Chinese women face a complex return home after studying in Australia

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When Li Fang* returned to China after studying at university in both Australia and New Zealand, she didn’t think she had changed that much.

But her family and friends quickly noticed.

“People around me thought I was different,” she says.

“I asked them ‘what’s the difference?’ They said, ‘Sometimes your opinions and your speaking style are very direct’.”

In retrospect, she agrees. “I think my personality changed a lot after being abroad. I like freedom, I like independence,” she says.

It wasn’t just those close to her who noticed. After Li returned home, she took an internship with the Chinese government.

“None [in my office] had an international background… The Chinese style of government is: Everyone is silent and no one should speak [up] about anything. Everyone just follows along,’ she says.

“When you come back to China and you’re not used to this, people around you think you’re strange.”

Li is not alone. Many Chinese international students – especially women – find themselves changed after studying in Australia.

And many of these young women are determined to chart a new course for themselves back in their homeland.

Young women ‘turn 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 studying at university in Australia, including Li.

“Female students make up a majority of the students who come to us from China,” says Professor Martin ABC RN’s counterpoint.

“Many of them find it a very meaningful experience in terms of their personal, subjective sense of themselves and for their plans in their lives as women,” she says.

“[They may] turning or reorienting as a result of being away from social and familial surveillance at home and living somewhat independently here in Australian cities.”

A university in Sydney
Many of these young Chinese women feel pressured to accept more traditional roles when they return home.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Professor Martin says many participants spoke of “gaining a kind of tolerance or understanding of non-standard ways of living”.

“Whether you do these yourself or not [or see others do it]from dying your hair blue, to living with partners before marriage, to not having a standard ‘wife and family’ life plan.”

But Professor Martin says these new ideas and values ​​often clash with a more conservative reality back in China. They experience this when they return to the family home, or through wider governmental and cultural pressures, or both.

“It can be a shock to discover that the independence you have gained while studying abroad may not be so easy to maintain 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 to do in their adult lives.”

Often the most acute is with expectations around marriage and children, she says.

“When will we have grandchildren?”

After countless interviews over the course of her five-year study, Professor Martin says these women face a stark contrast when they return home.

“There’s a kind of paradox here,” she says.

“The general Chinese public 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 mid-20s to suddenly reorient toward marriage, children and family care.”

She says these women come back with valuable degrees, “but then they’re thrown back into this kind of neo-traditional sense of what a woman’s role and identity should be as she moves 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 their family and extended family will say, ‘When are you getting married?’ or ‘When are we going to have grandchildren?'”

A group of Chinese children play on a slide
Raising a child in China’s major cities can be extremely expensive.(Reuters: Aly Song)

As China is pushing for its population to have more childrenhas this pressure increased.

“Even having a child in a big city like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, it’s so expensive to look after that child and give them [certain] educational opportunities,” says Professor Martin.

“[There’s now] the state and public culture say: ‘Why don’t you have three children.’ It’s upsetting for many women who have studied abroad to come back and face that kind of pressure.”

Professor Martin adds that there are some conservative voices in China who criticize young women who have studied abroad.

“There are stereotypes in some of the online forums that say, ‘Well, would you marry a woman who has come back from studying in the West? Or would she be corrupted by the loose sexuality that we see in Western cultures?'”

A ‘leftover lady’

Li completed a master’s degree in Melbourne and then started a Ph.D. in New Zealand. She has been back in China during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her next step is in the air – and she is happy about that.

She says that while her parents are “more open-minded” than others, there are definitely wider societal expectations and pressures around marriage.

“People think a woman should be married at age 25 or 26,” she says.

Now 29, Li says some people may think she is becoming “a left-behind lady”.

“But it’s very difficult for me to get married because I still don’t know which city I’m going to live in,” she says.

Two couples in wedding clothes pose for pictures in front of a canal.
Couples pose for pre-wedding photos outside the Forbidden City in Beijing.(Getty Images: Wang Zhao)

Li says that returning international students have “high demands” on partners as they “want to find a partner who has not only stayed in China – but also had a similar overseas experience”.

Although she did not want to make direct comparisons with women’s rights and equality in Australia, she says that “many Chinese women … will often give up their jobs when they get pregnant”.

But her one specific observation about Australia around gender is about men.

“In Australia you see many, many fathers … who have the child with them,” she says.

“But in China it’s still 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 actually don’t think it’s that fair.”

Balance between work and leisure

Li says one of the biggest challenges is negotiating professional opportunities and expectations at home.

“In China, it’s so hard to achieve a work-life balance.”

She adds that the professional competition “is very, very strong”, especially in the bigger cities.

“To be honest, in Australia and New Zealand the lifestyle is very slow and there is not that big [a] competition, she says.

“So many, many students are coming back from Australia and New Zealand to China and they can’t adapt to these things easily.”

Chinese commuters walk past a billboard in a subway
After spending time in Australia, some returning students struggle with China’s work-life balance.(Getty Images: Qilai Shen)

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 have to try to find a better life,'” she says.

“China is not good because there is so much competition and you make very little money.”

Women’s voices

Despite the ongoing expectations and pressures, Professor Martin says many of these women “won’t just fall over”.

“[Among these] young, well-educated, urban, middle-class women, there’s a strong current of popular feminism running through their way of thinking — they’re talking to each other, they’re finding ways to think and act differently,” she says.

Although there are restrictions across Chinese social media, differing opinions on gender have not been shut down. These debates and discussions begin to seep into popular culture, such as television shows.

“So while they face stereotypes and contradictions, [these women] also has agency. They are quite capable of exercising it to the best of their ability within the constraints they face.”

There are signs that strict ideas about women are slowly changing as the average age of first marriage rises in China’s big cities.

“There is a growing awareness among this cohort of women that the pressures on them are very difficult to live with … They think, ‘We’ve made this investment in our own education, we’re professionally qualified, maybe we can imagine a different kind of life,” says Professor Martin.

“The state is pushing back against it. But there are just so many of these young women who think differently.”

*The name has been changed to protect privacy

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