Tying the knot in Asia: I do, but not yet

IA's Marjolein Winkelman takes a look at the cultural pressures around marriage in Asia, and invites three single ladies to share their experiences...

Last month, cosmetics giant Proctor and Gamble launched a new advert for a skin care product in China. Nothing particularly remarkable about that, except that in less than six weeks their SK-II promotion had gone viral, attracting over two million hits on YouTube alone, and picking up media coverage from the BBC and around the globe.

The reason for this flurry of interest is simple. Under the tagline 'don't let pressure dictate your future', the SK-II 'Change Destiny' campaign confronted the huge cultural and generational issues surrounding marriage in China and suggested that it is time for perceptions to change.

It has clearly struck a chord for a great many people across the region. So let's take a closer look at what it's like to be looking for love in Asia. Are the younger generation really challenging the cultural norms and expectations of their parents?


Young free and single?

In the West, we have long grown accustomed to accepting that young people are largely free to pursue their careers, lives and loves at their own pace and on their own terms. 'Young, free and single' suggests a carefree time, and in the US for example the age of marriage is rising as young people choose to remain single for longer.

But in China, life as a young singleton could not be more different. As an only child under China's strict one-child policy, only recently relaxed, there is enormous parental pressure on young people to marry and continue the family line. In fact many parents see it as their last parental duty to ensure that their child is married off.

These are not just emotional pressures that young people face: it translates into social expectations too. For a young man to be considered eligible he must own his own house and car, whilst if you reach 27 as a single woman you are 'Sheng Nu' or a 'leftover woman'.


Bucking the trend

Against this backdrop the SK-II 'Change Destiny' promotion played out, focusing instead on confident, successful, ‘thirty-something’ women who had chosen to pursue their careers and their lives on their own terms.

Are such experiences unique to China or do similar social pressures exist elsewhere in Asia? Having lived in Indonesia for four years, I was interested to find out more about the situation there. I knew that attitudes can still be pretty traditional - marriage is still the defining social relationship and is thought to mark the beginning of adulthood.

Historically, women in Indonesia have married and had their first child by the age of twenty, but today many women, especially in the cities are marrying much later, building their careers whilst still living at home with their parents. These additional years of singledom can be empowering, yet tough to negotiate; on the one hand parental pressure at close quarters to settle down and on the other a desire to choose your own path. Casual relationships, living together and sex before marriage are still very much frowned upon.

So, in a society in which the question is not so much 'are you married?' but 'are you married yet?' and where single women of a certain age are called 'perawan tua' ('old virgins'), what is it like to be still single in your late 20’s & early 30’s in Jakarta? I caught up with bachelorettes Putri, who is 33 and lived in the US for 6 years before moving back to Indonesia, Sekar, 29, an office worker with a degree in Psychology and Ida, 32 an Interpreter, for a chat. (Names have been changed).


'I'll move to the US'

It seems the expectations for girls to marry are just as intense as in China. Putri told me: "When I go into meetings, it is normal for someone to ask me if I am married. When I say 'No', they are like 'Oh my gosh, how old are you… I know some people, I'll introduce you to them.’ It's like the whole country wants to help me, that's how important they think getting married is!

I feel like people feel sorry for me. People will say 'I just don't get why you are still single.” The constant pressure can be suffocating, for now that Putri is the other side of 30, she is considering a fairly drastic step. "If I don't get married before I'm 35, I'll move to the US” she says.

Sekar agrees. "When you are single they will ask you when will you get married? When you are married they ask you when will you have your first kid? When you have your first kid they will ask you when will you have your second kid? It's never-ending."

Meanwhile Ida feels that she is being pulled in two directions. On the one hand, she feels proud of her independence and ability to make her own life choices, and when it comes to marriage she wants a partner she can respect and share a life with, but on the other hand she wants to make her parents happy and doesn't want to come across as self-centered.

"My Mum wants me to meet a Javanese guy who is also a Muslim, that's the only criteria they have. For me, the most important thing is that I can respect this person and that I am comfortable with him. Religion is less important."

With the pressure to get hitched, are they taking matters into their own hands to find a spouse? Many singles in the West now see dating apps such as Tinder to be an established part of their lifestyle, and they are often used to flirt and for casual socialising as much as for long-term commitment.

In Asia, this casual approach can cause unease, and certainly the ladies I spoke to weren't so comfortable with using dating apps. 'I tried Tinder; I didn't like it, there were guys who start asking you about your size and other weird questions,' says Putri.

Sekar agrees: “Apps are awkward. Usually you need to be a friend first before dating, you need time to get to know him before going on a date. It’s too artificial.”

A recent Tinder advert in India shows just how sensitive the subject can be. In the advert a mother watches her young daughter getting ready to go out. Mum shows a natural parental concern, but when she sees that the date was fixed up via Tinder, her concern vanishes and instead she smiles and gives her approval.

Social media commentators did not approve. Some complained that it was unrealistic: parents of that generation are simply not so sympathetic to dating apps. Others, meanwhile, wondered why Tinder was trying to seek parental approval in first place: everyone knows it is a way for young people to meet and have fun, so why pretend otherwise?


Future Expectations

The pace of change and contrast between the traditional expectations of older generations and the modern aspirations of youth are evident in many parts of Asia. What can we learn from this?

First of all, whilst there are still undoubtedly enormous pressures to marry young, more women are choosing to stay single for longer. Some want to pursue career opportunities and life choices that maybe weren't available to their parents. Others perhaps simply want to wait a while, enjoy life and take time to find their own 'Mr Right' rather than to marry according to their parents' social expectations.

Either way, it seems that young women have some hard choices to make if they are not to remain stuck between being a good daughter who does not disappoint her parents, and a career-orientated woman who wants to succeed on her own terms.

But this trend away from early marriage also signifies the emergence of a growing number of independent-minded and ambitious women across Asia who are educated, hard-working and proud of their achievements. They may want to marry, to settle down, and yes, maybe even to conform - but not yet.

As the Tinder advert in India shows, tapping into this segment can be tricky. But it can be done. The success of the SK-II campaign undoubtedly touched a nerve and shows that these social shifts and conflicting family dynamics are creating new lifestyles and aspirations for many young people. With these changes come opportunities to connect with an important demographic in new and socially engaging ways.

Posted on June 3, 2016 and filed under Culture.