Financially secure? Job success? Married with children? Although life-long goals for many, Chinese young people feel tremendous pressure to lock down these goals before the age of thirty. In an increasingly competitive society, the pressure to meet such expectations can be daunting. In this article from Territory, five Chinese Christians reflect on how they cope with the expectations that come with turning thirty.
The premise of this article comes from the Chinese idiom 三十而立s (ān shí ér lì), which literally translates to “Thirty, therefore stand/established,” or “thirty and independent.” It is from Confucius’ reflections on the stages of life, recorded in chapter four of book two of the Analects:
The Master said,
"At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning.
"At thirty, I stood firm.
"At forty, I had no doubts.
"At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven.
"At sixty, my ear was attuned to them.
"At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right."
In modern China, the second line has come to mean that at 30 years old, one should be independent or, as a similar English idiom puts it, “able to stand on your own two feet.” In the following article, five Chinese adults share how they have coped when they reached their 30s,
How Does the Post-1985 Generation Face Up to Being Over Thirty?
What are you doing now that you have reached the age of standing firm? Have you found yourself?
Does “At thirty, stand firm” equal “At thirty be rich,” “At thirty be married?” It seems that if you are over 30 and neither rich nor married, then this life is hopeless. Spurred on by such standards of success, it is difficult not to be anxious. Listen to honest sharing.
At thirty, stand firm—can wanting something, but having nothing still be called standing firm?
Ryan, a 31-year-old teacher
When I got married four years ago, I had no house and no car and my wages were low. My mother-in-law pretty much thought my situation was bleak; she couldn’t help but throw nasty looks my way. But even after I’d been lectured, I could still sing outloud in the shower—that’s my personality. I am very optimistic; I believe God will always provide.
Many people around thirty years old are full of anxiety, often because they don’t have hope for the future. They don’t know when they will be able to walk out of their current predicaments, when the life their hearts yearn for can possibly be realized. When you go over one mountain, the other side will not necessarily have good scenery. But to Christians, especially men, God called us to be the head of the household, and the vision he gave us is very big. No matter under what circumstances, I always believe that there is preparation on Yahweh’s mountain.
At thirty and independent, can needing something and having nothing still be called independent?
As a Christian, the “independence” that I understand is first that one must stand secure in faith. From college, when I first believed in the Lord, to the present, through many years of grind and effort, I have established a firm relationship with my Heavenly Father. Only when Christians stand firm in their spiritual lives, will marriage and family likewise be stable. My wife thinks clearly; she does things methodically; she is extremely intelligent. She and I are born complements — a perfect match. When I do things without planning, I need her help; when she is in a bad mood, I take responsibility for consoling her.
But in marriage there is always breaking in to do—especially after our daughter was born, my wife made tremendous effort and many adjustments, and the entire family had to adapt accordingly. Every time we fall into complaining and are moody toward each other, time and again we always come back to God. We profoundly realize that when we rely only on ourselves we are completely at a loss when it comes to “independence.” Only under his mercy can we forgive and continue to love each other. In that moment, you will be thankful and realize how important it is that husband and wife both have a firm relationship with God!
As a man, the word “independent” must allow me to stick to a career that I myself love. A career, in my view, must adequately provide for the financial needs of my family and let this small household first be economically independent. But at the same time, I hope to make the best use of the gifts that God has given me to bless others. I am an English teacher at a Christian school. When I first started my job I was in rather difficult straits — I did not have much money and I was not able to manage with what I made. But slowly, working hard until now, I can see that God has blessed my job more and more. First of all, economically there is already great progress because my wife is extremely good at managing domestic affairs, so our little household has always been very independent. We don’t need to ask our parents for economic support, and every month’s tithe, the subsidies we give our parents, and the family’s travel funds are all planned appropriately.
At the same time, outside of working at school I also continue to launch many of my own teaching classes. I am very happy to be able to use my own knowledge about and methods of education to instruct students. For example, during these years I have continued teaching a child with autism and from him I can see that God takes pleasure in my work. It is not monotonous, dry, and dull language education, nor is it forcing the child to progress, but it is giving even more patience and love. Now, this child has made great progress in school and in communicating with people. Before, he didn’t know how to answer questions. Now in class he can respond properly. What I’m more thankful for is that his parents have just committed themselves to the church. Not long ago, his parents forgot to schedule a class time with me, and as a result the child unexpectedly became angry: he really enjoys time together with me. These things have nothing to do with how much money I make, but they truly move me.
Thinking about my days after thirty years old, my heart is full of hope. My daughter is lively, cute, and smart. I would like to have another child and lead a few more disciples in my family, ha ha! As far as my career, I yearn for God to bless me with a team of likeminded brothers and sister empowered with similar visions for glorifying God through the harvest of souls through education!
It’s not that you won’t fall, rather it’s knowing how to respond.
Jonah, a 31-year-old Internet engineer
I was eating dinner in my maternal aunt’s house. My cousin’s daughter pulled out three white hairs for me, and I asked, were there anymore? She smiled and said there were still many. In a flash, my mood index dropped quite a few percentage points. I sighed with great sorrow: “Uncle is old.” “He has gotten this old, and still hasn’t married!” she replied. Children’s words carry no harm, and I didn’t suffer any hurt. But children are a mirror of this society, and in a moment I clearly perceived how the outside world sees me.
Recently I went out hiking, and took some photos that I posted on social media. A certain relative commented below, and implied that that I was unable to have interaction with women around me, and going outdoors was just in vain. He does sales and marketing, and every day his friend circle is beautiful food, eating food with such and such, so thankful you joined me, or some such cock-and-bull story. In the end this is a high value display in the social sciences, where you must display three points as ten points. One day, my cousin asked me, “So and so said you always post those spiritual articles on your friend circle; have you found a girlfriend?” In a flash, I was a little unhappy, not just because this Christian cousin of mine had turned this into a joke, but also because that relative had taken my choice spiritual nourishment and reduced it to a level he could understand it. It turned out that in others’ eyes, my seeking and waiting for a soul-mate was incompetence—the inability to find a girlfriend.
These two little episodes are the small crux of the issue of being a 30+ single Christian. Looking back and speaking of my 20+ days, at that time what had had a great influence on me were the theory of evolution, the study of genetics, and [the economic theory] “the tragedy of the commons.” One of these three negated God, and told me that from birth, life completely lacked meaning; one told me that humans are naturally unequal, and people not only rely on their fathers’ wealth, but also have to rely on genes; one told me that human nature is naturally selfish, there is no such thing as a good system that can sustain the world’s development.
At the time, I fell to the lowest valley of human life. Thank the Lord, although I felt spiritually withered, God had already put his imprint in my soul. So at the age of 29, I felt it was time. I came to church and participated in a class, and later I was baptized. I realized that I wanted to use human wisdom to save myself, and the outcome was naturally failure. When I realized this, then I completely laid down my pride.
On a certain night, as I marched from my 20s to my 30s, I was in prayer when I suddenly felt God’s love. I cried bitterly before God, “Oh Lord, so you love me this much! How laughable that these years I have had such small faith, often turning my head to pursue this world’s insignificant teachings, giving every care to the lusts of the flesh, and not actually believing that you are the one who loves me the most; not believing that you are the one who most understands my needs; not believing that you are the one who can most help me.” Starting from that time, I have felt true freedom, “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” It turns out that following the law is not relying on myself, but is relying on grace, and trusting in the love that comes from God.
At 31 years old, I have received the maturity God has brought to me over the years and have moved from criticism to building up. The “thirty and independent” that I understand is spiritual maturity, “leaving the elementary doctrine of Christ, and going on to maturity,” “but solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil,” “take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.”
This maturity is not that you will not be weak and fall. When a child falls, if nobody helps him to get up, all he can do is cry. A person who can eat solid food can also fall when he is weak—but he knows how to respond and knows to call on that one who always helps us. This maturity is about preparing oneself well to become a trustworthy person in the sight of man and God.
What worries my mom most is still-single-me
Joyce, a 31-year-old teacher
Thirty-year-old me has experienced more pressure, disappointment, dejection, loneliness, discouragement, and astonishment at the swift passing of life than before. But even if there was a time machine, I still would not want to return to the naive age of 20. After all, my past youth was not wasted, and I am thankful for my own growth and gains so far. So I can only say, standing on the threshold of 30, that it seems everything has all been fifty-fifty good and bad!
I used to know a single girl about whom I was rather worried. How could someone be 33 years old and still unmarried? Who knew that I would be walking in those shoes now? It is very difficult to accept that in these ten years I have gained nothing in my emotional life and I am rather depressed. The female friends around me, whether they are married or not, start to slowly age after thirty years—their figures lose shape, and wrinkles increase. I am that way too, and the thin lines on the corners of my eyes are slowly growing. I like to hear other people say I am young; I fear being seen for my age. Even though I am a Christian, I also cannot deny that it is difficult to stomach these mixed feelings.
Although I know that I haven’t much to speak of as far as my emotional life, this does not mean that I have passed the years in vain. I rejoice that I have not experienced unnecessary hurt, and that I haven’t hastily arranged my own marriage because of loneliness. In my career, I am striving hard to break through the bottleneck of exhaustion. When I remember the ideals in my heart I am once again filled with hope. However, lack of close relationships always makes me feel regretful. These past few years, everything makes me feel a disappointment in God that I cannot shake, whether I feel physically unwell, or emotionally lacking, or the bumpiness of advancing in my career—why am I unable to relax a little? Why are you toughening me up so much? Can’t you just pamper me a bit?
In May of this year, my mom was suddenly diagnosed with a malignant tumor in her uterus. Although she has had a surgical operation that succeeded in removing it, the doctor’s words caused me to tremble with fear: [x-rays of her] lungs were shadowy, so it had possibly spread very rapidly. In that moment layers of disappointment from the past reached their zenith, to the point that I didn’t have faith to pray to God for my mother’s healing. The worst was fear: even though my mother is a Christian, I was still afraid that she would suffer illness and torment. I was afraid that she would suddenly experience some accident…. After fear was disheartenment. My younger siblings are already married and settled down, what my mom was most worried about in her heart was single, unmarried me. But in this kind of situation would she still be able to see me get married? I also had plans for many years to study abroad. I had already worked hard to save money for this. I could go and start at any time, but now I had to postpone it—my mom was the most important thing.
But besides calling out to God, what else could I do? I didn’t expect that God would redeem my heart through this and comfort my long-standing disappointment. Last month, my mother’s comprehensive examination results finally came out, and months of agitation came to its end. There were no signs of spreading, and her lungs also had no problem. There was no need for chemotherapy; she only needed radiotherapy and recuperation. This was precisely my prayer that, no matter how many days are left for my mom, God would let her rest and spare her suffering. God had mercy on me and understood my deepest weakness.
During this time of waiting and praying, I often read the book of Job. I realized I had never understood the book before. I did not know Job’s grief and indignation, and I felt that his two friends made some sense. But after I experienced it myself, I realized what is so precious about Job: He sank into the deepest torment and still put his hope in God and affirmed his relationship with him. Because of this, he was worthy of God’s response from the whirlwind!
Thirty-year-old me—so much of my thinking is still shallow. The independence at thirty that I yearn for is not just economic and career independence, but more about independence of thinking—mental independence that would free me of over-reliance on another’s companionship for a meaningful life; not demanding my own needs to be met but looking out for others’ needs and being ready for commitment, for responsibilities, and strong in faith.
My beautiful choice: full-time housewife going on two years
Susan, a 32-year-old, full-time housewife
When women reach thirty years old, none of them are willing to divulge their age. One phrase captures the idea: “It’s all downhill from here!” It seems like a woman’s glory days are when people pamper you, when you have money to spend, youth to squander, and good looks to show off…. But to me, it was most difficult to fight off depression when I was eighteen or nineteen years old, and my good times seem to start around thirty years old. Right now, being steady and firm, being independent and autonomous, being filled with hope and having maturity—these are my golden years.
Thirty-year-old women would say they are getting old but not too old. To abandon a career lightly for family responsibilities would be frowned upon by the professional elites. And the reason thirty-year-old women are torn apart is just because it is difficult to choose between personal independence and the needs of the family. If you choose family, it is as if you are setting aside your own dignity and worth, and all of your bargaining chips are lost. Without the competitiveness of the workplace, you are unable to keep up with the times, and you are cold-shouldered by your husband…. So do you choose career? Then you bear the pressure of not being able to accompany your child, feeling guilty for owing a deficit to your family, and enduring a tense life of exhaustion and constant running around. Making a decision is never easy, but a system of values will make the choice easier.
My husband and I have been married for four years. Four years ago we didn’t have anything. Four years later, we still do not have a house or a car, but God gave us an adorable daughter, a sweet burden. When our daughter came, questions also came. Three choices were set before us: 1) send her back to our hometown and let grandparents look after her. 2) Have grandmother come here and raise her. 3) Have the wife resign and look after her herself. The three choices each had pros and cons, and after careful consideration, we decided to raise her ourselves. As a result, I became a full-time housewife, and my main duties were to serve my husband, look after the baby at home, and manage housework.
The crux of how you define pros and cons is what you see as important. We care about our child’s education, we care about our child’s value, and we care about our family’s independence. In the end I decided to walk the path of a full-time housewife. My own heart is occasionally restless with that decision, not to mention the pressure from the outside. Every day as soon as I open my eyes, it’s house chores and the child, the child and house chores, endless food to make, endless dishes and chopsticks to wash, endless diapers to change. This is bearable, but if the child has a fever or diarrhea, and requires day and night care, then my heart is nervous and tense—physical and emotional exhaustion.
In the end, this pain in the flesh is not the worst. The worst is when my eyes are tired, when with disheveled hair and dirty face I push the baby stroller out the door, and then at my side I see a pretty girl come bouncing by, and in my heart there’s a burst of jealous envy. I open my social media app and see old classmate friends who are still active in brilliant careers, and I go through a fit of gloom, to the point that it’s almost impossible to describe the state of listlessness. I can’t help but ask myself: what on earth am I doing?
Thankfully I have an extremely sympathetic husband. I often share my inner struggles with him, and he is always able to listen intently. Although he is not an eloquent person, he will always bring me back to the value system that caused us to make the decision we did in the first place. Thirty-year-old me needs not only to learn how to make decisions in light of those values, but even more I need to learn to firmly bear all the responsibilities that come because of my choice.
So, 30+ me finds me as a full-time housewife for two years already. Not only have I not run away from it, but I actually love my role all the more. My daughter is two years old, extremely lively and cute, and has a complete sense of security. These two years, I have gained much, learned all sorts of culinary arts, and done my best to make our home neat and in good order. My husband loves to play soccer, and whenever it comes to a soccer day, clean socks and athletic shoes are already prepared. He always gratefully says, “It is so great to have you at home! I want you to you feel at ease at home, so I will work even harder.” With this kind of motivation, my husband is also making good progress at work, and now his income is even better than when we both worked. More importantly, he has found a job where he can use his talents, and he can plan his own professional career.
And it is not as if I have let go of my specialty either. On the contrary, in my free time, I have self-studied a lot of information about infant development and education, putting it into practice as I learn. What’s more important is that in housework I have gained diligence, in bringing up my child I have learned self-discipline and acceptance, and I still have a keen mind and CEO’s ability to manage this small little household—to live within our means with meticulous planning and careful accounting, to handle relationships with relatives, and to plan three meals a day of balanced nutrition.
Thirty and independent hinges on faith, independently choosing the lifestyle that you see as proper, and courageously bearing the various responsibilities that come with it. I have done it! So, you ask, “is thirty-year-old you doing okay?” Yes, I am doing great!
It turns out that my life’s detailed list didn’t include God
Chen Zheng, a 28-year-old doctor (general practitioner)
This year I am 28 years old. I live in Shanghai. I haven’t been married long. I have no car, no house, and no children. Being a young doctor, I do not make a lot of money, nor can I be too stingy with myself. As I am about to step into my years of independence, aside from asking the same practical questions as my peers, as a Christian I need to consider the most important [vocational] question: what calling has God given me? How should I spend this life?
Being a doctor is my dream, and in my third year of medical school I had the opportunity to know God. Ever since, I frequently pondered how I should live out my faith in my life. In the past, I always wanted to be a surgeon, and one summer I had an opportunity to go to a mountain area and do some medical aid. It made me realize for the first time that medicine seems very simple—chat with villagers, show care, and say a few caring words, and their illnesses improved by half. After that I wanted to be a general practitioner and be able to establish long-term relationships with patients.
Later I realized, in the domestic general medical profession there is an exterior shell [for appearances], but the interior lacks substance. We are often despised by patients and the medical system alike, and the income may also be insufficient to make a living. I learned that I could have the opportunity to apply to be a doctor in America, and this would perfectly realize all of my dreams (including my vanity for higher status and better income)—and so I, originally a total academic dunce, started delving into book after book of thick English teaching materials. Very thankfully, to my surprise I unexpectedly passed the U.S. examination of medical practitioners. Although my grade was so-so, it also gave me a good amount of faith that perhaps going to America as a doctor was God’s will.
After taking the test I went to America for an internship. There I received help from many brothers and sisters, and they also prayed that my dream would come true. I ran into a very warm-hearted doctor who invited me to live in his home and took me to his clinic; I built up American clinical experience. When it came to the application day, I carefully selected many general practice live-in-hospital practitioner training programs, and sent in the materials.
Normally if you apply within ten days of mid-September, then from early October to December you will have news of one interview after another. But I kept waiting, and didn’t have any news, except that every day several more rejection letters appeared in my mailbox. That was an extremely hard period of time to bear. I would often come alone before God and pray—but it seemed there was no answer.
One day a couple in my church invited me to their home to watch Soul Surfer. It was about a champion surfer whose arm was bitten off by a shark, and how by relying on faith she once again got up on her surfboard. My faith was also lifted, and when the movie ended I prayed silently in my heart—and this time when I received a call from a hospital, they offered me an interview for their internal medicine program. I was wild with joy and couldn’t stop shedding tears. In my heart I thought that this must be an opportunity prepared by God. So I went to the interview, but only did so-so. Next, I returned to China and waited for news.
The results were released in March and I failed. For me, this was the first time I did not understand God’s actions. Obviously I had expended great effort during these years and followed his leading every step along the way—why did it turn out this way in the end? Would I not have given the glory to him if I got in? Was God playing a joke?
Regardless of whether I understood it or not, life still had to go on. After feeling sad for some time, I sat down and considered the options before me: prepare again for a year, and try again? Take an entrance exam for graduate school and enter a public hospital? Forget about being a doctor and start another career? I struggled for a long time: it would cost a lot to apply again for a year, and it seemed I wasn’t too used to the public hospital system either. At that time I had just gotten married and needed income to support a family, so I chose the last option.
God grinds and polishes me little by little through all sorts of people and situations; I have started encountering difficulties, not just at work, but also in church ministries. I do not remember clearly how many times I have complained to God, or how many times I have thanked and praised him from the bottom of my heart. He has let me see clearly that my original way of thinking was wanting to have “perfection” in the world. But it seems this standard is all about having good food and clothing, having a car and house, having a respectable job with a high income, and career advancement. For these I worried without end, and was also alarmed because I didn’t see them in the future. Thank God that in a difficult situation he let me see that, as it turns out, this “independence at thirty” did not have anything to do with him.
Not long ago, I resigned my status as a company partner and started work as a general practitioner in Shanghai. It was not the fashionable “with financial freedom, you can start chasing your dreams” approach, nor was it bursting with faith in God. I just desired to return anew to doing what my heart wanted to do—helping my patients.
To save two RMB, I use the bike-sharing system instead of the subway. I keep an eye on housing prices and how much money I have in my pocket. I evaluate our need for purchasing a car, and I will budget for my child's schooling in the future . . . When things are good, I will say that if you have God you lack nothing. In bad times I’ll feel that I am almost 30 years old and still own nothing at all. I still don’t know what the future will be, but I am grateful that God’s provision is rich and abundant. Since graduation, God has provided for us, husband and wife, so that we can help those in need. My wife and I are still seeking God’s will, and on our priority list, we have decidedly marked God as “important.”
Original: 85后，如何面对三十难立？ (Territory)
Translated, edited and reposted with permission.
Image Credit: Forlorn by sherrah sherrah via Flickr.
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