“It was terrifying. It was the first time I moved abroad. I did a lot of drugs, I drank a lot of alcohol, I gained a lot of weight. My first year was awful…” My fellow co-worker shares her experiences on life in Egypt. We’ve both been expats for several years and lived in different countries. She understands what I’m going through.
This morning I had a meltdown in my bathroom, where everything about the last 3 months in Egypt just hit me all at once. It’s been extremely overwhelming, 10 times worse than China or Taiwan have ever been. And then I wondered: what do other people think about my life? Do people see me as an adventurous globetrotter who is on this #wanderlust bullshit life quest? Do people pity me because I can’t seem to find stability? Do people envy me because I ‘do whatever I want?’ …
I lower myself to the floor of my bathroom, now sitting at toilet-level height, and I stare in front of me, lifelessly, aimlessly, hopelessly. A whole bunch of crying commences. I call my mom in tears, I leave sobbing voice notes to friends. I want to go someplace else. I want to escape the escaping. But I have no place to go.
The idea of living abroad is attractive to people. It was/is for me just as much. There’s a sense of ‘the grass is greener on the other side’, visions of dreamy sceneries, a better quality of life, new adventures. But I don’t think people often touch upon the harsh reality of it. I’m not saying it’s not worth it. That the above isn’t part of the deal. But it shouldn’t be sugarcoated.
I recently learned about a term called expat-depression. It’s a real thing. Studies show that expats may have a higher risk of mental health issues (anxiety, depression) as opposed to domestic workers. Expats “experience extraordinarily high stress as well as social and emotional disruption that result from dislocation and moves.” This could be because they’re predisposed to these issues due to personality traits, which are further enhanced by culture shock, living conditions, work ethics, and social life abroad. But even so; living abroad is a lot to take in, especially if the culture and customs are unfamiliar to you. The mental decline is also often paired with substance abuse. And so far, I haven’t met a single expat in Egypt that doesn’t over-indulge. It’s a weird new reality.
And I know. I know this makes me sounds horribly privileged. I didn’t have to do this. I didn’t have to go anywhere. And look at the life I have. Aside from the personal reasons I came to Egypt; what am I even complaining about? These thoughts keep crossing my mind.
Among the palm trees and the sunsets there is always utter despair lurking. This (the duality of it) is something I’ve had to deal with throughout all my time abroad. There are ups and downs. And so long the ups outweigh the downs, it’s something that I will probably continue doing, regardless of the occasional toll it takes on my mental health. After all, and this is the most comforting, privileged quote of all: I could always just go back home.
Ahhhhh, turning thirty. The supposed downfall of every young woman. You can still be a frolicking teenager at 29, but by 30 you need to have it all figured out. By 30, you will have found stability, a long-term partner, a flourishing career, you’ll be thinking about motherhood (or you already have one of those crying little humans), and you probably might want to invest in some anti-wrinkle cream.
I just turned 30 and I have mixed feelings about it. For one, my adult years have been met with existential dread, and growing closer to death produces an enhanced sense of: I HAVE SO MUCH LEFT TO DO – but more on that later. Let’s start with the really bad, and then end with the not so bad.
But what about my face though?!
The main thing I want to address is probably the most superficial. One that’s overtly present in our lives, yet also considered taboo: outer appearance. Ever since discovering that I was seen by the outside world as ‘attractive’, I have wholeheartedly embraced my looks. Slowly but surely, and with age (funnily enough), I started to love my body, my face, and although it shouldn’t matter, I love that other people find me attractive. I even have a public fitness-related Instagram, where I show off the front, the back, and close-ups of my face.
I love how I’ve learned to love myself, but at the same time, I admit that I also feed off of positivity by others. I read an article a few years ago that stuck with me (and if I find it again I’ll link it here) about this woman who had been a model all her life. She basically grew up on the perceptions of others, being in the spotlight constantly. She said ageing was hard because, if the focus of your existence is solely based on your looks, how do you still find your own value as a human being after all of that fades away? Looking at the vast landscape of anti-ageing commercials and prominent figures in the entertainment industry, we are truly made to believe that we have to find a way to prevent growing old and/or hold it off as long as possible.
Ms. model went on to do charity work and being a spokesmodel for women’s rights (as you do). That’s how she reinvented herself and her value as a woman. Now, I’m not a model, but I definitely have similar fears. Don’t get me wrong, I have hobbies, and I’m passionate about lots of things, but I also have anti-wrinkle cream. I do believe I have value as a woman, as a human, but I also inspect my face for fine lines. My looks kind of go hand in hand with my other qualities. Society is (and will be) based on youth, probably forever. Recently I found out I’m already behind on new technology – another very common phenomenon that comes with age. New idols and actors are now in their late teens and early twenties. Yet I don’t feel different. And I wonder if that’s just what it’s going to be from now on: feeling exactly the same, but looking different, and being perceived as ‘old.’ And that scares me.
It’s just a ride
A little positivity: an article in Forbes takes on a different, but equally true perspective:
"I know your twenties get glamorized in the media, but it is a brutal decade. The good news is, your learning curve is not as steep in your 30s, you have more of a sense of self and self confidence, the benefits of the lessons you learned in your twenties, and less patience for toxic people."
There’s one age-related thing I have grown less and less concerned about over time: stereotypes & expectations. The expectations of what you need to have achieved before you turn 30 or where you need to be seem completely arbitrary to me. A lot has changed over the years, but the majority of us monogamous humanoids will have settled down by their early thirties. My closest friends all have long-term, stable relationships. Most of them are married, are getting married, and some of them already have children. A lot of them have a house, or are in the process of getting one. Which is amazing. I am so, so happy that we privileged people can live the lives that we want. Which is why the above-mentioned life has never been mine. Although I have doubted my sense of self here and there, stability in the traditional sense is just not something I ever longed for. It never appealed to me as something that I needed. That’s not to say it will never happen, but I don’t want to let age determine where I should be or what I should do in life. I don’t believe it actually matters. I’ve been successful in my own way, and I don’t deem my choices as less important.
We’re insignificant specs on the earth. There are consequences to our actions, of course, but I don’t think there exists inherent right or wrong when it comes to finding direction. Life is just life.
Just about every women’s rights activist and scholar outside of China seems to be triggered when dealing with the concept of ‘leftover women’. Feminists can’t see sexism separate from history or culture, while sinologists keep stressing nuance and objectivity. But ever since the term leftover women rose to the surface, the majority of mainstream articles voicing women’s inner thoughts and feelings are suspiciously biased, and, for a lack of better words: ‘Western’.
In 2007, the term “leftover women” Shengnü (剩女) was introduced, referring to Chinese educated women who remain unmarried at the age of 27 or above. It focuses on the unmarriageable status of these women, as they are said to be too fussy, too occupied with their careers and therefore unable to find a potential partner. Since 2007, the term has been reiterated and promoted by Chinese state-run media, making it part of a resurgence of gender inequality, stressing marriage as a woman’s ultimate goal and stigmatizing singlehood.
Chinese women are said to be equally progressive to many European or American women, as well as independent and they feel enormous pressure having to struggle with the leftover label. All articles seem to point to one specific direction: Chinese leftover women are changing China’s landscape of equality. With the current U.S. political landscape and an upsurge of what is called the third wave of feminism, approaching the concept of leftover women in media from this particular angle is not surprising.
Living in China however, and having met many single women, I felt like these articles were mirroring the West (in particular the U.S.) and not reflecting women’s true voices. Sure, some women may have been influenced by feminist concepts, and some may believe to be stuck in this cultural ideal brought forward by the government, but what about love and relationships? Are we neglecting that women may have this basic longing for companionship? What does a relationship entail for these women? Do they really see themselves as leftover?
To figure this out, I delved into the world of online matchmaking, and created a male alter ego on China’s largest dating website: Jiayuan (佳緣). I wanted to know if women described themselves as leftover, but most importantly, whether they were pursuing a type of progressive ideal or were in search of a more traditional relationship.
The results were quite surprising.
First of all, it’s important to acknowledge cultural differences in the use of dating apps or websites (or anywhere for that matter). An example of this being marriage. Western dating sites often give the choice of either wanting or not wanting marriage, with some giving the option of “undecided”. On Jiayuan however, since the idea is to instill early marriage as a goal for women, one can only select a time frame within which a woman prefers to get married. As an alternative one can choose “to let nature take its course”, which I suppose you could loosely translate as ‘flexible’.
Progressive and oppressed
In her bookLeftover Women, the Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, arguably the most discussed literature on leftover women in media, Leta-Hong Fincher argues that educated women feel that China’s marriage law (among other legal developments) discriminates the female sex . Now here’s where I believe a lot of articles go wrong, stating that women are fighting against marriage and actively seek out ways to protest. Seeing as how many women did not disclose their marital preference on Jiayuan, one could indeed suggest that outcome.
However, in women’s personal descriptions, there was no indication of reluctance to get married. In fact, the ultimate goal was to find marriage, but the overall consensus seemed to be that women were not in a rush. They were merely looking for a soulmate, “the one”. User Duckhead mentions: “I don’t accept a lightning wedding”, and user Carole stresses: “I want to get married (…) but there is no rush. It’s ok if you don’t own a car or a house, we can work towards these goals and invest in them together.”
Another argument Fincher (and many articles) claims, is that women not part of this feminist wave often feel so oppressed, they downplay their successes to find a partner more easily. OnJiayuan, an observation that can be misinterpreted is the fact that many women were looking for a partner with either the same degree level or higher. One could argue that this is a typical example of status hypergamy: the “marrying up” phenomenon, in which case a woman’s sense of security comes from a man of higher status. These women however, had jobs of their own with most of them a considerable income. Arguing that these women were looking for mere compatibility rather than downplaying personal achievements to find a financially stable partner more easily is, to me, equally compelling.
In fact, in looking at these women’s criteria for a partner, idyllic love relationships were often desired. Women had hopes of finding love in their life and believed in fate. Progressiveness is even a more fitting term in this case, as the more established women were, the more open they seemed to be to finding a man with lower financial resources. As user Grains of sand points out: “romance is not achieved by money; it’s achieved by emotion.” Similar sentiments from user GuiGui: “I have a stable job (…), I keep thinking women should be independent, especially economically.”
So yes, marriage was put on hold with the hope of finding the right partner, and financial resources were deemed less important than compatibility; this indicates change and perhaps an underlying need for more equality, but it is definitely an exaggeration to state that women labeled as leftover are all suffragette-like warriors against the patriarch.
In fact, women often described themselves as obedient, a good housewife and a sincere and loyal partner. User Long-lasting Sound of the Zither writes: “Regarding love and marriage; if my parents request me not to do something, I will definitely not do it.” and user Awa! writes directly to her potential significant other: “I hope that you have a mature mind, you’re not too short, you show filial piety to your parents, take care of your friends, love children and that you’re preferably a foodie!”
Between tradition and modernity
Love and romance were presented by women on Jiayuan as a sense of loyalty, which is much more linked to tradition than anything else. The goal was stability, compatibility and companionship. Women seemed aware of being labeled as leftover, but it did not discourage them, nor make them fight against the patriarch.
Roseanne Lake, author of Leftover in China,states my opinions the most accurately: “They [leftover women] are treading this delicate balance of remaining filial, and being dutiful daughters, which many of them want to be, but also carving out lives that are more in tune with their own expectations. And their own potential.”
If anything, what I want readers to take away from this, is that it’s easy to use one’s own cultural lens to project ideas onto different societies, especially if you’re passionate about something like women’s rights. Not to sound too postmodernist, but there is a sense of truth in all of the aforementioned articles, as well as in women’s descriptions onJiayuan. We need to attempt to put aside our own personal struggles with an issue, and use the context within which an event takes place to form a more balanced opinion.
One concept most of us can understand, is that the majority of these women are simply looking for a loving and stable relationship. That idea doesn’t need too much analyzing and is, perhaps, something we can all relate to.
All opinions are my own. Jiayuan is a public space. Whether or not achievements were downplayed is therefore complicated to assess, but as stated previously, I think there’s a sense of truth in these personal statements regardless. ‘Western’ is a very ambiguous term, but within this context I mainly refer to the U.S.