Before heading home after the Dragon Boat Races, my Chinese friend, Jia Cheng, and I dangle our feet over the Suzhou River and talk about our mutual wanderlust – the innate desire to travel. Jia Cheng is a junior sociology major at Shanghai University.
Jia Cheng, though he has never left China, has been on a mountain biking trip from the southern Yunnan province to Tibet, volunteered in the Yanbian Korean autonomous prefecture, and after watching the movie “Into The Wild,” spent two weeks sans cellphone, food and money hiking 300 kilometers from northeast China to the Sino-North Korean border city Dandong.
Despite all of these experiences, Jia Cheng tells me he is extremely impressed and inspired by my gap year and adventurous spirit, especially considering that I’m a girl. Specifically, he admires me for the two months I spent in Ghana volunteering as a first-grade teacher.
In China, he says, parents typically don’t want their daughters to go far from home, much less another continent like Africa. Since a female body isn’t as strong as a male, he says, girls can’t protect themselves and are in more danger traveling alone abroad.
I tell Jia Cheng body type is irrelevant in comparison to one’s analytic skills and rational thinking. Avoiding risky situations from the onset is the only way to ensure safety.
Jia Cheng still insists that it’s just simple biology – a woman is smaller than a man and so a woman is undeniably at more risk.
This perspective is not uncommon in China. My roommate, Xiao Juan, who is finishing her master’s degree in teaching Mandarin as a foreign language at Shanghai University, was shocked when she discovered Norway introduced compulsory military service for women, including bunking in mixed dorms.
She told me she just couldn’t imagine living and sharing bathrooms with men. Women are just weaker than men and might not be able to handle the same harsh conditions, she said.
Jia Cheng and Xiao Juan both said that besides physical strength and body type, men and women are equal in every other aspect. Yet, what they don’t realize is that such an assertion has cultural implications extending to every facet of life.
Even though males do have more muscle mass than women and may excel more in tests of fitness, that doesn’t mean a woman can’t live in the same military bunks as men and can’t avoid danger when traveling.
In addition, the day after the Dragon Boat Festival, I noticed more behavior hinting at subtle gender inequalities in China.
Jia Cheng and his friends were going out for dinner with the purpose of getting to know one of their friend’s new boyfriend. Except, they had a specific way to get to know him – every time Jia Cheng or his male friend cheered, the new boyfriend had to chug his beer.
Jia Cheng told me this is a popular custom in the north of China, which is more traditional than the south. When a daughter brings her boyfriend home to meet the parents, if the father likes to drink, he will make the boyfriend drink copious amounts of liquor in order to judge the boyfriend’s strength.
At our dinner, every time the new boyfriend, named Xiao Ming, cheered with the other guys, he had to be sure the top of his glass was below the top of the others, representing that his status was below theirs.
Another part of the custom was that Xiao Ming also had to pay for everyone’s meal, which is referred to as “qing ke” and not uncommon in China among good friends.
Xiao Ming’s girlfriend, however, didn’t drink because she was on her period and the other girl didn’t chug with the boys either – she just sipped.
I asked Jia Cheng what the custom was when a boy had a new girlfriend. Did the new girlfriend have to impress friends and family with her drinking skills as well?
Of course not, he answered with a laugh. A boy will show his new girlfriend off to all of his friends by spending a lot of money inviting and paying for all of his friends to go out for dinner and meet her. The more beautiful the girlfriend, the more money the boy will spend and there are no specific drinking rituals involved.
Such a cultural practice has roots in the Chinese concept of “xian hui,” which is a word with no direct English translation but is used to describe a woman who fulfills her traditional role as virtuous, genial, prudent, understanding and kindhearted woman.
Jia Cheng said many traditional Chinese people think that a perfect woman is “wen wen er ya,” meaning refined and cultivated. So, naturally, an ideal traditional Chinese woman shouldn’t chug alcohol “like a man.”
After dinner, Jia Cheng and I went on the roof of a building and looked out at the lights of Shanghai. I was a bit distracted and perplexed. I’ve always thought protecting culture and tradition was important, yet now I wasn’t so sure.
The traditional Chinese outlook toward gender is so rigid and places people in specific boxes with certain stipulations and restrictions. If these classifications weren’t so strict, maybe independent female travelers wouldn’t be seen as an anomaly. Maybe more women would join the military. And maybe women wouldn’t be so concerned with being “virtuous” and “refined.”
One’s biological body parts do not determine one’s personality, likes, dislikes, attitude or habits so I wish people would use caution when imposing expectations based on gender.