"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.
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.