When Li Fang* returned to China after studying at university in both Australia and New Zealand, he didn’t think he had changed that much.
But his family and friends soon caught on.
“People around me thought I was different,” she says.
“I asked them, ‘What’s the difference?’ They said: ‘Sometimes your opinions and your style of speaking are very direct'”.
In hindsight, she agrees. “I think my personality changed a lot after I went abroad. I like freedom, I like independence,” she says.
Not only people close to her noticed. After Li came home, she interned with the Chinese government.
“No one [in my office] he had an international background… The Chinese style in government is: Everyone is quiet and no one should speak [up] about everything. Everybody just keeps going,” she says.
“When you go back to China and you are not used to this, the people around you think you are strange.”
Li is not alone. Many Chinese international students, particularly women, find themselves changed after studying in Australia.
And many of these young women are determined to chart a new course for themselves in their home country.
Young women ‘pivot or reorient’ in Australia
Fran Martin, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne, recently completed a five-year study in which she followed a group of 56 Chinese women who studied at university in Australia, including Li.
“Female students make up the majority of students who come to us from China,” Dr. Martin tells ABC RN’s Counterpoint.
“Many of them find a very significant experience, in terms of their personal and subjective sense of themselves and their life projects as women.
“[They may] pivot or reorient as a result of being away from family and social surveillance at home and living somewhat independently here in Australian cities.
Dr. Martin says that many participants talked about “gaining a kind of tolerance or understanding of non-standard ways of life.”
“Do or not do this yourselves [or see others do it]from dying your hair blue, to cohabiting with partners before marriage, to not having a standard ‘wife and family’ life plan.”
But she says these new ideas and values often clash with a more conservative reality in China. They experience this when they return to the family home, or through broader state and cultural pressures, or both.
“It can come as a shock to discover that the independence you’ve gained while studying abroad may not be as easily retained when you return home,” she says.
“Although many of our graduates would love to maintain that independent lifestyle and independent ways of thinking about what they should be doing in their adult lives.”
This is often most acute with expectations around marriage and children, she says.
‘When will we have grandchildren?’
After countless interviews during her five-year study, Dr. Martin says that these women face a clear contradiction when they get home.
“There’s kind of a paradox here,” she says.
“Chinese public culture in general and parental culture has strongly encouraged them toward professional careers and a high level of education… But then there is renewed and intense pressure on women in their 20s to suddenly reorient themselves toward the marriage, children and family care”.
She says these women come back with valuable titles, “but then they go back to that kind of neo-traditional sense of what a woman’s role and identity should be as she goes through that part of her life.”
“They may find that they are quite competitive for some professional jobs. At the same time, at least some members of his family and distant relatives will say: ‘When are you getting married?’ or ‘When will we have grandchildren?'”
As China pushes its people to have more children, this pressure has increased.
“Even having a child in a metropolis like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, it is very expensive to take care of that child and give it [certain] educational opportunities,” says Dr. Martin.
“[There’s now] the state and public culture saying, ‘Why don’t you have three kids?’ It’s infuriating for a lot of women who studied abroad to come back and face that kind of pressure.”
Dr. Martin adds that there are some conservative voices in China who are critical of young women who have studied abroad.
“There are stereotypes in some of the online forums that say, ‘Well, would you marry a woman who came back from studying in the West? Or would she be corrupted by the loose sexuality we see in Western cultures?'”
A ‘leftover lady’
Li completed a master’s degree in Melbourne and then began a doctorate in New Zealand. She has returned to China during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her next steps are up in the air, and she’s happy about that.
She says that while her parents are “more open-minded” than others, there are definitely broader societal expectations and pressures around marriage.
“People think that a woman should get married at 25 or 26,” she says.
Li is now 29 and says some people may think she is becoming “a leftover lady.”
“But it is very difficult for me to get married, because I still don’t know which city I will stay in,” he says.
Li says that returning international students have “high requirements” for couples, as they “want to find a boyfriend who has not only stayed in China, but also had a similar experience abroad.”
While she didn’t want to draw direct comparisons with women’s rights and gender equality in Australia, she says “a lot of Chinese women… will often leave their jobs when they get pregnant.”
But her only Australia-specific observation on gender is about men.
“In Australia, you see many, many dads … who have the baby with them,” he says.
“But in China, it’s still the women who have to raise the children… It’s traditional: the man has to earn the money and the woman has to raise the children and do everything for the family.”
She sums up: “I think it’s not that fair, actually.”
Li says one of the biggest challenges is negotiating professional opportunities and expectations at home.
“In China, it is very difficult to achieve a work-life balance.”
He adds that professional competition “is very, very strong,” particularly in the larger cities.
“To be honest, in Australia and New Zealand, the lifestyle is very slow and there aren’t as many [a] competition,” she says.
“Many, many students come back from Australia and New Zealand to China and they can’t easily adjust to these things.”
Li says that as a result, some returning international students decide to go abroad again, either for a temporary or more permanent move.
“They think, ‘I need to try to find a better life,'” she says.
“China is not good because there is very strong competition and you make very little money.”
Despite ongoing expectations and pressures, Fran Martin says many of these women “just won’t turn around.”
“[Among these] young, educated, urban, middle-class women, there is a strong current of popular feminism running through their way of thinking: they talk to each other, they find ways to think and act differently,” she says.
Although there are restrictions on Chinese social networks, the different opinions on gender are not closed. These debates and discussions are beginning to permeate popular culture, like television shows.
“So while they face stereotypes and contradictions, [these women] we also have agency. They’re quite capable of exercising that, to the extent that they can within the constraints they face.”
There are signs that strict ideas about women are slowly changing as the average age at first marriage rises in China’s big cities.
“There’s a growing awareness among this cohort of women that it’s very difficult to live with the pressures that are put on them… They’re thinking that, ‘We’ve made this investment in our own education, we’re professionally qualified, maybe you can imagine a different kind of life,'” says Dr. Martin.
“The state opposes that. But there are a lot of these young women who think differently.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy
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