By Lu Shen for The Daily Iowan 
In 1885, Jin Yunmei, a young woman from China, received her medical degree from the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, becoming the first female Chinese on record to have a U.S. education.
It was a time when few Chinese men had the opportunity to study abroad, while the overwhelming majority of women remained uneducated.
China is now the world’s second largest economy. Its students now count for the largest population of international students in America. Plus, there are far more Chinese females on U.S. campuses.
The University of Iowa campus hosts 2,099 Chinese students as of this fall, and 1,070 of them are female, according to the UI International Student and Scholar Services.
Mostly single children bearing high expectations from parents, some young women are trying to escape cultural conventions and social and gender norms, but others accept traditional labels and roles.
On top of a competitive job market, limited upward mobility, and the pressure to take care of parents in later life, the traditional burden of fulfilling the female role still persists in China, and these all can be driving forces to study abroad, according to UI School of Journalism lecturer Lisa Weaver, who has worked in China as a journalist.
Jingjing Li, 20, came from Shanghai in 2011. She studies accounting, because her mother wanted her to, but she doesn’t dislike it.
“My mom has said, ‘I sent you to study abroad because I wanted you to update yourself to a higher level,’ ” Li said.
Her mother, a Hong Kong-based financial analyst, has also said landing a good husband is the ultimate goal of her getting an American education.
“I could imagine if I were still single at 30, my mom would go crazy,” Li said.
Weaver, a Californian, was astonished when she first went to China, at the age of 22, that educated women around her in their mid-20s were either married or hoping to be.
“It is about parents, it’s about society, it’s about a feeling that a women’s life didn’t seem to be complete unless she was married,” she said. “More importantly, it’s about security. If you don’t have children, who’s going to take care of you when you’re older?”
Qiuting Zhou, 22, with whom I took rhetoric class last year, came to the United States to for a sense of cultural freedom — to break through the environment where she thought everyone was assimilated by a dominant ideology.
She said her teachers since junior high had never favored her because they thought she had too many ideas and was too complicated for her age.
“I wanted to be independent and to have my own ideas,” Zhou said.
But her male friends didn’t like that type of women.
“They would think those girls too sophisticated to be controlled,” she said.
Meimei Han, a pseudonym because of her request for anonymity, said coming from a traditional family and a relatively conservative small town, she has suffered enough from traditional dogmas. Her American education has helped her reassess the world and view social norms for what they are.
“The traditional values imposed on women are biased, constraining women in lots of ways,” she said.
Han feels the new mores of developing China: a comfortable life, get married, and have a child at a young age, and not try to achieve is a little ridiculous.
“If [my mom and relatives] continue forcing me to rush into marriage,” she said, “I’m going to be a nun.”
Graduating with a B.S. in mathematics this past May, Han spoke to me in late October while she was packing for returning to her small hometown. She has since returned to China.
Han had planned to pursue a Ph.D. against her parents’ wishes.
“They thought it’d be hard to secure a good job with a degree in math, thus, my life would be tougher,” she said. “They were more afraid I’d become a nerd and not likely to be find a boyfriend.”
To compromise, she will apply to a master’s program and come back to America and wait and see if she will continue.
- China