Former Correspondent Offers An In-Depth Look At China In New Memoir Where Personal Meets Political

By Dori Jones Yang

When I was in my twenties, I avoided dating any guy I thought might prevent me from achieving my big ambition: to become a foreign correspondent covering China. I wanted to fly solo, to pursue my career wherever it might take me, to avoid being bogged down by a man with his own ambitions. Yet at the age of twenty-nine, a single American woman, I decided I wanted to marry a Chinese guy I had just met. 

I did marry him. Years later, an older American man said to me, “You’re such an independent and strong-minded woman. I’ve often wondered why you married a Chinese man.” 

I was taken aback. My first reaction was to be shocked by his view that Chinese men oppressed women. It seemed stereotyped and, frankly, racist. That was far from my experience. My second reaction was to wonder: Is there any truth in that stereotype? And if so, why hadn’t I even considered it until this moment?

When I penned my memoir of my experiences as a foreign correspondent covering China, I pushed myself to reflect on why I had chosen a Chinese husband during those years. Frankly, I had never hesitated. 

Clearly, I was well aware that the Chinese mindset has been patriarchal and patrilineal for centuries. The traditional Chinese attitude of “valuing men, belittling women” led to preferential treatment for sons, female infanticide, and severe restrictions on women’s independence, including foot binding. China’s one-child policy, which started during the years I was covering China, resulted in many abandoned baby girls and a surge in American adoptions from China—almost all of them girls. 

But Paul didn’t have those attitudes. His family had left mainland China for Taiwan when the Communists took over in 1949, long before the one-child policy, and his parents seemed modern and open-minded. Toward me, Paul was polite, respectful, and caring. He met me at the airport. He treated me to dinner. I liked that. I didn’t find it belittling, because he knew I could take care of myself. When I met him, I was looking for mutual respect. I wanted a man who was as proud of my accomplishments as he was of his own. Paul exemplified that. 

China’s Communist leader Mao Zedong famously said “Women hold up half the sky,” and encouraged women to get an education and take paying jobs. He had ended prostitution and outlawed concubines and second wives. It’s true that those bad practices came roaring back after Deng Xiaoping opened up the economy and expanded personal freedoms in the 1980s, especially as China’s population became lopsidedly male. When Paul and I rented out our house near Seattle a few years ago, the tenant was a pregnant Chinese woman who was the concubine of a rich man, sent to the United States to have her baby. 

Those facts would seem to support the stereotype.

So—since I married a Chinese man, does that mean I endorse all that? 

Obviously not. Neither does Paul. We raised our daughter to be an achiever, with a master’s degree in computer science and a good career. 

If you marry an American man, do you endorse all the patriarchal views of previous generations of Americans, or accept that the income gap between men and women is A-okay? Of course not. You see him as the individual he is. 

But my friend’s challenge did make me look around at the Chinese women I know, both in China and here in the United States. 

In China, one of Paul’s cousins married a woman who had been a gynecologist in the army and delivered thousands of babies. After retiring from medicine, she and her husband started a winery in their spare bedroom and turned it into a business. Another relative has two daughters in their early forties. One studied computer science and teaches at the university level, and her sister works for the winery, tasting wine like an expert now. Both had one son under the one-child policy; as soon as the law changed in 2015, they each had a second baby. They continue to work and raise their children. 

In the United States, I know a lot of Chinese-American women who immigrated about the same time as Paul. I interviewed fourteen of them for a book of oral histories I compiled. Most had come to this country to complete their higher education, and all of them had pursued careers. One was a pioneering female engineer at Boeing; another got a PhD in chemistry and rose through the corporate world; another worked as a hospital nutritionist; another became a librarian. Most raised children without pausing their careers. Somehow!

They were all independent and strong-minded—and most of them married Chinese men and stayed married for life.

I still haven’t figured out how I should have responded to my friend’s comment. I married Paul because I loved and respected him. His insights and connections were invaluable in helping me to understand China in a more personal and nuanced way. That became a central theme of my memoir—and of my life.

Dori Jones Yang, based in the Seattle area, is a former journalist and author of eight books. Her new book, “When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China’s Reawakening,” tells her personal story of covering China as a reporter for BusinessWeek. It will be published by She Writes Press in September 2020. To learn more about Dori Jones Yang’s life and work, visit her website, https://dorijonesyang.com/.

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