TWENTY SOMETHING questions for a 20-something, single woman in Shanghai – the real life story of Teresa Feng. What it’s like to grow up in “the best place in China” and not become a “bad girl”?
I – Am I a Bad Girl?
I TWISTED open the pungent, cheap nail varnish and started to apply a slick coat to hide my calcium deficient nails, one after the other. Teresa beamed in awe, “Wow. It’s so pretty.” She paused. “My father would never let me paint my nails. He said he would beat me if he saw them painted. Only bad girls paint their nails.”
I was gobsmacked. This was my first introduction to the Chinese female ideal. Teresa begged I paint her nails regardless, and when she came into work the next day, I rushed over to see if they were still painted.“What did he say?” I asked with concern.“He said he doesn’t like them, but I and my mother do.”She dazzled and danced her fingers against mine. We were matching.
II – On Family Life
TERESA FENG, 24, was born in Shanghai and grew up in a family home that was built by her great, great Grandfather. They were a poor family but owned quite a bit of land, so young Teresa could play out with her friends; her favourite thing would be to draw outside using chalk.
Shanghai’s economic wheels cogged into motion and the advancing city was soon declared as China’s financial hub. More and more staggering sky rises would unearth over a once flat landscape.
“The underground was only built 10 years ago and there were no cars when I was a child, so we would always travel by bicycle or bus and you’d only need to carry a few mao,” said Teresa. This is the equivalent of a few pence. An ice cream would set you back five mao (6p), now, five yuan (60p), and a bus ticket would be one mao (2p), now 3 yuan (40p).
In the early 2000s, the government set out to house millions in residential high rises, because there’s unlimited space in the sky, right? In 2006, officials wanted to build in the location of where Teresa and her family lived, and planned ultimately to bulldoze their family home.
I asked Teresa about how this made her family feel, expecting her to say “Outraged”. She replied: “My family were extremely happy. In return for losing our home, they gifted us with four flats in the high rise block, which are worth one million yuan each (£100,000). We went from a traditional, Shanghainese, poor family, to one of the richest. In Shanghai, your level of wealth is assessed by others according to how many flats you own.”
In 2018, the number of residential high rises in the city are unsurprisingly uncountable, and Teresa has noticed a difference between her childhood and those of the children we teach. “Now, people don’t know their neighbours, and kids play inside on their iPads.”
I ask Teresa about equality in the Shanghainese household. She says that it’s traditional for the men in the family to do most of the cooking and cleaning (sign me up to live here for good, please). “It’s their way of showing respect to their wives,” she said.
“My aunt is an amazing cook so she will do most of the cooking, but my uncle will be the one behind the scenes of the great cooking, washing the dishes, preparing the vegetables. Men in Dongbei (North East China) make fun of Shanghainese men and say that they’re not manly – here, they’ll do anything their wives tell them to.
“But I eat out a lot with my parents because my mum is lazy and my dad doesn’t help her as much as my uncle would. My dad earns a lot more money than my mum, and anyone else in the family. I can’t cook. Most people my age can’t cook.”
III – On free time
AS A self-confessed tomboy, Teresa will leave work and instantly spend hours playing online games until the early hours of the morning. “I sleep. Sometimes for 16 hours, and I’ll only wake up because my father barges into my room when he returns from work and shouts at me.”
I wanted to compare how young women in the West spent their free time compared to young women in the East, and this certain setup sounds pretty familiar. “My friends and I will meet for milk tea, or we’ll see a film and have a dinner together,” Teresa said.
“We’ll all discuss our colleagues – ‘one of my colleagues bla bla bla, she’s such a bitch hahah’.” Sounds close to home, right? But then here comes the stark difference. “In Chinese peoples’ minds, if you have a tattoo, if you colour your hair, if you smoke, if you come home late, or if you drink alcohol and go to the nightclub, you’re a bad girl.”
A few weeks ago, Teresa bought some fake tattoos from China’s popular online shopping site, Taobao, and printed one of the dainty infinity symbols onto her middle finger. “That evening I went for a meal with my grandparents. My grandfather, who is usually a very warm and soft person, got really angry with me when he saw my hand. He said, ‘What’s this? Can it be washed? In our family, a girl can’t do that.’ And in my mind, I also agree.”
Since the age of five, Teresa has been drilled by her family that a girl can’t smoke or colour her hair. “I’ve had this message in my mind for 20 years now, so now, I believe that girls can’t do that. Maybe in ten years, if I have a daughter, I’ll also tell her the same.”
But what about men? I’ve never seen so many smokers in all of my life, particularly among young males. Only last year, smoking was banned indoors in China, but I still see men smoking in Tesco. And what about peer pressure? Surely if her friend orders a beer, Teresa might want to try one? Or what if her friend colours her hair, would she not be tempted too?
“I think the same for men and women. If he’s not my boyfriend or if she’s not my friend, it’s OK – they can go to nightclubs. There’s a Chinese saying about the same people getting together. At school, my class was divided – those who stayed out late and had tattoos, and those who would only drink cola or order milk tea. My mum first told me at Junior School that if I were to go out and not be home by 11pm, then she would break my legs. My friends’ mums also said the same to them, and we followed what they told us, and still do to this day. We make sure our dinner is finished by 9pm.”
IV – On Dating
Teresa’s ideal man:
- Degree level education
- Similar family background (four flats)
- Similar interests (sleep)
- 1.75m tall
- Not ugly
“I’m short, so if we have children, he needs to be taller than me so the children aren’t too short. I used to want a boyfriend who was 1.8m tall, but my mum said I’m unnecessarily aiming too high because I’m only so short, so I compromised at 1.75m. I have only ever met one man who fits the criteria, who is currently studying in Germany, but he doesn’t like me.” She laughs.
Teresa has been single her whole life, having never had anything close to a boyfriend. She says that the dating apps are just for sex, and that the best place for a Chinese girl to meet a potential boyfriend is at University. Unfortunately for Teresa, she studied English in a class of 40 girls, and only five boys, two of whom were gay, and the other three, well, as she puts it, “Ugly.”
In People’s Park in Shanghai, I’ve walked past rows and rows of A4 posters securely taped to opened umbrellas (pictured, below), advertising the grandchild of the old woman or man sat behind them.
“They’re for the high quality grandchildren,” Teresa said. “Maybe they have a high quality salary and a high quality appearance, but are too busy to pursue anyone.
“My mum plays Mahjong every week, and when she does, she’ll say to the other players [her impression is one of an agonising woman in despair], ‘My daughter is already 24. Do you have any good boys around you? If you have, I’ll ask my daughter to meet him’.”
Teresa confesses to meeting several boys on blind dates in KFC or McDonalds, a location approved by their parents. Before they meet, she is informed of their height, salary, and number of flats to their name. The dates usually last for one hour. Her family want her to date a man with the same number of flats as her, or more. “I’ve told my mum that I don’t like them, but it doesn’t work. I’ve explained several times that I want the boy to work hard for himself and not to live off what his family gave him. I want him to be able to give me something.
“I’ve met men before with salaries less than half of mine, with less of an education, but their families may have had five flats, which can be rented out for a high price tag. And that’s all that matters to my family. Older people in China think that the more money you have, the higher quality life you will lead. To some extent it’s true. You need money, then you can have a good life. But my family doesn’t pay attention to the boy himself, his personality or knowledge. Am I to raise him?
“Once they introduced me to a Maths teacher, which is unusual in China because it’s the girls who always want to be teachers. We admiringly think of the free time we can have to look after the children during the summer and winter vacations, and we’ll think of being able to leave work at 4pm, to again be home to take care of the babies. If you’re a male teacher, I think you’re not ambitious. He was also very short, at 1.65m, and ugly…Wait, that’s the size of you!” After receiving measurements of potential boy after boy, it’s no surprise that she can guess my height with one glance.
With an unlucky track record of dates, there’s never been a second. The first time you meet Teresa, she comes across as indifferent and unfriendly. I didn’t like her at the start. She said: “I’m not the kind of person you can meet once and know lots about me. It takes me a while to open up. I don’t want to talk too much to people I’m not familiar with. I have a lot of friends from high school because they know my temper and what makes me happy. I’m afraid to make new friends.”
V – On Marriage
IN CHINA, you call your cousins your sisters and Teresa is the last one standing. “I feel a lot of pressure from my family to get married,” she said. “In China, your family should marry in order of age, but my younger sisters have all got married and now I’m the last one.”
One of these younger ‘sisters,’ who has seven flats to her name, fell in love with a boy who had only one. She saw him secretly for one year because she was too afraid to tell her family. And when she finally took him home, her father was instantly angry. It took him six months to agree to them marrying.
For couples in Shanghai, the wedding is paid for by their parents and, most commonly, the groom’s parents will buy the newlyweds their own house and car. In this instance, the bride’s father paid. It’s a far cry from British millennials struggling to get anywhere close to the property ladder. “The parents always have everything prepared for you,” Teresa said.
Another of Teresa’s sisters, who is now 35, is getting married this summer. But it’s not the first time she’s fallen in love, and fallen in love with the wrong type of man. “At 22, she fell in love with a poor man, so her mother disagreed to their marriage,” Teresa said.“Three years later, both still single, the young man returned hoping to marry my sister, but her mother disagreed again. When my sister turned 30, the young man returned once again to her house, begging her to marry him. This time, her mother took her time to think about it, and wanted to agree. But my sister was furious. ‘Do you think no one else will want to marry me? It’s OK now but it wasn’t eight years ago.’ The boy waited in their high rise hallway all night, but the sister never went out to see him. And he never came back.”
Wedding bells will soon ring for Teresa’s sister and her new boyfriend, a poor man from Harbin – China’s ice city – and her still disapproving mother. She’s not only disappointed by his wealth status, having only one flat, but Shanghainese must traditionally marry Shanghainese, and he’s an outsider. “But because of my sister’s age, she had to agree. Most of my sister’s friends already have two children,” Teresa said.
“I really want to get married. If things at work annoy you, you want to be able to talk with others, and share happiness and sadness. It’s not the same when I console in my parents, they don’t understand me. If I say ‘I’m so tired bla bla bla’ they’ll say ‘When I was your age, I suffered more than you.’ I can speak with my friends, but they all have their own trouble, and sometimes don’t have the time to always listen to me. Whereas with a husband, I can say ‘Sit here, listen to me.’ Then I can talk and feel much better. And then when the man wants to talk with me, I’ll say ‘Stop. I don’t want to listen’.” She laughs.
VI – On Career
TERESA IS as confused as any other 20-something in the UK. She doesn’t know whether or how to progress in her career. She doesn’t know whether to strive for a high salary with long, unsociable hours or look for something stable. Something future-family friendly.
“Because I’m so lazy, I used to tell my mum that I wanted to be a housewife, so that I can sleep until noon. But my mum told me, ‘No. A girl must always have her own job. Even if you don’t need to work, take a low paid job. You should connect with the outside world. If you’re always at home, taking care of babies, waiting for your husband to return, you won’t know what the fashion is, or the news. You’ll be detached. If you break up, you can still live by yourself. If you depend on your husband, one day, you might not be able to leave’.” Cue a powerful clap for Teresa’s mother.
When I ask about Teresa’s biggest worry, I see the confusion building behind her scrunched-up eyes. “Should I work hard now and get a high position first? Or should I search for a boyfriend and have a stable family first? I don’t know whether I want a family or a promotion.”
Teresa is an English teacher at a private education company. She works from 12:30pm to 9pm Wednesday to Friday, and 8:30am-6pm on Saturday and Sunday. Her salary is competitive for China. “I often think about moving to the Secondary School, with stable hours and a bit less pay,” she said. “I want to go on dates on Mondays and Tuesdays, but no one is free, and on Saturday nights, I’m too tired. I always thought a girl should live by herself, but my parents and grandparents say that a girl needs a family. I do want a family, but I’m very picky. If the boy has all of the qualities I want, I’m always too low for him.” In British terms, she thinks she’ll be punching above her weight.
She compares herself to a childhood best friend whom she grew up with, but rarely sees these days. “I talk, she listens. I decide where to go, and she’ll book the tickets. We would go everywhere together and we just worked that way. Now, she has a high quality boyfriend. His family is rich, he has a high salary, and he is 1.8m tall.
“The boy’s mother requested for her son’s future wife to be a primary school teacher, and requested that she be quiet. The boy’s only request was that the girl should be beautiful. My friend ticks all of these boxes. The mother would hate a girl like me. And I think that my friend is happier than me now.”There is conflict between Teresa’s potential career goals and hopes for family life. So does she think she had as good a chance as men do in China in catching her dream career. “There’s good opportunity for men and women equally in Shanghai. It’s the best place in China. My colleague who has moved to Shanghai from the west of China says it’s the city where dreams are made. Other places are not so convenient. There’s not as much choice of food or fashion, we’re more open to the Western world and, most importantly, there’s the great opportunity and access to education here, which is important for women.”
VII – Closer Than We Think
IT’S BEAUTIFULLY warming to see parallels between Teresa’s life and mine. And the polar opposites are what makes the world so interesting. We are two girls brought up in two different continents, 5,704 miles apart, but share similar worries as young 20 somethings elsewhere.
There’s the prevalent guidance from our families, the importance of independence from our mothers, the battle of work versus family life to come, and the vivid lust of wanting to be loved. Teresa may look to a judgmental onlooker to be dragging the shackles of overbearing, conservative rules from the moment she began to speak. But to her, it’s so normal that they’re invisible.
I too conform to societal norms, those invisible rules drawn up by the West. It would be weird to not drink, to not have been blind drunk every few nights at University. It would be weird to have never painted my nails, and it has now become the norm to face the facts of not owning a home until I’m past 30, which all of the above leave Teresa gobsmacked. She and I are worlds apart in some respects but the fact we’re meeting in a few days for a film and dinner, regardless of our contrasting cultures of good girl vs bad girl, shows we’re all just human.