My Chinese husband John shot me his weary, it’s-way-too-late-on-Sunday look. I expected him to vent about his PhD studies the way he always did when he appeared tired — the homework, the papers, the feeling that you’re always, despite your best efforts, just a little behind. Behind it all, though, I always felt his passion, his love for the path he’d chosen — to become a clinical psychologist.
But not tonight. “I’m tired of being a student,” he sighed.
I dashed into the living room, as if his words signaled some emergency, that his lifelong passion needed life support. “What do you mean?” I asked, staring into his eyes for signs of something, anything, that could tell me what was wrong.
He hid himself behind a generic smile, the kind that doesn’t really mean he’s happy. “My cousin is my age. He is settled down and has a family.”
“So? Your cousin also will never be able to do what you can do after graduating.”
He grinned, and with just one glance I had a feeling this problem went far beyond his cousin. “I’m too old,” he said.
Been there, heard that, I thought. Days after I arrived at my in-laws’ home in the countryside, my Chinese mother-in-law used the same phrase to remind me my uterus had an expiration date — one that, from a Chinese perspective, I’d already passed (even if I still was in my early thirties). I figured I carried the only age burden in our family.
In China, they say sanshi’erli (三十而立 [sānshí’érlì]) — that a man should be independent by thirty. But according to my husband, “independent” didn’t include studying for your dream PhD in the US. It meant owning a home, earning big money, and having a family before the big three-oh.
John hadn’t just heard “you’re too old to be a student” from his mother, either. “When I visited a college classmate, his mother said ‘your parents haven’t enjoyed the benefits of having you,'” a subtle reference to the fact that he lagged behind in another classroom entirely, the class of his peers in China. He couldn’t help but notice it this summer when he worked with families in Shanghai — mothers and fathers his own age, but settled with young children, homes and even cars. “I felt this urgency,” he admitted. “There’s more pressure to conform in China.”
Suddenly, John and I swapped roles, where I turned into the therapist for the evening. “It’s totally normal to be working on a PhD at your age — lots of people in the US do it! Besides, you’re not like everyone else. You’re so unique, and you have this amazing passion and vision. That’s why I love you so much. I’m so proud of what you’ve done here, even if your family or friends don’t understand it.” I encouraged him over and over, reminding him of his passion for getting a PhD. Eventually, he let go of the “old” and forged ahead with the new, in spite of being over thirty.
I know he’ll face that pressure all over again — perhaps when we talk to his parents on the phone, or when he hears from another classmate about their kid or their car. As long as he’s a student over thirty, he’ll face the “sanshi’erli scare” from someone or something.
Could be worse, though, as I reminded him. “Just think of what your mother would say to you if you weren’t even married.” 😉
Have you — or has someone you love — felt the pressure to have a career and family after thirty?