Lots of people dream about doing the kinds of things Eden Collinsworth does routinely in her life: change jobs, move countries, strike out for parts unknown both internal and external. In the form of an etiquette guide, I Stand Corrected "“ excerpted below -- is both a cultural analysis of East-West relations and a witty memoir of a very unconventional life.
In 1985, I received an invitation from a delegation of Chinese businessmen offering me the opportunity to see Shenzhen. It was the height of China's policy of economic Opening Up, and this former fishing village had grown into a booming metropolis constructed with what looked to be gigantic Lego pieces. At the time, I was a book publisher. I was also young, fair- skinned and redheaded; and so, when I arrived in Shenzhen, it was easy for the Chinese to believe I might have come not from America, but from another planet entirely.
"What do you mean he's asked how much I am?" was my stunned question to the associate acting as my translator at a business dinner for which I was the host.
"Just that," he told me.
All at the table had been imbibing a great deal; it was not without reason that I asked my colleague if the man inquiring was sober. "He seems to be," was the answer.
"Have you correctly translated?" I asked? "Surely he's asked how much it would cost to buy the company we represent," I said.
"No. He means the cost for you, as a woman," reiterated my colleague. "Our guest has just inquired about taking permanent possession of you." Latching on to whatever composure had not already abandoned me, I pointed out that I was not just a woman, I was also the president of an American book publishing company. "One who happens to be the host this evening," I made clear.
"I can translate what you've just said," volunteered my colleague. "But it won't matter."
"Why not?" I wanted to know.
"Because he believes that your gender makes your professional rank insupportable."
And there it was. A full-in-the-face statement, which forced upon me the irrefutable difference between my self-image and my status in China where, at the time, I was Western luxury item possibly to be purchased.
"What would you like me to tell him?" asked my colleague.
It took a moment to realize that it wasn't so much that I needed to surrender my self-image as that I should consider suspending it. Making a bottom line calculation with that in mind, I responded with falsehoods calibrated to avoid embarrassment.
"First, thank him for his interest," I instructed my colleague. "Next, tell him I'm extremely flattered. And then let him know that, sadly, I belong to someone else."
That face-saving response"”and others like it"”enabled my many years of doing business in China, during which course I witnessed the nation's profound transformation. But, long after committing to advance gender equality there, it seems to me that the Communist Party has underestimated resistance from their nation's culture, a culture that remains rooted in a traditionally Confucian society.
Only after living in China did I understand how women there struggle to break through the encased male-dominated work environment, not just in circumstantial ways but in the far more complex ways that have to do with self-belief. Very few possess the emotional and financial resources required to brave the tide of political, social, and parental waves pushing them toward marriage.
Hengnu, or "leftover woman," is a term China's Ministry of Education has added to its official lexicon. It describes an urban professional woman over the age of twenty-seven. For those slow in understanding the implications, the prefix sheng is the same as in the word shengcai, or "leftover food."
Setting its own action-oriented time line that delineates exactly when women become stale, the Communist Party provides instruction by age groups. At twenty-five, women must "fight" and "hunt" for a partner. If not married by twenty- eight, women are pressured to "triumph against the odds." Between thirty-one and thirty-four, still-unmarried women are referred to as "advanced leftovers," and by thirty-five, a single woman is the "ultimate" leftover, spiritually flawed in thinking she is higher than the mandate of marriage.
That being the case, Li Ping, a young woman I came to admire in Beijing, was spiritually flawed. Ping was a decent, well-educated, hardworking woman who had made a fortune launching a portfolio of magazines. She had proved herself an astute businesswoman and, by all Western accounts, a great success, but during a revealing conversation in the backseat of her chauffeur-driven car while stalled in Beijing traffic, Ping told me that her younger sister was more successful in the "important way."
"Why would you think that?" I asked.
"It's not what I think, it's what I know. My sister is married, and I am not. I am shaming my parents."
Ping's punishing words spoke of the worst kind of self-judgment, and it was difficult for me to understand the irrational degree to which she was holding her self-esteem in abeyance until she was married. Still, her plight was not without claims on my sympathy. At one time, I, too, would have been an "advanced leftover."
Eventually, I married, having fallen in love with a man in my own country. When I did, I gave myself away to him for free.