I remember the scene vividly: Late last year, I was eating lunch with a Chinese friend who was obviously upset. When I met her at the gate of the student canteen, she tried her best to make small talk, but something was clearly wrong. Her head hung low, her eyes were glued to the floor, and she spoke in one-breath answers, quiet and polite.
Finally, when we'd grabbed our trays and dug into the cafeteria food, she told me what was on her mind.
"My parents don't agree with my boyfriend," she said, elaborating that the couple had been dating for four years, and she could sense he was on the verge of marriage proposal. She loved him, she said, and she was sure he loved her.
But her parents, working-class people from central China, were practical to the bone. They didn't like the fact that he was a librarian in Beijing, or the fact that he was a few years shy of 30 and didn't own a car or an apartment. They asked my friend how he could possible support her, and what use it would do to start a family with a man who could barely afford to feed himself, let alone a second (and potentially third) mouth.
My friend's arguments did no help. Her parents disagreed. That was final.
A few weeks after our meeting, just before Chinese New Year and a family reunion that would have been painful had she disobeyed her parents, she broke up with him. There was no other way, she told me.
Such is the dilemma in modern China, where young adults must balance cultural and family expectations with the overpowering desire to blaze their own path and do things their own way—touting individualism over collectivism.
I've found that expectations are fairly clear cut, and roles are typecast from a Hollywood movie. Men are usually expected to secure a steady job and then lean on their families to buy a car, an apartment, and anything else that proves handy in landing a wife and starting a family. Women, for their part, are expected to succumb to their gender roles: Marry before 30, have a child, and raise him or her (preferably a boy) to success. In many circumstances, it seems like desperation kicks in if a woman is approaching 30 and hasn't married yet.
The toll these expectations take on many of my classmates from Tsinghua University's graduate school is obvious. As they approach graduation and prepare to enter the struggle of China's vicious job market, the expectations their family, teachers, and friends place on them is near crushing. What this leads to, in many instances, is grads accepting jobs they despise, or aren't good at, and entering living situations they abhor, because it's stable and, above all, what is expected of them.
To an American coming from a culture that places so much value on individualism, on pushing hard to achieve success for yourself above all others, sacrificing so much to make others happy is a hard cultural norm to swallow, but one that I've come to understand as an essential and inseparable chunk of Chinese culture.
And it's something that, for all its cultural obscurity to me, is something that I can't help but admire. So many of my close Chinese friends have a long-term outlook, and the patience to boot, that I only wish I could muster. The endgame is what is important to them, and if they need to endure a month, a year, a few years, of self-loss and unhappiness to arrive at a stable and prosperous situation for their families, present and future, they often do it.
So now, to my Chinese friends in turbulent situations that require tough choices, I've learned not only to ask "what do you want," as I would with my friends back home, but, a lot of times more importantly, "what do your family and loved ones want?"
This, I've found, can make all the difference.
The author is an American living in China