Updated: Sep 2
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Whenever I meet with my Vietnamese, humanities professor, he always brings up the idea that "my prince charming" is coming– a rich prince who will sweep me off my feet and love and support me forever.
Over the past two semesters, I’ve met with him at least once a month with another (male) student. Meetings typically consist of listening to my professor’s extended philosophical lectures and providing updates on how our classes are going. And at some point in the meeting, he talks about marriage and eventually his expectations for my nonexistent love life. At first, I saw his concerns for my marital status as a joke and at times heartfelt. He’d tell both of us that we need to find people who we respect and who respect us. People who we can talk to and constantly learn from and who support us. But the conversation would always end with me and my need to find a husband.
With the constant push for marriage at each meeting with my professor, I considered finding a guy to pretend to be my boyfriend in order to temporarily satisfy my professor’s concerns. This idea made me think of the viral boyfriend rental services that have popped up all over East Asia, digging into the true purpose behind them rather than the silly tourist attraction that the media has painted them as.
In the US, modern relationship standards have led to the normalization of hookup culture and the preference for "partnership" rather than the legal act of marriage. In Asian countries, specifically Japan and China where boyfriend rentals are popular, marriage is still seen as an exchange between two families in which the family of the groom secures the continuation of their family line, and the family of the bride is assured that their daughter will have a supported, happy life. This pressure is especially prevalent in China due to the effects of the One-Child policy that has produced more men than women, resulting in a smaller pool of “opportunities” for the men to continue their family line. An additional outcome of the One-Child policy is that since boys are favored over girls, the girls of China who were kept were encouraged to be as strong as boys and to get an education. “A girl with a degree equals a boy,” says Leftover Women’s Qiu Huamei. But this encouragement has backfired on the parents of these Chinese girls since they have learned and gained independence through their education.
In China and Japan the derogatory term “sheng nu” or leftover woman, has been created to label educated, professional women in their mid-’20s and ’30s who are still single. This label is what initially prompted the boyfriend rental business which has allowed “leftover women” to temporarily satisfy their parents’ concerns for a husband.
It is a paradox of a situation with young girls being told to be equivalent to a son only to grow up and be told to marry as soon as possible. This same paradox was reflected in my discussions with my professor. He’d tell me that as a young girl, I needed to be assertive and independent, but he’d also tell me about the benefits of a husband and how he’d be the one to support me.
Our last meeting for the year was for dinner where he promised we’d meet his wife. In attendance was my professor, my male peer, a girl from his other class, myself, and, as promised, his wife. As we slurped down our bowls of pho, my professor did his usual routine, giving notes on philosophy, asking about our finals, and providing marriage advice for us girls. For most of the dinner, his wife was very quiet and the only exchange of words we students had engaged in was our initial greeting. But as my professor got to the point in his conversation when he specifically addresses the girls about finding an intelligent man to rely on, his wife interjected and defended that we “are independent women.”
In China, “strong woman” is another derogatory label pushed onto ‘older’ women who remain unmarried. These women are strong women. The women who tried to make up for their gender by earning a degree, obtaining a well-paying job, and becoming self-reliant. But neither a masters degree nor a doctorates is equivalent to a parent’s dream for a MRS. degree.
While this contradictory push for girls to become ‘strong women’ but also marry young is heightened in China and other Asian countries, the issue is still relevant in America. This contradiction became prevalent in the US after World War II. During the war period, women followed Rosie the Riveter into the workforce, proving they could do "men's" work, and do it well– performing as ‘strong women.’ But when the war ended, gender roles were reinstated and women were expected to go back to the kitchen and be stay-at-home moms, painting the 1950s American Dream household we know today. A similar reversal occurred with the popularity and later condemnation of China’s “Iron Girls.”
While men also carry this burden of securing marital status in order to confirm the continuation of their family line, they are allowed more freedom for when this task needs to be completed. Additionally, boys are encouraged to become strong, independent men. But for girls, the dream to become a strong, independent woman is often not advertised– if it is, know that it is temporary and contradictions live in our path. To be a truly strong, independent woman means to be strong and independent, whether it is encouraged or not. To become deaf to the labels thrown into our ears. To be married or not to. To be a woman who pursues what she wants.
Ariel became a human, Cinderella made it to the ball, Bell saved her father, Tiana got her restaurant, and Mulan won the war– but they also happened to fall in love. A prince charming may be part of the journey, but he is only a part, not my whole.
Editors: Lang D., Claudia S., Leila W.