I hope you enjoy the title!
Sorry for not posting much - at all? - this week. I did an incredible amount of work and pulled off the move to the new apartment, and have had exactly zero free time to do much of anything other than work, pack and then unpack. Things should start getting back to normal around Christmas, when I hope to get back to my normal blogging volume.
I had wanted to do a post on a hike we did in Zhonghe (中和) of all places, up to Yuantong Temple (圓桶寺 - not sure I got the wrong "tong" there), but my camera's acting up and I can't seem to upload the photos. I don't have Internet at the new place yet so I can't do it whenever, so if they don't upload now, I can't just do it from home. I'll get that up soon, though.
I also wanted to pass along this link on Taiwan's gender ratio worsening, which I'll write a post about when I have more regular Internet access and time: hopefully in the coming week.
For now, I wanted to comment a bit on what it's like to be childfree by choice, and how people react to that, as an expat woman living in Taiwan. It's something I got to thinking about after reading this article on women on American prime time TV and how few of them are child-free (basically one sitcom - How I Met Your Mother) has a child-free by choice woman and deals with the topic with some degree of sensitivity. I agree with the article's redux of that plot line).
Because, you know, back home there was pressure to find a nice boy, get married, buy a house and pop out a few sprogs. It was clearly something my family wanted for me - which is fine, I mean it's something most people do, and happily do by choice, and it is at least true that my marriage has been a fantastic, vital thing in my life. It's something people just kind of figure you'll do, and look askance at you if you verbalize that you don't want to. For the record, I may be child-free by choice but I have never said that I did not want to marry or did not intend to marry. I'm actually pretty pro-marriage as long as it's a modern, feminism-friendly marriage of equals rather than being a patriarchal tool of stifling gender roles.
When I say there was "some" pressure, though, I really mean it as "some", not "a lot". Sure, the media is wedding and baby crazy - something that apparently tends to happen in tough economic times (a friend was telling me about a sociological study to that effect - people are less likely to go it alone and more likely to pair up, less likely to have kids or just have fewer kids, but are more attentive to the idea of procreation as a society - possibly because having a baby when times are tough is subconsciously seen as a status symbol: "Look, we can afford to have a baby even when the economy's in the crapper!"). And yes, one still gets comments that are based in assumptions - that you both want to get married and will do so, that you want kids and will have them. If you openly acknowledge wanting such things, it's fine. If you are faced with such a comment and are honest about not wanting one or both of them, though, it creates a frission of social awkwardness, to the point if you wonder if it's a faux pas to admit you don't want children or don't intend to marry. People are generally too polite to say anything about it, but you just know you're being judged. A tiny bit, maybe, but judged nonetheless.
This isn't true among my friends - all of whom know that I'm not into having kids - but when I lived in DC it was certainly true among colleagues and acquaintances. That's why my friends are my friends. I'm not going to waste time with anyone who'd judge me and find me lacking for personal choices.
It's a different story in Taiwan, though.
For a country with such a low birthrate, I have to wonder why everyone assumes that everyone else wants and will have babies. Clearly, with so few babies being born, plenty of women and couples are choosing not to do so - how can it be assumed that they will, or that they want to? (I realize the answer is "cultural norms and tradition", at least in part, but even those who are affected that much by cultural expectations of bygone days must realize that having the lowest birthrate in the world is clearly a sign that those days are over).
I'm regularly asked if I'm married and, when I respond in the positive, if I have kids (sometimes I'm asked how many kids I have, as though I must have gotten my babymaking on already!). I don't mind that these are socially acceptable topics in Taiwan: I'm not inhibited about talking about such things. I'm at peace with our decision on kids - in fact, I'd say it's brought me that peace, I didn't have to make peace with it - and not afraid to talk about it confidently.
The reactions I get range from wonderment to polite questioning to outright criticism, although the latter is usually delivered in a friendly "motherly advice" sort of way rather than stone-cold mean-spirited criticism. Occasionally someone has the social acuity to realize that we crazy Westerners generally don't question or openly wonder at others' life choices and will leave it at that or express support. Occasionally someone genuinely agrees.
Sometimes I get advice: not only am I wrong, apparently, and should definitely have kids, but I'll be told that at least one should be a boy, or the first one should be, and given other specifics like how many I should have and how I should raise them (the consensus seems to be that I should have two, at least one should be a boy, you know because I can control that of course, they should be schooled in a Western style but made to study as hard as Taiwanese kids - ugh! - and be raised bilingually. It's OK if I work and we get a nanny, though, or I could make my mother move here to help raise them. Ha...).
Mostly, though, I get the open wonderment of the "why on Earth wouldn't you want to have kids?" variety - and not just from old folks. From people my age, even! Talk about social pressure - for a society that procreates so little, Taiwan is certainly big on expectations to procreate.
It really is an assumption - I remember one group of students, for men, all engineers, who took me out for dinner at the end of our course. We went around and gave toasts (I'd taught them to do that) and one of them toasted me, knowing I would get married soon, saying he "wished for me to have a happy marriage and have many sons". I am often asked, after saying I don't have kids, when I will have them (not "if"). I am asked how old I am, next: sometimes the reply to my age is along the lines of "it's OK, you still have time, 31 is young" to "oh my god GET ON IT GIRLFRIIIIIIEEEEND those eggs aren't gonna stay good forever!".
I do feel very much in the minority, and I do feel that more women (or Taiwanese people in general) would come out and openly concur with the choice to be child-free if there were less overall expectations that probably keep their mouths firmly shut. I have a blog post coming up on this, but it does seem to be the case that when people make a life choice back home they're fairly open about it, whereas in Taiwan I've gotten the impression that a lot of people, realizing that their life choices go against expectations - even if they don't go against the "norm", such as not having kids - decide to say nothing for the sake of social harmony.
Again, for a society with such a low birthrate, it seems to be really short on people, especially women, who are out of the child-free closet and willing to openly embrace their decision not to have kids.
A few other notes on this topic:
First, Taiwan is a rare gem in Asia and, frankly, the world in that there are high-profile Taiwanese women who have eschewed marriage and children (although it is unclear to what extent that was a choice): the two that come to mind are Chen Chu and Tsai Ying-wen. It has not been said openly that Tsai and Chen can and should be role models for young Taiwanese women (especially Chen among women in southern Taiwan), but it deserves some thought. If anything, Taiwan could use some more female role models who have achieved both great success and have happy marriages and children: the one high profile woman I can think of who is also married is Cher Wang - I don't know if she has kids. I say this because I believe that successful role models should be balanced - to show women that you can marry and have kids and be phenomenally successful, or you can not marry and not have kids and still be successful.
Second, that I know this pressure in Taiwan is not directed at me just because I'm foreign or just because I'm a woman, although I am sure I do get more pressure because I'm female. My Taiwanese female friends, and even some of my Taiwanese male friends, have felt the same pressure. I can confirm this firsthand: I've seen Facebook status updates from friends who I know don't want children, because they've told me so, with replies along the lines of "that'll change when you have babies!" or "oh, such good practice for when you're a parent". The friend whose feed items got these replies is Taiwanese and male.
Third, rather like back home, it seems to be assumed that because I don't want kids, that I don't like kids. Actually, I do. They can be great fun and I tend to be good with them. They generally like me. I love playing with my little cousins or friends' kids. I teach two girls in a private class once a week and I like them a lot. I just don't want to devote my life to raising them. It's assumed both in Taiwan and back home that I must have massive professional ambitions and that's why I don't want kids. I have some, but I'd say that my main ambition is to have a successful, satisfying and fulfilling life with enough money to be comfortable. I don't need to be a professional phenom even though my career is important to me - I aim for success, but I won't work myself into an early grave. My main work ambitions are to be phenomenal at what I do and be in high demand, to enjoy it, but not to let it consume me. It's assumed that I am not "feminine" - which is kind of true, but not entirely. It's true that I lack a lot of characteristics typically associated with "femininity", but that doesn't mean I lack all of them (people have wondered how I can be so good at crafty things and DIY and yet not be sufficiently feminine to want babies). Before I married, it was sometimes assumed that choosing to be childfree meant that I was anti-marriage: nothing could be further from the truth. It's assumed that I have that quality so often described as "selfish": it's true that I don't want to make the sacrifices that would be necessary if I were to have children, such as giving up free time and traveling less, if at all. I wouldn't call that "selfish", though. Feeling that way and having kids anyway, now that you could make a case for. I feel the weight of these assumptions more in Taiwan back home, but they exist in both countries.
Finally, I plan to write an entire other blog post about this - probably the next one I put up - but the main difference between me and a lot of Taiwanese people, especially women when it comes to pressure to procreate is that in many cases they feel the need to actually consider or even give into some of that social pressure. It is not uncommon for a woman to agree to have kids she doesn't really want, or isn't sure she wants, because her mother-in-law or her own family expects it. I've written before about a student in this situation who is preparing to have a kid she has admitted she isn't sure she wants - but her mother-in-law is adamant so she just finds it easier to go ahead and do it. To be fair, she isn't certain she doesn't want kids, either.
I listen to my two families, but I feel no need to actually do what they would prefer. Note: neither side is giving me a problem or anything like that! When I talk about Western in-laws vs. what I observe in Taiwan, I am speaking more generally. I haven't had any problems personally but I do have American friends who have faced such issues.
I know both sets of parents would be delighted if we had kids, but I feel no obligation to pop 'em out. In fact, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of "we're trying for a baby because my parents/in-laws want a grandchild"...yet it does happen.