For years I’ve been bewildered by how often I meet young Chinese women who want to be accountants. Now it’s becoming clear.
I met He Li on a bus heading out to Nanhui, a new city on the coast 60 km from central Shanghai which sits besides a free trade zone, a port, and an industrial zone. I was going there because it’s an underpopulated new city — the kind of place a book I’m writing is focused on — He Li was going there because that’s where she goes to school. China’s new cities are often replete with at least one thing: universities. Nanhui already has eight, with more on the way. Students are thrust to the front lines of China’s urbanization movement, right along side construction workers.
He Li was a rather regular looking 22 year old, the kind of girl who zebra stripes into the wallpaper of modern China. I probably wouldn’t have noticed her if she wasn’t sitting next to me, and when she said that her sister was a model I had to try hard to restrain my surprise. She showed me a photo, and I had to force myself from asking if it was her real sister.
I asked He Li what her dream is — a common conversation topic that Chinese people seem to like having with foreigners — and she said that she wants to be a singer. She asked me what my dream is, I said to travel the world and talk to people like her — which came out far weirder than I imagined.
To ping pong back the awkwardness I asked her to sing me a song. To my surprise she almost did. She opened her mouth, then cut it short. “This is a public place, maybe I shouldn’t sing here.” She was probably right. She said she sings pop songs and lyric songs. I was unsure what lyric songs were, but when I asked if they were traditional Chinese songs she said sort of. I asked her if she sings Mo Li Hua, a traditional song that Europe based Qing Dynasty officials told people was their national anthem. She leaned her head over and sang a few demur and hushed lines into my ear. I asked her if she ever performed, and said that she sometimes plays for her friends. She said that she sings while playing the piano. I asked what her parents think about her dream.
“My parents didn’t agree.”
“Because we’re poor.”
She’d told me earlier that her parents are construction workers in Lanzhou, in the west of the country.
“But now the economy has change,” she added, “and I was able to buy myself a piano.”
She taught herself how to play it.
We then transitioned from pie-in-the-sky dreams to her more sober reality: living in a ghost city, studying marketing, wanting to be an accountant when she graduates.
“What? An accountant? Why do you want to be an accountant?”
“Because I am a girl,” she replied.
When that didn’t make sense to me she added, “I want to work in a quiet place.”
“I want to be an accountant.”
“I’m studying accounting.”
“I think maybe my job will be accountant.”
I look through my notes from the past two years of moving around China and lines such as these keep turning up. There is seriously a disproportionate amount of young women in this country aspiring to be accountants. Over and over and over again I ask college girls what their future plans are and they all too often say the A word. Like how 1930s America turned a generation of women into secretaries and typists, China seems to be turning them into financial record keepers.
Up until recently, accounting was a man’s job in China. Now the gender tables seem to have turned. But I can’t help but ask, why accounting? Of all things, why do so many young women want to be accounts?
In 2011, the call went out that China needed to double its number of accountants, and the university system seems to have responded. High school graduates are ranked and filed and put along preset career paths depending on their performance on the gaokao university entrance exam. You take this exam and then the government tells you what universities and what lines of study you qualify for. Ryan Lee, the wandering musician, had to study electrical engineering in college; while Oliver Chen, one of the ingenious architects behind the creation of the Chinese version of Quora, Zhihu.com, had to study civil engineering.
“I like computers,” Oliver once told me.
“So why did you study civil engineering?”
He laughed at me: “Chinese people don’t chose their jobs. I was told when I entered university that I can study civil engineering, so that’s what I did.”
Though it seems as if there is something far more pressing than the authoritarian jockeying of the talent pool that pushes what seems to be an inordinate amount of young Chinese women into accounting. So each time a girl tells me she’s going or has gone this route I ask two questions:
“Do you like it?”
90% say, “no, not really,” and look at me like I just asked something strange.
I follow that up with:
“Why did you want to be an accountant then?”
This question is usually met with a shrug and a statement to the effect of, “Because I’m a woman.” Almost invariably, they explain their choice of profession by stating their gender, as though it naturally makes sense to everyone.
Unlike in 1930s America, where I’m told that working women pretty much had a choice of being a teacher or a secretary, women have an array of professional options here in China. As far as East Asian countries are concerned, Chinese hiring practices are far more gender neutral. Women are taxi drivers, barbers, real estate tycoons, and business leaders. I will not jest and say that China has absolute gender equality, but I will say that the rise of communism did increase the professional options of women considerably.
But what the culture lacks in professional barriers to women ascending in careers it makes up for with family barriers. China has one foot in the modern age and the other in antiquity. The culture’s family structure continues to superimpose the traditional house wife role onto a population where 77% of women work out of the home. Generally speaking, while it is perfectly possible for women to rise through the ranks of a profession or business, as soon as marriage and a family are thrown into the mix the career becomes virtually taboo. Needless to say, due to a perceived conflict of priorities career women are not highly sought after marriage partners. A subculture of wealthy unmarried women and DINKs (double income, no kids) has rippled through Chinese society.
For a more complete article about this, go to Women in China: Professional Gender Lines, Work, and Family.
It is incredibly common for those working good jobs — careers — in China to put in insanely long hours. Careers are ways of life here, which all too often take precedence over family obligations. To put it bluntly, there are no 9 to 5 salary-people in East Asia. Households where both the husband and wife work highly demanding jobs are pretty much dormitories, and as far as women are concerned they can either be married to a man and have a family or married to a job and have a career. It seems extremely difficult to do both.
So there is a social push for women to low ball their professional ambitions. You can have a stressful job, work all the time, and have a depleted or nonexistent family life, or you can sit in an office, follow directions, have little real responsibility, go home on time and spend the rest of the day with your family.
Initially, being an accountant seemed to me to be a recipe for living a rather meek, secure, boring, ordinary life, but such jobs open up the way for people to have something in life other than employment. When a young Chinese woman says she wants to be an accountant what she is essentially saying is that she aspires to have a stable, happy family — or a life.