Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Low Marriage Rate in Taiwan: Part I

I mentioned that I'd like to share my thoughts on the link at the bottom of this post, about a girl in Taipei who's chosen to marry herself. Apparently at first her mother wasn't convinced but is now on board with the idea, and she's doing it not only to stick her tongue out at the pressure she's feeling to marry, but also:

"I was just hoping that more people would love themselves," said Chen, who will go on a solo honeymoon to Australia.

The short of my observation is that this is a wonderful thing - she's throwing a small party, frankly a party that's smaller than some birthday parties I've had. She's not wasting money or turning it into a Princess Day. She loves herself and is not afraid to say so. I think it's a bold step to publicly vow to be good to yourself, to love and cherish yourself, and to laughingly tell naysayers to shove off.

The comments in this article are, shall I say, mostly very unkind. It was reposted to a forum I frequent where there were no horrifying, imbecilic comments about her looks, weight and age there (I won't re-post any comments from the article here because they don't deserve the bandwidth) - a few people mentioned the Princess Complex and a few said she might be angling for gifts, but mostly there was a more positive reaction.

I tend to agree with this kinder take on things, because living in the same city as Chen, I've made a few observations about women and marriage expectations.

First of all, while it is true that many Asian women bear the brunt of a social stigma called "Christmas Cake" ("nobody wants it after the 25th" - UGH), I have to say that in Taipei city I don't really see this pressure; at least, it's not as strong as many people assume it is. It certainly exists, and I'll cover that below.

I have several good female friends who are between the ages of 28 and 35 and none of them are married. I've actually never been to a wedding in Taiwan because nobody I know well here has gotten married - they're all about 30 and all single! Some have boyfriends, some don't. All seem to be fairly content, although all do share a desire to find someone to share their life with - not because they're expected to, but because hey, who doesn't want love and companionship? (A few people, but that's a different debate). Several of my students and tangential acquaintances of students I've met have expressed a strong desire not to marry. Not "oh, it doesn't matter" or "I don't care" but I DO NOT WANT TO MARRY.

Now, on this other really excellent blog post on women and marriage in Taiwan, not just the post but the comments (especially David's) are really thoughtful: With regards to the lack of material on Google Scholar I will relate a small anecdote. A certain sociology lecturer at NCCU spent an entire semester presenting graphs and tables about marriage rates, fertility rates and female participation in the workforce. Yet she failed to offer a single theory or explanation for any of the trends. It's easy to draw the graphs and identify the trends, but not so easy to understand exactly why.

And Okami: I think the key part they really miss and I get this from talking with lots of Taiwanese women is the total sense of insecurity and lose of control that marriage entails for them.

And finally, in the post itself: In many of the articles I have read the unmarried young woman is typically portrayed as a sort of Taipei Career Girl independent, with her own income. However, authors above note that the reality is more prosaic -- the epidemic of non-marriage is silent and rural, the class that doesn't appear interviewed by researchers or in the media. Foreign brides aren't filling a gap but displacing Taiwanese women at the bottom of the ladder.

I'm focusing mostly on the Taipei Career Girl, because that's my observable reality. That's who my female Taiwanese friends are. And while Michael's post was very insightful, I did notice a dearth of actual Taiwanese females coming to weigh in on the topic (not Michael's or anyone's fault). However, I will try to drum up a few thoughts on the rural implications of this trend.

It's Not Work That's Dissuasive

In my observation, Taipei girls are a lot like Chen - a lot quirkier, more thoughtful and more interesting (and more mature) than one thinks at first glance, but stuck in a culture of "好可愛喔!" and Hello Kitty, trapped in office jobs they don't actually like - who would, given the long hours and dull projects handed to most Taiwanese office workers? - a culture very hard for them to throw off for a few reasons. First, on some level they actually like cute things, like Hello Kitty and those little bobblehead cartoons with very expressive faces (I used to know what they were called - anyone?), and genuinely don't realize that festooning their cubicles with 7-11 toys does, in fact, obscure the insightful and intelligent side of their personalities. Second, it's almost a double-pronged attack with those horrific office jobs. There's family pressure to get one (Mom: "Be an accountant. You'll always have an income. It's very safe." Daughter: "But I hate everything about accounting - the math, the forms, the long hours." Mom: "Just do it. You'll understand when you're older." Trainer: "So why'd you become an accountant?" Daughter: "Because my mother told me to.") Family pressure can be especially hard to shake in Taipei. There's also still a sense of work and work ethic that is starting to change in the USA and Europe but remains firmly embedded in Taiwanese culture: the idea that you are not supposed to *like* your job - it's what you do to earn a living and support a family because you *have* to, because it's just what's done and there is no other choice. It's a very Silent Generation mentality, one that we Gen X/Millenials (I'm on the cusp between the two and thus can be very confused at times!) are turning on its head.

In fact, when looking at office workers - in general, even though my intention is to focus on female office workers, I see a lot of similarities between them and the attributes commonly ascribed to the Silent Generation. This turning-on-the-head of the notion of the silent hard worker whose goal in life is to make enough to support a reasonable lifestyle and nothing more just hasn't made it to Taiwan yet, and I see it affecting women more than men. Why? I can't put my finger on why, but my intuition leads me to embedded cultural sexism. Sons have greater autonomy in what they study as long as it's adequately remunerative. Daughters are told to study accounting, and not really expected to be anything more than OLs (Office Ladies - think gophers and low-level managers or coordinators). In fact, in my observation, to make it from Office Lady to Manager, a woman has to basically be a bitch by Taiwanese cultural standards.

Side note: it's been really interesting, in this cultural milieu, to see the reaction of my students to the ideas presented in this TED talk about the need for autonomy, mastery and purpose in a career.

So what I have found is that my friends (generally in their early 30s and generally Office Ladies) aren't dissuaded from marriage by lofty career goals. Their non-married status has little to do with the jobs they work every day and generally do not like. So I don't buy into the idea of the Taipei Career Girl who doesn't get married because she's got high-flying career ambitions.

Of course there are always exceptions, and I can name a few of my own. I have had several very high-ranking female students who are unmarried by choice or necessity (as in, they'd be married if they met the right guy and could keep their career going, but that didn't happen). One who is corporate counsel, another who is an HR Director. Etc. etc. Those are the women who don't marry because of their career - not the average Office Lady.

I should note here that career prospects for Taiwanese women, before and after marriage, are much better than the rest of Asia - it's still not a perfect situation but then the USA has a problem with glass ceilings, salary disparities and skewed expectations, too. Compared to women in Japan, China and Korea, Taiwanese women have a good thing going and are clearly enjoy greater equality.

That's a topic for a different post, though.

Could it be the men?

Among my female friends in Taipei, it has a lot more to do with men they'd want to marry vs. men who are eligible, and their own selves compared against the Taiwanese Female Ideal is maybe a little less than favorable -which I find ridiculous, but I find all Ideals - male, female, any culture, ridiculous. Unlike the commenters in the article, I agree with the rationales of these friends: there is something to be said for "the world is changing and the men just aren't keeping up". I've heard of mothers urging daughters to be "quieter - no man wants a blabbermouth. Men like quiet girls". I've heard of dates in which the man pulled out a calculator to split up the tab exactly down the middle. (For the record, I am not against going Dutch even on a first date. Just that bringing out a calculator to do it? Really? Seriously? That's just sad and cheap.) I've been told about breakups instigated because the boyfriend wanted his girlfriend to be more demure, to not appear smarter than him in public, to never one-up him, and ultimately to be a good wife who would continue to work and yet still do all of the housework and raise the children.

Unlike commenters on the original article who said that a woman of 30 with a checklist and no boyfriend ought to look inward to see the problem, I think having standards that necessitate avoiding such men is crucial, and a laudable step in the progress of women's rights. No woman should have to put up with those expectations. Much better to hold out for someone who loves you for you, not to change yourself into something you don't even recognize so you can marry before 30.

This is one reason why I love the Chen article - she is who she is. She's doing something brash and ballsy, she's not horfing diet pills in an attempt to resemble a 5'3" Bic pen the way many Taiwanese girls do, and she loves herself. She's not buying into those sad, worn-out sexist ideas. She's not being fake-quiet or self-loathing...if anything, she's doing a great thing by making vows to herself, to love herself and stay true to herself. I've just got to love that.

I think a lot of women in Taipei feel similarly, even if they don't express it in such a public stunt. There is a slowly awakening awareness in women that they shouldn't have to change who they are to fit an outdated ideal, and I can only regard that as positive. The idea that more people should love themselves really hits home - if you need to change who you are to find a man, how can you love yourself if you don't even act like who you are? The fact that Chen is willing to publicly, semi-tongue-in-cheek-but-not-really buck this trend is, if anything, a good sign.

Societal Expectations of a Married Woman's Responsibilities

One thing I do have to say - at least in Taipei there are still issues regarding household chores and child-rearing, as well as of living with and kowtowing to in-laws - but the issues of drinking, abuse, binlang-chewing etc. are minimal. I do, however, believe that these are huge issues rurally (especially domestic abuse - it's a much bigger problem in rural areas than Taipei City).

Taiwan has done an excellent job, compared to other Asian countries, of integrating a feminist perspective into society. Women here have more freedom, more leeway, fewer expectations piled on them and more choice and earning power (and respect) than in pretty much every Asian country. When you compare Taiwan to Japan, Korea or Mainland China, it just kind of makes one sad for Japanese, Korean and Chinese women when you look at all they don't have that Taiwanese women do. There has been a huge change in parental desires to have daughters/sons - daughters are now usually welcomed. They get the same or similar education as their brothers. Nobody finds it odd, at least in Taipei, if they continue to work after marriage. They're not expected to be baby machines except by their grandparents.

However, expectations regarding housework and child-rearing are still a problem - it is apparent in my observation that a lot of women are not marrying for exactly that reason. They may not love their jobs but neither do they love housework, and at least working outside the home entails independence and a salary. Who does, really? They may well expect to live with parents-in-law who expect her to do all the cleaning and a husband who does not help. They often see themselves with a baby that they get little assistance with.

One student of mine said that he'd steer his son towards a well-paid career because he'd have a family to support, but encourage his daughter to study "art, or whatever she likes" because "she will probably get married and have babies". There it is right there.

For women who are beginning to gain a more egalitarian view of the world, is it not excruciatingly obvious why they would choose not to take that path? I would say, far more so than the "Taipei Career Girl" myth, that this is why women in Taipei are hesitant to marry. Would any women reading this right now feel like doing anything other than running the other way if confronted with that set of expectations - you can keep working. In fact, you should keep working. But cleaning the house is also women's work. And taking care of the kids. Oh and my mom is going to come live with us. No, she's not going to help you clean and neither is my dad. (I have to say to this that I have the best in-laws ever and I can only wish others are so lucky).

So the question here is - why haven't Taiwanese men caught up? (More on that below).

Expectations of Appearance

At least one friend has commented that being of darker skin, having very "Asian" eyes and having a figure - a really great figure by Western standards, with all the right curves - instead of being a stick insect has made it hard to find interested men. This just makes me sad. Another friend, whom I happen to think is gorgeous, is a little thicker-waisted but is kind, sociable and intelligent enough that I just refuse to accept that this should be a problem, is also judged harshly by the impossible standards of appearance for Taiwanese women.

All I have to do to conclude that those standards are horrific and, honestly, stacked against most women is look in the beauty section of Cosmed or check the average sizes in boutiques. When Size 8 is "XL" and you need skin bleach, fake eyelashes and glitter gloss to even compete, something is wrong. Then again, where in the world is this not true?

Yet another reason why I love the Chen article - despite the ridiculous comments that she's "overweight", I think that unlike many of the women here to starve themselves (some really are naturally that thin, btw. I don't mean to deride all skinny women in Taiwan) she looks healthy and natural, and she's not letting any expectations about her appearance get in the way of her happiness.

Foreign Brides and Xiao Taitais

This is also an issue, and I think may be the central one on why Taiwanese men just plain have not caught up to the feminist, equalist reality in their own country. To be fair, many have. In the course of my job and social life I've gotten to know quite a few Taiwanese men in a range of ages, careers and backgrounds. A large number of them are, in fact, quite enlightened and receptive to women's equality. I do not mean to tarnish all Taiwanese men...the population I mean here is, if anything, in the minority in Taipei.

This is one issue that I think is split between rural and urban. Taiwanese men who have a Xiao Taitai (a second wife/family in China, where he travels frequently for work) tend to be urban, as they are the ones with the types of jobs that send them abroad on business. I don't see many foreign brides in Taipei, but I know this is a huge issue rurally. (Foreign brides meaning Southeast Asian or Chinese women who come to Taiwan to marry Taiwanese men).

Simply put, if you are a Taiwanese man who is not disposed to or educated to appreciate women's rights, if you can go to China to visit your more traditionally-minded wife or import a wife from abroad who will be basically a maid who shares your bed, there is no push, no necessity, no impetus to gain that respect or at least investigate why Taiwanese women act the way they do, and look inward on your own beliefs vs. those of the modern world.

Does the pressure to marry really exist?

With articles detailing how more and more women not persuaded that married life is better than single life, mothers not encouraging women to marry etc. I'd say no...at least in Taipei the pressure is not that strong. I actually view this as a good thing - in the long term, not feeling pressure to marry means that if you actually do marry, you'll be marrying someone you truly want to be with (like me! heee) instead of a "He'll do". No person - male or female - should feel "pressure" to marry. Ever.

There's also my whole cohort of anecdotal evidence - my single, 30-something Taiwanese female friends don't show any outward pressure. One has been with her boyfriend for ages and is clearly not rushing to the altar. One goes on dates and says she gets flak from her mother and boss, but doesn't seem to feel any intrinsic pressure. None feel compelled by the Christmas Cake myth.

It's there, for sure, but like Chen, while they may feel extrinsic pressure, they don't feel intrinsic pressure. They take their mothers and grandmothers, if those older relatives are pressuring them, with a grain of salt.

Thoughts

What I'd like to see is more general education and public awareness on gender equality - not just aimed at reducing domestic abuse, homewrecking alcoholism and the Xiao Taitai culture. It should also cover the things that get to the root of the problem: the need for equality, gender issues (both related to stereotypes of men and women - there's anti-male sexism too, y'know), the importance of respect and shared housework, shared child-rearing, and good communication with extended family...as well as a basic respect for equality in the workplace.

Heck, I'd like to see this stuff in the USA, too.

Then, and only then, do I think Taipei will see an increase in the marriage rate.

As for rural Taiwan, the post at The View from Taiwan is exactly right - it's the same problem but with very different consequences and very different roots. I don't live in rural Taiwan and don't have female friends who grew up in rural Taiwan (I do have a few students who did, mostly male, and females who are in fact married) so I don't feel comfortable delving into that, given a dearth of experience and observation.

7 comments:

Michael Turton said...

Really a wonderful post. Did you see my other one on this topic?

http://michaelturton.blogspot.com/2010/05/western-male-fantasies-about-taiwanese.html

I am also glad you found my post useful. it began as a quest to find information that lay outside the typical bounds of this conversation about why Taiwanese women don't get married.

Thanks, great stuff here.

Michael

Jenna said...

Fascinating! I had not seen that before, no. We were in the midst of wedding planning when it was posted and I wasn't on the blogs (my own or any other) much.

I agree with the general principles of the post, and have found that a lot (NOT ALL) Western men who come and specifically date local girls have much less of a "kohl-eyed seductive beauty" hangup as a June Cleaver hangup, but plenty manage to escape that - those being the ones who come here and date as singles are wont to do, but date girls they *like*, not girls who fulfill some fantasy - whatever that may be - in their minds.

I do not find Taiwanese men effeminate in personality, though sometimes mannerisms can be effeminate by Western standards. If anything, I find them to be seemingly very sweet and almost a little girly on the surface, but often possessing assumptions about dating and marital gender roles that are positively archaic and chauvinistic (hence my local friend here being told that she was "too talkative" and "not fair enough" so men wouldn't like her. Gah) and if anything, more masculine-as-power identified than back home (where the everyday male is OK...the sexism only seems to come out in Internet comments.)

Taiwanese men can be very strong, good providers, and still seem "effeminate" without assumptions that that seeming effeminacy undermines their power. Most intend to marry, buy an aparment, provide for family (whether his wife works or not) and take care of his parents. I'd call those very masculine, old-fashioned traits.

Not so sure about "cute as power" though - in my job as a corporate trainer I work with women at all levels of the business power structure, and the ones at the top are rarely cute or girly. They're usually a bit older, stronger, more serious, not into "cute" at all. The OLs and secretaries are the "cute" ones...and they never get far.

With some exceptions: I once worked with a prominent physician (if I say what medical field it'll be too easy to figure out who it was) who put adorable pink and purple flowers all over her presentation slides, and yet people cowered in fear of her. I worked with a corporate counsel, female, who was addicted to designer fashion, and I don't mean sharply-cut suits (embroidered cowboy boots, brightly patterned skirts) - she got away with it in a way that no high level female lawyer could have in the USA.

And of course Tsai Yingwen...you saw the picture I took of her rally van, with pink hearts and whatever.

The commenter who said that Taiwan had prudish moral values? Hah. Hahahaha. He needs more local friends who actually tell him things. People think the kids here are so good - no. We live on our own after college so our parents won't know what we're up to. They live with parents, and do all that stuff (whatever it may be) in motels. Dude needs to get out more.

Okami said...

I have some questions and thanks for quoting me.

1. Do Taiwanese marriage rates differ by county and rural/urban?

2. What do men think? In theory, men should be evolving to get married and have families, but I'm not seeing this and I'd like to know why or at least hear some good theories.

3. Has Taiwan society really evolved past the women being menial job workers and baby machines? On the edges, I'd say yes, but as a whole, I'd say it hasn't evolved at all.

4. I'd honestly like to see what men think because there are 2 sides to this equation and only one is really being focused on. With the current ban(best term I could think of) on foreign wives, why aren't men changing?

Anonymous said...

Michael Kimmel-The lives of women have changed dramatically over two generations, in an room full of people, few people's grandmothers worked outside the household, half-most people's mother's worked outside the household, but virtually all women in the room planned to work outside the household. Thus their mentalities and expectations have changed dramatically, and some men are aware of the changes and adjust accordingly, but most are not. Taiwan in interesting because there are options to marry women whose expectations have not changed as dramatically and there is a lesser need for Taiwanese men to "get with the times."

Jenna said...

Well, I can only hope that some Taiwanese men will write in. In the USA my friends are a solid mix of male and female here basically of my local friends are female. Not exactly sure why that is, but it is.

Unfortunately, I don't have marriage rate statistics for rural vs. urban Taiwan, but when I have more free time I can look: shouldn't be hard to find.

Some observations though:

I would say the issue of progressiveness/traditional-mindedness runs a fairly level bell curve (I'm no sociologist, this is pure observation here with no 'science' behind it) with one end being very progressive men. An example would be my student who said if he doesn't help with housework and his daughter, he's "in trouble", but says it with a smile - you can tell he agrees that he SHOULD help.

The other end is super conservative: I have a student who not only has a traditional housewife for a partner, but it's a really old-school match - she's a housewife in the most traditional sense, down to running the budget and giving him an allowance. I have another student who wanted to marry "a country girl" and went to his hometown in the countryside to find a wife through a matchmaker.

And of course your average office workin' scooter ridin' man falls somewhere in the middle.

The problem I see is that this bell curve is skewed somewhat to the conservative side, so the old-fashioned half is slightly larger and more influential than the progressive half.

Contrast this with what I see in women: their own curve would be skewed a bit more to the progressive side.

So stick the two together and on either end it doesn't match up - like a Venn diagram the spaces where they don't meet represent those who haven't had success in relationships, including marriage.

The "male conservative" end, if they don't find women who match their values locally, have other options: matchmakers in the countryside, a foreign bride, occasionally a nice girl mom introduces (this happens more than you think, but I wouldn't classify it as arranged marriage.)

The women on the progressive end who haven't found a value-matching mate locally (certainly some do) have far fewer options. Don't marry, marry a man less progressive than you, marry a (Western) foreigner. They seem like similar options, but "marry a man less progressive than you" is not popular for the reasons described in my post. "Marry a Westerner" is a lot harder than a Taiwanese man marrying a foreign bride - which, may I ask, is that really banned now? Matchmaking for these women won't work as the sort of men a matchmaker could find would skew more towards the conservative end, so it's replaced by "don't marry/marry a man less progressive than you".

So, in the end, with somewhat better options, the men feel like they don't *have* to change, or don't even realize there's a need to do so. Of course many have changed, but there's a lot of work to be done. Anonymous has a good point: men who want a traditional wife have the option to find one...women who want a progressive husband have fewer options.

I find there is a disconnect between rhetoric and action on this front: I witness a lot of lip service ("Oh yes of course we should respect women as our equals") and a lot of inconsistent actions (sexism at work, unrealistic expectations at home). This is also an issue - a verbal survey would likely not pick up on this.

Finally, I am curious about percentages for given reasons for divorce in Taiwan. I'd hazard a hypothesis that many/most are the result of differing gender expectations, whether that shows up in a Xiao taitai, an affair (on either side), or just two people who hate each other after years of arguing about housework.

Jenna said...

As for your 3.) and 4.) -

3.) In the cities, yes, but not that far. The new "menial job worker" is an OL, and it's acceptable not to have many children these days, or any children at all. In the countryside, no, I'd say it hasn't changed much.

What I do see in the countryside are family-owned shops where both spouses work. They seem to do equal levels of work in those shops, and if the woman gets credit for her labor then I'd say that's a step forward (if she's running the thing while her husband takes credit as 'the owner' that's a different story, and it certainly happens).

4.) While 'buying' foreign brides seems to be banned now, getting a foreign bride is, while more challenging, still not that hard.

However, I'm curious about what Taiwanese men think, too. I can write in with observations of my close female friends but for the male side we'd have to hope someone writes in.

Okami said...

The "ban" on matchmaking for foreign brides was I believe a law banning the payment of services to the brokers. Before the law, outside of Taipei City it was a smorgasbord of ads and billboards touting foreign wives. There was even a cable TV channel that would show off the "wares" all sitting their demurely as their age, waist, country of origin and breast size were labeled next to them. Even in my quiet Changhua County you very rarely see ads and I think a lot of it has gone underground.

Have you seen the marry the classmate thing? That was common when I lived in Taipei. I also wonder about the attitude of "ride a donkey to find a horse". Another thing that makes me wonder is decision making. Having been behind Taiwanese people as they've ordered things, it seems they have real trouble making decisions due to societal/cultural factors. I often wonder how this plays out as they now have to make a large decision on their own that was previously made for them by their parents or a matchmaker.

I'd also like to add the point that Taipei is the only place in Taiwan where women outnumber men.