what’s love got to do with it?

On June 22, 2019, Handshake 302’s visiting artist, Xiao An celebrated her 28th birthday by preparing a Singleton Lunch. To prepare for the meal, she shopped the nearby street market like a professional, prepared “Whole Tomato Rice,” in the rice pot, and served up eggs, potatoes, and batchoy—all in two hours. In fact, this was the first time that the food at a Singleton Lunch was ready before the guests arrived. How did the meal come together so smoothly?

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the field,” Xiao’an said as she efficiently pulled everything together.

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For this conversation, Xiao’an chose the topic “A Single Woman’s Fear and Love.” Four women and one man joined Xiao’an and Mary Ann, sharing stories about how it feels to be an unmarried married woman in contemporary Shenzhen. As the conversation developed, we realized that other issues, such as hometown and generation played important roles in what participants feared and how they felt about love.

Everyone at the table had made unconventional decisions in order to create a better life for themselves. Yet, this decision to come to Shenzhen and pursue professional dreams extracts a greater cost from women than from men. After all, a traditional man is expected to meet challenges and provide for his wife and family. In contrast, many young women do not work for themselves, but work for their natal families and then, once married, they work for their new family. So we shared this story: standing up our dreams when they came into conflict with social expectations.

This contradiction between our individual dreams and social expectations meant that our most common fear was that we would loose love if we became too much ourselves. If we didn’t act like a Hakka daughter and sister and help our brothers purchase a house and get married, would our parents still love us? If we didn’t get married and have a child before we turn 30 years, would our village still accept us or would they call us “a chicken who can’t lay eggs?” If we were still unmarried at 40, would there be a place for us in society, or would people be wondering, “what’s wrong with you that no man wants you?”

Consequently, most of us experienced love in relationships where our dreams were recognized and valued. When parents accepted a daughter’s choice to earn money for herself, this was experienced as love. When a friend encouraged us to ignore cruel gossip, this was experienced as love. And when we accepted our dreams and our decisions, this too was experienced as love. In other words, the “love” we sought wasn’t a passionate affair, but shared values and dreams, where our partners saw us as individuals and not a social role.

At the end of the meal, it was clear that we had all suffered when our individual desires came into conflict with traditional expectations. We all wanted our families to understand and accept our decisions. Consequently, it also became clear that we all shared a common wish for Shenzhen; we want the city to be a place where everyone—regardless of gender, hometown, or generation—can develop themself as an individual and find life-giving forms of love.

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