As my Chinese friends panic over their approaching or recently passed 30th birthday, I find myself unable to identify completely with their dilemmas. Once as a 24 year old man, I panicked at the idea of being childless and unmarried, but soon after my 25th birthday, the urge or desire to wed and breed disintegrated into something far more interesting and rewarding: my life.
But in China, at 30, career paths end. Travel ends. Education ends. Everything stops for the mandatory marriage and baby. Love has nothing to do with anything; you were born to marry and have a baby, and over a period of about 5000 years, it’s been decided that one must marry and have a baby at 30.
What’s more, any post-30th experience that does not directly relate to marriage and a baby seems to be null and void of any meaning or relevance to everyone everywhere.
Same pressure goes for age. The Chinese culture seems much more rigid in determining where a man and woman should be, at exactly what age of their lives. In China, how old you are determines and identifies your role and responsibilities in life and the greater community.
This rigid social structure is demonstrated and celebrated in Chinese art. The common bamboo paintings show the clearly distinct sections of the bamboo plant–symbols of the stages of life that one passes through distinctly and definitely.
Contrarily, in America, it’s anything goes, and as much as I hear about the risks and problems associated with that from Chinese media, it’s simply not all that bad for people to choose if and when to marry, have children, start or stop working, where to live and play, and how to manage their lives.
The idea of reinventing one’s self at 30, 40, 50, 60 and even 70 seems quite natural to me and I actually look forward to not just setting an example but defining the example.
And I’m not alone in my wild, disruptive thinking. In America, we have plenty of examples of people who did what they wanted with their lives and their careers and as a result became popular, successful, and/or lived rich and rewarding lives that benefited more than themselves. My Chinese friends probably don’t know that the KFC they enjoy was started by a man named Harland “Colonel” Sanders who dropped out of the 7th grade and then didn’t start his fast food business until he was 40 years old. Sure KFC is junk food, but how many Chinese people have had their first dates there, or have had some nice friendly experience together with their families at that fast food restaurant? Somehow, somewhere, that restaurant has enriched the lives of some Chinese people in some small way. So was the life of Harland Sanders a complete failure because he reinvented himself at 40?
Bill Gates is probably the most well-known example of how a bad example is not necessarily a bad example and how the social rules and pressures can sometimes be rejected to achieve personal or professional success not just for yourself, but also for many, many, many, many other people.
Invention and reinvention–in America, one size does not fit all. Especially when I see my otherwise happy Chinese friends panic because of their 30th birthday, I realize the difference in growing up in the American culture.