Category Archives: Dating & relationships

Lijia Zhang on gender, China’s sexual revolution and prostitution in contemporary China (Interview: part 2)

My grandma was a prostitute-turned-concubine; my mother a frustrated worker and victim of the political campaigns; and myself a factory-worker-turned writer, making the best out of new opportunities. These stories illustrate the changes Chinese women have gone through.

Lijia Zhang is a role model for women across China and worldwide. Zhang’s mother dragged her out of school, sold her textbooks and forced her to take a job at a factory making missiles capable of reaching North America so she could contribute to the family income. Watching her dream of studying at a university dissolve as she spent her days checking pressure gauges among a roomful of condescending older men, she may have resented her position but Zhang knuckled down to work nonetheless. Frustrated by her limited opportunities as a young woman in a male-dominated industry, she taught herself English and got a degree though the factory programme. That was just the start; her determination and courage never failed.

lijia-paintingYears later, Zhang is an internationally renowned writer and public speaker, known in world media as an expert on China, and one of the few (“probably the only”, she says) Chinese writers writing in English actually living in China. To many of her readers and listeners, China may be a far off place. But for Zhang, it is her background, home, and her every day reality. Her presence is a vital sign: she hasn’t given up on China. She is still here, speaking, writing and fighting for what she believes China needs.

A proud women’s rights advocate, she has become an regular speaker at Beijing’s Literary Festival, held every March at The Bookworm in Sanlitun. Her most recent appearance last Saturday was tainted by the absence of fellow speaker and LGBT activist, Xiao Tie, who was turned away by Beijing police at the door. Talking about women’s education, sexual autonomy, and China’s new anti-domestic violence law with Australian historian Claire Wright and British reporter Bidisha, Zhang acknowledged that Xiao Tie’s detention demonstrates the ongoing need for a strong feminist movement in China and the imperative demand for greater women’s rights.

Zhang has two teenage daughters, who live with her in Beijing (the elder attends university in England) and have utterly different lives from her own. Zhang says she sometimes finds it hard to understand what drives her daughters, unable to assimilate her own poverty-stricken upbringing in Nanjing with their privileged cosmopolitan lifestyles, rich with opportunities she didn’t have. Nevertheless, the open-minded relationship she describes makes her seem like a pretty cool mother to have.

Part two of the interview explores themes of gender, sexual freedom, China’s sexual revolution and Zhang’s upcoming novel, Lotus, about the life of a sex worker in contemporary China [excerpts from Zhang’s first book, Socialism is Great!].

Freedom and Sexual Freedom

Do you think your opportunities are restricted by your gender?

I can say that in the factory, for women it was a lot more difficult. The higher you go the fewer women there are, which is one of the reasons that made me interested in writing about women’s and gender issues. Women’s position in society really tells a lot about what’s going on, how civilized the society is.

You wrote that your mother never explained periods, pregnancy or childbirth to you – she said that you were born from her armpit.

I guess being born from an armpit sounds more acceptable, less embarrassing, than being born from a vagina!

[excerpt] No one in my family ever mentioned the word “sex” or even implied it. When I was little I once asked my mother, “Where was I born from?” She said it wasn’t the sort of question for a child. I insisted, so she replied that I was born from her underarm, the same answer many of my friends heard from their parents. Underarm? How bizarre! There did not seem to be a hole there.

How do you think being sheltered affected your development into adulthood?

It means I wasted less time on my looks. You know, we were self-conscious about the body, but we didn’t have makeup, so we wasted less time on it. My daughter is so different! She is very beautiful and she is aware of that fact. We were just traveling in Ethiopia, a poor country, and even traveling in public on the bus she was putting on makeup, on the bus! Whenever I wanted to take a photograph, she said: “No, I don’t want a photograph. I haven’t got any make up on.”

Your early relationships with men seemed to be a catalyst for you dreams of escaping factory life in the 1980s.

That hasn’t changed. I still like a clever man. For me that’s more important than looks. I’ve always been conscious of my being uneducated, so I always find an educated man, an intelligent man, attractive.

But if anything has changed, I place a lot more emphasis on how they must be nice people. I will not go for a man who is successful and clever, but not nice. Unfortunately, a lot of successful men are not particularly nice! Their focus on themselves and self-absorption gives them the drive to go far.

What is the link between your sexual awakening and your ambition?

It was all part of the rebellion. I was willing to be different, willing to try new things, and wanting to expand my world and life experience. In many ways I think I haven’t changed that much. My situation in life has changed, but fundamentally I think I haven’t changed.

How have attitudes toward sex changed since your life in the factory?

Oh, changed dramatically. I spoke with famous sociologist Li Yinhe recently. She conducted a survey in 1989, and some 85% of people claimed they had no sexual experience before marriage. Among the 15% who did have sexual experience, some of them were already engaged, which means by Chinese standards that they are already a couple. Now very few people will have no sexual experience by the time they get married. So there’s been a huge change.

Could you give me some idea of how official attitudes and peoples’ personalattitudes toward sex compare?

One reason that a so-called sexual revolution has taken place is that the authorities have retreated from people’s personal lives, sex life included. When I first went to the factory, there was a scandal. A married man and an unmarried woman were discovered having an affair in my mother’s workshop. The couple got caught and the man was sent to a labour camp for three years. The woman was more or less ruined, I think she tried to commit suicide. So in the 1980s it was a big deal. Now it is no longer a big deal. Certainly the authorities are still urging people to stay loyal to their partners, but [infidelity] is tolerated. That is an area the government no longer try to control.

Having said that, it’s only tolerated as long as you don’t go over the top. A professor form Nanjing – in many ways a nice man, a good professor who looks after his mother – was organizing orgies. That’s not allowed. So this area is not completely left alone.

Has positive change been seen in the availability of sex education?

No, there’s not enough. While sex before marriage has become commonplace, there’s not enough sex education, especially among the rural population. There’s a standard example: when a couple get married and the woman could be getting pregnant, they’ll be given condoms and someone will demonstrate by putting the condom on their thumb. So the woman will still get pregnant and they’ll say, ‘Oh, how did you do that?’ They put the condom on the thumb.

Sex education is supposed to be part of the curriculum but it is not strictly implemented. So on one hand, there’s this explosion as the divorce rate is increasing, abortion rates are rising and STDs have rocketed. But on the other hand sex education is totally lacking.

What about women’s access to contraception and healthcare?

It’s quite free. But people don’t know how to use it, because at school, there’s not enough education.

You describe going for a backstreet abortion and having to keep it secret, even from your mother. How would you feel if one of your daughters were in a similar situation?

We just talked about this when we were just on holiday and they laughed. Both of them became sexually active at quite a young age. I remember one year, I think when my older daughter was fifteen or sixteen, I wrote her a letter to tell her not to: ‘Please don’t start your sex life too young, I think once you do that it may generate emotions you find difficult to deal with, but if you have to, then use contraception for goodness sake.’ She hugged me but she hinted that by then, she’d already done it. That’s the norm. I think it’s just peer pressure in some ways. If you haven’t got a boyfriend, you’re not successful. It’s so stupid.

How do you as a family compare to other Chinese families?

Oh, we talk about this stuff. Yes, we talk about sex. But, it’s quite funny. My daughter said, ‘of course, by the time you wrote me the letter, I knew everything.’ Because they have access to the internet and pornography.

Just thinking about my daughters, they seem really immature. My elder daughter is nearly nineteen. She has no sense of money, but she is smart in so very many ways.

Do you think you were like them at their age?

No. We always had so little food; maybe they have had things come too easy for them. Whenever my mother came back home, we were always thinking about whether she had enough to eat. My father was very selfish and we never liked him very much.

I just had a conversation with my daughters, you know they are so vain. For me, more than anything else, I think they must be good, decent human beings. But they are a bit self-absorbed, a bit selfish I think. Maybe it is just a generation thing, I don’t know.



Your new book, Lotus, is about a sex worker. Why did that idea arise?

Before she died, I discovered my grandmother was a sex worker. She was an orphan and sold into a brothel. She met my grandfather on the job and then became his concubine.

How much did you learn from her about that part of her life?

Not very much, but my grandmother was a very important person to me, somebody that brought me up. You wouldn’t imagine that she was a concubine, but I am curious how she coped, and what her life was like. My grandma’s story inspired it but I didn’t know any details.

Later, one year when I was in Shenzhen for work, I was staying at a hotel and my hair was dreadful, so I went to get a haircut. The women just giggled and said there was only one person who knew how to cut hair and that person was not around. Then I saw that there were no hair shavings on the floor. So I just looked at them all, wearing very low cut dresses.

Have you unearthed anything that’s brought you moral quandaries or personal danger?

No, no personal danger. But I discovered that many people have the same fantasy. People ask me: are these prostitutes beautiful? They’re just normal women – some are ugly, some wear more makeup, they wear more revealing clothes, but they are just normal women.

Their lives are very complicated. All the prostitutes I have met help their family. It is out of obligation but it also makes them feel good. They know prostitution is wrong so they argue, ‘look I’m helping my family, you cannot say I’m a bad person.’ Also, because they have money, they improve their position in the family, who are proud of them, which gives them a lot of pleasure.

I stayed with them, those prostitutes. I was really interesting. I asked one woman, ‘what’s your favourite [food]?’ and she said, ‘toast on jam.’ She had begun to experiment with things; in the village you would never have heard of such things. I went to see her mother. I asked her what to buy for her mother, she said, ‘buy something my mother hasn’t tried.’ So this was all part of her trying new things. I bought her mother a durian.

Why does the world need to know about China’s sex workers?

Prostitution is just a device, a window to show the tensions and the changes. You can pack in so many important issues: migration, women’s position, the gap between city and rural.

What challenges did you face when researching Lotus?

Part of the biggest challenge is their life is so far removed from mine. One of my friends said: ‘try and work as a prostitute, you can satisfy your sexual needs, and you can make some money, and do your research.’ Imagine, if I had to work as a prostitute! I know I have lots of choices in life, so it’s difficult to identify with their life.

They’re just humans, they’re very complicated. I really had lots of fun. They talk a lot about breasts and some of them have implants. One woman’s implants go sideways! You know, just awful. Before they are successful [with a client] they often go to the back room – they really compare their breasts!

I went to another of the prostitutes’ home to visit her family. She had become quite successful, she had bought her family a flat and she no longer lived in the village. She went back because she was supposed to be sweeping the tomb for her stepfather and when she arrived she put on high heels. High heels! When we were walking to the mountain she was wearing high heels. To show [her change in status].

Sounds like you quite enjoyed that process.

Of course, yes. But it took me so long! I worked as a volunteer, distributing condoms. If we hadn’t met, how could we have language, what would we talk about? If they’re not in my life, it would be difficult to imagine. So many small details in the book are real.

Lijia Zhang’s novel Lotus will be available in 2017, published by Henry Holt & Co.

Read on: Lijia Zhang on ambition, writing and her public role in contemporary China (part 1)

Excerpts of this interview were published on Caixin in February 2016. Check out my Caixin debut here: Redefining the China Dream.


What’s in a name? or, Who am I?

Shakespeare told us that: ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, which is true, to an extent. And yet, and yet…

Some people suit their name. There are those people who are utterly, one hundred percent, an ‘Annie’ or a ‘Joe’. Perhaps they were the first person called Annie that you ever met, or they remind you of another Joe you once knew, or they are a dead ringer for a celebrity with the same name.

Names are often wrong, though. I often meet someone and find it impossible to remember their name because it simply doesn’t suit them, according to my personal opinion. It doesn’t quite seem to fit their face / personality / dress-sense… It doesn’t fit in with my worldview. It happens a lot. Countless times. As a young teen I was taught drama by a girl (Natalie, maybe?) who should have been named Mel because she was basically a younger version of my babysitter Melanie. At university I did a project with a woman (Emily, perhaps? I’m really scraping the barrel, here) around whom I had to physically bite my tongue if I wanted to prevent myself calling her Gaelin, after my neighbor in high school. And now I cannot remember their names. Their names were obscured by memories of other people.

Every Harriet will forever be eclipsed by the girl I grew up spending every weekend with, pretending we were sisters by wearing identical jeans and striped t-shirts as we climbed trees and bounced on the trampoline in her countryside garden. Those memories are so strong that ‘Harriet’ just means one person, to me.

Sometimes, a name is surprising. Maybe it is just such an uncommon name that it takes a while for the name-face match to embed itself in your brain. My boyfriend’s name is Sven. He is the only Sven I have ever met or even heard of within the realm of possible acquaintance. It took me weeks to stop telling him: “I can’t believe your name is actually Sven!” It’s not a common name in the UK, in the USA or, apparently, anywhere else he has lived either. He’s only met a handful of people with the same name. He once emailed back and forth with the guy in Germany with an identical name (surname and given name), because American Sven got the Gmail address first. In fact, our South African pilot flying us from Hong Kong to Beijing on Dragon Air last Sunday was also named Sven, and my boyfriend was boastful about having glimpsed ‘pilot Sven’ as we alighted at 2.30am in Beijing.

There are a whole host of issues we have with names and how we remember people. Some are better at it than others (I swear, my sister remembers every single name ever told to her – she knows all the names of our brother’s reams of friends, while I know about five), some people simply seem more memorable than others. But it is different when you cannot remember your own name.

There are plenty of days when I “don’t feel myself” – that’s a phrase I would often use when I am feeling under the weather. But usually those days are when I am most aware of my body, my health and my priorities. I am closest to myself in the moments when I give myself space to relax. The irony is, I am most conscious of who I am when I recognise that I am not giving my body or mind what it needs.

Today was one of those days. I had been playing catch up since last weekend, when we got home to bed at 4.30am on Monday after living it up in Hong Kong for three nights. I have taken on new students, I had stayed up super late mid-week and I have had to force myself to find time to blog every single day. So I arrived at Friday night and totally conked out.

Saturday is my only day off. If there’s something to be done I cannot manage during the week, Saturday’s my time to get that done. Otherwise it waits a week, sometimes two if I’m teaching the coming weekend. So, I had high hopes for today. And an expansive, flowing, metre-long to-do list. That, of course, I did not complete for sheer exhaustion.

I had plans to meet my boyfriend for lunch and a coffee an indeterminate length of time after I finally climbed out of bed. Although I woke up thirsty and eager for food, I simultaneously did not want to rush. Saturday is treat day. Saturday includes zero percent rushing. I am permitted to: Take. It. Easy.

At around 1.30pm, when I still hadn’t showed up, he messaged me, addressing me by name. And that’s when I realised I didn’t identify with my own name. What was written on my screen did not, at that moment, equal the body whose weight I could feel and whose reflection I saw in the mirror. Not today.

Your perspective shifts, sometimes, when you work 13 days straight and don’t get enough sleep, and some things get unmoored. Even if you’re supposedly writing your feelings every day, for public eyes, you lose sight of the really important things in life. And it takes time to find yourself again.

I thought back to all of the names I have been called throughout my life. My father used to call me Big C (before this took on the sinister association with cancer). My sister chased me around yelling ‘Caca’ as a two year old (which means “poo” in French), and the names my brother calls me change regularly. I grew up as one thing, but that changed when I left home. My university friends didn’t understand the link between the two names until much later. I have many names, now. Some friends know me as my Korean name, some as my Chinese name, and my students call out my surname (when they make the effort to go beyond ‘teacher”, that is).

I am many different things to many different people. But, to myself, I am someone unique, loved and undeterred by public opinion. It is nice to get back in touch with that person, when time allows. It is nice to remember that you’re not the sum of what you do.

Since you left me

Here is a piece I wrote a little over a year ago, sitting in a coffee shop in Beijing, recuperating after a disappointing afternoon and a tough first few weeks in China. After all the frustrations I’d come up against and the trying paths I’d trodden to get there, I hoped that maybe I had made the right decision, somewhere along the line.

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Does having leg hair make me less of a woman?

Last week I shaved my legs for the first time in 9 months. Why? I wanted to see if it made me feel like more or less of a woman.

It began last summer (duh), during a bikini/beach/beer holiday with a gorgeous blonde and a beautiful Asian – the two women I lived with at the time. Our week in Croatia brought back a recurring issue for me. The pale hairy legs of the winter had to come out and face the summer sun. I have long felt required to shave/wax/epilate waaaaaaaay up to the top of my thighs because my hair grows thick and dark. (Look at that “because” – where does it place the blame? On the hair.) Ever since I have felt the presence of this obligation, I have felt uncomfortable with everything it stands for.

IMG_2461When I was 12 I was bullied for not shaving my legs. Every other girls’ mother, it seemed, had bought them razors and given them lessons in leg-shaving. This seemed like not only a rite of passage in what seemed like an instant shift from girl to woman, but also a mother-daughter bonding exercise that my mother seemed loathe to opt into. She disliked the entire concept of shaving and didn’t use razors. I was so insistent though, that she promised I could have my legs waxed for my year 7 summer disco – the end of primary education, the beginning of grown-up-hood. (I had emerged from the same disco two years earlier flanked by my two best friends who eagerly betrayed my under-cover-of-darkness disco activities to my waiting mother by spelling out: “She snogged, S-N-O-G-G-E-D A BOY!”)

I would spend that summer on a beach in Brittany reading Life of Pi, contemplating the size of my thighs and worrying about whether people at high school would think I was fat. The previous summer I had “borrowed” an older girl’s razor at camp and cut myself on my first attempt to shave my legs in the shower, then lied about it to my generously gullible (or so I thought) mother, telling her they had forced me to do it. The real impetus came from the bullying I got from the two sisters I shared a room with; it was all in their disgust at my downy 11-year-old legs. The summer after the Brittany beach I spent hours plucking my eyebrows in a tiny mirror and the half-light inside my tent. I returned to high school with chavvy, barely visible and too far apart eyebrows.

My life since puberty (perhaps before) has seemed like a constant battle between my mother’s and other girls’ (and thus their mothers’) opinions. The navigation of types of bras, deodorants, eyebrow plucking, underarm shaving, make-up wearing… everything was a contentious issue and I was stuck in no-man’s land. Short-term, other girls’ opinions (heavily dictated by advertising and celebrity culture) won out. My mother would love me whatever I did, so her opinion mattered less than the high school girls who would judge and exclude me for not following the crowd… But long-term, my mother’s talent for challenging the status quo has reigned supreme in me, and there are few opinions I value as much as hers.

These events are not simply part of the past and therefore to be brushed aside; they are cumulative experiences that affect my relationship with my body, and thus my bodily negotiation with the social, cultural and political world around me. They are part of my embodied knowledge of both my self and the other; that which governs me from within and which surrounds me from without.

In the midst of the fourth wave of feminism, women are reclaiming the female body in all kinds of ways. Australian actress Caitlin Stasey’s web project Herself, a space in which participating women’s bodies and words are openly displayed as they choose, is one inspiring model. Stasey states:

“Herself is a gesture to women for women by women; a chance to witness the female form in all its honesty without the burden of the male gaze, without the burden of appealing to anyone. Let us reclaim our bodies. Let us take them back from those who seek to profit from our insecurity.”


Your body is all you’ve got (the mind/spirit/body division is redundant – its not as though the mind is some separate entity controlling the body from a remote location):

One is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body and, indeed, one does one’s body differently from one’s contemporaries and from one’s embodied predecessors and successors”, states Judith Butler (521)

Whether we like it or not, the body is the only vehicle through which we experience the political, social and cultural framework we are intrinsically a part of, and this inherently affected by. As Butler states, everything we do is governed somehow by our surroundings: “the body is always an embodying of possibilities both conditioned and circumscribed by historical convention.” (521)

This is particularly potent when we think about gender. Butler points out that there is a “tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders” (522). We take it as a given that there are defining lines between ‘man’ and ‘woman’ and that these are clear and immutable. These “polar and discrete genders” divide along the biological lines of sex (male and female), and unite us within those two groups. If we think about the gendered body, ‘woman’ is expected to be significantly less hairy than ‘man’, regardless of genetic differences that actually affect the volume of hair that grows on the female body. (Where did this idea originate? It’s not as though women and men of the same racial background evolved with vastly different volumes of body hair.)

Butler asks her reader to “reconceive the gendered body as the legacy of sedimented acts” (523). Practices we consider normal, like what we do with the hair that grows on our bodies, accumulate over time to create our identity and thus our gendered identity. We begin by copying others and later reproduce these collective practices in order to create and sustain our gender. Women (particularly western women) are socialised to believe that the correct performance of their gender involves removal of visible hair all over the body.

The choice to stop shaving my legs after that Croatia trip was my way of reclaiming my body. I drew inspiration from my two wonderful companions who, sexy ladies that they are, did not feel the need to shave above the knee. Neither did they feel they were defying social requirements. Had they never felt the heat of disapproving eyes on their hairy legs because people hadn’t noticed? Had they never received comments about it because they’d got finer, lighter, less visible hair or because this was not a body issue that played on their minds? Were they so unconcerned about hair removal because nobody had ever told them they should do it or because they’d always had the confidence to tell those people to back off?

IMG_2483For me, advertising and peer pressure had been equally vicious and haunting influences upon my body image. I’d had hairy legs before (usually for the few weeks between boyfriend visits), but never shown them off in shorts or a bikini. Being hairy was (and still is) an issue I have a complex and uncomfortable relationship with. This time though, I let it grow and wore my hairy legs proudly. I spent the summer running a mile a day through busy streets wearing tiny shorts and in a bikini by the pool with my family. My initial weeks in China were unbearably hot, so shorts were the only comfortable option. The only comments I received were declarations of admiration and support.

Over the winter, my legs inevitably got paler and the hair just kept growing. For the first time I noticed how the hair grew – where it was thicker, where finer and the places where it just didn’t grow. It began to really know my body in a way I hadn’t previously. Looking down at my muscly thighs covered in fine dark hair I was reminded of my physical strength (perhaps I enjoyed the ‘masculine’ element of it?) and took courage. It felt like the real me.

The brilliant thing is that it required zero effort. My skin took care of itself underneath the hair (whereas shaved skin gets much drier and needs a lot more attention). It felt 100% natural for me to let my body be. I stopped performing my gender (in this one small aspect), and could relax.

The problems began when I wanted to have sex. In the run up to dates that could potentially go further, I interrogated myself continually. Should I shave my legs, just in case the evening went in that direction…? Or should I not allow the evening to end in sex (even if it were on the cards) so as to avoid the awkward disgust my hair might bring? I decided that any guy worth my time would simply accept me as I am, hair and all. Unfortunately, acceptance doesn’t necessarily counteract disgust.

It’s only happened a few times, but I have actually been told that my choice of personal grooming renders me physically less sexy or completely unattractive to the guy I’m attempting some kind of physical relationship with (once while actually still naked in his bed). Many people are too kind to comment, but will nonetheless expect women to have virtually zero body hair. But different men are bothered by hair on different body parts, so perhaps there are no universal expectations as such?

The existing expectations emerge through socialisation; the more we see hairless women (in real life, on tv, in magazines, in porn) the more we understand this to be the normal, natural thing for a woman to be. Butler states: “[t]he authors of gender become entranced by their own fictions whereby the construction compels ones belief in its necessity and naturalness.” (522) By shaving their legs, individual women are perpetuating the idea that women as a gender have hairless legs, and are thereby reducing wider social acceptance of hairy legs.IMG_2457

What is more natural than NOT changing your body? Unfortunately, this line of argument seems to have been lost in some twist of logic, and thus the ‘natural’ way for a woman to look/feel/be is hairless in all the right places.

Do women actually feel / look more female when they shave their legs? Does hairlessness make a female more of a woman? I wanted to try it out for myself. So I shaved my legs for the first time since last June.

I enjoyed the process because it brought change. Difference is always a positive thing, newness is fun while it lasts. But ultimately it brought me little joy and no permanent feeling of difference. I keep thinking, “I bet [insert inspirational woman’s name] doesn’t bother to shave her legs everyday.” What effect should a woman’s personal grooming habits have upon her public image? It doesn’t affect her personality; it only marginally changes her appearance… So why does it have such an impact on identity?

I’d like to extend my little experiment to women around the world. Cultural, racial and generational differences taken into account, do women feel they ought to remove their body hair and why? How does hair removal correlate to the correct performance of a woman’s gender?

Please let me know your thoughts!

Read on:

Butler, Judith. ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.’ Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519-531. (Caitlin Stasey)

To Shave or Not to Shave; Why is that the question? Zhendegender, 2014

25 Things I Did Instead of Getting Married at 25

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Thirteen months ago, I published an article entitled 25 Things I did Instead of Getting Married At 25. It’s a polemic and judgemental piece about marriage and married people, spurred on by sensationalism. It was an overreaction to people I knew getting engaged, having babies, and posting pictures of their weddings on Facebook. Perhaps it was I, not they, who was scared shitless about the future.

I had been worried that people my age were choosing marriage, relationships, and children – what I viewed as symbols of conventional life – over careers, travel, and self-improvement. I wrote: How can they be my friends when we are so clearly of very different attitudes toward life?

I was proud of everything I’d achieved, having left my home country and arrived, alone, in China. I wanted to tell the world: there are other ways to live a fulfilling life. (Or did I think I needed to prove that some ways are better?) But, what I failed to ask myself was “why should their life choices reflect mine?”

I have always had conflicting views on marriage. Marriage doesn’t seem personally necessary when I know I could live a (financially, socially, politically) stable and independent life perfectly happily. It is difficult for me to see the relevance of an ancient social convention in modern life, particularly with its links to religious bodies that have never held a significant position in my life. It has been particularly hard to reconcile my feminism with the idea of one day getting married: marriage traditionally implied the ownership (and thus restriction) of a woman, and why would any woman willingly choose that?

Times have changed. People have changed. The nature of marriage has changed.

I would still argue that marriage is largely non-essential in modern Western life. I do still believe that marriage is not the only way to show you love someone. But I’ve stopped seeing it as “a pointless gesture people undergo to publicly declare their feelings”.

The very fact that it is non-essential for the majority of people is possibly the most powerful element of modern marriage. Rather than becoming insignificant, it possibly means more than it once did, purely because it is so heavily reliant on individual choice.

I would nevertheless advocate exploring a less conventional path through life, particularly for young people in countries where marriage is still the expectation. For example, many young Chinese women are still expected to get married by the time they are 27, under threat of becoming a “leftover woman” if they wait too long. Rather than be forced into marriage by the phantom “biological clock”, I believe the marriage question must be left to individual choice.

At 25 there’s still so much learning, growing, travelling to be done!

Perhaps there are many more interesting things you could do with your time than settle down with your mortgage and a brand new hubby. But marriage is not the end of life. In fact, it could just be the beginning. There’s still so much living to be done, that in 10 years time, you’re probably not going to be the same person you are right now. So if you’ve found someone who’ll love you for who you are in years to come, rather than who you once were, then you’re a very lucky person.

Getting married is not settling down, it is flying free together.

Nonetheless, it is with pride that I give you 25 things I did instead of getting married at 25:

  1. Fill up a passport five years before it expires
  2. Get a job that changes lives
  3. Move a few thousand miles from home and stay there
  4. Live alone and make your house your home
  5. Start a blog and publish things people actually read
  6. Meet friends with whom you only speak your second language(Korean)
  7. Begin studying a third language(Chinese)
  8. Make your own fresh coffee instead of buying it
  9. Create and nurture an indoor garden… keep the plants alive!
  10. Sing at an open mic event unrehearsed
  11. Learn Capoeira
  12. Quit the job with the sexist boss
  13. Read non-fiction of your own choosing
  14. Study online courses
  15. Become financially independent which means doing your own tax returns & facing up to the Student Loans Company
  16. Vote in the UK elections from overseas
  17. Dance around naked in your living room
  18. Make your Dad proud so he tells you every time you talk
  19. Invite your Mother to visit and stay in your home
  20. Tell the world “I am a Feminist!”
  21. Actually make friends with colleagues
  22. Learn more about Buddhism
  23. Inspire people around you
  24. Celebrate Lunar New Year in proper Chinese style(over-eating and fireworks)
  25. Never stop setting new goals

post revised 10th April 2016

Read on


Having It All: Career and Love: can we ever have it all?

What do Punk girl bands, hangovers and radical feminist texts have in common? Valentine’s Day 2015

The highlight of last year’s Valentine’s was the Friday night adventure of a housemate’s kitten whom we thought had found her way outside for the first time in her life and was instead rescued by another scantily-clad-and-feeling-macho housemate from beneath the floorboards and given a very scratchy bath at 3am. A tad less dramatic, this year I spent V-Day entirely alone with my hangover and three soon-to-bloom hyacinths.

IMG_2046I had spent my Friday night at my first Chinese metal gig, unexpectedly finding myself in the mosh pit at a bar called School having met a new group of people earlier in the evening. I felt at home among the mostly Chinese Doc Marten clad crowd. I had the appropriate number of piercings, for once. At the next venue, I danced my arse off for approximately four hours, careful not to spill my pint of Guinness (most recently acquired taste) and ended the night doing cartwheels on the almost empty dance floor, to cheers from a group of worn-out/drunk Chinese patrons. I got messages from two guys I’d met on Tinder (and never met), who’d both recognised me as I danced like a lunatic wearing stripy jeans… I wonder how this changed their perception of me.

IMG_2043Having gone to bed at 6am, I wasn’t exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailedfirst thing on Valentine’s Day, but then it’s not like I had anyone wake me up by bringing orange juice, coffee and a croissant to me as I sat up in bed. Instead, I spent the day drinking various kinds of tea, listening/dancing to Girlpool songs and reading my copy of Vagina: A New Biography (which made it’s first outing to a Beijing Starbucks on Friday, to the surprise of about 4 other western patrons).

So there I am, swearing at almost every other page of my radical feminist text as I read by candle light, sipping my tea in my empty apartment, and I realise how immensely happy I am to be alone, on this of all days.

I’m a romantic. I am. I fall in love with characters in novels as often as (well, probably more often than) the next person. I cry at films. I write quotations on post-it notes that cover my apartment. I listen to Tracy Chapman on repeat. No matter how many times I re-watch the 1995 dramatisation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, my heart leaps at the moment Lizzy realizes she loves Darcy (though maybe it’s got something to do with Colin Firth’s thighs). But Valentine’s doesn’t strike me as romantic.

image2Perhaps I am cynical, though I’d like to think of my ideas as realistic. During a recent first date, he and I discussed our views on marriage over my very first pint of Guinness. He seemed impressed (or was it closer to horrified?) to find I was even more cynical than he. (aside: Yes, we talked marriage on the first date. Problem?) I simply don’t view marriage as a necessary or even positive part of life. The same goes for Valentine’s Day.

It’s the one day every year when it is apparently normal to pass judgement on the validity of people’s relationship status. And it gets competitive. All those Facebook statuses of ‘perfect brunch with my perfect boyfriend’ and photos of happy girlfriends having been taken on surprise trips to Hawaii. I find it all rather sickening, to be honest, that couples apparently need this day (and, often, this day only) in order to show their appreciation of one another (that should happen all year around). And for those people who don’t have a partner? It’s like it’s designed to make people feel lonely.

It probably seems like I’m feeling dejected about being single, or that I’ve never been romanced. That’s far from the truth. My first boyfriend gave me a single red rose on our one month “anniversary” (quotation marks = what a blatant misuse of the word). He bought me a diamond ring when we’d been together six months. He gave me a heavy chunk of glass with a photo of us and the caption ‘I love you x’ laser-etched into it when we reached one year. Need I go on?

Being alone does not equate to feeling lonely. Why should anyone be made to feel lonely? Why should man or woman feel that their life is incomplete without another person?

I’ve been musing a lot, lately, on the futility of playing the waiting game. Whether it’s waiting for a guy to text me back, or a boyfriend to come over, or for the next time I could visit him, I feel like I’ve spent a lot of my life waiting. Waiting for someone. Waiting for something to happen.

Waiting around like that harks back to a time when a good match in marriage was vital for a woman’s success in life (and being in love with the man you married was considered a bonus). During those days of waiting I imagined myself a romantic heroine, doing nothing but waiting. But that’s a Jane Bennett thing to do. No one really wants to be kind, gentle, passive Jane.

Perhaps the active alternative, for the impatient among us, is the over-eager, (slightly psycho-bitch?) thing of clinging onto someone you imagine makes your life better. Perhaps they do make your life better… but why rely on someone else to make your life good? That’s what flirtacious, man-obsessed Lydia Bennett would do. I can’t help thinking of something that makes me laugh every time (at least partly to do with their fantastic accents), but is rather poignant, really.

This is what crazy sounds like via text messaging:

No one wants to be Lydia (who brings “shame” on her family for going out and getting what she wants, which is a whole other kettle of fish I won’t go into now). No one really wants to be Jane, either. We’d all prefer to be their badass, witty sister, Lizzy.


Back to waiting: How is it productive?!

The one thing it certainly creates is a plethora of unvoiced expectations. Spend your entire day waiting for someone, while that person is out living their life. Chances are, that person will be full of things to tell you about their life but won’t understand why you’re full of resentment when they’re too tired to cater to your whims. If you have uncommunicated expectations of someone, they’re likely to disappoint you (how can anyone possibly guess what you want from them?).

Waiting for something to happen to you takes all the autonomy out of existence. The fact is, only you can make things happen in your life. Only you can be the active element in your life.