Before coming to China, I had already mentally positioned the country as a half way point between the culture in the UK and the culture in Japan, but I was majorly wrong. The main difference that has struck me between Japan and China is that I don’t have to be conscious of my gender. It may sound ridiculous to you, depending where you come from, but I’m really bowled over by how little people care I’m a woman. That’s what I’m focusing on today, and this handy little bar chart from www.geert-hofstede.com is going to help me explain it.
Hofstede’s cultural dimensions evaluate countries on specific scales that can dictate how society functions. We’ve all heard of ‘individualism’ and most have heard of the opposite end of the scale: ‘collectivism’, but this is actually only one of the six dimensions typically used by sociologists, anthropologists and many other kinds of ‘ologists’. Understanding how a country scores on each scale can facilitate understanding of the culture and is actually a pretty good starting ground if you are trying to understand a nation different to your own.
I want you to pay particular attention to the middle bars labelled ‘masculinity’. What does it mean? Traditional gender roles are a part of typically ‘masculine’ society, where men act as the bread-winner and women look after the family, but there’s more to it than that. Masculine societies are typically competitive with a focus on individual success and can be aggressively high-achievers. This applies for both men and women, where working long hours and focusing on quantifiable measures of success are common. In feminine societies people tend to be more concerned about liking what they are doing, rather than focusing on being successful. Lithuania (19), Denmark (16) and Iceland (10) all score low on masculinity; their citizens are less likely to look for praise, and that which benefits the most people is considered the best way.
My experience in Japan made me a bit apprehensive about Asian countries – which was completely nonsensical because even within Asia, Japan sticks out like a sore thumb. Nevertheless, I came to China with some misguided expectations about what would and would not be okay for me to do as a woman. I think a large part of it came from concepts such as ‘leftover women’, historical depictions of foot-binding, killing daughters during the one-child policy, and maybe even Western fetishization of Chinese women.
Disclaimer: I’ve only been here for two weeks and may be naive. This is an opinion piece, and discussion is encouraged!
Fashion and Body Image
To start off, China scores the same for masculinity as the UK, meaning my role as a woman shouldn’t really change. Despite this, I have a lot more freedom about what clothes I wear. Wearing strappy tops or miniskirts don’t seem to incite the same reaction here as they do in the UK. Maybe the hot weather allows for skin to be shown, or maybe Chinese people aren’t as judgemental and quick to slut-shame.
One of my favourite things about Chinese fashion is the fad for see-through clothing, creating a layered effect where half the garment is solid and the other half gives a sneaky peak of the skin underneath. Technically you’re dressed from head to toe, but there’s actually quite a bit on show. Fashion is fun and experimental, seemingly without the risk of ‘asking for it’ and there seems to be a lot more allowance for personal taste as well. If your ‘thing’ is fashionable clothes with teddy bear appliqué no one’s going to mock you for it.
Women aren’t Objects
I feel zero pressure to ‘act like a lady’ here, unlike Japan. I remember trying to play pool in Japan and being extremely self-conscious about taking shots because it required bending over, and I was conscious that it may come across as flirtatious… despite being necessary to play the game. Pool was a very masculine sport and women were only really seen if they were taken there on a date, so it was a relief to find that I can have fun in China without worrying about how others perceive me.
Similarly, smoking in Japan is not something women do – unless they are edgy ‘gyaru’. I haven’t seen a lot of women smoking in China, but it is not uncommon and no one stares and judges me when I light up. If they did, maybe it would help me quit, but eh, for now I can do without the shame.
You know what else is great? Not getting felt up on the subway. People stare a bit because I’m White, but that quickly wears off. It’s never been sexual or predatory.
In Japan, I only got felt up on the train once, although you have to be on constant alert. It’s such a common thing that we learnt about it in our second year text book, and the train company has had to introduce female-only carriages to prevent the number of occurrences of ‘chikan’. They advise you to grab the man and pull him off the train yelling ‘chikan’ so that security can take care of it, but in such instances the woman still receives negative association, despite being the victim. Consequently, not many people are willing to confront the issue. I feel safe on the streets, in bars, and clubs. I don’t know whether workplace discrimination exists, but there are many working women who run shops, wait on, work in bakeries etc., and continues even after childbirth.
Essentially, Chinese people respect women as human beings, which is the biggest difference I have seen between China and Japan so far.