The Sanshi’erli Scare: Over Thirty and Still A Student?

A desk with a textbook open with a pen and ruler on it.
"Won't you graduate already?" That's the pressure my Chinese husband felt from family and friends, wondering why he was over thirty, with no career or children. (photo by shno)

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.

Not so.

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?

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11 thoughts on “The Sanshi’erli Scare: Over Thirty and Still A Student?

  • September 12, 2011 at 3:57 am
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    I think in the culture I come from we also have similar ideas. I used to date a Korean that was almost thirty, and my mom, (in private) nitpicked on him being a perpetual college student and when will he “grow up” so to speak. (He’s also a constant traveler and dreams of being an Anglican Minister.) Recently, his older brother had a son, and in November his younger brother will get married. (He’s the middle child.) I’ll be 26 on 5th of October, and for the time being done with my education. (Majored in history) My real dream has always been to be a writer. Sad to say, I haven’t had other career dreams, and in honesty, I don’t have confidence in myself when it comes to anything. (But then it’s a story I really have no desire to talk about.)

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  • September 12, 2011 at 12:14 pm
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    My boyfriend wanted to do a PhD but decided he was too old to start it as it takes too long to complete… 🙁 If, in the end, it means you can do what you really want to do it’s worth the hassle. He even told me that he thought one of his colleagues had stayed in education too long and he was married with a child – going by this I’m not sure if it’s possible to do anything right.

    Before I was enlightened by your blog and I realised how sensitive a topic turning 30 was I made a grave mistake. My boyfriend was complaining to me about how old he felt after he had turned 30 (blablabla) and I said ‘If you feel old now, how are you going feel when you turn 40!?’. Well, that shut him up but I probably could have worded it better – oops!

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  • September 12, 2011 at 2:56 pm
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    I’m 40 yrs old and I think and feel like in my 20’s although I have some injuries from sports and bodybuilding. You have to understand that men in their 20’s don’t work as hard like 10 or 15 yrs ago . Everything is given to them by their parents. They don’t even know how to write the word ” hardship” because they haven’t been there.I’ll write more later on this subject.

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  • September 12, 2011 at 9:51 pm
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    It’s is a very common feeling to compare with friends and others on career , house and having a family. I hear that very often but actually you’re not losing anything or gaining anything at all. John is almost near the finish line for his PhD and why not work a little bit longer and have a better career than the rest of the families for good this time. Do you know with a high level of degree ,it’s easier to land a job during a recession or a depression ? You can work aboard with a PhD from America and foreign countries will accept your degree. We are talking about a PhD here ,not a B.S. degree or A.A degree . Suffer for another few yrs of studyings or regret for a lifetime. Do the math for me !!! I know a doctor who nets $400k anually. $170k or less is still good . John, I know you’re reading this. Bring the PhD home for Jocelyn 🙂 ! 15 yrs ago, I used to have this feeling that how come everyone was having better jobs and driving better cars than me. I felt like I was a useless person. You know an average person changes job 3 to 5 times in his lifetime. Trust me , the right job will come and look for you believe me. God has his way of finding the right job for each person. Well, 15 yrs later I think I have a better job, a better healthier lifestyle and a way better way of life than most of my friends . Having a kid , having nice car or a huge home doesn’t mean you will have a stable , happy life either. If you’re a smart person, end the rat race now and your life will be beautiful . I’ve been there so I’m telling you guys now. If you dont believe me ,go ahead and be a slave for the bank for the rest of your life. You mean people who make big money , have expensive cars and a nice home don’t worry at all? They all worry to tell you the truth unless everything is paid off and you have several real estates to collect rent w/o mortgages. Talking about having a family ( kids). It will cost you $250k to raise a kid until he/she reaches 18 yrs old if you want him/her to have a better future. Even you spend quarter of a million dollars that doesn’t mean your kid will listen to you or study what you dictate him/her to study or become in the future. You have another dilema there. Don’t spoil your kids. Let them earn it because they will go crazy once you stop giving them money.

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  • September 12, 2011 at 11:03 pm
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    Well, I am 29 year old, and I am planning to do my Phd Next year. It sometimes occurs to me that i may be too old to do the Phd in my 30. But then i think again.. it may be the greatest investment ever in my life. So if i do get accpeted and i can afford it, i will do the Phd regardless how my friends or relatives thinking about it. I dont like being compared and dont see any sense to compare me with other people.

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  • September 13, 2011 at 6:57 am
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    三十而立 sanshi erli was the mantra too, here among the Malaysian Chinese community. But nowadays many Chinese here opt to work for financial stability before settling down and starting a family. This, together with the fact that many Chinese are migrating to other countries for better paying jobs and prospects have caused the Chinese population here to decline. The problem of a worrying decline in the birth rate in Singapore is caused mainly by couples there marrying late. The Singapore government there tries to solve the problem, and very successfully too, by attracting talented people from all over the world including from China, by offering good paying jobs, conducive working environment and career advancement prospects. Here is Malaysia, the government only makes desultory attempts to arrest the problem of brain drain. What we have here is the worrying problem of the influx of unskilled labour, many of whom come here illegally as a recent biometric registration exercise of foreign workers shows.

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  • September 13, 2011 at 1:26 pm
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    Yes I have felt the pressure, but then I have never quite done things in a conventional fashion.

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  • September 13, 2011 at 4:22 pm
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    John, your life is still way better than most Chinese students in US since you have a wife and a family. Those who are around your age, still work on their PhD. At the mean time, they don’t have girl friends, get Dear John Letters from their loved ones in their home country, struggle to survive, graduate, find a job and get new visa, green card, ect… Life is tough for those people, who used to be elite students in prestigious universities when they were in China. So, please look forward, at least you have a loved one who doesn’t mind you being at school.

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  • September 14, 2011 at 6:00 am
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    a phd is only useful if you’re venturing into research , for a cause you’re passionate about – not to get a better job….

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  • September 15, 2011 at 3:54 am
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    Studying is important, and it’s great. But so is being a father for Chinese men, and it sounds like he’d really love to be a father. Honestly, it’s so manageable to have a child alongside all other things going on in life. Sometimes we think it’s too much or not the right time but those precious little imps always seem to fit in beautifully and add such joy to the everyday things that it can actually encourage and drive on mom or dad on their road of life-long learning. Sorry for playing devil’s advocate but that’s how I see it! And thanks for sharing your personal experiences! They are valued

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  • September 15, 2011 at 2:38 pm
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    For me, age does not matter if you want to learn. Learning does not stop as you aged.

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