by Summer Chiang
This story originally appeared Feb. 14 on New America Media.
Sheng nu is Chinese for “leftover woman” — a term used to describe an unmarried woman, usually over the age of 30. These women are usually well educated and successful in their careers, yet are perceived as losers by mainstream Chinese society. The pressure from their families to marry is often intense, and only becomes more so during the holidays. On Chinese New Year, for example, when entire families typically get together, it’s not uncommon for a “leftover woman” to be asked questions like, “Why are you still single?” and “When might you possibly get married?” As if that weren’t enough, Valentine’s Day comes along shortly thereafter, and the torture is inflicted all over again.
As a thirtysomething Taiwanese immigrant woman who has lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for the last six years, I know the pressures associated with being labeled a sheng nu. I am well aware that my U.S. Master’s Degree and my overseas work experience make me undesirable on the dating scene in my Taiwanese hometown, where men are turned off by my age and may even question my fertility. In traditional Chinese culture, men are more likely to seek a submissive woman to build a family with. In that context, a “leftover woman” like me is just too much of a risk.
Turning to online dating
Often when a woman gets close to 30 and is single, family and friends feel compelled to get involved by introducing guys and arranging dates. But being an immigrant and so far from family, my social circle is relatively small. Most of the people I know are from work, but a workplace relationship would probably be more trouble than it’s worth. I figured that a better idea might be to use online dating sites where I could meet new people. Plus, I’d been encouraged by hearing the success stories of some of my friends who’d tried them.
I began my online dating adventure last September with the assumption that, like in Asia, my age and status would result in a lack of interest. To my surprise, I found that far from being undesirable, I was actually quite popular on American dating sites. On average, I received about five contacts per day during the first three months. Many of the guys who contacted me for dates were engineers, but there were also men from different backgrounds. Agewise, they ranged from 22 to 59, but most of them were about one to four years younger than me. Maybe it’s just because I look younger than I am, but I’ve appreciated the fact that guys in the States are more open-minded than men in Asia.
While I’ve appreciated the open-mindedness in America, the dating culture here has been confusing and frustrating at times, especially at the beginning. The more I hang out with non-Asian men, the more I notice the differences between my own culture and that of the United States.
For example, Americans talk about dating in a much more casual way than Chinese typically do. From the Chinese perspective, when a girl has consistently gone out on dates with a guy, he is expected to stick with her. Whereas in the U.S., men and women are more likely to date more than one person until their relationship is exclusive. Before they make any commitment, they can even openly let their date know, “I am still seeing someone else.”
Also, the way an American man approaches a woman is different from a Chinese man’s approach. When a Chinese guy goes after a woman in Asia, most likely he will contact the girl as frequently as he can to let her know his daily schedule, even though they just started dating. A girl in Asia would also expect to receive texts regularly and consistently during the course of the day – texts like, “You wake up yet?” in the morning, or “I’m going to lunch,” around noon. Those texts will continue coming throughout the afternoon, evening, and night. It may sound like too much, but it’s a way that Chinese guys show their affection, and a Chinese girl would get it.
American men do their best to show a girl a good time when they’re out on a date, and their compliments tend to be very direct. But they’re way less likely to contact a woman as frequently as a Chinese man would.
I recall early on feeling panic when I hadn’t heard from a guy for a few days after a date – I’d assumed he wasn’t interested in me. In retrospect, I probably just misjudged things. On another occasion, a guy accused me of taking dating too seriously. Those misunderstandings were certainly influenced by differences in our dating cultures.
Since then, things have changed. I no longer feel like a “leftover woman,” and I’m even having some fun. So when a Chinese girlfriend of mine recently told me that she was upset by her first non-Chinese date, I actually had some advice to offer: “You’ll be all right… Pretty soon, you might even like it.”