Baby girls – and women – in China should be a thing of wonder, not pity

Kelly Yang says the Women’s March in Washington and around the world showed that millions, like her, value and respect women’s aspirations, and sent out the message loud and clear to misogynists

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2017, 12:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2017, 5:55pm

“It’s too bad you can’t have another baby because she’s a girl,” people said to my parents when I was born. It was the 1980s and China’s one-child policy was in full swing. My relatives looked at my pink toes and button nose with pity-filled eyes.

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That pity morphed into anger as I grew up. Anger at the fact that I didn’t partake in their theory, didn’t believe that women were lesser than men. Didn’t get knocked up and drop out of school, the way so many people gleefully warned. And then, when I did have kids, anger at the fact that my life didn’t just stop.

What is it about being a strong woman that makes people so incredibly angry? Recently, Chinese investor Luo Mingxiong went so far as to say he never invests in female CEOs because: “Just think about it carefully. What else do women do better than men except giving birth?” Luo did not apologise. For him, there is nothing to apologise for. It is simply a fact of life. Females should not be as ambitious as men.

Nowhere is this sentiment more obvious than in the Shanghai “marriage park” where, every weekend, mothers with “leftover” daughters in their early and late 30s put advertisements up on umbrellas, hoping passers-by will help find them a match – any match.

As a Chinese-American living in Asia, it’s not easy to talk about the US election

I was in Shanghai the day after the US election. I’ll never forget walking through the park listening to the mothers pitch their daughters to strangers. Even as they lamented their girls not settling down, I could hear the pride in their voice as they talked about them, how far they had got in their careers. And they should be proud; every single one of the women on the umbrellas had to get past a Luo Mingxiong to get where they are.

Watch: advert featuring ‘leftover women’ that went viral in China

And yet, when I asked the mothers who they supported in the US election, they emphatically said: Donald Trump. “Why?” I asked. Surely, these women, of all women, would know the meaning and value of a Hillary Clinton victory. They rattled off a long list of reasons; his age, his health, his straight talk. But it was this last answer that struck me: “Women can do anything, but it doesn’t mean they should.”

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The words cut through me like glass. My mind flashed back to the times an uncle, neighbour or family friend said to my parents: “Wow. She’s smart. Too bad she’s not a boy, she could have really been somebody.”

Profile: author Leta Hong Fincher explains how term ‘leftover women’ is Chinese propaganda

They were words that had kept me awake at night, words I fought tooth and nail to get over, to prove wrong. In that moment, it all came flooding back, all that shame, sadness and pain.

To all the marchers, thank you for shouting this message loud and clear, across oceans of doubt, so that little girls growing up in China can hear you

I left the park that day writhing. For the next few months, I settled into a cocoon of silence. As a Chinese-American living in Asia, it’s not easy to talk about the US election. People here either couldn’t care less or are quick to say: “How about that Trump you guys made president!” I wanted to say I’m not one of those guys.

I’m one of the guys who voted for equality. For diversity; for love; for tolerance. For “Black Lives Matter”; for freedom, for respect, for kindness. For the right to have control over my own body. For all the things my parents left their home and family for to slave away as first-generation immigrants in the United States so that I would have this day.

Yet, whenever I opened my mouth and spoke my passion, people rolled their eyes at me: “See. That’s why Trump won. Because you just don’t get it. You need to get real!” As though my values were made of pixie dust, not constitutional amendments.

Watch: Washington leads global Women’s March

It wasn’t until I saw the images of the Women’s March, millions of men, women and children, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Muslim, that I felt, for the first time in months, like I could breathe again. That I wasn’t alone. That this pain that beats inside me like a fist – others feel it too. They feel the same deep truth I do – that women can and should do anything.

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To all the marchers, thank you for shouting this message loud and clear, across oceans of doubt, so that little girls growing up in China can hear you and find the courage to stand up to people like Luo. And when they’re 35, not have to sit on the backs of umbrellas. And hopefully one day, when the next generation gazes down on baby girls, their eyes will not be filled with pity. But with wonder.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debating in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School. www.kellyyang.edu.hk