Tuesday, January 21, 2014

“Ms. Left” Searching for “Mr. Right”

Last week, my friend Candice called me with excitement I could hear right through the phone: she announced a good “peach blossom” (桃花, tao hua) she’d receive in the coming months. I was surprised by her change in attitude: luck in love, in feng shui , is known as “peach blossom luck”, but astrology?! Who would pay for that? Yet, “peach blossom luck” is one of the most desired sign for any woman, especially for those in their mid-to-late 20s, due to their fear of becoming a “Ms. Left”.


A career fair? No – it’s a large-scale blind date! The goal is “No girl left behind!”

In the last couple of decades, the word “Ms. Left” (剩女, sheng nu) has increased in its popularity in Chinese lexicon to describe a growing social group: women who’ve reached the age of 25 and are still single. A Chinese woman’s ideal marriage age, to be considered “normal” and “responsible” by society, is around her mid-20s; therefore, the use of “Ms. Left” is slightly mocking and implies that these “leftover girls” failed to find their “Mr. Rights”. In the past, there was no such word as “Ms. Left”; for thousands of years in a conservative China, young people married under their parents’ or families’ orders, which rarely let daughters be “left behind” without a purpose.

The emergence of “Ms. Left” in popular language would not be possible without China’s fast economic development and cultural opening-up in the 1970s. The new generation, born in the 80s and 90s, was lucky and enjoyed the advantages, compared to their parents. In contrast to 30 years ago when only a limited number of women completed college degrees, today, female Masters and PhDs are ordinary and abundant in China. This is one reason why women today are closer to being “Ms. Lefts”: they’re in school for longer, and once they’ve graduated, in a society where education and economic status are paramount, these women may not want to marry “down”.

Take my friend Candice as an example. After graduating from a prestigious university in China at the age of 22, she came to the U.S. for graduate school. When she completed her Masters education, she was 24 – oops, only a year away from age 25! If she’s still single by then, congratulations, Candice has earned herself, along with her Bachelors and Masters, the title of “Ms. Left”. There are many women in China in the same situation; no wonder, the number of “Ms. Lefts” is increasing dramatically.

Though not favored by young women, the label of “Ms. Left” cheers up other people: the “dating and marriage” business in China is booming. Pressure posed on women by the media’s abuse of “Ms. Lefts” contributes to modern Chinese women’s search of marriageable men before “it’s too late” (a.k.a., before they’re placed in the category of a “Ms. Left”). The other part to this is the young men: they’ve realized that the clock tick-tocks for them as well, and the competition drives the demand on the male side too. (Though, they might be more concerned about running out of other choices besides the “Ms. Lefts” if they don’t hurry.)

Suddenly, reality dating shows are viral on major television channels. One of the most successful shows, “If You are the One” (非诚勿扰, Fei cheng wu rao), imported and tailored to the Chinese market, has earned the highest program ratings since 2010 and represents a cultural trend. (It’s now a classic case study at Harvard Business School!) Admittedly, the program is rather fun to watch, with 24 pretty women standing behind lighted podiums waiting for the male candidates (5 per show) to show up, engage in banter, and swoop them off their feet. The problem is: these TV programs are entertainment, rather than solving one’s real-world relationship urgency. But, not to worry, if you aren’t the star of a popular reality show, there are myriad professional matching websites and dating agents who will fight for your business.


A scene from the Chinese dating show “If You are the One” (非诚勿扰). Ladies, let’s get it started!

Although it’s unclear whether society’s hyperventilating about “Ms. Left” drove Candice to pay a generous amount of cash to a well-known astrologist to analyze her romantic prospects, she became a lot happier and more relaxed after knowing a peach blossom luck blooms in her future.

“Ms. Left” is a unique feature in modern China: in the Western world, many single women in their 30s and 40s are label-free. Instead of judging how Eastern culture imposes pressure on women, the more realistic problem relates to how women view themselves. Surely, 20-somethings have youth on their side, but it doesn’t mean that women in their 30s, 40s, or beyond are “decrepit”: on the contrary, they’re stunning with the sophistication, wisdom, and confidence that younger women do not have. No matter how society changes, it’s the woman’s self-perception that matters.

As women become more confident, I believe that one day “Mr. & Ms. Left” will no longer be a derogatory term, but just another happy couple living next door to “Mr. & Ms. Right”.

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