Of men and women

Memo to Chinese women: Learn to be true to yourself

Chinese women today are more educated and have more career opportunities than at any time in history. And yet, many of us are experiencing a sort of life malaise. This is what I’m hearing:

“I feel trapped. I’m in a PhD program that I hate, and I can’t see myself as an academic for life.”

“My parents are terrified I’ll end up a “leftover woman” and want me to get married. But I have dreams! Right now, I just want to focus on my career.”

“For years I’ve been trying to keep my husband happy but I think he might be getting some action on the side. I feel my life is sliding away from me.”

“I feel lost. I work around the clock for my boss, my husband, my children. I’m losing touch with who I am.”

Modern life is really stressful for Chinese women

Being pulled in many different directions is a fact of life for women all over the world, but the problem is more acute for Chinese women. The cheeky blog StuffWhitePeopleLike.com includes “Asian girls” because “Asian women avoid key white women characteristics, such as having a midlife crisis, divorce, and hobbies that don’t involve taking care of the children.”

After thousands of years, Chinese women are so accustomed to devotion to the people around us that it’s not easy to square tradition with our new yearning for good careers.

When I saw this, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Mid-life crisis and divorce are not events to aspire to, and yet there is some truth here. After thousands of years, Chinese women are so accustomed to devotion to the people around us that it’s not easy to square tradition with our new yearning for good careers.

And that, I think, is a lot of what’s wrong in the lives of many Chinese women today.

Society mostly judges the success of a man through a single lens: his career, and having a successful enough career to buy a home and support a family. I do not underestimate the magnitude of this challenge; as a city official, I once spent years working on affordable-housing, and I wish that an affordable apartment was within the reach of everyone.

But the fact remains that society expects men to do one thing well.  If men additionally are good husbands or fathers, they receive hearty congratulations. On the weekends, I always laugh when my male friends write online status updates like: “Wife at the hair salon. I’m baby-sitting two children on my own!” I always feel tempted to write back, “Hey buddy, that’s wonderful, but when they’re your own kids, it’s not called baby-sitting. It’s called parenting!”

A woman, on the other hand, is expected by society to be perfect in many roles:  Gorgeous woman, dutiful daughter, outstanding career woman, adoring wife, angelic mother. It’s no wonder that many women lose themselves in the rush to meet all these expectations.

Successful women are joyful, strong and self-assured

But some women do manage to be successful, and I’m blessed to count several as friends. Here’s what they have in common:

•  They’re joyful, strong and self-assured.

•  No matter the number of roles they play (career woman, mother, etc.), they seem to gracefully excel at all, and still make time for their friends.

•  They’re at peace with the choices they’ve made, they feel their lives are on track now, and they’re excited about their future.

•   They’re growing and learning every day. They’re constantly reinventing themselves.

•   They exert a centrifugal pull in the universe, attracting people from all directions. They’re popular and influential. This leads to good things and even more opportunities in their lives.

These successful women don’t have much in common with one another. They are not much more talented, more beautiful or smarter than everyone else. They work in diverse fields, they’ve made different life choices. What they share is not one quality. It’s a practice. Each has approached her life from the standpoint of what is true to her.

Successful women are first true to themselves

Be true to yourself. This is simple to say but difficult for many women to put into practice. After all, the last thing you would want is to be called is selfish!  But the fact is that when we’re constantly overworked and overstressed from the strain of trying to be all things to all people, we serve no one well.

Faced with a world that expects so much of you, but that is blind to who you are and what you need, how can you learn to be true to yourself?

How to be true to yourself

Quiet down all that noise, and tune in to your inner voice.

1.    Identify those moments in your life when your heart sings. Recall a moment in the past year when your heart sang. When you felt strong, in charge, happy, and you were so involved in what you were doing that time just flew by. Experts call this state “achieving flow.” What were you doing? Where were you? Who were you with? Picture yourself again in this moment, in as much vivid detail as you can. As you think about it, you’ll feel yourself change. You’ll relax. Your breathing will slow down. You might even smile to yourself.

This is, in fact, an exercise to help you identify your A+ strengths, an important concept which I’ve blogged about here.

2.    Commit to making more of those moments in your life. Start to create more of these moments in your life. What are the elements of your role as a daughter, a girlfriend, a career woman, a wife, a mother, that bring you joy? Start to reorganize your life to focus on doing those things. As you prioritize those things, move other activities off your to-do list and find other people and solutions to get those done.

Act boldly. It’s one thing to know what you need to do, and another to act upon it. Learn to trust your heart, and you’ll be compelled to make large and small changes in your life. Perhaps you need to negotiate with your boss to shift your responsibilities. Perhaps you need to let go of a boyfriend who doesn’t cherish you for who you really are.

3.     Learn to say no. Stop living your life by simply responding to the demands of others. Practice saying no, and celebrate a little victory for yourself each time you do.

I believe that, for Chinese women today, being true to yourself is life’s most important lesson, and also life’s hardest. As I look back on my life, every time I felt I’ve felt lost or stuck is when I’ve momentarily set myself aside in service to someone else –my parents, a boyfriend, a company I worked for.

So be very careful every time you think you’re being noble and magnanimous by giving away something that makes your heart sing.

It’s a part of daily life to put others’ needs before yours at times. Many nights, I’ve dearly wanted to collapse in bed and instead stayed awake to read another book to my daughter. But when you give up something big, something that makes your heart sing, you’ll be cutting yourself off from the inspiration and joy which you need to live a good life.

Make no excuses for who you are and what you want

It would be nice to realign society to be a more hospitable environment, but meanwhile, you can start today to claim your autonomy. You have every right to your follow your heart regardless of what anyone thinks about that. You don’t have to advertise this fact on a billboard, but you can simply start disallowing other people’s opinions to govern your choices.

Do not ask for permission or for approval for who you are. Your choices, made with integrity, never have to be justified to anyone else. Never allow anyone to say you should be someone you are not.

When you’re true to yourself, success will follow

Successful women are so used to being true to themselves that it’s become a habit. If you incorporate this practice into your own life, the following things will happen:

•  You’ll have more time in your life because you’re focused on doing fewer things and doing those well.

•  You’ll have more purpose in your life because you’re more focused in certain things rather than trying to please everyone.

•  Your life will feel more balanced because each area of your life will give you strength rather than sap your strength.

•  You’ll be able to do more for others, because you’re focusing on what you need, and you’ll get the strength to help everyone else in your life.

When you’re true to yourself, others will love you more

The paradoxical thing about becoming a more self-centered women is that people will love them more! Actually, an independent woman is a very sexy thing indeed. When you remain true to yourself, you’ll attract people, women and men, who want to be near you for who you really are. When Dave and I met, he had been dating a rotation of pretty younger women, but he quickly “cleared out the stable,” as he puts it, and then it was just this amazing man and me.

The way forward is within yourself

Amidst the myriad pressures facing the Chinese woman today, you can design for yourself a life that is successful and joyful. The concept of a woman being true to herself may seem to be a very modern one, but actually it is based on ancient wisdom. The Tao Te Ching offers deep insight for men and women equally:

— 老子《道德经》

At the center of your being
You have the answer
You know who you are
You know what you want.
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching


I welcome your comments, in Chinese or English, on the Chinese version of this blog post, which is here.