When did I stop caring about marriage? I’ve asked myself this a million times. I think it all started with the baby boom among my group of friends last year.
In China, matrimony is strongly associated with having children — having a baby is the logical next step. When all of my friends began getting pregnant last year, it felt like my time for beginning a family was nearing.
Problem: I’m not married. Nor am I looking for a husband.
I am 35 years old and have lived in Shanghai since the completion of my graduate degree in the U.K. 10 years ago. In that time I have had a few long-distance relationships, but I’ve also been single for a good part of it.
I spend most of my time alone: reading, writing, freelancing, walking, and traveling. I have been all over the world, to more countries than I could ever remember.
Many of my girlfriends already have two grown kids; the rest are busy changing diapers. All of them share cute photos of their families on WeChat — China’s most popular instant messaging app.
I always used to claim that I loved kids more than anyone. All of my life I could never stop myself from giving out hugs to them wherever I went. But I realized last year, after staring at the posts of my friends on WeChat, that I merely saw children as playthings — not something I necessarily wanted for myself.
They can make you cry with laughter, but first you need to go through the ordeals of pregnancy, and then put your life on hold for 18 years while they grow up.
No thanks, I love my freedom. For me, the decision is simple: I don’t want children and I don’t want a husband.
I would take a stable relationship over a traditional Chinese marriage any day of the week. In China, the intent behind matrimony is often to bring families together instead of individuals.
I understand that marriage is important. Sure, it’s an age-old institution, but after all of the affairs and divorces I’ve seen, it just doesn’t seem like something to aspire to. I guess it helps sustain a sense of security, but the union is easily destroyed, and its destruction often just wrecks a person’s ability to love.
Of course, my family doesn’t see it this way. When I was in my early 30s, my father wouldn’t stop nagging me about tying the knot and starting a family. I eventually asked why it was necessary as long as I could support myself and was happy. He didn’t have an answer.
Marriage is a divisive issue in China. The reasons parents want their children to get married are relatively straightforward: to achieve better social and financial status, to gain prestige within the extended family, to sustain the blood line.
Since children reaching adulthood have traditionally been left to finance the extended family, parents hope their son- or daughter-in-law will be well-established, allowing them to be better supported as they grow older. Many parents couldn’t care less whether or not their child is in love with their spouse. In traditional thought, love is a temporary passion and cannot support a family.
It may seem strange to outsiders why parents have such a strong grip on their children’s lives, but it all comes down to an ancient virtue deeply embedded in the Chinese mindset: filial piety.
Many Chinese parents feel that since they gave life to their children, there is a sacrosanct bond between them. They are blood and bone — never clearly separated. You are my offspring; in short, you are mine. This belief fosters a desire to control their children, continuing on into adulthood, as we can see in pressure to marry.
So at the end of the day, which party is being disrespectful? Do our parents ask for too much, or should we as children just let our lives be ruled?
It seems to me that we should regard each other as free individuals. It’s unfair to tie someone to a pact they made before they were born. Human beings must show respect to one another, regardless of age or family hierarchy.
We should agree to disagree. There are still many generational misunderstandings in Chinese society, but we must work to move past them. Marriage should be the primary concern of the individual, and not be entered into for the benefit of the greater family unit.
China is undergoing rapid social changes. An older, conservative generation is at war with a younger, independent one. Society is slowly becoming more open, but there is still a long way to go. The roots of tradition remain deeply ingrained in our culture.
(Header image: Gold bangles are fitted on a bride’s wrist as part of a wedding tradition during a marriage ceremony in Hong Kong, Jan. 25, 2014. Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Image/VCG)