TEDx Beijing

I’ve found that the most effective antidote to jetlag is pretending it doesn’t exist. Even though I had just arrived in Beijing Friday evening, I had a pretty jam-packed Saturday thanks to my buddy Chris.  He has generously let me take over the spare room in his apartment for a few weeks until I get myself up and running again and it would seem he is also doing double duty as my social director.

His lovely girlfriend Segolene is one of the organizers for TEDx Beijing, and yesterday they invited me to attend a panel discussion for International Women’s Day. The panelists included:

Wang Lei, an inspirational woman who chose to leave her office job in 2004 with the goal of climbing the seven summits and skiing to both poles. She reached this monumental achievement last year when she climbed to the top of Mt. Everest, becoming the first Chinese woman to complete the task.

Casey Wilson, an American entrepreneur who combined her background in economics and love for China to help build an online micro-finance platform called Wokai. 我开, which translates to “I begin,” connects financiers from around the world with people in rural China who require small business loans.

Zou Yuan, President of Media Consulting at SinoTech where she helps analyze the Chinese consumer market. She is also the founder of Girl 2.0, a venture which hopes to connect Chinese and American women in order to promote innovation and advance the causes of women in business.

Also on the panel was Elsa Tse, a Chinese student currently working on her Masters degree in News and Communications.

The discussion covered a wide range of topics, some uniquely affecting Chinese women and others more universal. Having never learned about International Women’s Day until moving to China in 2005, I feel as though I’ve perhaps neglected thinking about women’s issues more than I should have. The closest I came to prolonged debate was the one semester at college I took a course in Feminism and Philosophy. I was the only woman in the class who wasn’t a self-proclaimed feminist, which led to many icy stares and plenty of angry ladies yelling at me.

One of the first points brought up in discussion yesterday was the effect that the one-child policy has had on the physical and mental toughness of Chinese women. Zou Yuan started off the talk with some statistics that I have found troubling for years: 70% of women in China give birth via C-section, while only 20% have an actual medical need for the procedure. She believes that modern women are afraid of pain and effort, even when that pain may be beneficial. Elsa Tse felt that while the fear of pain may be a part of it, there is also a lot of pressure on women to have C-sections for the sake of efficiency to make it easier on the hospitals rather than themselves.

Because she works mainly with rural communities, Casey Walker had a different perspective on the matter. She explained that 80% of the people she works with are women, and many of those are also mothers. These rural women work longer hours than men, are more likely than their male counterparts to put their income towards their children’s education, and often are the ones who manage to pull their families out of poverty. So while this fear of effort may be present in an urban setting, she believes that the opposite is true throughout China’s countryside.

The discussion moved from this into a debate over what “gender equality” really means for women in China. Wang Lei believes that what is lacking for women in China is the ability to develop individual goals. She explained that in a professional environment people judge you on the quality of your work, so if you work hard and are smart you’ll succeed. However, when it comes to the social sphere there is so much outside pressure to do what is expected of them that women don’t know how to do otherwise. In agreement with Wang Lei, Elsa Tse added a bit of well-intentioned advice she received from an aunt: “Until you’re 27 you can pick up guys, but after that you can only be picked.”

While I know that social pressures are more prevalent in Asia, I think that this is a also a problem for women in the West. There is that expectation of becoming the “perfect wife and mother” with no room for an identity outside of that. You may be scratching your head as you remember me mentioning previously that I am not a feminist. Although I am pro-woman and champion for individuality, I don’t like the label of “feminism” because I think that a lot of the rhetoric calls for the same rights as privileges as men. This panel discussion reinforced my belief that we should be looking after the unique needs of women, not striving for sameness.

Zou Yuan explained it best as she described gender roles in China. She said that the two sexes are treated as equal, but this means that they are also treated as though they’re the same. The reality is that there are physiological differences and this element is neglected in the approach to educating and fostering development in children.

Overall, it was a really interesting conference and a great way to spend my first day back in Beijing. Even though it is not commonly celebrated in America, I encourage you to honor the spirit of International Women’s Day and spend some time contemplating what you want out of life. I think Wang Lei put it best when she said that International Women’s Day “should be a reminder to get your own status by your own effort.”

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