A question of gender…

When I first got here, I noticed something. As I walked out on the streets of Taipei during the day going from company to company, it seemed that I was always surrounded by women. Women on the street, women on the bus, women in the cafes…and I started to wonder to myself the obvious question: Where are all the men?

Not that I was complaining of course, women here in Taipei like any of the major cities of the world are well groomed, well dressed, and generally of above average levels of appearance. Walking in downtown Taipei at certain times is a little like walking in a living fashion show, and as a heterosexual male I can hardly complain about being surrounded by beautiful and well dressed women!

But, back to the question at hand…Where were all the men?

So, I started to ask around among my students and the people I knew here. And, perhaps not surprisingly the answer is got was “working”. The men were in the office buildings which surround me working away while the women…what? Shopped?

At first, I was pretty amused by this, the women shop and the men work, how classically old fashioned! Of course, many women work too (most of my corporate students are in fact female) and then there’s those who are mothers and homemakers (not my students, of course, but various other women around me) who flit in and out from their homes during the day.
But, as I took a bus through the high-fashion district today on my way to the McCafe I currently sit writing it, I started to rethink things. Was there really anything to be amused about? These legions of women (many of them in their 20’s and 30’s) who seem to spend all their time shopping and chatting…who was paying for this coffee? Who was paying for these clothes? Neither of those things are cheap here in Taipei, and someone has to be paying the bills. My students (male and female) are working themselves to the bone doing overtime, so it’s obviously not them as they’re busy working all day.

So, where is this money coming from?

Well, obviously some of them are still living at home, so their parents supply the cash. And, part-time work will explain some of them as well, with them wandering the streets in the afternoons as they work in the evenings or on weekends. But, as has been pointed out to me recently, wages here are pitiful, and raises are few and far in between. Lord knows the credit cards here in Taipei spend a lot of time being maxed, but unlike our credit cards, theirs must be paid back at faster rates or they will accure high levels of interest.

So, I came back to the answer to question I had been asking.

“Where are all the men? Working hard so the women can buy clothes, makeup and drink coffee all day.”

Suddenly it doesn’t seem so funny anymore. Is this a symbiotic relationship? (As I first surmised.) Or is this a parasitic relationship? I honestly don’t know the answer to this question. Maybe this is my North American “men and women are equal” thinking kicking in, the idea that both partners should be equal in earning their keep. Here in Asia, the thinking seems to have been “a woman’s job is being a wife, mother, and beauty for her husband” and that thinking it still part of their culture. It’s changing, but when I look out on the streets of Taipei I have to wonder sometimes, how much has it really changed?

I have to say that growing up in a very socially confused time in North American culture I used to marvel at a culture where men and women had clear social roles like Japan, Korea or Taiwan. Men and women are different animals, we naturally are better at certain things, and the idea of us being “the same” to me is a modern politically correct fallicy. We’re equal, but we’re not the same by any means. Biologically, psychologically…we’re different from each other and that’s something we need to accept. I always thought “old world” culture was more realistic about this, and I saw the gender differences of the sexes here as representing that.

But now…Now I begin to wonder. Maybe the more egalitarian North American ways really are more fair. Here women seem to be exploiting men (not as a whole, of course, but it does seem rather common) with the men following the traditional roles and the women using the free time modern life gives them to…consume? play?

Is this fair to say? I’m not sure. I’m really just thinking aloud at the moment. Maybe I’m not seeing the whole picture. Maybe I’m seeing women enjoying their freedom during the time before they marry and get trapped at home because there’s not enough daycare to go around. But, then again, once they hit school age here, children pretty much spend 24-7 studying at public schools and afterschool tutoring schools. Also, Taiwan apparently has one of the lowest birthrates in the world right now, so apparently these women aren’t getting pregnant and having kids after all.

Husbands, boyfriends and families are paying for their lifestyles…But what are all these women really contributing back to their familes and society? Or are they just excess people enjoying life in an affluent society? That’s the new question I’m trying to find the answer for…

Rob