I’m single and China labels me as a “leftover woman”

By Hoe I Yune, Aug 22, 2019

Born and raised in China, 28-year-old Piaoyi Dai is no stranger to the label “leftover woman” (sheng nu, 剩女), a derogatory term used in the country to stigmatise single women over 27.

Like many of her single female friends, she’s anxious to get married and find Mr Right. It’s not just a matter of romance but one fuelled by pragmatism. As an only child, she’s worried about caring for her aging parents and growing old alone. 30 is the new 20? Not in China, where women are more desirable when they’re young, and to have a ring on your finger is seen as a victory in life.

Rude remarks might not be said outright to someone's face, but an unwed woman's lack of a marital status can become fodder for gossip, says Piaoyi, and she's all too familiar with phrases like “You should get married soon or you’ll miss the chance to have children of your own.” 

Here, she sheds light on the dating scene and life as a single woman in Beijing.

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Hi, my name is Piaoyi and I was born and raised in Beijing.

I spent two years studying in London and LA to pursue my masters degrees, then returned to Beijing where I’m now an editor at a TV station. I’m quite happy with where I am in terms of my career. I only wish I weren’t still single. 

On my birthday this year, it struck me that I really want to settle down soon. Turning 28 hit me hard, because this is the age my mum was when she gave birth to me.

It has been over six months since my last relationship, and I’m feeling anxious. Turns out that getting married before 30 and giving birth before 35 is easier said than done.

The term “leftover woman” is a common one here in China. So common that in 2007, the Chinese Ministry of Education listed "leftover woman" as an official word in its dictionary. It was around then that there were mass media articles spotlighting the need to narrow the gender gap, and certain cities organised matchmaking events.

It’s clearly not a polite term, because it makes it sound as if women are commodities that men can select off the shelf, and that the unmarried ones are “inferior goods”, or the ones who men don’t want. I won’t deny that the pressure for women to get married before 30 here is real.

If you’re over 30 and single, it doesn’t matter how successful you are in your career. People will still think that there’s something missing in your life ⁠— marriage and children. On the contrary, if a woman looks young and is married, and better yet, with a child, she’s considered a winner in life.

You’d think that it’s easier for us women here in China because there are more men in the country, but a lot of the men live in rural areas and “leftover women” tend to be women with a good educational background.

My parents would likely be alright with me marrying someone of a lower status in terms of income and education, if we share the same values and I really love him. But the norm here is for women to marry “up” and guys prefer to marry someone “weaker” than them. For example, someone who’s earning less than them. So in the end, the people who are left are the extremely qualified women and the not-so-qualified men.

I’m not the kind of person who likes to rely on my partner too much and I can’t change who I am, but I know a lot of Chinese men don’t like girls who are too independent. They like being needed.

If I date a man who has a lower education degree than me, I will avoid telling him my education background until he outright asks, so that he doesn’t feel awkward before even getting to know me.

There are a lot of dating shows in China like “If You’re the One” (非诚勿扰), on which a man has to impress a panel of 24 women who indicate their interest or disinterest through the use of podium lights. It gained a lot of attention because the participants deliver very savage lines.

“If You’re the One” is pretty popular for its entertainment value.

“If You’re the One” is pretty popular for its entertainment value.

I don’t like watching these shows. I think they’re a terrible guide for society but my mum loves how funny they are, and I guess deep down, many of us agree with the concept of finding love and the importance of marriage. The concept of family and filial piety is ingrained in Chinese culture thanks to Confucianism.

I don’t think the older generation will change their mind so easily about the importance of marriage, because they believe women won’t be happy having to look after themselves and going through life alone. But I have to say that it’s not just my parents’ and grandparents’ generations that think this way; most of my friends and I want to get married anyway, and those of us who are still single are feeling the heat.

There’s a paradox, because growing up in China, studying was the top priority. Up until our college entrance exam, we were meant to study hard and get good grades.

As a rule, parents don’t want anyone to date until they’re 18. What’s ridiculous is that you graduate from college at age 22, and your parents expect you to find someone to settle down with immediately.

The window to date is pretty short. You must find someone during college or it’ll become very hard to find someone afterwards. And even so, there’s that risk of dating the “wrong guy” during your college years.

I met the wrong guy during college in China, and wasted so many years on him. When studying, marriage wasn’t on my mind. It’d be as simple as I like someone and his personality, so I’d date him. I met my ex during my first year and he was exactly my type — tall, lean, gentle, easy-going and smart.

We met during a game of “truth or dare” with friends after school. He chose “truth” and when he was asked which girl in his class he liked the most, he looked into my eyes and said my name. I instantly developed a crush on him.

Three months later, our school went for a karaoke session to celebrate Christmas. After I sang a song, he asked, “Would you be my girlfriend?” Again, it was in front of all our classmates. Everyone was cheering and taking photos of us. It almost felt like a proposal. I was so happy and said yes.

But over time, the cracks showed. I loved him more than he loved me, and wound up giving so much more than I was receiving. He always had more important things to do than spending time with me. My mum is extremely opinionated and never failed to point out how we were ill-suited or how he didn’t care about me, but I didn’t want to give up. It took eight years before I finally grew tired of chasing after him, and by then I was 26.

Looking back now, I feel frustrated. Having tried so hard and having nothing to show for it really hurt my self-esteem, but what I learned is that forced love doesn’t last, and that’s something that I’ve kept in mind moving forward. You can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. If there’s one thing that I regret, it’s having not given up on this relationship sooner.

My parents didn’t like him but they didn’t stop me from seeing him. They didn’t think I was serious and figured that I was still young, so there’d be time to date other people. I can’t say they still feel the same way about me now.

I still live with my parents because in Beijing, you normally only move out after you get married. The housing prices here are really high, so it’s unlikely that I’ll buy an apartment for myself anytime soon.

My mum never fails to remind me that I need to hurry up and settle down soon. In her words, “I should do the right thing at the proper age”. She’s worried that no one will pursue me once I turn 30.

Despite divorce becoming increasingly common, people don’t care as much about how many relationships you’ve had as they do about whether or not you get married⁠ — even if it’s short-lived.

My mum and dad get very sarcastic whenever I attend my friends’ weddings. They always make it a point to sound envious as they make comments like, “Ah, they got married so early.”

I see where they’re coming from, but I cannot help but feel irritated at the same time. I would retort saying that it’s because these couples got together when they were 14 or 16, which is ironic that they’re now the ones being praised because back in high school, relationships were forbidden. I wasn’t allowed to date then suddenly, they want me to find Mr Right. That always shuts them up.

In school, there were really strict rules around dating. A lot of people secretly dated but if the relationship was found out by teachers, the consequences could be as bad as parents getting called in for a meeting and the students transferring away. What’s funny though is that a lot of my friends who are getting married now or who got married at an earlier age were attached to their partners since high school or middle school.

Using dating apps to find a potential husband isn’t that popular in China, because people on it are usually just looking to hook up and have fun.

These days, my parents openly ask anyone they know to introduce potential boyfriends to me. It can feel stressful and sometimes a bit embarrassing. At first, I refused to meet anyone, but in recent years, I’ve started to really consider what they’re saying. I know that they care about me, they do possess more life experience, and it doesn’t hurt to be open minded.

Still, my preferred way is to meet guys through friends. I think my friends know me better than my parents when it comes to the kind of guy who I’m attracted to. But I’d still involve my parents. Whenever I meet someone new, my parents get very excited and want to see the pictures and suss out his potential. After the date, they’d ask how it went.

I’ve read about parents who go to the weekend outdoor marriage market at Shanghai’s People’s Park or the Beijing equivalent, where they bring along resumes stating their children’s accomplishments and appearances, but I personally don’t know anyone who does it.

I think it’s very embarrassing. Thankfully my parents don’t do anything of that sort, but what they would do is ask former colleagues and co-workers. They’d show my picture and ask what the occupations are of prospective suitors.

My parents met each other through colleagues so maybe that’s why it’s their favourite approach.

Both my exes were guys whom I met in school but since I started work, it has been harder to meet new people. I know people who date colleagues but I tried dating one before and didn’t think it was a good idea, so we stopped after two months. I’d rather not mix work and personal, in case anything goes wrong and the work environment gets awkward. The last thing I want is to go through a nasty breakup only to have to continue seeing my ex at work.

These days, when I get set up, what usually happens is if someone’s interested, he’ll add me on WeChat and we’ll start to talk. Then we’d chat for a few days and set up a date, and maybe have dinner together. If it goes well, we’ll have another date. But most of the time, I only see these guys once. I think once is enough to know if we have chemistry.

Sure guys might get nervous when they meet you for the first time but we always text on WeChat beforehand and from the texts, I can tell what the guy is like.

I would ask where they’re from, which college they went to, where they live, what they do for a living and what they enjoy doing during weekends. If I really want to know more basic information, I’d ask my friends or parents ⁠— whoever that set us up. I don’t want to waste either of our time.

I don’t think those of us living in China are alone in this regard. The sense that I get from my friends overseas is that it’s not unusual in Asian culture for women to get married before 30. For instance, one of my colleagues from the Philippines is also facing tremendous pressure from her family.

But I think what adds to the pressure in China is the one-child policy. I don’t have any siblings, so I’m the only hope for my parents to have grandkids.

Whenever my mum nags at me, she’d bring up how now’s a good time for me to become a mum because she’s still young and healthy enough to help me look after grandkids.

As an only child, if my parents are sick, it’s on me to take care of them, which is why my parents want someone to share that burden with me. I’ve already seen it happening to some of my friends who remain unwed. Their parents have gotten really sick ⁠— some are battling cancer, and they’re all on their own when it comes to caregiving as there’s no significant other around to lend them support.

I have an aunt in her 50s and she regrets having not gotten married to someone. She was a workaholic and did well in her career in the TV industry, but she now thinks she should’ve dated more instead so that she’d have a child to look after her when she’s old.

She has been very lonely since most of her friends are busy with their children and no one will hang out or travel with her anymore, and I am afraid of ending up like her. It’s already starting to be the case where more and more of my female friends would say that they can’t hang out because they’ve got to visit their in-laws or that they can’t go to the bar because they’re preparing to get pregnant.

In China, I think it’s generally true that after you turn 30, it’s harder to meet someone because men usually want to marry women younger than them. They’d go for someone who’s five years younger. In contrast, it’s easier for guys over 30 to find a partner because that’s when they have a more stable job, earn more, and have bought their apartment in the city.

Owning property and cars make them so much more attractive to young ladies. They might start getting nervous or face pressure from their family when they hit 35 but it’s not the same kind of pressure that us women face. They have more time to date and find the right partner because they don’t hear their biological clock ticking.

Although I say that I want to get married, I have to admit that I’m not keen to date just anyone. I’ve also become more selective. In the past, I wouldn’t care about education background or occupation but these days, I really take these attributes into consideration. Someone working in the banking industry or for an Internet company would attract me more than someone who works in media like me because they’re more lucrative professions.

I know that I don’t want to date someone who doesn’t have a stable job and that I want to be with someone who has potential. What I mean by potential is that he might come from a poor family but at least has a good education background and is driven. Financial stability matters to me because raising a child in China is very expensive and paying off a house loan can really set back your quality of life.

Besides, I’ve always been a city girl and I think dating someone who’s from the city too would mean that it’s more likely that we share the same values. If I really have a choice, I’d prefer to date someone from Beijing like me because the housing prices here are sky high and most guys who grew up here already have apartments because their parents bought places for them years ago.

And it’s easy if we share the same hometown. Otherwise when spring festival comes round, it’ll be hard for me to travel back to spend time with my parents. I’m an only child and if I can’t spend holidays with them, I’m afraid that they’ll feel very lonely.

So many factors come into play and there’s still the question of love, because how else can you sustain a marriage? If I have no feelings for a man, it doesn’t matter even if he meets all the standards that I set. I know I am not perfect either and need to find someone who can tolerate my imperfections. 

But the thing is, my desirability fades as time goes on in a society like China.

Height, age, property ownership and money among men are prized, whereas for women, it’s our youth and appearances. As a woman, it’s more attractive to be young than rich.

Many eligible Chinese men want to marry younger, pretty girls instead of their equals. But more and more women are receiving better education these days and there are not too many “Cinderellas” in real life. 

Career-minded women also have it especially tough because they’re bogged down by work and have no time to date. I don’t think it’s that they’re not interested in settling down but that they can’t carve out time to meet people.

I joined the TV station that I’m working at two years ago. I love my job, and the work-life balance aspect helps too. For now, I don’t want to take on a role that requires me to clock long hours because I could use the spare time to meet new people. 

Right now, my first priority is to find someone to marry. It’s a tough time to job hop anyway.

In China, it’s pretty common for us to state our relationship status on our resume, and there’s this unspoken rule that when you’re single at my age, it’s harder to change jobs.

Companies worry that you won’t concentrate at work because you’re so busy trying to find a husband then raise a child. It's usually easier to switch jobs again when your children are older.

I hear and read about more and more women being happily single, but I can’t say I know any personally. Puns like “sheng nu” being written as 胜女 (winners) instead of 剩女 (leftover women) are interesting though and I hope more people accept the idea in Chinese society, but for me, I think life would feel incomplete without marriage and children.

Having studied abroad, I know that a woman’s marital status isn’t as important in Western countries. Neither is it a big deal to be single over 30, but the reality is that I live in China. I can’t change societal norm on my own and when in Rome, I do as the Romans do.

Photos provided by Piaoyi Dai.

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