Dear Asian women, you’re not bad if you don’t get married.

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South China Morning Post (“SCMP”) recently discussed the declining marriage rate in Hong Kong in an article called, “This is Hong Kong: no time for love, no interest in marriage and not enough men.” Wait, “no interest in marriage” means voluntary choice, while “not enough men” implies the social environment. What is the focus here? There’s a hint in the article as the writer Yonden Lhatoo quoted Ariadna Peretz, who runs the matchmaking agency Maitre D’ate in Hong Kong. “Hong Kong women can be so focused on their career that it’s only when they hit their late 30s/early 40s they realize they want a family. They’re only making it harder for themselves,” says Peretz, providing “the kind of personal insight that you can’t get from statisticians and academics” according to Lhatoo.

Women making it harder for themselves by focusing on career and realizing ‘they want a family’ in later years: the narrative is too common to be called an insight. Especially in East Asia. We know the storyline: modern women’s selfish choice, declining marriage rate, dropping birth rate, all hell breaking loose in a millennia-old society.  

In South Korea, the marriage rate is dropping steadily and the median age for women to tie the knot reached the 30s in 2016. The Economist reported in 2015 that four in ten South Korean adults are unmarried, the highest share among the 34 OECD countries. Reporting the growing trend of Korean women who choose not to get married, the article also mentioned, “some snipe that these women’s “marriage strike” is selfish and unpatriotic”.

An Australian media, The Conversation, reported, “one of the greatest fears of Chinese parents is coming true: China’s young people are turning away from marriage. The trend is also worrying the government,” although the article articulated gender inequality in China as the main reason. It mentioned that “most of [Chinese state media’s] sympathetic attention has been channeled towards bachelors who cannot exercise their ‘right’ to acquire a wife.”

In Japan, where only a third of the nation’s youth have even been in a relationship, “with women marrying later – in part, specialists say, to avoid pressure to give up their careers – prospects for a more decisive turnaround [in birth rate] look remote,” while the “clock ticks for women in Japan seeking love at work.”

Put the birth rate issue aside for now. Do you really think East Asian women “don’t want to marry?”

In an article about the rise of online dating scams, SCMP quoted another matchmaker in town, Ng Mei-ling, who founded dating agency Hong Kong Matchmakers. Mei-Ling says the reason Hong Kong women easily fall prey to predators is mostly “just loneliness and the feeling of being left out as their girlfriends get married and have children, moving into another life cycle and lifestyle which are no longer commensurate with theirs.”

Meanwhile, family pressure for East Asian women to get married is still prevalent. Peretz, while talking about the societal pressure on Hong Kong women to be married by the time they reach their 30s mentioned, “people will even take fake dates to family gatherings to avoid the questions [around Lunar New Year]”. A commercial by Japanese cosmetic company SK-II, showing young Chinese women voicing their protest against the stigma of “leftover” women, went viral in China because the struggle is real.

The reason not to get married is often not a personal choice. In many East Asian countries, it simply costs too much. High living expenses, higher housing costs, and long work hours to afford them make married life seem like an unaffordable luxury. In South Korea, the young generation is called “the generation that gave up three [things]: romance, marriage, and children” because of the dire job market. It’s human for a couple to want for their own place and to provide a comfortable space for a child, thus affordable housing comes before personal preference.

Then there’s a second barrier for women. In China, where married women still face discrimination in the job market, there’s not enough legal protection for divorced women. The Economist reported some in South Korea, who regard women choosing not to get married as selfish and unpatriotic, would like women to carry on shouldering nearly all the burden of housework, child care and looking after aging in-laws. In Japan, the departure of married women from work is often attributed to “the difficulties they face in balancing their jobs and family needs.” Japan Times reported that employers placing pressure on women to quit or demoting them when they become pregnant are so common that the phrase “maternity harassment” was coined.

Socially and culturally, Asian women are pressured to compromise or to give up their career once they get married, let alone have a child. If you have dedicated your time, energy, and passion in a field for years, and have earned your financial freedom as a member of society, how much of a sacrifice is it to give up your career? As the world changes, generations old and young adapt to new technology, new cultures, and new norms. There’s no justifiable reason to force women to behave like their mothers did in the 1960s.

Then why is it a problem that more women tend to get married in later years or not to marry at all? If society correlates delayed marriage with a plummeting birth rate, it implies that childbirth is the primary reason or inevitable outcome of marriage. But that makes no sense. Some married couples choose not to have a child, and some parents don’t get married.

For the sheer sake of marriage, why is it a problem again? In the SCMP article, Peretz cites Sheryl Sandberg’s words, “the most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry,” saying, “so this decision shouldn’t be an afterthought.” This is an odd position. If marriage is “the most important career choice” in life, shouldn’t you be extra cautious? It seems more logical to make the decision “after” you’ve gained enough life experience to “think” it through properly.

To marry or not to marry is one of the most difficult decisions for East Asian women, possibly Asian women overall. To marry is to risk career and freedom. Not to marry is to face social pressure and personal loneliness.

Journalists and policy makers tend to forget that the person who has the greatest knowledge and the biggest interest in a woman’s marriage is the woman herself. It is one of the biggest decision in her life. She’s not buying a $10 lipstick on a whim. It’s a decision that determines her finances, lifestyle, body and soul. Women just don’t walk mindlessly into statistics. Some women want to get married. Some women don’t. Some women have to get married even when they don’t want to, and the opposite cases are equally common. What is bad is this ‘have to’ part.

When we talk about women’s marriage as a social issue, the goal should be to support each woman’s choice, not to manipulate the outcome. So how to gear the conversation? Don’t rely on charts, instead, try listening to actual women.

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Youjin Lee

Youjin Lee is editor-in-chief of April Magazine, freelance writer, and South Korean private attorney. She divides her time between Asia and Europe, dreaming of writing a cozy murder mystery someday.

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