“I feel like there is a monster chasing me. Each year I get older, each year I approach thirty; the monster gets closer and closer. If I am still not married by that time, it is like my life is over.”
Only after many late night conversations with female friends have I slowly begun to grasp the heavy and consuming burden that young women must face in metropolitan cities throughout China. What begins as idle chit chat inevitably grows into a serious discussion about marriage and partner compatibility. More striking than the content of these conversations is the regularity and cohesiveness of the message.
The concept of a shengnü or “leftover woman” is a fairly recent phenomenon in Chinese society. The term refers to single women, over thirty, who live in large cities and are often highly educated and well salaried. Some claim that these women have higher expectations of themselves and their partners or have chosen to put their career ahead of marriage. But this definition misses a key point in understanding such a loaded term, and that is the role of family.
Last week, when my doorbell rang at the optimum moment between my boyfriend leaving for work and me leaving for work—a thirty minute gap that seems to be the only time my local police station does any work—I knew who would be waiting even before I wrenched the reinforced steel door open.
I had my passport, foreign expert certificate and residence permit all primed and ready in a nearby drawer. Almost before the barely post-pubescent police officer opened his mouth, my papers were thrust in his face with a winsome grin and a cheeky, “I’ve got my documents ready, elder brother.”
Rian Dundon, an American photographer who lived in China for 6 years, is trying to fund a new book of photography called Changsha. He is currently fundraising through Emphas.is, which is like Kickstarter for photojournalism. There’s a month left to support the project. We talked over e-mail about his upcoming book.
This week’s episode of “This American Life,” in which Rob Schmitz and Ira Glass carefully dismantle Mike Daisey’s testimony about conditions in Foxconn factories, so depressed me that afterward I felt as if I’d been thrown into a pot of melancholy and boiled over low heat. Hearing Daisey audibly wither under Glass’ questioning, trying to grope for justifications between long, awkward silences, it seemed to me that all this uncomfortableness could have been avoided by simply telling the truth.
We now know that Daisey fabricated certain details in his one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, for the noble purpose of keeping media attention on factory conditions in China. To this end he appeared on television programs, op-ed pages, and, yes, “This American Life.”
Let me say now that although I appreciate artistic license and understand the virtue of employing falsehoods in the service of a greater truth, lying to media outlets that stake their reputation on journalistic accuracy is crossing a line. Why didn’t Daisey just say that he was an artist and not a journalist when this all began? Did he think the reality of the Chinese manufacturing industry was not shocking enough to pique the American public interest?
China is a police state. Why? Because the police are paid more than the teachers—a definition straight from the mouth of V.I. Lenin and one of the few I wholeheartedly agree with. Blame my Trot father for that.
Even if you don’t agree that the above definition, you will surely agree that China’s police force and its bungling subsidiary, the chengguan, are an ever-present feature of life here. I have seen uniformed police and chengguan attending concerts, guarding swimming pools, and hanging around my community watching older residents play cards.
I have no clue how many plainclothes police officers I have encountered during my time here; the only ones who gave themselves away were a pair whom I saw bust two guys on Shanghai’s Nanjing Road back in 2004. They tazered the men, then beat them up on the ground, in full view of the crowds of shoppers. The only others I can say for sure I’ve spotted are the ones meandering around Tiananmen Square, dressed like a child’s drawing of a spy.
Bottom line, the Chinese police—sorry, the Public Security Bureau’s operatives—are everywhere.
This past summer, I vaguely remember watching an NBA TV special about undrafted players that touched on the now ubiquitous Jeremy Lin. At the time he seemed vastly less pitiable than the other aspiring pros featured—his Harvard degree guaranteed that he would not be banished to Slovakian league if he didn’t make it in the majors.
Lin has since become Linsanity, a subject for Saturday Night Live skits, or 林书豪 in your Tudou search. He is the current, brief king of New York City, whose Giants just won the Super Bowl and whose favorite basketball team features two high-paid All-Stars in Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Less than a year ago the Knicks made the splashy signing of Anthony on the belief that he would become king of NYC if able to deliver a championship after years of disappointment. Basketball remains the only big four sport (basketball, baseball, hockey, football) in which a major New York team has not won a title over the past twenty years.
Last Thursday, just in time for Chinese new year, President Obama unveiled new directives that would make it easier for tourists from countries like China and Brazil to visit the United States.
In a speech delivered from Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the President announced:
I’m directing the State Department to accelerate our ability to process visas by 40 percent in China and in Brazil this year.
Charles Bennett, minister counselor for consular affairs of the US embassy in Beijing, told China Daily earlier that 50 more American staff members will be deployed to the embassy and US consulates in China this year.
In addition, more interview windows and buildings will be built and the embassy is considering allowing people to arrange an interview date as early as two days after he applied, he said.
But don’t be fooled. Despite the bilateral enthusiasm surrounding these new initiates, the push to expedite visas for Chinese nationals has less to do with improving Sino-US relations than one thing: cold hard cash.
“You’ve hurt me. Do you know I’ve already folded three, four hundred stars for you? My friend tried to introduce me to some guy but I refused. I didn’t realize it before but I like you. I like only you. Will you be my boyfriend? I cannot just be a normal friend to you anymore. Either accept me or I will leave.”
This was the first time to my knowledge I had ever hurt a girl, and it was an experience I was not quite ready to take responsibility for. The Chinese place great emphasis on grand gestures and confessions. To many girls, you are not officially in a relationship until you make the ultimate confession and ask her formally, “I like you. Will you be my girlfriend?” It doesn’t matter if you’ve already had sex, or if you’ve never said a word to each other. The act of confessing, the grand, sweeping scale of expressing your feelings which have been so deeply bottled up, is the only way to consolidate a relationship.
Before this year, I didn’t get philanthropy. I knew it was important, and gave a moderate amount when disasters like the Sichuan earthquake struck, but still, it rarely felt better to give than to receive. However, it’s been a tumultuous year for charity in China and I don’t think anyone living here feels quite the same about giving as they did a year ago.
In September of last year, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett met with 50 wealthy entrepreneurs in the name of promoting philanthropy but in 2010 donations from the largest state-owned enterprises was only 2% of net income and the numbers for 2011 are likely to be worse for one simple reason: Guo Meimei.
Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared, in edited form, in the March 2012 issue of NewsChina. Before I came to China last year to start a graduate program, my former professor told me something. “In the United States, when you are in public, you are actually in a private space around other people in their own private […]