Women are more numerous than men in China, or so I am told. In all manner of situations, I have found women confiding in me concerning their personal lives, especially in relation to men. Why me? I wondered. Do I have that pastoral air, one that encourages people to speak what is troubling them? Is it because I am now a grandfather, with the ability to give supposedly sage advice on life’s problems? Or were there other reasons? At first they seemed like stray conversations, with no connection between them.
‘My friends say I am big trouble’, she said, leaning forward. We were on a bus and she was sitting on the seat behind me.
‘Big trouble?’ I said. ‘Why?’
‘I haven’t got a boyfriend’, she said, putting her fists in her eyes and mimicking crying.
‘I can’t see that that’s a problem’, I said. ‘How old are you?’
‘I won’t say’, she said.
‘But haven’t you had boyfriends?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes’, she said. ‘I had one when I finished high school. But when I went to study in Beijing, he found another girlfriend. I wouldn’t believe it at first, and not even when I returned home. But they got married and had a child’.
‘Anyone else?’ I said.
‘A few years ago I met a foreigner’, she said. ‘He was working in Shenzhen and I was here. We lasted for about two years, but it was too far away’.
‘What about now?’ I said.
‘I’m too old’, she said. ‘No man is interested in me. They think I am too independent, that I have strong ideas. I can’t find anyone’.
‘I have a secret to tell you’, she said.
‘It goes no further than me’, I said.
‘My husband and I have divorced’, she said softly.
‘Was it difficult?’ I said.
‘A little,’ she said.
‘But why did you divorce’, I said.
‘I am unable to have children’, she said.
‘Is that a reason for a divorce?’ I said.
‘I come from a traditional village,’ she said, ‘in the countryside of Shandong. So did my husband. We tried and tried, but it turns out I am unable to have children. His parents have been pressuring him for so long, since they want a grandchild.’
‘Parents?’ I said.
‘Confucius was born in Shandong province, so we are very influenced by the need to respect parents’. She said. ‘But it’s also the whole society. There is immense expectation that a woman will have a baby’.
‘Did you and your husband like each other, perhaps even love each other?’ I said.
‘Yes, I quite liked him’, she said. ‘But I couldn’t stand the pressure anymore. The trigger happened after I had been overseas for six months. We had already separated, but not told anyone. And then while I was away, he met another woman. She phoned me when I returned home and told me about them. I filed for divorce immediately’.
‘So what now?’ I said.
‘I am a single woman now, over forty’, she said. ‘That is not so common in the countryside’.
‘Anyone else?’ I said.
‘I would like to meet someone,’ she said. ‘But it is difficult for a woman my age. I am too old for many men. Perhaps a foreigner …’
‘In the city?’ I suggested. ‘Surely there are men who would be perfectly happy with someone who is more settled and mature’.
‘Perhaps’, she said. ‘Or perhaps I will get used to being on my own. I may even enjoy it more that way’.
Two conversations out of many more, but it was not until I met Chen Ruihong that it finally made some sense.
‘Have you heard of the “old girl” problem?’ She asked me over a cup of tea.
‘Old girl problem?’ I said as I imagined doddery old biddies in walking frames and with sticks, staggering about all over China.
‘Yes, single women over 30’, she said. ‘They are regarded as real problems. TV shows are devoted to it, blogs, newspaper columns …’
‘Over 30! Are you serious?’ I said.
‘You see,’ she said. ‘In China it is assumed that a girl will meet a boyfriend after high school finishes, that they may spend a few years together before getting married around 25, and that they will have a child before she is 29.’
‘Is that in the country or the city’, I said.
‘More so in the city’, she said. ‘In the countryside, girls marry younger and may have two children’.
‘So what’s the problem with 30’, I said.
‘It’s assumed that a girl is too old by then,’ she said. ‘She has formed strong opinions, she is too independent’.
‘Parental pressure, Confucius, the whole society …’ I said, recalling my earlier conversations. ‘Given all this social pressure, why are more and more women not getting married before 30’, I said.
‘Changing social patterns and assumptions,’ she said. ‘It’s not that more women are gaining an education and working, since that was already happening due to communist influences. And many couples both work. I guess it’s because women see that so many marriages are made due to family pressures. Couples quarrel all the time, have affairs, are unhappy’.
‘What about divorce?’ I said.
‘Yes, that is now at 50 per cent in the cities’, she said. ‘It has become much easier’.
‘50 per cent?’ I said. ‘Older or younger couples?’
‘Older couples,’ she said. ‘It is usually when their child is a teenager and they realise they don’t want to spend the rest of their lives together. So women can see that marriage isn’t usually to their benefit’.
‘What about you?’ I ask. ‘How old are you?’
‘32’, she said.
‘Are you married?’ I said.
‘Yes, I was married last week,’ she said.
‘So there are men who marry women over 30’, I said.
‘Yes, thankfully’, she laughed. ‘Some women look to marry foreigners, but they don’t need to. I must admit that my parents are so pleased’.
‘But why did you get married now?’ I asked.
‘I have experienced many things’, she said. ‘But I thought I would like to live my life with someone else now’.