For China’s New ‘New Women,’ a Dream of Flight
“My Dad once said to me […]: Do you want to stay in Chengdu forever? Or do you want to have your own dream? He said, if you stay in Chengdu, then after you graduate, you’ll work here, and find someone to marry, and that will be your life. And then he said: Do you have a dream? If you have a dream, then you should follow it: Go off and realize your dream yourself. […] Actually, he said all that very casually, but at the time, I did take notice. I thought about that question a bit. And then I said: I don’t want to spend my whole life there. I don’t want to be like ordinary girls and just pass my life in a very ordinary way, so I thought: I want to go out, I want to take a look around, take a look at this world.”
Suyin told me this story a couple of months after she arrived in Melbourne, in response to a question about what had motivated her to study abroad. Her tale is striking for the way it links together the concepts of personal dreams, transnational mobility, and gendered expectations. She describes a mobile dream fueled by the hope that study abroad would not only broaden her horizons beyond the city where she had lived since birth, but also rescript the standard female life course that seemed inevitable if she stayed put.
Our interview was part of an ethnographic research project I undertook between 2015 and 2020. During those years, I devoted myself full time to hanging out with a core group of 50 Chinese women studying at eight Australian universities, interviewing each of them regularly to gain an in-depth sense of how their experiences unfolded over time, from pre-departure in China, through several years of study in Australia, and on into their lives in China, Australia, and the wider world after graduation. In my book-length study of their experiences, “Dreams of Flight: The Lives of Chinese Women Students in the West,” I show how their gendered situation as young women shaped their motivations for studying overseas, their day-to-day experiences in Australia, and their sense of their roles and identities as women after graduation.
A little-discussed aspect of China’s “study abroad fever” is that, like Suyin, a majority of Chinese students in the main Western host countries are women. For example, women comprise about 54% of Chinese international students enrolling in Australian universities. But why? And how does being female impact these students’ experiences of overseas study?
During the hundreds of hours I spent in conversation with participants, Suyin’s rhetoric of educational mobility as involving a certain kind of dreaming was often echoed by others. Participants frequently and fluently framed the aspirations they hoped overseas study would advance — to land a leadership role in an international company, to get an Australian Ph.D., to start an import-export business, to feel at home travelling the world — as individualized dreams. As can be seen in this list of examples, many of these dreams involve forms of transnational movement: of people, of knowledge, of money, and of goods. It seems that for these young women, to dream is to dream of global mobility.
The public culture of China’s large cities, too, is awash with the rhetoric of dreaming. Commercial and governmental advertising campaigns accost residents with assertions of the importance of dreaming, their authoritative voices demanding that one pursue a dream — to drive a luxury car, to realize one’s potential, to see the world, to have a beautiful lifestyle, to contribute to China’s glorious future.
This dream trope emblematizes the turn away from the collective political subject that dominated under high socialism, toward the individualized, competitive, consuming subject of the market society. Given the increased opportunities available to singleton daughters of middle-class families, both the ideal of aspirational selfhood and the project of study abroad are alluring to young women as well as men. Urban daughters are commonly encouraged almost as strongly as their male peers to dream of acquiring the personal independence, advanced skills, and academic credentials that will enable them to compete and thrive in the market economy. Many women in the post-1990 generation see independent self-fashioning and attendant post-traditional forms of femininity as desirable and achievable, and these aspirations often underlie their decisions to undertake overseas study.
But these same women are also subject to strong social pressures based on neo-traditionalist understandings of adult women as “naturally” marriage-and-family-oriented. This way of thinking assumes that it is normal and beneficial for women to get married and exchange self-focus for family focus by age 30. After three decades in which the Maoist state line championed gender equality, the current prominence of this assumption — that women are innately gentle, nurturing, and family-centered — indicates that gender relations have to some extent become re-traditionalized in the post-Mao era.
One of the clearest ways in which the state supports the neo-traditionalist gender ideology is through its popularization of the “leftover woman” stigma attached to highly educated women who remain unmarried into their late twenties. In turn, this is connected with a number of structural shifts either directly led or enabled by the state, especially the government’s pressure on women to return to the family in times of rising urban unemployment, increasingly open gender discrimination by employers, and a widening gender-wage gap.
How, precisely, does gender play into their decisions to travel overseas for degrees? Two factors emerged from my fieldwork. The first was gender bias in the domestic job market. For example, mothers and prospective students recalled stories of female job applicants with an outstanding grade point average who lost out to male ex-classmates with lower grades; employers directly questioning women applicants about when they planned to marry and have a baby; new female employees being asked to sign contracts promising not to become pregnant for a set period; women workers being forced to accept unpaid maternity leave, and so on. In this context, study abroad was sometimes understood to offer female job seekers a competitive advantage against male applicants with Chinese degrees, potentially leveling an uneven playing field.
Second, some young women said they saw study abroad as a way to escape — temporarily or permanently — from the social regulation of women’s behavior, especially the above-mentioned enforcement of the neo-traditional life script that reorients women toward marriage and children at a certain age.
For some, their time in Australia created a liminal “time out” from the standard life course, one in which the force of Chinese sex-gender norms was somewhat blunted by geographic distance. Living overseas enabled the women to develop a greater sense of personal autonomy over decision making, both in relationships and in broader life plans. Some described their years away as a time of radical openness, where future directions that may once have seemed clear grew uncertain.
I first met Ying in early 2012 when I conducted the pilot study for my project. A few months after arriving in Australia, the then 20-year-old said she hoped the more relaxed tempo of life in Melbourne would let her lead a simpler, less stressful life than she could in China, savoring daily pleasures rather than getting caught up in endless competition for self-advancement.
When we met again four years later, Ying said frankly, “I don’t really have like a blueprint for my future life.” She also related that on a recent trip home: “My Dad told me I have no ambition anymore. Like [in China], everybody is struggling for like work, you know to get money to purchase a house or perhaps to get married. But I feel like, if I have a boyfriend and I love him, and he loves me, then that’s OK, it doesn’t matter; I don’t think about, you know, a house.”
Ying’s time in Melbourne decoupled her desired life from the goal-driven “blueprint.” She now took a more fluid view of her plans, based on her personal values: She emphasized throughout our second conversation that she always felt a responsibility first and foremost to herself in making decisions. Ying told me: “In Melbourne you can just be yourself. The way you want to be. But in China you have to fit (in with) others, or the very traditional ideology.”
Many participants offered related reflections. For some, time abroad loosened constraints particularly in the realm of sexuality and intimate relationships. They found that living far from the daily surveillance of their elders at home allowed them to explore relationship practices that would have been more difficult at home — especially for those from smaller cities with comparatively conservative sex-gender norms. For example, unconventional forms of intimacy including living with boyfriends, queer relationships, casual relationships, and partnerships with men of different ethnicities all seemed more possible and readily accepted in the overseas Chinese student community than they were in their smaller hometowns in China. For those from smaller cities, the experience of living abroad often led to a significant reorientation of their attitudes toward intimate relationships. These tended to become more aligned with the already comparatively liberal views of participants who had grown up in big cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou.
Unfortunately, it seems that the gendered barriers to employment in China that motivated some women’s overseas journeys still apply to them after they return, even with an Australian degree. This is all the more true since, during their time spent studying abroad, these young women have naturally grown a few years older. Unmarried women in their mid-to-late twenties seem to be anathema to some employers, who presume that they must be about to get married and have children, thus costing the company funds to support their maternity leave.
At the same time, many graduates spontaneously remarked that they felt their years in Australia had made them more independent. They felt more likely to put themselves and their own interests at the center of their life plans, and to question or defy their elders’ attempts to encourage them back toward a marriage-and-family-centric life course. A vast majority of the graduate participants I reinterviewed in China are keen to delay marriage for several more years at least. Many also remarked on the stark contrast this makes with their former female classmates and cousins who remained in China and now seem to be throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the business of marriage and childrearing.
The stories they shared with me reveal that studying and living abroad may sharpen women’s desires for a life of one’s own, as distinct from the virtues of the “traditional” girl, the obedient daughter, the self-sacrificing woman, and the family-focused mother. Whatever may happen in the future for these women, there are signs that for many of them, overseas education marks the beginning of a rerouting of both their self-understanding and their life course.
However, the central theme that emerged from my fieldwork was not so much the decisive overthrow of neo-traditionalist ideals, but rather the exhausting emotional work that mobile women perform in mediating between divergent systems of gendered value. Women like Suyin and Ying did not simply escape Chinese oppression to find freedom in the west; rather, they endlessly mediated between different cultural systems, personally absorbing the stress generated by the tensions between them. This meant that alongside a sense of personal growth, their years abroad were also punctuated by intense emotional experiences of anxiety, alienation, sadness, and anger as conflicts emerged between their own evolving life aspirations and identities and those of loved ones back home.
And of course, for Chinese students, life in Western study destinations is never free from experiences of racism, social exclusion, and rising Sinophobia, all of which may significantly impact their wellbeing.
Nonetheless, studying abroad is shaping new and significant trends in this already-unique generation of well-resourced Chinese only daughters. Like their great-grandmothers, who were inspired by the “New Woman” ideal of the early 20th century, these Western-educated “new women” seem determined — at least for now — to resist conservative mainstream pressures to embody traditional feminine virtues.
Parts of this article were excerpted from the author’s new book, “Dreams of Flight: The Lives of Chinese Women Students in the West.”
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A student from China (right) poses for photos after graduating from Sydney University, Austrilia, Oct.12, 2017. William West/VCG)