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Being a Foreign Woman in China

Challenges and Blessings

When I moved to China I had never heard of Women’s Day, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when the English Department took all of the women out for hot pot. The joke amongst my colleagues was that “every day is men’s day except for women’s day.” And thus was my introduction to women’s day: hot pot, colleagues, and a dollop of social commentary.

I benefit from hearing others’ experiences as it creates moments of “me too” and slows me down enough to notice how others have faced challenges I hadn’t thought of. While I can’t (and shouldn’t) speak for all women, I can share my experience as a foreign woman for many years in China.

I love being a woman and I loved being in China, but on rare occasions, I didn’t love everything about being a woman in China. Here are a few of the challenges that are specific to being a woman in China.

  1. My appearance was commented on more than it was coming from North America. Now, don’t get me wrong, North America can be no picnic when it comes to some people’s experiences. But in my case, I wasn’t used to so many comments said directly to me, in particular about my weight and hair color. My teammate was blond, and she was repeatedly told how beautiful she was because of her blond hair. I was asked questions like “Did you eat too much beef as a child?” as my students were trying to understand my size. This is all rather benign, but compared to foreign men, I found that as a woman my appearance drew attention and commentary.

  2. Beyond physical looks, women are expected to act certain ways. For example, it was a challenge for me to move gracefully with my hands and feet. I was repeatedly told that I walked too fast. Over time I learned that one of my roles to be keep an eye on tea cups during meetings or meals and be sure they were filled. On a more serious note, my lack of children grew more concerning by the year. The older I became, the more strangers would gesture near my uterus area and ask why I wasn’t having children. As an outsider woman, I know that I never felt the pressure many Chinese women feel. 

  3. The final challenge I faced as a woman was related to hierarchical Confucian society. I was not able to rise to the highest levels of leadership within my organization. Because the top leader needed to be able to interact with high government leaders, the top leaders in my organization were men. The subject only came up a few times, and we all understood the cultural context; still, it was hurtful that I couldn’t rise to the level of my ability, only to the level of my gender.

I wanted to start with the challenges because they were my challenges, but not my full story. Much more of my experiences reflected the benefit of being a foreign woman in China.

  1. Chairman Mao is famous for saying that “women hold up half the sky.” And while that saying may have turned cliché over the years, it communicated value to me as a woman. Growing up in an “open and democratic” society, this saying should be a given. But all over the world, women often have a harder time in outside society, particularly outside of the home. I was blessed to have lived and worked in China for much of my adulthood and be able to hold up my part of the sky. Does this contradict the point I made above about being limited by my gender? Life is more nuanced than blanket statements. Both are true for me, at times I felt limited by my gender and at times I felt not limited by it.

  2. I felt safe in China as a woman. I was able to be out late at night, walk around by myself during the day, and exercise in public without fearing for my safety. Did I occasionally have weird and inappropriate interactions with men? Yes, I did. But they were rare and most often involved someone who was clearly mentally ill. If you are a woman, have a wife or daughters, or have female relatives, you know the true blessing physical safety is!

  3. I was able to play my part in the Great Commission. As a senior in college, God began to stir within me the longing to live a life that might look less traditional but be more eternally significant. Given my gifting and personality, not all places in the world would have been a good fit for me. I’ll never forget the early years in China where parts of me suddenly made sense; God had been preparing me for years in ways that I could see looking back. Not all women can say that they are able to freely use their God-given gifts and talents. Thanks to China, I one of the blessed women who can say that I’ve been able to use my gifts and talents.

In this month where we celebrate women, I am grateful to join with other women and share my story and hear theirs. As reflect on your own story (or the story of the women in your life), what challenges and blessings have you experienced?

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Image credit: Cajeo Zhang via UnSplash.
Amy Young

Amy Young

Amy Young, MA, LPC loves a good story. She served in China for nearly 20 years (plenty of stories there!). As the founder and CEO of Global Trellis, her current story involves helping great commission workers have tended souls and expanding skill sets. Amy has written six books for great …View Full Bio

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