Over the past two decades, the number of women from China’s one-child generation studying in the West has surpassed that of their male counterparts. In 2014, women comprised 51 percent of Chinese students in the United States, 55 percent in Canada, and 63 percent in the United Kingdom.
Every year, Chinese international students secure jobs and settle in the U.K. after they graduate. These new immigrants are a largely elite group: They hold degrees from well-regarded British universities, have permission to reside in the country, and hail from relatively wealthy families. Unlike the marginalization experienced by earlier generations of Chinese immigrants, this new group integrates more fully into mainstream British society. Their work and social circles are not limited to the Chinese community.
Given the exorbitant cost of studying in the United Kingdom, international students typically rely on middle-class parents to foot the bill for their education. In 2016, statistics from China’s Ministry of Education showed that more than 90 percent of the country’s international students had their tuition fees paid by their parents, most of whom view studying abroad as a way of making the next generation more competitive economically and socially.
There is little evidence to suggest that parents pay attention to their child’s gender when funding their education. Over the last few decades, the prevalence of single-child households in China has made parents less likely to favor boys over girls when it comes to their children’s studies. Indeed, the majority of Chinese students in the U.K. are enrolled in postgraduate courses, a trend that signals their parents’ willingness to invest in higher education. But does parents’ readiness to send their daughters abroad also herald growing domestic support for gender equality?
To find the answer, in 2014 I conducted in-depth interviews with 33 Chinese migrants, both men and women, who had previously studied abroad. When discussing their individual experiences growing up, studying overseas, or job-hunting in a foreign country, most of the women I interviewed spoke of their professional ambitions, as well as how their parents supported them both in their studies and careers. However, this does not prove that their families have internalized the concept of gender equality. A closer look reveals that even these relatively “Westernized” single-child families continue to be influenced by traditional Chinese gender norms.
In interviews with these women’s parents, I sometimes asked: “If you had given birth to a boy instead, how would you have raised him differently?” All parents said they see boys and girls as equals, or that they treat their daughters like sons. On the subject of her daughter’s consistently excellent grades, one 66-year-old mother from eastern China said: “My daughter isn’t fragile; she has a boy’s temperament. I’ve never allowed her much time to spend on dresses and jewelry.” Similarly, many daughters echoed their parents’ words and emphasized the high expectations they grew up with, along with their desire to emulate men. One interviewee stressed that her mother encouraged her to leave home and seek her fortune elsewhere, and noted that she was never taught how to cook.
Societies tend to categorize certain personality traits as masculine or feminine. In a competitive social and economic environment, there is a preference for traits associated with masculinity, such as independence, assertiveness, and a strong work ethic. Meanwhile, fragility, a fixation on external appearances, and the ability to do household chores are all seen as feminine.
Many parents try to make their daughters appear less feminine in order to prepare them for their future professions. But in doing so, they betray a subconscious bias against women. These attitudes can be difficult to detect, especially within single-child families. After all, when you can’t compare one child’s treatment with their sibling’s, it is easy to mistake parents’ high hopes for their daughters for a belief in true gender equality.
As part of my research, I also interviewed parents whose only children were sons. When I asked them what they would have done differently if they had given birth to girls, their responses much more overtly reflected traditional gender biases. One father in his mid-50s from a relatively affluent city in western China said: “I don’t think I would have demanded that she be so professionally focused. I wouldn’t force her to work too hard.”
Chinese parents want what’s best for their children, but gender norms dictate that sons are supposed to live up to their parents’ expectations by pursuing educational excellence and well-paid, high-status jobs. As parents with sons pass down these age-old beliefs, they give more obvious support to traditional gender roles. Similarly, while parents with daughters often talk about challenging these norms, they don’t necessarily subscribe to them.
Although the U.K. boasts more women than men in its Chinese student population, it is actually harder for men to find romantic partners. Among my interview subjects, there were far more single men than women. In interviews, most straight men expressed a clear preference for finding Chinese girlfriends, whereas straight women didn’t have strong views on whether their partner should be of Chinese descent or not. As a result, the dating pool for male international students is rather restricted.
This phenomenon can be partially explained by cultural differences between China and the U.K. The traditional notion of male-dominated marriages exists in both the West and in East Asia, and stereotypical impressions of supposedly strong-minded, independent Western men and submissive, family-oriented East Asian women has given rise to certain prejudices and fantasies among both groups. As a result, there tends to be a greater social recognition and acceptance for unions between Western men and Asian women.
In addition, while Chinese men have largely demonstrated an ability to adapt to British culture — both at work and in their social lives — they still emphasize the importance of tradition when it comes to finding a partner. When asked why they prefer to date Chinese women, straight men often cite fewer barriers to communication and the ease with which partners get along with their parents. Such notions illustrate how, when searching for the right match, Chinese men continue to value traits traditionally associated with femininity. Women, on the other hand, have far more diverse and individual tastes when it comes to finding a partner.
It is therefore difficult for many Chinese men living abroad to find their ideal partners in the pool of available female immigrants. Some men return to China in the hope of finding a spouse and bringing her back to the U.K., but the outcome is seldom ideal. One man who owned a transnational company trading between China and the U.K. told me that his romantic life is complicated by the influence of British culture. Even back in China, any potential spouse would have to speak English and tolerate his constant traveling.
Although the proliferation of affluent single-daughter households in China has produced a wave of elite female international students, it has not yet convinced large numbers of middle-class families to fully internalize gender equality. Traditional norms, too, play a significant role in the romantic lives of Chinese men living overseas, leaving many struggling to find spouses. While people travel thousands of miles in search of greater social and economic mobility, gender biases travel with them, and will probably continue to affect Chinese migrants for the foreseeable future.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Correction: The author’s interviewees were all former overseas students. All of them had graduated by 2014.)
(Header image: College students take graduation photos in Wuhan, Hubei province, July 2, 2017. Feiyu/VCG)