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Careers, divorce, fulfillment and the Asian woman

Tom Plate
Filed on February 11, 2005

THIS past Wednesday, February 9, was the start of the Chinese lunar calendar, well known as the ‘Year of the Rooster’. What’s less well known is that many Chinese also dub it the ‘Year of the Widow.’ The new Chinese year, it seems, features a peculiar lunar anomaly: It lacks a day that marks the beginning of spring, known in Chinese as Lichun. Spring symbolises new beginnings and passion, believed in Chinese custom to lead to heartfelt union and many children.

Thus, speaking wholly superstitiously, the Year of the Rooster looks to be an ominous time to tie the knot. In fact, Chinese couples in China and the States have rushed to get hitched before the beginning of the Chinese New Year. On the United States West Coast, some couples, even those educated at the most values-progressive American universities, have deferred marriage until the next lunar year, often because of worried, superstitious parents. Superstition or not, family values are not quite what they used to be in Asian cultures, for all sorts of reason besides the astronomical anomalies. Incredibly, divorce rates are on the rise all over Asia.

In Singapore, divorce is up a third since 1990; it has nearly doubled in Thailand; and in heretofore divorce-adverse Japan, one couple divorces about every two minutes. In the last two decades, divorce rates have doubled in mainland China and have tripled in Taiwan. The divorce rate in South Korea now exceeds the divorce rates in the UK, in Denmark and in Hungary. In Jakarta alone, the divorce rate increased 15 per cent in just one year (from 2001 to 2002). In the great metropolis of Shanghai, China’s largest city, the divorce rate now runs at about one out of every three, and appears to be increasing at the astonishing rate of 30 per cent a year.

Asia, it is clear, is not what it used to be: the overweening social stigma placed on divorce has eased dramatically, as wondrously has the subjugation of women. In Japan and China, approximately 70 per cent of divorces are initiated by women. Many Asian women now have careers and lives outside of the household and are no longer solely dependent on their husbands for their livelihood. Increased economic freedom has fuelled the need for more personal choice; women are seeking fulfilment beyond washing dishes and preparing meals. In Japanese suburbs, schools sprout up instructing women in “50 ways to leave your loved one.” Astonishingly, divorce-mania is not limited to the young. In many parts of Asia, especially Japan but also China, older couples are getting divorced. Older women, with their children grown and gone, are starting to weigh options that allow them to leave dysfunctional marriages with abusive spouses. For others, divorce is about a new search for fulfilment and meaning, spawning, in Japan, a term for the type of divorce for women seeking a new life outside of the household: ‘risutora rikon’ (divorce as the first step in the positive reorganisation of one’s life.)

Look at, believe it or not, South Korea, heretofore a veritable pantheon of Confucian patriarchal social customs. No more: The divorce rate has skyrocketed and the birthrate has plummeted. The culprit — increased education of women, and a revolution in social values. Confucianism is out, and the Cosmopolitan girl is in. In 2003, the divorce rate in South Korea almost equalled that of the acknowledged global divorce leader, the United States. The leading Korean reason for divorce was ‘personality conflict’.

While Japanese women will see divorce as a first step to a new and improved life, Japanese men are struggling with the wholly new duties of doing the laundry or cooking, things that have traditionally been done for them all their life — first by their mothers and then by their wives. In this sense, more and more Japanese men are becoming Americanised!

Indeed, for many in America, this trend in Asia’s globalisation will seem like a mixed blessing. For the region’s wronged women, until recently with no way out, there is now hope that a better life awaits. At the same time, many in the States may be overcome with a measure of sadness. For in America, people tend to divorce with all the restraint and ceremony of throwing out an old model car and replacing it with a new one. The end result is an almost endless cycle of roiled children and ruined families. Some here will say: Where are the old, Confucian, Asian values when we need them? Increasingly, it would appear, not in Asia.

Happy Chinese New Year!

© Tom Plate


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