I love my parents. I firmly believe that they do 99.9% of the things they do to me because they love me and care about my wellbeing. I'm fairly certain they're proud of me; I have a master’s degree, a steady job, and am a home owner, all before hitting 25. But for some reason, they don't seem to think I can survive on my own (despite the fact that I left Beijing when I was 17 to attend university in the States, halfway across the world, and have been living on my own ever since).
Whenever they call, they're always concerned about the strangest things. Last month I got a call from my mom reminding me to pay my cable bill. This topic had never come up before in the past 7 years of me living alone. I understand that they worry about me, but I had always assumed they would eventually see that I'm a real adult and can handle basic day-to-day tasks.
In any case, I started dating a guy about two months ago (to the great relief of my mother). He's smart, funny, and just generally a really nice guy. I told my mom about him in hopes of getting her to stop the constant stream of "We're not pressuring you to get married, but you're not getting any younger and if you don't settle down now you never will."
It worked, to a degree.
My mom was instantly taken with him, or at least, the abstract idea of him. They've never met (he's in Canada and she's in Beijing) and they've never spoken to each other (language barriers). She's seen one or two blurry pictures of him that I sent when she questioned his actual existence (because too many women have made up fake boyfriends to appease their moms on the TV shows she likes to watch). Basically, everything she knows about him is based on what I've told her.
So far, what she knows is: He's white (I won't get into the argument we had about whether or not white boys are good for me, as you'd be here all day), he's a PhD candidate, he likes chess and he doesn't drink or eat meat.
Somehow based on those things, she's decided that he's the perfect candidate to take care of me. Not in the boyfriend girlfriend lovey-dovey way, but in that "You should run all your decisions by him" kind of way.
When I was picking out furniture, my parents insisted that I bring him with me to tell me which ones to pick. When I told them I wanted to buy a TV, they insisted that he pick one out for me. Two weeks ago I adopted a kitten and my mom worked herself into a rage. On the phone she yelled at me, "This is the stupidest decision you could have made. Did you even ask your boyfriend? He could have stopped you from doing this." (She has a myriad of reasons why I shouldn’t have cats, and none of them are in any way related to logic.)
All that culminated today, when I was Skyping with my parents and my mom offhandedly remarked: "I worry much less about you now.”
I was thrilled, foolishly thinking that she'd decided her daughter is a grown-up and can take care of herself. So I said as much.
"Don't be silly, you're as far from being able to take care of yourself as possible. But you have a boyfriend now, and he'll take care of you." Beside her, my dad nodded gravely at the video screen in agreement.
Sad as I am to say, this was not the first time that has happened to me. In the past, whenever I told them I wasn’t feeling well or that I was facing problems at work or in school, my mother would always shake her head sadly and say, “If only you had a boyfriend. Then you wouldn’t be in this mess.”
I remember asking her if she thought a man would be able to resolve my problems for me, to which she replied, “Of course not, only you can solve your issues. But he probably would make better decisions for you and not gotten you in this situation in the first place.”
In my personal experience, this sentiment is not uncommon among Chinese parents. Many of them feel that a man is necessary to take care of their daughter, not out of love but because she can't do it herself. There’s this idea, coming from a long tradition, that all decisions in a woman’s life need to be approved by a man.
This presents a strange dichotomy for me, because I was raised in the traditional Chinese way in dealing with my family. My instinct tells me I should listen to my parents. But everything I have learned in North America about relationships with men tells me I am my own person and there's no reason for me to defer to somebody when governing my life. Much less somebody I've known for less than three months!
It is frustrating to know that my parents don’t think I can manage my own life, that an almost-stranger would know how to do this better than I can, simply because of his gender.
When I try to talk to my friends in China about this, they mostly nod along as if they’re entertaining a child and at the end say, ‘You’re lucky, at least your parents don’t try and set you up on matchmaking dates.” (Not true. Despite being on the other side of the globe, my father once gave me the phone number of a guy who lives in a city four hours away in the hopes that I would meet up with him).
There seems to be no way to have a meaningful conversation about this with my parents. In the past when I tried to bring this up, they have always shrugged it off or joked about me being too sensitive. I also wasn't raised to be confrontational with my parents.
I don’t need to go into all the ways that sexism is ingrained into the traditional (and current) Chinese culture. A friend who works in HR told me she won’t hire any women aged 25-30 regardless of their marital status, because she’s concerned that they’ll get pregnant and the company will be on the hook for paying their maternity leave. Both age and marital status are things you can blatantly ask about during a job interview in China. The number of articles that detail the plight of women over 30 still single in China are numerous. (At least judging by the number that’s linked to me both by my incredulous North American friends as well as my mother trying to not-so-subtly make a point).
But my mother doesn’t recognize what she’s doing as sexist at all. She defers to my father on most decisions despite complaining to me endlessly about how she thinks they’re the wrong ones. She expects me to do the same with the man in my life. She genuinely believes that no matter how capable I am at taking care of myself, a man could probably do it better.
I haven't managed to find a viable solution except to remind myself that my parents love me and are proud of me. In the coming months, I hope to restart the conversation with my parents and express to them exactly how their words make me feel and why I don’t need a man to make my decisions for me. It may be an uphill battle and a slow progression, but there’s an old Chinese proverb that translates (roughly) to, ‘If you’re not progressing then you’re certainly falling behind."