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I am supine in a plush recliner. A woman is kneeling before me, pressing her thumbs into my feet. My friend Jon, a Chinese-American Tsinghua professor, is next to me in an identical chair. The TV in front of us is switched on a nature channel. The leopard pouncing on an unsuspecting gazelle makes sense in any language.
A man is rubbing Jon’s feet. “Is that your girlfriend?” the masseur asks him in Mandarin, nodding to me. “No,” Jon says, “she’s an old friend.”
“How old is she?” the masseur asks. Jon asks me and I answer 29 in English although I understand the Chinese. Jon translates and the masseur asks him if I’m married. Jon doesn’t need to consult me. “No,” he answers.
“Ahhhh,” the man says, “American women like to play for a long time, huh?” He laughs, and Jon laughs too, in uncomfortable solidarity. The woman rubbing my feet looks up at me and our eyes meet. We say nothing.
Someone in Beijing explained it to me like this: western men think Chinese women are spoiled. Little princesses. They want to be fawned over with teddy bears and expensive gifts. Better to cry in the back of a BMW than smile on the back of a bicycle. Chinese men think western women are spoiled. Little princesses. They say whatever they want and have opinions about everything. They drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. They are easy, have probably slept with dozens of men before you, but still want respect. I know enough Chinese and western women to know this is both true and also the furthest things from the truth. I, for one, love both alcohol and teddy bears.
My roommates are Chinese cousins from Henan Province. To save money they share a bedroom and a bed. Han Jia is in her early twenties, prim and innocent. Her cousin Shenying is different: cultured, with a round face and short-cropped hair.
Shenying is a year older than me and has been in Beijing since coming to the city to attend a top art school. Her old paintings are stacked in our cramped entryway behind Han Jia’s many sparkling, high-heeled shoes. It’s unclear to me what exactly Shenying does for work or how often she does it. She spends a lot of time watching television; one show features a dreadlocked young Chinese man whose name is iPad. Her English is as terrible as my Chinese and sometimes, drunk on watery Tsing Tao beer, desperate to be understood, we shout to sober Han Jia in the kitchen. “Han Jia! Fanyi!” Translate!
Shenying has a boyfriend, a painter with shoulder length hair who doesn’t seem to like me. Often he says things about America that I can’t understand and Han Jia refuses to translate. Shenying also has a husband who lives in Shanghai and a young daughter who lives with Han Jia’s mom back in their hometown. Only once do I ask about it. “We came together for the baby,” Shenying says in halting English.
“And now?” I ask, and she shrugs. I take this to mean that they have fulfilled their filial obligation and are now free to do as they please, but neither of us has the language to talk further. There’s a name for children being raised by grandparents while their parents try to make it in a top-tier city: liushou ertong, left behind children. I’m told it doesn’t sound so cruel in Chinese. There’s a term for women, too, who aren’t married by age 27. They’re called sheng nu, Leftover Women.
People usually guess I’m 24 or 25. I still look young enough to be asked my age by near strangers; museum employees tell me about student discounts. But I’m not so young that I can tell the truth without changing people’s perception of me. Maybe my successes seem smaller given the amount of time I’ve had to accomplish them.
Until two or three years ago, I hated looking younger than my age, getting hassled buying a lottery ticket from a gas station, getting stopped at the airport because I didn’t have a guardian. I looked young and I felt young. I didn’t think I would mind being single on my 30th birthday. Until a few months before I hadn’t thought twice about it.
But then I suffered a freak-out somewhere between minor and major. I was six months into life in a foreign country, past wondering who I was without my friends and onto wondering whether or not I existed. I sobbed over Skype to my most recent ex back home, watching myself fall apart in a little window at the bottom of the screen. I told him I was worried I would never get married or have a baby. “I’m glad you feel like you can tell me this,” he said austerely. We had dated for just over three months.
Maybe I freaked out a little late because I spent half of my twenties dating the man I thought I would marry. When we broke up I was 28 and he was 35. Immediately he bought a vintage Corvette and tattooed his knuckles (“HIGH LIFE”). Within a year he was engaged to another woman, younger than me, and there’s nothing that makes you feel older than screaming, “She’s younger than me!” We had met as cute, creative baristas and somehow ended up early midlife crisis clichés.
I was surprised by my own embarrassment at being 30. Being alone—not just single, but away from my friends—made it worse. I booked a solo holiday to Jeju Island, Korea for the week following my birthday, planning to rent a bike and live like a Murakami character, talking to cats and preparing myself simple meals of rice and fish. For the day itself I’d buy a cake and have my handful of weird expat friends around to the apartment. Shenying’s boyfriend would come too, and a few of Han Jia’s coworkers.
When I left for China, I made a lot of jokes about going to find my Chinese husband (“he has to be a rapper,” I told everyone). But besides taxi drivers, I met exactly one Chinese man. He worked at the school with me, hated Japanese people, drank tea from a mug with a Garfield cartoon on it, was married, and was a huge help when I couldn’t decide which brand of cell phone to buy. I think we were the same age. His son was born weeks after I left.
The taxi drivers I chatted with for practice and just to hear their perspective on things. One driver, a 34-year-old, told me about his daughter. She was 10 and he hoped she’d study English. “Are you married?” he asked. No. “A boyfriend?” No. “But there are so many men,” he said.
“I can find men,” I said, “but not… good men. They are not good.” He laughed, maybe at my shitty Chinese or maybe because I was right.
There were men, of course. In Beijing I got to know American men, Australians, Moroccans, English (far surpassing all others in the not-good category), Irish, my dearest friend from India, and Anastas, the Macedonian intellectual basketball coach I would spend the night of my birthday with.
These men tended to date Chinese women they didn’t plan to stay with. “Oh, she knows it’s not serious,” they would say, even the ones who lived with their girlfriends, even after going home to meet her family during Spring Festival. I heard them complain about backward Chinese expectations for women in their late 20s, the pressures to settle down and get married. They always seemed surprised when I told them American women are often also made to feel adult, successful, useful only after they’re married. Our mothers are anxious for it—a man with good genes and old money, one you’ll love forever. “Maybe you should try dating older guys,” a 20-something American, an English language editor and part-time marijuana salesman, told me, “You could marry, like, a 50-year-old. That would be a win-win.”
There is no American term for leftover women. But there is a Facebook quiz that, after calculating the data from your friends’ accounts, tells you when you should get married in order to be on par with your peers. It said, at 31, I still have two more years. It’s ridiculous, but it gave me some relief. Next time a family member asks if I’m dating someone, I’ll know I have a couple of years left. A couple more years to find that perfect 50-year-old who’s ready to settle down. Because after all, American women do just like to play around for a long time.
Photo via kheelcenter/flickr.
Allison Reibel is a librarian-in-training in Seattle, WA whose favorite pastime is forcing strangers to listen to cute stories about her niece. Her first book, Fu or Die, will be released in 2014.