 year old who has recently returned to China after a stint in the South of France and is currently in between jobs. D. is 34, has studied in France and is a freelance curator of cultural projects. L. is 30, has studied in Beijing and the UK and has a challenging job in tourism. All of them are either single or have a more or less steady boyfriend who is abroad. All of them are super nice, ambitious, funny as hell and trying to juggle the many expectations that a fast-changing urban Chinese society has of them.
In China, when you are over 25 and not married with children you are considered a left over woman. Even now, when urban society seems to be accelerating at a breakneck speed, this is still the norm. Their generation grew up without siblings, because of the one child policy. Therefore the pressure to have children is enormous: parents and grandparents expect offspring. As K. put it, when I asked her if she wanted to have children:”I am not even sure if this is what I want it or if it is what my culture expects of me”. L. wanted to meet up with me because she says meeting a foreigner with a different take on this can be a breath of fresh air in stifling surroundings. She spent 10 years in Beijing, 2 in the UK and as she says, she can not go back to being the obedient Chinese daughter.
Now, I am also single (not by choice) and childless (by choice, although a very proud aunt of my niece and two nephews), and making my own plans for the future. Since I am foreigner I am often perceived as a paragon of wild and free western values, where apparently anything is acceptable. My new Chinese lady friends were quite surprised when I told them that my life choices were really quite unusual, especially in the small village where I grew up, but also compared to my more settled friends in Amsterdam. Most of my primary school friends got married in or close to the village and had kids. So have most of my Amsterdam friends, if a bit later and not necessarily married. This is the norm in much of the Netherlands. Amsterdam is, like most capital cities, an island of liberalism in an otherwise quite middle-of-the-road society and not representative of the social norms in the whole country. My parents and lots of wider family members are cool with my choices but there are also people who think my life is off the rails. Now, the people who ‘escape’ this traditional life and go on to travel or carve out an otherwise alternative kind of life project a different picture of their society in the countries that they visit. The image of The Netherlands abroad is defined by people like me, by news about euthanasia laws, the tolerance to soft drugs and the yearly gay parade in Amsterdam. This is all true, but it doesn’t take into the account the vast and somewhat boring conservative majority who live in the countryside. In my village pot smoking is definitely not tolerated, and neither is being a flamboyant cross-dressing gay man particularly welcome.
Still, I am well aware I have it much easier than women in China. The (mostly middle class) women who have studied do have lots of opportunities to be financially independent. But the pressure to adhere to the social norm is much higher than in The Netherlands, where being single and childless is an acceptable alternative. I have one Chinese friend whose parents have accepted she doesn’t want to have kids. I hope the rest can find a way to be happy with their choices.
On a funny side note, I do try to date here. I have used tantan, the Chinese tinder. But this is what men my age look like, so I gave up after three days. Most of them post pictures with a cigarette in one hand, a mobile in the other, a beer belly spilling over and a stern expression on their face. I did receive about 600 likes in those three days so I guess I am not that left over just yet.